How to understand and work with the lower nature
The lower nature is a term often used by spiritual aspirants to refer to the negative aspects of the personality. The lower nature or lower self is related to the parts of ourselves that are destructive and unwanted. Sometimes this part of the self is called the negative ego. It’s all those things about our behaviors and emotions that don’t reflect our highest ideals and intuitions for what’s possible. I’m using the term negative ego because the Ego is actually good, and serves as the seat of the Self which is the temple of the life power on Earth.
Negative ego refers to our vanities, our pettiness, our neurotic tendencies, our reactivity, our attachments and our aversions. It refers to the qualities of the lower self we’d like to undo or purify. The lower nature is all those patterns of thought, desire and action that are left over from earlier stages of evolution both personally, and collectively. Predators, hunger and constant competition with other tribes, nations and individuals made it necessary to develop instincts and strategies for dealing with threats and exploiting opportunities for reproduction and material gain. Humanity struggled to survive and reproduce for millions of years, gradually building up the powers of threat detection, and survival techniques until it finally gained mastery over the chaotic elements of nature. Over time the knowledge and social agreements that we developed gave us the ability to temper many of our lower qualities, sublimating them so that we can live in greater harmony with each other. Slowly we are learning that our survival is secured through cooperation and civilization, rather than through might.
Now that humanity has reached a stage in its evolution that surpasses many of the conditions these survival skills were developed for, the vast majority of these patterns of thinking and behaving are no longer useful. They are vestigial patterns held in consciousness. But even though they are largely outmoded, they are buried deep in the unconscious and continue to function on some level in each of us. The negative ego functions on a belief in separation. Since we believe ourselves to be separate individuals with different and often competing interests from others, there is a fear that our separate interests will put us at cross purposes. We instinctively feel there are winners and losers, and that there is a way to gain advantage in life, by concealing our real motivations, resources or hiding parts of ourselves that can make us vulnerable to being hurt or manipulated. We unconsciously feel the need to protect ourselves and defend against others who might seek to injure us or take something valuable from us. This competitive dynamic is often extremely subtle. Having been sublimated by our modern values in many ways it can be very hard to detect.
An example of how lower impulses are sublimated can be seen in the sports world. Rather than fighting and killing as we did with the blood sports of gladiator tournaments, we now chase a ball on a field. This enables us to still have competition and rivalry, but without the medieval brutality, that destabilizes society. Rather than owning slaves and forcing people to do grueling labor for a Pharo, a King or ruling class, now we have a system of voluntary servitude, where people can become effectively debt slaves. Many forms of slavery still exist today, but because its been sublimated into a more outwardly gentle form, its considered socially acceptable. Rather than engaging in crucifixions, witch burnings, and crusades, we do petty gossip, crucifying people in the court of our righteous minds – often behind their backs. There are countless examples of how the brutal impulses of earlier values systems continue to function in individuals and society in less violent forms. While it’s progress that we no longer permit many of the archaic and abusive practices of past ages, we still have a long way to go to become a more just and merciful species.
It may be tempting to offer a full scale critique of the injustices of the world, and our culture to illustrate how many unnecessary hardships result from the ignorance, greed and fear still gripping the collective psyche. But the only thing we have control over is ourselves. Shaking our fist at the world or others will do little for the transformation of those patterns. We must begin the process of undoing the negative ego from within. Only by acknowledging and addressing its presence in ourselves can we provide constructive aid to the rest of society. Projecting our own shadow onto a scapegoat may feel good for a time, but it only assures us that it’ll not get healed. Likewise imagining ourselves as spiritual aspirants as being morally superior to others is also unhelpful. Everyone is acting out the good they know, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with their dominant values. Everyone has unexamined values imperfectly expressed through the personality, including spiritual aspirants. If we were to see our own blind-spots with the depth and accuracy of an elder brother or sister on the spiritual path we’d be in for a shock. If we were to ever have such a blessed opportunity to see our own faults with the clarity of an adept, we better also hope to have the same degree of self compassion, because we’d need it.
When thinking of the lower nature or negative ego, feelings of shame and guilt are often not far from our experience. We all know there are ways we fall short of saintly ideals. When we value loving kindness, honesty, integrity, service, humility and discipline, it’s natural to feel embarrassment because of the ways we don’t live up to our aspirations for these virtues. The feelings of inadequacy can be so strong in fact that the psyche will protect ourselves from it. We’ll repress the feelings of guilt, and create rationalizations for why we’re not so bad after all. We all believe we are good people, and want what’s best for others. The “bad ones” are always “out there” in the people we disagree with and we find them to be even less virtuous than ourselves. Rather than face the pain of a full inventory of our virtues and vices, we put softeners around our awareness and minimize the significance of our egoism. This tendency to self protect against the pain of total self honesty is normal and has a positive intention behind it. But it’s also an instinctive reflex, meaning we can’t stop it from happening at will – at least not without practice.
If we were to feel the full impact of the contrast between the current imperfect state of the personality and the refined state of the purified soul, the pain would be quite severe. The Light of God would “shine on our sin and strike us blind” as the saying goes. Comparing ourselves to the Master consciousness seated in the Higher Self can be profoundly humbling. If it’s done before we’ve reached a certain degree of ego development it can even be extremely psychologically damaging. Self protection and self preservation at earlier stages of maturation is largely done through self deception – or rather by putting veils of ignorance and rationalizations over our experience. The subconscious mind, in collaboration with the negative ego hides our shortcomings from us to prevent us from the devastating effects of unmitigated self reprisals. This is not a bad thing at all. In fact it’s necessary to remain unaware of our negative ego until we develop the maturity and fortitude that comes from authentic spiritual aspiration.
This aspiration is sometimes referred to by Kabbalists as “the revelation of evil” ; it’s a full allowing of the acknowledgement of just how erroneous our perception of reality potentially is. It welcomes the suspicion that there is likely a profound delusion present in the mind which not only evades detection with a serpent’s cunning, but also draws support from the social fabric that influences our values and ways of perceiving surreptitiously. Its ready to sneak by our detection without a second glance but accidentally divulges its whole roués. Like a thief escaping in the night, it rings a gong in the felt sense of our being that aims doubt at the validity of our egoism. Our intuition and conscience converge on a question that asks, is there a greater good than the value I place on the good I now am able to acknowledge? Is there a good which I can not see as a result of my own self interested subjective enmeshment? To ask this question is to invite a revelatory experience that dwarfs the self and sorts the identity out from the background of unexamined conditioning.
So how can we have a balanced and graceful relationship to the process of deepening our self knowledge? How can we grow to be more honest and transparent to ourselves while also being gentle and compassionate? These are important questions because it’s common to be too harsh and self critical in a way that makes things even worse. If we’re too severe in our judgments of negative ego we can end up collapsing into ourselves, into a negative self esteem spiral that pulls us even further into our vices. On the other hand if we’re too gentle with ourselves and have too many softeners, we’ll continue to permit negative traits, explaining them away as idiosyncratic, or even virtues in themselves. Neither hunting for the negative ego, nor running from it does much to purify it. Being over zealous at undoing the negative ego is actually a trait of the negative ego. Constantly critiquing every move we make trying to figure out if we’re coming from the lower nature or not, is like tying our shoelaces together in preparation to run a marathon. All extreme views or extreme ways of enacting a moderate view can get us into trouble.
So what’s the middle way? How do we develop virtue without being neurotic about it? One of the first surprises that startles aspirants on the path of evolution is that spirituality is not about special knowledge, or powers. Many spirants come to spiritual teachings in the hope that some secret knowledge will give us some personal benefit. Knowledge and abilities like psychism, prophecy or mediumism seem to provide “spiritual people” with something special. We might imagine that if we gain special abilities or spiritual powers we’ll be a part of a special group of elites. We want the privilege and status that comes with being knowers of secret or sacred knowledge. If we’re in the in-group of “spiritual gangsters” we’ll have a tribe that likes us. A tribe of people who are “better” than the “normies” or “muggles” or whatever the pejorative term is.
We all want to be special in some way. We crave the feeling of significance. We want to achieve the rewards of a higher status in the form of excellence and mastery, being valued for our efforts, and it’s often the case that when we get a taste of spirituality, higher status means higher spiritual attainment. This can lead to a very subtle and pernicious form of spiritual vanity, or spiritual materialism as Trungpa puts it. It can seem like we will get rewarded for our spiritual beliefs and practices with special powers and privileges, but what we eventually discover is that the point of spiritual growth is not to gain special powers but to build virtues and not for our own sake but for the sake of others. It is to purify and refine the personality so that it can become a more capable agent for the soul and higher self to serve the larger plan of evolution. Paradoxically, its when we give up the need for special powers and secret knowledge that they often come, but when they do it’s not special. We become increasingly intuitive, gaining the ability to follow the guidance of the higher self to avoid mistakes and serve others with more skillfulness. We gain special knowledge into the inner workings of the psyche and soul so that we can work out our karmas and vices with greater ease. When we use these powers in the way they are intended, they make us more humble and selfless. They build character not status. They make us more trustworthy and helpful people, not more special.
In fact, the process of spiritual development involves undoing specialness. As unique and special individuals, we are emphasizing separateness, we’re emphasizing what makes us different, or greater than others. The real treasure is not our specialness but our Oneness. It’s in the recognition of what we all are together that really nourishes our wholeness and divinity. Seeking specialness is a subtle form of competition or as Krishnamurti would say in his very pointed way, a “subtle form of violence”. When we are elevating ourselves and lowering others we are cutting ourselves off from our unity. We are dividing ourselves and turning away from some part of the world or group of people in the world. This never goes well for long. When we seek specialness it’s because we are craving the fulfillment of wholeness and the feeling of holiness, but have interpreted it through the lens of the small self. The little ego self, imagines greatness according to the ways of the world rather than the ways of Spirit, which transcend and include the ways of the world. The difference in interpretation between fulfillment and specialness can be extremely small and subtle, but the effects in terms of how we feel and act are quite significant.
By the same token elevating others above ourselves, doing hero worship or guru worship can also be harmful. When we put people on pedestals and imagine they are better than us we give away our inner gold. This may be a useful thing for a temporary period while we are working to overcome a major challenge or meet the tests and trials of an initiatory experience, but if we imagine our teachers and mentors are something more than what we always and already are, we’re missing the point. The sacredness and divinity of any individual is the same divinity that rests as the root of beingness in every individual. By emphasizing the differences rather than identifying what unites us, we are subtly giving ourselves and others the message that those differences matter more than they actually do. Even great adepts have negative ego traits they are yet working out. Purification takes many lifetimes. If we imagine that a sage or adept is not also a nincompoop in some regard we are destined for disappointment. There can be a great deal of variation in the lines of development. Just because someone has become a master in some area does not mean they have mastered all things worthwhile.
Paradoxically, when we are saturated in the reality of our Oneness, cherishing wholeness and unity above status, material gain, appearances and the things of the world, we can more fully appreciate our uniqueness and the unique bodies and personalities of others. Celebrating the diversity of forms, cultures, skills, and perspectives brings us even greater joy because we can see the Universal in every particular form of expression. The greater variety of people and experiences that reveal the underlying unity the greater our understanding of its nature becomes. We even become more like our own unique personality expression because we are free from the unexamined habit patterns of conformity and inauthenticity that come from needing to be special and please the small self of other people.
Here are 9 principles to help in gracefully navigating this very nuanced relationship with the negative ego:
- Take responsibility for what you see. “Spot it, you got it”. This principle is a practice of non-judgement. It supposes that those undesirable things we see in others are also present in ourselves to some degree. In fact the more emotionally triggered we are by what others do or seem to be like, the greater the likelihood that this quality is operating in our blindspot unchecked. If we get caught up in fault finding and criticizing the negative ego of others, we should interrupt our judgments by saying, “just like me”. And then stop to search our mind or our lives for an example of the thing we’re judging the other for. There’s always at least one.
- Take responsibility for what others see. This is the inverse practice of the previous principle and suggests that whatever others say you did or or like is probably true in some way. It’s true that people can and do project their own disowned shadow onto others, but who becomes an adequate repository for that attribute is based on resonance. We have to qualify for the job. If someone criticizes you of having a negative trait it’s highly unlikely that there is no truth in it whatsoever. People may exaggerate and provide bad examples or tell you in an unkind way that makes it hard to understand, but it is likely the case that there is some truth in it. If you can seek out that truth and acknowledge their accuracy however narrow a point it may be you’ll be better served than deflecting or denying.
- Look for the good and praise it. Everybody has a positive trait worth celebrating. Noticing what’s worth admiring about other people and ourselves makes more of that come into being in the world. Creating a habit out of seeing the best in people harnesses the creative power of the subconscious mind to manifest more of this trait and traits like it. No matter how much learning and healing there is to do, there’s always something beautiful, sacred, pure and precious to observe about ourselves and other people. Focusing on the positive. Is not the same as being vain. We don’t need to be galavanting around talking about how great we are, we only need to silently witness and acknowledge to ourselves something meaningful. If we have insecurities about our body for example we can focus on some part of the body that is beautiful. Look at yourself in the eyes and notice how beautiful your eyes are, how easy it is to see the spark of light. If you have insecurities about your intelligence, notice how brilliant you feel everytime you learn a new vocabulary word. With others, focus all your attention on the things that are great about them. Everyone has a super power, or a unique thing that’s good and beautiful. When we can immediately identify the powerpoint in friends and strangers we’ll naturally focus on these traits in ourselves as well.
- Don’t take yourself so personally. This is a practice of noticing that the true Self in each of us is the universal self – the one identity at the root of all sentient entities. Our personality, whether that’s referring to our shortcomings or our strengths, is the result of a myriad of things that happened to us over which we had no control. Our conditioning, the biographical narrative, our typology and the things that make us who and what we are are not the result of our conscious efforts or skills. We didn’t make ourselves, the life power and the laws of nature made us. We belong to it and it’s in charge of developing us into a more perfect vehicle for its expression. Taking responsibility and taking the blame or taking things personally are not the same things. When confronted with negative ego traits like vanity for example, we can acknowledge “I am compensating for insecurity or the need for significance by overemphasizing my appearance”. But we can also acknowledge, this attribute came from a psychological need for significance, a need that’s not unique to me but to all people. It’s a trait that exists in the collective consciousness so I’m not alone in it. And, when I address it and overcome it I am contributing the knowledge and value of overcoming to the collective. In this way we take responsibility for correcting ourselves while also tempering any unnecessary guilt for having had the negative trait in the first place.
- Don’t go hunting for witches. This principle has to do with the phenomenon of the mind summed up in the phrase “where attention goes energy flows”. What we focus on we get more of and what we look for we find. There’s a nearly unlimited number of minuscule examples we can find of how we miss the mark, and where negative ego is subtly involved in our lives. If we take on exposing the lower self as a project, the mind can quickly fall into a habit of self criticism and negativity. This doesn’t help. Exploring into the subconscious with a good therapist is helpful, but attempting to rescue ourselves from the prison of error is likely to make us simply add yet another link in the chain that already binds us. If it is in fact the case that we are our own jailers we shouldn’t then expect that the jailor will be the one performing the jail break. The jailbreak is done by the Higher Self.
- Let the correction of the negative ego be done by the Higher Self. This principle reminds us that just as we did not create ourselves, we will not undo our negative ego on our own. The witches will come out from time to time so there’s no need to hunt for them. Life will naturally present us opportunities to see into the unfinished portions of our nature. Wait until there is an issue before inquiring into an issue. As a wise man once said, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. A clear sign that there is a negative ego problem is negative emotion. When we feel pain, especially if it’s chronic pain, then we are likely to be dealing with a negative ego issue. When this happens we can inquire into it and enlist the aid of the higher self and therapeutic resources to go to work on it.
- Be gentle with yourself and others. The truth is every pattern of thought, emotion and behavior has a positive purpose. At some point in our lives we picked up the habitual responses we have as a strategy for dealing with some particular circumstance in our lives. It was the best available choice given the knowledge and maturity level available at the time, and there is something true, good and useful about it. If we seek to understand what that positive purpose is and discover the way in which we might better bring about that outcome, we will more compassionately and skillfully transform the pattern. Knowing that we are our own allies and friendly to ourselves, even our lower nature means there’s no need to protect, deflect or hide anything from ourselves. Knowing we have good reasons behind our unwanted traits means castigation and punishment are never warranted. Condemnation will exile parts of ourselves and others from us making healing even harder. Correction of the negative ego and the transformation of the personality comes from love and understanding.
- Practice discrimination with mercy. Discrimination in this sense has to do with being able to notice differences between the qualities of the negative ego and the Spirit. This can be summed up by saying; learn to identify the differences between the thought system of fear and the thought system of love. Negative ego is built on fear. Fear of rejection, fear of inadequacy, fear of failure, fear of intimacy, fear of pain and fear of death. It comes from the part of the identity which is rooted in separation from others and the whole flow of life. It imagines its security and fulfillment in material gain, social status, sensory pleasures and physical immortality which reinforces its identity as a separate ego. Seeking fulfillment in this way makes the self feel vulnerable to loss and death, since everything in the world is temporary, and vulnerable to decay and destruction. This places the identity on a precarious foundation that creates a feeling of existential risk, and motivates reactivity toward grasping for control. Love on the other hand is a thought system which recognizes the oneness of all beings and the changeless reality of the One Universal Self seated at the root of pure consciousness. Right discrimination brings a state of relaxation and joy because when we see rightly, we trust and delight in natural law and its undeviating benevolent reality. There is nothing to fear, nothing to resist or attempt to control.
- Study natural law and practice its remembrances. This principle builds on the previous in that it suggests that we develop the capacity for discernment, learning to see the cause and effects of our thought patterns. But it also asserts that by learning the thought system of love, demonstrated by natural law, the correction to the false sense of insecurity created by fear is dispelled. We don’t need to prove the negative ego’s thought system wrong, we only need to prove that the thought system of love is warranted because it has a basis in a fundamental reality. Studying the laws of nature and their corresponding expressions in our own psychology helps us to see the details of the hermetic axiom that says “that which is above, corresponds to that which is below” and that which is within is like that which is without. When we see and understand how natural law functions in the world, in nature and in the internal structures of the Self, we see with an ever increasing clarity how what we are is a reflection and an embodiment of the divine principles that created the whole universe. We see how relaxation and the relinquishing of both our attachments and aversions is not only sensible in the presence of mounting evidence, but is also safe, since doing so manifests grace. We see with ever increasing certainty and clarity that the laws of Love do indeed shape and guide the whole business of existence and that the only places it fails are in the places where self contraction is still permitted. Then as we surrender to natural law and practice it we are surrendering not to an unknowable uncertainty but to a predictable reality as certain and present as our very next breath.