Much of what is motivating for human behavior is action that serves the ego of the individual. The term as it is being used herein, may not relate directly to the psychoanalytic view of ego which is conceptualized as the buffer between the Id and the Superego, but more of ego addressed to a broader and more universal definition of all things related to the self of an individual. Therefore ego in this writing relates to the individuality and one’s singular identity, which some may consider the foundation of personality.
Society has become increasingly “self-focused” and there exists in many arena of culture a fundamental tyranny generated by the supremacy of entitled selfhood. Some might call the entitled self, by negative labels such as selfish or self-centered, but for the purposes of this paper those labels are unhelpful and un-descriptive in nature. What is clear is that rampant entitled selfhood has created or supports many societal woes and personal tragedies. Entitled Selfhood, can play out in any number of possibilities in the lives of an individual, for example one might enter a helping profession to meet some need of their selfhood and when that need is not readily met through their labor with clients, they become fatigued and overly stressed, which may indeed contribute to burnout in professional service providers.
There exists a natural occurring psychological heuristic which each normally function human being possesses, that makes comparisons and judgments almost constantly while conscious and alert. The foundation of those comparisons and judgments are based in comparisons to the individual self, with those things that support the ego being “good or right” and those that do not support the ego as being “bad or wrong”. This binary mental activity is most often in servitude to our selfhood. Herein lies a danger for the healer, it becomes very easy to apply our own evaluations to others and judge the goodness or appropriateness of their behavior based on what our individual measuring stick might be.
To function optimally it is essential for the counselor/healer to understand and effectively restructure their own ego dependency and demandness, so that they are not burdening others with their judgments, biases and injunctions. Perhaps the most successful way to achieve this release from the tyranny of the entitled selfhood is to find avenues of compassion and charity that do not come with price tags. Price tags are the expectations that are often the companions of the entitled self. When one has the price tag of acknowledgement, recognition, or the price tag of being a savior to others, this makes the helping about the counselor/healer’s ego needs.
Healing begins when the counselor/healer find within themselves the ability to consistently invite the helped into a sanctuary of acceptance, compassion and charity. That singular activity can provide tremendous results even without techniques or skills. This is not a new idea in the field of helping others, but has remained a steady and supportable component of the philosophic fabric of creating healthy change in others.
Moving Toward Non-Egoic practice
The idea of NON-EGOISM may be a new concept, but hopefully it will be a concept that opens the windows of heaven and admits a light and warmth that has been missing in clinical work. In the changing clinical world where the practitioners are focusing more on strengths, and helping clients move through their problems using the skills that they already possess, it is time to look at the Non-egoic models of therapy. It is herein postulated that one cannot truly be strength’s based if one has not achieved a certain ability to be consistent in selfless charitable compassion. Some might say that love unfeigned by the demands of emotional or psychological price tags.
Perhaps a definition of this concept might serve to the reader at this point. On first hearing there have been a number of therapists that seem perplexed by the idea of non-egoic models of therapy, preferring instead to focus on the individual, and therapies that are designed around the egoic nature of the human condition. While it is thoroughly and completely apparent that all human beings are egoic there are certain practical considerations that must be equally apparent. Each individual possesses an abundance of unique history that has embedded particular meaning and value within the contextualized relational architecture of living life on a daily basis. Much of this meaning is in service of preserving the entitled selfhood of an individual. One of the challenges faced when adopting a non-egoic view of the helped is that is counterintuitive to our fierce though false sense of a separate individualism, seeing the entitled self as a unique and separate being from everyone and everything else around them.
Defining Non-egoic approaches to therapy falls into two distinct frames. One frame is the counseled and the other frame is about the counselor. The entitled selfhood which is a form of egotism in therapy has a long and well established history; it is easy to acknowledge that most of the traditional approaches of therapy, other than systems approaches have treated the individual as a unique entity, which is absolutely true. The challenge is that the traditional models tend to attend too little to the relational architecture within which the unique individual lives. Non-egoic models tend to look at the unique individual as an interacting agent with the relational environment or architecture.
The second and maybe the most important aspect of non-egoic models of therapy have to do with the clinician. Many times the clinician’s entitled selfhood becomes an element in the therapy of the individual. Milton Erickson used to compare this to inviting a guest to dinner and then dictating what, and how they should eat. Many therapists want to control the kind and type of experience the client discovers as they participate in the therapeutic process. Still others have set semi-rigid ideas of how recovery and healing appear, and have in the past taken the stance that clients that did not fall into line with their “superior belief” of how it should be were guilty of resistance. This all communicates an interaction with compassion price-tags, of varied value and urgency for the counselor/healer.
Most Human beings possess the egoic view of life, seeing themselves as separate from everything and everyone else. Developmental psychologists cherish the stage named individuation childhood development as a profound and necessary step in one’s ability to differentiate the self from the world. This differentiation creates a totally personalized and unique view of reality, what one might label as a personally subjective reality. This process of individuation is not complete in most people until they finish adolescence. Clearly there are many sound psychological and emotional reasons to see the self as separate from the world and environment within which one functions. The difficulty becomes that in the rush to cherish this egoic separatism a tremendous truth is lost. That truth is that all things are inseparably interconnected; therefore, we are never truly alone. In fact one might argue that many mental health issues are related to this feeling of separateness and aloneness live out in the lives of people who are interacting with a relational architecture within which they fell disconnected or disenfranchised.
In physics, the idea of Presence (heightened awareness of self and environment) is expressed in the theory of energy. In simple terms, the entire universe is composed of the presence of energy in various forms. Each cell in our bodies is a function of energy, each breath we take, every step, every movement, every relationship; every event is an expression of energy. It is impossible to consider that we might separate ourselves from the source of energy. Indeed, even after death, our energies transmute into other energetic forms. This idea is so elementary; a universe without energy is inconceivable and absurd. Egoic separatism minimizes and ignores the fact that while each person might be considered individual, the relational architecture within which the life of this INDIVIDUAL unfolds is an exchange of energy with everyone and everything they interact.
The therapist or counselor that understands the relational architecture of an individual, or at least as much of that structure as possible, will be more effective in helping the individual find recovery, hope, healing and connection. This professional views the relational architecture as a living organism that is in the business of exchanging energy within the framework of an individual’s life. The therapist does not over focus on one individual element of the relational architecture, and therefore therapy will look and feel very different from individual therapies which are highly egoic in nature.
What is being suggested in this work is that it is possible to transcend the normal egoic dimensions of the individual and explore other realms that are mystical in nature. For example, a physicist can describe the mechanics of gravity, and these mechanics can be measured. It is recognized immediately that if there were no gravity, this universe would not hold together. Our normal experience of life is filled with ideas of multiple things that seem solid and separate. We have a strong intrinsic sense of the world as a binary production where there are clearly definable (this & that; here & not here; right & wrong) that encourages the development a perspective that distinguishes fundamental differences in shape, color, form, solidity, temperature, light, and so on. Therefore, when looking at a client it is easy to become deceived by the habituation of all the mental differentiations and distinctions that actually arise out of a basic limited ability to perceive the individual as a part of an interactive system rather than a standalone entity.
The therapist who manages to observe and attune to relationships and human beings as on-going acts of creation can be free from the rigid expectations of what healing should look like. Creation is an unceasing phenomenon. The important point, however, is that creation itself is a process. Generally it is impossible to know the starting point so exploring the mental archeology of a problem provides a limited benefit to the therapist in understanding the current creative process within which clients are involved.
A metaphor that illustrates this point is taken from the work of Rabbi Abner Weiss If we walk into a room with a light shining, we do not know when that light was turned on. Many people have taken the egoic stance that help cannot be derived until it is known when the light was turned on, or the history around the lighting. This does little for the light shining in the room. In much the same way, an individual is operating and has been for some time, looking at the process of what they are doing is much more productive than trying to plumb the depths of their collective histories. Returning to the metaphor of the light; it may have been turned on the instant before we walked in.
Imagine that the creation of the relational architecture works the same way. The therapist is a creator, in as much as they can help a unique individual reformulate the functioning of their relational architecture. Taking the stance that a client is in a constant state of creation suggests that it is never known if the existence of a certain form will persist, or if something will instantaneously take on a completely new form. Indeed, although there are few absolute truths in this creation, one of them is that things are constantly changing. This means that we never have certainty from one moment to the next if the sustained flow of creation will persevere.
The point of this is very simple, egoic focus on the individual thoughts, feelings and behaviors feel comforting and familiar to the therapist, but have limited effectiveness in understanding or clarifying the dynamic creational experience of an individual’s relational architecture. Eckhart Tolle (2005) asserts in A New Earth that one of the greatest challenges facing a person is how he or she transcends the tyranny of the ego and it’s endless striving to be gratified which tends to have the effect of influencing people to look for satisfaction out of themselves, be it material object or something conceptual which they may associate with increased worth, love, likability. Many helpers have been trapped by their ego strivings, looking to meet their needs through the helping relationship. These strivings can absorb attention, energy, effort and distract the helper from being fully present with the client.