Response to A Reader Comment: Ego Discussed

Lego-ego

Another blogger at a blog called Casual Kitchen recently linked to one of my posts. The post in question was one from 2011 titled The Ego Trap, which I advise you to read before proceeding if you haven’t already. The added context will help when reading the rest of this post.

A commenter over at Casual Kitchen named chacha1 responded with the following comment:

Ego: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

Couldn’t make it through that whole piece; I read it as confusion of a strong ego with narcissism, judgypantsness, and/or being a jerk.

It is possible to have a strong ego without being a solipsistic, judgy twit or having a superiority delusion.

Similar objections come up often whenever I discuss ego, so I decided to address it in a comment over there, then decided to reproduce the comment here as a separate blog post. Below is an expanded version of my response to her:

chacha1:

Author of the piece here. First things first, I never used the term “strong ego.” Strong can imply healthy, and it’s not a term I used. I used “ego driven.” To illustrate the difference, say I said you had “strong looks” and I meant it in a positive way and was saying I thought you were attractive. Now say I instead said you were “looks-driven.”

Does that mean the same thing? After all, you can actually be unattractive and be looks-driven or looks-obsessed. Alternatively, you can be incredibly attractive and have strong looks but not be looks-driven, as in you don’t arrange your whole life around your looks and you don’t obsess over them and judge everyone by those standards. Just like looks-driven isn’t the same as good looks, ego-driven isn’t the same as strong or healthy ego. Some of the people who are the most look-obsessed and looks-driven are the same people who are the most insecure and have the shakiest, most neurotic of confidence in their appearance, and similarly many ego-driven and ego-obsessed people are often the people with the with the shakiest, most toxic sense of self.

Furthermore, I was mostly using ego in the colloquial, everyday conversational sense that the word is used. For example, when someone says to you in casual conversation, “You have a huge ego,” do you take it as intended to say something positive about you, or do you take it to mean that the person is accusing you of, to use your own words, judgypantsness, and/or being a jerk or being a solipsistic, judgy twit or having a superiority delusion? I’m willing to bet the case is more likely the former.

Furthermore, even if you’re going by the psychoanalytic, more Freudian definition of ego as the mediator and peacemaker between the superego and the id, one can still argue that being ego-driven is a bad thing, because it encourages separation from other people and a sense of dishonesty with one’s self by keeping different aspects of yourself segregated from each other and largely in the dark about each other. Ego (the Freudian kind) can become obsessed with self-preservation and thriving, and to do that it has to defend itself against threats, which is where the psychoanalytic term “ego defense mechanisms”, usually shortened to “defense mechanisms,” comes in. When people discuss defense mechanisms, what those mechanisms are defending is the ego.

Not all defense mechanisms are bad. George Eman Vaillant classifies defense mechanisms into 4 categories, from worst to best: Pathological, Immature, Neurotic and Mature. Mature defense mechanisms can be considered “good” ego defenses while the other three are the bad ones. <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_mechanisms#Vaillant.27s_categorization_of_defence_mechanisms”>You can read more here.</a> If you go to the link I sent, you can see examples of unhealthy and healthy ego defenses.

If one has what I imagine you mean when you describe a strong, healthy ego, which is just a healthy self-esteem, he or she will use mostly healthy, mature ego defenses. If one is ego-driven, which means his or her primary motivation in everything is protecting the short-term interests of the ego, he or she will primarily use the more toxic ego defenses, because the healthier ones often require a person to be willing to tolerate short term pain to the ego in exchange for long-term emotional and mental health benefits. Ego-driven people often lack the maturity and emotional future time-orientation to use healthy ego defenses.

Then on another level there are spiritual teachings that advocate ego death, anatta (no-self), or integration (merging the superego, id, and ego into a new whole such that you no longer need to play peacemaker or mediator between the three). Advocates of such techniques believe that by either eradicating the ego or merging it with the superego and id in such a way that the three no longer are “keeping secrets” from each other, you no longer need even the healthy ego defenses. The person who achieves ego death no longer needs ego defenses, healthy or unhealthy, because he no longer has any ego to defend. The person who achieves integration no longer needs ego defenses, healthy or unhealthy, because now that his ego, superego, and id are merged into one entity the ego no longer has to protect itself from the other two or exert creative strategies to enable them to coexist. A similar, related approach, and one that I think is much more achievable for your average Western-raised mind, is that of training yourself to recognize and understand your ego and how it works but not actually identify with your ego and believe that you are your ego.

Admittedly, I’m not very acquainted with any of the spiritual concepts presented in the previous paragraph. I’m still wrapping my head around much of it, and may have even gotten some of the ideas wrong to a degree. When I went to the Buddhist center for a spell, the teacher there even held back on teaching the concept of getting rid of one’s conception of self/ego because she stated that going into that too early in beginner classes tended to scare too many novices to death and drive them off. I’ve been reading a book called Stepping Out of Self-Deception by Rodney Smith that touches on this, but I’m only halfway through it, and it’s not easy to wrap my head around yet. Similar books that I’ve bought but not yet read include Psychotherapy without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity by Bruce Hood, The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger (a neuroscientific approach to the topic), and I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj. I can’t speak to the quality of these books except to say that the first half of Stepping Out of Self-Deception is quite good and thought-provoking. I suggested all the books anyway, even though I can’t vouch for them personally. I’ve heard great things about all of them and they were recommended to me by the various buddhist teachers I met when I was taking classes.

7 Responses to “Response to A Reader Comment: Ego Discussed”

  1. Thanks for this. This kind of instructive back and forth is what blogging is all about, and I’m happy that you’re willing to (repeatedly) clarify these terms for newer readers. I’m plowing through various parts of your archives here and I’m getting a ton of value.

    Dan @ Casual Kitchen

  2. Rafael Trindade on January 4th, 2014 at 10:49 PM

    Oh, hi. Have you ever read this text (or something similar): http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/notself2.html ? I was really impressed by the clarity and attractiveness of this approach (and by the wisdom I found in all the others writings of Ven. Thanissaro).

  3. thumbs up

  4. Since you are obviously busy and surely are recommended lots of reading by various readers that you don’t have time for, but in the off chance if you do want to explore spiritual topics, there is a growing community of teachers that are becoming very explicit with the meditative practices and explain in great, open detail who/what/where/when/why outside of Buddhist dogma, and actually focus on methods, pragmatism, etc.

    Shinzen Young probably has the most comprehensive, precise, and clear teaching system of mindfulness I have seen. I’ve read Mindfulness in Plain English and The Power of Now, but compared to Shinzen, who works with/at the Harvard neuroscientists laboratory, those two authors explanations are woefully ambiguous with technique, albeit beginner good, particularly mindfulness in plain English being pragmatic is a great book. But I could never recommend something like Tolle knowing how high quality teachings out there exist that are just so precise and clear and powerful. I think Shinzen is just too to the point and precise in language, leaving little cultural escapism that drives most people to Buddhism/meditation and hence unknown.

    More radically blunt still would be Daniel Ingram with Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha which he offers free online. I first dismissed his book because his arrogant seeming claim to enlightenment, but that was a huge mistake of judging a book by its cover. He lays out all the basic vipassana teachings with absolutely no bullshit, which is extraordinarily rare in spiritual teachings. His social critique of the boomer Buddhism that the west has today is also very valuable.

    The level of discourse that these two meditation teachers have is just so sky high it’s kinda terrifying. And they are about methods, actual results and not ambiguous trite wisdom. Anyways, the reason I write this is as a fan of both this blog and Mark Manson is as I progress in my human development across the board and really delve into meditation practices particularly, vipassana and more, is how powerful they actually are but really aren’t explored in depth by either of these two blogs, which I feel is a mistake to some degree. Insight/Vipassana is orthogonal in a way to the content or psychology of the mind, but in high doses, it comes full circle to help progress really fast in working through your psychological baggage, so I’ll end my semi-pretentious post/rant with an excerpt from ShinzenYoung,

    “Dissolving into the Transpersonal Source makes it easier to be a Good Person. Being a Good Person makes it easier to dissolve into the Transpersonal Source.”

  5. bryanray – I have the core teachings book, someone on this blog mentioned it to me. I haven’t read it yet though. I planned to within the next two months.

    Can you recommend some works by Shinzen Young to start with? Thanks.

  6. Shinzen offers his book called, ‘The Five Ways to Know Yourself’ on his personal website for free in PDF, http://www.shinzen.org/

    This book is a primer to his system of mindfulness/insight overall and the broad range of techniques, which include the ‘Do nothing’ techniques like Dzochen and various non-vipassana techniques like visualization/loving-kindness, and how these fit together. (Basically the quote at the end of my first post).

    I picked that book apart for a month or two, and if you do read it, I would also recommend his videos on YouTube to supplement digesting that book and any meditation discipline in general. For example, what to do if one starts meditating and having chronic insomnia as a result of meditation, which may happen and happened to me, might be one of hundreds of particular hurdles/issues to daily meditation that can really mess someone up if they aren’t educated about, which he answers in his talks on YouTube. One of his late best friends named Bill Hamilton taught Daniel Ingram, who wrote the Core teachings book (which Daniel dedicated to Bill Hamilton), has a book called Saints and Psychopaths, which basically reads loosely like a spiritual focused version of the rawness and goes in depth about Cluster Bs and Saints.

  7. I recently stumbled across Craig Holliday who has explained the spiritual aspects you were referring to better than anyone I’ve learned from to this point. His youtube channel has been very insightful. I was surprised to read this from your piece, “recognize and understand your ego and how it works but not actually identify with your ego and believe that you are your ego”. That is exactly the where Craig’s material lead me. I’ve read much of your blog and it’s great as well, thank you.

    http://www.craigholliday.com/
    http://www.youtube.com/user/mrcraigholliday

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