Ego fights back

Question: I find that when I get closer to God, my ego fights back, bringing painful experiences into my life. My fear of this has slowed my progress to God. How would the Course have us deal with this problem?

Short answer: The ego does fight back when we get closer to God, but we needn't be afraid of it, because it has no real power. Only our decision to listen to it gives it any power over us. Therefore, when the ego fights back, refuse to give it power. See ego lapses as no big deal, just an inevitable part of the journey. Refuse to learn the lesson the ego is attempting to teach you, and choose instead to learn the Holy Spirit's lesson of forgiveness. And remind yourself that Jesus' strength can help you transcend the ego.

(Note: I find this question about what to do when the ego interferes with progress to God to be very similar to an earlier Q and A question, What can I do when strong negative emotions seem to hinder my Course practice? Much of my answer to that question applies to this one as well. Therefore, I recommend reading the answer to that question, as well as what I've written below.)

The ego does fight back when we get closer to God.

It seems to be a common experience among Course students that periods of progress toward greater peace and a deeper awareness of God are often followed by painful ego relapses. It's as if the ego senses that its walls are beginning to crumble, and so it strikes back with a vengeance, desperately trying to shore up its fortress against the onslaught of God. The Course tells us that the ego definitely does fight back as we approach God:

Even the faintest hint of your reality literally drives the ego from your mind, because you will give up all investment in it….The ego will make every effort to recover and mobilize its energies against your release. It will tell you that you are insane, and argue that grandeur cannot be a real part of you because of the littleness in which it believes. (T-9.VIII.4:2,5-6; see also T-9.VII.4:4-5)

This passage tells us, in essence, that whenever we catch a glimpse of the majesty of our true Identity, the ego responds by fiercely reminding us of the "fact" that we are small, painfully limited creatures, and any belief that we might be more than that is just an insane pipe dream. The ego tries to convince us of this bitter "fact" in a myriad of ways. It makes us sick. It bombards us with painful life events. It tells us to blame other people for our suffering, which only reinforces our own guilt. It tells us to scuttle our holy relationships, and lures us into special relationships in which its agenda can be served. It tempts us with worldly goodies and delusions of grandiosity. It tells us that God doesn't even exist, or if He does, that He is a vengeful, punishing Deity that we want no part of. But whatever method the ego chooses, it has one goal: To make us forget that tantalizing glimpse of our true Identity, so that we will once again accept it as our identity, assuring its own survival.

Since the ego does fight back when we come closer to God, the obvious question becomes: What do we do when the ego fights back? The following four points, rooted in the Course's teaching that the ego is truly powerless, are my answer to that question.

When the ego fights back, don't be afraid of it, because it has no real power.

The ego's retaliation against us for turning to God can feel very frightening. But the Course tells us quite plainly and emphatically, "Do not be afraid of the ego" (T-7.VIII.5:1). Why? Because, as the very next sentence says, "It depends on your mind, and as you made it by believing in it, so you can dispel it by withdrawing belief from it" (T-7.VIII.5:2). We're afraid of the ego because we see it as some sort of powerful demonic force outside of our own mind, poised to strike the instant we let our guard down. The Course's own language can sometimes give us this impression. But it just isn't so. We made the ego, and thus we have absolute power over it. Only our decision to listen to it gives it any power over us. Our job, then, is to refuse to give the ego any power by refusing to listen to it. Our job is to recognize that we made it, and so we don't have to listen to it. If we truly recognize the utter powerlessness of the ego, how could it frighten us?

When the ego fights back, see it as no big deal, an inevitable, normal part of the journey.

This point, I think, is a crucial one. It follows directly from the idea that we needn't fear the ego because it doesn't have any real power over us. My impression is that many Course students do fear the ego and its seeming power, and so they feel weak and powerless when they experience an ego lapse. Others, perhaps repressing and denying this fear, underestimate their investment in the ego, and react with shock and surprise when they experience an ego lapse. All of these reactions end up having a devastating effect on the mind: They make the ego lapse into a major event, a setback of cosmic proportions. The end result is a state of hopelessness and despair at the prospect of ever overcoming the ego and returning home to God.

For some reason, this phenomenon is particularly evident when Course students get sick. I've seen it happen again and again. A Course student gets sick—anything from a minor touch of the flu to a serious, life-threatening illness—and immediately the questioning and self-recrimination starts. "What did I do to create this? Does this mean I'm a bad Course student? I thought I was so close to enlightenment, and now this! I'll never make it!" On top of the pain of illness, all too many Course students add guilt, fear, and despair. Ironically, this is exactly what the ego wants us to learn from sickness and other painful life events. It uses sickness and pain to convince us that we are guilty, that we really are painfully limited creatures, and that we don't have a prayer of ever reaching God. Thus, when we react to such events with guilt and despair, we are actually learning the ego's lesson!

Thus the crucial question to ask whenever we experience an ego lapse of any kind is not "Why did this happen?" or "Does this make me a bad Course student?", but "Do I want to learn the ego's lesson?" And one powerful way to refuse to learn the ego's lesson is simply to not see ego lapses as a big deal. If we respond to our ego lapses with guilt, fear, and despair, we are making them a big deal. We are seeing them as real, rather than the illusory and temporary setbacks that they are. Workbook Lesson 181 tells us that our concerns about ever learning the Course and about the ego fighting back after we have had a breakthrough "are but defenses against present change of focus in perception. Nothing more" ( W-pI.181.5:3-4; see entire discussion in paragraphs 3-5). In other words, worrying about whether we will ever give up the ego, or worrying that the ego will fight back later even if we do give it up for a moment, is simply a way of avoiding a shift in perception now. Making a big deal out of ego lapses is simply a way of perpetuating them.

Therefore, don't waste time worrying about the ego's inevitable attempts to fight back. This is just something that is going to happen on the journey to God, and we might as well accept it as a given. It's not something to be disappointed about or surprised about. What else would we expect the ego to do? Ego lapses aren't a big deal, unless we make them a big deal by allowing them to teach us the ego's lesson. Responding to ego lapses without guilt, fear, or despair—all expressions of the ego's lesson—robs the ego of its seeming power over us. By denying that the ego's activities are anything to worry about, we are asserting that the ego is not real. And this is exactly what the Course wants us to learn.

When the ego fights back, renounce the ego's lesson, and choose instead to learn the Holy Spirit's lesson of forgiveness.

Not worrying about the ego, however, doesn't mean that we take an attitude of utter passivity toward it. Though it is an illusion with no real effects, we do believe in the ego's reality, and so when it fights back, we do need to take active steps to dispel it. We need to watch our minds for ego thoughts and actively dismiss them when they arise—the Course's practice of mental vigilance. Above all, we need to refuse to learn the ego's lesson, and choose instead the Holy Spirit's lesson.

What is the Holy Spirit's lesson? His lesson is spelled out directly in Workbook Lesson 193, "All things are lessons God would have me learn." This Workbook lesson tells us that, in all the ego-based pain and suffering that we experience, no matter what its form, the Holy Spirit has embedded one simple lesson:

Forgive, and you will see this differently. (W-pI.193.3:7)

Expanding upon this basic idea that everything is a lesson in forgiveness, Lesson 193 goes on to say, "This is the lesson God would have you learn: There is a way to look on everything that lets it be to you another step to Him, and to salvation of the world" (W-pI.193.13:1). This way is forgiveness. This is the way, then, that we are to look upon the situation when the ego fights back.

Based on this idea, I have developed a practice to use whenever it seems that the ego is having its way with me. It is a variation on a practice I learned at a Circle of Atonement workshop on sickness and healing. The practice goes like this:

Bring to mind a painful situation in your life, one in which it feels like the ego is fighting hard and you're losing the battle. Then, search your mind for the ego lessons you are learning through this situation. Basically, this means looking for all the negative thoughts you have about it, things like, "I'm worthless," or "I'll never make it," or "It's all so-and-so's fault," or "I'm guilty." As you consider each thought one at a time, say slowly in response to that thought, trying to mean it as much as you can:

"I have no use for this lesson. I will forgive, and I will see this differently." (Based on M-5.II.2:12, W-pI.193.3:7, and W-pI.193.13:3)

"This lesson," of course, means the lesson the ego is trying to teach you through this situation, and "I will forgive…" is the lesson the Holy Spirit is teaching you through the exact same situation. I find this to be an extremely powerful practice. It takes the very situations the ego uses to keep me away from God, and uses them to rocket me more quickly toward God. As Lesson 193 says, it transforms those situations into "another step to Him." Once these situations are thus transformed for me, I find that it often doesn't even matter so much if the situations change externally or not. If I'm using a situation to learn the Holy Spirit's lesson, I find it much easier to be at peace with it. I highly recommend this practice.

When the ego fights back, remind yourself that Jesus' strength can help you transcend it.

Finally, I find it extremely helpful to remind myself that Jesus is with me as I walk the path to God. The ego will fight every step of the way as we make this journey, but Jesus reminds us that "you are invulnerable to its retaliation because I am with you" (T-8.V.5:7). As we are faced with the ego's attempts to thwart our journey to God, we would do well to accept Jesus' invitation to walk with him:

Reach, therefore, for my hand because you want to transcend the ego. My strength will never be wanting, and if you choose to share it you will do so. I give it willingly and gladly, because I need you as much as you need me. (T-8.V.6:8-10)

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