Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Listed as they are in the title, the four words chosen sound like the name of some esoteric law firm. But each has a meaning in its specific field and, confusingly, the meanings cross over. Sorting them out is important for practitioners of Thelemic Qabalah.
Ego is a Latin word meaning, simply, “I”. Sigmund Freud chose to employ it in his system of psychoanalysis, and it’s remained in use ever since.
Paul Foster Case (and others) have complicated things in the Hermetic system by using Ego with a capital E to designate the individual selfhood that arises or is discovered in Tiphereth; for Case then continued to use lower-case “ego” for what today we often call the mundane or outer consciousness, centred in Malkuth. The distinction is an interesting and useful one, but in spoken discussions, it can become hopelessly confusing.
The word Self would be a neat one to use in relation to Tiphereth. Our modern system, though, often employs ideas imported from Jungian psychology, which fits Hermeticism (more or less) as a bridge between spiritual concepts and more conventional aspects of human psychology. Jung used the term Self to refer to the core and source of the human psyche, to which all its other contents link or refer in some manner.
The concept is similar to that of the HGA, but it also has differences. For example, Jung found it hard to imagine what would be the perspective of a Master of the Temple. He was also thrown by the perspectives of Zen Buddhism: his introduction to D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism is, for this reason, one of the more embarrassing things he wrote. An insistence on the primacy of consciousness based around some form of an ego occurs throughout his work.
Mentioning Buddhism brings us to another sore point, which is that several Asian languages (Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, for example) don’t actually have a term corresponding to our lower-case “ego” for use in the context of Buddhist teachings. Again and again we come across western writers who tell us Buddhism, like Vedanta in India, aims to break or dissolve or eradicate the ego, when it’s simply about letting go of attachment, and attaining to greater consciousness. What we call the ego is diminished in significance, but nothing actually needs to be destroyed; all things are equally valid or invalid phenomena in Mahayana Buddhist teachings, even if not always in the Theravada. The works of Prof. Donald Lopez, himself a Buddhist, are helpful in elucidating how much our ideas of “Buddhism” (and assaults on the poor old ego) are a European creation.
As we know, there’s no such thing as a “definition” of the Holy Guardian Angel. “Thus ye have star & star, system & system; let not one know well the other” (Liber AL, I, 50) has various meanings, obviously, but one is that no one person’s way of describing, imagining or approaching the HGA is like another’s. There’s no inherent contradiction between calling the visionary experience of a Carmelite mystic in her nunnery, the understanding of a Rinpoche in his lamasery, or even the wilder “atheistic” realisations of a Nietzsche or a Heidegger, forms of Knowledge and Conversation. In the later two cases, maybe we’re talking about “close-to-K&C” rather than the full deal, but the observation is generally valid. The acronym ‘HGA’ refers to something that both interpenetrates all human existence while simultaneously standing outside of it, and so isn’t defined by temporary conditions such as content or context.
Now, that notion of the HGA is general, cosmic, transpersonal; coloured outside the lines, if you will. But the HGA manifests primarily itself to consciousness within or via Tiphereth; here, we can say, is the emergence of Individuality. The terms easiest for me to use: Personality and Individuality, while not being short words, have clear meanings. That impact of manifestation, occurring within Tiphereth, produces ongoing experience that includes awareness of Supernal things. And it transforms what we conventionally think of as the Personality: the accumulation of ideas, tendencies, needs, desires and hopes that we each generally think of us as “me.”.
What about the Ruach? This is a term used in Qabalah for the six sephiroth on the Tree of Life from Yesod through Chesed. Is this the same thing as the Individuality or the capital-e Ego? Not really. Except, kinda yes.
The Ruach is all the stuff that forms a being with specific functions and powers, and which is licenced, under the authority of a True Will, to operate a human body for a term probably not exceeding 120 solar cycles. Certain vastly attained Masters may apply for an extension to this time-period; the queue at the licencing office, reportedly, is rarely very long.
Tiphereth, at the centre, is the lens or means of expression into consciousness for the Ruach, which is why the Ruach is sometimes seen as a synonym for the Ego/Individuality. But perhaps it’s more helpful to see it as the field of operation for the Individuality, which Individuality simultaneously draws on in its creative expressions. To Tiphereth is attributed the faculty of Imagination, a term that explains a lot about magick, reality and experience. Are we creating our experience, moment by moment? Yes, we’re imagining it.
But into where are we imagining it, though? Well, through the Personality; and that’s where the lower-case-e ego comes in.
Above Yesod, the forces and factors of the Tree are somewhat separate, if interconnected. But as Yesod extends down to sometimes-disparaged Malkuth, things shift. Consciousness rooted in Malkuth experiences those forces and factors collectively as its Personality, that stuff that makes life seem the way it seems. And to mediate between all that and the life-encounter with external reality, we need an interface. Voila – the mundane ego.
The little red dog
What I’m finding as I write this is that Crowley tended to conflate Ego and ego: they’re both essentially the same illusion to him, at least in his Commentaries on Liber LXV. For example:
“I am like the little red dog that sitteth upon the knees of the Unknown” (III, 37). The Beast’s comment is that the dog is “the base animal nature. It is helpless (on the knees of) the surrounding Mystery of Existence of the Unknown), but it remains still and trusts.” And in what I’ve written above, that describes the Individuality as much as the Personality. But the Personality is what most explicitly includes “the base animal nature.”
Crowley was writing as a Magus, of course, for whom all levels of separateness are essentially illusory. For those of us still trying to make it to Tiphereth-in-full, I think the division presented in this post is more helpful. If that’s an error, we’ll fix things once we’ve booked our passage across the Abyss, and it’ll all be fine.
The mundane ego is the most beat-up thing in the list of distinct forms of self. In many Western versions of Buddhism and Hindu mysticism, it’s a positive villain, to be defeated in the last act of the show. For the ego struggles to survive. Why? That’s its job.
The mundane ego is the receptionist in the front office as well as the office manager, sorting the jobs and overseeing the tasks. It hangs out mostly in Malkuth, but probably at least touching Yesod, since it’s subject to the usual range of energies we refer to as neuroses, anxieties, goals and other stuff that are discovered via that sephirah known as “Foundation.”
Ever seen someone devoid of ego? Of course you have – she was muttering to herself outside the subway station, or he was standing at the kerb yelling some bizarre moral complaint at the world. An illumined person, by contrast, has a nice little red dog of an ego: it accepts the idea of the Mystery of the Existence of the Unknown, just as the Individuality/Ego in Tiphereth embraces the input of the six sephiroth of the Ruach, along with whatever subtle communications pass to it down the paths of Gimel, Heh and Zain.
One day, we’ll get to an appreciation of Neshamah, the Supernal soul, which will completely up-end everything written about here. But if we can sort out for ourselves how the different levels of ourselves operate in a dualistic world, we’ll be a little closer to that state than we would be if we were still kicking the poor old ego around. A sense of selfhood is necessary for psychological health, as it is for realising True Will.
Something must perform that realised Will in the world, and the mundane ego, our everyday self-concept, is the main vehicle for doing this. Behind it, and (hopefully) increasingly supporting it, is the Individuality. That Individuality draws on the other sephiroth of the Ruach, but also on the sephiroth of the Supernal Triangle of the Tree of Life, in order to fulfil itself as completely as possible. As noted above, at some point any sense of a separate ego is subsumed into the opening of the Neshamah.
But it never entirely disappears, nor should it. “Know Thyself” was inscribed over some of the ancient temples of initiation, not as some final end, but as an instruction about entry onto the infinite Path. And knowing the different levels of selfhood help us avoid something Crowley warned about, which is confusing the planes of existence, and so becoming stuck before our task is half completed.
Love is the law, love under will,