The Ego/Self-System Part I: An Historical Perspective
The ego/self-system is a large, complicated and dynamic system, and examining it requires a series of articles in order to gain a wider understanding of its elements and dynamics. And, as the title implies, the ego cannot be separated from the self. They form a system, the exploration of which has been added to and changed by different disciplines over the past century, and recently, new information from neuroscience has brought about dramatic additions and changes to these old concepts. However, even though much uncertainty remains concerning consciousness, ego has been mapped out to some degree. I think it will be valuable to look closely at past and current positions to see if a working model of the ego can be assembled. Major questions will arise as the subject is explored. Is ego dangerous or helpful? Does it add to our lives, or is it a dangerous psychological prison? Is it a collective or individual system or both? How about free will and self-determination; are they real?
Perhaps, in the end, the biggest question will concern trying to find out who we actually are. The materials presented throughout this series are intended to be stimulative and provocative, to help readers go deeper within themselves. There is no intention to present an interpretation of Krishnamurti’s position regarding ego. What may be interesting, though, is to discover points of intersection, as well as departure, concerning the different perspectives presented.
Development of Ego as a Concept
The Freudian Ego
It was not until Sigmund Freud at the start of the twentieth century used the term “ego” that it became part of a dynamic self-system. Before his views reached print, probably most people throughout history did not question the self’s reality and probably also thought of it as homogenous. Freud, however, proposed a system composed of id, ego, and superego, where ego is the conscious and subconscious sense of self that works out a mediation between the id as a repository of primal urges, especially aggression and sexual demands, and the super-ego as a repository of cultural values and conscience. “The ego represents what we call reason and sanity, in contrast to the Id which contains the passions” (Freud, 1952, Major Works). This is a system always under a stability challenge from the interaction of the three elements’ different demands and, when in an unstable condition, becomes the fertile psychological ground for neurotic and psychotic illnesses. “Neurosis is the result of a conflict between the ego and the id, whereas psychosis is the analogous outcome of a similar disturbance in the relation between the ego and the external world” (Freud, 1973, Abstracts of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud). Sexuality as the main driver of human impulses has been widely discredited and replaced by a much more complex view. However, Freud was truly revolutionary in seeing the self as composed of conflicting conscious and subconscious elements.
Freud’s daughter, Anna, added to his system via her book Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, which proposed that there are specific and identifiable techniques used by the mind at both conscious and subconscious levels to protect self-regard. It is important to note that these techniques are essentially reality distortions.
Examples include denial, which is a refusal to see reality or projection where one’s faults are ascribed to others. There are many others, and they are fascinating, making Anna’s work worth reading. Later, George E. Vaillant expanded upon the topic of defense mechanisms in his 1977 work titled Adaptations to Life. This view takes the position that ego is inescapable and is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of mental health, even though it distorts reality. “The concept of the ego conveys the mind’s capacity to integrate inner and outer reality, to blend past and present, and to synthesize ideas with feelings” (Vaillant, 1993, p.7). Vaillant comments on the defense mechanisms to say: “Defense mechanisms are for the mind what the immune system is for the body. … If we do not unconsciously distort inner and outer reality, we are condemned to anxiety and depression.” (Vaillant, 1993, p. 11). Psychotherapy, when applied from this position, basically aims to strengthen and heal a suffering ego as if it were an ailing organ in the body and also implies that ego distortions are of no particular concern.
"What we are going to do is to learn about ourselves – not according to the speaker, or to Freud, or to Jung, to some analyst or philosopher – but to learn actually what we are. If we learn about ourselves according to Freud we learn about Freud, not about ourselves. To learn about one self, all authority must come to an end, all authority – whether it be the authority of the church or of the local priest, or of the famous analyst, or of the greatest philosophers with their intellectual formulas, and so on. So the first thing that one has to realize when we become serious, demanding a total revolution within the structure of our own psyche, is that there is no authority of any kind. That is very difficult, for there is not only the outward authority, which one can easily reject, but there is inward authority; the inward authority of one’s own experience, of one’s own accumulated knowledge."
Freud’s views on ego became gospel and hold sway even today, especially in the sense of it being a perfectly legitimate and acceptable aspect of human life. But a major challenge to ego formulation came from psychiatrist Ernest Becker in the 1970s. He wrote a book titled The Denial of Death, which quickly became a hit among university psychology students. Becker decided that sexuality, as Freud’s driver for the ego system, was inadequate for explaining the intensity and persistence of the ego. He proposed that a fear of death boiled just below the surface of consciousness and threatened to erupt at any time, thus prompting the ego’s continuous attempts at denial and control via the use of defense mechanisms. “Becker concluded that human activity is driven largely by unconscious efforts to deny and transcend death,” according to Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski in their book, The Worm at the Core, who go on to quote Becker: “We build character and culture,” Becker told Sam Keen, “in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness and the terror of our inevitable death.” (2015, Amazon loc. 76). Next, Becker indicates that this psychological shield called self/ego has serious negative consequences. He agrees with Freud and Vaillant that the system distorts reality, but he then goes on to disagree with them by proposing that the system is basically a form of insanity.
“… everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, and personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness – agreed madness, shared madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same.” (Becker, 1973, p. 27).
Furthermore, this “madness” not only provokes individual problems but also gains great strength when ego combines to merge into group-shared belief systems that can inflict themselves not only upon other humans but also upon the world in general. “If we had to offer the briefest explanation of all the evil that men have wreaked upon themselves and upon their world since the beginnings of time right up until tomorrow, it would be not in terms of man’s animal heredity, his instincts and his evolution: it would be simply in the toll that his pretense of sanity takes, as he tries to deny his true condition.” (Becker, 1973, p. 29).
Becker died at age 50 in 1974, and conventional psychiatry gave a sigh of relief and proceeded on its way. He did not live long enough for his ideas to be tested, which made it easier for them to be disregarded. However, a small but dedicated group of professional followers took up his cause and decided to put his propositions to the test in a series of sociological studies. The result was a book titled The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life by Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski. Their research supported Becker in test situations. “So after being reminded of death, we react generously to anyone or anything that reinforces our cherished beliefs, and reject anyone or anything that calls those beliefs into question.” (2015, Amazon loc. 314). Conversely, when reminded “… we react to criticizing and punishing those who oppose or violate our beliefs, and praising and regarding those who support or uphold our beliefs.” (2015, Amazon loc. 332).
This research supports an extension to the self/ego system in that the system now flows between individuals and outside groups in a complex way, depending on whether the individual is an insider or outsider of a group. For Freud, ego problems belonged to the individual, but for Becker, conflict expands from only being inter-psychic to also include intrapsychic conflict, and this new element is propelled by shared beliefs as an important part of the ego/self-system. “First, we human beings are driven to protect our self-esteem. Second, we humans strongly desire to assert the superiority of our own group over other groups.” (2015, Amazon loc. 91). The image of the self is created and sustained by a reciprocal flow of expressed beliefs between the individual and the membership group as a whole, or as a sustained disagreement struggle with outside groups.
The beliefs themselves are actually mental constructions forming the members’ sense of reality. Beliefs are composed of standards and values that, when boiled down, form descriptions of how the group and its members think things are; they are platforms for a system of valuation, judgment, hierarchy; they issue behavior that bestows varying amounts of self-esteem upon its members and scorn upon outsiders. Thus, group standards and values form the mold that shapes who we come to think we are. This forms the basis of emotional and cognitive psychological reactions which, in turn, produce behavior. I call this congruence, and it is the fit between the sense of inner and outer reality views. But, it is a fit that needs maintenance and defense. We seek to reinforce our attitudes and beliefs with the connections we make with the outer world, as well as the judgments we make concerning that outer world. As for behavior, belief dominated views are a basis for judging people and things; they form the basis of whom we seek out and whom we avoid. Thus, inner and outer reality views must remain reasonably consistent for both thoughts and emotions to provide a sense of security. The border between congruent sense-of-reality pieces must not only be logical but must also feel emotionally correct by bestowing a feeling of self-satisfaction and security within the group. Thus, the interlocking congruent beliefs of the individual and the group form an ego system that transcends the life of the individual as the beliefs are passed to new generations. (Solomon, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, 2015).
Any conclusion or hypothesis – Individualism or Collectivism, Capitalism or Socialism, or Communism, Reincarnation, etc. – is a belief. By accepting a belief, you exclude all other forms of thinking. Belief in God does not mean understanding God. A mind tethered to a belief, hypothesis or conclusion – whether based on its own experience or the experience of others – cannot go far; it is not free but conditioned. Therefore, belief is a hindrance to understanding.– Krishnamurti
Becker’s self/ego system is a defense against uncertain and uncontrollable aspects of life, with death being the ultimate unsolvable problem confronting our deep and ancient DNA’s imperative for survival. This is the ultimate conundrum for all of humanity. In this sense then, Becker goes far beyond the sexual, cultural conflicts presented by Freud. He has come upon a core problem common to all, and the ancient solution has brought about the ubiquitous invention of self and ego in all of its endless variations of belief. He then goes on to say that beliefs put group/individual assemblies into conflict when biological survival is equated with group-belief survival. Life and death situations, when the ego is added into the survival equation, expand from fear laden concerns about physical survival to include fear laden concerns about psychological survival. The two have the same fear basis. Ego then is, in its whole, a defense system against memory held fear that uses psychological defense mechanisms to defend core beliefs, behaviors and lifestyles. So, it is implied that if one wants to surrender core beliefs, one must enter a no man’s land where one is unsure of inner and outer reality and there is a sense of the possibility of being overwhelmed by one’s fears.
“When people lose confidence in their core beliefs, they become literally ‘dis-illusioned’ because they lack a fundamental blueprint of reality. Without such a map, there is no basis for determining what behaviors are appropriate or desirable, leaving no way to plot a course to self-esteem” (Solomon, et. al., 2015, p. 914).
The supposition here is that the blueprint of reality is an illusion and its loss can bring about a psychological collapse. Becker’s views seem to bring psychology much closer to Krishnamurti’s definition of ego. I have never found a reference indicating Becker read Krishnamurti, but he certainly presents the ego/self as something much more ubiquitous and comprehensively dangerous than the Freudian view, which is in alignment with Krishnamurti’s position that the ego/self is a universal human invention prompted by and maintained by fear, which blinds us to our true condition and the solutions to the problems generated by the ego/self-system across the globe.
Meditation really is a complete emptying of the mind. Then there is only the functioning of the body; there is only the activity of the organism and nothing else; then thought functions without identification as the ‘me’ and the not-me. Thought is mechanical, as is the organism. What creates conflict is thought identifying itself with one of its parts which becomes the ‘me’, the self and the various divisions in that self. There is no need for the self at any time. There is nothing but the body and freedom of the mind can happen only when thought is not breeding the ‘me’. There is no self to understand but only the thought that creates the self. – Krishnamurti
When a group forms beliefs, these beliefs can set the group against outsiders holding differing views and beliefs. And tolerance between groups, like beauty, is only skin deep, because if a group’s beliefs are at odds with another group’s core beliefs, then the very existence of the outsider threatens to unmask the unreality of those beliefs that keep uncertainty and fear at bay. If there is enough physical and psychological security to go around, tolerance might be temporarily sustainable. It always helps, too, if the believer can maintain a smug sense of superiority over outsiders and see them as simply misguided. But that, of course, can motivate a group’s conversion efforts. Rather than killing them, let’s just kill their beliefs; once again, we will be safe and our victory proves we are right, and in that righteousness strengthens our beliefs. I am not just referring only to religious beliefs here, but also political, lifestyle and economic beliefs, among others. The outer threat is the communist or capitalist or socialist, the liberal or the conservative, and anyone who does not want to acquiesce to the in-group’s beliefs. A sense of superiority allows for the domination, exploitation or destruction of others, or the destruction of Nature, and so forth.
Congruence then does not just imply a form-fit connection with those with whom I agree and share a lifestyle, but it can be also a fit with those I disagree with. An adversarial fit creates a mutual relationship of fear, distrust, loathing and disregard, and, in so doing, defines and identifies both sides. Both puzzle pieces in this case need each other as a way of locating fears and uncertainties in an identifiable outer location. By locating the threat, there is something to work with, to attempt to change or destroy in order to make things right. Having someone outside to blame is so much better than vague feelings of inner insecurity and that gnawing sense of vaporous uncertainty haunting every day from within, saying maybe something is wrong with us. If the threat is outside, there is an opportunity for change without challenging the sense of who we are. But, if inside, that is as a much bigger dilemma that threatens to strip away identity’s psychological comforts. Furthermore, locating the threat as outside can be enjoyed by both sides of the conflict’s congruent fit. This is a relationship formed by the same defense mechanisms used at the individual level. In an odd but real sense, an individual or group’s adversaries are also an intimate and desired part of the ego’s need for invidious comparisons, as well as a need for drama and struggle as a preoccupation.
Krishnamurti began his independent speaking career in the late 1920s during Freud’s ascendency, and from the onset, he took a singular and radical position concerning the nature of the self, the condition of the world and possible remedies for problems in the human world. He said, “You are the world and the world is you,” and that “you” was the source of a great deal of suffering for both individuals and for humanity in general. He rejected the popular position that the application of new outward social and political ideas would solve those problems, including psychotherapy. For many decades, Krishnamurti was a voice in the wilderness who gathered a few ardent followers, while the rest of the world went about fighting an economic depression and a world war. After the victory, optimism flew skyward and the United States was at its zenith. The mood was that the U.S. had all the answers and that our formula for democratic capitalism made us superior. It was a buoyant, iconoclastic and patriotic time and, being American, it was also the time of the “rugged individualist” and “the self-made man” who could solve any problem. Krishnamurti’s position, which he adhered to without waver, was fundamentally different. His view was that the self made us somehow universal and that we were all responsible for many intransigent human problems because they stemmed from that self. As such, the only possible answer had to lie within. Logically, then, the only possible solution and starting place was a journey.
So this is the first thing to realize: that it is absolutely essential to know yourself, otherwise you have no basis for thought at all. You may be very erudite and have a big position, but that is all nonsense as long as you do not know yourself, because you will be walking in darkness.
"To understand yourself there must be an awareness, a watchfulness, a state of observation in which there is not a trace of condemnation or justification; and to be in that state of observation without judging is an extraordinarily arduous task, because the weight of tradition is against you; your mind has been trained for centuries to judge, to condemn, to justify, to evaluate, to accept or deny. Don’t say “How am I to get rid of this conditioning?”, but see the truth that if you want to understand yourself, which is obviously of the highest importance, you must observe the operation of your own mind without any condemnation or comparison."
It would not be until the 1960's that cracks in the American Dream would start to appear. The Vietnam War, industrial pollution, racism and the male domination of women gained attention, along with Becker and a book called The Limits to Growth, a study by scientists that suggested a civilization based on growth was inherently unstable and unsustainable. It was the beginning of doubt concerning the nature of the world that we had so recently assembled. It was also a time of greatly expanded attendance at Krishnamurti’s talks. I was one of the persons there, and it might be hard for younger people to imagine the impact of this man’s words when he proposed that there was a fundamental problem in the operation of human consciousness. After all, my generation had grown up being told our nation had all the answers and all we had to do was to give ourselves to this national belief and lifestyle system. Join up, become educated to serve capitalism, or join the military and save democracy in Vietnam. What a relief to finally hear someone say that what we were offered as answers were not answers at all, that beliefs were dangerous and part of the problem and that inner freedom was essential both for looking at the problems as well seeking answers. The proposed answers from the various belief centered organizations were actually growing problems in disguise, offered by glib promoters of belief and manipulators of public opinion.
Now, decades after Krishnamurti’s death in 1986, humanity is even more deeply fractured and mired in problems. Our world population has doubled, and there are some, especially scientists, saying we are perched on a precipice, as we face a deteriorating global environment and increasing economic, political and social instability. The answers proposed and initiated after the Second World War are increasingly spawning dangerous problems. Krishnamurti’s proposal still remains. Is the core of the problem with us, each of us, and is the only hope to a solution to undertake a journey within to carefully examine this strange phenomenon called self and ego?
In the next section, we will investigate what the very new science of the brain has to say concerning whether the self is a real physical location in the brain or not, and how the brain creates its reality. Evidence may have been gathered from this research that can shed light on the nature of self and if it is truly as dangerous as Krishnamurti proposed.
The Immeasurable, Article by Robert F. Steele, MA
Robert is a retired mental health counselor and lifetime student of Krishnamurti
Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death.
Freud, A. (1937). Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense.
Freud, S. (1952). Major Works.
Freud, S. (1973). Abstracts of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.
Vaillant, G. E. (1977). Adaptations of Life.
Vaillant, G. E. (1993). The Wisdom of the Ego.
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