Ego and Spiritual Evolution: Making Sense of Our Times
by Cate Montana, MA
Right wing conservative fever is sweeping the globe. Decades of hard-won progressive legislation protecting women's rights, gay rights, health care and the environment are going up in smoke. People are reeling in shock. First we’re going one way at 100 mph. (Okay, maybe 35 mph.) Now, in the space of a few short months, we’re racing back in the other direction.
It's hugely discouraging.
Yes, yes, I know. We live in the domain of polarity and there is no up without down, no right without a left, no good without bad, no joy without sorrow. There were bound to be hills and valleys along the journey of human evolution towards higher consciousness. But knowing this is cold comfort.
What can actually help change things is understanding the ego dynamics that created this situation in the first place.
The ego is not the enemy
No one questions that Donald Trump has an enormous ego. But what does that really mean? What kind of ego does he have? Are there different types? What really is the ego in the first place? Where does it come from? Can it be changed?
We would not be able to function without a coherent sense of self. The ego is the tool that enables us to interact and have the human experience. And it can be evolved into an expanded vehicle of consciousness with tremendous potential.
That said, the ego that is ignorant of itself and its nature is hugely problematic, often acting in highly fearful and destructive ways. The world we have today is the direct result of our ignorance of what the ego is: an identity program—like a computer code—that arises from sensory perceptions (data) we experience through the body … data that is hugely misleading.
The first thing we experience as new-born infants is the unconscious perception of “self” as physical and separate from the rest of the world. Our eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue give us the message, ”OMG! There’s something ‘other’ out there!”
We reach for the warm milky breast or bottle, hungering for something outside us that we need. Separation and isolation are the first unconscious programs our baby brains receive. They’re also the foundation for the sense of an individual self that becomes the personal ego.
But here’s the thing: we are neither truly physical or truly separate.
Both mysticism and science reveal that matter is more of an idea than anything else; that the universe—and us—are made up of infinite interconnected waves of energy/information and that boundaries and borders don’t really exist. As the famous Austrian theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger put it, “What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. Particles are just schaumkommen (appearances).”
This is why mystics refer to physical life as a dream. Nothing here is what it seems—the ego least of all. But as long as the ego doesn’t know this, it’s destined to live out life as if it were “it.” Which brings us back to Donald Trump and other right-wing movers and shakers (and voters) around the world.
The progressive ego
Some of the more modern schools of psychology hold that ego consciousness—our self-awareness—evolves over time both individually and collectively. Dr. Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of transpersonal psychology and the Fourth Wave of Psychology, believed that humans evolve through five levels of desire-driven ego function.
The two lowest levels of personal ego are characterized by complete absorption in physical needs and gaining control over those needs. After the basics of consistent food, water, shelter, sex and economic security are provided, the ego is free to develop higher interests such as the need to “belong” to a family and community. Once belonging needs are satisfied, the fourth level of needs arises: the need for self-esteem.
At this level the ego seeks approval from others through attaining wealth, material goods, power and fame. Much of Western civilization is currently operating at the fourth level of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy, Donald Trump among them.
The fifth level of self-actualization is the last level of ego evolution where the individual is still driven by personal needs. At this level the need is to live autonomously and creatively, with no need of outside approval from others—including the need to “look good” in terms of material success.
At the sixth and highest level the ego expands beyond narrow self-identification and begins to perceive others and life itself as part of the “self.” Boundaries thin to non-existence. There is tremendous compassion and empathy for others at this level, a deep concern for the health of the planet and all beings upon it, and a dedication to improving the lot of the whole.
The sixth level is called the transpersonal level and currently millions of people at this level of ego function are involved in environmental and social groups, NGOs and sustainable businesses, alternative health and sustainable agriculture. The Internet itself is an external reflection of this evolution in consciousness towards interconnectivity, peaceful coexistence, and the recognition of the essential unification of all life.
The progressive political movement—best represented by Bernie Sanders—is most in alignment with transpersonal ego consciousness.
Donald Trump is stuck back at the fourth level seeking to bolster his ego’s need for self-esteem. He is also deeply mired in base level sex needs and the need for control. (The ego can operate across several levels of consciousness at the same time.) In short, Trump and other conservatives have not yet learned how to feel safe and secure enough to expand to the next levels of ego function.
The solution? Education. There needs to be a concerted effort in schools and spiritual organizations to inform people about the nature of the human ego—its mechanics, pitfalls and promise. Unlike transcendent awareness (enlightenment), transpersonal consciousness can be learned. The brain can be trained to perceive life in ways that are more unified and in alignment with the true nature of existence. Compassion for others can be attained through exercises that expand the ego’s sense of self (instead of inflating the ego’s pride).
It’s all a matter of knowing what we’re dealing with. Then real and permanent change can happen.
Author of The E Word: Ego, Enlightenment & Other Essentials and Unearthing Venus, Cate Montana, MA is a dauntless explorer of inner and outer worlds, has a master’s degree in psychology, and writes about consciousness, evolution, and quantum physics. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.