The path of the Ego
To better understand the Ego
In the pages of this site the Ego has always been considered one of the protagonists of the human adventure (the others being the psyche, the brain, and – although it remains largely unknown – the spirit): indeed, we could say that the Ego has been given the lead role. However, although there is a rough description of the Ego on the Definitions page, we cannot rely solely on the evidence of the subjective experience of each of us, precisely because – due to this subjectivity – the self-knowledge of the Ego can be different from one person to another, and it is also subject to change over the course of the life of the same person. Since the Ego is the center of reference of the conscious inner life, we could assume that any person, with a normally functioning brain, may be able to know from direct experience what their Ego is, but things are not so simple: the ancient inscription on the temple of Apollo in Delphi, gnòthi seautón, know thyself, gives a good idea of a not easy path that must be taken to reach a goal, and could also be translated as know your Ego. As we will see, it is also possible to identify a transformation path that aims to bring out to consciousness what some have defined as the true Ego, and others have called the Self, without however being able to uniquely define what is meant by these terms.
So now I will try to outline the path that, in the course of life, leads the Ego to recognize and identify itself: of course, the development of this path is based on my personal experience – the only one I can claim to know – but I think that many other human beings can recognize themselves at least in some of the stages of this process. In the initial phase of life, when the consciousness begins to trace the first psychic experiences that can be recorded by our memory, the Ego is completely undifferentiated, and fully identifies with the experiences that involve it. The sense of one's own identity is given above all by being different from someone else or from something else: we are not the other children, we are not mom or dad, we are not a tree or a house, and other people tell us what we are, how we are called with our name, what we can or cannot do. There is a certain immediacy in what we do when we are not inhibited, since there is still no form of reflection that precedes action. We soon begin to be programmed, and starting from preschool age the transfer of all kinds of cultural programs – both by social institutions and by groups of other people, including our peers – increasingly engages the neural circuits of our brain. In this phase, faint glimmers can begin to form of self-perception of the Ego as a subject that experiences – through consciousness – psychic dynamics, with which however it usually continues to identify completely.
At this level, the Ego is completely identical to those tunings of the human psyche, which manifest themselves through the brain activity of a new developing social individual. The cultural programs acquired often also involve the interpretation of the various psychic experiences in which the ego can be involved, and in relation to which a young person feels the impulse to turn to others, adults or peers, to be instructed on the possible ways of reacting and processing. The destiny of each person – including in this term both the brain's operational quality, as well as the environmental stimuli to which the brain reacts and the cultural programs that are acquired – causes a personal framework to be formed over time in each of us, which we can call character, through which the person interacts with the natural and social environment, and faces her/his own psychic dynamics. If we limit ourselves, however, to the factors that interact in this phase (which generally lasts until the end of adolescence, but often goes far beyond), we are facing what I have called the human automaton: a being in which the psychic dynamics tuned by the brain determine reactions and behaviors that involve the Ego, without the latter having any form of self-consciuosness or any instrument of control with respect to these dynamics.
Although it is true that, starting from the last years of the first decade of life and throughout the second decade, the conscious activity expands and strengthens, and the Ego more and more often makes decisions and evaluates the psychic experiences in which is involved – especially when these entail inner conflicts and sufferings that cannot be avoided – it cannot be assumed that these dynamics correspond to a process of self-knowledge on the part of the Ego, which normally continues to identify with one or the other aspect of the psyche. So what characterizes the first part of life is the continuous exercise with which the Ego trains itself to manage its own psychic dynamics – which, we recall that, can be very different from one person to another – in order to avoid some of them (those that cause suffering or unpleasant emotions) and solicit others (which give joy and pleasure), adapting its choices and body behaviors to the programs received, under the guidance of reference figures, considered more experienced in life. Obviously, the psychic dynamics do not depend on the Ego's will (if so, the Ego would always be happy), which is often forced to undergo experiences which it would gladly do without: not only in the past, but even today there are still a lot of lives in which the balance between positive and negative experiences is to the advantage of the latter.
This first phase of life can be followed by a second, which begins in adolescence and continues into adulthood, in which the Ego tries to experiment, as far as possible, new psychic dynamics, critically elaborating – also in the light of these new experiences – the mental programs that have been transmitted to it. In order for this process to take place, the Ego must have a certain freedom of action and a spirit of initiative, otherwise it will be blocked by its own mental schemes or by the fear of the risks to which it is exposed. However, not even this exploratory phase implies an evolution of the Ego in function of self-knowledge: the Ego continues to be involved in a series of psychic experiences which, at best, make life fascinating and interesting (which it is already an achievement that should not be underestimated), and at worst turn it into hell (as some drug addicts, for example, can testify). In order for the Ego to take the path that can lead it to the self-realization of its own essence and to the liberation from subjection to the psyche, there must be a predisposition, which could be interpreted as a call from the spirit.
The different life experiences
Before dealing with the path that leads the Ego towards self-knowledge, it is necessary to reflect on the extreme diversity of individual life experiences, and on the causes that determine these differences. All of us know quite well our life and the conditions in which it takes place, and we are often naively led to believe that other people – at least those who live in our environment and share our culture – function more or less like us. But is not so. It is a way of seeing things inspired by the psychic tunings on the basis of which social modeling programs are developed which aim to make human beings behave as more or less standardized citizens. Obviously, in the context of an organized and coordinated social functioning, the goal of harmonizing human behavior is well understandable, but the programs through which it is pursued show – at least at present – all their limits, since they are based on erroneous, arbitrary or utopian assumptions. It thus happens that, even within the same social group, life experiences can vary greatly from one human being to another.
The origin and development of human cultures have been conditioned by the climatic, geographical and environmental factors that characterize the different areas of our planet, which is small and isolated compared to the size of the solar system (not to mention the universe), but so large in relation to the size of the human body, that until a few centuries ago humans living in one part of the world knew nothing of the existence of other human groups in other parts of the world, and vice versa, even if they descended from common ancestors. If we compare cultures that have developed in very different environments, some remarkable differences are evident, for example between those cultures that have developed a system of written communication and recording of past events, and those that do not. The ability to pass on to its members the resources (reading and writing), to directly access the available cultural heritage, is also important for the advancement of a culture.
Therefore the range of life experiences that destiny reserves for individual human beings, with particular regard to what is experienced by the Ego, is so wide, as to sometimes risk degrading mankind's overall state to a chaotic level, in which the psychic experiences of human beings are discordant and in conflict with each other. Being able to make human organizations, composed of millions of people, function in such a way that they maintain a sufficient cohesion, without disintegrating, is a difficult undertaking, given that the results obtained in a certain historical period always run the risk of being frustrated in a subsequent period. But even within a sufficiently cohesive society, individual life experiences can deviate considerably from the average, both positively and – much more often – negatively. And although nothing prevents us from hoping for a better and more balanced future for everybody, and possibly from striving so that this can happen, there remains – from the point of view of the conscious Ego – the interpretative and cognitive problem of the meaning of all current and of the past unhappy existences. It is in fact extremely naive – and even unfair – to believe that the Ego can intentionally control all the circumstances and events of one's life, determining one's destiny: when this happens – and in fact it happens for some lives much more than for most of the others – it is because the Ego can rely on particular non-ordinary resources of determination, will and intelligence.
In evaluating the meaning of human life from the point of view of the individual experience of the conscious Ego, one always has the impression of having to refer to something that goes beyond this dimension and the prevailing psychic attunements that characterize it, unless wanting to be satisfied with a reductive vision that considers human life as a chaotic, transitory, unbalanced and meaningless phenomenon: a vision that is quite spread in today's culture, and which offers no justification for the effort and commitment necessary to go on living and to advance the human project. However, in order for the Ego to acquire the right to be able to responsibly express its opinion on the human condition, in which it is called to play a leading role, it is necessary that it first of all manages to emancipate itself from the condition of human automaton in which it is usually relegated, becoming aware of its dependence on the psychic dynamics in which it is involved. However strange it may seem, the Ego of most humans remains a prisoner of psychic dynamics, whether positive or negative, for the entire duration of life: in these cases a person's life does not offer the most suitable conditions for the evolution of the conscious Ego, but its purpose seems to be to feed the human project as a whole. However, it remains to be interpreted, within this project, the meaning and role of the lives of those human automata which, with their behavior, cause harm and suffering to others.
Therefore, in order for the Ego to walk the path of liberation from the normal human condition, transforming itself from a human automaton into a human being, it is first of all necessary that the intelligent expansion of consciousness leads it to perceive the dynamic and controversial aspects of the human psyche, as well as they manifest not only in its mind, but also in the various exchanges that take place in the brain network. As long as the Ego continues to identify with the psychic dynamics that involve it, not only will it be forced to suffer the negative aspects of these dynamics, when it is no longer able to avoid them, but it will also have to recognize the fact that the Egos of its others fellowmen are in a condition identical to its own, regardless of the more or less extreme or anomalous psychic dynamics in which they may be involved by their personal destiny and the functioning of their brain. Obviously, this does not mean putting all psychic dynamics on the same level, as if there were no difference between a saint and a sadistic criminal: it only means recognizing that the problem of the Ego, in relation to the human condition, consists precisely in its ability to differentiate itself and to consciously manage in front of the psychic dynamics that involve it, trying to overwhelm it.
Even if the psychic tunings could be labeled with certainty as good and evil (with different degrees of intensity in both categories), the problem would remain of understanding the reasons for the involvement of the Ego in this conflict which, evidently, concerns it closely. And what about all those situations in which what appears to be good for one person ends up causing something bad to someone else, or a choice that appears to be good at a certain moment later has negative consequences for that same person who took that decision? The fact is that in any case – both for good and for evil – we are faced with a more or less intense power of persuasion and involvement of the psyche towards the Ego. Hence the need for the Ego to differentiate itself from the psyche, as consciousness evolves, in order to orient itself in the complex labyrinth of the psychic dynamics on the basis of a new balance that takes into account the Ego's autonomous essence, emancipating it from the role of human automaton in which it had remained confined. This is the purpose and the goal of the Ego's self-knowledge process.
The Ego tries to know what its true essence is
When the Ego embarks on its own path of differentiation with respect to the psychic dynamics in which it is involved, starting to reflect and meditate on its condition, the first thing it observes is its role as experimenter – through consciousness – precisely of this or that aspect of the psyche. This fact seems to be determined by a need of a higher order, which imposes that, through brain activity, the psychic dynamics must be experienced – that is, enjoyed, suffered and in any case elaborated – by something that is identified in a myriad of autonomous nuclei, somehow interconnected with each other. Each of these individual nuclei is a conscious Ego. The Ego feels that it is something like a target for the psychic experiences determined by the functioning of its brain, that it perceves as extremely real, whether it likes and desires them, even intensely, or it fears and try to avoid them, as causing suffering. It is evident that the existence of consciousness is an extremely significant fact in itself, which brings on the scene – at least of this world – a new and different element with respect to the physical laws we know. But consciousness presupposes, in order to function, the existence of a subject – the conscious Ego – to which every element that becomes conscious is referred. Within this process, the conscious Ego shows that it has its own sensitivity and its own autonomous evolutionary need, which are different from one person to another.
In most cases the dominant sociocultural programs determine the functioning of a person throughout his/her life, but the psychic tunings that each of us experiences can be – as we have seen – very different. Yet it is only in the moment in which the Ego begins to question itself not only about its role in the context of this extraordinary phenomenon which is human life, but also in relation to its own evolution as a function of a transcendent and permanent – that is, not temporary – existence, that its path towards an autonomous research of its own essence can begin. The goal of this path can also be, in extreme cases, to completely detach oneself from the human psyche – a process which occurs anyway as a consequence of our death – but more often it is an intentional and controlled exploration of particular areas of the psyche (or, as I prefer to call them, psychic tunings) which reveal to the Ego particularly significant elements regarding its nature. Today's prevailing culture makes it particularly difficult to explore these psychic tunings, which become invisible to us, not because they do not exist, but for a reason analogous to that for which daylight prevents us from seeing the stars, which yet are present in the sky.
I would like to give an example of the relationship of the Ego with a particular psychic tuning: in 1535 Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) wrote his Spiritual Exercises, published in Latin in 1548. The First Week of this book starts with a paragraph entitled Principle and Foundation, which begins with these words: «Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it». Today we can reasonably believe that Ignatius of Loyola believed in the real and objective existence of the God to whom he referred, and in the truth of the purpose for which he believed that man was created, so much so that all his subsequent life was consistent with the goals enunciated by him. However, from our current point of view, it is much more correct to say that a particular psychic tuning involved the conscious Ego of Ignatius, who was conquered by it to the point of identifying himself completely with that tuning, acting and behaving in full coherence with it until the end of his life.
In the light of our current knowledge, in fact, we cannot absolutely understand what we refer to when we speak of God our Lord: we can only ascertain that the human condition on our planet is conditioned by the action of certain energies and the functioning of certain systems, which determine the psychic dynamics experienced by our Ego, among which that of God can certainly be included, for those who are involved in it (always bearing in mind that this term can refer to very different entities, which should be clarified case by case). Consequently, we cannot understand on the basis of what data and considerations it is possible to affirm that man is created to praise, serve, and reverence God: except that, precisely on the basis of the convincing effect that this psychic tuning had on the conscious Ego of Ignatius, we can also affirm in our day that man is created to praise, serve and reverence the psychic tunings with which his conscious Ego identifies. It is important, however, to point out how the psychic tuning with which Ignatius' Ego identified provided that his soul could be saved (obviously, after death), while most of the psychic tunings with which many humans currently identify themselves don't consider anything like that!
It is therefore understood how the self-knowledge of the Ego and its role in human life has a fundamental importance for the Ego's liberation from its complete sumbission to the psychic instances that involve it and – we could add – to the powers that determine and control the human psychic dynamics. In the case of Ignatius of Loyola, the psychic experience of the God our Lord implied in itself the recognition of the role of complete submission of the Ego to the divine will, in the hope of future salvation, once the severe test of earthly life was come to an end. But this salvation – which is intended as the hope of a future heavenly condition finally freed from all the pains of human life – is also a psychic instance, towards which the Ego can feel attracted: essentially the Ego is the key element of a process by virtue of which it finds himself in a labyrinth of psychic dynamics, within which it must be able to orient himself and find its own path towards a goal that it perceives, with greater or lesser clarity, as congenial to its essence. Thus the problem of the Ego's self-knowledge also becomes the problem of identifying the resources on which the Ego can rely to walk its path in the labyrinth of the psyche, to clarify for itself the goal that is congenial to it, and above all to understand whether or not the various stages of the path undertaken are actually leading it to its goal.
As long as the Ego identifies with the psychic dynamics that take control of its psychophysical system, each of us is what it is, for better or for worse, that is, a human automaton that reacts to the circumstances that arise: obviously, those who are good persons will behave and act in accordance with their principles and for the beneficial and altruistic purposes that inspire the programs on which their mental functioning is based, while bad people will act for selfish purposes, to deceive or harm others and to impose to others the psychic instances that control them. One gets the impression that human automata are like the black and white pieces moving on a chessboard, carrying out the commands of the psychic forces that control them. It could be argued, with some reason, that the process of evolution of mankind involves a gradual transition of the human condition from evil to good, but – at least until today – the history of human affairs rather resembles a succession of games in which now white, now black prevails, with many draws. This state of affairs pushes the conscious Ego to try to better understand its origin, its condition and its role: something urges it no longer to be satisfied with a supine acquiescence to psychic dynamics, whether good or evil, but to search in itself the sense of its own temporary existence in this life, with the goal of a more stable and complete existence, not conditioned by a one-way arrow of time.
The Ego's resources
It is not a simple path the one that leads the Ego to recognize its autonomy with respect to the psychic dynamics that continue to exert their effects of involvement on it: in fact the very survival of our psychophysical system depends on the ability of the Ego to adapt to the dominant cultural programs in the milieu (meant as a network of human brains) in which the individual is raised and with which he interacts, and therefore in the submission of the Ego to the psychic demands determined by those programs. The mental energies that the Ego should be able to dispose of, to discover and pursue its own evolutionary path, are almost always drained not only by social purposes, but also by the many and useless diversionary and recreational activities by which the Ego is stupefied and asleep – also by soliciting its social narcissism – so that it does not react negatively to the demands of collective programs. Therefore, the first obstacle that the Ego must face and overcome in its evolutionary path is to be able to maintain a balance between the psychic demands deriving from the needs of social adaptation and the urge to save energy to devote to its own cognitive and evolutionary process. If the latter prevails to the detriment of the former, a person's life can go into crisis, ending with a suicide or being exhausted in an increasingly degrading state of marginalization.
For these reasons, the best time to devote oneself to the Ego's self-knowledge is that part of life in which a person, upon retirement, no longer has to worry about obtaining the resources for her/his own livelihood. However, it must be said that often those who reach retirement age are already deeply conditioned by the cultural programs to which they have adapted for most of their life, by affective ties and social bonds, and consequently they no longer have the autonomy and elasticity necessary to undertake the path of liberation of the Ego, who often remains ensnared in the psychic dynamics determined by the third age leisure programs, so widespread in our culture. Therefore, in order for the Ego to undertake this evolutionary path, it is first of all necessary that it feels the call from something whose psychic reflection differs from other psychic experiences, in that it is closely connected with the Ego itself, even without being identical to it. The source of this call is the spirit, which – at least in the initial stages – is nothing more than a kind of evanescent shadow mate of the Ego, an uncertain and confused entity that the Ego cannot even focus on, from which however comes an exhortation to the Ego to engage into reflecting on itself through its own consciousness.
If the Ego listens to this call, it makes itself available to collaborate with the spirit in a common work of self-knowledge which requires uncommon resources of intelligence, inner equilibrium, and detachment from the involving psychic dynamics generated by the events of life and the functioning of its own mind. With the help of the spirit, the Ego begins to change, or at least to differentiate itself from its previous condition, since the influence of the spirit counterbalances the power of involvement of the psychic dynamics, to which the Ego no longer feels so attracted. Thus it happens that the conscious Ego begins to separate, at first almost imperceptibly, then more and more sensibly, from the singularity of the human condition to which it is connected through its psychophysical system. This does not mean that the Ego must lose interest in its own individuality and in the psychic tunings connected to it: it is rather a slow but constant transformation through which the singularity of one's individual destiny dissolves in the broader understanding of the meaning of life, of which the spirit gives an interpretation free from the limits of space and time. The spirit causes the conscious Ego, in perceiving the singularity of its individual condition, to also feel all the myriad of personal experiences in which human life is fragmented.
At this point the mental and intellectual effort to solve not this or that problem of our personal life, but the enigma of human life as a whole, does not achieve any results: due to its psychophysical sistem's attachment to life, the Ego could be shipwrecked in the sea of the contradictions and conflicts of the human psyche, if the spirit did not offer it the lifesaver of liberation through the perception of the non-permanent character of the human condition. Often – in the past more than in the present – some people's Ego chose to die for a cause or an ideal, rather than continue to live – in any case only for a limited time – in conditions that did not recognize that ideal. And if sometimes those who made these choices had nothing to lose, except – as we use to say – their chains, in other cases they were wealthy people, of good culture, with an intense and gratifying affective and intellectual life: in short, successful people with a high social status. If we wanted to attribute these cases to the subjugation of the Ego by certain psychic tunings, we would have to recognize the anomaly of these tunings which, instead of binding the Ego to life, lead it to consciously choose death. Furthermore, in these cases, death is almost never felt as the end of the Ego's existence, but as the transit towards a more dignified form of existence that conforms to the nature and legitimate needs of the conscious Ego's spirit, in the face of which the miseries and pettiness to which the Ego is forced by the needs of survival imposed on it by the human condition are felt as unbearable.
As consciousness is exercised and strengthened, the Ego makes choices towards the psychic dynamics that try to involve it, and these choices are determined by the more or less evolved level of the spirit to which the Ego feels connected: there are people who tangibly manifest what is recognized as a true soul nobility, or spirit nobility if you prefer, while others are completely lacking it. Obviously, in the latter case the Ego is completely subjected to the psychic dynamics in which it is involved. Whenever someone is willing to consciously put their life at risk in order to defend an ideal or uphold a right – especially when this position is in function of the collective good and to the detriment of their personal advantage – we can think we are dealing with a spirit that it is able to effectively contrast the psychic dynamics that ensnare the Ego, stimulating its enjoyment of life. Even in these cases, however, we cannot escape the impression that human life is in any case characterized by conflicting psychic dynamics of which the conscious Ego must bear the consequences. Furthermore, in certain historical periods the same dominant cultural programs activate psychic dynamics marked by the spirit of sacrifice: think, for example, of the great wars of the last century, in the course of which thousands of combatants were ready to sacrifice their lives for their country's sake.
I think that what the conscious Ego may really need is a spirit to guide it through the labyrinth of psychic dynamics, then helping it to calmly cross the portal of death. With the collaboration of the spirit, the Ego should be able to free itself from an excessive attachment to life, and thus from the psychic dynamics that impose this attachment on it, and at the same time it should be able to use life as a training ground in which consciousness exercises, strengthens and evolves, so as to constitute a valuable resource for the Ego, especially if it is accompanied by a vigilant, creative intelligence with a critical spirit and a sense of humor. If someone, at this point, wanted to object that all these resources depend on the brain functioning, I would have no difficulty in answering that the brain is nothing but one of the tools with which the universal spirit manifests itself in this physical dimension, fragmenting into a myriad of conscious creatures: therefore the spirit can also exert its influence on the brain functioning. In turn, the Ego, in requesting the spirit's guidance and help, engages to collaborate in the search for a meaning in life that goes beyond the contingent needs imposed by its staying in this world.
The spirit and the Ego can be considered as two sides of the same coin, or two polarities of the same essence: as a rule, the Ego does not know the spirit, while it believes it knows itself, confusing – as we have repeatedly pointed out – the psychic dynamics that involve it, and with which it identifies, with its own authentic nature. Almost always the Ego knows of itself only the description and the representation that reaches its consciousness through the psyche and the acquired cultural programs. This is the reason why the exhortation «know thyself», which I quoted at the beginning of this page, is full of meaning still today. The Ego, in fact, can differentiate itself from the psychic dynamics that involve it, claiming its right to exist in a form independent of the temporary psychophysical system to which it is bound in the course of human life, if the spirit has sufficient power to support and guide it in this is not easy feat. Just as the Ego is the expression of a fragmentation of consciousness in the plurality of psychophysical systems that live and have lived in our world – each experiencing a limited range of psychic tunings –, the spirit too seems subject to something similar in its own dimension, which translates into a variety of levels of evolution (or, as perhaps it would be more appropriate to say, of learning and training) of the single spirits, and consequently in a more or less effective capacity to influence the Ego.
Our consciousness, our intelligence and our ability to understand do not allow us to go further. As regards the human condition, we had to take note of all the limits imposed on the Ego both by the resources of the psychophysical system to which it is associated, and by the environmental, social and cultural conditions in which it is raised, with which it interacts and to which it reacts. Information relating to the decline of the body's physical and mental resources in the final part of life, and the awareness of the temporal and transitory character of human life, prevent the Ego from being able to reach a satisfactory knowledge of the meaning of life and of the human psyche, with all their contradictory and conflicting aspects: the Ego is therefore obliged to recognize and defend its right to a meaningful existence, continuing – at the end of this life – its own experience in a dimension other than the earthly one. The spirit, that is the existential entity through which the conscious Ego continues to exist once human life is over, can try to influence the Ego already in the course of life, to counterbalance its excessive involvement in the purely human psychic dynamics. As for the existence of the spirit, we do not know if it is unconditionally free, or if it too is subject – as is more likely – to the tension generated by the need to proceed along an experimental, cognitive and evolutionary path, in the context of an unquestionable higher order design. Our abilities and resources, as human beings, only allow us to explore the possibilities of transition from our human level to the spiritual.