Ayurvedic Spiritual Psychology: The Question of the Ego

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By Daniel Burow Ph.D. & Swami Sadashiva Tirtha D.Sc.


In the history of mental health and indeed all problems of western culture the ego has taken a very prominent place. Whether you define the ego in a strictly Freudian sense or you widen your definition to include different perspectives on cognitive functioning the ego is the pillar on which much of our mental health theory stands. When an individual has a problem and they seek help the ego is primarily what is addressed and worked with (no matter how it is defined or whether the helper knows they are addressing ego or not).

Ayurveda and its approach to mental health differs significantly from all western sciences as it defines most human suffering as a spiritual problem. The Vedas tell us that all human suffering and disease is cause by ones distance from God. The further you are from the divine within yourself the more illusion, ignorance, attachment, desire and anger you encounter. The closer you are to the divine within yourself the more able you are to live according to the divine wisdom within you and the less you will be affected by the problem of distance.


According to the Vedas one cannot approach the divine inside without first addressing the question of the ego. At the center of the self there is not room for an ego and the divine. The ego when present will always monopolize, manipulate and otherwise engage illusion, ignorance, attachment, desire and anger. Therefore, much of the Ayurvedic approach to mental health issues is spiritual in nature and works to surrender the ego so that the higher and divine self can emerge.


The Rishi's that wrote the Upanishads have stated clearly that our movement to higher and more divine states of consciousness always involves directly or indirectly, the gradual surrender / dissolution of the "I" or as it is known in the western world…. the ego. Only when this lower, more primitive self is dissolved can the higher more divine self function consistently and constantly.

Ayurveda suggests that the human being should bring about this dissolution of "I" through love and self- surrender. Through meditative and spiritual practice one attempts to merge with the divine and in doing this the "I" becomes weaker. This process however, is difficult and in fact is the primary goal of human life. We are driven to move toward the divine within and return to the consciousness from whence we came. So why is it so difficult?

If each human being is driven to the divine and in fact rooted in this divine reality there must be some force that acts as a brake or a distraction from the process. This force must always be present even insidiously in all of this life so that we do not spring back instantly to our original state of wholeness. According to the Vedas this force is called Maya. This is not the format to go into the nature of Maya but its existence makes it possible for the process of human unfolding to be gradual, orderly and perfect. One of the ultimate questions of the universe is why humans have to undergo this suffering and move gradually to the divine. It may be the mystery of mysteries but it does seem necessary for us to unfold all of the potential and perfection inside us.

For Ayurveda the spiritual practices that dissolve this "I" or ego are essentially a movement toward the center of our Being. As we begin to move more deeply into our center our consciousness expands and certain limitations, illusions and parts of the "I" fall away. This process however, depends on the individuals ability to function at a this deeper level. In fact, our capacity to move into our center seems to be dependent on our ability to function at that given level of consciousness. We quite frankly need to be emotionally mature enough to tolerate the knowledge that comes with the expansion of consciousness. This emotional maturity is a product of a balanced, bounded, and whole ego. If we move or are moved to toward are center artificially or accidentally without the corresponding emotional maturity we will not be able to respond (healthily) to the phenomena of consciousness at that plane. We ill either experience it as beyond comprehension or we will have knowledge that we are not emotionally mature enough to cope with and most likely hurt ourselves or others. This problem is the primary reason why the unfolding of this process must come naturally and gradually from within and cannot be forced.

The spiritual practices of Ayurveda are again based on the idea that ones distance from God is the primary cause of disease, illness and/or suffering. The distance from God is measured in the totality ignorance, illusion, attachment and desire that produce lasting habits of thinking, feeling and action. The dissolution of the "I" or ego is the practice of removing ignorance, illusion, attachment and desire. Once this is accomplished our habits or thinking, feeling and action are closer to God and we will therefore experience less undesirable pain and suffering.

Sadhana (meditation), mantra, devotion and worship are the primary tools used in to dissolve the "I". One uses these practices as instructed by the Guru or teacher and begins to gradually approach the mind (the seat of the ego) and directly sit with the problematic habits that emerge from it. One sits, in practice, and through faith and devotion the "I" is dissolved in a step by step fashion.

This process of dissolving the "I" or ego is different in each person. It depends on your level of maturity and your commitment to your practice. The path of each human being is unique and the journey must be guided by a qualified Guru or teacher. It is not an exaggeration to say that without a Guru or teacher one will most likely remain mired in illusion and ignorance.
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