Healthy Egos and Spiritual Development
Must one must first travel the Great Arc from infant, to a healthy separate self or ego (a well-adapted adult ego in one’s environment and community) before passing down the other side of the rainbow so to speak, to the post-egoic state of non-dual understanding of permanent happiness and peace?
Everything that emphasizes personality must be understood to have its origin in body-connection.
~Sri Atmananda (Krishna Menon)
It has been suggested more than once, and in more than one way—such as from a currently prominent non-dual teacher—that one needs to develop a healthy, well-adapted adult ego in order to go deep into spiritual realization or to take the next step and develop into the universal “I Am” non-dual awareness at the heart of spiritual paths. The notion is expressed for example in the claim that someone who has not developed a healthy, stable, “well-adapted” adult human ego—identification as a body in the environment and society—would be further “destabilized” by the non-dual teaching.
The idea is challenged by several observations, and by lines of reasoning pursued in this article. One of the simplest observations is that the same teacher who made the above assertion has also said that today he sees sometimes young people coming to his retreats that are very clear and open and understand the non-dual philosophy very quickly, without the burden of so much adult baggage and suffering. There is a great openness and readiness for it by them. The author has also been contacted by someone who, for example showed the level of non-dual understanding and clarity normally seen by those past middle age (with decades of mediation and study under their belts) via a spontaneous realization (and was able to write about it in an articulate manner) despite the fact that they had just graduated high school and were about to embark on college life. They were a well-adapted young person, thoroughly engaged in a normal social life and with varied interests (the only thing that was not “normal” or that stood out was their non-dual outlook!).
The idea of the Great Arc is that the infant has to separate itself out from the environment, and realize it’s not his mother’s body, not the cradle it’s in, not the room—a “neti neti” type process (“not this, not that”, a Sanskrit term used in Advaita Vedanta teachings) of differentiation that culminates in an adult ego—which in the case of the non-dual aspirant continues in this arc until one realizes: not only am I not the world, but not the body.
This process of differentiation stops in most people before the post-egoic journey, comfortable as they are, more or less, with their unconscious beliefs, the assumption of being a body and a mind in a world that they learned as as child—or if not comfortable or happy, not seeing any alternative other than more of what we are calling “ego development”. So in what sense is the non-dual teaching—or “spiritual development” if you will—seen as a continuation of this process (I don’t really like the word “spiritual”, what with its cultural baggage)?
If you took that notion seriously, that only healthy well-adapted egos are ready for the path beyond the ego, it would imply that some aspirants might want to take a few years (or decades?) and get some psychological help before they embark on the perilous journey of non-duality teachings. It might be tempting to think some folks just have too much psychological garbage in the way to see their way clear, or given their frail emotional and psychological state, that they might not be able to handle such a strong medicine, and fall apart.
Now, one can certainly seem to encounter what you could call “immature personalities” along the path, and even what have been called “personality disorders” in psychiatric circles, and see how potentially the teaching could be used an an excuse for “spiritual bypassing” (not confronting uncomfortable feelings that are operating out of conscious awareness) or bad behavior, such as rudeness, irresponsibility, drug use, and worse. After all, “it’s all me, there are no others, it doesn’t matter what I do, no practices are necessary, I’m already there, already enlightened, it’s about freedom, nothing exists, there’s no free will, so it doesn’t matter what I do and other people’s hurt and pain and consequences are not real, not my doing; it’s about me feeling good vibrations, so I’ll run away from this uncomfortable relationship or situations” so the mind says … endless mischief is possible.
On a side note, psychiatric diagnosis and labels are tinged with judgement, and a view biased by the Freudian medical-based worldview (for example Narcissistic Personality Disorder” or “Borderline Personality Disorder“). I see such beings, such expressions of humanity, as wounded and in pain—why else would they act so selfishly?—pain and fear are learned, as is a strong unconscious sense of identification with a separate self-belief and feeling, the unloving sense of life picked up from family and society. And I would offer that such individuals in some cases may indeed benefit first from an exposure to psychologically-based, or ethical teachings that help them be less self-centered before, or at the beginning of, entering on a non-dual path, such that the nondual teachings doesn’t just give them license to be uncaring, arrogant or rude towards others.
But the question is, are there “unnatural” and/or unstable developments of the human ego such that one cannot or should not go on the non-dual path of spiritual development without further destabilizing a rocky sense of self, be at risk of getting worse? Or if not worse, then simply not benefit from delving into these ultimate truths before one is ready?
On the flip side, one could read the implication that the development of a stronger or bigger ego would somehow prepare one better for non-dual realization. This seems like a strange notion, since for one thing, it’s saying that more ignorance (in the Sanskrit sense: ignorance of one’s true nature, unawareness), more ego, will make one more ready to have more knowledge (awareness of one’s nature as awareness)—assuming it’s the right kind of ignorance—the supposedly healthy, normal, stable adult ego kind—and for another it goes against the experience of seeing the fact that there’s just no telling what the prerequisites for Self-realization are. There have been examples of people with very loving and healthy upbringings, with well-adapted egos, having no interest in non-dual teachings, or even spirituality. On the other hand, there have been those with difficult backgrounds, from families with unhealthy, unhappy egos, who go on to very high levels of Self-realization very quickly. And conversely, persons with happy childhoods and well-developed egos have experienced high levels of spiritual development, and deep non-dual insights.
It all seems to hinge on what one means by “ego” in this context. If there is no real person—that is, no real separate entity really exists in the reality of One Being—to have an ego in the first place makes no sense. There is no one real to have an ego. So “ego” in that case just refers to bodymind growth and development. Or, “ego” is used in spiritual circles to mean the Sense of Separate Self (SSS).
There seems to be no predictable correlation, just as there seems to be no predictable correlation between amounts of spiritual practice and the certainty of high levels of self-realization. It’s akin to the non-correlation between income or lifestyle and non-dual realization: they are independent variables. You can perceive or argue the reverse—that there is a certain connection—but it’s a fact there is none, and this makes sense. In other words, there is no known causal link the mind can make, otherwise we’d have a world of enlightened, free and happy beings, once the cause is found in the world, formulated and dispensed. But what we truly are is “not of this world”. It’s all in God’s (or grace’s) hands, to put it in theistic terms. This isn’t fatalistic, it’s simply pointing out it’s a timeless, causeless happiness that’s being pointed to.
This assumption of healthy egos and good, stable body-in-a-world adaptation as a prerequisite for the nondual teaching is also in contrast to what the author has seen in the field of spiritual psychology teachings, where healing of many levels and types of mental disease, addictions, and emotional distress happen via the profound insights people have into the nature of their experience: for example realized via insights into the nature of Thought and Consciousness. This happens sometimes after simply hearing a description, or sometimes after decades of work. In any case, needing a healthy ego first suggests that one must first heal one’s psychological issues, then graduate to a nondual spiritual stratosphere. In other words, transcendence is seen as a special gift for those who have a healthy enough ground on which to grow. This is false.
My experience is that there are countless cases of people having supposedly serious psychiatric conditions such as “clinical depression” or severe anxiety, or life-threatening addictions, having insights into the nature of their experience that frees them from those psychiatric conditions. This can happen very quickly, or very slowly (and I wouldn’t pretend to know why this speed or lack of is the case), and to various depths, but it appears that the ego—the sense of separation , and the thinking or believing habits, the illusory world they’d been creating (that was manifesting as psychological symptoms)—was seen through to some degree, in a moment of insight and understanding, and the inherently healthy, eternal nature of who we are as free, happy peaceful beings was realized, to varying degrees.
Thus psychological causes are seen as an effect rather than a cause: the tail was wagging the dog in traditional psychiatric cause-and-effect thinking. Of course it can go both ways: brain chemicals and the mind “causing” a difference in the filtering of experience—like throwing chemicals on a TV set’s circuit may cause a program to be altered overall in some unpredictable manner—or a shift in thinking “causing” (correlating with) a change in brain chemical secretion, but ultimately cause and effect are assuming time has a reality that the non-dual experience through the ages, as well as modern physics, reveals is ultimately unreal. That is, this thinking only applies to the world of appearances: the world and body the mind projects.
I would argue that not only is a healthy ego not necessary, but that (to whatever degree) unhealthy egoic thinking can be a spur or a springboard towards looking beyond the answers that have been given, and be exactly what is needed to look deeper in the search for happiness and truth. This is what happened in the author’s case: seeing the limits of psychotherapy and the circular game it was playing in the carnival of thinking and memory, and the spiritual bankruptcy of modern Western academic philosophy, neither which provided the answers of how to live, led to an opening to more timeless and intuitive truths; seeking to understand and establish a more constant realization of that “revelation” spurred further investigation, deepening and integration. Eventually a “quantum leap” was taken and life changed dramatically, for the better. Sometimes the revelation that the sources of beauty, truth, and love come from beyond the mind occurs when one reaches the limits of what the mind and the given answers of the current society provide.
I would concur that a certain level of spiritual maturity may be needed (and some spiritual teachers claim this can be the result of what happened in previous lives—this is an idea that seems to be dependent on time and needs some exploration later as a mere belief). But a healthy ego? I question if that’s entirely necessary, or necessary at all. Not to mention that an ego implies suffering…
It’s very simple: what we truly are “at core” is always available, always “on”, no matter what’s happening, or rather appears to be happening in the world, in our body, in our minds, anywhere in appearances. What we are cannot be broken.
I can understand however why a teacher of spiritual psychology or non-duality would advise people to keep taking their psychiatric medications (and never suggest they could ever be off them): not only would they want to disclaim any medical knowledge, but they would not want to be liable legally. One could also argue that if someone believes it’s helping them, and it appears to help them be more mentally stable, that stability or relative mental quiet would be a first good step—for example to “hearing” something that helps them have an insight. But what I’ve observed with people is that psychiatric meds also cloud the mind and numb the feelings, and potentially affect the body in many, often undesirable ways.
The assumption, the worldview behind the psychiatric medicines is that we are made of matter, and our feelings, moods, perceptions and everything experienced is caused by this machinery of the brain, and that that machine is broken (and I perceive an element of moral judgement too in the psychiatric view, as well as a need to control and dominate: egoic qualities). So cause and effect are thought to rule, and the drugs are seen to supposedly modify the operation of the machinery in order to compensate for what’s missing: some neurotransmitter, some balance of chemicals. But in fact even at the level of appearances, studies have shown that antidepressants—Prozac being the classic example (an SSRI or “Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor)—are no better than, and sometimes worse than, placebos. This is a big embarrassment for the pharmaceutical industry and their “serotonin hypothesis”. In fact it’s their own studies that have shown this! So their own studies have shown that a neurotransmitter does not cause a mood.
That neurotransmitters aren’t the cause of our moods and feelings should be obvious to anyone who has actually closely observed their own experiences. How many times have you been walking around thinking some drug—let’s say too much coffee—or some situation in the world, such as a controlling husband or wife, was causing your mood or feelings, and then someone says something, or you have a beautiful conversation, or some insight pops into your head and your whole outlook suddenly changes, shifts into another feelings, a higher mood? A chemical or a person didn’t cause that. And neither can you trace it back to some cause that you can reliably reproduce in a linear fashion. Another conversation about the same topic with the same person may have no effect on your mood. There is no technique or machinery that can be derived, other than theories, hypotheses and assumptions. We are so trained and conditioned to think that if something happens, something is perceived or experienced, there must be a cause by something that it’s an effect of (some other thing, some previous cause). Even our language is structured that way: “something made him happy”, “What made you depressed?” (meaning what thing, person, or situation caused your misery). People will ask “Why are you so happy today?” and want to know, and assume, the cause is from some situation, person, or thing: you are having a love affair with a person, got a big raise, won a big contract, are high on a drug, got a new car, etc… or maybe you’re just crazy! Causeless happiness is not normally part of the lexicon…
Doesn’t it make you just a little suspicious that two different people, or even the same person at different times, can be happy or unhappy under exactly the same circumstances, or happy for no reason at all, other than in simply Being? For example, a baby or small child can be exuberantly happy, bubbling with joy, just (I almost write “from”) running around, or playing with a rock, full of wonder, and expressing love to others.
There’s this view in spiritual circles and some wisdom teachings, that as an adult to find the Source and realize Awareness again, this constitutes a greater depth, a coming full circle to a more reflective or self-aware awareness. A “being aware of being aware” as one teacher puts it. So having transcended the healthy ego and the world of experiences and knowledge one had developed as a seemingly separate entity, I am reversing the movement to greater complexity and suffering, and going back to simplicity and peace, happiness.
There is credit to this view in the sense that the love one has to offer is qualitatively different than the love of a baby or child. A child’s happiness may brighten some moments when we encounter them, but a sage’s happiness, or even a happy adult who isn’t a sage, can potentially have an effect far greater. What is “transmitted” from a sage? There’ nothing going from one place to another … since cause and effect are nothing but an imposed concept, what is actually going on? It’s hard to say, because it doesn’t fit into how we normally talk, think, understand, and see the world. Freedom is totally outside any box. Since nothing is actually separate in reality—there are no separate entities anywhere in existence—it stands to reason that as I change, everything changes. Psychologically, perception covers all; spiritually, All covers All: I am part and not separate from All. So seeing clearly What Is, not polluting the world with further reactions that add to the false perception that constitutes the error of being a separate self, “I” add to freedom. It makes no rational sense, but there it is.
This is not solipsism—it’s not saying that everything is in my mind—it’s saying everything in reality, which is both what is experiencing and being experienced as one and the same, always now, the reality of which is hidden to the normal senses, is at peace and shining freely in the unknown, knowing itself only.
It starts to sound like gibberish or poetry to talk about ultimate things. But that’s the nature of the game. To even talk about it as a subject, topic, separate thing or imagine it, is ridiculous in a way, a cosmic joke… but what can we do as minds, inherently limited? We want clues and guideposts…
This begs the question however of what if any real inner development happens, or if there is an “evolution of consciousness”. The Absolute, or Universal Consciousness doesn’t do anything or go anywhere or change in itSelf, which is the totality. This topic is worthy of investigation. At minimum, assumptions can be operating that affect our intentions and aims. The path is open, but ambiguous. Or at least is appears as such. The Direct Path and the Progressive Path are worthy of investigation.