How to Get Over Yourself

NewImageWhat Freud and Buddhism agree on about the ego, paraphrased from Mark Epstein’s essay, an excerpt from his excellent book A Guide to Getting Over Yourself:

Ego is the affliction we all have in common, and it is not an innocent bystander. While claiming to have our best interests at heart, ego-driven pursuits undermine the very goals it sets out to achieve. We need to loosen ego’s grip to have a more satisfying existence.

How we interact with our ego is up to us. We have gotten very little help with this in life; no one teaches us how to be with ourselves constructively. Goals which develop a stronger sense of self are generally cherished in our society but self-love, self-esteem, self-confidence and aggressively seeking what one wants do not guarantee well-being. If we look around, we see that people with a strong sense of self are suffering. In fact, the most important events in our lives from falling in love to giving birth to facing death all require the ego to let go.

We have the capacity to bring unbridled ego under control by focusing on internal successes instead of merely success in the external world. Our culture does not generally support such conscious de-escalation of the ego but there are advocates to be found, among them both Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapy. Although developing in completely different times and places and until recently having nothing to do with each other, both the Buddha and Freud came to a virtually identical conclusion, identifying the untrammeled ego as the limiting factor to our well-being.

Neither Buddhism or psychotherapy aim to eradicate the ego, which would render us either psychotic or completely helpless in navigating the world and mediating conflicting demands of self and others. Both practices, in fact, build up some executive functions of the ego. Much of the benefit of modern meditation practice, for example, which has found a modern place in healthcare, on Wall Street, in athletics and in the military, lies in the ego strength it confers by giving people more control. But ego-enhancement, by itself, can only get us so far.

Both practices aim to rebalance the ego by strengthening the “observing I” over the “unbridled me.” Freud based his approach on free association and the interpretation of dreams. The self-reflection borne from psychoanalysis, staring into space and “saying whatever comes to mind,” shifts the ego toward the subjective, making room for uncomfortable emotional experiences, greater acceptance, and relaxation of ego struggles.

Buddhism teaches people to watch their minds without necessarily believing, or being captivated by, everything they see. In so doing, one is freed from being victimized by one’s most selfish momentary impulses. By making room for whatever arises in the mind and dwelling more consistently in an observing awareness, a meditator is training herself neither to push away the unpleasant nor to cling to the appealing. Observing ego is balanced and impersonal, more distant from the immature ego’s insistent self-concern and its fluctuation in the face of the incessant change life throws at us.

However, there are some differences between the focuses of psychotherapy and Buddhist meditation. Freud found the most illuminating thing to be the unconscious instincts that came to awareness through the process of psychoanalysis, giving people a deeper and richer appreciation of themselves and thus humbling the ego with a wider scope, greater awareness of its limitations, and greater freedom from being dictated to by instinctual cravings.

Buddhism finds inspiration, in contrast, in the phenomenon of consciousness itself and seeks to give people a glimpse of pure awareness. Not only do I experience things, I know that I am experiencing them and even know that I know I am doing so, in an endless regress. But once in awhile through deep meditation the whole thing collapses and there is no ‘I’, no ‘me’, just the pure awareness. It is hard to talk about but it is an indubitable result of this kind of mind training, and the consequent freedom from the limitations of one’s identity comes as a relief. The contrast from one’s habitual ego-driven state is overwhelming, and much of Buddhist tradition is designed to consolidate the perspective of this expanded awareness with one’s everyday perspective.

Via Big Think