The Limits of the Ego and the Benefits of a Higher Power

by Alan McAllister, CCHt PhD-phys

The ego being what it is; a mental level model of ourselves and our world, it is by its nature limited by our experience in this life, and by the necessity that models are simpler than that which they model.

A limited ego will inevitably come upon events that are beyond its power to deal with. What these are will vary for each of us, and some things that will devastate one person will leave another barely touched. In cases where the new experience barely pushes the limits of the previous experience, the ego may adapt a little and grow. But when new events are significantly or overwhelmingly outside the limits of the ego, either in content or intensity then “bad” things happen.

The ego often believes it is meant to manage everything, and so will try to manage all new events, fitting them into an accepted existing framework, which is in fact the ego itself. It is generally very loath to let something go, even when it is overwhelming.

When things are too much in any way, or simply unfathomable, then the ego can go into a variety of defense mechanisms. In denial we are then left with parts of our experience, indeed of ourselves, that are “lost” or submerged. It may try to redefine the experience in a way that limits the damage. It may dissociate, i.e. our awareness can leave our body and either view things from a distance, or go away altogether. The classic technique is fainting, shock is another.

In all cases judgement is involved, and generally a negative one. This may be on any level, from physical to spiritual, and may be either externally directed or reflexive, or both. In fact previous judgements, or pillars of our ego-model, are often that very things that prevent us from letting matters be. In some cases we hold onto these core judgements so strongly that the whole structure breaks and comes crashing down.

It doesn’t help that we are taught that we ought to be able to walk through anything and come out unchanged. Or perhaps we are taught that we can’t do something at all, which leads to easier breakdowns. There is a historical male/female aspect to this programming; which is part of why men are more prone to denial of their emotions, and women were supposed to be more prone to fainting or hysteria. In the end it is the emotional charge on the experience and/or the threatened aspects of the ego that determine the battlefield and the damages.

Now consider that when faced with something new and perhaps overwhelming, we have the option to put the ego aside and just be present with events. We can do this by surrendering the situation to a “higher power”. Calling in our “higher self”, our spiritual guides, the Saints, Spirit, or God. On the battlefield soldiers have experiences of suddenly merging with the cosmos in the midst of certain death. Athletes who perform in “the zone” are doing something like this as well, moving things to another level of being which is beyond the normal ego state. It is certain that the use of a “higher power” in AA or similar programs is insisted on for just these reasons.

We, as spiritual beings, are larger and stronger than our limited ego selves. If we can suspend judgement, the need to control, fix, manage the outcome, etc. we let go of much of the conflict. By allowing the ego to step aside for a while, and saying essentially that this is too much for it, we release it from the need to try to handle a situation that it may not be suitable for.

It is important that this is different from fainting or dissociation; we are still present, just operating from a different, larger level of our being. This level is more capable of simply being present, and letting the understanding and sorting out wait for later. It has been said the difference between fiction and fact is that fiction has to make sense. The events of our lives may not make sense to us either at the time or even later, not that that keeps the ego from attempting to integrate them.

When we let go of ego and accept a higher power, our own or otherwise, we also can call in that infinite source of strength that we are all a part of as spiritual beings. Again we take things to a different level, a larger more powerful level, which both has more energy and more tools for coping with the experience as it happens, but is also not going to get hung up on preventing events from happening and unfolding. This level is beyond the judgements of the ego and ironically can therefore help the ego to survive, to handle change at its own pace, at a later time.

Most trauma therapy involves, in one way or another, going back to the various “memories” of the original events and bringing in the higher self or other higher power to give context after the fact. If we are able to let go of our ego in the moment, and call in a higher power then we can reduce the tension and struggle, lessen the trauma, give ourselves permission to stretch out the process of ego growth or adjustment. Occasionally we may even have to put things permanently into a region of experience that is outside of the ego, but perhaps we can do it without loosing consciousness of it, and thus a part of ourselves.

As with all things, there are levels of surrender, levels of shifting consciousness, of growing to encompass events in a coherent way. We will still need to work with some people after the fact, perhaps even those who can apply these methods, as eventually the ego level will have to come to terms in some way with the experiences. But the more we can experience them and hold them in the larger being, or let them be held by the universe as a whole, we take the pressure off the ego to move to far too fast. It can work on them, or leave them alone as is appropriate, without splitting them off entirely, or covering them in unconsciousness, or shattering under the strain. It can continue to function and do its job (even if that is more limited than it has been taught to conceive of).

The key is to be able to know when to say “this is bigger than me (at least for now) and I can use some help”. I will stay and be present as best I can, and be a channel for my higher power, but I will release all need to control or judge the situation or myself. This is the heart of the prayer of St. Francis. It is nothing more than acknowledging the fact that on the ego-mental level we are all limited beings, and there are things that we cannot handle alone or within our existing framework. That this is so is certain in the nature of what and who we are. BUT, we are also more than the ego-consciousness level of ourselves, we are capable of accessing greater levels of which we are but a part. This is also certain; but we are often forgetful.

(© 11/2004)

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