From Reality to Morality: Spirituality and the Role of Our Superego
By Yosi Amram PhD
“The true nature of anything is the highest it can become.” ~ Aristotle
Have you ever told yourself, “I shouldn’t have done that”? Have you ever called yourself lazy, stupid, or selfish? If you’re like most, this painful sort of self-criticism is inevitably familiar. So, why do we do this to ourselves? Why can’t we seem to help it? Why do we, despite all intentions of being kinder towards ourselves, cast such harsh judgments on who we are and what we do? This is the expression of our “superego.”
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis who first identified and labeled the superego, suggested it serves an essential purpose in civilized society. He proposed that this structure in the psyche exists to restrain the ego-centric primal impulses of the “id,” the raw, uninhibited animal drives within us, enabling us to live in cooperation with one another. Furthermore, the superego provides an idealized self-image or an ego ideal: something to live up to. According to Freud, the superego is formed as we internalize the exhorted criticisms, prohibitions, and rules of our parents, caretakers, teachers and religious leaders, as well as the societal standards we encounter during the first five years of life.
Indeed, civilizations rely on codes of conduct to function, and the superego is the internal keeper of those codes. The question is, what is the basis for the ethical codes that become the voice of our superego? And if it can be pinpointed, is it rational?
While every community, society, and religion offers precepts for ethical conduct, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions establish a particularly vivid image of authority and its role in the genesis of humanity. As the Old Testament tells us, after eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we humans entered the world of morality and judgment: right and wrong, good and bad. Whether we’re religious or not, Western culture is rooted in this story and so can result in a particularly severe superego for those who grew up within it. (For more on this, see my previous post “Our Original Sin: Modern Psychospiritual Lessons from Adam and Eve on Shame, Gender, and Sex.”)
And while our superego might compel us towards a moral ideal, we, being human, consistently fall short. The superego then judges us for our imperfections and condemns us. A vigilant superego can confine us to the small zone of feelings, experiences, and behaviors it deems acceptable or safe, inhibiting our expression and holding our life force captive. It can be our judge, our jury, and the warden of our self-imposed mental prisons.
For decades, I and countless of my fellow seekers on spiritual paths tried to find freedom by eradicating our superego, even going so far as to entirely avoid using words like “good” that imply judgment, which is “bad.” These attempts not only failed, but they also produced more negative self-judgment as I internalized the belief that I had failed “for so many years.” It took time for me to realize that trying to rid ourselves of the superego is a form of violence towards ourselves — rejecting a part of us. If trying to remove the superego seems ineffectual for most of us, and if attempts to do so only increase our suffering, then it might be worth exploring what we can appreciate about it. Might its persistent presence in our psyches be serving a God-given or evolutionary purpose? If so, what might it be?
This article explores the roots, nature, and purpose of the superego in relation to our essential true nature, so we can relate to it in a way that leads to the greatest individual and collective wellbeing.
- MORALITY AND REALITY — WHAT’S THEIR RELATIONSHIP?
- INTEGRITY LEADS TO ETHICAL PRINCIPLES CONGRUENT WITH OUR TRUE NATURE
- USING OUR SUPEREGO AS GUARDRAILS AND TRAINING WHEELS FOR ENLIGHTENED LIVING
- THE FOUNDATION OF THE SUPEREGO STRUCTURE
- RIGHT MEANS TRUE — CONGRUENT WITH OUR NATURE AND THE NATURE OF REALITY
- USING OUR SUPEREGO TO HELP US WAKE UP AND GROW UP
- LOVING OUR SUPEREGO TO EASE AND PEACE
- DERIVING OUR MORALITY FROM THE REALITY AND TRUTH OF OUR NATURE
- MODERN SCIENCE SUGGESTS THAT OUR INBORN NATURE WIRES US FOR GOOD
- THE CONVERGENCE OF SCIENCE AND SPIRITUALITY: THE GOODNESS OF OUR TRUE NATURE
1. MORALITY AND REALITY — WHAT’S THEIR RELATIONSHIP?
On some level, all of us ask ourselves what we should do with our lives. Such “should” questions raise a subsequent question — “should” according to whom or what? Is it external authority such as our parents, our friends, society, or God? Or is it our own inner compass — “should” according to our own interests, conscience, or values?
Alternatively, instead of framing the question as a “should,” we might ask, what do we want to do with our lives? Which brings us back to the question of values — what would be worthy of our efforts to pursue? Regardless of how we formulate the question, invariably we spend our lives pursuing and valuing one thing or another, consciously or unconsciously. So, what is the basis for what we value?
Ethical philosophers have grappled with whether there can be any rational basis for our code of values and our morality, and many schools of philosophy say there is not. According to philosopher David Hume, it is impossible to infer the truth of the way things ought to be from the way things are. Hume’s argument, which became known as the Is-Ought problem, is that there is a categorical difference between “descriptive” statements about what is, versus prescriptive or normative statements about what ought to be. For example, just because someone might be tall (a descriptive statement) does not mean they should become a basketball player (a prescriptive statement). In other words, morality does not follow from reality. Carrying Hume’s logic a step further, postmodern philosophers argue that it’s impossible to make universal statements about “right” and “wrong” outside of a cultural context — a radical relativism of value. For example, collectivist cultures would value one’s loyalty to the family even at the expense of authentic self-expression, while individualistic culture would advocate otherwise. Which raises the question, “Are all values culturally relative?”
In this article I propose to offer a rational basis for deriving our code of values, one that is not merely culturally relative. Our superego is the guardian of such a code of values.
For all humans, our values need to reflect what we understand and experience as our true nature or most essential authentic self, which in turn will motivate our actions. Of course, what our true nature is in actuality is a matter of huge debate. For example, if we see ourselves as essentially biological organisms driven by evolution to survive in a dog-eat-dog world, then we would compete with others for limited resources and have no qualms (at least internally) about lying, cheating, and stealing. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as fundamentally social animals, who need and value relationships, then we would focus on cooperation. If we see our essential nature as awareness, then we would try to expand our senses of self by becoming more conscious of our world, inwardly and outwardly. If we see ourselves as randomly assembled genes trying to use us to propagate themselves, we would indiscriminately have sex with as many people as possible. And, if we come to know ourselves first and foremost as spirits (“spirit” from “spiritus” which means “breath of life” in Latin — a divine spark that God breathed into the flesh of the first humans according to the Old Testament), then urging ourselves to grow spiritually may be our highest aspiration.
When we live and act in ways congruent with our values — values aligned with our nature according to our worldview — we are living with integrity from our surface to our depths. And being in integrity feels good (sorry, I couldn’t resist using that word).
2. INTEGRITY LEADS TO ETHICAL PRINCIPLES CONGRUENT WITH OUR TRUE NATURE
The word “integrity” originates from the Latin “integer,” describing a whole, undivided number. Having integrity implies that we are whole, congruent, and undivided within ourselves. It means that our actions, words, values, and self-sense are all aligned.
As highlighted above, the ethics that arise from one worldview may be anathema to the ethics that arise from another. (Morality and ethical codes have slightly different meanings, but here I am using the two interchangeably.) It is because humans differ in how we perceive our true nature that we have wars waged between groups who are both somehow adamant that they have the moral high ground. Who is right?
Many spiritual traditions and masters teach that we are not what we appear to be on the surface — individual bodies striving to have our needs met. The essence of who we are, our true spiritual nature, is not separate from all that is. We are not randomly assembled elementary particles in quantum soup, but rather we are conscious intelligent living beings who are interconnected. Regardless of how we refer to this true nature — Self, Buddha nature, spirit, or consciousness — it goes beyond pure matter. When we fully realize our true nature as one of interconnectedness and live from this realization, our actions naturally spring from compassion. Without any explicit effort, our behavior reflects the same ethical codes we find in the world’s religions, whether it’s the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, the Hindu Yamas and Niyamas, or the Buddhist five precepts. We are intrinsically motivated to abstain from violence and harm and to act with consideration and kindness.
It is commonly believed that it is religion as an external source of authority that has determined morality in each society throughout human history. I would argue that it’s the other way around: the ethics delivered to us through religious texts and teachings emerged from our true nature as realized by the founders of those traditions. Regardless of their metaphysics, theology, or cosmology, whether they believe in a God-like deity or not, their moral injunctions are similar: do not murder, do not steal, speak the truth, pursue justice, follow the Golden Rule, be compassionate, give to charity, be of service to others, and many more.¹ ² This is remarkably consistent across thousands of years, every continent, and whichever spiritual tradition you look at. This suggests that when we are connected to our true nature, we tend to all follow the same universal beliefs about morality. We are all called to cultivate similar prosocial qualities and virtues to support our spiritual evolution, leading us out of suffering to salvation. When observing such precepts, both the individual and the community can thrive.
Eastern religions feature ethical guidelines not to cultivate obedient followers, but because respecting such guidelines supports seekers in accessing the same source from which the ideas came — their true nature. The same is true for Western religions. Not many people know it, but the Hebrew Bible paints a different image of God than the one in our common consciousness (a singular angry white man in the sky). In fact, the “Ten Commandments” more accurately translate in the original Hebrew to the “Ten Utterances” or “Speakings,” just one example of how our depictions of God have been distorted into appearing more harsh and vengeful. But if you actually delve into the Ancient Hebrew, God clearly is more than this one image, referred to as singular, plural, masculine, feminine, kind, discerning, and all of the above at once. In the Bible, Moses channels the Ten Utterances from a Being who contains and is contained within everything, who embodies both justice and compassion. The Ten Utterances teach us to follow God’s example, in whose image we are made. (For more on this topic, see my previous post, “In ‘Their’ Image: The Gender of Our True Nature.”)
There are clear rewards to living in alignment with our true nature. Our lives tend to go well, and our connection to our essence brings joy and wellbeing. In contrast, when we are out of alignment, we tend to suffer negative consequences, and, disconnected from our spirit, we’re divided, fractured, and weak. “The reward for a mitzvah is the mitzvah,” wrote the Jewish sages of the Talmud. More recently, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The only reward of virtue is virtue.” Such rewards that the Talmud and Emerson spoke of are intrinsic to, and reflect our relationship to, the nature of reality. They do not come to us from any external authority, someone outside of reality, or an old, bearded man in the sky. Indeed, when acting generously and helping others, we tend to feel good, as such behaviors affirm our sense of abundance and interconnection. We need not wait for an afterlife, for the world to come, or our next reincarnation to receive the rewards for our moral behavior.
3. USING OUR SUPEREGO AS GUARDRAILS AND TRAINING WHEELS FOR ENLIGHTENED LIVING
Most of us aren’t grounded in our essential true nature all the time. Until we are permanently rooted in it, finally “enlightened” for good, we need a code of ethics to act as training wheels, supporting our path toward the realization of our true nature, and to serve as guardrails, preventing us from harming ourselves and others.
No human is exempt from the need for these guardrails. Given how sneaky the ego can be, even the most acclaimed spiritual teachers have been prone to abuse power. Until we are completely integrated — the attainability of which may take decades and may always be fragile — we need ethical guidelines rooted in the truth of our interconnection as a north star, along with structures and reminders to hold us accountable. If we wait till we are finally and permanently enlightened, we may cause a lot of damage along the way. Even the best drivers would be wise to use a seatbelt.
4. THE FOUNDATION OF THE SUPEREGO STRUCTURE
While young, we receive most of our ethical guidelines from others. However, research now shows that we start our lives with some sense of morality — some intrinsic, rudimentary ethical guidelines existing in us from early on, even as preverbal babies. For example, toddlers have demonstrated that they can comprehend fairness, and that they suffer emotionally when adults don’t treat them fairly. In fact, even apes will react with anger when they perceive a lack of fairness.³
Later, as we develop, our first explicit messages about morality come from our caregivers who provide us with a steady stream of instructions (don’t hit your sister, tell the truth, do as I say, etc.) socializing us into “good behavior.” Their messages likely embellish and amplify our intrinsic sense of morality, what we might call a “Morality Acquisition Device” (MAD) — analogous to Noam Chomsky’s description of an inborn “Language Acquisition Device.”⁴ His hypothesis was later empirically supported by the identification of neurological structures in the brain concerned with the comprehension and production of language. Perhaps, in a similar fashion, we have an inborn MAD to help set boundaries on our behavior keeping ourselves, our family, community, tribe, and the world safe.
Indeed, our MAD might get mad at us when we violate its directives. And, over time, as with the development of our language, our moral imperatives might shift as our sense of self evolves and as we are exposed to the world’s messages of right and wrong, which contribute to and speak to us through the superego. Most of us hear the superego as a voice in our head, frequently in the same tone as used by the early authority figures in our lives.
Because the superego feels constricting and painful, many of us are looking for relief. (Maybe this is why so many of us wish to do away with the notion of God, an angry external source of authority and discipline that we project MAD onto.) As I mentioned earlier, some spiritual paths that focus on liberating our experience wish to eliminate the voice of the superego, as it can feel oppressive. Unfortunately, this amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater, risking harmful behaviors to ourselves and others in the name of inner freedom.
And some of us wish to live “carefree,” doing away with the moral language of “right” and “wrong” altogether, preferring to speak instead of “skillful means.” But the word “skillful” is not very discerning. Something in us feels and knows that murder and rape are not just “unskillful,” and their perpetrators should not be put in the same category as someone who, for example, loaded their dishwasher inefficiently. Something almost instinctive in us screams out that it’s wrong when we watch someone harming an old lady and stealing her purse. Viewing these actions as simply a matter of skill glosses over vital distinctions.
Such teachings often are focused on self-realization or self-liberation, and divorce spirituality from ethics, viewing ethics as the domain of old religions. Indeed, throughout history spirituality, and ethics were tightly linked throughout most of the world’s traditions. The “right” ethical behavior was understood to be that which was congruent with our true nature, our essence, or our spirit, and would guide us towards each tradition’s version of liberation.
The question remains, should we, or do we want to, wait till we are “enlightened,” permanently rooted in our essence, before we act in an enlightened way? Or is there value in the approach of, as they say, “fake it till you make it”? As stated by the Rabbinic sages in Sefer Ha-Hinnukh (16), “The heart follows the deed.” Modern cognitive behavioral therapies teach that we need not wait till we gain sufficient insight into resolving all the psychodynamic issues of our upbringing to modify our behaviors. In fact, behavioral changes will affect our cognitive map, our emotions, and our sense of self. If I meticulously care for and clean my home, I will grow to love it, just as when I love my home, I will naturally want to tend to it. Some part of us has always known what we are in essence, even if we are not aware of it. By aligning ourselves with this essence through our actions we are bringing our being into greater integrity, harmony, and wholeness.
And so it is with our relationships with our pets, our neighbors, and the stranger — the so-called “other” who lives in our midst. When we love our neighbor and love the stranger through our actions, not only in our hearts, our hearts grow. Our behaviors that are congruent with a larger and more essential sense of self then enlarge our sense of self, and vice versa. Such “good” deeds will support a positive feedback loop between our expanded sense of identity and ethical behaviors, till some moment, someday, we may come to experience our self as Self, whereby we are Self-Realized. It is no surprise; moral and ethical behavior is built into the world’s spiritual traditions and is part and parcel of their paths to enlightenment or salvation or whatever we wish to call it.
5. RIGHT MEANS TRUE — CONGRUENT WITH OUR NATURE AND THE NATURE OF REALITY
If we are asked to name the color of a ripe strawberry and answer “red,” we would be right, meaning true and congruent with reality. If we said “blue,” we would be wrong. Thus, discerning right from wrong, the truth of an answer, involves knowing the nature of reality, in this case strawberries and colors, and establishing congruence between our assertions and reality.
We might also say that a strawberry ought to turn red as it ripens, meaning that is what we expect if it behaves according to its nature. In the same way, when our conscience, perhaps speaking through the voice of the superego, says, “Rape is wrong,” or “Cheating on your exam is wrong,” or “You ought not steal others’ property,” it is saying those behaviors are not congruent with Truth — the truth of our nature — or not consistent with Reality, or ultimate reality. If we analyzed the cells of a strawberry, we’d be able to observe the chemical and physical interactions that occur that make it turn red under normal conditions. We can do the same process with humans and their nature. Thus, the voice of our superego is just observing our own true nature, and telling us what we ought to do in any given situation based on our nature. Saying, “We ought to do X,” simply means we are expected to do “X” if we behave according to our nature.
Now of course, unlike strawberries that have no choice but automatically behave according to their nature, we humans experience a sense of agency. And even those abiding in a non-dual state of no-self (what some consider “enlightenment”) make choices, whether their individual self, the universe, or God working through them is guiding the choice. As humans, we don’t automatically behave according to our true nature. If we did, all of us would act ethically and naturally enlightened all of the time, which we obviously do not. Hence, we need a code of values to guide the choices we face, explicitly or implicitly.
6. USING OUR SUPEREGO TO HELP US WAKE UP AND GROW UP
Consider a hypothetical situation: we are seated comfortably on the bus, maybe meditating or deep in thought. A frail, older person slowly boards the bus and looks around. If we are aware of our surroundings and connected to our spirit, we may spontaneously get up and offer them our seat. However, we may be lost in our musings, preoccupied and disconnected from our essence, not present in the moment. Suddenly, we feel the slap of the superego waking us up from our self-preoccupation, commanding us to get up and give our seat away. The question now is, will we get up? Or will we instead become distracted, focused on contemplating our superego in order to liberate ourselves from it? Assigning greater emphasis to liberating our experience from the commanding harshness of the superego is its own narcissistic trap. True nature, God, or the directives of most spiritual traditions would have had us out of our seats already, regardless of whether our action springs from spontaneous generosity or from the dictates of our superego.
Afterwards, when we have time, we can reflect on the superego and inquire into the truth of its message: is it the voice of our true nature? Does it draw from “ultimate reality,” or Spirit, or is it the voice of our id — the instincts of our animal soul? Where was it coming from, back on the bus? Is it keeping us and others safe? Some of the superego’s urging, such as “You should take revenge,” might not represent the voice of true nature or spirit. We must still inquire into the truth of such a “should” statement and its congruence with our true nature.
As another example, when our superego says, “You should meditate,” we might feel weighed down by the pressure of “should.” And we may ask our superego, “Why should I?” Or, “To what end?” The answer that arises from the superego may be something like, “For your health, wellbeing, and spiritual unfoldment.” This is how the superego can be used as training wheels, as a reminder to wake up to the goodness of our potential. Tracing that desire to its source, we might find our way back home — to our essence, from which our desire for “health, wellbeing and spiritual unfoldment” arises in the first place. Thus, the language of the superego might feel harsh, but so do the whips with which Zen masters hit their students to wake them up into the realization of their true nature. And while we often wish to hit the snooze button, literally and figuratively, let us use our superego to awaken us to living more purposefully, passionately, and compassionately.
7. LOVING OUR SUPEREGO TO EASE AND PEACE
Rather than trying to eradicate the superego (an expression of hatred towards a part of ourselves, which creates internal strife rather than alignment), we can hold it in a loving embrace. After all, according to most spiritual traditions, our true nature is love. We can understand that, though the superego might want us to behave differently, it has our best interest in heart. When we love that part of ourselves, we are love itself. Let us remember Rainer Maria Rilke’s words, “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest essence something helpless that needs our love.” Or in the words of the Buddha, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.”
When it is held by love and can observe over time that we are mature, safe, and capable of remaining centered and expressing love, the superego can soften. Just as a parent may yell at a young child about to wander into traffic — judgmentally screaming, “How many times have I told you?” — our superego can get angry in its mission to keep us safe (one of the evolutionary functions of anger is healthy boundaries). The parent is only attempting to teach the child crucial behavioral boundaries; underneath their anger is love and fear of the child getting hurt. Then, as we grow up, we naturally avoid walking into the street, and our parents no longer need to watch us so closely, nor do we feel the need to rebel against them to assert our autonomy. We no longer need to fight; we can relax.
Let us not hate nor try to eliminate our superego. Let us understand its good intentions and use it to help us on our path. Let us thank it, whereby we dis-identify from the scared and angry part of us that it is. Once it knows it has been heard, it will cease to be so scared and angry, and instead will watch from afar, whereby we find ourselves in a new state of ease and peace.
8. DERIVING OUR MORALITY FROM THE REALITY AND TRUTH OF OUR NATURE
Back to Hume and his argument that we cannot logically infer the truth of moral “ought” statements from “is” statements, this means we cannot discern the truth, the congruence of moral statements with reality. However, if, as discussed above, we understand moral statements to mean behaviors and actions aligned with our true nature, then the truth of a “moral statement” can be discerned if we inquire into what our true nature is — which is a factual “is statement” about reality.
Our true nature has been debated throughout the ages, as discussed above. But whatever we do come to believe about our true nature involves a metaphysical understanding about the nature of reality, and an epistemological framework for how we come to know it. And, at least in principle, there is a logical connection between what is — our nature and the nature of reality — and our morality: normative statements about our ethical and moral codes and what we ought to do. Thus, and not too surprisingly (as it is understood in various schools of philosophy), our ethics and value systems derive from our metaphysics and epistemology.
9. MODERN SCIENCE SUGGESTS THAT OUR INBORN NATURE WIRES US FOR GOOD
These may seem to be entirely philosophical questions that have already been debated for millennia, yet modern science can shed some light on these inquiries. For example, recent studies have explored morality and its origins in babies and young children. Studies with six to ten-month-old preverbal babies have shown that they prefer watching individuals who are helping others and turn away from individuals who hinder others.⁵ Other studies indicate similar preferences among toddlers under the age of two,⁶ and even with infants as early as three months old.⁷ Research at Yale and Harvard points to the fact that our natural instincts are to behave cooperatively rather than selfishly.⁸ A review of the studies in this domain by Kiley Hamlin highlights that “surprisingly sophisticated and flexible moral behavior and evaluation in preverbal population…supports theoretical claims that human morality is a core aspect of human nature.”⁹
Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was right when he said, “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.” If infants assess individuals based on their benevolent behaviors towards others prior to societal conditioning, it points toward some level of a prosocial conscience that is not just externally commanded or arbitrarily conditioned. These moral principles are inborn, and in some rudimentary way wired into our brains, engraved in our hearts, and inherent to our essence and to our nature as humans. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “God’s law is written on the human heart.”
Whether we believe in a God who created us as such, or simply in the force of evolutionary intelligence, we are built and oriented to be good. In the words of Dacher Keltner, researcher, psychology professor, and Director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, we are “born to be good.” Our mammalian and hominid evolution has crafted a species — us — with a remarkable tendency towards kindness, play, generosity, reverence, and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic task of evolution — survival, gene replication, and smoothly functioning as groups, without which we could never survive let alone thrive.¹⁰ ¹¹ Thus self-interest and social cooperation are not mutually exclusive, as is evidenced in humans¹² as well as in the animal kingdom with insects such as ants or bees.¹³ Self-care and self-responsibility, as well as care and responsibility for the larger Self, are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing. In the words of the Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Hillel, who invites us to awaken into such self-responsibility, “If I am not for myself, who is? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Perhaps such senses of self-responsibility and inborn morality are at the root of our superego, preprogrammed into our Morality Acquisition Device as implemented by specific neural circuitry in our brains. While the neural underpinnings of morality are not yet well understood, some research has identified certain brain areas, such as the orbital and ventromedial prefrontal cortices, that are involved in emotionally driven moral decisions, while the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex moderates their response, and these contending processes may be mediated by the anterior cingulate cortex.¹⁴ Our morality thus appears to be supported not by a single brain circuit but by several overlapping circuits, with potentially competing tendencies. And much as language involves different brain regions in the left and right hemispheres,¹⁵ no single structure is responsible for morality either.
And while we may be born with rudimentary language processing circuitry, our linguistic intelligence develops and grows as we mature into adulthood. Similarly, while we may be born with rudimentary morality wired into us, several developmental theorists, most notably Lawrence Kolberg¹⁶ and Carol Giligan,¹⁷ have highlighted that our moral capacities grow over our lifespan, culminating in what some authors conceptualize as moral intelligence.¹⁸
If language is one of our survival tools and our brains are wired for it, no wonder even the most experienced meditators cannot seem to quiet their minds. (This is why sophisticated meditation techniques instruct us to simply notice thoughts as they arise rather than try to suppress them or turn them off, which will not work.) Since our conscience is important for our survival as a species living in families, communities, and tribes, our brains are also wired with moral reasoning circuitry that gives rise to our superego. If some level of morality is derived from our biology, no wonder our superego persists despite years of trying to get it to shut up. So rather than trying to perform aggressive surgery to extricate our superego, let us treat it gently and use it to support our safety, wellbeing, and awakening individually and collectively as it is designed to do.
10. THE CONVERGENCE OF SCIENCE AND SPIRITUALITY: THE GOODNESS OF OUR TRUE NATURE
If we are born to be good, with a rudimentary sense of morality that can develop and be refined over time (perhaps via the dedicated brain circuitry I have named the Moral Acquisition Device), then it is the inevitable wounds from life’s traumas large and small that stifle our inherent goodness. It is our scars that give rise to our defensiveness and the violence we do to ourselves and others. And yes, obviously, we have much evidence that, despite the goodness of our true nature, humans are capable of cruelty and horror. Unfortunately, some wounds are an inevitable part of human life, and sometimes they can lead to horrific acts of “evil.”¹⁹ ²⁰ ²¹ But, it is the purpose of our spiritual journey to recover the divinity of our humanity and let it shine brightly, enlivening and enlightening ourselves and our world.
Despite being made of the same substance, no two diamonds are ever alike, each producing a different kaleidoscope of colors in the light. And though our true nature is the same for all of us, we are each a unique gemstone for the light of our nature to shine through. It is our calling, our privilege, our joy, and our responsibility (as I like to call it, “response-ability”) to shine our own light in harmony with the greater masterpiece of reality. We can do this by sharing our gifts in service of our family, community, society, and humanity. It is then that we find our true fulfillment, as we “re-member” ourselves into the greater web of life. It is the ultimately satisfying answer to the question of “What should we do with our lives?” By answering this question, we cocreate the beauty of our reality out of existence.
This is what many of the world’s spiritual traditions have been teaching for millennia. It is no surprise that their benevolent moral dictates were intended to support our spiritual evolution into an enlightened society, each of us playing our unique instrument in harmony with the greater symphony of life. And it is no accident that these moral dictates seem to be congruent with what infants are naturally inclined to follow from birth. The convergence of these two distinct lines of inquiry — the moral dictates of the world’s spiritual traditions and our inborn concern for others as infants — suggests that such an ethical code is inherent to our nature as humans. Now, it’s just a matter of cultivating it, building on it, and refining it as we grow and become all we can be.
May we all share in the treasure of our true nature as we come to know it. May we all root ourselves, live, and act in harmony with the goodness of our depth and the vastness of our potential. And may we utilize our superego, keeping ourselves on track on the journey towards individual and collective wellbeing, wholeness, and liberation.
Go to truemasculinity.org for more on shame and masculinity, and go to engendering-love.org to learn more about the upcoming free online summit on healing ourselves through conversations about gender.
(1) World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts by Andrew Wilson (1998). Paragon House.
(2) A Short List of Universal Moral Values by Kinnier, R.T., Kernes, J.L., & Dautheribes, T.M. (2000). Counseling and Values, 45(1), 4–16.
(3) Justice- and fairness-related behaviors in nonhuman primates by Sarah Brosnan (2013). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (supplement 2), 10416–10423.
(4) Aspects of the theory of syntax by Noam Chomsky (1st edition, 1995). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
(5) Social evaluation by preverbal infants by J. Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, & Paul Bloom (2007). Nature, 450, 557–559.
(6) Can babies tell right from wrong? by David Frank and Paul Bloom (May 4, 2010). The New York Times Magazine.
(7) Just babies: The origins of good and evil by Paul Bloom (2013). New York, NY: Broadway Books.
(8) Scientists probe human nature — and discover we are good, after all by Adrian F. Ward (November 20, 2012). Scientific American.
(9) Moral judgment and action in preverbal infants and toddlers: Evidence for an innate moral core by Kiley Hamlin (2013). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 186–193.
(10) Born to be good: The science of meaningful life by Dacher Keltner (2009). New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
(11) Forget survival of the fittest: It is kindness that counts by David Disalvo (September 1, 2009). Scientific American.
(12) The Origin of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley (1998). New York, NY: Penguin Books.
(13) Cooperation among Selfish Individuals in Insect Societies by Keller, L., & Chapuisat, M. (1999). BioScience, 49(11), 899–909
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(19) Hitler: The pathology of evil by George Victor and John Laffin (2000). Dulles, VA: Brassey’s.
(20) For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence by Alice Miller (1990). New York: NY, Farrar Straus Giroux
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