There is also a way of understanding the different usage of the term ego from a Freudian point of view whereby the ‘ego’ that we seek to let go of is the ‘infantile ego’. Again Joseph Campbell sees in Freudian terms the use of the term infantile ego to correspond roughly with the id which lives only on the level of ‘I want’ – the focus is on biological satisfaction.
Campbell thinks this is similar to the first two traditional aims of the Hindu life: kama and artha: where kama is enjoyment and sensual pleasure, and artha is Sanskrit for ‘wealth, ’or ‘property, and the pursuit of wealth or material advantage’. The third aim is dharma which Campbell thinks roughly corresponds to Freud’s superego as the conscience linked to the learned values and inhibitions that control the biological urges. The internalised critical parent says ‘thou shalt’ so this counteracts the ‘I want’ and the final Hindu aim is ‘extinction’. Here the life urges of wanting and having are frustrated and inhibited and because of this conflict brought on by social rules the ego seeks only extinction; where in this context it means freedom and release from the will and the drive to live and succeed. So in this Hindu frame of reference the extinction is of the infantile ego which contrasts with the possibility of establishing a mature ego.
Campbell puts it like this:
There is no provision or allowance whatsoever for what in the West would be thought of as ego-maturation. And as a result – to put it plainly and simply – the Orient has never distinguished ego from id.
In other words the infantile ego is escaped by the spiritual instruction to let go of the ego rather than growing up. So in Eastern spiritual practices the ‘I’ (in Sanskrit aham) suggests wishing, wanting, desiring, fearing and so on – all the impulses that Freud describes. The ego as defined by Freud is a psychological faculty which relates us objectively to the external ‘reality’. So this is here and now and the world as it is objectively observed, recognized and judged and known and us in it.
A considered act initiated by a knowledgeable, responsible ego is thus something very different from the action of an avaricious, untamed id; different, too, from performance governed by unquestioning obedience to a long-inherited code…
The mature ago enables us to keep functioning in the world and relating to others and to our environment without becoming psychotic. Those of us in the west who are hearing spiritual instruction to relinquish the ego might be helped if we think that what is to be extinguished is the ‘craving’ of the id-dominated ego. Similarly when the message is to renounce the self it can be understood in a similar way – the demanding strident self can be renounced but not the self as such – which anyway Jung saw as the focus for individuation.