The Difference between a Healthy Ego and an Unhealthy Ego
Buddhism speaks of the difference between the conventional “me” and the false “me.” The conventional “me” is the “me” that is imputable on the continuum of each individual’s ever-changing moments of experience. In other words, the moments of our individual experience follow one after the next according to the laws of behavioral cause and effect (karma). On the basis of the continuum of these moments, we can label “me.” This conventional “me” does exist and it is in terms of this “me” that we can say, “I am sitting; I am eating; I am meditating.” The conventional “me,” however, is merely something that can be imputed on our mental continuum: there is nothing findable on the side of the conventional “me” that, by its own power, makes “me” exist as “me.” A “me” that truly exists with something findable on its own side, establishing its existence, is impossible. Such a truly existent findable “me” doesn’t exist at all; that is the false “me,” the “me” to be refuted.
The West, on the other hand, speaks of a healthy ego and an unhealthy ego. A healthy ego is the sense of a “me” based on the conventional “me”; while an unhealthy ego is the sense of a “me” based on the false “me.” An unhealthy ego may be either an inflated or a deflated one. An inflated ego is based on belief in a truly existent findable “me”; while a deflated ego is based either on belief that even the conventional “me” is nonexistent, or on a very weakly established sense of a conventional “me.”
For healthy Dharma practice, we need a healthy ego, so that we take responsibility for what we experience in life. On the basis of taking that responsibility, we would put a safe direction in our lives (take refuge), aim for liberation and/or enlightenment, and follow a course of practice toward those goals based on confidence in our Buddha-natures and on the laws of karmic cause and effect. However, until we are liberated arhats, we will still have grasping for the true findable existence of a “me.” Because of that, our Dharma practice will inevitably be mixed with an unhealthy ego. If we are aware of the ways in which this happens, we can try to minimize the damage by meditating on and applying provisional methods. The ultimate remedy, however, is the understanding of the voidness of the self.
Problems Arising from an Inflated Ego Due to Identifying with a Truly Existent “Me”
Some people become involved with Dharma because of some karmic reason that causes them to be curious and interested in it, once that interest is triggered by some circumstance. But some get into the Dharma for unstable reasons based on an inflated ego. There are three common forms of this syndrome. Thinking of ourselves as a truly existent findable “me,” we may turn to the Dharma:
- To be accepted by a certain group of friends, because Buddhism is trendy and several movie stars and rock stars are followers of the Dharma
- To find a miracle cure for some deep emotional or physical problem that no other solutions have helped
- To satisfy our interest in exotica.
In general, to avoid the dangers that may come from becoming involved with the Dharma for any of these reasons, we need to examine and correct our motivation. However, there are more specific provisional steps that we can take for overcoming the common “ego-trips” that are associated with each of these three forms of inflated ego.
Wanting to Be Part of the "In-Crowd"
With an inflated sense of “me,” we may feel puffed-up pride that we are part of the “in-crowd.” To overcome this, we need to rejoice that we have found the Dharma, rather than feel arrogant about it. We may meditate on compassion for others who are still lost. Further, compared with others who are far more advanced on the path, we need to realize that we are just Dharma infants. So there is no basis for feeling arrogant.
Wanting to Find a Miracle Cure
Desperation to find a miracle cure for our suffering often leads to an inflated sense of self-importance. We may become so preoccupied with ourselves and our problems that we try to dominate the time of the teacher or the class with constant questions. We want constant attention. To overcome this, we need to think of the equality of self and others. Nobody wants to suffer and everyone wants to be cured.
With an inflated sense of “me,” we might also think that we are like Milarepas – practitioners who are so ripe that we will certainly attain enlightenment in just a few years. Consequently, we demand special attention from our teachers. To remedy this ego-inflation, we need to read the biographies of the great Buddhist masters and learn what real meditators are actually like.
Also, being self-preoccupied, we might be so desperate, that we will do anything that the teacher says to do. We have the attitude of: “Just tell me the magic words to say or magic practice, and I’ll do it.” With such a mentality, we may do 100,000 prostrations or repetitions of the Vajrasattva mantra, but when no miracles happen as a result, we fall into a deep depression. To overcome this, we need to think how a great multitude of causes go into bringing about a result.
We may also run to every tantric initiation that is given, because, being overly concerned about a seemingly truly existent “me,” we do not want to miss anything. We may frantically run like this also because of wanting to be accepted by the group, or because of a fascination with exotica. But whatever the unsound reason may be, we need to remember that a tantric empowerment into a deity system is only intended for those who are well-prepared with a stable foundation in the basic sutra practices, who actually wish to practice that specific Buddha-figure, and have the time to do so. We need to be realistic about the time we have for daily practice. The same advice applies to people who run to every teacher and then get confused, or who run and take vows without considering whether or not they can keep them.
Fascination with Exotica
With a fascination for exotica, we may accumulate as many Dharma implements, thangkas, and so on as we can and then arrange a meditation room in our homes with them like some Hollywood or Disneyland setting. We then put on a daily show of doing pujas with vajra, bell, drum, butter lamps, and incense. To overcome this form of ego inflation, we need to remember that the essence and purpose of Dharma practice is to transform the mind, not to put on an exotic show.
Problems Arising from a Deflated Ego
We may also enter the Dharma because of a deflated ego, coming from not having a well-established sense of a conventional “me.” With a weak sense of “me,” we may be drawn to Buddhist cults by a charismatic leader who promises us that:
- The lineage they teach and its founder are the best, and any other form of spirituality is no good
- They as the teacher are the best, and all others are no good
- We will become strong if we give up our own weak, wrong thinking and totally obey them as our teacher and their interpretation of the Dharma, which is infallible
- If we follow a strong and fierce spiritual protector, this super-normal being will smash all enemies of their sect, since all other traditions and teachers are the enemy.
Such teachers demand absolute loyalty and use the element of fear of hell, to which we will fall if we disobey. Students drawn to this usually have weak egos, no self-confidence, and are attracted by the promise of gaining strength in numbers and strength from the teacher, the teachings, the lineage and lineage founder, and the protector. Students take on an ego identity of the whole group.
This syndrome leads to religious fanaticism, based on fear, the wish to be good and not bad, the wish to please and to be accepted and loved by the teacher and the group, and a feeling of guilt if we do not practice perfectly. All this is based on no sense, or a very weak sense, of an individual conventional “me,” and a strong clinging to a false “group-me.” In a sense, we may call this syndrome “spiritual fascism.” It can occur whether or not the teacher is a charlatan, and whether or not we are involved in a Dharma cult.
There are various symptoms that are typical of this syndrome. For example, we are stiff and inflexible in our practice. Or we make our daily practice too long, so that it becomes a burden and there is no joy in it. We need to remember that one of the supports for perseverance is knowing when to relax and take a break – and not feeling guilty about doing so. If we push too hard, we only get what the Tibetans call “lung” (frustrated energy in our bodies) and it is counterproductive. Another symptom is that we are intolerant of different ways or styles of practice. To counter this, we need to recognize that, with skillful means, Buddha taught many different styles to suit different people. If we reject and put them down, we are abandoning the Dharma.
Milder Forms of Mixing Ego with the Dharma
We may not be as severely disturbed as any of these above-mentioned syndromes, but many of us still may have milder forms of mixing ego with Dharma practice. For example, we may approach “collecting merit” as if we were trying to win a contest in which we were competing with other Dharma practitioners. Or we may work to “collect merit” in order to “buy” our way to liberation and enlightenment, or to save up for the winter, like a squirrel collecting nuts, to protect ourselves.
On the other hand, we might avoid getting too involved with Dharma, because we are afraid of having to give up some of our usual habits – whether they are healthy ego habits or unhealthy ego ones. Thus, we may be afraid to ever take vows or initiations. For this, we need to develop discriminating awareness to differentiate which of our activities and interests are healthy and helpful, and which are unhealthy and damaging.
Also, we may have blocks regarding the intellectual, emotional, or devotional approaches to the Dharma. This arises when we identify ourselves exclusively with one or more of these approaches, or we identify ourselves as someone who couldn’t possibly have one or more of them. For overcoming this problem, we need to recognize the benefits of each of the three approaches and make efforts to cultivate as balanced a practice of Dharma as possible.
Other problems may arise because we do not give Dharma high enough priority in our lives. Because of that, we do not do a daily practice or do not take our daily practice and commitments seriously. We skip practicing when we don’t feel like doing it, and we skip class when we don’t feel like coming, or there is a birthday or a good movie or concert happening at the same time. This may be because we feel that to practice or to go to class is giving up some essential part of “ourselves.” For this, we need to differentiate between what is important in life and what is not so important, and between when we really cannot meditate or go to class, and when we are just making excuses because of laziness and attachment. We need to reaffirm our precious human life, and think about death and impermanence.
If we apply these various methods, we may avoid some of the problems that come from mixing ego with our Dharma practice.
To avoid problems in our Buddhist practice, we need to examine ourselves to see if we are approaching the Dharma with a healthy ego or an unhealthy one. If with an unhealthy one, when we identify the form it takes and apply the opponent ways of thinking, we avoid the most common obstacles to our progress on the Buddhist path.