Few statements are more insulting to a serious Systema practitioner than ‘you have too much ego.’ Recently, in class, someone lobbed this statement in my direction. And while I’d prefer to simply ignore it and move on with my life (or better yet convince myself that it isn’t true), I think that it’s important for each individual to take into consideration anything said to them and about them, whether they agree with the thing or not. The words were said and so they deserve some thought.
What is ‘ego’? Why might it be bad to possess too much of it? And why, with Systema in particular, is it such an insult to be accused of possessing too much of it?
When we use the phrase ‘too much ego’ we mean to say that someone is, as we say, egotistical, that they are overly concerned with themselves, that they are closed to experience, that they are overconfident, that they are vain. In the modern vernacular, ego equates to a damaging overestimating of one’s capacities and social status and an underestimation of others. But why then do we name these qualities with a first-person, singular, Latin pronoun, ‘ego’? Why do we say, essentially, that someone has too much ‘I’? What larger ideas are at work here?
To speak of ego is to activate a whole swath of ideas that stretch back to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” Such an individualist notion of the self permeates Western intellectual history. But it is only with psychology that the concept of ego diffuses into the mists of popular consciousness. When we speak of the ego today it is as a confused reference to the thought of Freud.
Freudian structural psychology posits the existence of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. These terms translate roughly with ‘The Thing,’ ‘The I,’ and ‘The Over-I’. The Id refers to our conflicting instincts, to our libidos, our hungers, our desires, our wants, and our impulses. Within the Id these instincts compete with each other without cancelling each other out. They represent in some sense the chaos within us. The Superego, meanwhile, seeks to harness and suppress the Id, bringing order. It refers to those elements of society and family which set rules for us to follow, burdening us with guilt, anxiety, and feelings of inferiority. Between the Id and the Superego is the Ego, which names their point of mediation. The Ego draws upon the psychic resources of the Superego in order to ward off and take temporary control over the Id, allowing us to delay the gratification of our impulses in a rational manner.
According to Freud, the conflict between Id and Superego within the Ego was sometimes too damaging or intense for us to face directly. As a consequence, the Ego often manifested something like defense mechanisms. Unable to face the truth of our being and our place in society, we are sometimes overtaken with guilt and anxiety. In those moments, we teach ourselves how to close our eyes or to focus on the trivial; to lose ourselves in our imaginations or to strive to return to the ignorance of youth.
As you can see, Ego is not the source of our destructive, needy, and otherwise self-involved selves, but rather the part of us which overcomes those aspects of ourselves. Ironically, if we want to call someone egotistical in the contemporary sense, we should rather say that they do not have enough Ego. They have not taken enough of the Superego upon themselves and the Id has run roughshod over their being.
Such popular misunderstandings are quite common. Just look to any person who has tattooed ‘To thine own self be true’ onto their body, believing it to be a positive spiritual maxim rather that an exhortation toward pure self-interest. Everyone remembers that the ‘Ego’ refers to ‘I’ but forgets the rest of the story.
So if this notion of ‘too much ego’ does not come from Freud, then where does it come from? What ideas have been dressed up in Freudian clothes for us to think we understand? In the context of Systema, an answer to this question can be found in Komarov’s Systema Manual and in many of Vasiliev’s interviews. These sources refer to the need for a Systema practitioner to eliminate something called pride. It is from this notion of pride, which has its origin in the sphere of religion rather than psychology, that the idea of ‘too much ego’ takes its meaning.
Although I haven’t the space to demonstrate it (I’ve done that elsewhere), Systema derives in part from the Orthodox Christian monastic tradition. This tradition has deep roots, stretching back to the stories of the Apostles, but takes its paradigmatic form after the displacement of the Roman Empire. Late ancient Christians, fleeing into the desert, wished to emulate the lives of Moses and Christ, their forty days in the wilderness. In these environments they engaged in spiritual warfare with the demons who sought to foster their sins. First among such sins was pride, a self-centeredness with respect to God.
The words of John Climacus, taken from his Ladder of Divine Ascent, can offer us a taste of the monastic attitude towards pride.
“While it is disgraceful to be puffed up over the adornments of others, it is sheer lunacy to imagine that one has deserved the gifts of God. You may be proud only of the achievements you had before the time of your birth. But anything after that, indeed the birth itself, is a gift from God. You may claim only those virtues in you that are there independently of your mind, for your mind was bestowed on you by God. And you may claim only those victories you achieved independently of the body, for the body too is not yours but a work of God.”
Climacus, in a manner common to monastic ideology, seeks to deny the efficacy of the human being, attributing all actions and achievements to the grace of God. The central idea here is that the self and self-esteem are hindrances to spiritual development. To have ‘too much ego’ is, in its extreme forms, a denial of God. Vasiliev and Ryabko ostensibly embrace this attitude towards the self, and—at any rate—propagate it to their students in a veiled manner.
As a consequence, the phrase ‘too much ego’ describes not only one’s social character but alludes more deeply to one’s spiritual character.
While I do see the value in considering myself as something small and dependent on my world, I am definitely not a monk. Nor am I interested in pretending to become one. The universe is large beyond comprehension and I do not even know how to make bread. Those truths are profound enough for me.
Freud, in many respects, was right about humans. Our guilt and our anxiety and our inability to face ourselves often result in denial, displacement, fantasy, and regression. I believe that Systema and my own studies have given me a degree of insight into myself and along with that a small degree of psychic health. Others may disagree that that opinion. It’s a free country. What is most important is that I, that we all, continue to question ourselves, even when we are certain. But that we do not let that necessary self-reflection prevent us from standing up for ourselves or others, that we do not let ourselves be bullied or pushed around, and that we continue to have opinions or take forceful actions when necessary. Just so long as we are willing to admit at any moment that we could be wrong about everything, even about who we are and what we’ve accomplished.
 A common statement is something like: “Training sessions should be used to overcome pride and fear, and to gain humility and benevolence.” https://www.russianmartialart.com/article_info.php?articles_id=119