One of the greatest problems facing Western meditators is that their conceptual preparation for meditation practice is generally insufficient. Filled with psychological ideas derived from Freudian theory and struggling with psychological issues that are often incompletely resolved or not even addressed, Westerners engaged in meditation practice all too often are derailed by their own longings, conflicts, and confusion. As the late Tibetan teacher Kalu Rinpoche affirmed, “It is said that someone who tries to meditate without a conceptual understanding of what he or she is doing is like a blind person trying to find the way in open country; such a person can only wander about, with no idea how to choose one direction over another.”
There are now several common misconceptions about the key Buddhist notion of anatta, or egolessness. To begin with, many new meditators mistake egolessness for the abandonment of the Freudian ego. Conventional notions of ego, as that which modulates sexual and aggressive strivings, have led many Americans to mistakenly equate egolessness with a kind of primal scream in which the person is finally freed from all limiting constraints. Egolessness is understood here as the equivalent of Wilhelm Reich’s orgasmic potency, and the ego is identified as anything that tenses the body, obscures the capacity for pleasurable discharge, or gets in the way of feeling “free.” Popularized in the sixties, this view remains deeply embedded in the popular imagination. It sees the route to egolessness as a process of unlearning, of casting off the shackles of civilization and returning to a childlike forthrightness. It also tends to romanticize regression, psychosis, and any uninhibited expression of emotion.
Another popular misconception is that egolessness is some kind of oneness or merger, a forgetting of the self with a simultaneous identification with what lies outside the ego, a trance state or an ecstatic union. This view has strong roots—it is the LSD-influenced view—and the traditional psychodynamic explanation as well. Freud’s friend, the French poet and author, Romain Rolland, was a devout follower of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Under his influence, Freud described the “oceanic feeling” as a sense of limitless and unbounded oneness with the universe that seeks the “restoration of limitless narcissism” and the “resurrection of infantile helplessness.” Thus, egolessness is identified with the infantile state prior to the development of the ego, that is, that of the infant at the breast making no distinction between itself and its mother but rather merged in a symbiotic and undifferentiated union.
This formulation is complicated by the fact that there really are states accessible in meditation that do provide such feelings of harmony, merger, and loss of ego boundaries; but these are not the states that define the notion of egolessness. When concentration practices of one-pointedness are pursued with some perseverance, they lead inevitably to feelings of relaxation and tranquility that are soothing and seductive. Yet the distinctive attentional strategy of Buddhism is not one-pointedness but mindfulness, or bare attention “the clear and single-minded awareness of what happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception.” It is this practice that in advanced stages focuses attention on the self-concept, on the experience of “I” in the meditator, and leads to the understanding of egolessness.
But psychoanalytic interpreters, and the naive meditators who have followed in their wake, have drawn inspiration only from the concentration practices. Freud was influenced by Rolland’s experiences of Hindu meditation. Another prominent analyst, Franz Alexander, actually analyzed Buddhist texts newly translated into German in the 1920s, but he, too, looked only at passages that described concentration. “In this condition the monk is like a pool,” he quoted, “filling and saturating himself completely from all sides with the joy and pleasurable feelings that are born out of the depths of absorption; so that not the smallest particle remains unsaturated. . . . No analyst can more fittingly describe the condition of narcissism than is done in this text. . . .It is the description of a condition which we have only theoretically reconstructed and named ‘narcissism.'” In more recent years, Herbert Benson, in his Relaxation Response, has painted a picture of meditation based solely on accounts of concentration practices, and generations of meditators have aspired to dissolve into the pool of blissful feelings that would make them “at one” with the universe, or the Void. Yet egolessness is not a return to the feelings of infancy—an experience of undifferentiated bliss or a merger with the mother—even though many people may seek such an experience when they begin to meditate, and even though some may actually find a version of it.
A third and more interpersonal view of egolessness suggests a kind of subjugation of the self to the other. It is as if the idealized merger experience is projected onto interpersonal relationships in what the Gestalt therapists have called “confluence,” or loss of interpersonal ego-boundaries. The problem here is that the reality of the other is accepted, while that of the self is denied. This is really a kind of thinly disguised masochism.
The psychoanalyst Annie Reich, in a classic paper on self-esteem regulation in women, describes this very well. “Femininity,” she says, is often “equated with complete annihilation.” The only way to recover needed self-esteem is to then merge or fuse with a glorified or idealized other, whose greatness or power she can then incorporate. For both sexes something similar exists in spiritual circles: the pressure to cast off attachment to one’s own ego generates a confusion between the compassion that is supposed to grow out of egolessness, the so-called bodhicitta, with this more primitive over-identification with a glorified other. Meditators with this misunderstanding are vulnerable to a kind of eroticized attachment to teachers, gurus, or other intimates, toward whom they direct their desires to be released “into abandon.” More often than not, they also remain masochistically entwined with these figures to whom they are trying to surrender.
A fourth common misconception, popular in so-called transpersonal circles, stems from a misreading of important papers by Ken Wilber and Jack Engler. The belief here is that egolessness is a developmental stage beyond the ego; that the ego must first exist and then be abandoned. This is the flip side of the belief that egolessness precedes the development of the ego—here it is seen as that which succeeds the ego.
This approach implies that the ego, while important developmentally, can in some sense be transcended or left behind. Here we run into an unfortunate mix of vocabulary. The system referred to by these formulations is the Western psychodynamic psychology of ego development. Then there is a jump, or switch, to an Eastern-based, spiritual vocabulary that makes it seems as if the ego that has been formed is the same ego that is being abandoned. Yet listen to the Dalai Lama on this point: “Selflessness is not a case of something that existed in the past becoming nonexistent. Rather, this sort of ‘self’ is something that never did exist. What is needed is to identify as nonexistent something that always was nonexistent.”
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 foundin 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.”
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.