- We cannot have liberty and justice for all if we only want it only for ourselves. [Attributed to Tom Krause.]
Some of my non-theistic friends no doubt will roll their eyes at “ego transcendence,” thinking it must be an unsubstantiated piece of New Age fluff but all it means is that we think about and express concern for others instead of only ourselves.
People who master ego transcendence do not experience their many acts of kindness and generosity as sacrifice but instead derive great pleasure from them. The trick, as always, is to remain grounded in reality and keep our eyes on the prize, which we identify as the service of the great cause of the welfare of living beings.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Thrangu Rinpoche, Transcending Ego: Distinguishing Consciousness from Wisdom (Namo Buddha Publications, 2001).
- Frances Vaughan and Roger Walsh, Paths Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision (Tarcher, 1993).
- Adi Da Samraj, The Seven Stages of Life: Transcending the Six Stages of Egoic Life and Realizing the Ego-Transcending Seventh Stage of Life, in the Divine Way of Adidam (Dawn Horse Press, 2000).
- Heidi A. Waymant and Jack J. Bauer, Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego (American Psychological Association, 2008).
- Frank Summers, Transcending the Self: An Object Relations Model of Psychoanalytic Therapy (Routledge, 1999).
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way (Parallax Press, 2009).
Some journals, of whatever scholarship:
- Journal of Transpersonal Psychology
- Journal of Transpersonal Research
- International Journal of Transpersonal Studies
Here is a link to additional materials on the subject.
Ken Wilber is perhaps the most prolific author on this subject. His books are analytical but they also tell the story of ego transcendence as a human phenomenon.
- Ken Wilber, Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (Quest Books, 2007).
- Dan Rothberg and Sean M. Kelley, Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations with Leading Transpersonal Thinkers (Quest Books, 1998).
- Ken Wilber, The Altman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development (Quest Books, 1996).
Other book narratives:
- Albert Woodfox, Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades of Solitary Confinement: My Story of Transformation and Hope (Grove, 2019): “By the time he got back to Angola, he writes, ‘I was a black man with a long prison sentence ahead of me. Inside, however, everything had changed. I had morals, principles and values I never had before.’ He adds: ‘I would never be a criminal again.’”
- David Levering Lewis, The Improbable Wendell Willkie: The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country, and Conceived a New World Order (Liveright Publishing, 2018): the 1940 Republican presidential candidate took principled, progressive stands on the issues, and lost the election.
- Stephanie began to transcend her ego when she explicitly committed herself to the value of doing what was right not for a reward but because it was right.
- Salvador Dali, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937)
Castro Alves from Brazil, for whom did you sing? Did you sing for the flower? For the water / whose beauty whispered words to the stones? / Did you sing to the eyes, to the torn profile / of the woman you once loved? For the spring?
Yes, but those petals were not dewed, / those black waters had no words, / those eyes were those who saw death, / still burning the tortures behind love, / Spring was splashed with blood.
-I sang for the slaves, aboard the ships / as a dark branch of wrath. / They travelled, and bled from the ships / leaving us the weight of a stolen blood.
-I sang in those days against the inferno, / against the sharp languages of greed, / against the gold drenched in the torment, / against the hand that rose the whip, / against the maestros of darkness.
-Each rose had one dead man in their roots. / The light, the night, the sky were covered in tears, / the eyes separated from wounded hands / and it was my voice the only one to fill the silence.
-I wanted that from the man we could be rescued, / I believed that the route passed through the man, / and from there destiny would be made. / I sang for those who had no voice. / My voice hit doors that until then were closed / so that, fighting, Freedom could be let in.
Castro Alves from Brazil, now that yur pure book / is reborn to a free land, let me, poet of our America, / to crown your head with the laurels of the people. / Your voice joined the eternal and loud voice of the men. / You sang well. You sang how it must be sung.
[Pablo Neruda, “Castro Alves from Brazil”]
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Nawang Khechog, Cutting Through the Ocean of Ego
This scene from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn gets to the core of what ethics and morality are about:
I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ’stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. [Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1906), Chapter XXXI, “You Can’t Pray a Lie”.]
Novels and stories:
- Deborah Eisenberg, Your Duck Is My Duck: Stories (Ecco, 2018): stories about what it means to live an ethical life
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Loving, solicitude and unity are identifiable themes in Mozart, Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds, K. 452 (1784), and Beethoven, Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds, Op. 16 (1796). The E-flat Major key has been described as “a heroic, key, extremely majestic, grave and serious”, a two-sided pairing. Ernst Pauer described it as “the key that boasts the greatest variety of expression. At once serious and solemn, it is the exponent of courage and determination, and gives to the piece a brilliant, firm and dignified character.” So it is with the value of transcending ego: we retain and fully express our autonomy but we transcend its egoistic expressions. On these two piano quintets, the winds’ warm tones combine to form one of the two main components of sound, and the piano takes its usual role as leader. However, while each voice is distinctly its own (an oboe can sound like nothing but an oboe), the brilliance of Mozart and Beethoven in their compositions has given us a product that is far greater than each of its parts alone. Perhaps this reflected a spiritual longing in Mozart, who wrote, “I myself consider it to be the best thing I have written in my life.” Often paired together on disc, these two quintets can remind us that living can be about more than the self. Albums pairing the two works feature pianists Radu Lupu (1984), Walter Gieseking (1955), Stephen Hough (2007), and Klára Würtz.
- Richard Strauss, Metamorphosen for 23 String Instruments (1945) (approx. 23-27’): Recorded performances are conducted by Herzog, Tønnensen, Furtwängler and Karajan; and a performance by Ensemble Allegria.
- Pfitzner, Palestrina (1917): the theme of this opera is that the artist does not stand alone; her purpose is to serve the greater good (performances conducted by Kubelik, Heger, Kraus and Suitner).
- Bliss, Metamorphic Variations, F122 (1972)
- Gity Razaz, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, for chamber orchestra & electronics (2011) (approx. 8 minutes): Razaz describes it as “a musical drama reflecting on the internal and psychological transformation of Narcissus, beginning with his obsessive self-infatuation, moving through his drowning in the pond that reflected his image, and ending with his rebirth as the narcissus flower.”
- Raga Basant is a Hindustani classical raag for any time of day during spring, or late evening during the remainder of the year. “Basant denotes the changing of the season and the newness of spring. This Raag encourages the mind to brush away its selfishness, just like spring-cleaning removes all the cobwebs and creates a fresh start. There are feelings of hope and expectation of a new beginning and the start of a new cycle. However, these emotions are not dependent on the physical change of the season, but are an encouragement of an internal effort to change.” Performances are by Ravi Shankar, Bhimsen Joshi, Shivkumar Sharma and Venkatesh Kumar.
- James Booker, “Junco Partner”
- Rick VanMatre, “Lines Above”: drawing on his wife Anna Socha VanMatre’s painting, this jazz saxophonist strives toward “a never ending search for the place where dividing lines do not exist.” The work is mindful of the “tendency of humankind to harm or be harmed by nature, and to harm itself.”
- George Nazos, “Heat Song”: “There is no ego here, only a sensitive cooperation with each other and a dedication to the music.” (Frank Kohl, Cadence magazine, 2020 annual issue.)
- Bennie Maupin & Adam Rudolph, “Symphonic Tone Poem for Brother Yusuf” (2022): “Complete instrumentation details are not given, but it sounds like Maupin is playing soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet and a variety of flutes including Japanese end-blown shakuhachi, and Rudolph playing hand drums, berimbau, thumb pianos, cymbals, gongs, shekere and bells, including Tibetan prayer bells, plus a little skeletal acoustic piano in the fifth movement.” Rudolph explains “I learned so much from Yusef about intervals. Greats like Yusef, Ornette Coleman and Coltrane stopped using traditional harmonic forms and introduced systems of working with intervals. So, there was an intellectual process with this album, but mostly it was just intuitive. What I love about intuition is that it erases its own tracks behind it. On the 5th Movement of this album, I was working around a major seventh but 90% of what happened was instinctive. It is a unique moment; you can’t go back and recreate it.” “This gifted duo never overcooks, finding the perfect formula to shine, with no need of frills and shocks to provide a wonderful experience for the listener.”
- Ngulmiya, “Ngulmiya” (2022) (49’): an aboriginal singer from northern Australia teams with a Western orchestra. Together, they create something greater than either of them is alone. “With (Ngulmiya’s) soaring voice accompanied by the subtly sympathetic strings of The Budapest Art Orchestra, with backing vocals from his own son Nayurryurr, and the minimalist piano-synth contributions of Melbourne musician Luke Howard, it’s an unusual combination that works perfectly.” “This is the point virtuosic traditional music from Arnhem Land, as it has been sung for thousands of years, mainly in isolation, splits off and becomes high art on a world scale.”