DON’T Kill Your Ego – The Dark Side of Spirituality

Don’t Kill Your Ego

Updated on 06.05.24

What I’m about to share is a story I’ve heard many times during my practice as a therapist. My insights come not only from personal experience but also from helping many people break free from this mental prison. Eventually, I could see a pattern emerging and I did my best to map it out.

Buckle up.

The Dark Side Of Spirituality

“But, just as there is a passion that strives for blind unrestricted life, so there is a passion that would like to sacrifice all life to the spirit because of its superior creative power. This passion turns the spirit into a malignant growth that senselessly destroys human life. Life is a touchstone for the truth of the spirit. Spirit that drags a man away from life, seeking fulfillment only in itself, is a false spirit— though the man too is to blame, since he can choose whether he will give himself up to this spirit or not. Life and spirit are two powers or necessities between which man is placed. Spirit gives meaning to his life, and the possibility of its greatest development. But life is essential to spirit, since its truth is nothing if it cannot live” (C.G. Jung – V8 – §648).

Many young people are fascinated by spiritual teachings and make their mission to pursue their ego-death. They devote all of their spare time to reading and listening to people like Alan Watts and Eckhart Tolle.

They can’t get enough of it.

Eventually, many of them achieve the spiritual experiences they were after, but the results are nothing like the eternal bliss. As a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite. After you experience a brief moment of relief and enlightenment, you’re left with no motivation whatsoever to continue living your life.

Many are taken by a state of apathy, depression, anxiety, and extreme loneliness. In worst cases, there’s a psychotic outbreak. Now, they are plagued by weird visions and persecutory fantasies.

But why does this happen? Shouldn’t a spiritual pursuit elevate you to a state of happiness?

Well, the main problem is that when the ego-complex isn’t strong enough, getting in touch with the unconscious has a disintegrating effect on the personality. In other words, you’re completely engulfed by the unconscious and become identified with it.

In most cases, this conceals a deep desire to escape from the responsibilities of real life. The problem is that when you refuse life, the unconscious turns dark and devouring. Now, psychic inflation happens and we see all sorts of crazy stuff, like people thinking they are the next incarnation of Jesus.

Or a more common one, the people who believe they are like real shamans because they read one book while smoking joints and playing video games all day long. Let’s not forget their breaks to post nonsense on Reddit, lol.

Jokes aside, spirituality has a dark side that is seldom discussed and can completely ruin someone’s life.

The Ego Is Not The Enemy

So why should you care to strengthen your ego-complex?

First of all, a strong ego-complex is a requirement to overcome the mother and father complex and truly become an adult. Until you do so, you’ll forever deal with mommy and daddy issues. In other words, you won’t have your own identity and will be defined by parental expectations.

(Check a series of 4 articles on how to overcome the parental complex here)

A strong ego-complex gives you solid roots in reality and acts as a counterpoint to the unconscious. The ego is what allows you to safely engage with the unconscious and maintain an objective perspective without being identified with it.

It gives you the ability to confront the unconscious material, interpret it, and integrate it into your life. Without the ego, you’re bound to face the ruthless facet of the unconscious and won’t be able to get out of it.

The individuation process only occurs when you consciously engage with the unconscious. Because the Self only points the right direction, you’re the one that has to direct the process and carve your own path.

Besides, having a strong ego-complex is what allows you to have self-confidence, motivation, and direction. When the ego is strong, the relationship with the Self gives you a true sense of meaning and purpose.

The Self inspires but the ego has the mission to realize it, being at its service. That’s how life and spirit are balanced.

The Two Stages of Life

When discussing the notion of building a healthy ego, it’s important to make a distinction between the two stages of life. This idea is so central to Jung that he recommends entirely different treatments according to someone’s age.

“As a rule, the life of a young person is characterized by a general expansion and a striving towards concrete ends; and his neurosis seems mainly to rest on his hesitation or shrinking back from this necessity. But the life of an older person is characterized by a contraction of forces, by the affirmation of what has been achieved, and by the curtailment of further growth. His neurosis comes mainly from his clinging to a youthful attitude which is now out of season. Just as the young neurotic is afraid of life, so the older one shrinks back from death. What was a normal goal for the young man becomes a neurotic hindrance to the old—just as, through his hesitation to face the world, the young neurotic’s originally normal dependence on his parents grows into an incest-relationship that is inimical to life. It is natural that neurosis, resistance, repression, transference, “guiding fictions,” and so forth should have one meaning in the young person and quite another in the old, despite apparent similarities. The aims of therapy should undoubtedly be modified to meet this fact. Hence the age of the patient seems to me a most important indicium” (C.G. Jung – V16 – §75).

This obviously doesn’t mean that younger people shouldn’t have their spiritual pursuits, it simply means that it’s often linked with escaping from adult life. As long as you’re seeking to become independent, by all means, follow your interests and what inspires you.

I know that some of you might be thinking:

Can’t I skip the first half of life and let go of my Ego now?

Well, that’s exactly the kind of question someone identified with the Puer or Puella Aeternus would ask. The short answer is no, you’ll be neurotic for the rest of your life, but I’ll elaborate on it further.

First of all, you can’t let go of something you never had. But the process isn’t a “let go”, it’s actually a process of emergence. When you pair these opposing forces, a new and higher structure arises that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

This is an idea that stems from systemic psychology that perfectly fits this process. It’s the alchemical notion of the 4 becoming 1.

The transcendent function:

“Fantasizing this inner ground is what he calls the transcendent function; it creates the uniting symbols. This coincides strangely with the alchemical symbolism, which always speaks of the problem of the four elements— water, fire, air, and earth—which are, as in our text, represented as wheels which have to be integrated. Then there is the fifth essence, which is not another element but is, so to speak, the gist of all four and none of the four; it is the four in one and not the four. There you have the same idea: onto the four comes a fifth thing which is not the four but is something beyond them and consists of all of them. That is what the alchemists called the fifth essence, the quinta essentia or philosopher’s stone. It means a consolidated nucleus of the personality which is no longer identical or identified with any of the functions” (Von Franz – Psychotherapy – P. 118).

Here, we could get into the 4 psychological functions, but this would exceed the scope of this post. Luckily, you can check this guide on the Psychological Types.

Now let’s get back.

The second reason why you should care to build a strong ego-complex early on is to avoid having the worst mid-life crisis of all time.

This past year, I had an incredible opportunity to analyze a few older guys and I took one important lesson from it:

The feeling of regret is the heaviest one can bear.

You don’t want to live your life aimlessly and have your wake-up call when you’re approaching your 50s and there are money and health problems, and partners and kids are involved. Any fear you might be feeling now is nothing compared with the raw reality of having wasted your life.

As a 31 YO, this is a reminder to keep pushing and moving in the direction of my fears, as they often conceal our true mission.

The Vessel

Ok, so how can one strengthen their ego-complex?

Great question.

I’m gonna share a metaphor I’ve learned during my Active Imagination sessions. We have to become like a vessel in order to contain the unconscious and allow the process of emergence to happen.

First and foremost, the way to strengthen the ego-complex is by honoring your commitments to real life. Every time you hesitate, you allow the unconscious to devour you, that’s why this is linked with the mother complex.

During his famous confrontation with the unconscious, Jung was seeing several patients a day, was raising a family, and working for the Swiss army. He never neglected his commitments.

Second, it’s important to learn how to decode the symbolic language of the unconscious. That’s where Jungian Psychology, philosophy, and mythology are extremely helpful. Especially the notion of psychic reality, complexes, and dream interpretation.

This will prevent you from interpreting the experiences with the unconscious in a literal sense and raise it to the symbolic level. That way, the conscious mind can safely and actively participate in the process.

That’s one of the main functions of religion, to provide the conscious mind with a framework that protects it from the unconscious, but often the symbolic value is lost in this process.

(Learn how to interpret symbolically with this Dream Interpretation Guide)

Lastly, the most important key to forming a healthy ego is moral confrontation. Without it, learning psychology and philosophy is just mental masturbation and a way of avoiding dealing with the real issue.

In other words, you must take responsibility for your shadow and your psychological development. By developing these skills and committing to fully living life, you become a vessel in which the Self can manifest itself.

True spiritual and psychological development requires that you hold the paradox between life and spirit. A strong and healthy ego is what allows you to do so. The individuation process is about co-creating your unique sense of meaning in conjunction with your inner center – The Self.

It’s about allowing the Soul (personification of the unconscious) to guide you but at the same time consciously directing the process. It’s an art of balancing our inner and outer life.

Meaning is not static, it resides in being engaged in this process. Meaning is not found, but created.

Read this one next – How To Do Shadow Work

Rafael Krüger – Jungian Therapist

Start your journey with Katabasis – The Shadow Integration Manual

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