Talk 5

The Ego on the Path

May 25, 2011

Last night we discussed some of the traditional ways in which the Buddha taught a skillful sense of self—the self as the agent or producer of happiness, and the self as the consumer of happiness—through the development of generosity, virtue, and meditation on goodwill. We also talked about some of the qualities the Buddha recommends for skillfully negotiating with the less skillful members of the mind’s committee and motivating them to do the right thing.

Tonight’s talk approaches the same topics from a slightly different angle, looking at them in terms of what modern psychology has to say about mature ego functioning.

Sometimes you hear that the Buddha’s teaching on not-self is a teaching on non-ego. This is actually a misunderstanding and it has two unfortunate consequences. The first is that, for those who like the idea of non-ego, it becomes an excuse for self-hatred and for the practice of spiritual bypassing. An example of spiritual bypassing is this: Suppose you have troubles in your life and you don’t want to engage in the difficult business of trying to become more mature in dealing with others or negotiating the conflicting desires in your own mind. Instead, you simply go and meditate, you do prostrations, you do chanting, and you hope that those practices will magically make the problems in your life go away. This is called spiritual bypassing—an unskillful way of clinging to habits and practices. As you can imagine, it’s not very healthy—and not very effective. People often come back from meditation retreats and they still have the same problems they had before.

The other problem in thinking that Buddhism teaches non-ego is that those who understand the healthy functions of the ego believe that Buddhism lacks a proper appreciation of these functions. They think that Buddhist teachings are incomplete and need help from Western psychology in order to become a complete training of the mind.

Actually, the Buddha’s teachings contain all the elements of healthy ego functioning. Even the not-self teaching is treated by the Buddha as a type of healthy ego functioning.

To explain these points, I’d first like to touch a little bit on Freud’s teaching on the ego. Freud divided mental functions into three types. The first is the id. Id functions are basically your brute wants and desires for pleasure. The second mental function is what he called the superego. Superego functions are basically your ideas about what you should do—the duties you believe you ought to fulfill. These are usually ideas you’ve picked up from society around you: your parents, your teachers, your schools, your church. Now in Freud’s belief, there is always going to be a conflict between these two types of functions. And if you were to give in totally to either id functions or superego functions, you would die. At the same time, there’s an inevitable conflict between your id and the id of everyone around you. So in order to survive, you need a third type of mental function: ego functions, which try to negotiate as best as possible between these two other incompatible functions—between what you want to do and what you believe society or God or whatever demands of you.

Now, the Buddha’s teachings on the functions of the mind differ from Freud’s in several ways. You have to remember that when Freud was practicing in nineteenth century Europe, most of his patients had very unfriendly superegos because their ideas about what they should do had very little to do with their own happiness. These ideas mostly took the form of commands from a demanding, competitive society or from God, who could be very arbitrary and harsh. But in the Buddha’s teaching, every idea about what you “should” do depends on your desire for happiness. The Buddha was not the sort of person who simply saddled you with commandments about what you should and shouldn’t do. Instead, he placed a condition on his shoulds. He said that if you want true happiness, this is what you need to do, based on how cause and effect work. The duties he teaches are the duties in the four noble truths: to comprehend suffering, to abandon its cause, to realize the cessation, and to develop the path to that cessation. These are friendly duties because they aim at your genuine happiness.

This changes the dynamic in the mind. To follow the Buddha’s version of the superego would not kill you. As a result, ego functioning in the Buddha’s picture is not just a series of defense mechanisms for survival. It’s actually the part of the mind that strategizes for long-term happiness: to figure out ways to get the id to listen to a superego that’s been trained to be genuinely wise. Remember that question that we asked earlier in the retreat: “What, when I do it, will lead to long-term welfare and happiness?” This is the question that informs both superego and ego functioning, enabling them to work together in a friendly way.

Another difference between the Buddha’s teachings and Freud’s is that the Buddha sees less inherent conflict between the needs of the id and the needs of the superego. As he says, your true happiness doesn’t need to conflict with the true happiness of society at large. Also, unlike Freud, the Buddha doesn’t necessarily believe in brute, irrational desire. Each desire comes with its own reasoning. And although its reasoning may be weak and faulty, it nevertheless aims at happiness. At the same time, each reason of the mind is associated with its own desire, which is also aimed at happiness. Therefore there is no clear distinction between reason and desire. And because every desire is aimed at happiness, there is a common ground where all desires can begin to negotiate: to sort out which ones are more or less skillful in achieving their common aim.

This means that, from the Buddhist point of view, the functions that Freud labeled as “id,” “ego,” and “superego” are different ways of defining your strategies for happiness. Each is a different sort of self: The id is a foolish self that’s very shortsighted. The superego is the wise self that looks for long-term happiness. And the ego is the negotiating self that tries to train the id, to reason with it so that it’ll be willing to listen to the wise superego.

When these functions are brought together in a skillful way, then—for example—the practice of generosity, virtue, and meditation brings a happiness that doesn’t create clear boundaries between you and other people. Everyone benefits when you follow these strategies. In the Buddha’s eyes, one of the reasons that genuine happiness is genuine is because it doesn’t need to take anything away from anyone else, and can actually help contribute to other people’s happiness, too.

Those are the differences.

As for the similarities, from the Freudian point of view there are five healthy ego functions: suppression, sublimation, anticipation, altruism, and humor. As I explain each of these, I’ll show the ways in which the Buddha teaches all five as well.

The first one is suppression. Suppression is when you realize that a desire is unhealthy or unskillful, and you learn how to say No to it. This is different from repression. In repression, you deny that you have the desire to begin with. In suppression, you know you have the desire, but you simply learn how to say No.

In the Buddha’s teachings, this principle is similar to restraint. There’s a famous passage in the Dhammapada [§26] where the Buddha says that if you see a greater happiness that comes from abandoning a lesser happiness, you should be willing to let go of the lesser happiness in order to gain the greater happiness. This sounds very simple and commonsensical, but it’s not easy to practice and many people even resist the idea of practicing it.

I have a friend who writes novels and teaches at a university. Every time she writes a new novel, she’s invited to read passages from her new novel at some of the university’s alumni clubs. So each time she has to choose a self-contained story from the novel to read to these groups. In her last novel, the story she chose was about a young woman in 17th century China. The woman’s mother had died, and the father had promised that he would not remarry. But you know how fathers are. After two years, he did remarry. Not only that, he married a courtesan.

Now, the courtesan was very intelligent, and she wanted to be a good stepmother to the girl. One night they were playing chess. As they were playing, the stepmother was also using the occasion to teach the daughter an important lesson in life. The lesson was this: If you want true happiness in life, you have to decide that there’s one thing you want more than anything else, and that you’re willing to sacrifice everything else for that one thing. Of course, the daughter was half listening and half not listening, as children often do to lessons like these, but she began to notice that her stepmother was a sloppy chess player, losing pieces all over the chessboard. So the daughter became more aggressive in her game. Well, it turned out that the stepmother had done this as a trap, and soon: checkmate. The stepmother won. And of course, the way she played chess was illustrating the lesson she was trying to teach the daughter: You have to sacrifice some of your pieces in order to win.

My friend read this story to three different groups, and then had to stop. Nobody liked the story. Now, maybe this tells you something about the attitudes of modern consumer culture, but I think that it’s also a general human characteristic. We want to win at chess and keep all our pieces. That is not a healthy ego function. The wisdom of suppression lies in realizing this: that you have to sacrifice some things in order to gain what you really want. And this is what the Buddha teaches in restraint. If you see that any actions are unskillful, you learn how to avoid them for the sake of a greater happiness. It’s a trade. That’s the first healthy ego function.

The second one is sublimation. This is where, when you realize that you have an unhealthy or an unskillful desire for happiness, you don’t just suppress it. You replace it with a more skillful way of finding happiness. This, in the Buddha’s teaching, is precisely what concentration practice is about. If you can learn how to develop a sense of well-being, refreshment, and pleasure right here and now simply by focusing on your breath, you find it much easier to let go of unskillful desires for happiness. That’s the second healthy ego function.

The third is anticipation. Anticipation is when you see future dangers and you prepare for them. The Buddha also teaches this principle in his teaching on the importance of heedfulness, which is essentially a teaching that your actions do matter. There are dangers in life, not only outside, but also inside the mind. But you can also train the mind to act in a way that avoids those dangers. As the Buddha says, a strong sense of heedfulness is what underlies all skillful behavior [§27]. Notice: He doesn’t say that our behavior is good because we’re innately good. He says we behave well when we’re heedful. We sense the dangers in life and we do what we can to avoid them. That’s the third healthy ego functioning.

The fourth is altruism, which is the realization that you cannot look only for your own happiness, but that your happiness has to also depend to some extent on the happiness of others. This principle in Buddhism is called compassion.

There’s a story from the Canon that shows how this quality is derived from heedfulness [§28]. One evening King Pasenadi is alone in his bedroom with his queen, Mallikā. At a tender moment, the king turns to the queen and asks her, “Is there anyone you love more than yourself?” Now, you know what the king is thinking. He wants the queen to say, “Yes, your majesty, I love you more than I love myself.” And if this were a Hollywood movie, that’s what she would say. But this is not Hollywood. This is the Pāli Canon. The queen says, “No. There’s no one I love more than myself. And how about you? Is there anyone you love more than yourself?” And the king has to admit, “Well, no.” That’s the end of the scene.

The king leaves the palace and goes to see the Buddha to tell him what happened, and the Buddha says, “The queen is right. You can search the entire world and you will never find anyone you love more than yourself. In the same way, all other beings love themselves fiercely.” But the conclusion the Buddha draws from this is interesting. He doesn’t cite this as an excuse for selfishness. Instead, he uses it as a rationale for compassion. He says that because all beings love themselves so fiercely, if you really want happiness, then you shouldn’t harm others because otherwise your happiness won’t last.

There are two principles behind his reasoning here. One is that if your happiness depends on other people’s suffering, they won’t stand for it. They’ll try to destroy your happiness whenever they get the chance. Second, the principle of sympathy: If you see that your own happiness depends on other people’s suffering, deep in your heart you can’t really be happy. So this is the basis for compassion. That’s the fourth healthy ego function.

The fifth healthy ego function is humor. The Buddha doesn’t talk explicitly about this topic, but there are many stories in the Canon that show his good sense of humor. I’ll tell you two of them. The first is a story told by the Buddha concerning a monk who gains a vision of devas while meditating. The monk asks them, “Do you know where the end of the physical universe is?” And the devas say, “No, we don’t know, but there is a higher level of devas. Maybe they know.” So the monk continues meditating and he gets to the next level of devas. He asks them the same question, and he gets the same answer: “There’s a higher level. Maybe they know.” This goes on for ten levels or so. Finally, the last level of devas say, “No, we don’t know the end of the physical universe, but there is the Great Brahmā. He must know. If you meditate hard, you may get to see him.”

The monk continues meditating until the Great Brahmā appears in a flash of light. He asks his question of the Great Brahmā, and the Great Brahmā responds, “I, monk, am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Sovereign Lord, the Maker, Creator, Chief, Appointer and Ruler, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be.” Now if this were the book of Job, the monk would say, “I understand.” But again, this is the Pāli Canon. The monk says, “That’s not what I asked you. I asked you where the end of the physical universe is.” Again, the Great Brahmā says, “I, monk, am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā,” etc. Three times. Finally, the Great Brahmā pulls the monk aside by the arm and says, “Look, I don’t know, but I have all of these devas in my entourage who believe that I know everything. They would be very disillusioned if they learned that I can’t answer your question.” So he sends the monk back to the Buddha, who answers the question after rephrasing it, pointing to where the physical universe has no footing in the mind.

That’s one example of the Buddha’s humor in the Canon.

Another example concerns a monk, Sāgata, who had great psychic power. One day he did battle with a great fire-breathing serpent and won. He ended up capturing the serpent in his bowl. People heard about this and were very impressed. They wanted to give him a very special gift, so they went to ask a group of monks, “What is something that monks don’t usually get?” But they asked the wrong group of monks. These monks said, “We don’t usually get hard liquor.” So the next morning all the laypeople in the city prepared liquor for Sāgata. After drinking hard liquor at every house, he passed out at the city gate. The Buddha came along with a group of monks, saw Sāgata, and told the monks to pick him up and take him back to the monastery. They laid him down on the ground with his head to the Buddha and his feet in the other direction.

Now Sāgata didn’t know where he was, so he started turning around back and forth, back and forth, until finally his feet were pointed at the Buddha. The Buddha asked the monks, “Before, didn’t he show respect to us?” And the monks said, “Yes.” “Is he showing respect now?” “No.” “And before, didn’t he do battle with a fire-breathing serpent.” “Yes.” “Could he do battle with a salamander now?” “No.” This is why we have a rule against drinking alcohol.

Most of the humorous stories in the Canon are found in the Vinaya, the section explaining the rules for the monks. I think this is very important. It shows a very humane approach to morality. If you live under a group of rules that lacks a sense of humor, it can be very oppressive. Those rules can be very difficult to follow while maintaining a sense of reasonable and intelligent self-respect. But when a sense of morality is based on a wise sense of humor, it reveals an understanding of the foibles of human nature, and the rules are easier to follow with dignity. This is why humor is a healthy ego function. If you can laugh at yourself in a good-natured way, it’s a lot easier to drop your old unskillful habits without any self-recrimination. That makes it a lot easier to practice.

So as we can see, the Buddha teaches all the five types of healthy ego functioning. This means that we cannot say that he is teaching non-ego or egolessness. In fact, these teachings on these five qualities are another way in which he teaches a healthy sense of self.

We can also see that these teachings on developing a healthy ego include some of the basic virtues of the Buddha—discernment, compassion, and purity: the discernment in anticipation, sublimation, and humor; the compassion in altruism; and the purity in suppression. In this way, these three qualities of the Buddha come from healthy ego functioning in the intelligent pursuit of happiness. Unlike some religious teachers, the Buddha doesn’t encourage you to feel ashamed of your desire for happiness or to deny it. Instead, he shows you how to train that desire so that it leads to true happiness and develops noble qualities of heart and mind along the way. He shows you how your ego can become wise, compassionate, and pure.

Even the perception of not-self, if we apply it the right way, is a healthy ego function. Remember, we’re not trying to let go of our sense of self because we hate it, for that would encourage a form of neurosis. We’re letting it go because we’ve come to understand, through developing our skills on the path, both the uses and the limitations of healthy perceptions of self. We’re letting go to find a higher level of happiness—which is what healthy ego functioning is all about.

The Buddha himself makes the point that the not-self perception is to be used for the sake of happiness:

“‘Monks, do you see any clinging in the form of a doctrine of self which, when you cling to it, there would not arise sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair?”

And the monks respond, “No, Lord.”

And the Buddha says, “Neither do I. What do you think, if a person were to gather or to burn or do as he likes with the grass, twigs, branches, and leaves here in Jeta’s Grove, would the thought occur to you, ‘It’s us that this person is gathering, burning, or doing with as he likes’?”

The monks say, “No, Lord. Why is that? Because those things are not our self nor do they pertain to our self.”

And then the Buddha says, “Even so, monks, whatever is not yours, let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term welfare & happiness. What is not yours?

“Form is not yours. Let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term welfare & happiness.

“Feeling is not yours. Let go of it….

“Perception is not yours. Let go of it….

“Fabrications are not yours. Let go of them….

“Consciousness is not yours. Let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term welfare & happiness.” MN 22

This is a healthy and fruitful application of the perception of not-self: the topic we’re going to take up tomorrow.