The Nature and Role of the Ego

The development of the ego-consciousness is part of the evolutionary cycle of increasing manifestation of conscious awareness in Nature. As consciousness develops it moves from a generalized sense of existence to a more specific recognition of one’s own life and awareness. In animals we see this progression as an individual instinct for survival, as well as the development of hierarchies of power and control, and the perks that come with attaining a higher place in the societal structure. This is easily seen in primate groups that have been studied, but is evident also in other higher animal species. It has not yet been determined exactly where in the continuum of animal development, a change from species-level reaction to individual-reaction takes place. In the human being, this sense of individuation has been much more highly developed, and along with it, we see the strong central ego-personality arise, and there is a battle, overt or subtle, for domination, and success, that accompanies the rise of the ego.

While the ego may be a necessary instrument for Nature to develop a next phase of consciousness beyond the vital, life energy, it clearly also has its limitations, which become obvious as Nature works to establish a further evolutionary stage beyond the current dominant mental level of awareness. In one of his aphorisms, Sri Aurobindo succinctly states: “Ego was the helper, ego is the bar.”

The limitations of the ego-consciousness are highly evident to us as we see conflict, lack of awareness about the needs of others, or the environment in general, and the creation of enormous problems in the unintended, and mostly unconsidered, consequences of this ego-consciousness working for self-aggrandisement at the expense of any other concern.

The next phase of evolutionary development seeks to bring forth an awareness that transcends the ego-consciousness and shifts the standpoint to a global, universal or ‘divine’ standpoint. This standpoint treats the individual as a nexus of awareness and action, but this is experienced at the same time as part of a larger whole which can and must frame the understanding and the action. The development of the ego allowed the individuation to occur, and that remains as a nexus in the next phase. The illusion that the ego is the center of the universe, and can or even should be the determining factor for action, needs to be dispelled, while the individual nexus, developed with such pressure by evolutionary nature, will remain in a thus modified form.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Egoism is part of the machinery — a chief part — of universal Nature, first to develop individuality out of indiscriminate force and substance of Nature and, secondly, to make the individual (through the machinery of egoistic thought, feeling, will and desire) a tool of the universal forces. It is only when one gets into touch with a higher Nature that it is possible to get free of this rule of ego and subjection to these forces.”

“I suppose the ego came there first as a means of the outer consciousness individualising itself in the flux of Nature and, secondly, as an incentive for tamasic animal man to act and get something done. Otherwise he might merely have contented himself with food and sleep and done nothing else. With that incentive of ego (possession, vanity, ambition, eagerness for power etc. etc.) he began doing all sorts of things he might never otherwise have done. But now that he has to go higher, this ego comes badly in the way.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, The Ego, pp. 286-289