“The human being is a walking paradox. We’re a mix of spirit and matter you could say, heaven and earth, the conditioned and the unconditioned, form and emptiness. We’re the bringing together of these two completely different levels of reality: form and formless. And so our life is a tremendous opportunity to work with that paradox and unfold it.”
—Dr. John Welwood
The terms Ego and Essence are a big part of the Riso-Hudson Enneagram and they are integral to understanding the spiritual aspects of the teaching.
The term Essence points to that which we are at our deepest core. It is by nature ineffable and therefore any explanation we attempt will fall far short. Like the finger pointing at the moon not being the moon, these words are not intended to be definitive, but merely indicators of something that’s really impossible to conceptualize. In other traditions, Essence may be called spirit, Christ nature, Buddha nature or true nature. The Hebrews called it Ruach and the early Christians called it Spiritus. However, defining it as a noun can be somewhat misleading. As Adyashanti and many other teachers say, you can’t look within and pinpoint your true nature. True nature is a verb, an action, something that arises and expresses itself through you rather than something you can grasp and say, “this is me.” This is why Meister Eckhart calls it the “ground of Being.”
“God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought.”
In contrast, the term Ego is far easier to define. In Eckhart Tolle’s teaching, Ego is like a basket into which we put all of our self definitions. This begins in early childhood along with speech skills and starts with our names. As we grow and pick up more self definitions, we can include things like what we look like; our gender; any inherited family, regional or national self concepts and so on. This process quickly picks up pace in adolescence when we’re playing with role identities and begin to define ourselves further with things like, “I’m an outgoing person,” or “I’m a shy person,” or “I’m the one everyone comes to for support.”
A big clue here is that the egoic identity is always defined in relation to the other through either comparing ourselves with those around us or internalizing the feedback we get from them. This is why Ego is so unstable and why it so easily feels threatened. One minute we’re feeling great about ourselves because someone gave us a compliment and the next we’re in the dumps because we received a less-than-stellar review from our boss. Ego is the proverbial house built on shifting sand and it’s no wonder so much reactivity is generated when we take Ego to be the end-all-be-all sense of who we are. The only way off this roller coaster is to reconnect with that ground of Being that is our essential nature.
In addition to self concepts, Ego also contains our psychological defense mechanisms because the two are closely linked. If we define ourselves as shy and quiet, we’re going to defend ourselves from threats as if we are that shy and quiet person, meaning that we won’t consider asserting ourselves because that behavior is off limits. If we define ourselves as outgoing, we’re likely going to respond to threats with some form of ego inflation. The problem arises when we begin to buy into Ego and believe that we truly are our self concepts (thus splitting off from a whole host of other options). The truth is that we’re far more flexible and whole than that, we just have a tendency to forget about our true nature through the process of ego development.
The Purpose of Ego
This is not to say that having an ego is a bad thing, nor does it make you a spiritual failure. Quite the contrary. The ego serves a vital evolutionary function and we wouldn’t be able to operate without one. The ego gives us our sense of self and allows us to understand ourselves in relation to the greater world. It is what gives us our capacities for planning, critical thinking and conceptualization as well as the agency to act effectively in the world. It is also responsible for creating very intelligent coping mechanisms that protected us as children while our nervous systems were still developing. In fact, we wouldn’t even be able to do the work of awakening to our deeper spiritual nature if our ego were weak or unstable because it is ego that provides the necessary tension or “grist for the mill” to do that work.
The Continuum of Ego and Essence
The best way to think of Ego and Essence is as a continuum. On one end, we have Ego and this is where we’re at our most defended, contracted, and shut down from the full expression of our true nature. We are living out little more than our limiting self definitions, and at this furthest end of Ego, these self-definitions are at their most pathological and destructive. On the other end, we have Essence where we’ve shrugged off our concepts of who we’re supposed to be and our true nature arises spontaneously within us and expresses itself through us without any contraction or impediment from Ego—and more importantly, without grasping onto anything and saying, “this is who I am.” This is the state that the phrase “in the world but not of it” is likely referring to.
In the Enneagram teaching, Ego follows nine basic patterns in the form of the personality types, and the continuum of expression between Ego and Essence is described by the Riso-Hudson Levels of Development. Ego’s hold on us is strongest at the lowest Level (9) and lightest at the top Level (1). Most people cluster somewhere around Level 5 which is right in the middle, in the average range. The higher we are on the Levels, the more access we have to our ground of Being, true nature or Essence.
Don’t Kill the Ego
When we first begin to learn about the ego, in this and other traditions, one of the “logical” conclusions we can come to is that we must root out Ego and expel it from ourselves with utmost haste. The problem is, who is it that’s doing the uprooting? Who is it that’s deeming our ego as distasteful? And from whom are we removing it? From the perspective of Ego, it’s as if we’re two persons: one really awesome person we wish we could be 100% of the time (Essence), and one really awful person that wears our skin and does embarrassing things in our name (Ego). But from the perspective of Essence, it’s simply a gradient of expression based on our capacity to relax into the ground of our Being.
“Trying to kill your ego is the best way to sustain it.”
So if we do go on this quest to purge ourselves of our ego, what actually happens is it tends to express itself in other ways. For instance, let’s say we have an egoic tendency to run roughshod over other people at work and take control of meetings at others’ expense. We may make some sort of pact with ourselves or a New Year’s resolution to stop doing that. So, by strength of will, we start allowing others to have more say and give them the reins once in a while. Meanwhile, we can’t stop thinking that their decisions are terrible and that everything would be much better off if they’d do it our way, but we’re being the bigger person right now so we’ll keep quiet and see how this plays out. We begin unintentionally undermining others in less obvious ways than we used to. We may roll our eyes when they propose an idea we don’t like, or we may forget to complete some task they’ve asked of us that we thought was insignificant. We’re doing all this while congratulating ourselves on how well we’re carrying out our resolution.
“Problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them.”
Bringing Some Self Awareness on Board
No real growth can happen unless we deal with the reasons (both psychological and spiritual) behind our behavior. Applying our will to the issue is simply Ego trying to solve the problem of Ego. This is where the Enneagram work comes in.
“As soon as you welcome and relax the resistance that is your type, you tap into the very Life Force that never went away.”
Let’s say we go to a workshop and discover we’re a type Eight and learn what our patterns are, begin to learn how to get in touch with Presence and develop the inner witness. We begin to “catch ourselves in the act” of egoic behavior. Rather than asserting our egos to try to stop or change the behavior, we work on remaining as present as we can in these situations. This gives us the space in which to realize that our impulse to control arises from a deep need to make sure we’re never caught flat-footed and vulnerable, as well as our lack of trust in the capacity of others to have our backs when the chips are down. The more we can sit in this feeling of vulnerability without reacting, the more the realization lands that we don’t need to continue energizing our egoic patterns. Life goes on just fine without them. The more we can do this, the more we can relax into the ground of Being. We let ourselves fall, and miracles of miracles, we find we are held! And then we realize that this ground of Being is the one and only source of the Essential qualities such as strength, empowerment, realness and immediacy that we’ve always yearned for with every particle of our soul. But because we experienced the catastrophic wounding of being disconnected from this ground of Being, we tried to create them through Ego.
This is a very deep realization and learning to embody it can be the task of a lifetime. But what a worthy task it is.