What does it mean to give up ones ego?
First, let me tell you why I’m presenting this question and how it came about.
I’m part of a very small group of experimental hypnotists and behavioral engineers, wanting to test the limits of hypnosis and safely share the results. The discussion came to how Charles Manson was able to convince smart, young people to commit mass murder. One method Manson used was on emphasizing the importance of “giving up the ego” to attain greater spiritual understanding.
This is a common theme in many spiritual movements. There are reasons giving up the ego can be of benefit and there are reason it can be dangerous and easily abused.
Let’s go as deep as we can to explore this concept and it’s consequences, both good and bad.
What is the ego, first of all?
The ego is anything you recognize as “you”. Any time you say the words “I”, “me”, “my” or “mine” your ego is present. The ego is essentially your personal identity and contains your wants, hopes, desires, memories, ambitions, fears and aversions. It also contains everything you recognize about the world.
The power of the ego is in its ability to make act without thinking. These actions are the result of social programming by parents, peers and culture as well as personal experiences both pleasant and traumatic. The ego helps us navigate the world around us but it also limits many of our actions. Anytime we go against what are ego says we should do we feel “that’s just not me”. Thus actions dictated by the ego seem natural and those contrary to the ego seem alien and sometimes offensively repellent.
So why do some spiritual movement insist on destroying the ego?
In eastern mystical traditions where a gurus acts as divine teachers the students are asked to follow the guru’s instructions without question. If the guru is truly wise, kind, compassionate and truly guided by a selfless desire to benefit others the student will receive all the benefit of their teachings without understanding why they are being taught. The guru may ask the student to do something difficult and uncomfortable but the student knows at some time in the future it will all make sense. They will receive the benefit and wisdom and be made better by doing so.
In this context the student is asked to “give up the ego” they also give up fear, limiting beliefs and internal resistance and aversions and in so doing be remade. Thus they can gain spiritual understanding quickly through experience guided by their guru.
It should be noted that in the case mentioned above this is culturally accepted. In western cultures it is less accepted but has similarities, for example, when a person takes monastic vows in Catholicism.
The downside of giving up ones ego should seem obvious; anyone who gives up their ego can potentially be exploited to do anything… ANYTHING. Charles Manson knew this and took it to it’s limits. Using a spiritual context he insisted his followers give up their egos. In so doing they gave up all connection to the past, they gave up all association to existing values, all cultural norms, they gave up all fear and hesitation. At that point asking them to commit murder was nothing.
An alternative to giving up ego is possible.
An alternative to this process begins with understanding the ego and following it. The ego will reveal what is most interesting and desirable. It will provide what you want to do and focus on. By following what your ego provides it will reveal your limitations in the form of fears, anxieties, aversions and frustrations. These should not be avoided but recognized and explored.
By following your ego and willingly confronting the unpleasantness it reveals what to examine. Those things that don’t feel natural could be just the weakness to be strengthened or the obstacle to overcome.
If you want read more about how Charles Manson used manipulated people read Building Your Cult – 2nd Edition by Dantalion Jones (aka David Barron)