June 30, 2009

The General Tendency of Ego

As a student of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, I recently attended his yearly sangha retreat at Nalanda West in Seattle, WA. Yearly retreats usually focus on a particular topic. This year’s topic was Mahamudra (Great Seal or Great Symbol), which is an advanced meditation practice and one that I am just embarking upon.

However, I left the retreat thinking more of a basic Buddhist doctrine, the teaching on anatman, “no self,” and the related idea of the skandhas, or aggregates, and how clinging to them cause suffering. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I was paying too much attention to my own ego, trying to establish my wants and needs. And I thought I was being intelligent about it too—an intellectual. But I wasn’t completely content; I was constantly worried about what others thought of my establishment, wondering if they noticed my egomania. In short, I was suffering.

Looking back, I see that those afflictions arose from clinging to an identity, to the parts of myself that wanted things to be a certain way. Retreats do have a way of shedding light on areas—both in practice and study—that need attention. Along these lines, I came across an insightful chapter called “Intellect” in, The Sanity We Are Born With by Chögyam Trungpa, which helped me put my thoughts into words:

Looking at the general picture of psychology as we get involved with more and more complex patterns of the skandhas, it becomes clear that it is a pattern of duality developing stronger and stronger. The general tendency of ego is uncertain at the beginning how to establish its link with the world, its identity, its individuality. As it gradually develops more certainty, it finds new ways of evolving; it becomes more and more brave and daring in stepping out and exploring new areas of possible territory or new ways of interpreting and appropriating the world available around it. So it is a pattern of a kind of stubborn bravery making itself more complicated patterns. The fourth skandha, samskara, is a continuation of this pattern. It could be called "intellect." Samskara is intellect in the sense of being the intelligence, which enables the ego to gather further territory, further substance, more things.

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Karen Schiff's picture

Nice work, bro!

Makes me think of a book I've been reading lately on the Heart Sutra -- it's very thorough, & it's making me see things about the 5 skandhas that I've never understood in years of loving that chant.

It's called _Heart of Wisdom: An Explanation of the Heart Sutra_, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, in case you want any philosophy for the plane!


linda handel's picture

I love this teaching, Shane. I am a therapist and apply Buddhist principals to many sessions. But before work each day, I meditate and check ego at the door to my office! .

People are going to come and go all week long. Each is suffering. Each wants to know why. Some know they have some responsibility for the actions that are now difficult to remedy. But mostly, ego stays out the session --if not, no telling what I might say! What shallow opinion I would call the truth.

There is no reason to be attached to the outcome of a session. I remind myself that I have no answers and no control. That's a lot different then I was 30 years ago. The young therapist jumped right into a session, clinging to each pithy word of wisdom I laid on someone and then actually get a little pissy that not only what I said was not remembered, pretty soon clients solved their own issues happily in a totally creative way "I-I-I-I" never thought of!

After feeling like a total failure, I changed. The real work began when I started practicing my practice. Then-- patience, non attachment, generosity, compassion, humility, wisdom, effort, prajana became the therapist. Not Ego. No one is interested in my ego. Just being a consistent vehicle for these attributes, listening carefully, and doing tonglen each session allows me to really hear the other. No judgment. No attachment to what I think is right or wrong buzzing around my head screaming to be said!

People who come to see me usually know what they are in for because a friend referred them to "that Buddhist. therapist." If they don't know, they figure it out quickly From time to time to refer to the thankas over my desk. The Wheel of Life, or Pure Land or Medicine Buddha all have great lessons that refer to suffering and how to change our actions. The Seven Points of Mind Training poster is a fantastic therapist---"don't expect applause" and "don't act with a twist" and "don't be the fastest" have served clients well these last bunch of years. Who has to be pithy? You can't make this stuff up! My ego cuts a break everyday waiting...just waiting to get a chance to jump in and pass judgment or must have to have something edgy to eat!

Thanks for this blog, Shane! I needed to get that off my chest!


Harreld's picture

Succinct and simple treatment of an area that commentators tend to be serpentine on. Thank you for eloquence without extraneous elaboration. Nicely done.

Lance-E-Poo's picture

I love you shane

ID Project's picture

Awesome Shane. We are having a 4 week study series of The Sanity We Are Born with taught by Jessica Rasp at the Interdependence Project in August. you can check it out in person in NYC or on our podcast: