Monday, January 3, 2011

Ego Without Conceit

The ego gets a bad rap.  We generally associate arrogance and conceit with this concept, although it was originally formulated to describe an important (and value-free) mediating function of our psyches.  According to Freud, we all have an internal force that drives us toward self-satisfaction called the id.  He saw this as a type of sexual energy, but it can also be used to describe any impulse toward personal pleasure and fulfillment.  Adler called it the will to power, while Jung understood it as the will to self-individuation, etc.

However, this self-absorbed and single-minded pursuit is inevitably obstructed by the norms of culture that say you have to follow certain rules in this world.  The collection of cultural norms that constrain our behavior is called the superego.   For example, walking around naked may be the most natural expression of your inner self, but it will likely get you arrested – unless, of course, you live in Berkley!  Somehow we have to navigate the pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment inside the parameters of socially-acceptable behavior.  And it is the ego that serves this mediating function.

Actually, Freud did not come up with this idea.  Rather, it has been part of the Jewish mystical tradition for thousands of years.  Kabbalah teaches that the world is composed of ten fundamental components called sefirot (singular, sefirah).  These ten aspects describe the composition of the macrocosmic universe and the microcosmic person.  There are three “intellectual” sefirot and seven “emotional” sefirot.  Not only can we can use this system to understand the essential structure of reality but we can also implement it as a guide to a healthy life.  

Unless a person has experienced a major head injury or was born with cognitive impairments, the mind generally operates as it should – it is actually our emotions that create mental distortions.  Our three intellectual sefirot of Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding), and Da’at (knowledge) simply serve their functions to the natural limits of their capacity.  Chochmah is the flash of insight, or seminal thought that arises spontaneously and pushes us in a certain direction.  Kabbalah uses the analogy of lightning on a dark night that briefly allows us to see our surroundings, orient our position, and determine the appropriate direction in which to go.  Binah is the fleshing out of the original idea in a way that it can be implemented.  For example, we may have an idea for a new kind of house but it won’t get anywhere unless we can detail its dimensions, materials, cost, etc.  Finally, Da’at brings the concept to fruition by creating a plan or blueprint that builders can actually follow to build the house.

Constructing a house is a practical example of a desired yet emotionally draining process.  There are cost overruns, personnel and equipment problems, financial set-backs, etc.  Perseverance born from emotional strength is imperative to getting the job done.  Therefore, the proper functioning of our emotional sefirotChesed (active love and outpouring of creative energy), Gevurah (disciplined limit setting), Tiferet (balance, beauty, and compassion), Netzach (endurance, victory), Hod (humility), Yesod (foundation), and Malchut (sovereignty) – is vital to accomplishing the goal.

Chesed (active love and outpouring of creative energy) is the initial excitement and energy inherent to any new project.  We are in love with the idea and want it to happen as quickly as possible.  We want something and all our focus and energy is directed toward its fulfillment.  Freud’s idea of id is reminiscent of this sefirah.   But you can become worn out or make careless mistakes unless you pace yourself and plan the approach to the project carefully.  Continuing with our house analogy – the ability to hold back and act in a calm and measured way, following the general rules of construction resides in the next sefirah of Gevurah (disciplined limit setting), which mirrors Freud’s superego.  Balancing and blending the excitement with a disciplined approach is the job of Tiferet – Freud’s healthy ego.

Kabbalah now goes beyond Freud and suggests how we can actually stay in the realm of Tiferet (beautiful balance).  The sefirah that follows Tiferet is Netzach (endurance, victory), which issues a challenge:  Can we endure in this desired state of Tiferet?  The answer is yes, if we follow the “advice” of the next sefirah – Hod (humility).  We must be humble enough to realize that we cannot succeed by ourselves.  Rather, we need the help and input of others whose particular skills and insights complement our own.  Ultimately, we will have to also rely on the fortitude gained by asking our Creator for help.  Humbly enduring in this state of beautiful balance creates a strong foundation to our lives – Yesod (foundation) – and allows us to have sovereignty (Malchut) over our emotions.  In this way we are able to keep our thinking straight and accomplish even our most ambitious goals.

As you can see, a healthy ego is more about balance than conceit and following the flow of the sefirot allows us to fulfill our most cherished hopes.

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