20 February 2009

Ego... Again

narcissus archetype of egoI have written a number of times on the subject of 'ego' (Ego in the Spiritual Life, The Problem of Self-preoccupation, Anatta in Context). On the whole I seem to take a different line to mainstream Buddhist teachers. After a discussion recently I wanted to revisit this subject. Regular readers will know that for the past year or so I have been developing a particular take on the Dharma. My approach stems from my answer the the question: "What is it that arises in dependence in causes?" My answer is that the emphasis in the early Buddhist texts is that it is dharmas that arise in dependence on causes, and that in this context dharmas should be understood as mental objects, that is the mental equivalent of the objects of the physical senses. And having pursued this line of enquiry through my practice I have some faith that it is a very useful approach.

Today I was talking with a friend today who was insistent that it is "egotism, and self absorption" that causes us to make the kinds of errors that cause us suffering. I want to explore this idea again in the light of my recent thinking. I believe that this idea has it's origins in the refrain:
yad anattā taṃ netaṃ mama neso ‘haṃ asmi na meso attāti

That which is non-self, this is not mine, it is not 'I', it is not my self.
We find this phrase again and again in the suttas, but it doesn't stand alone. It is said in reference to the process of cognition or experience: the khandhas, i.e. the apparatus of experience; or about the objects of the senses, i.e. the contents of sensory experience. Sue Hamilton points out that although the lists are enumerated separately the overall emphasis is the identification with experience as a whole. It should be noted that in the Pāli texts the Buddha never categorically denies the existence of a self. So, rehearsing the argument: the Buddha explained that the apparatus and contents of experience are impermanent, and therefore unsatisfactory, and therefore non-self, and thus we are mistaken if we identify ourselves with them. I have already explained (Anatta in Context) that in my view this can, and perhaps should, be linked to the search for the Absolute (brahman) through the Self (ātman) which was a feature of many śramaṇa sects as well as most brāhmaṇa sects. The Buddha seems to have eschewed the search for absolutes of either existence or knowledge, although some later Buddhist philosophers went down the road of looking for them.

So how would I characterise the problem of egotism? Firstly we could say that egotism is self absorption; and secondly it is tied up with seeing the self as a manifestation of the Absolute. My earlier post on selflessness deals with the problem of self absorption, and I have dealt with absolutist thinking as well. Here I want to look at the perception of selfhood in relation to dharmas.

Why do we experience a self? This is a very vexed and difficult question, and one that has been addressed in many different ways with many different results depending on starting assumptions and method of argument. I like the idea put forward by Antonio Damasio in his book The Feeling of What Happens. Damasio proposes that the mental map of the body and it's processes underlies the sense of self. The process of maintaining the body in an optimum state requires us to be aware of how the body is now, and how it is changing. The basic question the system must answer "is the current state better or worse for survival?" When we add to this awareness of mental states, and awareness of being aware, then something like a sense of being a self contained, self aware 'being' emerges. Continuity is important in keeping the body in it's optimum state. Note that sentience or even consciousness is not required for this because even a single celled organism is capable of maintaining it's internal state as close to optimum as the environment will allow. And this is part of the reason I like Damasio. No extra entity - no homunculus or 'little person in the head' as he calls it - is necessary for this maintenance, but a sense of continuity emerges from the complexity of the task in the case of higher animals. An awareness over time, and under different conditions, gives us survival fitness. The fact that we are aware of being in relation to the past, and with reference to possible futures is what gives us a sense of personal continuity. Damasio points out that the state of awareness that underlies this is not in fact continuous itself, but is constantly being constructed and reconstructed. The upshot is that we are capable of very complex and long term behaviour in order to maximise our wellbeing. We need not go to the extreme of logical positivist inspired behaviouralism and claim that there is no such thing as mind and that there is only behaviour. We may not fully understand consciousness as we experience it, but we need not dismiss it, or dismiss those aspects which we don't understand as non-existent! My point is that self-awareness helps us survive, and gives us choices. Damasio's theory doesn't take into account our social nature for instance, and the extent to which identity and behaviour are influenced by social factors.

It's important to be clear that anyone who abandons concern for their own wellbeing, and/or acts to harm themselves is not admirable. Selflessness has it's limits - we must be concerned for our wellbeing at some level. Although there may be times when one might sacrifice one's life for another, on the whole we need to care for ourselves. Someone who does not maintain a positive sense of self may allow others to manipulate them, or to exploit them. We have to make decisions about how we behave under various circumstances. To do this we must have a sense of what is important to ourselves, a sense of personal values. There are all too many horrific examples of what happens when we abdicate moral responsibility to others. In short we must be a self, must be a strong and positive self, in order to function well as an individual and in society. Selfishness on the other hand is a lack of awareness of others. The counterpoint between self and other, and how we impact on one another is addressed in the first three of the six perfections.

Where the Buddha helps is in identifying the mistaken conclusions we come to on the basis of our self-awareness. Self awareness comes from bodily sensations, and from mental experiences and representations of sensations. The problem of egotism then boils down to coming to wrong conclusions about the nature of experience. We might seek to re-experience previous pleasures, or to experience new pleasures. I suppose we have all done this and so we know the answer to the question of whether or not it works. Pleasure can't be sustained, no experience can be. Similarly we go to extraordinary links to insulate ourselves from suffering - we may even cut ourselves off from society and community in order to do this. And again, having tried to escape suffering we know that it doesn't work. The Buddha asks us to pay attention to those doubts that come up when our attempts to organise the universe to our satisfaction fail to pay off. Rather than coming up with a yet more elaborate plan for happiness we need to stop, as far as we can, and pay attention to how experience actually works. One of the things that I've noticed is how little control I have over what goes on around me - I can't stop myself from having experiences. Some are pleasant, some are not, most are kind of neutral, but the flow of experience is never ending, except perhaps in the deepest stages of sleep. Even in the very attenuated and refined experience of meditation there is experience - which was the subject of my post on Communicating the Dharma.

So for me it is not that helpful to characterise our fundamental problem in terms of ego, or egotism. Egotism is an effect not a cause. It is an effect of a mistaken relationship to our moment to moment experience. And to my mind the place to attack the problem is at the root. Indeed this is a common Buddhist metaphor - don't muck about pruning the tree of craving, pull out the roots of it! I don't think we address being self-referential if we don't address the nature of the experience of self, and this draws ironically us away from the personal. I'm not likely to enjoy having someone trying to undermine my sense of self, or tell me that my self is bad. However I can see the logic of the error in judgement with relation to the senses, and I'm drawn to trying to deal with this problem.

In fact although the rhetoric is quite different the methods are more or less the same: ethics and meditation. But so often an attack on ego has a ring of unkindness about it. It's as though we are being blamed for causing the problem in the first place. I recall a well known Zen Roshi who wrote about suicide that it is fundamentally a selfish and egotistical act! I was struck by the insensitivity of this so-called 'master'! I believe that if they really understood the choice that no one would choose suffering, or that in good circumstances anyone would see suicide as a solution to their problems. We suffer through ignorance not through informed choice, and sometimes that suffering can feel unbearable. So blame is hardly appropriate.

Similarly I don't think that examining cause and effect in the world is necessarily going to help much, although more than one of my colleagues have argued against me on this point. Sure, gravity makes things fall, for instance, and erosion will eventually wear away a mountain. The objects of experience do change if we wait long enough. But if the problem at it's root is our moment to moment relationship to experience, and if our experience is changing in each moment, then oughtn't we to look at the experience rather than the object of experience for insight? Another way of saying it might be to examine statements like "no thing arises" - this is common in Mahāyāna circles and is recorded in the first line of the Arapacana acrostic. In which sphere is this true? I think this is a straightforward proposition if we are talking about the realm of experience; but it is nonsensical if we are focussing on the objects of experience. And unfortunately many Buddhists end up saying nonsensical things about the objective pole of experience!

The problem is not ego in relation to the objects of experience, not even ego per se, it is the very nature of experience itself that is the root of our problems. This is where we can make a real difference.
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