Understanding ourselves, what motivates and drives us, what gives us a sense of peace and fulfillment, what connects us to others, what gives life meaning and purpose, and how we get in our own way are some of the important components of good emotional health that bring people to therapy.
The premise of what I am about to share is based on some spiritual principles worth considering. These are not religious principles, although you will find a reference to ego (self identification) and soul (god or spirit identification) in almost every religious and spiritual text.
Why is it helpful to begin to identify our egoic self vs. our true self? Because understanding our true self will result in a sense of personal peace, purpose, connection to others, authenticity, and emotional freedom.
The first thing I would ask you to consider is the idea that we are made up of 3 parts: a body, a soul and an ego. Let’s begin by identifying these aspects of self:
The body is our physical representative made up of skin, bones, and organs.
- Every body on earth is unique
- Every body on earth is vulnerable to physical harm
- We cannot choose the body we have but we can choose how we care for the body
The Soul or Spirit
The soul is our individualized “essence”, our true self and the source of unconditional love, courage, strength, wisdom, joy and happiness.
- Every earthbound soul is carried within a body
- We cannot choose or change our soul and it cannot be harmed or altered. It is what makes each person inherently worthwhile despite their good or bad actions.
- Our soul is not connected to our “roles” such as mother, father, sister, brother, friend, boss, employee or our “labels” such as good, bad, smart, stupid, hard-working, or lazy.
Some of the ways to notice we are in connection with the soul are:
- The feeling of being in flow when doing something you love
- A connection to a greater purpose or mission that is unique to you and ultimately adds to the world in some way
- A feeling that you are being internally guided by an inner voice which often shows up as a gut feeling or intuition.
- A sense of loving and accepting yourself exactly as you are in each moment without any judgement
- No need for validation or affirmation from others to feel “worthwhile”
- An ability to accept others exactly as they are, which includes forgiveness for those who may have harmed you
- A desire to be in connection with nature and the ability to see the inherent beauty in anything
- Feeling fearless and empowered to achieve your dreams
We can most easily connect with our soul when we spend time alone, meditate, journal, spend time in nature, create, and do things we truly enjoy for no other purpose than the enjoyment.
The ego is the image we hold and seek to project to the world about who we are.
- Everyone has an ego and few achieve “transcendence” or pure soul identification. Jesus, Gandhi, The Buddha, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama are examples of those who seem to have achieved transcendence
- Our ego’s development is highly influenced by “input” from our family and friends, our society, our race, and our religious or spiritual beliefs
- Our ego is constantly in flux, often based on the circumstances of our life
- Our ego is the face we put on for the world and includes our titles and roles
When your ego is in charge you might notice:
- Over thinking, thinking the same thoughts on repeat, feeling controlled by thoughts, making “movies” out of thoughts
- Feeling emotionally “out of control” and easily overwhelmed by anger, fear, hurt, disappointment, etc.
- An inner voice that is focused on anxiety, fear, depression, and self-criticism, resulting in beliefs such as ‘I’m not good enough”, “I’m not pretty, thin or smart enough”, “I deserve to be unhappy”, “My life is meaningless”
- Self-worth is dependent on “outer trappings” – your car, home, accomplishments, travels, or relationships
- You often find yourself very upset and have difficulty letting go of this upset when things don’t go your way, your expectations are not met by self or others, or people say or do things you don’t like
- You compare yourself to others and the result affects how you feel about yourself
- You need the validation of others to maintain a good feeling about yourself
Your ego is constantly trying to assert itself, believing that it’s purpose is to protect you. The goal is not to eliminate the ego, but to become aware of the ego’s voice and to understand that we do not have to listen to it or believe what it is saying.
Most people who identify with a faith tradition or consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” will have no problem identifying with the idea of having a body, a soul and an ego (often referred to as body, mind, spirit). They may disagree on what happens to the soul upon death, however this writing is not focused on or motivated by what happens after we die. Most people who identify as atheists do not believe in a soul or universal energy. I cannot say the spiritual and religious people are right and the atheists are wrong: this really is a matter of what we each choose to believe based on our personal experience of what feels true. My only goal is to help others conceptualize a belief system that allows them to live in a manner that is not weighed down with emotional baggage.
My understanding of what most atheists believe is:
- We are strictly material beings and that our mind, spirit, and soul are a function of the brain (in other words these concepts are created and exist only in our brains)
- Consciousness is a result of evolution, chance, and the random wiring of the brain
- What we experience in life is strictly the result of cause and effect
My favorite “atheist”, Sam mHarris, wrote a book entitled “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”. This book does not suggest the existence of a soul in the traditional sense but instead posits that consciousness does have a spiritual aspect, and that things like meditation and nature can connect us more deeply with this spiritual aspect.
My conclusion from all of this is that it doesn’t matter where we believe the soul comes from at birth or goes to after death, or if the soul is derived from God, the Universe, or our brain’s wiring. All we have to believe is that within our body exists a brain and that brain has parts driven to elevate and protect our identity (egoic self) and parts that are concerned with being at peace and connected to others (true self). Our happiness is directly connected to which aspect of ourself we most often identify with. The excellent news is that at any moment we can begin to learn to choose where to direct that focus so long as we can see that these different aspects exist. Therapy is one path to help identify and more deeply understand these parts.
If you are interested in understanding more about concepts like those discussed here, I suggest you get to googling and read a bit about what these books discuss. Then pick 2, one that is most closely aligned with your own worldview and one that offers new ideas you have not previously been exposed to.
The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga by Deepak Chopra
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda
The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings, Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh
Teaching of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield
The Art of Happiness, A Handbook for Living by Dalai Lama XIV
Recapturing the Wonder, Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by David Cosper
Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned about Life by Harold Kushner
The Purpose Driven Life, What on Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren
Your Best Life Now, Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential by Joel Osteen
Change Your Words, Change Your Life by Joyce Meyer
Spiritual and/or God with no reference point to a religion
A New Earth, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer
The Seekers Guide, Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure by Elizabeth Lesser
Waking Up, A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris
A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson
Conversations with God by Neal Donald Walsch
The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav
The Book of Awakenings by Mark Nepo
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May
The Road Less Traveled, a New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth by M. Scott Peck
10% Happier, How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self Help that Actually Works by Dan Harris
Loving What Is, Four Questions that Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The Four Agreements, A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz