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Ego: Super Villain or Dark Knight?

As a longtime student of Buddhism, over the years I’ve listened to many of my teachers cast “ego” as a villain. According to these teachings, we spend a great deal of our time trying to prop up a fictional sense of “me,” fighting off the reality that we are not independent, unchanging entities, but part of a interdependent, fluid process. In our struggle to maintain this comforting illusion of permanence (Trungpa Rinpoche called it “the battle of ego”) we cause ourselves intense suffering. From this perspective, attaining egolessness is the key to wisdom and freedom.

In Western Psychological tradition “ego,” is seen as anything but a villain. It’s described as those functions in the human psyche which help us: 1. maintain a coherent sense of ourself  2. find safe and effective boundaries 3. find effective ways to further our own needs and those of society 4. find a balance between our desire for pleasure and our sense of ethics. These are all understood as vital, healthy psychic functions. From this perspective, when someone has a “weak ego”- when they are unable to maintain a stable sense of themselves, safe boundaries, or function effectively or ethically in the world- this causes a great amount of suffering.

So which is it? Is ego an unnecessary, maladaptive tendency or a collection of vital, healthy functions in the psyche? Shakyamuni Buddha cautioned students to beware of black and white thinking. He also encouraged students to test whatever teaching they were given in our own experience. So what do you think? Do you wish your ego was stronger and more developed, or is it a cause of suffering in your life? If you’re like me, you may have trouble choosing one or the other, as both points of view seem to hold some truth.

I first came to Buddhism in my twenties because my mind was causing me tremendous suffering. When I sat with my mind in meditation, I found that beneath a lot of the self-abuse I was heaping on myself in my thoughts was a belief that I was doing life wrong, and if I could only get it right, and be the person I should be, everything would be okay. Hearing the Buddhist teachings of emptiness (that life was not a game which I could ultimately win), impermanence (that there is ultimately no solid ground to find) and suffering (that discomfort is a natural part of life, but I could choose to not make it worse by blaming myself for being human)… helped me quell a lot of my inner strife and begin to adopt an attitude of unconditional acceptance and love towards myself and the world. It’s not an overstatement to say that I might not be alive today if I hadn’t heard these teaching, and at the very least have made my life much happier and more peaceful.

But after devoting myself to practicing Buddhism full-time for several years I found that I still seemed to have a very fragile sense of myself and still struggled to function in the world and in relationships. My search for answers eventually led me to a graduate program in psychology, and to finding medicine in psychological concepts like ego integrity, healthy boundaries, and self-care.

So my own experience has been that both of these traditions stories about ego contain helpful wisdom. One of my favorite pieces of wisdom from Shakyamuni Buddha is that any kind of medicine is only helpful if its given to the right person at the right time.  My hope is that both Buddhist teachers and people working in mental health will come to a more whole, better integrated understanding of ego, and so will be more able to speak to the needs of their students/clients in the moment. My own experience has been that at some times it is very helpful for me to be reminded of the ultimate emptiness of trying to build oneself up, and at other times it is just as important to be encouraged in the mundane tasks of setting good boundaries, maintaining personal discipline and ethics, and following through with personal projects.

Let me know what you think. Where do you think your most important work lies right now? Is it in strengthening the activities of ego or seeing their transparent quality?

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For more info on Lee Scher, L.P.C.’s psychotherapy practice, please visit: http://www.goldenkeypsychotherapy.com

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