What Attitude Would the Course Have Us Hold Toward the Ego?

Question: In my Course group, people seem to blame all of their problems on the ego—almost a "devil made me do it" kind of attitude. What attitude would the Course have us hold toward the ego?

Short answer: We shouldn't underestimate the ego—we need to acknowledge just how much our lives are governed by it. But at the same time, we should recognize that only our decision to maintain it gives it any power over us. We can change that decision at any time, and our real life as spirit is unaffected by the ego. Therefore, the ego has no real power over us.

Anyone who studies the Course for any length of time cannot help but notice that it spends a lot of time talking about the ego. And the ego described by the Course seems to be much more than the simple mental construct described by modern psychology; indeed, it appears to be an demonic being of downright Luciferian proportions. It schemes, plots, deceives, tempts, and sets traps, just like the devil himself. This depiction of the ego may lead one to believe that the ego really is a demonic force that takes possession of us against our will. Yet we know that the Course also tells us that the ego is an illusion, with no power over us whatsoever. Why, then, does the author of the Course give so much credence to the ego? The following passage addresses this very issue:

Only your allegiance to it gives the ego any power over you. I have spoken of the ego as if it were a separate thing, acting on its own. This was necessary to persuade you that you cannot dismiss it lightly, and must realize how much of your thinking is ego-directed. We cannot safely let it go at that, however, or you will regard yourself as necessarily conflicted as long as you are here, or as long as you believe that you are here. The ego is nothing more than a part of your belief about yourself. Your other life has continued without interruption, and has been and always will be totally unaffected by your attempts to dissociate it (T-4.VI.1:2-7).

This passage tells us directly why the Course describes the ego the way it does, and also gives us a good idea of what attitude we should have toward the ego. This attitude could be summed up in this way: Don't underestimate the power the ego has over your life, but also recognize that only your allegiance to it gives it any power over your life. Let's look at each part of this answer, and then see how putting both parts together can help us undo the ego:

Don't underestimate the power the ego has over your life

We are told in the above passage that the reason the ego is described as "a separate thing, acting on its own" is so we won't "dismiss it lightly." The ego is only an illusion in our minds, but if that were the only message we got from the Course concerning it, we would have a tendency to dismiss it lightly. We'd say, "It's no big deal. It's only an illusion, so why should I concern myself with it?"

But it is a big deal, illusion or not. As the above passage says, we must realize how much of our thinking is ego-directed. an earlier passage makes the same point:

That you do listen to the voice of your ego is demonstrated by your attitudes, your feelings and your behavior….Your mind is filled with schemes to save the face of your ego, and you do not seek the face of Christ (T-4.IV.1:2,5).

We must realize that the ego has a far greater hold on our lives than we ever suspected. If we don't realize this, if we deny the power the ego holds over us by simply dismissing it as an illusion, it will continue to direct our lives. "No one can escape from illusions unless he looks at them, for not looking is the way they are protected" (T-11.V.1:1). The first step in undoing the ego is looking at it with unflinching honesty, and we won't do that as long as we are denying its hold on us.

So the Course describes the ego as a separate thing with a will of its own simply to impress upon our minds the power it does wield over us, so that we will acknowledge the hold it has on us and be motivated to do something about it. Being told that the "devil" is running your life is much more emotionally impactful than being told that an illusory construct of your own mind is running your life.

Recognize that only your allegiance to it gives it any power over your life

But, as our passage continues, "we cannot safely let it go at that." Why? Because if we see the ego as a separate thing with a will of its own, we will see ourselves as "necessarily conflicted" as long as we live on earth; we will see our lives as a never-ending conflict between two separate, opposing forces: spirit and ego. The Course's path would just be another version of the age-old battle between God and Satan for our immortal souls.

But, as the Course emphatically tells us, that's not the way it is. The "devil" may be running our lives, but only because we appointed him as General Manager. We're still the CEO of our lives, and we can fire him whenever we want. As our passage says, "Only your allegiance to it gives the ego any power over you." It is not a demonic force, but simply "a part of your belief about yourself." It is the means by which we maintain our belief in separation, the means by which our minds dissociate, or push out of awareness, our true Self. The ego may look like the puppetmaster, but in truth it is we who are pulling the strings: "The ego is a device for maintaining this belief [in separation], but it is still only your decision to use the device that enables it to endure" (T-4.VI.4:4).

What's more, our immortal soul—in Course terms, our eternal reality as spirit—is not at stake here. The passage concludes by telling us that our "other life," the life of our true Self, is totally unaffected by the schemes of the ego. The battle has already been won; or rather, there never really was a battle in the first place. This demonic force which seems to have such a grip on our lives never existed, and never will exist. All we need do is realize this, and we are free.

The best attitude to hold toward the ego: Recognize its power over you, and at the same time recognize your power over it

What, then, should our attitude toward the ego be? The Course would have us take the ego seriously, yet not too seriously. It asks us to maintain a balance between recognizing how much power the ego has over our lives, and recognizing that in truth we have absolute power over the ego. This is a tricky balance, and I think we can err on either side of it. We can underestimate the ego by denying its hold on us; but we can also overestimate the ego by denying our hold on it. And both positions can lead to a denial of our personal responsibility for maintaining the ego. The first denies our responsibility by pretending the ego isn't there, which simply allows it to run amok while our heads are buried in the sand. The second denies our responsibility by giving the ego so much power that we see ourselves as pitiful weaklings, powerless to oppose its iron will—the "devil made me do it" syndrome. Either way, we let the ego continue to run our lives.

How do we resolve this dilemma? By keeping both sides of the balance firmly in mind. Recognizing the ego's powerful influence on our lives allows us to stop deceiving ourselves about what is really motivating our decisions. Once we are aware of the extent of the ego's influence on our decisions, recognizing our absolute power over the ego allows us to decide against it. We can choose to listen to another voice, that of the Holy Spirit. And when we do, recognition of our "other life," our eternal life as the radiant Self God created, will dawn upon our open minds. This concluding passage captures perfectly the necessity of acknowledging the ego's dark hold on our lives, and of acknowledging the glory that lies hidden underneath that darkness—a glory that can be regained simply by recognizing that the ego's lies can never withstand the light of truth:

The mind can make the belief in separation very real and very fearful, and this belief is the "devil." It is powerful, active, destructive and clearly in opposition to God, because it literally denies His Fatherhood. Look at your life and see what the devil has made. But realize that this making will surely dissolve in the light of truth, because its foundation is a lie. Your creation by God is the only Foundation that cannot be shaken, because the light is in it (T-3.VII.5:1-5).

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