The Search for Selflessness
It is not ego, in the Freudian sense, that is the actual target of the Buddhist insight. It is, rather, the self-concept, the representational component of the ego, the actual internal experience of one's self that is targeted.
According to the Buddhist scholar Jeffrey P. Hopkins, in Buddhist meditation one must ultimately "ascertain well the appearance of a substantially existent I." One must "find it as it appears" in one's own experience, developing a "clear feeling of the object to be negated." It is only by searching for and identifying the ways in which we think of ourselves as inherently existing that we can expose the self-representation as groundless.
What is being transcended here is not the entire ego. Rather, self-representation is revealed as lacking concrete existence. It is not the case of something real being eliminated, but of the essential groundlessness being realized for what it has always been. In the words of the Dalai Lama, "This seemingly solid, concrete, independent, self-instituting I under its own power that appears actually does not exist at all."
Meditators with this misunderstanding often feel under pressure to disavow critical aspects of their being that are identified with the "unwholesome ego." Most commonly, sexuality, aggression, critical thinking, or even the active use of the first person pronoun are relinquished, the general idea being that to give these things up or let these things go is to achieve egolessness. Aspects of the self are set up as the enemy and then attempts are made by the meditator to distance oneself from them. But the qualities that are identified as unwholesome are actually empowered by the attempts to repudiate them! It is not unusual to find meditators in therapy insisting that they do not need sex or have no need for an orgasm, or denying feelings of anger. Rather than adopting an attitude of nonjudgmental awareness, these meditators are so concerned with letting it go that they never experience the actual insubstantiality of their own feelings. In a similar way, those with this misunderstanding of egolessness tend to overvalue the idea of the empty mind free of thoughts. In this case, thought itself is identified with ego, and such persons seem to be cultivating a kind of intellectual vacuity in which the absence of critical thought is seen as an ultimate achievement. As Robert A. F. Thurman describes this misconception:"One just refutes all views, dismisses the meaningfulness of language, and presumes that as long as one remains devoid of any conviction, holding no views, knowing nothing, and achieving the forgetting of all learning, then one is solidly in the central way, in the silence of the sages."
A FINAL MISUNDERSTANDING of egolessness is one that sees it as a thing in and of itself, a state to be achieved or aspired to. Here, the need to identify something as existing in its own right is manifest, and the belief in the ego as concretely existent is, in some sense, transferred to the belief in egolessness as concretely existent. According to Huang-po Hsi-yun, a ninth-century Ch'an master: "There is just the omnipresent voidness of the real self-existent Nature of everything, and no more. All these phenomena are intrinsically void and yet this Mind with which they are identical is no mere nothingness. By this I mean that it does exist, but in a way too marvelous for us to comprehend. It is an existence which is no existence, a non-existence which is nevertheless existence."
EGOLESSNESS IS NOT, explains Jeffrey Hopkins, a "vacuity of nothingness" with a reality of its own. It is found in relation to a belief in an object's inherent existence. It is an understanding that the concrete appearances to which we are accustomed do not exist "in the way we imagine." The Dalai Lama once compared realization of emptiness to someone knowing that he or she is wearing sunglasses: the very appearance of the distorted color serves as a reminder that it is not true.
It is not that the ego disappears, but that the belief in the ego's solidity, the identification with ego's representations, is abandoned in the realization of egolessness. "Thoughts exist without a thinker," insists the British psychoanalyst W. R. Bion, and this is precisely what the Buddhist insights reveal. Yet this insight does not come easily. It is far more tempting to use meditation to withdraw from our confusion about ourselves, to dwell in the tranquil stabilization that meditation offers and to think of this as approximating the teaching of egolessness. Yet the ultimate purpose of Buddhist meditation is not to withdraw from the falsely conceived self but to recognize the misconception, thereby weakening its influence. "Without disbelieving the object of this misconception," said Dharmakirti, "it is impossible to abandon misconceiving it." There is a deep, tenacious resistance to this disbelief, a kind of clutching that occurs, a fear of an emptiness that is conceived to be as real as the self appears to be. Says Huang-po, "Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really Void, but the realm of the real dharma."
Mark Epstein is a psychiatrist with a private therapy practice in New York City. A long-time practitioner of Buddhism, he is familiar with the vipassana and Tibetan traditions.
Image: Michael Thibodeau