Let’s talk about the spiritual ego and how to dismantle it.
Rather than viewing the spiritual ego as a single kind of personality, I see it as a phenomenon that shows up as different characters, as subpersonalities, as mini-egos that hijack Truth to serve their own ends, thus distorting pure spiritual wisdom.
I’ve come across six types in my time, and here are my quirky names for them: the Theoriser, the Mean Monk, the Hippy, the Introspective, the Hermit, and the Prophet.
A little disclaimer before we begin: I’m on the path, and I’m not particularly enlightened. There are dozens or hundreds of people out there with deeper embodiment than me. All of my conclusions are merely works in progress. That said, I’ve been around enough to meet these various characters both in myself and in others.
What is the Spiritual Ego?
We fall into spiritual ego whenever we use spiritual knowledge and teachings to bolster ourselves rather than self-transcend and directly contact deep wisdom.
It’s when we mistake teachings and guidance for true first-hand contact with the realities they are pointing to, when we mistake the finger for the moon. It’s mistaking cool catchphrases and sexy language for real, direct experience.
From another point of view, our natural tendency with all knowledge is to analyse and cognise rather than live and embody. The spiritual ego, in all its forms, is an overanalysis, an overcognising of spiritual teachings.
We’re all capable of spiritual ego because it takes a lot of time and practice to truly embody spiritual awareness. Often our growth comes in fits and starts, and after deep insight we’re usually left with memories and ideas rather than permanent contact. Naturally, we cling on to words and concepts and enjoy talking about our insights rather than continually embodying them moment by moment.
Blend this with ordinary human tendencies like learning, theorising, connecting, dominating, and denying, and we end up with the several characters that we’re about to meet.
The Nuances of Spiritual Ego
As we explore these characters, I want you to realise that it’s inevitable you’ll fall into one or more of them at some point on your path.
Contemplative practice changes you in surprising ways – neurologically, biologically, psychologically, philosophically. You slowly become an embodied spiritual being.
This is fantastic, but we fall into spiritual ego when we get obsessed with this growth and change and forget that spirituality is more a stripping back, a return home, a death, rather than a building up or a going somewhere. We’re fascinated with building up our human identity rather than stripping it back.
The trick is our level of attachment. Do we become obsessed with the teachings, hijack them, and fail to really see what is being taught, or do we take them with a light touch, knowing that the only real spiritual transformation is internal, invisible?
Let’s look at the six main kinds.
The Main Kinds of Spiritual Ego
If you are yet to meet these characters, rest assured that you will at some point have the pleasure or misfortune to meet them in yourself and others. The good news? You’ll know about them and can prepare in advance.
Think of the theoriser as the great scholar. It has been around the block 500 times, studying all kinds of schools and theories. It has so much knowledge that it believes it has understood the spiritual path, and enjoys theorising, debating and philosophising. This takes it out of direct experience.
The Mean Monk
This character has genuine embodiment, but it becomes arrogant and overbearing. It starts preaching and converting, talking down to others, and acting like a dictator. It forgets the social-emotional dimension of life and believing it’s doing what’s best for its victims.
This character loves incense, good vibes, calm, and community. It believes the goal of spirituality is to connect, find peace and love, and save the planet, and it finds plenty justification for this in the deepest esoteric teachings. Committed practice gives way to feelings, positive experiences and political protests.
This character believes the point of the contemplative path is to undo all our psychological knots and become a clean, free, liberated human. It journals, analyses itself, and becomes hyperaware of thoughts and emotions. It understands the mind’s workings to extraordinary degrees yet never really transcends it.
My partner had a sudden insight into this brand of spiritual ego when she missed a train to London by a few seconds. She was spontaneously able to see her mind as simply a bunch of mental phenomenon. Until that point, she had tried so hard to polish her sense of identity and psychology, without at any point seeing through or beyond the mind.
This character does nothing but read spiritual books and discuss spiritual topics. It can’t stand people who doesn’t share its enthusiasm. Though this character may have deep embodiment, it grabs on too tightly.
It creates an identity of “me and the awakened people” vs “the non-awakened people”, hiding away, hating the world and believing that spirituality is the answer to all our problems. It becomes aloof and can’t hold normal daily conversations without getting all spiritual on you.
This is perhaps the trickiest of the lot. This character believes it’s the next Jesus. It wears monk’s robes and shaves its head. It believes it has arrived and has nothing more to learn. Then it becomes a teacher, aiming to save humanity from the tortures of hell. In all this, it subtly forgets that spirituality is about learning to identify with the divine, rather than spiritualising the self.
Here’s a quick visual summary of these six characters.
How to Destroy the Spiritual Ego
It might be disheartening to hear about the many ways we can fall into spiritual ego, but there is a simple antidote.
We destroy the spiritual ego by realising it’s just another phenomenon in our awareness. As such, it is impermanent, transitory, and unreal. It is but a mirage on the sea of our awareness, our true, limitless, nothingless self.
In the very moment we notice the spiritual ego come up, we dismantle it and come to rest in our true empty self. We realise that nothing – no sights, no sounds, no impulses, no thoughts, no sensory impressions at all – is outside us.
Whenever you want to fall into one of these characters, ask yourself: can you penetrate to the core of these teachings? Can you experience their truth in your first-person world? Can you take it all with dead seriousness yet utter playfulness? That should help you avoid the trap.
“bit by bit, you might become more of a proselytizer than a practitioner. The more you talk, the more energy you dissipate that might serve you better if it went into your practice.”
“when the impulse arises to talk about how wonderful meditation is and how much you are benefiting from it, it’s best to keep silent and sit some more.”Jon Kabat-Zinn
True Spiritual Growth
Let me say that spiritual growth is a spectrum. I have a long way to travel. But more and more I can contact the deep truths I’m exposed to, and I see the essence of the path.
True spiritual growth is both a process of ego growth and ego death. These two dimensions form a paradox that is the heart of the contemplative path.
On one hand, we expand and change. There’s no doubt that prolonged spiritual practice brings positive objective changes. It’s now confirmed by gold-standard science. And this change is apparent to oneself too. Time and again on the spiritual path, your growth sneaks up on you, and you are joyously shocked by just how much you have changed.
On the other hand, the path is remarkably humbling. It’s less to do with climbing a mountain than to do with death, coming home, holding in awareness, deeply processing. Rather than building yourself up and becoming a spiritual somebody, you see that you truly are a Nobody. A beautiful, empty, translucent nobody.
It is seeing that nothing is outside you: the world is in you, through you, a giant web of being. And that the “you” that you thought was solid and that you defended with all your might is nothing but a construction.
The desire to share your insights with others is legitimate, so long it comes from a place of kindness and generosity. Thank goodness we have this desire so that we can pass on these insights to others.
Still, you remain a human being with all your human stuff, and you must live out this life as best you can. See it as a service to God.
Just don’t get obsessed with your-self or the path. Make sure you see it as a video game, otherwise you’ll forever be stuck in the Prophet or the Hermit. You have this character, you are not the character. Enjoy it.
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