Ending the Superego’s Power of Enslavement
What does “Breaking Free of Imaginary Gods & Demons” have to do with waking up and being free?
“Breaking free” is about self-examination or looking at yourself to see what you haven’t seen before. One of the ways to do that is to name it. If you can name it, you can see it as part of the atmosphere of egoic trance. In naming it, you can make a distinction and are then able to see what’s here that hasn’t been named.
Let’s examine the superego, which has been running unnoticed or in the background of your experience. As a consequence of conditioning and habit, you mistake the superego’s imagined “I” stories for reality when it is nothing more than a temporary appearance within the awareness that you are.
What is the superego, really?
The superego is a fact checker. It’s a brilliant software upgrade that checks patterns of habitual thinking and conditioned identity for deviance. Deviance means mutation and most mutations are harmful. If there’s a mutation in the pattern, the superego notices it and compulsively tries to point out, correct, or fix the mutation.
Some mutations are benign. The alphabet is an example, and begs the questions: Where did the name “alphabet” come from and why is it called the “alphabet”? In breaking it down, it becomes alpha-bet where “alpha” is the first letter of the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta, gamma) and “bet” is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph, bet, gimmel). These are the alphabets that came before the alphabet we use today. The mutation here is the letter “c” as in both Greek and Hebrew we see the same sequence of a, b, g, d or alpha, beta, gamma, delta in Greek and aleph, bet, gimmel, daled in Hebrew. The “c” is a mutation or something put into the alphabetic system by mistake, but it’s benign—it doesn’t matter or hurt you—so you continue with it.
The function of the superego is to notice such deviations, point out defects and irregularities, and make them obvious so you can do something to fix or change them. It operates at different levels with the most basic and deepest level consisting of the organic superego, which doesn’t use or have a language. For example, consider what it would be like to eat one of your family members or to eat another human being. If you’re like most in society, the thought of eating another human being is revolting. This feeling of superegoic revulsion, which is embedded deeply in the psyche, keeps us from eating each other. In this sense, it’s very useful, but not everyone has it as such programming can vary between cultures. In some cultures, you can’t eat your family, but it’s okay to eat your enemies. And in cases of extreme crisis and starvation, you find that you can eat other people. An example of this is depicted in the movie Alive (1993) where a soccer team’s plane crashes in the Andes and they end up eating some of the dead crew members in order to survive; in the face of starvation and death, the deep organic superego can be overridden.
In our time there is often a superego of deficiency or a feeling that I’m not good enough, not lovable, or unworthy. The superego internalizes an identity of defect or insufficiency, which presupposes or assumes that there’s something wrong with me that needs to be corrected or fixed. It looks for defects and flaws and imagines the ways “I” am not loveable or worthy enough. It most individuals, it operates subconsciously (although not as deeply as the example of eating another human being) as a deep dysfunctional unnamed program. When it’s consciously seen as just a phantom program appearing and disappearing within awareness, it’s much less troublesome; it can no longer perpetuate suffering or an identity of deficiency to the same degree it once did.
The word “superego” comes from Sigmund Freud. The superego is a very simplified version of self, which I gleaned from my earliest reading of Freud at a young age. You have an ego, which is the doer and an id derived from German, meaning it. The id is what lives in the basement as the dark sexual impulse to run wild and naked in the streets. The superego’s role is to be the cop at the basement door, preventing the id from ever coming out. This is of course Freud’s projection of his own psyche as a social six fixation on the enneagram of character fixation. However, it’s helpful to note that this is where the concept of superego originated.
The superego serves as a rule keeper or cop that lives inside your head as your parents’ voice or the voice of God, determining what you should and shouldn’t do. This voice is what commands you and regulates your action when it’s internalized or mistaken for yourself.
Society also has a superego. The gay liberation movement in our culture served as a rebellion against society’s superego that was imposed by the institutional culture of the church as religious morality and righteousness. Religious cultural understandings impose a social superego of sexual do’s and don’ts. In Greek culture (during the 7th Century B.C. through the Roman Era), it was very common and totally normal for a man to pick up a young boy at the gymnasium and become his lover as well as his tutor, thus helping to raise him in a certain way. Greek society during this time did not have a superego about same sex relationships. But Western society, because of our religious impositions, had a strong superego of sexual morality that had to be rebelled against. That rebellion has been successful and the psyche has now changed.
What you must do internally is see where you’re being ruled by a superego that has nothing to do with what’s right and nothing to do with love. Rather, it deals with an idea of morality that has been imposed upon you from your cultural conditioning. This is the invitation and what you must examine for yourself: How are you being ruled by an inner sense of worthlessness or by the sense of a moral cop in your head that tells you what you should and shouldn’t do?
Many in the spiritual community now have a spiritual superego (a god or guru) that tells them what they should do, shouldn’t do, and how they weren’t spiritual enough in a particular moment. This god or guru also tells you what a spiritual person would do in certain situations, what you need to work on, and measures how awake and present you are. The spiritual superego is a major slave driver that acts as an internalized judge, instructing you on how to be a “better” or more spiritual person. In trying to be “better” or more spiritual, you involve the ego, which is the separation between who you are and who you imagine yourself to be.
You may be starting to notice that what you thought was reality is actually an impulse from somewhere else. What questions do you ask yourself about how you should be and what you should do?
Take a moment and consider: What should you do? Notice where the answer comes from and how you are aware of that answer. Do you hear it? Do you feel it somewhere in your body? Where does it originate? And why this answer and what does it mean? Does it arise as a particular voice (your parent’s voice, your guru’s voice, God’s voice, or society’s voice)? Who says so and why should you do it?
This will help you start uncovering for yourself how the superego works in your life. Examine further the superego of deficiency and question: Why are you wrong? Why aren’t you enough? Why aren’t you lovable? Who says so? Whose voice speaks of your deficiency? Is it a voice or is it more of a feeling or emotion? Where does this feeling come from? Follow it back to its source. See if it’s true or not; this examination of the superego turned inside (or internalized) is invaluable.
When the superego is turned outside, it serves as a critic and judge that perceives what’s wrong. The superego walks into a room and immediately starts comparing and judging whatever it sees. This is a very negative form of personality. My partner once said to me: “You know, you have a negative personality.” I was shocked. “No, I’m not being negative. What do you mean? I’m not negative! Tell me, show me, the next time I’m negative.” An hour passed and then she said: “That was negative.” I said: “That’s not negative. That was funny.” Then I had to examine for myself and see what I was calling funny was actually sarcasm; it was a sarcastic put down that I thought was funny. My upbringing on the streets of New York conditioned me to always have sarcastic put downs for everyone and everything. It was how I survived in that community. I would use sarcasm in school, too, coming up with sarcastic comments about the teacher from the back of the classroom. Once it was pointed out to me and I could see it, I got it. My sarcasm is negative: there’s some anger in it and a put down.
I decided to make a mark on a page every time I was negative or sarcastic, and it came up maybe half a dozen times on the first day. I just noticed it and it gradually decreased until, after a while, I wasn’t keeping track and it wasn’t there anymore. The negativity and sarcasm just faded away; not by fighting with it, forcing it, or changing it—just by noticing it. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sometimes appear. It can show up or not, but I don’t think anyone would say that I have a negative personality anymore, at least, not in a sarcastic sense. There may be other ways negativity expresses itself in me, but that one was seen.
You’re here to see into yourself, not to judge, fix, or correct yourself as that would just be more superego stuff. You’re also not here to do anything as that’s more ego stuff. Just observe the impulse to judge, fix, or go do something. In the observation, quite naturally the impulses change. When it does, if it does, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re conscious and present to the impulse without needing to change it or act on it.
As an experiment, you could keep track: How are you negative? Every time you’re negative, just make a mark. You may not notice your negativity at first, a lot of people don’t. We’re not trained to see it. I know someone who’s always telling me: “Well, that’s not right because…” and “Well, no, it’s too small, it’s too big, it’s too…” This is considered negativity. Negativity is always checking for what’s wrong and then not seeing what’s right, and then taking it personally.
Sometimes there are things that are wrong that need to be fixed—no problem. That’s not what I’m speaking about. Rather, if you find yourself walking into a room and you suddenly think to yourself or say out loud: “Those shades are terrible!” That thought or statement isn’t going to change anything, but it does create a little negative moment for you. Just notice that negative thought and make a mark. You’ll start to see how many times it happens in a day. Notice the thought or comment and the sense of worthlessness that often accompanies negativity and judgement. Investigate: Where does it come from? What’s it made of? How do you know it’s real and is it real? What if you don’t take it personally?
Your whole identity is built on a story of worthlessness or unlovability, which you constantly try to prove or hide. You prove that you’re unlovable to show that you are, in fact, the tragedy of it and you also hide that you’re unlovable by performing in some way. This is all functionally useful at a certain stage of ego development, but I’m asking you to go deeper now—to go underneath the act of “everything’s okay.” I’m asking you to go beneath the performance of how good or successful you are to find what’s hidden and unseen. In discovering what’s underneath the surface level act, you discover: Where this performance arises from and what it’s made of. You question: Who says you’re unlovable or not good enough? You find out if the voice is real or merely the ghost of past conditioning.
When you see it clearly, you see through it and it loses its grip on you. You’re free of the demon of it; the demon parading as a God, saying: “I know what’s right. I know who you are. I know what should be done.” Before seeing it clearly, it just seemed like the atmosphere you lived in with blind acceptance and obedience to it. But when you see the demon for what it is and experience clear seeing beyond the imagined knower—you have insight and you’re free of that trance.
So how does this relate to you?
Eli: What would you like to add or what questions do you have? Let’s make this participatory.
Participant: You’ve talked about negativity, specifically, that we talk to other people negatively. I see myself talking to others because of safety and a concern for what they expect me to say in conversation with them. When I tell them that “I’m okay,” I actually feel a lot of fear and say that “I’m okay” so that I’m not perceived as different.
E: Yes, that’s what “society’s superego” means. That’s how the culture imposes this rule and then you feel pressure to follow it. This is how early cultures developed a moral code: by sitting around and gossiping. Particularly, noticing who’s different, discussing what they’re doing, and creating a collective agreement about what’s right and wrong. The societal superego is inbred; society is expecting you to act a certain way and you act that way out of fear. In this way, you’re a slave.
This is like people who refused to express their sexuality because it was wrong—they weren’t supposed to be homosexual. Gay people had to hide and repress their sexuality and act as if society was right. It took an enormous amount of courage to come out of the closet and say: “I’m different. My sexuality is different from yours.”
Now, for you, courage is not to follow the herd, even though it’s expected. Courage is to stay true to yourself in spite of what your society says and in spite of what your friends expect and think. Is that possible? Can you do that?
P: Yes, I can do that. It seems that we don’t have so much to say then.
E: Oh, yes, that would be a relief.
P: Yes, that’s a huge relief and then I really don’t know what will happen. I keep something running by talking and avoiding true connection in fearing what could happen.
E: Yes, that’s it. You avoid true connection by talking negatively about others, the environment, or what’s happening in the world. It’s a way of creating a sense of social bonding that isn’t very deep. It’s a very superficial way of connecting; it’s like barnyard noises or chickens going: “I’m here, I’m okay, gawk, I’m safe, I’m okay, gawk, I’m safe, I’m okay, gawk.” That’s what most people do in their negative talk. They’re just saying: “I’m here, I’m okay, don’t hurt me, we’re together, we’re all one, we agree on this.” It’s a group trance or a form of group hypnosis.
And it’s scary to wake up from it. Who knows what will happen? You might make real contact. You might have a deep relationship or they may all leave. Your social networks (friends, family, etc.) may not be interested in someone who’s not clucking along with them. Who knows? It’s unknown. That unknown is fresh and alive. The negativity and gossip is never fresh and it’s never alive.
The negativity and gossip doesn’t leave you feeling better and it doesn’t leave you enlivened. If anything, it leaves you a little angry, bitter, or self-satisfied, but it’s never enlivening. You can start to see for yourself: When you’re having an interaction, is it enlivening? Is it fresh and open or is it the same old, same old? Is it negative, a downer, or righteous indignation? Is it basically a concern for what they should be doing differently or a criticism of what they did? You start to notice the effect both for yourself and the people you’re with. If it’s bringing you down, it’s certainly bringing everybody else down and if it’s enlivening you, there’s a possibility it enlivens others. This is the challenge.
It’s beautiful. I’m so glad you brought this up because all of society has this ingrained imprinted morality of what you should do, how you should speak, and how you should relate; we’re living in it unconsciously. Then to wake up from it, it’s scary as suddenly we don’t have guidelines. But to sit around and gossip with your girlfriends, everybody knows the rules. To not have an agenda, to not be negative, it’s unknown. Who knows what will happen? It may be something very positive instead of something negative. Perhaps, you’ll experience a heart opening instead of angry self-judgment and angry judgment of others.
P: Thank you so much.
E: I’m so glad. Thank you, dear.
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A second participant asks: How can I distinguish if I’ve fallen into a mental trap of hypocritical thoughts that come from the spiritual superego? Often, when I read something or I hear you or other spiritual stuff, immediately I try to understand it by thinking about it, and after I feel a little bit insecure about that. Is this real or is it only a trap of the spiritual superego?
E: It’s all a trap, and you know it, which is why you feel insecure about it. I’m just confirming what you already know in your heart.
P: So I can’t understanding anything in my head?
E: You can understand lots of things in your head, but you can’t grasp the truth and you can’t grasp love. There are lots of things you can understand in your head: math, philosophy, and discussions. There’s lots of useful information you can hold in your head: how to build a house, how to fix your car, and how to drive. But the head can’t understand what’s beyond the mind; if it does, it becomes a trap.
It’s only for your heart.
P: I hear you, but I have this experience I wrote you about, about this illusion.
E: I liked what you wrote. You wrote: “Oh, I’m so scared that it’s all an illusion and if it’s all gone, I’ll just be left.” As if you’re not the illusion. What if you’re the illusion also? What if it’s all just you? What if you’re the only illusion?
P: Yeah, that’s scary and then in one way, I feel it. There is this understanding, not in my mind or thoughts.
E: That’s right, and that understanding is what’s trustworthy. This is where you have to shift your allegiance from your previous identity to what you already know is true in your heart. It has nothing to do with what you’ve read or what you understand. It’s what you absolutely know in your heart, but you’re afraid of. If you stay true to your heart, you lose your identity as a slave.
Then you see that you as a person are the illusion.
P: And also you, maybe. Everything is the illusion, no?
P: Everything? What I am, you are—it all disappears.
E: That’s right. Everything that appears disappears. If it appears and disappears, it’s an illusion.
P: It’s funny and strange.
E: Yes, it’s funny and strange. That’s right.
P: Okay, thank you.
E: You can trust yourself in the deepest way; you can trust your heart. You’re seeing that trying to figure it out in your head doesn’t work. You see that it doesn’t leave you satisfied—it leaves you uneasy. And you see that you already know the deepest wisdom in your heart, you know it’s true. Now you can trust yourself.
P: Thank you so much.
E: I’m so glad. Thank you so much.
Another participant reports: I notice when I’m with people I like, I play this game. This game is like this “me” that everybody knows; a “me” who’s loud, boisterous, and fun to be with—an amazing person. Underneath, there’s this terribly insecure “me” and I attempt to annihilate this insecure identity by trying to be the other amazing person. I know I’m doing it, but I don’t know how to stop.
E: If you know you’re doing it, you can do it if you want to. As long as you’re aware of it, you have choice and then you don’t have to do it. There’s no problem playing a role; we all play roles. So you play your roles when you’re with your friends.
If you’re with a young child, you play a different role. When you’re with a little child, you don’t say the same things and you don’t have the same tone of voice or the same facial expressions. You play to the child, that’s your role. If you’re talking to your parent, you have a different role. You don’t put on your boisterous friend’s role; you put on your daughter role. We all have these different roles. There’s nothing wrong with them.
P: Yeah, but it’s like I don’t want that person to really know me. That’s scary. I try to annihilate the relationship so that I won’t have to face it. I basically sabotage relationships so I won’t have to go any further with them.
E: Very good. Then you see how that’s based in fear. You’re living in fear. Is it possible now to bear the fear and not act on it?
P: Yes, I hope I have the chance to bear it when I start to experience it again: to not act on it and just see what happens. That’s scary, you know.
E: Yes, it’s scary.
P: It’s like starting a conversation and just stopping mid-sentence and waiting to see what happens. And then, you’re not the person they saw you as.
E: That’s right.
P: And that’s scary.
E: It is scary, but what if you don’t call that energy scary? What if you call that energy enlivening? Same energy, but now you say: “Wow, it’s enlivening!” Suddenly, you don’t know. Who knows what will happen?
P: It’s enlivening?
E: Yes, it’s enlivening. It’s like suddenly you don’t know. It’s like when you’re surfing. There’s a point where instead of feeling it as fear, you feel it as enlivening and you just surf your relationships.
P: I like that.
P: Thank you, Eli.
E: I’m glad to hear from you.
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A new participant shares: I appreciate you pointing out negativity because my first thought, arrogantly, was actually: “I don’t have any negative thoughts.” And then throughout the call, I’ve been seeing my negative thoughts, so thank you for that.
E: Very good. Now when you see them, just make a mark on a page, so you see how many marks you get in a day; it’s a good experiment. Then you have a new day and see how many marks you make. It’s really useful, and it will help you get insight into the structure that’s running.
P: Thank you. Also, when you said something about going underneath the act of how good I am and looking at who says: “I’m not good enough”—something really resonated. It inspired me to look at: Where did this thought originate and where did this feeling of not being good enough come from? What came to me was an interaction I had with my mother as a child. What arose was criticism, not even necessarily overt, but energetic criticism. In the moment that I saw it, I also saw how I do that with my daughter and it really shook me. I want to expose it, see it freshly, and recognize that whatever I’m still holding onto—maybe the story of not being good enough—I’m continuing that criticism with my daughter unnecessarily and I really want to stop.
E: Yes, so important. Our parents’ suffering gets passed on to us and we pass it on to our children as it’s been passed on for countless generations. Your grandparents’ suffering, their parents’ suffering, and their parents’ suffering; it gets passed on in a chain of suffering. Now that you see it, you can break the chain, not by fighting with it, not by fixing it, but just by noticing it and being conscious of it. As you said, you’ve been doing it to your daughter without being aware of it. It doesn’t even have to be verbal. Oftentimes, criticism just takes the form of nonverbal cues, as your mother did with you. But now you notice it and you begin to make marks on a page. After a short time, you start to see through it and it disappears. It really does disappear not by fixing it, but just by consciously observing it and really being there with it.
That’s so beautiful.
P: Thank you so much for your encouragement with this and support for self-examination in general.
E: Thank you. I’m so glad you brought this to us. This is something for all of us to really recognize in ourselves: how we pass on the unconscious suffering that was passed on to us. Many people say: “Well, I’m not going to do what my parents did. I’m going to be the opposite of my parents.” We have that intention not to pass on the suffering, but it comes through because we’re not aware of how we’re passing it on. We’re not aware of our subconscious transmission or what’s going on nonverbally.
When you become aware of what’s going on nonverbally, you bring it into awareness and you can name it. You then notice it, experience it, and see through it, which allows you to not take it personally and not be moved by it. This is what inquiry and self-examination is, and this is how you set yourself free from all the gods and demons that are running your life.
You stop passing it on to your children as well as your friends and neighbors when you stop negatively talking. One person asked me: “If you stop negatively talking, then what are you going to talk about?” Well, who knows? It’s open. Another participant said: “If I’m terrified of this, then what?” It’s unknown and open. Since she’s a surfer, I used the metaphor of surfing because when surfing, if you call it “fear,” you’re going to get wiped out. There may be a point where it’s scary, but then it has to move beyond that to where it’s a rush; where you’re on the edge and you’re going with it. Fear is still there, but it’s not being called fear anymore—it’s being called energy or aliveness.
You just start to notice what you’re doing subconsciously to yourself and others. You see through it and then you can ride it. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called it “riding the windhorse.” This is the windhorse of liberation: to bring your subconscious movement into awareness so that it doesn’t run you—you just ride it and then you’re free.
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A final participant reports: On one hand, my challenge is not feeling good enough and on the other hand, I complain that everything around me is not good enough. Recently, I had the experience of riding my bicycle in the middle of the city and there was a moment where I became conscious of the voice in my head complaining about everything, about myself, and the world around me. Then I noticed that it’s so empty where I’m riding and it is a beautiful night and moment. I realized that no matter what outer conditions I’m experiencing and how I’m thinking about myself—it’s just such a beautiful moment. At that moment, there was a star that came down right in front of me—so beautiful.
E: That’s it. Yes, so beautiful. It’s so simple. In each moment, you can see: Are you living in a negative bubble? Are you complaining about the outside or the inside? Or are you experiencing the bliss of the moment? This is the gracious possibility of being alive; a rare gift of consciousness incarnate in a body where it can experience being alive and conscious of itself.
Oh my God! What a rare, rare gift! Then you see: Are you being negative with yourself or are you allowing the beauty of life to penetrate? Then you don’t want this negative conversation anymore: about the world or about yourself. It just doesn’t feel good or right.
The negativity may run for a while and if you don’t fight with it, try to change it, or fix it and instead just notice it without taking it personally—it loses its juice. It evaporates as it’s made from emptiness and returns to emptiness. Every negative thought, feeling, and idea comes from emptiness, is made of emptiness, and returns to emptiness. When you realize this, negativity can just pass through like traffic. Sometimes there’s traffic and sometimes there isn’t; it doesn’t matter if traffic is there or not.
P: Yes, that’s true.
E: Beautiful. Thank you for bringing up this issue. I’m so grateful for each person who spoke and for everyone who listened and participated. We’re part of a gathering of humanity—a call to wake up and be free. The call is to stop the madness in the world, not by blaming or fighting with the world, but by being free of it. In this call, you serve as an example of love or a living example of the possibility of life. This is your function; fulfill it and you’re fulfilled. Fulfill your function and the whole world will celebrate you. Thank you so much for being here.
May all beings be free and happy