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From Maleck comes this topic:
“Ego (as understood in common parlance, not Freud) in magical and spiritual work.”
I am glad that Maleck clarified not referencing Freud. Unfortunately, like a lot of psychological and spiritual terms that became popular and used in modern Western New Age influenced spiritual circles, it began as an academic term and has morphed a lot over time. The most common ways I have seen ego used generally falls into one of three ways. The two dictionary definitions, per Lexico which are relevant here, are: “A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance” and “(in metaphysics) a conscious thinking subject.” The third tends to be mostly negative, at least so far as New Age, and communities influenced by them are concerned: the ego is the selfish impulses and this-world concerns, the individual’s desires and Self. This latter tends to be used rather like a cudgel, whether against oneself or others, such as through admonishing others to ‘let go of your ego and embrace [concept]’ or ‘do not let your ego get in the way of your [progress, path, etc]’.
Of these definitions, I find the first most useful to our purposes in talking about ego in magical and spiritual work. It is direct, to the point, and without shaming or adoration of self-esteem or self-importance itself. The second definition, a conscious thinking object, especially when within the realm of animism and polytheism, is a category that is greatly expanded from where most metaphysical thinking is right now. It has incredible potential to widen and deepen the understanding and use of ego out of its mostly negative status in the overculture. However, of the definitions, it is the least used in our communities. The third is toxic in its use in modern magical, occult, Pagan, and polytheist communities. It is often used to denigrate healthy boundaries, a sense of self, or countless other means of protecting oneself or affirming one’s own needs and desires. It also has seen use in sublimating one’s desire or needs (physical, mental, and spiritual) to another person or group, or used as a way to spiritually bypass one’s own needs, boundaries, or issues needing addressing. Unfortunately, this third term tends to be the one used the most in discussions about ego.
The concept of the ego as something to be dissolved or brought under control in aescetic practice is not, in of itself, a New Age concept alone. New Age thinking and practice on this, which stemmed from New Thought, first took these most if not all of their concepts and original techniques from dharmic religions and then twisted them. People, such as those involved in the Theosophical Society, brought terms and practices from dharmic religion into their groups, and over time, at least here in America, their conceptions of these things became the mainstream use of terms and techniques. I treat these concepts and techniques as separate because even where they are similar, it often proves to be a separate conception between what the younger practice thinks, interpreted, or twisted the older practice into being than what that older dharmic practice is.
Operating from the first definition, “A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”, ego is utterly important to magical and spiritual work. While magic can have interplay with spiritual work, and often does in how I execute magic, I also recognize that at least some forms of magic interface, work with, or directly manipulate spiritual energies which have impact on spiritual beings rather than working with spirits directly. I defined magic in this post as “Weaving or carving Urðr to an end.” The post also provides an in-depth look at my understanding of and relationship with magic. However the use of magic comes about, the operant needs to have enough sense of self-esteem and self-importance that not only can they conceive of themselves of being able to carry out change to Urðr, they do so. Whatever the magic is, it has to cross from “I think I can” to “I am doing this” to “It is done.”
There are literally millions of ways to execute magic, from elaborate to simple, and everywhere in between. What all forms of magic have in common is, from the conception of its use, its execution, and its effects, is that we are using power to get things done. Magic is based in reality. While we may not fully understand, or may even misunderstand the mechanism(s) by which magic(s) works, we recognize that it proves its existence by experience, by cause and effect. Even on a baseline materialist angle, the use of magic allows for better outcomes. By lighting an enchanted candle to get a job, putting a good resume out there, and doing my best on interviews, by being inspired by the power I bring to bear on the situation, whatever the ultimate ontological reality is, I am giving myself a huge edge. I believe in myself enough to light that candle, to put out my resume, to interview, and to keep on doing things that increase the likelihood that I will get that job. I am going through all the effort because I believe I am worthy of that job. Moreover, I am doing active work to ensure that I get that job.
The magic does not work without a positive sense of self-esteem and self-importance. Why? Without that sense I do not conceive of magic being worth the time and energy to execute. So, it does not get done. Without that sense, I do not spend time thinking about and selecting the right candle, or carving it. So, the candle is unenchanted. Without that sense I do not bother to light the candle. So, the magic is never executed. Without that sense I do not search for a job, nor submit my application, nor interview for it. Nothing happens without the forward momentum provided by my sense of self-esteem and self-importance. This also applies if we are looking at things from a more collectivistic stance. A sense of self-esteem and self-importance can be based in one’s community, whether the role one plays in it, or just the fact that one exists in a community. So, rather than a personal feeling of pride and “I deserve this job!” providing momentum to a magical working, I could be working from a feeling of “To be a good member of this community I will contribute through my labor!” or “I want to help, and this is what I can do!” However the motivation and sense of self-esteem and self-importance comes about, it needs to be there for the magic to have grounding in our lives if we are going to conceive of it, execute it, and experience the results of it.
Most of what I have written here applies to spiritual relationships as well. If I do not believe myself as being worthy of a relationship I am unlikely to seek it out or be receptive to them. If I only believe I am worthy of certain relationships then, whatever may be available to me, I will only seek out certain kinds of relationships. However, since the other party is a Being unto Themselves, They may have more than enough confidence in a relationship with me to reach across my own lacking self-confidence or self-assurance and buoy my ego. Sometimes by reaching out, a given God, Ancestor, or spirit can provide the boost to one’s self-esteem or self-importance that we can then be receptive to Them. Other times, it may be that the person derives a feel of positive self-esteem and/or self-importance in a similar way to belonging to a human community, as being part of a spiritual family, clan, and/or community.
The reverse of these things is also true. By having an overinflated sense of self-esteem I could be engaging in fooling myself that my magic is more effective than what it is. I may ignore common sense, such as putting in my resume, cutting off my magic’s ability to do the thing I was executing it for in the first place. By having an overinflated sense of self-esteem and self-importance, I could actively push away spiritual relationships. I could be overconfident in an approach to Ginnreginn and cause offense, or overestimate my ability to handle a given relationship and overload myself. In executing magic or being in a relationship I could overcommit or not commit enough.
Where I think a lot of the issues with ego is headed off is balance, a proportional sense of self-esteem and self-importance. Originally, I was going to write the word healthy, but that term is so loaded and at the same time not descriptive of what I would look for. This is going to be harder for some folks and easier for others, for a load of reasons. However, I think that balance is necessary in ego for effective magic and healthy relationships. That proportionality is weighed, formed in community with others. That balance can also shift over time, in rhythm with relationships one holds, the magic one works, the experience one gains, and the effects all these things have on and with each other.
When I became a Heathen it was commonplace to see or hear the words “We do not kneel before our Gods!” loudly and proudly declared. I felt then, as I still do, that most of this is a reaction against Christianity rather than a reaction for our Gods. To my mind, this is often an active impediment in Heathen thought to getting to know our Gods, and also our Ancestors and vaettir in some fairly powerful ways. Kneeling, genuflecting, and prostration all can be powerful ways of recognizing another’s power, and aligning our ego with our place in things. Some folks are so hurt by their previous experience with these postures (or their knees/back/etc just hurt doing it) that just doing them brings pain, lowering their sense of self-esteem and self-importance that it becomes a block in the relationship. It may be counter-productive for a person to kneel or prostrate themselves. A bow, an inclination of the head, shutting of eyes, hands on the heart, or similar ways of showing respect may be easier and better in their relationship with the God. I think part of the beauty of Heathenry is that it allows for these approaches in proportion with our relationship with each God, Ancestors, and vaettr. Abasement and denial of our own self-esteem and self-importance is not necessary as part of holding relationships with the Ginnreginn.
Working with magic is working with power. Working with spiritual Beings is work with Powers. Power, whether hard or soft, gentle or firm, great or small, gets things done. “Weaving or carving Urðr to an end” means that we take a hand in working within the Worlds and with the Ginnreginn. Our ego is a potentially powerful ally, one I think we would do well to keep by our side rather than try to be rid of. Treating it like a good ally, by giving good and proportional support to our ego, it in turn can provide support in hard times and be part of why we succeed in a given endeavor. Bringing our ego into magic and spiritual work in a proportial way that honors where we are, how we are, and what our needs and boundaries are, brings more of our whole Self to bear in the magical and spiritual work before us.
6 thoughts on “Patron Topic 55: On Ego in Spiritual and Magical Work”
Very much agreed…the vocabulary of “ego,” often in combination with “reduce/jettison,” etc., is yet another platitude that gets slung around far more than it should in “spiritual” (which should have “pseudo-” in front of it a lot of the time, unfortunately!) circles.
As a little anecdote: way back in about 2001, I was encouraged to write a piece for a certain small circulation spiritual journal, and it was supposed to be “my own story.” So, I told that. I got a reply from the editor saying “Why not try re-writing the article with a little less ego?” I replied that such a notion is not a part of my spiritual practice or path, and that I was actually just telling about what had happened to me and how I came to certain ideas that I have, etc., and if the editor wasn’t interested in what I had to say, that was fine. I got a reply again that said “Actually, there wasn’t as much ego in there as I had thought.” Crikey–imagine the power of actually reading what someone said rather than assuming because the pronoun “I” gets used (in an autobiographical piece!) it automatically means one has an inflated sense of self! 😉
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Reading would require us to take the information in, process it, and *then* react to it. To properly evaluate it in its turn. It’s part of why I use proportional instead of healthy. It is way too easy to have an emotional reaction and mistake it for the information present.
“It is way too easy to have an emotional reaction and mistake it for the information present.”
Welcome to the internet! 😉
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I wonder how much of modern western ideas of breaking down ego come down to just flagrant misunderstandings of dharmic religious and thought systems.
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Yes…The decontextualization of these ideas from their cultures of origin, in which collectivism and a group identity of various sorts as opposed to an individual one automatically means that anything which does not primarily and principally partake of that group identity is, therefore, flawed, un-evolved, selfish, and antisocial. Not realizing that as the underlying reason for all of this in the redeployment of these ideas in western spiritualities misses something very important.
Granted, I’m not saying that the western emphasis on individuality is not or cannot be potentially harmful and counter-productive; and yet, any system which suggests that this should simply be abandoned altogether will, in my view, never really work for western people. There’s useful individualism, and there’s toxic individualism…just like practically everything else!
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