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Buddhist Quote of the Day: Misunderstanding the Ego by Mark Epstein

meditation_therapy.jpgposted by Ethan Nichtern

I am pretty darn psyched (no pun intended) to be co-teaching a four week series on Buddhism and Psychology at the Interdependence Project with my friend Dr. Miles Neale. If you are in the New York Area, drop in tonight, or listen along to the series at home, wherever you are. Below is a great quote of the day by Buddhist psychologist Mark Epstein that serves as a great hors d’oeuvre for what we will be discussing and practicing tonight:


Meditators with this misunderstanding [of the self] 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.”

-Mark Epstein
from Freud and Dr. Buddha: The Search for Selflessness
in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

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posted January 11, 2010 at 4:15 pm

I find Mark Epstein’s stuff incredibly helpful.
Besides his trenchant analysis of the ego concept, that quote “the qualities that are identified as unwholesome are actually empowered by the attempts to repudiate them” is really quite something. I heard Stephen Cope, up at Kripalu, talk about that in the context of the previous guru at Kripalu, and he connected it with Jung’s shadow aspect.
Psyched for tonight!

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Dot luce

posted January 11, 2010 at 9:26 pm

I agree that there is vast misunderstanding of “egolessness”; how could one transcend something until it is experienced? As a psychotherapist, I know building a “core”, or “ego” is sometimes necessary for one to be able to go on in growth.

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posted January 12, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Reminds me of the first “Buddhist” I ever met. He was a Poli Sci MA or PhD, I forget (this was like 1970) and this dude practiced relationship therapy, meaning he boffed a lot of young moms. When I asked him about his qualifications to do “therapy” he said something to the effect that politics is relationships 7 that’s good enough.
He worked really hard at looking detached, mostly meaning he wore a really annoying smirk, especially when other people were having meltdowns, which was an indoor sport back in the day. Anyway this dude was deeply attached to his detachment, a fact that becme absolutely unmistakable when a girlfriend dumped him. When I pointed is out he may have learned something from it.

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posted November 16, 2010 at 10:43 pm

The thing about this is that it is true. I experienced this same problem, trying to get rid of my anger and sorrow completely, instead of understanding that I am angry or sad, and realizing why. The majority of it is misunderstanding, that when you become buddhist you MUST give up all attachments immediately, as soon as you become a buddhist. Indeed Buddha can be confusing from time to time 😛
Of course, with that being said I am no Buddha or dedicated buddhist, I try to meditate atleast once a day and be mindful all the time, but I still get angry and depressed, but it is easier to get rid of that feeling by accepting it, and letting it go naturally.

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posted November 14, 2011 at 8:42 am

Reminds me a little of something I was told decades ago … if you’re riding a bike down a path and want to avoid hitting a rock in the path, the worst thing you can do is focus on avoiding the rock.

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