Beyond Ego

By Brian Holley, author of From the Secret Cave and The God I Left Behind: A journey from fundamentalism to faith

I’ve got a statement I keep posting, even though I’m not sure anyone’s really listening.  When I recite it to friends they always say, ‘Yes’ and only a few want to change the subject.  Maybe I’ll have better luck here.  This is my statement: “There is only one major source of evil on earth: the dysfunctional human EGO. If there’s one thing more dangerous than that it’s the dysfunctional collective ego. Unless we recognise this as a PANDEMIC  and undertake action to disempower both the individual and collective ego all our best efforts at reform will fail.”

Perhaps one of the problems of getting this message over is the ego itself.  It really doesn’t like being the subject of conversation unless we’re speaking about someone else—especially when we’re criticising someone else’s ego.  I know my own ego doesn’t much like being the subject of other people’s conversation.  Even when we acknowledge the ego and the damage it inflicts we still don’t really know what to so about it.  Tomes have been written on the subject but they’re mostly buried in academic libraries and it will be impossible to say everything that needs to be said in an article like this, but maybe I can whet your appetite, because it’s not all bad.

Of course you know that the word ego simply means ‘I’.  The word was made fashionable by Freud over 100 years ago but his ideas about it are rather primitive now.  Simply said, the ego is who I think I am and that word ‘think’ is vital in our understanding of ourselves.  If I’d been adopted at birth and brought up by parents in a different country, speaking a different language and living a quite different way of life, my sense of who I am would be different. That’s because most of who I think I am has developed from my response to other people’s reactions to me: parents, siblings, peers, relations, neighbours, friends, teachers—all this made contributions toward who I think I am.  But the signals I got from them were inflected by my inherited predispositions, which are ways of responding to the vicissitudes of  life learned by my ancestors over millennia.  

For instance my twin babies, though they spent all day and all night together for their first few years, had quite different approaches to dealing with life.  One was assertive and decisive, the other would watch what was going on before deciding what to do.  These predispositions had an enormous effect on how they developed into adulthood yet they’ve both had very successful careers and have brought up their families successfully too.  

The ego gets a bad press so I should make it clear that it is nevertheless an essential aspect of the human psyche.  It helps us to understand the society in which we live and negotiate our way through the intricate alleyways of life as we encounter other egos.  It creates our persona, that is the aspect of ego that the world sees and knows us by.  That label, persona, was perceptively chosen by Carl Jung.  Originally the word referred to the mask worn by Roman actors to represent the parts that they played.  They spoke through the mask, hence per (through) sona (to sound.)  We see the ego developing in us most clearly through the teen years when we try on different personas to see if they enable us to fit in with those around us.  In fact it is said that more changes take place in us between the age of 15 and 25 than at any other time in our lives.  So it’s not so much the ego itself that creates the problems but the built in dysfunctionality that arises from the way it evolves within us as a result our interactions with other people and our circumstances.

The main problem is that, as E.O. Wilson put is so well, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”  In fact our basic emotions arise from part of the brain that evolved long before the Stone Age.  Neurologists call it the reptilian and mammalian brain.  Its main purpose is to keep us safe and it responds to anything that even looks like a threat with an automatic response.  Have you ever been in a bar when somebody has dropped a glass which smashes?  What happened?  There would have been a slight lull in conversations as a hundred brains register an abnormality.  In less than a second those brains will have increased heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline levels to ready the body for action.  But then the slower upper brain kicks in recognising that there is no threat, and stands down the defence system.  You may hear a faint cheer go up.  Well you have to do something with all those excess hormones, don’t you.

From moment to moment throughout our day the ego self triggers the body’s defence system because that defence system can’t tell whether the stimulus is coming from an external threat, imagination or memory.  Before an exam, remember feeling you’d like to be anywhere but there?  There was no physical threat to you but your ego felt threatened and made you want to flee anyway. If we drew a graph of our day charting the ups and downs of our emotions it would undoubtedly look like a full-scale storm at sea.  Although this happens to all of us all the time we are not conscious of its cause only of its effects and we react to the effects without dealing with the cause most of the time.  And the simple reason that most of us don’t deal with cause is because we don’t know how to; it’s not been part of our upbringing or education— but it damn well should have been, shouldn’t it?  This aspect of the human psyche is the fundamental cause of most of humanity’s problems and not only the little ones.  Who we think we are and who we think others, and worse, who we think others think we are is at the root of crime, war, exploitation, deforestation, pollution and global warming.  All these problems have to be addressed, of course they do, but without addressing the root cause of the problem, the dysfunctional human ego we have little chance of changing things quickly enough and to a sufficient degree to bring a satisfactory outcome.

The solution should be relatively simple though not easy to implement.  We need education programs in schools, universities and places of business to help people understand themselves and what makes them tick.  Then we need programs that will help people to bring their ego-minds to rest.  

I’m pleased to see that this is happening already with the expansion of mindfulness programs.  Mindfulness is an excellent starting point.  Here is a mysterious thing.  Symptoms are nature’s way of bringing a problem into consciousness.  Out of consciousness may come a rational solution yet I’ve noticed that simply by bringing some things into consciousness the problem is solved.  Another statement I regularly trot out is: “It’s in the nature of nature to nurture.”  Healing often takes place as a result of simple awareness.  In fact it is said that at least 70% of illnesses that present in doctors surgeries would heal themselves if left alone.  The body knows what to do.  Nature knows what to do.  It’s only our minds that get in the way.  If we can be open enough and still enough and silent enough for long enough something wonderful happens.

So let’s build in to our education systems the understanding we have of the human ego, how it works in us and how to bring it to rest. That simply act could change the world.

Brian C. Holley


Brian Holley describes himself as a “spiritual tramp and religious has-been who writes and plays guitar.” His current books are From the Secret Cave and The God I Left Behind: A journey from fundamentalism to faith. They are available from Amazon worldwide. See also: