What is "ego" and why is it bad?

Discussion in 'Eastern Religions and Philosophies' started by Ella S., Nov 30, 2021.

  1. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    I know that this is probably a very basic question, but I keep hearing about people who have supposedly lost their ego. This is incredibly hard for me to understand from a Western perspective, because "ego" refers to one of two things here:

    The "Ego" of Freud, which is merely the conscious mind. Since the people who are said to have lost their ego appear to be wide awake and even speaking, I imagine this probably isn't right, unless they're thought of as being like sleepwalkers, maybe?

    "Ego" or "self-concept," which is an understanding of the individual as separate from everything else around them. Shortened ego here would actually lead to what's called "egocentrism" where people have a hard time considering the existence of others, and a total lack of it would mean a lack of object permanence, too.

    I have also heard the word "Ego" used to refer to the Jungian "Persona," or "False Self," but in Jungian psychology, the Persona is seen as the antithesis of Self, whereas the Eastern concept of the ego seems to include a lot of attributes that would apply to the Jungian Self, such as identity, moral values, preferences, etc.

    So I'm very confused. I hope I haven't been accidentally offensive here. If I have been, then it's due to my ignorance, and I apologize profusely.
     
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  2. Cino

    Cino Big Love! (Atheist mystic) Admin

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    I can only speak for Theravada Buddhism, and only from the perspective of someone who studied it as a foreigner living in a buddhist country at one time. And except for a few scholar monks and recluse monks, the majority of people there were less concerned with this teaching than with teachings about making merit for themselves and their relatives, in the hopes of a favorable existence in some future birth.

    The closest concept to the Western Buddhist "Ego-loss" I'm aware of is thst of "not-self", or anatta in Pali, the language of Theravada scripture.

    In Buddhism, Not-self is a basic feature of existence of sentient beings, along with the two related basic features of suffering and impermanence (dukkha and anicca respectively).

    In this view of things, someone claiming to have lost their ego would be referring to their realization of anatta. It is not the case that they now lack an ego they previously had, but that they now realize that no phenomenon that arises in their consciousness - be it their body, their thoughts, their feelings, or even mind states and realizations such as the one about not-self - has any kind of permanence or unchangeability to it, and hence there cannot be said to be a permanent, indestructible self-essence, or "ego".

    The teachings on emptiness are closely related, and in Theravada are taken to mean that phenomena are empty of any self-essence. Other schools have developed more intricate teachings about emptiness, almost reifying it in some instances.

    Compassion is another closely related concept. In an existence where the only dependable facts are those of impermanence, not-self, and suffering, compassion with oneself (sic) and all other sentient beings is a divine attitude, or "divine abode" (brahmavihara).

    The term "ego" for the Pali "atta" as used in Western Buddhism is a very unfortunate choice, causing a lot of confusion, because it seems to refer to the conscious sense of self, which is, in the sense discussed here, simply another phenomenon arising in someone's consciousness, not something to get rid of.

    A person claiming to have "lost their ego" in the sense discussed here, is either following a fad in Western Buddhism, or has actually done a massive amount of meditative work, introspection, and reflection. I tend to be skeptical of such claims, however, I have met a few (very few) truly remarkable persons who will speak in matter-of-fact, well-informed ways about their configuration of conscious experience, but none of them put it in terms of loss of a psychological function. The ratio of former to latter claimants is in the former's favor, in my experience.

    Hope I didn't add to the confusion.
     
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2021
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  3. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    This is an edit from a sermon on the topic and approximates my general understanding better than I could.

    Start at 40 seconds.
     
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  4. Cino

    Cino Big Love! (Atheist mystic) Admin

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    Having noticed the second half of your thread's title - "why is [the Ego] bad" - I'd like to add to my previous post.

    As I established there, the teachings on not-self have almost nothing in common with our Western notions of egotism vs. altruism, for example, except in the cultivation of a very general sense of solidarity with all sentient beings: compassion, kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (the attitudes called the "divine abodes").

    But there *is* a correlate to the "bad, selfish ego" of western culture: the teachings on the "roots of suffering" - greed, aversion, and delusion, and the almost identical teachings on the "defilements" (kilesa in Pali).

    The defilements neatly map onto our Western notion of undesirable ego-qualities.

    However, the defilements, being phenomena arising in conscious experience like everything else, are "not-self" already. Someone claiming to have realized the not-self quality of everything arising in their sensate experience cannot automatically claim the end of the defilements, or even to have dampened their effects. In Buddhism, that comes as part of developing all eight factors of the noble eightfold path, of which "insight" (such as not-self) is only one.

    Again, hope this was helpful, not yet more confusing.
     
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2021
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  5. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    Both of your posts were extremely helpful and insightful to me. Thank you very much.
     
  6. Cino

    Cino Big Love! (Atheist mystic) Admin

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    You're welcome!

    What's the Gnostic or Jungian view? You hinted at the "persona", is there a "false self" vs "true self" dynamic going on? Is there some kind of taint or "defilement" of the persona which can be purified?
     
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  7. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    In a sense, although I would probably say it's the opposite. We must remember that Jung was a psychologist, and his primary focus was on individuation through integration.

    Integration is still used today in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy to name a few. It has a bit of overlap with Stoicism.

    The main idea is that there aren't good or bad emotions, and that emotional avoidance or repression leads our emotions unresolved and free to have control of us from the unconscious. By recognizing our emotions, accepting and embracing them, we can choose whether or not to act on them.

    The Persona is what we want to present as to others, and frequently what we identify as. To maintain the Persona, we have to deny and repress our true feelings. It acts as a social mask hiding our emotions, frequently as much from ourselves as other people.

    Through Jungian alchemy, you learn to identify the whole of the Self by integrating with the Shadow, which is a term used to refer to the unconscious elements of yourself that have been repressed or rejected, usually because they are uncomfortable to face or taboo.

    The alchemical symbolism surrounding this is frequently portrayed as the death of the old self, the Persona, so that the True Self can be reborn from its carcass. It's also depicted as the purification of internal "lead" into internal "gold."

    In a more hard-line Gnostic sense, taking mostly from Catharism, Mandaenism, and Manichaeism, this process is closely associated with freeing the divine sparks from the "darkness" of the unconscious through the use of intellectual principles, thus elevating the individual from being a slave to their destructive impulses to the perfect state of Primordial Man who is able to choose good over evil. Jung didn't concern himself so much with this aspect, since he focused more on psychological praxis than religious theoria.

    That said, other Gnostic sects do differ on this subject, many taking strong Libertine and Antinomian positions, which isn't to mention the eclectic New Age ideas that many modern Gnostics sometimes adhere to. I can't speak for these groups. Indeed, there is some room for interpretation with what I've already said here, as I suppose you have to some degree in every religion.

    TL;DR: In my opinion, Gnosticism teaches us that the darkness of our baser instincts can be purified through the light of our intellect.
     
  8. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    I am beginning to be inclined to looking at Gnostic cosmogony in a whole different light ... as 'pneumodrama' (psychodrama, but inclusive of the spirit) ... could be wrong, but this just occurred.
     
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  9. Cino

    Cino Big Love! (Atheist mystic) Admin

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    Sounds interesting, go on, @Thomas? Do you mean this in the sense of idealism, spirit preceding material existence, or as an early form of depth psychology of the first centuries CE?
     
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  10. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    The latter, I think ... the Gods of Olympus, of whom Plato said something akin to: "You'd think, being Gods, they'd not be subject to the worst human vices, and yet that's how they act." Now, of course, we read the Greek myths for their insight.

    Is Gnostic cosmogony so far removed from the Kaballist's sephirot?

    I've always been of the prejudicial view that Gnosticism was much like the cults of my youth, a syncretic ragbag of ideas built around a particular guru, each having a system akin to but not precisely like the others, and of course a disposition towards it coloured by my Christian orthodoxy.

    Now I'm wondering if a lot of what we think we know might be 'simplified' and 'populist' stuff, in the same way that there's a big difference between what Origen believed, and what Origenists believed he believed.

    As I'm not too well read on the matter, I feel obliged to go over the materials again with a more open mind.

    That's the problem with IO, one keeps meeting reasonable people who nibble away at one's assumptions. It's quite infuriating, really.
     
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  11. Cino

    Cino Big Love! (Atheist mystic) Admin

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    I see a great deal of similarity, and it is enticing to "map" concepts like Sophia onto Binah, and so on.

    Here's a thought: both the Aeons and the Sephiroth offer detailed explanations for the existence of evil. Did the Church Fathers engage with the topic to such a degree?

    :)
     
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  12. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    There were a lot of Gnostic NRMs during the 19th and 20th centuries. Prominent cults of personality included Theodore Reuss, Helena Blavatsky, Eugen Grosche, Aleister Crowley, Alice A Bailey, James Morgan Pryse, Samael Aun Weor, Herbert Arthur Sloane, etc. Each of them were pretty idiosyncratic and syncretic, so I can see where the idea comes from.

    I hear that Gershom Scholem wrote a lot about the parallels between Gnosticism and Kabbalah, although I haven't read too much of his work.

    If you go into Gnostic literature, I do have two recommendations;
    "The Gnostic Religion" by Hans Jonas and "The Search For Roots: CG Jung and the Tradition of Gnosis" by Alfred Ribi.

    As far as ethics and spiritual practice goes, I feel like those are the two best books on the subject. This is important, because much of Gnostic thought and practice has been lost to time. If, like me, you're more interested in genuine Neo-Gnostic Reconstructionism than in integrating Gnostic ideas as a syncretic esotericist, there are a lot of disparate elements that are hard to put into context. Hard, but seemingly not impossible.

    It also helps to be well-read on Zoroastrianism, Neoplatonism, and alchemical tradition, since these overlap heavily with Gnosticism and likely served as key influences. You already seem to be more knowledgeable on Neoplatonism than I am, though.
     
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2021
  13. Bhaktajan II

    Bhaktajan II Hare Krishna Yogi

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    The gross material body [vs the subtle astral body] is comprised of
    8 separate elements, each more gross/dense than the other. they are, from grossest to the most ephemeral:

    gross elements
    Earth,
    Water,
    Fire,
    Air,
    Either

    Subtle elements
    Mind [manas],
    Intelligence [buddhi],
    False Ego [a-han-kara].

    What animates these 8 elements as a body is:

    Soul [atma]

    The above elements actively transpire in a field known as:
    Space [brahman].
     
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  14. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    Ahankara! What a great word to help in understanding the Eastern concept so frequently translated as "ego." Thank you so much for this. This helps a lot.
     
  15. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    So upon a bit of further study, it looks like Ahankara actually is pretty similar to both self-concept and the Persona, because it's sort of like a false self-concept. It's the process of identifying with things outside of one's self, which can include moral dogma and ideology.

    Adhering to moral dogma or ideology isn't the issue in and of itself, but it's the identification of these things as a part of or extension of one's self that Anhankara defines.

    This actually clarifies a heck of a lot for me, if this understanding is correct.
     
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  16. Bhaktajan II

    Bhaktajan II Hare Krishna Yogi

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    All things "Zen" especially Silent sitting mantra meditation aka zazen was done by all Samurai to be utmostly calm and un-distracted, to be "in the zone".
     
  17. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    Oiya! Don't start me on that one :D but a complete side-track ...
     

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