One element that I think is shared among all the religions, which has become quite conspicuous to me in recent times, is their history and beliefs about the nature of the human ego, and that this ego is a major obstacle to the flourishing of life and love in ourself and the world, and that transcending the ego is a major goal, if not the goal, of human life. This ego transcendence may be the central feature in all religions, the underlying core message and purpose of all spirituality. And science is beginning to discover this too.
There are many religions in the world, and many of them seem to hold vastly different doctrines and beliefs about the nature of reality, our place in the world, and what happens after this life. It is often hard to see any overlap between them, any common source of wisdom, or any shared trajectory. We might wonder how spirituality could mean anything if there is that much difference between the major spiritual traditions, which is a legitimate argument of atheists. This has also often meant trouble between communities who held different religious beliefs, each thinking theirs were better, even leading to bigotry, wars, and bloodshed.
But I think the differences we see among the religions are mostly superficial, and are generally the result of a long history of interpretations and interpolations, perspectives that have been shaped by different cultures. When we dig deeply into the core of these traditions, particularly into their more mystical schools, we find much shared understanding and perennial wisdom, and this even accords with the modern day findings of science and psychology. The reconciliation of these many religious and scientific worldviews into a common understanding of our lives I think will become increasingly vital to the advancement of our society now and in the future.
Over the next few days I’ll be posting a series of thoughts in which I’ll explore this subject from a variety of different religious viewpoints, as well as science, which I think will help show how there is significant overlap and shared understanding on this theme.
What is the ego?
In the simplest terms, it is our conscious “self.” It is who we think we are, our identity. Wikipedia defines it under the term self-concept:
…a collection of beliefs about oneself that includes elements such as academic performance, gender identity, sexual identity, and racial identity. Generally, self-concept embodies the answer to “Who am I?”
When we answer the question, “who am I?” we are answering from our ego. This “I” is the ego. Our ego is saying what it is, who it thinks it is. It is a self-reflection of itself, a composite sketch of its life story, the self-knowledge that has been built up since our birth. It is a construction of what one believes themselves to be throughout a lifetime of experiences. We usually think, speak, and act from our ego, from this “self” that we think we are.
What’s interesting is that humans seem to have a particularly strong ego or sense of “self.” This seems to stem from our unique capacity to be self-aware, or to recognize ourself as a separate individual being apart from our environment and other individuals.
Most animals don’t seem to have this ability, at least nowhere near human level self-awareness. They may be conscious of their body and its needs, but they are not aware of this consciousness. It’s hard for us to imagine what that would be like. We could not ask a squirrel what it thinks of itself, even if we had communication to do so, because it would not have an answer, or if it did it would probably be very minimal and basic. There would be no long recounting of its life history, family relationships, places where it lived, things it had done with its life, etc. Most animals live their lives from basic instincts, seeking food, sex, and shelter (protection), living life one day at a time, even one hour at a time. Even gathering food for the winter or hibernation seems to emerge more from natural instincts than learned capacity or a complex intention to prepare for the future. We might say that they live in the present moment for the most part (which is the main reason I think Jesus referred to animals in his teachings).
Humans, on the other hand, have evolved very complex self-awareness, self-consciousness, this description of being “me,” our psychological “self.” This is probably because of the development of the neocortex on the outer layer of our brains, which is the newest part of our brains to have evolved. Humans have the largest neocortex as a percentage of the brain than any other mammal or animal, and we use this for all “higher-order” brain functions such as reasoning and language. Consequently, we have a very complex, lengthy, and detailed description of who we think we are. We write long books, biographies, of these “selves,” even of our own selves, autobiographies. We have a profound sense of who we are, as an individual, independent, singular person in the world, and this sense of “self” often extends to a group, tribe, or organization.
The Evolution of Ego
But it’s not always been this way, certainly not long in the history of humanity have we had this kind of brain power and ability, this type of egoic consciousness. Our self-awareness evolved over the course of many hundreds of thousands of years, as humans’ neocortex grew. But even within our own lifetimes, our self-awareness develops gradually over the course of years in our childhood, which may be reflective of the evolution of self-awareness generally in humanity, a kind of recapitulation of humanity’s cognitive evolution. It’s been noted by Foster:
While ontogeny does not generally recapitulate phylogeny in any direct sense, both biological evolution and the stages in the child’s cognitive development follow much the same progression of evolutionary stages as that suggested in the archaeological record.
When we are born, we have very little sense of a “self.” We do not recognize our “self” in a mirror. As noted on Wikipedia, in our first year after birth we begin to develop the sense that our body is separate from our mother’s, that we are an “active, causal agent in space.” At the end of our first year we realize that our movement is separate from our mother’s, but we still cannot recognize our own face in a mirror. It is only by 18-24 months that we can begin to recognize our reflection, and discover our bodily “self.” By age 2, we can observe and relate our actions to those of others, as well as the environment. By this age we can also identify ourself in a photo, and gain ideas of our gender and age. Yet our self-awareness is still quite primitive at this stage of development. Only a few animals have shown this basic self-awareness.
Prior to this emergence of the ego, or awareness of “self” in our childhood, it is hard to know what our experience was like, but I think it is safe to say that it was quite unlike what we normally experience as adults. When our most basic bodily needs were met, we were happy and at peace. When they were not, we cried. But we seemed to not be aware of a “self” that needs these things, just that the world wasn’t right if they are not met. We did not distinguish ourselves as anything separate or independent from our mothers, the world, or our environment. It was all one being, and we were that being.
Only later in our infancy and as a toddler do we begin to develop other traits of self-awareness, and an image of “self,” including interests, likes, dislikes, and a memory of our past, present, and future. We begin to talk in more specifics and details than generalities, as well as to identify possessions (things that belong to “self,” or that become part of the “self”). Later on in adolescence we become conscious of more complex emotions, like guilt, shame, pride, and how these affect our “self.”
In other words, our ego, or ideas of our “self,” who we think we are, is not something that suddenly emerges when we are born (or before we’re born), but slowly develops over time, the more complex ideas of “self” coming later in our childhood and youth. As psychologists Bertenthal and Fischer note, “Self-awareness does not occur suddenly through one particular behavior: it develops gradually through a succession of different behaviors all of which relate to the self.”
I think it is the evolution of this ego in humans, from a primitive state of awareness of being, to our modern complex self-awareness and heightened sense of “self,” and then a conscious return to a more holistic communal interconnected state of awareness of being, that is the source of most of the world’s religious teachings, mythologies, and goals.
In the next post I will explore how this evolution of ego might be reflected in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology of “Adam & Eve” and the narrative of the “Garden of Eden.”
Posts in this series:
- The Evolution of Ego in the Allegory of Adam & Eve
- Sacrificing Ego-Self in Judaism and Christianity
- The Falling Away of Ego Consciousness in Hinduism and Buddhism
- The Passing Away of Ego-Self in Islam
- Ego Transcendence in Secular Science
- The Neuroscience of Ego Dissolution and Transcendence
- Overcoming Ego and Transforming Self in Confucianism & Taoism
- To be continued…