The Spiritual Ego

The Spiritual Ego

spiritual ego

Spirituality can be recruited as a substitute for trauma work. When this happens we develop a spiritual ego, little more than another defence against suffering what is ours to suffer.

It’s a little harder to spot because it can present as calm, equanimous, wise, unflappable, smart, compassionate, etc. On the other hand, when we run into a spiritual ego, we often feel like we want to take a shower after the encounter. Spiritual teachers who have not done their own trauma work are a source of great suffering for their followers, because they are unconsciously getting their unmet needs to be seen and affirmed met. The landscape of spiritual teacher is littered with sexually abusive men.

In my last post I wrote about core unconscious beliefs (CUBs) that get formed in response to trauma (early failures of love). These beliefs, along with the experiences which gave birth to them, are so unbearable that we compensate by constructing a false or adapted self in order to survive. This becomes our signature self – what feels like “me”. It’s my go-to self. When spirituality comes on-line, these unconscious beliefs and their compensations are attracted to spiritual teachings like metal filings to a magnet.

CUB (Core Unconscious Belief)         The False Piety of the Spiritual Ego

I am bad.                                                                         I am a worthless sinner.

I am too much.                                                            I am a humble servant of God.

I am inadequate.                                                       I am an empty vessel – one with God.

I am helpless                                                                I am surrendered

It’s all my fault.                                                             I am a martyr.

Somebody will rescue me.                                 The angels bear me up.

I’m unlovable.                                                               God loves me unconditionally.

Life is meaningless.                                                 All I need is the Bible/Koran/Rig Veda.

I will be killed if I don’t behave.                       God punishes sinners. Rewards saints.

I don’t belong.                                                            You belong to our family. Just believe.

The world (mother) is manipulative.         The Prince of Darkness is not to be trusted

You can see from the chart that the spiritual ego turns God/Source into everything that our parents were not: The heavenly parent provides where our earthly one failed; S/he loves unconditionally where love was conditional in our childhood; S/he rescues us/saves us in our need where our own parents failed, etc.

(I’m not saying that Source doesn’t love unconditionally, etc., but if this belief functions as a way of doing an end-run around feeling the grief of not being loved, it will merely bolster the false self.)

The practices of the faith may confirm our core belief, for example, that I am bad, but offer a solution: yes, you are a sinner, but God forgives if you confess your sin. Yes, I am the cause of misery, but if I go to confession regularly I am able to live with this belief. It’s true that I don’t belong, but here is a new family whereby believing what they believe and acting in a certain way, I can find belonging. In this formation of the spiritual ego, the core belief not only goes unchallenged. It is actually exploited in a way that affirms the need for God and the religion. If the underlying trauma signature were revealed as untrue, the need for this kind of religion and associated belief systems would collapse.

This is why, incidentally, evangelical or fundamentalist churches often thrive where liberal or progressive churches flounder. In progressive churches, traditional belief structures have been deconstructed. The emotional need for God and the church as a rescue service is thereby severely diminished. In liberal churches people attend for the community, the music, the sermon or for the cause of justice. If you walk into a liberal church you’ll never hear that you are a sinner. But you will in an evangelical church, and if you are carrying the CUB “I am bad” this is going to deeply resonate—and so will the solution: give your life to Jesus and you will be saved.

The way forward I believe for progressive churches is to go one step further. Deconstruct the bad theology and associated beliefs, absolutely, but then deal with the CUBs, CABs (Compensatory Beliefs and Actions)

Then authentic spirituality has a change to come online.

The other way that the false-self-as-spiritual ego shows up is to turn the expression of the negative unconscious beliefs into virtues. The inability to self-define and self-express masquerade as the virtue of surrender. The absence of a sovereign self achieves lift off as the belief that I am one with All That Is. Deference to others in social situations is elevated to the status of humility. The compulsion to take care of others is celebrated as selfless servanthood. The fear of showing anger is taken to be equanimity. The inability to state clearly what is wanted and to go after this becomes spiritual detachment.

The false self shows up, depending on circumstances, in a depressive form or a grandiose form. As I was writing this I wondered if Western (Christian) expressions of the spiritual ego represent the depressive form. The CUBS, as I’ve said, are assumed in traditional expressions of Christianity to be generally true descriptions of fallen humanity. These are then exploited in order to make the institution necessary to solving the predicament we’re in (salvation). Eastern religions (e.g. Hinduism and Buddhism) do not have such a negative view of humanity. But there is a tendency to bypass emotional and psychological trauma through the identification with Source (Atman Is Brahmin). This is seized by the trauma signature, appropriated by the ego, and it’s lift off!

This is why trauma work is the critical foundation of any spiritual path. When failures of love are not brought to consciousness and grieved, we may form a spiritual ego. This becomes little more than another layer of defence against knowing the truth. As Jesus taught, the son of man (the True Human)—if s/he is to be realized—must suffer and undergo a death. The self that must die is the adapted or false self. This happens by bringing it to conscious awareness, and then grieving the unbearable pain of not being seen for the radiant beings we are. Any spiritual system that does not recognize this is superficial and potentially dangerous.

Live Your Own Life Course

Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

2 thoughts on “The Spiritual Ego”

  1. I agree entirely with what you are saying, AND, you were able to access psychedelics, which look to have been central for you since you are writing your book with those in the title. Therefore, what is also needed are pathways that include the brain/body simultaneously with dealing with those beliefs and the associated “warded off” affects that make up the false self. Thank you for listening, Bruce 🙂

    • Thanks Durwin, Yes, and Bessel van Der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, goes into the brain-body-emotions-sensations in depth. As the trauma is appropriately addressed, the brain responds. I believe that there is a correlation between brain states and psychological wellness/illness, but I don’t believe that the brain causes mental illness. That said, once neural pathways are laid down, it takes some time to rewire.


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