“Ego and Gratitude” ~ Rev. Christine Kell
Is there room for both Ego and Gratitude on the spiritual path? Can our ego actually encourage gratefulness? Can we keep the ego from attaching itself to our feelings of gratitude, or is gratitude a feeling separate from the self? Join us Sunday as we explore the topic of Ego and Gratitude.
A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the Deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings and songs from this week’s service are provided below.
Community Circles Discussion Guide – View & Download
By Rabbi Chaim Stern, A prayer of wonder, and awe, the building blocks of gratefulness.
Days pass and the years vanish
And I walk sightless among miracles.
Eternal God, fill my eyes with seeing
And my mind with knowing;
Let there be moments when
The lightening of your presence
Illumines the darkness in which I walk.
Help me to see, wherever I gaze,
A world aflame with the wonder of your presence.
And I, clay touched by God,
Will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder
Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!
Prayer for healing and peace (Anon.)
in love you have fashioned the human family
and made us so different, so that we may know each other.
Do not let our diversity divide us,
but help us to welcome gifts
we can give and receive from one another.
Save us from prejudice, arrogance and fear,
and teach us how to live together
as members of one family,
sharing one home,
and the children of one God. Amen.
“Ego and Gratitude” with Rev. Christine Kell
Nov 8, 2020
Good morning. It’s great to be back here with my family at One World and our friends out in Zoomland. I always enjoy the One World gatherings whatever the format, and it has been especially fun lately since we are meeting so many more new people from around the world. I appreciate being here, and I am happy for the opportunity to speak to you this morning.
Today’s talk is about the relationship between Ego and Gratitude. I’d been thinking about this topic for a few weeks, and since our theme this month is all about gratitude, it was easy to imagine a discussion that put these two seemingly opposite states of being in the same conversation.
But when it came time to actually put my thoughts in order, I realized three important things. First, even though the last couple of talks I presented touched on how the ego influences our lives as we grow older, I realized I really did not know a whole lot about what the ego is. Second, I became aware that I was not sure how I felt about the concept of gratitude, or if I even truly know what it means to be grateful. And third, I had a lot of preparing to do.
Gratitude is an important – and in today’s world – an especially timely topic that is discussed quite frequently, not only at One World, but also by spiritual teachers everywhere. So where else should I start but by reviewing Rev. Melanie’s talk last Sunday in which she discussed how the energy of gratitude reflects the truth of our being and gives us a way of seeing all the world as holy?
I also went a couple of weeks back to listen to Asha’s delightful talk about befriending darkness, especially when she referred to Jung’s theory that our shadow represents a moral problem that challenges the ego personality. According to this concept, it takes considerable effort to become conscious of the shadow, accept our darker aspects of personality as present and real, and then integrate them into a whole, unified, and enlightened being.
And by the way, if you missed these talks, they are available through a link found on the One World website, and they are well worth the few minutes it takes to listen.
Finally, I did a great deal of reading, and today I want to share with you my thoughts about ego and gratitude and whether these two states of being are compatible or if they are completely contradictory.
Now, I am not a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a therapist. However, my opinion is that the ego part of us and the spiritual part of us are not exclusive or opposed to one another. After all, if we ascribe to the belief that all humans are created in the divine image, then we must also accept that all parts of us – and that would include our ego – are created divinely, equally, and with noble purpose, because God cannot create anything that is not good or that is designed to be harmful to us. Which made me wonder why ego gets such a bad rap so much of the time, not only in everyday conversation, but also in popular culture as well as academic discourse, political commentary, and the writings and teachings of many popular spiritual pundits.
So, I went looking for information that would either tell me I was completely off-track, or whether there might be some validity to my idea that ego, which is primarily concerned with the outer self, is not all bad and that it can co-exist with gratitude, a quality associated with the inner self.
Now, I realize I am venturing into very deep waters here, making my way around at the speed of a dog-paddle rather than a deep dive. And because I am not a professional when it comes to either ego or gratitude, most of what I will relate to you this morning is based on what I found in my own reading. But it is what makes sense to me, and I offer it only as my perspective – not professional opinion – with the hope that it might get you to think about your own understandings of ego, gratitude, and the relationship between the two.
As usual, I want to start off by offering my working definitions of the main subjects, ego and gratitude, starting with ego.
Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, states that The concept of “ego” is among the most confusing in psychology. According to Leary, put simply the English word “ego” is the Latin word for “I.” So, literally translated, ego means “I.”
The use of the term “ego” crept into psychology mostly through the work of Sigmund Freud. In Freud’s theory, the ego is defined as the part of the personality that arbitrates between the animalistic desires of the “id” and the moral and social standards of the “superego.” Interestingly, the word, “ego” does not appear anywhere in Freud’s writings. He never used it. Rather, ego was a translation of what Freud, writing in German, called “das Ich”— literally, “the I.” In essence, Freud was referring to that conscious, decision-making thought form that we regard as “I,” as when we say “I dislike my teacher” or “I decided to change jobs” or “I dreamt that my house was on fire last night.”
These three personality elements just mentioned – the id, the ego, and the superego – are further defined by mind development researcher and teacher Gregory Mitchell as follows:
The Id is the part of the psyche that is totally unconscious and serves as the source of instinctual impulses and demands for immediate satisfaction of primitive needs. Such desires seek satisfaction in accordance with the pleasure principle and are modified by the Ego and the Superego before they are given overt expression. It is my observation that, when attributing negative actions and feelings to the ego, a lot of people are actually describing the demands and immature expression of the Id.
The Ego is that part of the personality which is experienced as being oneself, our image – that which we recognize as I, me and mine; ego is our face to the world.
Superego is that part of the personality which influences self-observation, self-criticism, and other moral and reflective activities.
Professor Elizabeth Lunbeck of Harvard describes these three personality traits with a touch of humor. She suggests that if we type the string of words “id ego superego” into a Google search box, we might get images of The Simpsons: Homer Simpson to represent the id as he is motivated by pleasure and characterized by unbridled desire. Marge stands for the ego, controlled and bound to reality; and Lisa embodies the superego, the family’s stubborn and obstinate conscience.
She goes on to say that if we add “politics” to the search string – and this is not meant as a personal commentary on any political figure – we’ll find sites advancing the argument that Donald Trump’s ego is fragile and needy but also immense and raging; his allure is based on his appeal to our collective id, that is, our desire to be free of the strictures of law and morality and allowed to grab whatever we please. Barack Obama, on the other hand, in this example occupies the position of benign superego: incorruptible, cautious, and given to moralizing, the embodiment of our highest ideas and values but, in the end, limiting and not much fun.
Mitchell reminds us that no one is born with an Ego, and being born without any sense of Ego means that at first there is no ‘I,’ no me, no mine. Gradually, as we grow and interact with the world, we begin developing a sense of self while working through several stages of Ego development.
During early childhood, the Superego acts as a very restrictive parent to control the basic primitive urges produced by the id. Unless normal development is delayed or impeded, this control gradually passes from the Superego to the Ego until a stage is reached where the Ego is no longer reliant on the Superego and has total charge of the personality. This mature Ego creates his or her own moral code and relies on his or her own sense of right and wrong, based on rational and objective analysis.
As our minds develop, our lives, and therefore our thinking, become more complex. The Ego’s job is to contain and direct the passions, and to do that we need a correspondingly fully developed ego. A strong Ego can tolerate stress and frustration and deal with reality without falling back to infantile defense mechanisms. The stronger our Ego grows, the more of a sense of self we develop, and the greater our skills to handle whatever happens become.
Ego development is designed to progress through several levels of growth towards full maturity. The higher levels of development are associated with greater recognition of the negative aspects of self, and there is a willingness to engage in introspection and come to terms with Shadow aspects of the personality. But the problem is, sometimes the ego keeps getting stronger without corresponding maturity. The higher stages of ego development are very often never attained, and in that case the dark side of our personality and the behaviors associated with it have an opportunity to flourish and act out.
However, in a fully-realized person the Ego has resolved and substantially let go of its inner conflicts between the Id and Superego, the dark and the light. Accomplishing such a mature state of Being is challenging and often threatening to the ego, thus requiring what Asha so aptly described as “a lot of work.” As she said, we must be willing to look deeper at the shadow and spend time in self-exploration and contemplation as a condition of self-knowledge and the attainment of a fully mature, authentic, self-directed, and inner-directed human being.
Okay, so what does all this dry, long drawn out explanation of the ego have to do with gratefulness and gratitude? How do they connect, and can they co-exist?
Well, for starters, spiritual intelligence relates closely to Ego development. Those individuals who reach the highest levels of ego maturity begin a radical shift from dependence on others’ spiritual beliefs to development of their own. Progressing further, these individuals still rely on their own views but move from self-preoccupation to also consider others’ points of view and integrate them if appropriate. They tend to be more tolerant and start to consider serving others. They begin to search for universal values such as unconditional love, compassion, and justice. This stage of ego development is a form of spiritual intelligence, and it requires an Ego which has integrated the Id and the Superego into a self-directed personality that recognizes both the light and the dark sides, the inner and outer aspects of self.
Eckhart Tolle tells us the ego always has to have an identity, an “I,” and if we take away one image another will take its place. The content of the image, the ego’s thought form, may change, but the structure of the ego does not. It is always about self-image or sense of being, satisfying our needs and desires.
This brings us to gratefulness and gratitude and how they relate to the ego. According to Angeles Arrien, we each have the ability to shift our awareness to one of “grateful seeing”— noticing first what is working in our lives before dwelling on our challenges and burdens, or on what we lack or desire but have not yet attained. She states that through conscious and sustained practice over a period of time, we can discover how gratefulness and all its related qualities—thankfulness, appreciation, compassion, generosity, grace, and so many other positive states—can become integrated and embodied in our lives.
This state of consciousness Arrien describes is only possible when the ego has reached the highest level of integration of the id and the superego with the Ego, when our sense of being has shifted from satisfying immature, primal urges and to a fully mature, conscious ego whose self-image is more about universal values and serving others.
In his teachings, the Indian mystic and spiritual leader commonly known as Osho makes a distinction between gratefulness and gratitude and how they interact with ego.
He teaches that gratefulness simply means thankfulness; a thought that comes directly from the ego as an expression of thankfulness for the satisfaction of some known or unknown desire. We experience gratefulness because deep down we want something, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, and it has been given to us. Some desire has been gratified whether we asked for it or not, so we feel an inner thankfulness, and we outwardly express this thought to the person who has fulfilled the desire.
When we are grateful, we are grateful to something or somebody: our parents, friends, the Universe. Gratefulness is a measurable quantity, and our ego determines if and how grateful we feel in any particular instance.
Osho sees gratitude in a totally different context. Gratitude has neither outward nor inward object. It is not an expression directed to anybody, it does not come from a gratification of any desire, and it does not require any thought. Gratitude just is. It comes from the very source of our being. It comes, as Rev. Melanie said, when we can’t know what it out there ahead of us, but we just know the Universe is powered by love and the world is good.
Gratitude is the greatest experience that we can have; gratitude not to anybody or anything in particular, simply gratitude for our whole existence and the glorious splendor that is everywhere.
This is not to say that feeling thankful and expressing gratefulness is not beneficial. Feeling grateful is transformative; it changes our being and invites even more reasons for our thankfulness. Search for causes to be grateful and we will find them everywhere. Look for reasons to celebrate, and slowly, gratefulness turns to gratitude, and each deeply felt gratitude transforms us. Gratitude makes us aware of the stillness, invites us to live in the present. As Brother David tells us,
“Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy — because we will always want to have something else or something more.”
Mitchell tells us the Ego is only a barrier to spiritual insight when it is weak and full of mental distortions and conflict – when it envelopes all the available attention so the inner being cannot function. The weaker the ego-strength, the less we will engage reality and the more we will flee to superstition, wishing rather than acting, and to giving free rein to our worst impulses.
A mature and fully developed ego, on the other hand, reaches a transpersonal perspective where the old barriers no longer confine us and the old fears no longer constrict or claim us. We have determined a truth within that includes all that is and we are no longer exclusively identified with the “I” self, the Ego.
The consistent practice of gratefulness leads to a deep state of gratitude, and in gratitude, the ego disappears all together. As we are filled with gratitude, the demands of the ego lessen and we turn our whole being towards the Divine.
So, are ego and gratitude mutually exclusive? My answer is no. I’ve learned that ego and gratitude are mutually enhancing, one preparing the way for the other. On the spiritual path to enlightenment, my ego can point me in the right direction through conscious, life-affirming choices and expressions of gratefulness for . . well, for everything. And as gratitude grows, ego diminishes and grace fills up the space where it was.
Gratefulness is a thought, an outward expression of a mature ego. Gratitude is a state of Being in which we see and feel Spirit moving both within and without. Gratitude opens us to freedom, a sense of generosity, and connection to the wider world. It is the awareness that we stand on holy ground. With gratitude, our whole being becomes a thanksgiving, a prayer –– because nothing is missing, and the world is perfect, and everything is as it should be.
Thank you. I appreciate you, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today.
Today’s reading is from Osho, a 20th century Indian mystic.
Gratitude arises whenever you start feeling God’s presence around you; then only gratitude is left. Then your whole energy becomes gratitude, then your whole being becomes a thanksgiving, it becomes a prayer –– because nothing is missing, and the world is so perfect, and everything is as it should be. Gratitude is natural. Gratitude is not something that can be practiced. You have been taught to be grateful; you cannot be. Gratefulness is a consequence; when you feel God close by, gratitude arises. It is a by-product. Respect arises. This respect is not something that you manage, it is something beyond you. You have been taught to be grateful to your parents, taught to be grateful to your teachers, taught to be grateful to your elders, but those are all just conditionings. When real gratitude arises, then you see what a tremendous difference there is. The gratitude that was taught was just a concept, a dead ritual. You were following it like a mechanism. When the real gratitude upsurges in your being, you feel for the first time what prayer is, what love is.
“God Is My Source” written by Karen Drucker
“Good Life” written by Michael Orlin
This service aired on November 8, 2020.