Our two selves: the ego and the higher self

Young Walt Whitman
Young Walt Whitman

I just finished writing an article called The Wisdom of Walt Whitman. They may not publish it. If not, I’ll publish it here, so I’ll just touch on a few things I wrote about. Unlike most spiritual writers, Whitman did not think the ego had to be denied in favor of the higher self. He acknowledged that we have two selves, the ego and the higher self, but he did not believe the ego had to bow slavishly to the higher self. As he put it in Song of Myself:

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.

His words fly in the face of most spiritual writings, but perhaps they are words of wisdom.

Most of us have been raised in a world where the ego is king. We’re taught to be competitive. We’re told the secret to happiness is success. Many of us don’t even recognize our “soul” or higher self. When we do have a revelation of our higher self, we often bring it back to the ego and try to behave like we think a spiritual person should behave.

Whitman had a different take on it. He became immersed in spirit, but returned to the flesh. This is what he wrote about the “soul”:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,

In his personal life, Whitman was known to be compassionate and, according to his biographer, R.M. Bucke, he exuded a “quiet, yet cheerful serenity.” Whitman was also openly gay in an era when homosexuality was a taboo subject. He didn’t see the contradiction. His sexual preference had nothing to do with his soul.

Whitman spelled it out: neither his soul nor his ego should “abase” themselves to the other. The soul has one agenda: that of love and compassion. The ego has another agenda: self gratification. The ego would abase the soul if it didn’t include love and compassion in its self-gratifying moments. The soul would abase the ego if it told the ego it wasn’t allowed to indulge itself.

An older Walt Whitman
An older Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman makes a lot of sense to me. When we pretend we don’t have an ego, it finds ways to make mischief. When we pretend we don’t have a soul, the ego reigns supreme and “abases” the soul.

We all need food and shelter. Most of us have a sex drive and we like human companionship. When we deny ourselves too much, things go wrong. Christianity seems to think sex is worse than murder or greed. Hence we have pedophile priests and Christian ministers who preach “no sex before marriage” and get caught out with prostitutes, as happened to Jimmy Swaggart, to name just one. Ironically, it was Swaggart who reported on Jim Bakker’s infidelity. Then he got caught with prostitutes on two occasions.

The list of Christian evangelical scandals is quite a long one. What if they acknowledged their egos instead of pretending they were “pure in heart”? Arguably, they would be able to revel in both their souls and bodies. It should be easy to acknowledge that we have the ego and the higher self, but we put them in separate boxes and try to pretend we live in one or the other box when clearly most of us bounce back and forth between the two. 

When I was in India, two gurus tried to tell me that I should meditate less and live more. I was drunk on meditation at the time and didn’t listen to their words of advice. Years later, I learned I could have the best of both worlds: the spiritual and the sensual. The one proviso was not to abase either one. That’s fairly easy to do. Just live a caring and compassionate life as much as possible and don’t forget to show some compassion towards your “lower” nature. Perhaps the best spiritual advice is to do no harm. It’s only an ego without a soul who thinks doing harm is the “smart” thing to do in a viciously competitive world.

I believe we need to acknowledge both our selves: the ego and the higher self. Wrestle with one against the other and life is full of strife. Reconcile the two and they can inform one another with kindness and compassion. If neither the ego nor the higher self “abase” one another, it can be a marriage made in heaven. 


  • cynthiawh

    I totally agree with this. Your findings correlate with what we now know about the sympathetic nervous system (ego?) and the parasympathetic (soul?). Also shamanic studies reveal “twoness.” In my own evolution I track the soma as blessing to sarx, and the big body (expensive higher creative states) as meant to bless the “little” meek ordinary states. “Blessed are the meek- for they shall inherit the earth. The purpose of High Visionary States isn’t to take over but to guide bless and nourish the beauty of ordinary life. I love Walt Whitman. The lineage of mystics and spiritual artists reveal common wisdom. Its much needed today as we try to orient to love and sustainable earth based living.