[8 minute read]
I finally got around to reading Eckhart Tolle, one of the darlings of new age spirituality. His ideas aren’t entirely new, but let’s face it, it’s very hard to have new ideas in the introspective “soft sciences” that really push humanity to new levels. (To be honest, I hope to use this blog to help me do just that). Tolle’s strength lies in his presentation, which puts forward otherwise-vague propositions in a sensible fashion. The central tenet of his Huxley-titled “A New Earth” is that the Ego is bad, and that to progress as individuals we must hem-in the Ego, with the aim to eradicate it. Tolle (whose name in German translates to something like “really cool/OMG awesome!!1!”) is not clear whether total eradication is possible — perhaps this is the Nirvana unrelated to Kurt Cobain. Important to Tolle is to, in any case, constantly keep it in check. Let’s explore the ideas a bit more before I offer what I think is a more complete explanation of what’s going on.
To be SUCCESSFUL, look deep into the back of your fridge (?)
The hippies reading my blog probably already know that by “progress as individuals” we’re not meaning to accrue wealth or honour, or other such status symbols. This accrual is, Tolle states, merely feeding the appetite of the Ego. The spiritual progress Tolle refers to might be called growth, which to me unfortunately sometimes brings up images plantar warts, or leftovers in the back of the fridge years past its expiry date. So for my readers more familiar with self-development in professional contexts:
“personal growth” ≠ “success”
More than just an outbreak in skin infection, a deeper and more personally meaningful growth should cut down into the mouldy roots of dissatisfaction that can (and surely does) plague those with great social status. It involves a quiet, confident contentedness with our position in life, and a peaceful acceptance of who we are as individuals.
So, growth into a lifestyle of sublime contentedness, of self-assuredness and an established feeling of self-control. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Sounds like a much more deeply-resonating state of being than just the classic benchmarks of “success”, as power and money. Tolle mostly attempts to shunt our way of thinking toward this way of thinking using rationalisation and drawing from the grandfathers of the world’s major religions, especially Buddha and Jesus. But he also offers some more practical exercises, such as body scanning without judgement or labelling.
Battle of the Egos: Sigmund vs Eckhart
There’s actually not much contest, here. Eckhart Tolle’s Ego is not dissimilar to Sigmund Freud’s Ego. Well, those two guys have different flavours of egoism for sure, but their definitions appear similar to me. Freud suggests the Ego is the realistic part of our mind that mediates between the desires of the (unrealistic) Id and the external world. Freud believed only one’s Ego is in direct contact with the world; it is the part that deals with “reality anxiety”.
The Ego is more complicated and is presumably a higher evolutionary state than the Id — the primal urges and desires shared by all animals to eat, sleep, breed.
In my Opinion, Freud’s definition seems unnecessarily abstract in connecting Ego with reality. (…then, Id and Superego are unreal?). What is implied in what Freud says, is that the Ego is all about maintaining social cohesion. To my knowledge, Freud never explicitly says it like this, but it is simple to draw this conclusion.
- Why is it that humans, and several other animal species, don’t automatically cave in to the Id’s desires?
- Why would a sick wildebeest ignore it’s body telling it to rest on a plain, and instead move on with the migrating herd?
- Why would a human being push himself to press little plastic squares in front of an illuminated 17 inch square, despite his body screaming at him to sleep?
The Ego is there to make sure we fit into society. To keep up with the herd, to suppress the Id’s impulses.
The Ego keeps us socially acceptable.
Sometimes it’s the only thing making sure we put pants on before venturing outside.
The Ego foregoes some of the benefits of satisfying the Id’s impulses, in favour of keeping social standing, and by following this more complicated path later reap some of the benefits of a community. If we had evolved as individualist species, such as a falcon, leopard, octopus, then these “reality checks” as Freud might call them, or “social acceptability checks” as I’m inclined to call them, these would not be necessary at all. No need for territorial pissings, we would just need to concentrate on ourself, to “Look out for Number 1”, as 90’s USA calls it.
We’re not there yet, but I believe we should soon be able to quite clearly delineate where in the brain the Ego — our in-built social monitor — is located. There should be some similarity in functional-structure found in the brains of humans and all social mammals, but which are not seen in individualist mammals. Birds are a separate biological clave, but the Ego of social birds (they flock together!) perhaps also neurologically resemble the mammalian Ego. Social behaviour is actually pretty complex and can take away a tremendous amount of resources. [More on this another day]. It makes sense that species that evolved to live in herds/packs/flocks also evolved parts of their brain dedicated to this part of life.
You know you’re right. Except, you’re not.
So you start to see where I’m a bit at odds with Tolle. And don’t worry, I’ll critique Freud in due time as well. To Tolle, at least in this book, the Ego has no redeeming features. There’s nothing good to be said of it, it will only drain you. But why would humans (or any indeed any life form) have developed a feature, especially one as intricate as an Ego, if it only made things worse for us? Sounds kinda dumb to me. In living things, function and structure always has purpose. If something doesn’t help, if it’s extraneous — if it doesn’t fit (to use Charles Darwin’s word) — then it will go. In humans, the very ape feature of tailbones isn’t “gone” but it’s “going”, and adaptation is slow compared to the time-frame of a single human life. Tails used to help us, but no more.
All this applies equally to our psychology. And I’ll go into more detail in a later post about why we continue doing/thinking things that don’t seem to help us. (Spoiler: they do help, just not the way you might want them to).
No, the Ego is there because it serves us well.
It’s important to note that the Ego, like other psychological drives, is appetitive — it’s always hungry, always seeking more. It’s an unremitting energy that is always there. Hence, quashing it is pointless and beyond our control. There’s no Ego-free Nirvana, you should just come as you are. Whether it’s a “good” thing or a “bad” depends on how and where we direct its energies.
[While we’re feeling musical, I’d like to give credit to Jack Noire of House of Light for helping letting these last ideas come in bloom]
So then the healthiest Ego isn’t one that is suppressed, but is put to use constructively, and (like EVERYTHING) in moderation. I’ll follow this up with a quick easy-read article on what an overblown Ego might look like and an interesting idea that might help you stay away from this scenario. A runaway Ego seems to be a symptom of some other failing in our mentality. And indeed Tolle’s prompts toward a cognitive reframing of our Ego can certainly help many of us.
But it is important to also accept the Ego as an inseparable, ever-present feature of our lives. Kinda like a smart phone. You’ll never be without it, so just accept it’s there. But it’s important to be aware of where it’s limits of usefulness lie, beyond which it turns toward wasteful indulgence. For this, it might be useful to take a step back, and with an objective eye turnaround and watch what it is you’re doing. An exercise in mindful awareness. You might be quite unawares that your Ego, like your smrt fone, has hijacked your life a little too much.
Bonus Round: It wasn’t my original intention, but in this article I’ve put 12 references to Nirvana’s discography. 10 points to anyone who spots them all.