blending, Angie Buckley, 2001. © Angie Buckley
blending, Angie Buckley, 2001. © Angie Buckley

Years back, many Buddhist teachers in the West began using the term “egolessness” to explain the Buddha’s teaching on not-self. Since then, egolessness has come to mean many things to many people. Sometimes egolessness is used to mean a lack of conceit or self-importance; sometimes, a pure mode of acting without thought of personal reward. In its most extended form, though, the teaching on egolessness posits a fundamental error of perception: that despite our sense of a lasting, separate self, no such self really exists. According to this view, to provide for the happiness of this illusory self, we not only place our hopes on an impossible goal but also harm ourselves and everyone around us. If we could only see the fallacy of the ego and understand its harmful effects, we would let it go and find true happiness in the interconnectedness that is our true nature.

At least that’s what we’re told, and often with a fair amount of vehemence. Buddhist writers, often so gentle and nonjudgmental, can quickly turn vicious when treating the ego. Some portray it as a tyrannical bureaucracy deserving violent overthrow; others, as a ratlike creature—nervous, scheming, and devious—that must be squashed. Whatever the portrait, the message is always that the ego is so pernicious and tenacious that any mental or verbal abuse directed against it is fair play in getting it to loosen its foul grip on the mind.

But when people trained in classical Western psychotherapy read these attacks on the ego, they shake their heads in disbelief. For them the ego is not something evil. It’s not even a singular thing you can attack. It’s a cluster of activities, a set of functions in the mind—and necessary functions at that. Any mental act by which you mediate between your raw desires for immediate pleasure and your super-ego—the oughts and shoulds you’ve learned from family and society—is an ego function. Ego functions are our mental strategies for gaining lasting happiness in the midst of the conflicting demands whispering and shouting in the mind. They enable you to say No to the desire to have sex with your neighbor’s spouse, in the interest of a greater happiness. They also enable you to say No to the demands of your parents, teachers, or government when those demands would jeopardize your own best interest.

But ego functions don’t just say No. They also have a mediator’s sense of when to say Yes. If they’re skillful, they negotiate among your desires and your super-ego so that you can gain the pleasure you want in a way that causes no harm and can actually do a great deal of good. If your ego functions are healthy and well-coordinated, they give you a consistent sense of priorities as to which forms of happiness are more worthwhile than others; a clear sense of where your responsibilities do and don’t lie; a strong sense of your ability to judge right and wrong for yourself; and an honest sense of how to learn from your past mistakes for the sake of greater happiness in the future.

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