What is the Role of Ego in Spiritual Work?

When I was in college, I tried to kill my ego. I ended up in the school infirmary on psych meds. I have since learned that the ego is an important tool. It tells us to get out of the rain and helps us to navigate the world. It is when we mistake ourselves with our egos that we suffer and inflict suffering on those around us.

a strong sense of self-responsibility is needed to overcome attachment to doctrines of the self.[1]

–Thanissaro Bhikkhu

It takes a healthy and secure ego to accepting responsibility for one’s actions. In view of this, I take the quote above to mean that one has to have a healthy ego before one transcends it.

This might explain those teachers who in spite of their spiritual accomplishments, behave irresponsibly and then lack remorse for hurting others. It mystifies me why their teachers didn’t insist that they heal their egos before authorizing them to teach.

The ego isn’t an enemy to be fought. Resistance makes the ego stronger (who is resisting anyhow? Isn’t it ego that is fighting ego?). It is when you relax that the ego starts to relinquish its grasp.

Through meditation you can begin to see that who you are is greater than your thoughts and your feelings. This larger self is at peace. From this place you can work on cultivating qualities like compassion and kindness.

Then when your ego chimes in with a petty self-judgment, you can “kill” it with kindness.

[1]“The Atthaka Vagga: The Octet Chapter”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,

©2016 Stephen L. Martin

Painting: Vanitas, by Pieter Claesz

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