Self-Will vs. Ego


I'm writing a short book right now.  The opening quote is:

"Love makes the ego lose itself in the object it loves, and yet at the same time it wants to have the object as its own.  This is a contradiction and a great tragedy of life."

– D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddism

As the book progresses, I am wrestling with what it looks like for the "ego to have the object as its own."  I guess I'm really wrestling with was this author means by "ego."  This term is used in a lot of different kinds of writings and is often used differently depending on the author.  It's a hazy term.

For Freud, the ego is the sense of self that mediates between the internalized demands of culture (the superego) and our base drives (the id).

In common usage, the ego is the part of us that wants to be separate and superior when compared to others.  We all know what it means when someone says, "He has a big ego."

A lot of the spiritual writers use the term in a different way.  For these writers, the ego is the sense of self that wants to interpret everything only in how it relates to self.  For them, the ego is roughly synonymous with the natural self-centeredness we all inherit.  We are attracted to things that help us, and we avoid things that don't help us.  We are concerned, mostly, with ourselves.  In contemplative writings, the ego is sometimes contrasted with the "Higher Self," the Atman, the Indwelling of God.

In this last sense, for "the ego to have something as its own" would be simply to use things and people for self-interested purposes.  So we love our spouses, our friends, our kids, but we also use them subtly for our own ends.  We are concerned about how they appear, how they act, because they reflect upon us.  We want them to please us, etc. 

Related to the ego is the concept of self-will.  We seemingly use things to please us all the time.  I go to get ice cream.  Self-will.  I get coffee in the morning.  Self-will.  I buy a pair of pants I like.  Self-will.  

Where I am currently at is that ego, in the sense that the spiritual writers use it, is attachment to self-will.  Concern that I get what I want.  Preoccupation with self.  

We are going to experience self-will.  We have preferences.  We thirst when we need water.  We desire things.  I don't think we can ever get beyond that.  What we can get beyond is attachment to self-will.  Concern that we get what we want.  We can't, I don't think, eradicate self-will, but we can relativize it by losing ourselves in something larger than ourselves – God, service to the world.  I think when the Bhagavad Gita says:

"They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of 'I,' 'me,' 'mine' to be united with the Lord.  This is the supreme state." (2:71)


"Those who have attained perfect renunciation are free from any sense of duality; they are unaffected by likes and dislikes, Arjuna, and are free from the bondage of self-will."  (5:3)

that the writer is encouraging us to lose preoccupation with ourselves.  To develop self-forgetfulness.  Not to get rid of self-will completely.  We still have likes and dislikes, but we are unaffected by if we get what we like or not.

At least that's what I think right now.