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Sunday, November 13, 2011

On Ego as One's Sense of Self

ego / n. (pl. -os) 1 Metaphysics a conscious thinking subject. 2 Psychology the part of the mind that reacts to reality and has a sense of individuality. 3 a sense of self-esteem.
 self / n., adj. & verb (pl. selves) 1 a person's or thing's own individuality or essence (showed his true self). 2 a person or thing as the object of introspection or reflexive action (the consciousness of self). 3 a one's own interests and pleasures (cares of nothing but self) b concentration on these (self is a bad guide to happiness). . . .

[Source: Concise Oxford English Dictionary.]
The Twelve Steps are a process designed to bring about "ego deflation at depth." It is critical, therefore, to understand from the start just what "ego" is. Popularly, "ego" is seen as "pride" or "a sense of self esteem," but in recovery and recovery literature "ego" is used (as above) to denote the individual as "a conscious thinking subject" and/or "that part of the mind that reacts to reality and has a sense of individuality." As such, the term "ego" is used interchangeably with the term "self" (including its derivatives, "yourself,"  "themselves," "ourselves," etc.) to denote a person's sense of "individuality."

"Ego" as a person's "sense of self-esteem," on the other hand, is not used in recovery literature. Rather,  "ego" as a sense of "pride" or "self esteem" is seen as one of the individual's defects of character and is discussed in depth as such in the Step Seven essay in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, where it is examined as the first of "the Seven Deadly Sins" - pride, greed, anger, lust, gluttony, envy and sloth.

Unfortunately for the individual who is new in recovery, "ego" and "pride" are often confused and discussed as one and the same concept, while "ego" as a person's "conscious thinking subject" or his or her sense of "self" is overlooked. This, despite "selfishness" and "self-centeredness" (rather than "pride" or "self-esteem") being clearly identified as the primary problem of the alcoholic addict (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 62).

"The main problem of the alcoholic," we read at page 22 of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, "centers in his mind, rather than his body." Thereafter, we are shown that we need to establish (and resolutely improve) a conscious contact with "a Power greater than ourselves" - i.e., greater than our egos - that will relieve our alcoholic addiction and restore us to sanity. We are shown, therefore, that we need to tap into a deeper consciousness than that of our ordinary ego consciousness if we are to recover. Fortunately, that is precisely what the Twelve Steps are designed to achieve.

In describing the purpose of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, the author (at page 45) writes:
"Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a Power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?"
"(T)hat's exactly what this book is about," we read. "It's main object is to enable you to find a Power that is greater than yourself which will solve your problem."

The 'how' of finding a Power greater than one's self or ego is straightforward: it is the surrender, self-survey and house-cleaning set out in the Twelve Steps. The 'where' of finding a Higher Power is similarly straightforward, although it may run counter to many of the beliefs we have been raised with. Rather than looking 'out there' or 'up there' for a God of our own understanding, we are directed to look 'within.' Thus, at page 55 of the 'Big Book,' we read:
"(D)eep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. For faith in a Power greater than ourselves, and miraculous demonstrations of that Power in human lives, are facts as old as man himself."

"We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but He was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found." (Emphasis added.)
"With few exceptions," we read in the Spiritual Experience appendix to the 'Big Book', "our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it God-consciousness." (Emphasis added.)

God-consciousness, rather than self-consciousness (or ego-consciousness) is thus the solution to our dilemma. A "new state of consciousness and being" (as described at page 107 of The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) as distinct from the "calamity, pomp and worship of other things" central to the ego, allows us to think, say and do what we were incapable of doing before. It relieves the irritability, restlessness and discontent that characterizes the ordinary, self-consciousness of the alcoholic addict when not drinking or using.

Through working the Twelve Steps, and by practicing meditation, prayer and contemplation, we are thus relieved of "the bondage of self" from which we sought escape with alcohol and/or drugs, and we emerge (however briefly and sporadically at first) into a new consciousness of being devoid of ego, seeking daily to improve our conscious contact with God.


  1. ...this post has me contemplating the circumstances that might precipatate a shift in emphasis in ones consciousness away from a Self-absorbed awareness to God-centered awareness..Evangelicals call it 'getting saved'..and i've tried that..several times..for me its been a constant and continuing was an act of desperation (brought about by the misery of Alcohol and Opiate addiction)that i cried-out/sought out God for help..and it worked..but i find that i must persist/strive at God-consciousness..otherwise i tend to gradually/eventually drift back into what seems for me to be a default setting of Ego-centeredness and self absorbtion...consequently i find within myself a tendancy toward over-zealousness or over-emphasis on the overcompensation of sorts..a Fear of relapse and the ever looming threat of "back-sliding" from God seems to drive this extremeism...which i suppose could be related itself to self centeredness or Ego centric the mean time i continue to practice daily meditation and spiritual reading...your blogs have been most helpful...Thank You.

  2. Thanks for posting this uniquely clarifying write up on a subject that has been previously presented to me in a myriad of muddled fashions. Of course, I have always been so wanting in my own ability to grasp these simple truths that I have consistently fallen back into the same old patterns of self-loathing and self-destruction as only a suffering addict can. I realize that false pride and self-centeredness are killing me. Clearly, I have been searching for God in all the wrong places.

    However, I suspect that my aversion to religiosity still presents today a major hurdle to my total and complete surrender to "God" because of the social-political context that God is used by the powerful to exploit and oppress the weak.

    I am about to embark upon yet one more attempt at recovery. I pray that this time, my experiential knowledge-base notwithstanding, I am able to truly surrender and in so doing finally be able to tap into that "unsuspected inner resource"(as described in the Big Book) that you so skillfully alluded to above.

    I realize that I really do need a miracle - I pray and hope that, by grace, this time will be the charm. In the mean time I look forward to reading your blog as part of my daily effort to establish a conscience contact with God, as I'm [currently] able to understand God.


  3. I want to thank you for taking the time to write these very insightful articles. I am just over two years sober and was at the point that I thought I was never got to "get it". Your articles opened my eyes to things I'd never really understood in the big book and twelve and twelve and now when I read, everything has opened up to me in a way that I'll be forever greatful. I've also forwarded a link to your site to share with others in the program who are also struggling with the concepts. Your website assisted me in getting over that hump and allowed me to move forward in my program with new confidence. So thanks!

  4. ..where else should we go Rabbi?..who else has these words of eternal life..? .......