The Enticing Delusion Of Ego
Ven. Dr. Am Koe Beighley Su
Since about 1920, it is difficult to address the Ego without addressing two individuals: Sigmund Freud, the Father of Modern Psychology, and the Buddha. For purposes of clarification, let us begin with Freud, move on to the Buddha, and end with some thoughts on Social Justice. The first part comes from a lecture given when teaching psychology at Grand Rapids Community College, so bear with me while temporarily in “professor mode”.
In 1923, Sigmund Freud, who is rarely pictured without his signature cigar, defined the psyche as being structured into three parts; the Id, the Ego, and the Super-Ego, all developing at certain stages of our life as systems, not parts of the brain or in any way physical. Synonyms of these three are: Id as our basic instincts, Ego as our individual reality, and the Super-Ego as Morality.
The Id, according to psychoanalytic theory, is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories. The Super-Ego operates as a moral conscience, and the Ego is the realistic part that mediates between the desires of the Id and the Super-Ego. And, although each part of the personality compromises unique features, the interact to form a whole, and each part makes a relative contribution to an individual’s behavior
The Id is the primitive and instinctive component of personality, consisting of all the inherited , or biological components of personality present at birth, including the sex, or life instinct we call Eros, and the aggressive or death instinct we call Thantos. It is the impulsive and unconscious part of our psyche and responds directly and immediately to basic urges, needs, and desires. The personality of a newborn child is ALL Id and only later does it develop an ego and super-ego. Here’s the important part. The Id remains infantile throughout a person’s life and does not change with time or experience, as it is not in touch with the external world. It Id is not affected by reality, logic, or the everyday world, as it operates within the unconscious part of the mind. The Id operates on the pleasure principle, which is the idea that every wishful impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of consequence. When the Id achieves its demands, we experience pleasure, regardless of the consequences, and when it is denied, we experience “unpleasure”. The Id engages in primary process thinking, which is primitive, illogical, and fantasy oriented, having no comprehension of objective reality, and is selfish and wishful in nature.
Now, let’s talk about Ego for a bit. The ego develops as a mediator between the unrealistic Id and the external world, ideally working by reason. The Ego operates according to the reality principle, working out realistic ways of satisfying the id’s demands. This is an especially important point: WORKING OUT REALISTIC WAYS OF SATISFYING THE ID’S DEMANDS, often compromising or postponing satisfaction to avoid negative consequences, considering, but often not adhering to, social realities, norms, etiquette, and rules in deciding how to behave. All the while, working on behalf of the ID. Like the Id, the Ego seeks pleasure and avoids pain, but, unlike the ID, the Ego is concerned with devising a realistic strategy to obtain pleasure. Ego has no concept of right or wrong; something is good simply if it achieves its end of satisfying without causing harm to itself or the Id. Take note, here is no mention here of concern or care for other beings. Often the Ego is weak relative to the headstrong Id, and the best it can do is to stay connected, pointing the Id in the right direction and claiming some credit at the end as if the actions were its own. If the Ego fails in its attempt to use the reality principle, and anxiety is experienced, unconscious defense mechanisms take over to ward off unpleasant feelings or make good things better for the individual. AGAIN, no regard for the benefit of other beings.
Now, on to the Super-Ego, whose function is to control the Id’s impulses, especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression. It also has the function of persuading the Ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones. It consists of two systems: the conscience and the ideal self. The conscience can punish the ego through feelings of guilt. The ideal-self is an imaginary picture of how you ought to be, and represents career aspirations, how to treat other people, and how to behave as a member of society. Behavior which falls short of the ideal self may be punished by the Super-Ego through guilt. If a persons ideal self is too high a standard, then whatever the person does will represent failure. This ideal self and conscience are largely determined in childhood from parental values and how we were each brought up. So, with these concepts in mind, we can see the draw of achieving Id driven pleasure and avoiding unpleasantness.
Okay, enough with the psycho-babble…let’s move on to what the Buddha’s thoughts are on the concept of ego.
I’m going to read a series of quotes from scripture, Sutras, and other Buddhist teachers to help us get a sense of why the elimination of the self-satisfying Ego is important along the Buddhist Path.
-There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires.
-A man is not called wise because he talks and talks again; but if he is peaceful, loving and fearless then he is in truth and called wise.
-No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.
-To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.
-If we fail to look after others when they need help, who will look after us?
-One who acts on truth is happy in this world and beyond. (Side-note: this is NOT the Id’s truth he’s talking about.)
-Wear your ego like a loose fitting garment.
-What you are is what you have been. What you’ll be is what you do now.
-When watching after yourself, you watch after others. When watching after others, you watch after yourself.
-There is nothing so disobedient as an undisciplined mind, and there is nothing so obedient as a disciplined mind.
-Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters bend wood; the wise master themselves.
-If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.
-The root of suffering is attachment.
-Silence the angry man with love. Silence the ill-natured man with kindness. Silence the miser with generosity. Silence the liar with truth.
-Even as a solid rock is unshaken by the wind, so are the wise unshaken by praise or blame.
-People with opinions just go around bothering each other.
-Understanding is the heartwood of well-spoken words.
-Ceasing to do evil, cultivating the good, purifying the heart: this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
This is just a very small sampling of what the Buddha has to say about diminishing the ego and enhancing the moral direction of the Super-Ego. As we look at the concept of ego, it is easy to see why the Buddha placed so much emphasis on diminishing this servant of the Id.
Part Three: How does this all fit with the concept of social justice? We have seen that the Id has no concept of the “other”, and that the Ego is just a small upgrade from the Id, trying its best to manage the Id’s desires without suffering negative personal and/or social consequences. The Super-Ego is the first hint we see of concern for morality and other individuals.
What we do here at the White Sands Zen Center is entirely focused on two things; the teaching of the timeless and true Dharma, and to work diligently for the BENEFIT OF ALL SENTIENT BEINGS. The operative word here is ALL, not a select few depending on how we feel at any given point in time. ALL SENTIENT BEINGS, using the Dharma to help ferry them across to the other shore of enlightenment. No exceptions…ALL SENTIENT BEINGS.
We tend to get hung up on social issues and even bristle at the mention of social justice. Some bristle at the mention of “Black Lives Matter”. Some at the mention of “White Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter”. Others admonish the Dharma Teachers for even mentioning Social Justice saying, “Just stick to the Dharma!!” News Flash: for all thinking along that vein, get out your copy of the Dhammapada, which you may not even read all the way through, and read it 10 times all the way through!! The Buddha never shied away from social justice issues, involved himself frequently, and had much to say about the roles of everyone from the lowest caste to Kings and Emperors. We forget our purpose as Buddhists on the Path and get hung up on “too far to the left” or “too far to the right”. When it comes to the benefit of all sentient beings, there is no left or right…just the persons who are suffering right in front of us as a result of injustice and immoral actions. In this deeply divided United States of America, there is a long and frightening reality of the way blacks have been treated from the time we began accumulating colonies in the 1600s all the way to this present moment. The original method of policing began in the early 1700s with the “Slave Patrols” “to establish a system of terror in response to slave uprisings with the capacity to pursue, apprehend, and return runaway slaves to their owners, including the use of excessive force to control and produce desired slave behavior. They were empowered to use forcible entry into any home based on even a suspicion of protecting runaway slaves. These patrols continued until the end of the civil war.
Hate Crimes rose an astonishing 44% in the last year. Only 19 weeks into 2022, there have been 198 mass shootings. Most of these have been categorized as Hate Crimes.
I’m going to quote the FBI’s Criminal Justice Sheet here, because paraphrasing cannot do it justice.
The population of the United States on Dec. 28. 2020 was approximately 60.1% white, 15.5% Hispanic, and 12.1% Black. In all races there were 10,085,210 crimes. Of that number, 7,014,550 were committed by White individuals, 2,667,010 were committed by Black individuals, 224,200 were committed by American Indians, and 159,450 were committed by the Asian population.
An FBI Report based on statistics from 800 jurisdictions across the United States indicated that in arrests according to race, blacks were arrested at a rate of 5 to 1. In an examination of 200 jurisdictions, arrests were reported blacks over whites 10 to 1 accounting for the Demographics of the communities served.
So…when we as Buddhist Practitioners say that Black Lives Matter, we’re not talking nonsense! When we say ALL LIVES MATTER, we say that with the same matter of gravity as when we say BLACK LIVES MATTER. We’ve got a very broken system that goes back before we were even a nation, and despite all the laws of protection put in place, it appears that injustice is still in the lead.
It might be a good idea to sing a song along with our morning chants that I learned in Sunday School. And I paraphrase:
“Buddha loves the little children, all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,
Buddha loves the little children of the world.”
It is our mandate to know that black lives matter, white lives matter, red lives matter, yellow lives matter, LGBTQ lives matter, those with physical, emotional, and mental challenges matter, the man holding a sign on the freeway exit matters…all sentient beings matter. Wasting time on who is left and who is right is an obnoxious waste of time and energy on the Path. It’s very simple: ALL LIVES MATTER, and it is our job to work, in whatever ways we are capable, for the benefit of all lives. To deviate from that mandate is to stray from the path. To stray from the path is not the Buddha way.
As you go from your this post today and continue the day just as it is…remember our mandate: If what we do is not for the benefit of all sentient beings, it is unworthy of the Path.
May you be well on your journey and truly remember what truly matters.