The Difference Between a Healthy and Inflated Ego
Firstly, some questions. There was one question during the break, which was what is the difference between the “self” and the “me,” or the “I.” I think that since this question was asked by a psychologist, and terminology is a little bit different, the question is one of what’s the difference between the impossible “me” or false “me,” to be refuted, and the conventional “me” – that’s the Buddhist terminology – and what is spoken of in psychology as a “healthy ego” and an “inflated ego.” Because, actually, the word “me” or “self,” from a Buddhist point of view, is the same. So I think the question is about these two conceptual frameworks.
In psychology, when we speak of ego, we’re talking about a conscious state of mind that is thinking in terms of “me.” Alright? I’m not going to analyze it from any particular school, so I’m just speaking in general. When we think of “me” in terms of the conventional “me,” what Buddhism is talking about is the object of the mind. So, when we think in terms of a conventional “me,” that would be a healthy ego; when we think of “me” in terms of an impossible “me,” the false “me,” then that’s an inflated ego. That’s dealing with something that doesn’t exist, that is impossible to exist.
An example is, “Not only do I exist as a solid entity, but I’m the center of the world. I’m the most important one. I should always have my way.” The Buddhist analysis and the psychological analysis are not contradictory, but perhaps the Buddhist analysis goes deeper into what the impossible “me” and the conventional “me” actually are.
Learning to Live with Problems
Many therapies are designed as follows: “You have certain problems, these are the problems, and therapy will help you to live with them in a better manner.” Whereas Buddhism is aimed at getting rid of the cause of the problems and eliminating them completely, not just learning to live with them. Of course, learning to live with our problems is certainly an initial and important step. In Buddhism, we speak of the initial scope, that when a disturbing emotion arises, we don’t act it out, but rather exercise self-control. In a sense, this is learning to live with it. But, as Shantideva says, things like anger are the real enemy and they are not things that we can make peace with. They lie in ambush and come back and attack us again, and cause trouble again. So it’s not a matter of just making peace with the problems and learning to live with them in some corner of our mind. Instead, we have to get rid of them completely.
Making peace with problematic situations is what we do when we have no choice but to accept certain things. For instance, we might have to accept that we were born into some minority group, or that our parents split up even before we were born, or that we grew up in a ghetto, or whatever. Okay, we need to accept the reality of that, so in a sense we make peace with it, rather then just spend our whole life complaining and thinking that everybody owes us something because we had such a bad deal in life. But then, on the basis of having made peace with it, of accepting the reality of it, we go on to try to improve and get out of any drawbacks there might be to that situation. We apply methods from the mind training teaching, lojong, to turn negative circumstances into positive ones.
Does the same reasoning that you just used apply to illnesses?
Absolutely. If we have a serious sickness, there’s no use in complaining about it and feeling sorry for ourselves. That’s certainly not going to help. Instead, we try to turn adverse circumstances into positive ones. Firstly, of course, we need to acknowledge that the illness is suffering; it’s not terribly nice. We don’t deny the unpleasantness of a serious sickness. It doesn’t help to pretend that it isn’t terrible; it is terrible, that we have cancer or multiple sclerosis or we’re paralyzed or whatever it might be. But we have to accept reality.
We could say that the most fundamental principle of Buddhism is “accept reality” – understand reality and accept it. Don’t project all sorts of impossible fantasies. Transform an adverse circumstance into a positive one. There are many ways of doing that. For example, one friend of mine had a brain tumor, and it was removed, and after that he became a super serious Buddhist practitioner, because more than ever, he recognized the precious human rebirth that he had, and that whatever time he had, he wanted to make the best use of it and not just waste it. So, it helped him to become much stronger on the Buddhist path.
Have you heard the following definition of life? A sexually transmitted disease with a 100% fatality rate. This is very true! We might have a precious human life now, but it’s going to end. There’s a 100% fatality rate. It’s just a matter of when, and we never know when. If we have some really serious disease, it makes us take far more seriously the reality that we all face. We should also remember that a perfectly healthy person can die long before we would die, even if we have a chronic disease. Anybody can be hit by a car at any time.
Another friend of mine, who has multiple sclerosis, was confined to a wheelchair and became seriously paralyzed. He had studied Buddhism before that, and similar to the friend with the brain tumor, he became much more serious about it. He then became a psychologist and started counseling others who were paralyzed or who had similar types of serious chronic sicknesses, because suffering from one himself, he was in a much better position to be able to give advice to others, and others wouldn’t resent him. You know, if a very healthy person advises someone like that, if a person who can see is advising a blind person, “Well, you’re blind, but don’t feel so bad about it,” it doesn’t have the same impact as when it comes from someone who is similarly afflicted. Whether we’re talking about blindness, whether we’re talking about cancer, whether we’re talking about being HIV positive, it is possible to change and transform these adverse circumstances into positive ones. That will enable us to not only further develop ourselves spiritually, but to able to better help others. As I said, the basis for it, to help us not feel sorry for ourselves, is acknowledging that, “Yes, this is terrible.” That’s the first noble truth, true suffering.
Now, let’s work further with our exercises. We’ve worked with family members, focusing on our mother and father. Unless we are one of those very fortunate people who have a wonderful mother and father and a wonderful relationship with them both, we perhaps have found some difficulty with one or the other or both. Maybe we noticed some resistance in trying to find their good qualities; it was difficult to discover them. But remember, it’s nearly impossible that there’s somebody that has only bad qualities. Maybe they showed primarily negative qualities toward us, but what about qualities that they showed toward others? Maybe that’s a whole other field, a whole other aspect of this person. This means that we have narrowed down the basis of labeling for our mother or our father just to aspects of their interactions with me, and the majority were negative. So, we need to expand the basis for labeling our mother or our father and think in terms of their whole life: their interactions with everyone and their interactions with their own parents, and so on. In this way, we get a little bit more of an objective perspective about one or the other parent or anybody in this exercise.
Obviously, this exercise is not a simple one. None of the Buddhist exercises are simple. But, when mental blocks come up, and difficulties come up, this is very, very good. As Tsongkhapa always pointed out, you have to be able to recognize the object to be refuted in order to refute it. So, we have to recognize what it is we have to work on before we can work on it. The image that’s used is that if you can’t see the target, you’re not going to be able to hit it with an arrow.
We worked with our mother and father, and we can easily see how we can extend this to various other members of our family. Even if we haven’t had a close relationship or terribly much interaction with them, it doesn’t really matter because, in a sense, we come from that family. We can look at the good qualities of this person in any case. If we think that our family is complete – excuse the word – crap, then who are we? I mean, they produced another piece of crap. I think that it’s very important to have a more positive feeling about those that produced us, not just our parents, but the whole family.
Focus on Our Native Country
So, let us go on. Let’s think in terms of our native country. And I’d like to follow that with the native religion that we’ve been born into. I know in a country like this, Mexico, it’s a little bit difficult to separate influences from the Mexican character and the influence of Catholicism. I’m not talking about identity here, I’m talking about influence; the influence of Mexican culture and the influence of Catholicism might be difficult to separate. But let’s try to think if there are other characteristics of Mexican culture and the Mexican mentality, besides Catholicism, that are positive and are part of us.
- To start, we need to quiet our minds.
- Then, we generate a caring attitude for ourselves, “I’m a human being, I have feelings, I care about happiness and not being unhappy.” We don’t need to go into great detail.
- Now for the next step, we bring to mind something representing our country.
With our parents, we brought to mind a picture of the person or an image representing them. This is much more difficult when we’re thinking of our native country, whether it’s of the people here in Mexico or Cuba or Germany or the United States. And obviously, visualizing a flag or a map is a little bit silly. In whatever way we can, even if it’s just the name of the country, let’s try to focus our attention on that.
- We can recall the shortcomings and negative qualities and see that they have arisen from causes and circumstances and that there is no benefit in dwelling on them or complaining about them. Then we put them aside.
- Then we recall the good qualities of the country, and what good qualities we’ve gained from having come from that background. We focus on these facts with firm conviction, that these really are good qualities and we really have been influenced by them.
- And then we try to recognize the benefits we have derived from that nationality in terms of what we have learned.
- Once we’ve recognized that, we try to develop a sense of deep appreciation and respect for our national background. That doesn’t mean we become fanatic patriots and go around waving flags. It’s much more realistic and not exaggerated.
- Then we try to feel inspired to develop these qualities further.
Focus on Our Native Religion
Then we think of the native religion into which we were born.
- We bring to mind our family’s religion.
That’s not necessarily our country’s dominant religion, unless we went to a school which gave religious training and so on in a religion that was not our family’s. Obviously there can be cases like that. Also, those not born into any specific religion can bring to mind belief systems instilled in us when we were younger.
Somehow represent that in our minds so that we can think about it. It might just be with the mental word. It doesn’t have to be so specific. You don’t have to visualize a cross or something like that, unless that’s helpful.
- Recall the shortcomings and negative qualities if there are any and see that they have arisen due to causes and circumstances. And decide there’s no benefit that comes from dwelling on them and making a big deal out of them, but don’t deny them either. Then put them aside.
- Next, we recall the good qualities of the religion, and the positive qualities we’ve gained from the influence of that religion. Even if we’ve turned away from that religion, it’s nearly impossible that it didn’t have some positive influence on us.
- Think with firm conviction that these good qualities are true, and they truly have had a positive influence on me.
- Now we recognize the benefits we have derived from this religious background in terms of what we’ve learned, what we’ve gained.
- We feel deep appreciation and respect for that religion.
- And we try to feel inspired to develop these qualities further.
Integrating It All Together
- Now, we imagine in front of us our mother, our father, and something representing our national background and our religious background. We think of the good qualities we’ve gained from our mothers. Yellow light comes to us and fills us with more inspiration to development them further. Yellow light comes from her heart to our heart.
- And now add on top of that the good qualities that came from our father. Light comes from his heart, so now we have light coming from both their hearts, so we have both these qualities together.
- Then we add the national character, the positive influence we’ve gained from that.
- And then to integrate these we may need some sort of key phrase that represents the positive things from each of these, and repeat them so as to keep them all fresh.
- Then we add the good qualities and influence that we’ve received from our native religion. So now, we have all four of them together.
- Then, as an integrated whole of all these positive qualities, we imagine that the integration of all of these shines from us like yellow light benefiting everyone, like from a sun.
- We try to let this sink in, and think that whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it act as a cause for really being able to use all these positive qualities to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.
- And slowly, we come out of this meditative state.
Voidness Is Crucial for These Exercises
One further thing needs to be added here, which is our understanding of voidness and mental labeling. We need to have that understanding as the container of this whole process. One way of doing that is to think of it at the beginning, before starting the process, and reaffirming our understanding of it at the end. So, we start in terms of understanding that there’s no such thing as a solid “me.” I exist, but there is nothing findable on the side of “me” that has the power to establish that I exist. The only thing that establishes that I exist is that there is the concept “me” and the word “me,” and “me” is just what this concept and word refer to on the basis of all the everchanging things that I experience in life. These various aspects that I experience arise from many, many causes and conditions, and have many parts. Thus, there’s nothing solid about the basis and nothing solid about the imputation phenomenon, “me,” that is inextricably tied to that basis.
The meditation we’ve learned builds up a positive basis for our conceptually labeling “me,” and builds up as well a positive feeling of being an integrated whole, which is a feeling of what we would call a healthy ego, what we were discussing before in terms of a conventional “me.” The “me” is labeled in terms of that. When we do this process in terms of tantra practice and a Buddha-figure, we would call this sense of a “me,” labeled on all of this, the “pride of the deity,” the feeling that we actually are that.
At the end, it’s important to remind ourselves that the “me” is not identical to any one of these aggregate components. Nor is it something that exists totally separate from it. It’s not something that possesses these things or lives inside them, like living inside a house. Nor is it like the boss that now has all these components that it can use. And the “me” is not identical to the totality of this basis, as if the totality of all of this, as represented by this integrated light shining out, were a thing, that that’s “me,” because obviously all the parts, as we saw with the aggregates, are changing every moment at different rates. Each of these components has arisen from causes and circumstances, in terms of the parents and how they grew up, and the country and how it developed, and so on; there’s nothing solid in this whole thing. Nevertheless – it’s our big “nevertheless” – on the basis of all of this, we are able to help others and reach enlightenment. That’s important; otherwise, again, we could go to a projection of impossible ways of existing that “I am this big light” and identify with that or identify with one aspect or another and again we get an inflated ego.
The Final Steps
Let me just go through the other steps very quickly.
After we’ve worked through all these categories of positive influence on us such as family, and our cultural and religious background, and what we’ve studied and our teachers and friends and so on, then what could be helpful is to make a list, and list each person or item in each of these categories. Write each one of them down, and next to each put some key words of what are the positive things that we’ve gained from them. Then, each morning, if we want to do this as a daily practice or whenever we want to do it, read through the list that we have compiled. It’s much more efficient that way, rather then trying to always remember – although ideally we shouldn’t have to rely on the list, but the list will make it much easier. Reading a list is modeled after the usual Tibetan Buddhist practice of reading a sadhana, which is basically the script of what we are imagining and trying to meditate on. It comes from that tradition.
For each of the groups of items, we would imagine the people within that group or some representation of the group around us and, as we recite or read the positive qualities that we have gained from each of them, then in a state of firm conviction and appreciation and respect, imagine that yellow light comes to us from each. We can do it one at a time first, or if that’s not necessary, we can just skip to the second phase of that, which is first one and then add the second on top of it, the third on top of it, so that it’s cumulative rather than one at a time.
At the end of each group, we have a full integration of all the items within that group, let’s say our whole family, and all our friends. And even if we don’t quite have the quality, let’s say, of a friend, there could be a quality of the friend that we really admire, which we could feel inspiration to try to develop. Then, having done each of the groups, we try to do cumulatively a feeling of each of the whole groups. So first, the family and their whole influence. Then, the whole national and religious and cultural background. Then our friends, and what we’ve studied and so on. Eventually, in a cumulative way, we try to put it all together. Having keywords for each of these things makes it a little bit easier because for most of us this is going to be an enormous list.
We’re shining with light with the whole integrated thing, helping others. Remember, we start the whole thing with quieting down and the caring mind, with the understanding of voidness. At the end, we reaffirm that understanding of voidness and the labeling of the “me” on all of this.
It’s very complex, like any sort of sadhana practice, so it’s something that we have to build up through time and through practice, bit by bit. It’s good to have a general go at the whole thing, but focused on one aspect, and next time another aspect. In this way, we gradually build it up.
A Stepping Stone to Tantra Practice
This could take quite a while. Those who are familiar with tantra practice will see how this is modeled after a tantra sadhana. We start with voidness. We then imagine that we are a Buddha-figure, often with other Buddha-figures around us and a mandala, with multiple arms, legs, and faces, holding different implements that stand for different types of positive qualities. We feel we are the integrated whole of this entire thing. Now, it’s exactly the same structure, but perhaps more accessible. Like in a sadhana, we imagine that light goes out and benefits everybody with all these qualities. We send out light making offerings to the Buddhas, and this is like showing respect for the sources of all these qualities. At the end of the practice, again, we think of voidness, and then at the end of that, we arise in a simpler form, like the way we end this practice.
So, perhaps this type of practice can be a helpful method that is more accessible to us, utilizing certain principles that we find in one aspect of tantra. However, we shouldn’t think that tantra is only this, but it’s similar and perhaps more accessible, and doesn’t require ritual or things like that. It’s perhaps a stepping stone for us to then work with tantra methods – not a substitute, but a stepping stone. Most of us who come from a Western background have a very different way of thinking, and a different way of approaching working on ourselves than the traditional Buddhist way. What we require is a bridge between the two ways of thinking and ways of approaching, of working on ourselves, of helping ourselves. Maybe this method that we’ve introduced this weekend can serve as a bridge between Western psychology and tantra.
Also, I guess I didn’t make it explicit that if we were to do a daily practice, what we would repeat each day is just the calming down, a caring attitude, voidness, reading the list, doing the practice that I’ve outlined, and ending with voidness and the dedication.
What we did here was the exploratory work, to create our own personal list. If you want a fuller type of program of working on yourself in this vein, then I would recommend this program that I developed called Developing Balanced Sensitivity. What we’ve done here is an adjunct to this, a supplement, something more. But in Developing Balanced Sensitivity, we have twenty exercises, each of which is as extensive as this one in terms of dealing with different aspects that will help us to develop along the spiritual path to be of more help to others.
Let’s end here with a final dedication. Think that whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper, and act as a cause for not only us, but everyone to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all.