Kelly Beninga, MA, CHT
Do you sometimes wonder why trying to live a peaceful, loving life seems to be such a struggle? The Enlightened Ego offers insights into why our desire to be calm and compassionate is often derailed by fear and defensiveness. Beninga explains the biological basis for our ego’s distrustful and protective nature, and outlines a path of transcendence to a more enlightened state. By releasing the ego’s grip and embracing our spiritual selves, we find a life of freedom and inner peace.
THE ENLIGHTENED EGO
Discover Your Ego's Purpose
and the Path of Transcendence
The Enlightened Ego reaches for the core of what it means to be a human being. Evolutionary biology teaches us that we are simply a highly evolved and sophisticated primate. Spiritual teachers contend that we are spiritual beings temporarily inhabiting these human bodies as a required course in the school of spiritual development. Are we just living out our biological imperatives or is there a deeper meaning to our time on Earth? Is the fact that we are capable of self-reflection about our true nature just another step in our biological evolution or are we on the verge of a breakthrough to a new level of consciousness?
The Enlightened Ego provides a stepping-stone toward revealing the meaning and purpose of the human experience. The goal of this book is to bridge the worlds of science and spirituality regarding human nature. We will examine the motivations behind our hopes, fears, and behaviors, and support the reader in transcending painful contracted patterns. The ego, that little understood mysterious force inside each of us, is the central topic we will explore in this pursuit of understanding our true nature.
Whether defined by Sigmund Freud or modern-day spiritual gurus, the term ego has become a chameleon, taking on whatever meaning the user wishes to impress on it. The idea that humans have an ego has become ubiquitous in modern culture, yet what the ego is and why we have one remains a mystery to most. While psychology and human biology have gradually found tentacles of connection over the last century, the ego has largely escaped scientific scrutiny. For thousands of years, spiritual teachers have attempted to help followers transcend the ego on the path to enlightenment, but exactly what they are transcending remains somewhat of a black box of various opinions and ideas.
Despite what many of us might believe, the ego is not an elusive adversary hell bent on keeping us out of heaven. In fact, the ego provides a clear and vital function for humanity’s journey on planet Earth. This function can be understood from a rational, scientific point of view and therefore appreciated for what it is: the single most important factor in what makes us human and the driving force in determining our future as a species.
The best way to understand the ego is through the lens of evolution. This is because our ego is not an accident. It evolved along with our brains to advance the survival and reproductive success of our fragile human bodies in the harsh environments of our evolutionary history. Through natural selection, the collection of thought processes and emotions we typically attribute to the ego evolved to maximize our evolutionary fitness.
The ego adheres to the harsh mathematics of survival and reproduction. The ego cares nothing about human happiness or suffering, other than as tools to reach its evolutionary purpose. Left to the devices of the ego, we are destined for a life dominated by fear, defensiveness, selfishness, and greed, with happiness being only a transitory reward for reaching our subconscious evolutionary goals. These ego traits were critical for protection from danger, for gathering the resources needed for survival, for negotiating tribal societies, for mate selection, and for child rearing. They were required for survival in our hunter-gatherer evolutionary past, and they remain with us today. The genes of those who were not successful in these tasks were lost to the trash heap of evolutionary history.
As long as we are humans inhabiting this planet, our egos are indispensable. We are bonded to them for better or for worse. Conventional psychology is almost entirely dedicated to improving our ego, or personality, to enhance functioning in all aspects of life. Common psychological issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as relationship problems, can be traced back to the ego and wounds to our sense of self. Working through these past wounds and releasing painful emotions is necessary and important to leading a successful life.
Attempting to disregard these egoic wounds in the name of transcendence is a form of spiritual bypassing. However, only focusing on egoic wounds still leaves us ignorant of our true nature. So how does one contend with psychological wounds while also following the path of transcendence to enlightenment?
The path presented in this book embraces the whole self, which encompasses both our egoic self and higher self, in service to personal and spiritual growth. By acknowledging our egoic tendencies on a day-to-day basis, we can recognize that ego is an illusion and not the whole truth of who we are. Striking a balance between these two selves propels us toward true personal and spiritual growth. We can acknowledge and then transcend our ego to live life from an enlightened state of being.
This book draws on the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to examine the ego from a scientific point of view and shows how the ego serves a useful purpose in the survival and continued evolution of mankind. The ego evolved to provide a function in support of the survival and reproduction of our human bodies, very much like any other bodily function. The Enlightened Ego puts the ego in perspective as a necessary tool for physical existence. Viewing the ego from a scientific perspective facilitates the dissolution of many fears, superstitions, and misunderstandings that plague our comprehension of human nature.
After examining the ego through the lens of science, The Enlightened Ego then draws on the fields of transpersonal psychology and spirituality to explore how human experience can in fact transcend ego. Our egos do not encompass the whole of human experience. Many spiritual seekers have found a path beyond the ego, one that embraces a more expansive self that can escape the egoic trance. Beyond the ego lies a higher self that can see through the illusion of separation and from which we can live life with unconditional love and in unity with all living beings. The path to enlightenment does not repress or deny the ego, but instead integrates the ego’s purpose into our realization of the larger truth.
The Enlightened Ego catches the wave of enlightenment initiated by modern spiritual visionaries such as Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, Tara Broch, and Jack Kornfield. While these teachers clearly transcended ego and are exemplary spiritual leaders, they typically do not have scientific backgrounds and speak of the ego in general terms without a clear definition. The view of ego from the perspective of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology is an advance in the field of psychology and will be of interest to practitioners in the field, regardless of their spiritual orientation. Followers of the contemporary spiritual New Thought movement will gain a deeper understanding of their ego from The Enlightened Ego and therefore have deeper insight into their human nature and the path of transcendence that lies before them.
Senior Minister at Mile Hi Church - Center for Spiritual Living
In spiritual development there is always this seeming bridge to cross (I call it the mystic’s bridge) between who we think we are and who we really are, between life as we think it is, and life as it really is, as God as we think he is, and God as she really is. This bridge is often alluded to as ego, but it’s hard to determine if this ego is the thing helping us get to or keeping us from what’s truly real.
Few of us can deny that experience where regular modes of thinking break down—spontaneity— and something seems to click or fall into place—synchronicity—and all of a sudden we get who we are, why we are here, and what it all means, if only for a moment—serendipity. There is no clear logical answer in it all, just a true and valid experience of the great mystery of being and becoming.
For the seeker committed to this type of experience, truth, becomes the essential goal. Not salvation, not transcendence, just truth, or as Joe Friday used to say on Dragnet, “Just the facts.” Like a good detective, one follows the truth, wherever it leads. This kind of religion of truth was expressed in the middle ages by Meister Eckhart who said, “What is truth? The truth is something so noble, that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep truth and let God go.” Eckhart was tried for heresy. Then take a more modern religious and political figure such as Mohandas Gandhi, who proclaimed his religion was truth. The right religion is the one, the none, or the many that get you there.
Which leaves us not with the term, “Ego,” or as Beninga explains, our I, but what it points to. What is this function of self-awareness and if not its quest for truth, then for clarity? Clarity of self, clarity of purpose, clarity of reason. Beninga does the bold thing here and does not discriminate against wisdom. He synthesizes wisdom of science, religion, psychology, and philosophy, and doesn’t leave himself out of the pondering. What comes together is refreshingly clear, and a relief.
In pop spirituality the ego has unfortunately become a kind of “boogeyman” within. Something we are to distrust, not listen to, and pretend to transcend. Beninga challenges that idea. The ego, although needing discernment, is a biological part of who we are. If we understand it, and perhaps even learn to trust it like we might encourage one to follow her heart, it may help us understand ourselves and become a greater vehicle for understanding life all around us.
Beninga’s wonderful work here, adds him to the long, but unfortunately not long enough list of real truth seekers, with no agenda but just that, the truth. May this book rich with study, thoughtfulness, and clarity, bring us all a little bit closer.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 – Humanity’s Inner Conflict
Chapter 2 – Darwin’s Ego
Chapter 3 – The Biological Basis for Ego
Chapter 4 - The Ego in Action
Chapter 5 – The Problem with Ego
Chapter 6 – Our Spirit in a Human Body
Chapter 7 – The Ego Owner’s Manual
Chapter 8 – The Ego in Religion
Chapter 9 – The Nature of Romantic Relationships
Chapter 10 – Your Enlightened Ego in the World
Appendix 1 – Meditations on the Ego
With a broad range of education and experience spanning the fields of science, psychology, and spirituality, Kelly Beninga brings his unique perspective to integrate viewpoints often at odds in contemporary literature. Beninga holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Colorado State University and a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology from Naropa University. He is a graduate of the Hakomi Institute for mindful, somatic psychotherapy and is a certified Hakomi therapist. He has studied under well-known figures such as John Welwood, Adyashanti, and Stan Tatkin, as well as several Buddhist teachers such as Sakyong Mipham, Bruce Tift, and Orgyen Chowang. Beninga is also a long-time student of evolutionary psychology and has done coursework in the field at MIT.
Beninga spent much of his career in the field of science and high technology, holds several patents, and was most recently the president and CEO of SkyFuel, Inc., a company engaged in research and development and manufacturing of solar power technologies.
He is currently a psychotherapist in private practice in Lakewood, Colorado, and is the founder of The Relationship Works LLC, providing individual and couples counseling, as well as spiritual coaching based on the concepts in The Enlightened Ego. Beninga has written many technical documents as well as articles integrating the viewpoints of science, psychology, and spirituality on topics such as climate change, human attachment theory, and divorce recovery. The Enlightened Ego is Beninga’s first full-length book.