The ego: We need it, but not as much as we think

When I rediscovered my Goodreads pages the other day, I immediately added my favorite book from last year: The Master and His Emmissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). In the last twenty years, brain science has greatly increased our appreciation for how our most important organ functions. It has also “discovered” that science, itself, has perpetrated the wrong impression of which side of the brain is the master.

Jill Boite Taylor

The Eurocentric countries, like the U.S., have given their allegiance to the functions of the brain’s left hemisphere, and dismissed the right  — that’s a problem. This was illustrated colorfully in Jill Taylor’s book, also from 2009, called My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Taylor is a Ted Talk expert on the human brain who woke up one morning having a stroke. By the end of the morning the left hemisphere of her brain was totally “offline,” as she puts it. She had no sense of personal identity; she couldn’t recognize her own mother, speak or understand speech, remember the most recent moment of her life, make and carry out a three-step plan, walk, or feed herself, among many other things we take for granted. We know that she eventually recovered those left-brain functions because she wrote the book.

That was fourteen years ago. Since then, the world has become more aware of the functions of the brain hemispheres. But such awareness seems to have made little difference in society or in most of my psychotherapy clients. Do you think it has? Many of us know the brain’s left hemisphere is more logical, rational, linear, and rule-oriented; it’s the problem-solver, enabling us to build buildings, fix the plumbing, pay the bills, stay on schedule, negotiate our social encounters, and speak and understand others’ speech. Many of us have become much more aware that right side of the brain is metaphorical, creative, intuitive, nonverbal, and emotional – which are all things that are unclear, hard to define and measure, and hard to see as important. According to McGilchrist, the left brain finds the right brain wanting because of its imprecision and immeasurability; it is too “spiritual.”

Dr. Taylor saw much of the world through the lens of the left brain before her stroke and was transformed when she lost the use of it. Her empathy was no longer boundaried and she experienced others’ emotions directly, unmediated by rational or “egomental” thought. She felt, wordlessly, whether the person with her liked her or didn’t, cared about her or didn’t, was angry or happy or sad, was at peace or in pain. She was, in effect, involuntarily connected without boundaries to all other people, and to the movements of the Earth. She felt “at one with the source and flow of the universe.”  What’s more, when in solitude she was at peace. Without the baggage of memory, ego, or worry about the future, she was free to experience the inherent wonder of the moment.

To deepen spiritual awareness

Everything Taylor experienced sounds like the fruit of the Spirit to me (see what Paul’s amounts to Paul’s takedown of left-brain domination here). Christians feel the movements of their spiritual awareness, mostly resident in their right brains, as ecstasy, as union with God and creation. We learn to contemplate so we can get to the place Taylor’s stroke caused her to access. Western culture has kept people so locked down, they gravitate towards drugs, my beloved Pentecostalism, political rallies and concerts to experience the basic sensibility pre-Enlightenment people took for granted. I have heard countless sermons about how terrible our “big egos” are and how we must crucify our fleshly self to gain heaven – and ecstasy, peace.

The left side of the brain is considered the seat of the ego, which uses left-brain functions to help us know ourselves and live in the material world. When David Benner describes the ego in Soulful Spirituality: Becomng Fully Alive and Deeply Human (2011), he essentially sees it as synonymous with the left brain.

The ego includes all those mental functions that allow us to perceive, organize, elaborate, differentiate, integrate, and transform experience. Ego is a fundamental psychic structure that secures our reality testing, good judgment, impulse control defensive functions, affective regulation, interpersonal relations, moral orientation, thought process, and much more.

We don’t want to get rid of the ego, all that preaching notwithstanding. We just don’t want it to run the whole show. It is the “emissary” to McGilchrist’s right-brain “master.”

The left brain gives us our capacity to see ourselves as someone. But given that great power, it can function as if it makes us someone. And so it might see itself as needing to save us. We need to be self-aware and self-confident but we dare not become self-sufficient or self-serving.

The right brain gives us our capacity to see ourselves in right relationship. It allows us to live on an appropriately large plain: in touch with heaven and earth, the depth of ourselves and eternity. When the right and left brain are in touch with heaven and earth, we are being saved when we are saving, being found when we are finding. As Jesus says: the one who asks receives, who seeks find, the one who knocks experiences an open door. I think our spiritual awareness transcends brain function but is firmly rooted in it. That is the main reason I want to keep understanding the integration of psychology and Christianity.

Quiet your ego

I keep talking about right and left brain and the domination of our egos. I obviously find it important to understand why we feel so locked into the fears that cause us to flee or freeze or fight, and why we are so committed to the defenses we throw up to protect our fragile egos. Why are truckers blockading Ottawa and using their children as shields? Why are we piling armaments and troops into Ukraine? Why do I continue to dwarf my loves as if I were still ten years old? Why do I keep fighting for my rights with my spouse as if it is life or death situation?

All these terrible things could have many causes, but one we rarely consider is the fact we think reality fits within the limits of the left brain. If we all had a stroke, life would look a lot different. Most of us would die from a stroke like Taylor’s, not make a Ted Talk out of it! So we are unlikely to experience that shortcut to wholeness. Instead, we will have to make our way through a lifetime of challenging choices to quiet our egos. When we first become aware we have been trapped in a locked, egocentric room, leaving it might feel like we are losing our minds.

Again, Benner says:

The pathway to the transformation of not only our egocentricity but our very self is the path of surrender. We must be willing to lay down that which we were previously willing to die to defend. But this surrender of egocentricity is not the same as the elimination of the ego.

We need our ego to be fully human and to become spiritually whole. But we all need to surrender egocentricity, which is not so easy in a society that presumes it.

One of the best results of this terrible pandemic we have endured is so many people deserting their left-brain-dominated pursuits: jobs just for money, obligations that thwart personal desires to appease “the man,” seeing oneself as trapped, letting a feeling of scarcity cause one to overprotect, using the world up rather than protecting it, and more. The long, existential crisis has caused necessary spiritual crises. Left-brained egocentricity has been shown up as inadequate for many people. What appeared to be saving our lives has, in many cases, been shown to be what is destroying it.

Right now, people are crying out against mask mandates so we can all get back to normal. The left brain wants equilibrium. It is the seat of justice. It tends to blame factors outside itself (since it is limited) — outside factors like its counterpart, the right brain, even! But enough of us are seeing, I hope, I hope, that how society is organized and how we have organized ourselves and our spirituality is the main cause of our distress.

Our all-out attempts to preserve our egocentricity is the problem. Be it an inflated ego or a broken one, whether the song is “Slay me, Lord” or “Build me up,” any sense that the ego must save us must be lost so we can find our full life. Like we keep repeating when share the memory of the Lord’s great grace: our lives emerge out of death. In order to live, I must lose what appears to be my life, lose the truncated view of my left brain and my allegiance to the society that traps me in it.

I spend a lot of therapy time massaging the hardened traumas that lock up our memories, reforming the hard words that have shamed us, unraveling the dark masses of unexplored pain that demand to be protected from further harm. Often, fragile egos become strong enough to surrender their dominance and a person experiences the wonder of feeling joy in the wide open spaces of their true, whole selves. I wish that freedom for all of us as we get back to a new normal.

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