I am trying to understand what part the ego plays in spirituality. So many of the "new" spiritual teachers say the ego is the enemy of spirituality. And yet they say there are no enemies to spirituality, as in, death is not the enemy but a brother to life. I am detecting a conflict here.
Is the ego really the enemy of the spirit, or is it in some way necessary? Must spirit have an enemy? Can't we befriend our ego, or is that thought just my ego telling me I need it?
I'm not surprised that you're hearing conflicting messages about the ego and wondering how to sort through them. Philosophers, psychologists, and theologians have long wrestled with the issue you've brought up.
Each culture has its own way of understanding human existence. That's where part of the confusion comes from. The spiritual teachers you are reading may be from different spiritual traditions. And it is not a matter of only East versus West, but also of multiple interpretations within Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, and so on.
It might help to clarify terminology first. In Western psychoanalytic theory, the psyche is made up of three parts: id, ego, and superego. The id, which lies in our unconscious, is the psychic energy of our instinctual needs and drives, such as libido. The superego, which is partly conscious, reflects internalized parental authority and societal rules. Beginning in childhood, we develop an internal system of moral attitudes, conscience, and a sense of guilt. The ego is a kind of conscious mediator helping us to perceive and adapt to reality as the id and superego vie for dominance.
But difficulty can arise spiritually when we invest the ego, or self, with too much importance. When we are preoccupied with own activities or needs--procuring that which inflates the ego and avoiding that which deflates it--we become self-centered or egocentric. We think that everything revolves around us, just as our ancestors once believed that all the other planets revolved around the earth. It took Copernicus to set us straight. Similarly, spiritual leaders teach us that the ego is not the only game in town. It's also not what it appears to be.
The underlying problem is in what we understand the ego to be and what we associate with it. Remember French philosopher René Descartes' famous line: "I think, therefore I am." Many of us identify the self with the mind. The Western idea that the mind is what makes us unique is what sets us apart from nature and aspects of ourselves. Look at the language. We never say: "I breathe (walk, eat, or digest), therefore I am." Nor do we say: "I am a headache (stomach, face, or two legs)." Instead, we say: "I have a headache (stomach, face, or two legs)." How can it be that our whole idea of self is that we are the mind but we have a body. The physical is relegated to being like the rest of nature--separate and other.
Some spiritual traditions do not set up a duality between mind and body, but a complementarity, as in yin and yang. Mind and body are not static entities but a dynamic psychophysical process. The self is not limited to being a mental function. It is an ongoing sensory, affective, and cognitive interaction with the world. For example, the Buddha taught that the self is simply an ever-changing coming together of five aggregates--matter or form (body); mental and physical sensations (emotions or feeling); perceptions; volitions or karmic forces; and consciousness. To get attached to any one of these aspects as "self" is to misunderstand the fluid nature of human existence. Inevitably, the result is some form of dissatisfaction. Any time we hold on to what can't possibly stay the same, we're bound to feel the pain of loss and disappointment.
The ego or self does not have to be a source of negativity. We don't have to make it an enemy to be vanquished. Isn't spiritual practice about compassion rather than hatred? Doesn't spiritual and psychological transformation come about through embracing and accepting rather than rejecting? More helpful is changing our view of self. We can understand its conventional usefulness as the subject of actions--the necessary "I," "me," and "mine" of ordinary conversation. But, upon closer examination during intensive meditation practice, we can also realize that there's no separate "self." It dissolves into everything else, and everything else dissolves into it.