When you think of the term ego, what is it that you picture? What do we all mean when we say, "they have a big ego," or "my ego was bruised"? The fact of the matter is; for the most part, we don't actually know.
The misinterpretation and misuse of the term ego to describe that which is apart from what one believes to be themselves is one of the greatest symptoms of a culture which knows pitiful little about itself. The definitions become blurred, the terms become loosened by the need for deepened conversation and the intended meaning behind what were once revolutionary terms becomes lost. For all intents and purposes, the ego is just the "I". It is the me from which all of reality is perceived and consequently conceived; it is that which remains the center and source of conscious attention, and conscious psychological energy. Ego is the feeling of being, and the human capacity to be aware of our own awareness. If the entire psyche were a landscape, the ego would remain in the center; a great eye watching over the landscape of the unconscious and sometimes by a stroke of luck, uncovering some of the treasures which live within, or more commonly just witnessing them. The capacity for human beings to separate themselves from the rest of reality stems from the ego, as this is its primary function. Among many others, the ego's responsibility is the separation and creation of reality; it is that which witnesses the incoherent and infinitely mysterious nature of reality, and divides it into constituent parts. Ideally, a functional ego serves the psyche in its capacity to divide and create things out of a blended reality. These 'things' are in turn, a combination between inert matter and ideas in of themselves. The debate over whether 'things' are either the former or the latter has been going on in philosophy since the conception of the fundamental religions, which are our (primary) sources of metaphysical knowledge. The Buddhists claim that reality as perceived by the ego is only 'illusion', meaning that reality as we perceive it, is never free of the reality that we (or the ego, in this case) project(s) upon it. This is psychologically speaking, a sound conclusion; it is from this idea that some of the more creative modern metaphysically focused works of art are based upon, such as The Matrix and Inception. These truths circulate constantly in the unconscious, waiting to be uncovered by those daring enough to explore it; they are constantly rediscovered and re-expressed in the greatest psychological mirror that humanity has access to: art (until the internet, that is). This commonality of significance across the collective is then given a numinous and symbolic quality, so that as a personified or represented form it is given life, and thus given existence within the realm of the psyche. These personifications and symbols are motifs and themes that upon close observation are common across time and across cultures, are called archetypes. The significance and power of these archetypes has shaped human life since humanity's first conception, and continues to shape it to this day. Even in the non-culturized societies of ancient and isolated tribes in places like the Amazon rainforest, there remain the presence of archetypes, the true nature of which remains hidden behind the ego's symbolification and idealization which is projected upon them. An archetype is that which is simultaneously literal AND metaphorical, and exists in both spaces of reality; they can be imitated and acted out (such as in the Christian tradition of the imitation of Christ), and also idealized and symbolized in narrative and artworks. It is this double nature that gives them such incredible power over us; they are the constituent makeup of the psyche, and until they are acknowledged and consciously transformed, they will remain the puppeteers of human fate; hidden forever behind the lack of breadth of attention that a narrow
ego possesses. This is the affliction of modern man.
Thus ego, the 'I', the 'me' is an archetype in of itself. It is represented in literature as the main character in narrative: the hero. Whether male or female, human or animal, alien or not, the archetype of being the center-point, focus, and source of the human capacity for conscious attention is necessary for there to be a story at all. In particular, mythology makes the most blatant use of archetypes, and the hero is the most obvious representation of ego, or the collectively shared sense of being; the 'I' which is common across all humanity. Thus, the hero(ego) in mythology is often a champion of sorts, it is that which by its own nature is powerful enough to divide the unknown(unconscious) aspects of reality, and make it known. In mythology, it is often the illuminator, the fire user/keeper, the conqueror of nature(the symbol for chaos), and on a global scale (such as in world religions) is a world redeemer; one who can take such a large and fundamental responsibility for humanity that he/she may lead the rest of the world to a transformative new dawn. It is a powerful figure indeed, and perhaps the most powerful of the archetypes; thus giving rise to the motifs in art that the "light always overcomes the dark" or "there is always hope hidden in the deepest of misery/suffering". The opposite of the ego, and its natural counterpart is what Jung called the Shadow; aka the dark and mysterious aspects of the psyche which remain opposite to the ego; a champion of the unconscious, and of the unknown. Although it is a fundamentally important figure, I will leave discussion of the Shadow for another essay for the sake of time.
The ego, in being the divider and fully participating creator of reality also has another function; the revivification of the archetype of a stagnant culture. In myth, the ego/hero very often serves as the avenue by which culture is renewed, and thus kept alive. When any culture refuses to accept something new, which is beyond the rigid confines of its collective psychological framework, it begins to die. It begins; quite literally, to grow old and stiff. Unmoving and tyrannical in its ways, it becomes incapable of adapting to the ever changing chaotic reality which encompasses it; on a psychological level, one may observe it in this way: The ego can serve as a means of constantly updating and renewing an old and no longer functional framework of reality, it can be the means by which one may transform themselves. For the sake of simplicity, let us use common symbolism to explain the psychological point. The psyche is a city, surrounded by vast and unending swaths of magical forest. The forest; as it is a chaotic and natural setting, is the unconscious(both collective and individual). The city is dying of disease, because its king refuses to let people out of the gates for the sake of protecting them; the forest is unknown, and thus dangerous. In order to cure the population however, a chosen individual with a special power (in the case of the ego, it is the capacity of idealization and language, and thus by extension conceptualization) must be sent into the unknown to find a cure. The forest, like the individual unconscious is not only a place where that which we fear lives (the shadow) but also where we may find great rewards for having explored the unknown with courage(and preparation and caution). The therapeutic process is the conscious re-enactment of this archetypal process; ie. reaching into the unknown depths of oneself to find both the source and cure for ones afflictions. The ego then goes into this unconscious forest, and makes it conscious with its innate power to divide and create; it goes into chaos and creates order. One may do this to oneself as well, by making the unconscious(commonly the past) conscious once more. This process allows one to map out the forest within, which is simultaneously them and not them, known and yet unknown. The ego/hero returns to the city with the cure from the forest, and finds the old king dead from the spreading disease. The old king, is the old and stagnant ego that no longer has the capacity to go into the unknown without dying, and thus as is the way of nature, he cannot adapt and must die. The law of the jungle applies to all (except the self, but that is for another time). The ego/hero, also is transformed from his journey into the unconscious/forest, and now upon returning home with the cure for the people(which are the other constituent parts of the psyche) is better than he was when he left. He is elected king, cures the city/psyche of the disease within its walls and rules until the cycle must begin again, and a new hero must be summoned for a new problem. Every individual is capable of this process, and I would say MUST participate in this process, lest the psyche become stagnant and stale, uncharged by the life-energies which remain hidden away in the unconscious.
But what of the negative aspects of the ego? Every archetype has two sides, and the individual consciousness, the hero, is no exception. A rampant ego can be extremely, devastatingly damaging indeed. The ego is the conscious process on of itself, it is the process of making things, indeed of making reality; thus a rampant ego, or one that is so small and unconscious that it cannot see the forest around it closing in(the unconscious slowly encroaching on the city), begins to participate in the process of consciousness in an unconscious way. It lashes out, or walls itself in, or in the case of western culture, begins to cull the unknown for all its recourses and gifts. It takes and makes the whole forest its own, instead of allowing there to be some unknown left to be able to retrieve the cure from. This is the sign of an immature ego, one that cannot moderate its own creative tendencies, and thus in the process of being itself and being drunk on its own power(the capacity to make the known unknown), destroys everything which gives it life. In a sense, an absolute association with the ego part of consciousness, and the outright rejection of the natural, mysterious and chaotic aspects of the psyche leads to; on the individual level, an inexhaustible amount of anxiety and suffering. Because the ego is unaware of there being anything other than itself to divide and perceive, it begins to attempt to idealize itself, to make itself into that which it already it. On the individual level, one is overtaken by anxiety, depression seeps into the psyche as the memories of the unconscious past go ignored, meaningless tasks and menial creativity become the basis for one's life, and thus one is trapped in the illusion that they know all there is to know. The funniest problem with an absolute association with the ego though, is that part of its nature is to be completely unknown to the overarching self/psyche. One's conscience goes silent, and the unconscious swallows the other contents of the psyche, leaving the ego alone with a small but absolute and safe kingdom.
The ego, is a tool. The greatest blessing ever to be bestowed upon humanity; even in evolutionary terms, our collective capacity for small and extremely focused consciousness has made us thus far extremely successful as a species. But if a tool such a the ego, which is 'mind and thought' in of itself becomes the only tool one uses, there arises many problems.
A scalpel cannot grow a flower, and a hammer cannot repair a window. For tasks of growth and nurturing, new tools; which are to be retrieved from the numinous and mysterious depths of the unconscious, must be used. The ego has served us well thus far, but the time has come for a fundamental shift in consciousness; a call to use the ego once more, not to conquer the external unknown, but to service the transformation and evolution of the psyche, is being sung. The only question is, will we as a species, have the courage to answer the call of the self?