Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Ego and the Self

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 11, 2010

Where does Resistance come from?  Seth Godin says it arises from the “lizard brain,” i.e. the primitive reptilian stem that knows only fight-or-flight and thus resists all attempts by the organism—you and me—to ascend to higher realms. There’s something to this, I think, but not, in my opinion, the way Seth sees it.

The source of Resistance, to my mind, is the clash between the ego and the Self.

A definition of the ego

What is the ego? The ego as I would define it is that identity-center that runs our lives in the here and now, the material dimension. When we say “I want,” “I need,” “I am,” the “I” we’re talking about is the ego.

(Significantly, when we say “I love,” we’re not talking about the ego.)

The ego runs the show in the real world. It’s the boss. It’s got an enormous stake in remaining the boss.

Now: what is the Self?

An “I” beyond the ego

The Self is a deeper “I,” a greater “I.” The Self, according to Jung, contains infinitely more than the ego. The unconscious (personal and collective) resides here. Dreams come from the Self, as do instinct and intuition. From the Self spring visions, myths, archetypes. The Self abuts the Divine Ground—neshama in Hebrew, the soul.

Rabbi Finley. It's a sobering business, contemplating the yetzer hara.

In the Kabbalistic view of the world, the soul, which is the source of all wisdom and goodness, is constantly seeking to communicate to us—to our consciousness on the physical plane, our ego. The soul is trying to guide us, sustain us, restore us. But there is a force operating against the neshama. This entity, called the yetzer hara by the great Kabbalistic teachers, is a self-contained and self-sustaining intelligence whose sole aim is to block us from accessing the neshama and to block the neshama from communicating to us.

My breakfast with Rabbi Finley

I was having breakfast a few weeks ago with my friend, Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah congregation in Los Angeles. I asked him about this very subject. Here’s part of what he said:

“There is a second self inside you–an inner, shadow Self. This self doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t love you. It has its own agenda, and it will kill you. It will kill you like cancer. It will kill you to achieve its agenda, which is to prevent you from actualizing your Self, from becoming who you really are. This shadow self is called, in the Kabbalistic lexicon, the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara, Steve, is what you would call Resistance.”

I’ve been publishing these Writing Wednesday posts for over a year now. Here, in a nutshell, is my artistic (and personal) philosophy:

Our job, as souls on this mortal journey, is to shift the seat of our identity from the ego to the Self. That’s it.

Art and the ego

Art (or, more exactly, the struggle to produce art) teaches us that. How? Because we start off, as neophytes, stuck in our egos. We’re trying by force of will, lust, ambition, greed etc. to come up with something that we can show to the world and be rewarded for. Ah, but it ain’t so easy. The process begins immediately to humble us. Like a stern but loving master, the struggle itself nudges us, shifts us, reroutes us. We’re seeking our true voice, our power, our authenticity as artists. We realize–through blood, sweat and tears–that betting on the ego is not going to get us there.

We have to go deeper. We have to surrender, give up the illusion of control, get out of our own way. We have to conquer our fears and jump off the cliff. Call it the Muse, call it “flow,” call it whatever you like. This is the Self—instinct, intuition, the unconscious. When we hit it, it’s like striking a vein of solid gold. We lose ourselves—that is, our egos—and we find something greater: our Selves.

The lover experiences the same exaltation in her perfect embrace of her beloved. She loses herself by giving unconditional love—and discovers a greater Self that is simultaneously her and not-her. So does the mother, the warrior, even the drunk and the drug addict. For an interval they all obliterate the little self and submerge themselves blissfully in the Big One.

Alas, this happy union vanishes the instant we resurface, just as a vision flees from the mystic emerging from his trance or a dream fades from the sleeper when he wakes. We have completed our miniature version of the hero’s journey and we’re back home. Now what? Try again tomorrow—and keep doing it till we get it right.

Resistance and the ego

The ego likes being in charge. It doesn’t want us to seat our identity within its rival, the Self. The ego produces the yetzer hara—Resistance—and strives with all its force and cunning to keep us bound to it and not to the Self.

The pursuit of art, originality, selflessness or excellence in any ethical form is, beyond all its other aspects, a discipline of the soul. It’s a practice. A means to and method for self-transformation.

If you ask me personally, Have I myself achieved anything like this … hell, no. I’ve still got both feet in the ego and they’re mired in mud and mucilage. But I’m trying. Like Rabbi Finley and those hard-thinking mystics from the sixteenth century, I’m shuttling back and forth to the Self as often and as mindfully as I can–and trying to hang on as long as I can when I re-merge to the earthly realm.

When you and I struggle against Resistance (or when we try to love or endure or give or sacrifice or face down an enemy), we are engaged in a contest not only on the material plane, but on the spiritual as well. It isn’t just about writing our symphony or taking care of our child or leading our team against the Taliban in Konar province. The clash is epic and internal, between the ego and Self, and the stakes are our lives.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

30 Responses to “The Ego and the Self”

  1. John Terry's Mum
    August 11, 2010 at 1:52 am

    There is a second self inside you. . . It has its own agenda. . .It will kill you to achieve its agenda, which is to prevent you from actualizing your Self

    Now why would it want to do a thing like that?

    • Diane Smith
      August 11, 2010 at 10:23 am

      At first glance, the second self killing you to achieve its agenda is an odd concept. Looking deeper… when we let fear choose for us, (these are choices grounded in ego, that second self inside you) resistance always prevails.

  2. August 11, 2010 at 3:26 am

    Wow, yet another breath-taking post, Steven!
    Thank you!

    I have came across nice quote recently, which said: “Success is not what are you hanging on to, it is what you can let go.” Letting go and surrendering to inner calling is indeed, an epic clash.

    March on, warriors!

  3. @mrsaintnick
    August 11, 2010 at 4:26 am

    Wow!!! What an amazing but very true publishing. How often do we sit and allow ego to take control and gain the upper hand each and everyday of our lives. Understanding and knowing just what we are against is a great tool in this struggle. Continual fights with resistance is a constant battle but in order to achieve our true SELF, we must fight this war daily until we have won. Thank you Steven Pressfield!

  4. August 11, 2010 at 4:46 am

    “The process begins immediately to humble us. Like a stern but loving master, the struggle itself nudges us, shifts us, reroutes us. We’re seeking our true voice, our power, our authenticity as artists. We realize–through blood, sweat and tears–that betting on the ego is not going to get us there.”

    This description really resonates with me. The pursuit of art is not only a calling, but a transformative process bringing us closer to our true selves.

    This is a fantastic post and a great way of looking at Resistance from another perspective.

  5. August 11, 2010 at 5:16 am

    I keep encountering these chill-inducing synchronicities every time you publish a post like this. Last night I commented on an article by Mark McGuinness at Lateral Action about procrastination. Mark mentions you and your incisive concept of resistance in that post. My comment was all about the necessity of getting the ego and the unconscious mind, likened to the muse, into a harmonious working relationship. And now I wake up this morning to find this beautiful post by you about essentially, or exactly, the same thing. As always, thank you. You say these things so very, very well.

  6. August 11, 2010 at 5:49 am

    thank you so much for sharing your battle with resistance… yet another “to the target” hit on how profound your thinking is.

    humbly i say thank you for sharing this Steven! your writing wednesdays are a total….

    “dont miss it man!”

    we all learn and share something with words like yours

  7. August 11, 2010 at 5:50 am

    sorry posting again so i can click on the updates box… best regards Ric

  8. August 11, 2010 at 8:47 am

    Alas, this happy union vanishes the instant we resurface, just as a vision flees from the mystic emerging from his trance or a dream fades from the sleeper when he wakes.

    There’s nothing like being in that trance.

    Sometimes I sit at the computer screen wondering how in the world I’m ever going to write another 60,000 word mystery novel. How did I do it those other times?

    But then, somehow (I wish I knew exactly how) I go into that trance. And the words begin to flow. I can see the action on the screen of my mind. I can hear my characters speaking. I simply write it all down. Easy.

    Oh, for the ability to go there at will. ;)

  9. Scott Michael
    August 11, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Along the same line, Caroline Myss talks about how we should be grateful that we were raised in an ego-based tribe, because it gave us a place to come from as we seek to free ourselves from its groupthink to get in touch with our Self. There can be no light without dark, no love without fear.

    Further, if the ego was not there for us, we might never emerge from ecstatic meditation to forage for food and shelter, for instance. The ego allows us to survive in this world (the dark) so that we may experience the divine (the light).

  10. Ines
    August 11, 2010 at 9:39 am

    “Our job, as souls on this mortal journey, is to shift the seat of our identity from the ego to the Self. That’s it.”

    This morning, I am as depressed as Rabbi Finley looks. I am fighting against the yetzer hara, against Resistance. It is a powerful force and my energy is weak. I come here looking for a boost, but today, I am hit with reality. The battle is for me to fight. It’s time to get out of the safe zone. For goodness sake, even these Wednesday visits (which turn into Thursday, Friday and Sunday rechecks) are proving to be a distraction. Resistance is even using my learning about it to keep me from writing. This is crazy!

    That’s it! I am shifting my seat.

    • SJB
      August 11, 2010 at 1:26 pm

      I’m in the same zone Ines. You brought to mind that William James quote. “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”

  11. Dan in Philly
    August 11, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Drat! I thought I was coming up with something more original when I realized this. Those 16th century mystics beat me to it :(

    There is no new thing under the sun.

    The only thing I’d add is it ain’t just art which allows for a persuit of the self and overcoming resistance. Everything does. I’m involved in weight lifting right now, and it’s taught me a lot about overcoming resistance for the sake of the self, which is kind of neat….

  12. August 11, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Hi Steven,

    I emailed Seth Godin some time ago to share with him my thoughts about the Resistance, which is similar to what you’ve mentioned here.

    However, I don’t see the conflict being between the ego and the Self, but between the Self and the self-image. The Self is who we are, and the self-image is our impression of who we are, based on the impressions people have about us, our past experiences, and our own thinking pattern.

    We take every incident as an opportunity to reinforce our self-image. Whenever we do something (or fail to do something), we ask ourselves: “What does this say about me?” and use the answer to instill our self-image.

    We spend most of our lives living through our self-image, and not our Self. We live according to our false impression of who we are and what we’re capable of, without realizing the enormous room for flexibility that the Self allows for. But because we see ourselves from the narrow confines of our self-image, it’s difficult to break out of that illusion, and embrace our true potential.

    Many writers say that they are “terrible writers,” then behave accordingly. And because they’ve already concluded that they are terrible, they don’t realize the enormous reserves of creativity they have, yet refuse to acknowledge.

    Resistance is our way of clinging to our self-image as the only truth we know, and the fear of discovering what the Self truly is, and capable of achieving.

  13. August 11, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Just finished reading Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart” Theres a great zen story in there about a young female warrior who asks to do battle with Fear. She asks “how can I defeat you?”.. Fear replies, “I get very close to your face, and I talk fast and very loud. You can listen to what I say, and even believe it, but as long as you don’t do what I say, you will defeat me.

  14. August 12, 2010 at 5:03 am

    Amazing post and Insight. Worth sharing, understanding and directing your conscious mind.

    A pleasure to read this post.

  15. Jen Y
    August 12, 2010 at 6:21 am

    Beautiful post! Being a yoga student, this especially sticks with me: “The pursuit of art, originality, selflessness or excellence in any ethical form is, beyond all its other aspects, a discipline of the soul. It’s a practice. A means to and method for self-transformation.”

  16. August 12, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    Hi Steven,
    In a word, this piece: ROCKED. I subscribe to Godin’s lizard brain theory, very much resonate with this Kabbalistic view as well. Perhaps the lizard brain (amygdyla) is the seat of the yetzer hara the same way yogis say the pineal gland is the physical window to the soul. In either case this is a big insight.

    BTW I just finished Gates of Fire. Beautiful storytelling. Gritty and truthful. I searched for writing you’ve done on phobologica, but couldn’t find anything. Is phobologica a way of defeating yetzer hara?

  17. August 13, 2010 at 4:45 am

    What about the embracing of opposites, holding the contradictions of life in our heart and mind? Can contradictions co-exist? Isn’t that what art is?

  18. Holly
    August 13, 2010 at 8:00 am

    What a profoundly beautiful post, Mr. Pressfield. It brings tears to my eyes.

  19. Michael Arnoldus
    August 13, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    The buddhists call her Maya. The greatest enemy we will ever face. And make no mistake. She will hide everywhere even where we least expect to find her. Even in our hearts, even in love. Just when we have realized how proficient we are becoming in getting rid of fear and unconditionally loving our peers, we feel the joy and pride of having reached the goal: at last I have shed my ego and are resting in my Self. But who is this “I” that have performed such a magnificent feat?

    Dear Steven. Thank you for writing your great posts about resistance, and thank you for mentioning the ego as the source of resistance – I agree this is the main thing. Seeing beyond the illusion of the world and letting go of the ego, of the “I”.

    However unlike you I find “love” at least in it’s everyday use, is in no way separated from ego or Maya or yetzer hare. In fact I think is a place where the ego reigns supreme. How many times haven’t what we call love triggered exactly the contraction and fear based reaction that are the hallmark of the ego?

    And while I like you find my ultimate purpose to see through the illusion, I don’t see “fighting resistance” as the solution. For let me ask you, who is doing the fighting? Who is taking pride in the results?

    So what’s the solution. There is none – at least none that can be put into words. Personally I like the image of seeing Maya or yetzer hara as a trickster. And sometimes she will get you and then what’s left other than to smile, acknowledge that you fell for it once more and just keep walking doing what you have to do. Just like Arjuna.

    So – have fun :-)

  20. August 14, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Very interesting. However I am not sure that we need to battle that frightened, narcissistic part of ourselves that you are calling the ego. I think compassion and mindfulness is both a gentler and more effective approach. There is some lovely research on the benefits of self-compassion i.e. ‘being warm towards oneself when encountering pain and personal shortcomings, rather than ignoring them or hurting oneself with self-criticism.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-compassion

  21. Adrian O'Flynn
    August 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Scott Michael… brilliant perspective.

    As I read this superb post and Scott’s comment, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs made perfect sense to me.

  22. August 16, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Good definitions. It helps to define how we see self-as-content (ego) as how we are what we think vs. self-as-context, simply the place where the thinking and feeling takes place, which helps us then observe resistance and catch it in the act!

  23. August 17, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    Steven, what would it look like for you to pursue this concept further? I would love to see a series, a retreat, weekend, or online discussion about how to work out these principles. I really think you’ve hit on something here, and would like to explore it in a deeper way.

  24. August 17, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    I knew something was there, something identifiable. I could feel it. The deeper I go into this work (sifting the Self from the Ego), the more surprised I become at the depth of my rage. I think, in the beginning, rage and resistance were a sword and a shield. They saved me. Now … well, now they try in both devious and forthright ways to defeat me, the world, the entire human race. Of the two, I think rage is actually more benign.

  25. Dave
    August 30, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    The fall of man! Expelled from Eden, filled with shame and cursed by God to ‘toil’, man is divided from his Creator (and against himself?!) and fallen into sin. Then see 2 Corinthians Ch. 5 “We are always confident, knowing that while we are home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

  26. September 5, 2010 at 9:17 am

    i like the photograph of the typewriter fonts

  27. August 7, 2013 at 6:08 am

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