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John Rowan: Fighting the ego is not a good idea

Some of the great names who have written articles or been interviewed for WIE have been saying that the ego is an enemy who must be fought. It is a cunning and persistent enemy whose campaigns have many twists and turns, and many powerful weapons, and the ability to deceive and damage.

This is to say that enemy consciousness is a good thing and to be encouraged. But surely one of the lessons of spiritual development is that enemy consciousness damages the owner as much as the object? It is a powerful temptation and deviation in itself.

It only arises if we try to make the journey from the ego to the nondual in one leap. It only seems to be necessary if we ignore the words of Hegel: “Even that which is most perfect must still tread the path.”

What is this path?  Ken Wilber (2000) has laid it out rather clearly, and I have found personal benefit in following it. First we move from the Mental Ego to the Centaur, from the persona to the real self. This can most readily be achieved by psychotherapy, though other means are possible. The task here is to undo the deceptions of the Shadow, working through all the false conclusions and unnecessary decisions we made with inadequate knowledge and resources. This is the work of letting go of the definitions built up over the years, of ourselves and the world, and being able to see the world and ourselves afresh and without distortion. This is not painless, but the results are successes rather than failures, and they encourage us to persevere.  Humanistic psychology (Rowan 2001) is particularly clear about this journey.

When we have done this, which typically takes about ten years, we are ready for the next phase. This is what Wilber calls the Psychic or the Subtle. It is the great realm of symbols and images, gods and goddesses, the daimon and the soul, angels and devils, fairies and trolls, nature spirits and friendly trees, and of the dismantling of the remaining attractions of language and the either/or. It is also about the relinquishing of the boundaries of the soul, and being able to enter into the I-Me relationship with another person. It is the realm of concrete visualisable representations of the divine, who can be prayed to and related to in a personal way. It brings a great interest in mythology and fairy tales and dreams. It brings the awareness of the subtle body, which can be used in healing. It is rich and colourful, and can often be best reached through group rituals and ceremonies rather than by solitary meditation. In therapy, it enables us to contact transcendental empathy. Again we normally experience successes along the way, rather than failures. Even when we pray for what we want we may remember the words of Meister Eckhart: “By all means pray for what you want: if you get it express gratitude; if you don’t get it, express obedience.” Again much has been written (Rowan 2005) about this journey.

It is only after this, and again it typically takes ten years or so to work through all this material, that we are ready to take the next step, and enter the Causal. This means letting go of all the symbols and images and deities, and embarking on the deep ocean of spirituality. There are no landmarks, no descriptions, no desires and no problems. There is just the one, the absolute, the pure substance of being. There is no need to get attached to freedom, either. We may experience the dance of being. This is most easily reached through meditation. There is a huge literature about this.

And after experiencing this for some years, we may be ready to move on to the nondual, which is no more the One than it is anything else which can be named.

And at this stage (this is the point I have been trying to reach all this time) there is no ego to struggle with, because the ego has been relinquished without a battle. I am reminded of the story of George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement. A gentleman wearing a sword (as gentlemen did at the time) said – “I hear that you are against all weapons. When should I give up my sword?”  George Fox said – “Wear it as long as you may.” This expresses the point I am trying to make rather well. Relinquishing the ego can be easy and natural, rather than difficult and a struggle. As a therapist, one discovers that there is no empathy at this level, because there are no problems.

Now it can be said – and I would agree with this – that the Centaur self is still a kind of ego, that the Subtle self is still a kind of ego, that the Causal self is still a kind of ego. But they are not like the Mental Ego, demanding and always wanting to be fed and supported and made much of. They are bigger and wider. And the Causal self, which has also been called Big Mind, is so big and so vague and so identified with other people and the world in general that it is not hard to give up. The real work has already been done.

The Nondual is another thing again. It is not at the end of any continuum, so there is no sense of achievement when we are there. It is just so obvious, so omnipresent.

It could also be said – and again I would agree – that in this process the Mental Ego is not totally eliminated. It is still there, like a box within a box within a box within a box. It can be called upon to perform at times. I would say that it becomes more like a commissionaire at the door who can be called upon to let people in or keep them out, rather than like a Chief Executive Officer who throws his weight about and demands subservience. I don’t think it could or should be totally eliminated, and I am not sure than anyone has actually done this. There is a proverb which says – “Never yet was there a philosopher who could accept the toothache.” We don’t get rid of our egos any more than we get rid of our bodies. It is the ego, I would argue, who writes the books, gives the talks, makes the tapes, counts the royalties, does the shopping and so forth.

To sum up, then, my point is that enemy consciousness is a dangerous thing.  To say that the ego is the enemy produces a kind of consciousness which divides the world up into us and them, true and false, totally right and totally wrong, wholly in or wholly out.  It makes for intolerance and leads to slogans like “who is not for us is against us”.  It seduces us into ideas like The One Truth.  It represents a kind of spirituality which is dangerous to human beings.  Let’s not foster it.


Rowan, John (2001) Ordinary Ecstasy: The Dialectics of Humanistic Psychology (3rd edition)  London: Brunner-Routledge

Rowan, John (2005) The Transpersonal: Psychotherapy and Counselling (2nd edition)  London: Routledge


John Rowan

John Rowan started to work in the Transpersonal field in 1982.  His book 'The Transpersonal: Spirituality in Psychotherapy and Counselling' reached its second edition in 2005.  His book co-written with Michael Jacobs entitled 'The Therapist's Use of Self' argues that the transpersonal has a unique contribution to make in the therapy field, and in the book 'The Future of Training in Psychotherapy and Counselling' he argues that every training course should include a proper transpersonal section. He has been exploring the higher levels of mysticism since 2003, and has written several papers with detailed arguments which have been published. He has mounted transpersonal workshops in 25 countries, and is a regular contributor to EUROTAS conferences.   John is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy. He has been meditating every morning since 1982, achieving kensho and other known landmarks of the practice. His latest book is ‘Personification’.

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