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Ego and Self

As I study and meditate, my objective is understanding; that is, making sense of the universe and how I fit into it. Iíve accepted the likelihood that Iíll never achieve my objective, but I feel compelled to continue as long as my faculties permit.

Iím convinced that there are levels of consciousness available to us that are beyond what we consider the epitome of evolutionary development: the use of language and other symbols. Indeed, our dependence upon language may well be the thing that retards us, as a species, in our moving further up the path. Language itself depends upon agreement among people as to what its symbols mean.

In the simplest example, if you and I together observe an event with which we have no prior experience, we can agree to call it by a name. Thereafter, when one of us uses that name, the other recognizes it as a label for that event. To a third person who had not experienced the event, the name is meaningless. If furnished enough other related words and references, the third person may eventually come to understand an approximate meaning of the word.

I suspect that most words in our language are of this kind. One can never be certain that what I mean by the word "blue" is exactly what you understand when you hear it. Thatís what dictionaries are foróto tighten the approximation of understanding.

Here is a compilation of definitions of a word from two dictionaries (see Postscript):

ego:

1. The self, especially as distinct from the world and other selves.

2. The conscious and permanent subject of all psychical experiences, whether held to be directly known or the product of reflective thought.

3. In psychoanalysis, the division of the psyche that is conscious, most immediately controls thought and behavior, and is most in touch with external reality.

a. Self-esteem; appropriate pride in oneself

b. Conceit; an exaggerated sense of self-importance

In his book Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom, Joseph Goldstein attempts to distinguish between the Western psychological concept of ego and the ancient Buddhist concept of self. In most modern psychologies, a strong ego is something to be desired:

In the Western psychological sense, "ego," or "self," refers to a certain kind of balance and strength in the mind. Having a strongly developed ego in that sense is essential to our basic well-being.

Alternatively, in the Buddhist tradition, one works to become aware that the self is but an illusion, furthered by our conditioning and reinforced by unskillful behavior and thinking.

When [the Buddha] refers to "self," he is talking about an idea or concept we hold of an unchanging essence to whom experience is happening. So when he talks about the absence of self, or anatta in Pali, he means understanding that experience does not refer back to anyoneóand this is the crucial, transformative understanding that grows so deep in our practice.

"Experience," Goldstein says, "does not belong to anyone." An experience does not belong to me, because ultimately I do not exist. There is no one home. What appears to be me is but a concept I have come to believe in. Experiences, such as feelings, ideas and perceptions donít happen to anyone; "they are simply transient phenomena, arising and passing away."

Well, I have been working on that notion for several years now, and Iím not much closer to understanding it than I was before. And it is an obstruction in my path, for it seems so central to the Buddhist tradition.

What I have come to accept, from much reading and reflection, is that at some level of consciousness I will become aware of how this "entity" I call my "self" collapses and dissolves like a wave on the beach.

Writers such as Ken Wilber outline the transformation of consciousness through various levels, each one understanding a larger context. Just as a paramecium understands only its physical self and whatever contacts itótouch being its only senseóand my cat understands only part of what impinges upon its more elaborate senses and its rudimentary emotional system, I am limited in understanding to what I can put into context. I have learned (only approximately, remember) that when I experience an emotion, I can choose to act on it or not, depending upon whether my more advanced cognitive faculties deem the action "appropriate." Despite fear and pain, I can remain motionless when a nurse punctures my skin with a hypodermic needle. I put these experiences into a larger context of understanding.

How I understand my self is from an accumulation of experiencesóconditioning applied by my early environment, deeper and more subtle learning through reading and adult-level experiences, and now and then from a glimmer of light that seems to "just happen" to me as I continue to learn and grow. This glimmer of understanding allows me to see that what I call "me" is at some level just a blip on the computer screen. Here one moment and gone the next, little more affective on the universe than a paramecium, when seen in a larger context. The implication of that glimmer is that I am but one of countless mortal creatures, and have no more right to exist than my dog. In turn, the implication of that affects how I think about and act toward my dog (who is, of course, no more "mine" than I am "hers").

Itís not really far from that understanding to one in which my self does not really exist as a separate entity. If I am ever able to fully know that, through and through, then truly everything would change for me.

Whether the coins in my pocket total a dollar or a dime right now matters little to me. If I were a hungry, homeless person on the street, it might matter a lot. Context is everything.

So when Joseph Goldstein writes that the self does not really exist even though he has just said that a strong sense of self is important to us, he is not speaking of two different meanings of the word self. He is actually referring to two vastly different contexts and vastly different levels of understanding.

Wilber points out that we do not ordinarily discard smaller contexts (lower levels of consciousness) when we take on larger, higher understandings. We incorporate them into the larger. My anger at someone is still real even if I understand that the emotion has nothing really to do with that person, but is only a conditioned response, a residue from other, unrelated experiences. I can respond appropriately.

The "I" in this situation is real, at the level of interacting with another person. The disappearance of my self in a much larger context can, however, inform my behavior.

And, I hope, my tranquility.

 

Donald Skiff, July 31, 2003

Comment on this essay? Send me an e-mail, please.
(And mention the title of the essay, too)

P.S. For those who want more definitions of ego and self, here are some from the same two dictionaries (The American Heritageģ Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, and Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary)

self  

1. The total, essential, or particular being of a person; the individual: "An actor's instrument is the self" (Joan Juliet Buck).

2. The essential qualities distinguishing one person from another; individuality: "He would walk a little first along the southern walls, shed his European self, fully enter this world" (Howard Kaplan).

3. One's consciousness of one's own being or identity; the ego: "For some of us, the self's natural doubts are given in mesmerizing amplification by way of critics' negative assessments of our writing" (Joyce Carol Oates).

4. One's own interests, welfare, or advantage: thinking of self alone.

5. Immunology. That which the immune system identifies as belonging to the body: tissues no longer recognized as self.

self

1. The individual as the object of his own reflective consciousness; the man viewed by his own cognition as the subject of all his mental phenomena, the agent in his own activities, the subject of his own feelings, and the possessor of capacities and character; a person as a distinct individual; a being regarded as having personality. ``Those who liked their real selves.'' --Addison.

The self, the I, is recognized in every act of intelligence as the subject to which that act belongs. It is I that perceive, I that imagine, I that remember, I that attend, I that compare, I that feel, I that will, I that am conscious. --Sir W. Hamilton.

References:

Goldstein, Joseph: Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom, 1994, Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Wilber, Ken: The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, 1999, Shambhala Publications, Inc. (eight volumes and counting. . .)