"It is important to remember that my worst defects are also my greatest assets..."
A NEW VERSION OF ORIGINAL SIN
In his recent book, A New Earth, Eckhardt Tolle speaks of the human ego as being defective, dysfunctional, mad and sick. He refers to the ‘false ego’ as a hindrance to knowing your ‘true Being.’ The human ego is opposed to real spirituality, with the two fighting against each other. Tolle is not alone in his Ego Versus Spirit warfare analogy. This idea goes way back to the Bhagavad Gita as the soul’s journey is likened to a great, internal civil war. The Apostle Paul said it like this in the Bible:
“…I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin (my ego). I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do… I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the wrong I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin (my ego) living in me that does it.” Romans 7:14-20
If you change Paul’s word ‘sin’ to ‘ego,’ we find that Tolle and other modern New Age teachers agree with Paul by making our indwelling ego the arch villain in the spiritual life. In fact, Tolle calls the sick ego our ‘inherited dysfunction,’ which is just a more up to date way of saying ‘original sin.’ Tolle even goes so far as to sympathize and even agree with the doctrine of original sin when he says, “…the term (original sin), when stripped of its cultural baggage and misinterpretations, points to the dysfunction inherent in the human condition.” (A New Earth, p.9)
Is this assessment of the ego as our inherited enemy accurate and helpful? Are my egoistic defects and dysfunctions opposed to Spirit? Is the ego my ‘false being’ generated by human brain cells and and the insane human self will, fighting against my ‘True Being’?
THE EGO AS A DIVINE GIFT
While I recognize that all forays into these difficult psycho-spiritual matters can use only limited metaphors and analogies, I am afraid that we are getting too lopsided in our vilification of the ego. The ego is not primarily our arch enemy, but is a gift of God for making souls.
It is important to remember that my worst defects are also my greatest assets. Just as the seed pod is both a hindrance and a container for the roots and stem of a flower, so my ego is BOTH a container and a hindrance to my spiritual life. This is not just some cute literary analogy, but an observation gained from years of wrestling back and forth between depressing guilt and careless lethargy in my own growth process. If I get too obsessed with my egoistic defects and dysfunctional behaviors, I can become so overwhelmed with my shortcomings that I become miserable and fixated on how flawed I am. That may have been one reason so many saints and mystics experienced such deep depression and their ‘dark nights of the soul.’ They were trying, sometimes needlessly, to fight their very nature - to resist the gift of God's creative 'defects'. The other extreme is to completely ignore my selfishness and debilitating ego; then I become careless, selfish, inconsiderate, useless and unhappy.
THE FUNCTION OF DYSFUNCTION
We need to see the ego as God's container for making a large soul, defects and all. Afterall, we are the ones labeling certain traits as defects and dysfunctions. And our conclusions are based on what we, with limited knowledge, determine to be bad results. Mold on cantaloupes was thought to be defective and dysfunctional until it was discovered that they contained life healing bacteria called penicillin. Comet impacts on earth were thought to be dysfunctional until we discovered that our dry planet was probably filled with life giving water by such catastrophic 'disasters'.
Inside that pod called Michael's ego are potential roots, the stem and nascent flower of what God wants me to become. Jung called this ego-pod the dark unconscious, the container of my potential and actual wholeness. Wholeness is not just something to be realized, but is simultaneously complete and incomplete. The ego-pod is whole and incomplete, just like a flowering seed pod. In my ego I am simultaneously whole and not whole.
SIMULTANEOUSLY A BENEFIT AND A HINDRANCE
The seed pod, like the ego, is neither dysfunctional nor false at this level of the metaphor, even though it seems to be hindering and fighting against the expansion of the flower. The restrictive and suffocating husk must be cracked open and shed, and it is also the perfect container. As Jesus said, "The kernel of wheat must die that the fruit may emerge." But Jesus never disparaged the wheat seed by calling it dysfunctional or false. ‘True Being’ is going on as perfectly in the darkness as it is in the light, and if not on this planet, then on another plane or dimension beyond this life. That is a great apologetic for immortality or continuation of soul-making beyond this life.
The seed pod cracking apart in the dark soil, struggling to put down tiny roots is as much a part of the spiritual process of ‘Being’ as the seed poking its head through the soil into the light and opening its silky petals to the warm sun. James Hillman puts it like this, “We must grow down in order to grow up.” Both are normal and necessary.
The ego is God’s divine gift, simultaneously containing and hindering individual and global soul-making. Socially collective egos can be embraced as multi-cultural expressions of diversity and variety, and at the same time be opposed as multi-cultural bigotries and socio-religious obstacles to planetary expansion. Individual and communal egos must crack apart. We must put down painful invisible roots before we can grow into the light and blossom. The whole process is spiritual.
TOLLE RECOGNIZES THE NECESSITY OF EGO
In all fairness, Tolle does recognize this paradox of ego as containing AND hindering soulful expansion when he writes, without the suffering caused by ego we “would not evolve as human beings…Suffering drives you deeper. The paradox is that suffering is caused by identification with form AND (my emphasis) erodes identification with form…eventually suffering destroys the ego – but not until you suffer consciously.” (A New Earth, p.102)
This is a brilliant and critical observation, deserving of a whole chapter. However, I am afraid that he spends so much time discussing the dysfunctional and false aspect of ego that he may leave his readers with an unnecessary load of guilt, shame and a generally negative view of God’s amazing human ego as the seed pod of soul-making.
Tolle's book is a great work, even if imbalanced and in danger of leaving the reader in a state of New Age guilt and inadequacy. Christian theology has been doing that for centuries and has still brought great spiritual benefits to humanity.
CONCLUSION: WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY?
Lastly, I think it is unfortunate that the word 'spiritual' is often not used these days for all of life’s experiences. We tend to think only of the ‘enlightened’ moments as truly spiritual. We need to see that being ‘endarkened’ and times of being ‘unconscious’ are equally as spiritual, containing their own kind of necessary revelations and kinds of consciousness. Depression, grief, fear, anxiety and other such emotions always contain and/or move us into soul-making awareness. Our powerlessness to addiction is spiritual, our failures and admission of such failures are spiritual moments, the process of atheistic denial and agnostic skepticism are spiritual experiences. The classical Damascus Road moment of ‘spiritual awakening' may or may not come later, but the whole process of light and dark, function and dysfunction, ‘false ego’ and ‘True Being’, is Spirit or God or Soul unfolding.
The Hebrew Psalmist beautifully put it like this:
"Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your Presence? If I go up to the Heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the Depths of Hell, you are there. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you. The night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.” Psalm 139