Self-Transformation 2: Ego-Dissolution
To grow, we must get away from living on the edge of being upset.
Posted September 1, 2019 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Within civilized societies, having an ego is necessary to get through the first part of life, according to theorists like Erik Erikson. As Erikson pointed out, childhood is about building competence, adolescence is about forming identity, and early adulthood is about finding your place in the work and intimate relational world. Post 1 described the importance of building the ego.
But once a person reaches adulthood (around age 35 for Erikson), things can start to become uncomfortable. When the individual starts to feel dissatisfied with the investments made over the prior decades, a midlife crisis can arise.
Jungian theorists (see Cortright, 1997) suggest that in the first half of life the ego focuses on a strength or two, ignoring the shadow, the dark side, or rejected aspects of self. To develop further and not be stuck in a dissatisfying, narrow or false ego, the shadow must be embraced and integrated, creating a whole self.
Michael Washburn sees the midlife crisis as a shift in the movement of the ego. Instead of its outward flow toward accomplishment, it turns inward toward transcendence, which is where, according to transpersonal psychology, the self is grounded and was initiated. “The ego goes back over the old ground of the psyche and childhood for healing and regeneration” (Cortright, p. 87). How long and how deep this “regeneration of spirit” is depends on whether and how the person relates to it—face the midlife developmental process, or escape it? It takes time and support to embrace the shadow. It is helpful if one’s culture supports regeneration.
Integral psychologist Ken Wilbur writes in One Taste (1999) that religions have two important functions. First, they provide myths, stories, rituals, and tales that help the ego self make meaning from and endure the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
Religion’s second function is to encourage radical transformation. But many religions stop with step 1, providing meaning, and avoid the second step, fostering transformation.
According to Wilbur, religions that stop with step 1 become a damaging force in the world. They foster highly egocentric and ethnocentric people—centered around their particular view of God/Church/Country/Patriotism. These believers are sure they will be saved because their meaning system tells them so. They feel like they are at the center of the world and can criticize and judge others outside their special group. They perceive the world according to personal advantage.
As an illustration, some years ago, Reverend Carlton Pearson was the pastor of an exclusionary church (‘only we are saved’) when he had a conversion and began to preach that all would be saved. He lost around 90% of his congregation.
The false/small ego self defends itself. Rigid grasping at a particular identity is part of ego striving, leading to brittleness that results in harm to self or others.
According to this view, whenever you are defensive or take offense, it is the false, fragile self in play. This false self focuses on self-admiration, on power, possession, and prestige or a co-dependent need for approval. The false ego self lives on the edge of upsetness. It often acts self-righteously from anger, judgment and a sense of separation. It can act compulsively to attack others rather than feel shame or doubt.
We are attached to the false self. Without transformation and with aging, individuals can get even more demanding and controlling.
A religious false self focuses on doing things right, on the rituals for being good (prayer, church attendance) rather than on being transformed in the Now. A secular false self (and society) is about maintaining control. There is no sense that the universe is on my/our side. Instead, I/we have to push the river (rather than being part of the river).
The second aim of religion or transpersonal psychology serves as a source of radical transformation and liberation of consciousness. Contemplation or meditation is a typical pathway (but see Cortright, 1997, for a variety).
In contemplation, one learns to be present in the moment (Tolle, 1999). When one sits in contemplation or meditation for the first time, judgments and unprocessed experiences will come up first. The ego wants to judge, compete or compare. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, calls this ‘garbage.’ Through contemplative practice, one learns to detach from these thoughts and feelings. One should acknowledge them but let them drift by like leaves on a river.
Transformation destabilizes the false self, a true midlife crisis. But it takes suffering to let go of the ego, the self that has been built up to succeed in life thus far.
The process of transformation devastates and shatters the separate self, bringing up feelings of emptiness. Spiritual traditions that follow this step have rules about surrendering, letting go, ‘losing’ the self, being ‘born again.’ It can feel like dying, going into the abyss, or experiencing ‘dark night of the soul.’ Many people, lacking wise guidance, resist these experiences.
How does transformation occur within a religious or spiritual worldview? It happens through a “God encounter” (Rohr, 2011). One is awakened to oceanic awareness, connection to the universe, to deeper meaning. This can happen in secular therapeutic settings also.
What does the transformation look like? Rohr calls this an ‘identity transplant’ that leads to a different sense of the self, one that is not offended or defensive. There are changes in the quality and capacity for relatedness. One feels inner abundance and joy, rather than needing external things to make one happy. This is a rested self that feels solidly grounded, whose feelings do not go up and down.
Every adult has the choice of whether to take the pathway of transformation or to hang onto the ego-driven self.
Cortright, Brant. (1997). Psychotherapy and spirit: Theory and practice in transpersonal psychotherapy. Albany: Sate University of New York Press.
Erikson, Erik H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
Erikson, Erik H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.
Pearson, Reverend Carlton (2007). The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God. Azusa, CA: Azusa Press/ Council Oak Books, ISBN 0-9791689-0-2.
Rohr, Richard. (2011). Falling upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Rohr, Richard. (2015). What the mystics know: Seven pathways to your deeper self. New York: Crossroad Publishing.
Tolle, Eckhart. (1999). The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New York: New World Library.
Washburn, Michael (1994). Transpersonal psychology in psychoanalytic perspective. Albany, NY: SUNY.
Wilbur, Ken (1999). One taste. Boulder: Shambala.