Ego: the source of most of our problems. ~ Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Via on Jun 30, 2010

The Myth of the Self.

Imagine standing on a scenic mountain peak and looking out at the world in all directions without any obstructions.

These days, if we see someone behaving selfishly, we might say they’re “being egotistical.” If someone thinks you have a really “big ego,” they may even post a blog calling you an “egomaniac.” From the standpoint of our mental health, it’s important to have self-esteem or what some psychologists call “a healthy ego.”

So when we’re talking with our friends and mention our “ego,” what do we mean?

From a Buddhist point of view, the ego is something made up by the mind. It’s the sense of self — a flash of “I” or “me” that we believe in and cling to. It’s the basis of our feeling of self-importance. It’s a story, a myth of self that we keep telling ourselves.

That “self” is the center of our universe. No matter what we’re doing, our actions always come from, and reflect back to our sense of self-consciousness.  This ego-self we cling to is the source of most of our problems. Wherever we get hung up in pain and confusion, there we’ll find the ego.

The Buddha taught that the root cause of our suffering—ignorance—is what gives rise to this tendency to “cling.”

“What am I clinging to?” is the question you should ask yourself. We should look deeply at this process to see if anything is really there. According to the Buddha, we’re clinging to a myth. It is just a thought that says “I,” repeated so often that it creates an illusory self, like a hologram that we take to be solid. With every thought, every emotion, this “self” appears to be more and more real, when it’s actually just a fabrication of the mind. It’s an ancient habit, so ingrained in us that this very clinging becomes part of our identity, too. If we let go of this thought of “me,” we might feel that something familiar was missing—as though a close friend or a chronic pain had suddenly disappeared.

Imagine that you look down at your hand one day and see that it’s clenched in a fist. You sense that you’re holding onto something so vital that you can’t let it go. Your fist is clenched so tightly that your hand hurts. The ache in your hand travels all the way up your arm. Tension spreads throughout your body. This goes on for years. You take aspirin now and then, or have a drink, or watch TV or take up skydiving. Life keeps on happening…and then one day you forget to hold on, and your hand just opens. But when you look, there’s nothing inside!

Clinging to this mythical self is just like gripping an imaginary object in our hand. What does it accomplish?  It only gives us a headache and ulcers. And we quickly develop many other kinds of suffering on top of that. This “I” becomes proactive in protecting its interests, because it immediately perceives “other.” The instant we have the thought of “I” and “other,” the whole drama of “us” versus “them” develops. It all happens in the blink of an eye. We desire one thing and try our best to get it; we hate or fear another and work to keep it away; and there are still other things we don’t care about one way or another.

What we’re trying to get, ignore, or steer clear of could be a new car, our in-laws, or the State of Arizona. We play out the same patterns with belief systems and values, not just with people, places and things. We may not care about Internet neutrality but we may be strongly pro or con on war, equal rights, or the existence of extraterrestrials. All of our neurotic emotions and judgments start with our clinging to “I, me, and mine.” And we’re not exempt from our own judgments. We admire some of our qualities and build ourselves up. But there are other things we can’t stand about ourselves, so we tear ourselves down. One minute we’re feeling pretty smart and sure of ourselves, and the next minute we’re feeling totally inadequate or guilty about something. We spend a great deal of time ignoring the pain we’re really feeling because of this inner struggle—always striving to be happy with who we are, and never quite getting there.

We expend so much effort just to convince ourselves that we’ve found something we can call “me.” We try to freeze the moment-to-moment flow of experience that is our life and make something solid out of it. But somehow, it just doesn’t work. Our efforts only produce more anxiety because we’re going against the way things truly are.

Why do we clutch our ego so tightly, when the tension of holding on is so painful? We think that to give up this thought of “I” would be crazy. We think our life depends on it. But actually, we would feel so much better and more relaxed if we just let go. It’s a tricky situation. On the one hand, the mind is fully awake and ego-free. That’s called the “true nature” of our mind. On the other hand, we don’t see that ever-present awake quality—we don’t even know it’s there.

Through the practice of meditation, we become familiar with the workings of our mind and begin to experience more clarity. Then we start to see beyond the illusion of ego and glimpse the true nature of our mind. We see what it’s like to be free from ego. In that moment, we’re relieved from fear and anxiety about our life.

This isn’t some far-fetched, top-of-the-mountain epiphany. When it’s not clinging to ego, our mind isn’t stressed out, worried, or trying to prove anything. Its attitude is “just relax and enjoy being yourself.” People often ask what the experience of this “true nature” is like. They worry that it’s like becoming a vegetable. But it’s not like that at all. The mind actually functions much better. When we take a break from our habit of clinging to the ego, we see more clearly and think more clearly. We feel more alive and awake. It’s a very beautiful place to be. Imagine standing on a scenic mountain peak and looking out at the world in all directions without any obstructions. That’s the view of the mind free from its obstructionist friend called Ego.

The hyperlinks in this article were inserted by elephant journal.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is a celebrated teacher known for his skill in making the richness of Buddhist wisdom accessible to modern minds.

A lover of urban culture, Rinpoche enjoys writing poetry and creating art of various kinds in his leisure time. Based in the United States for the past 20 years, he devotes much of his energy to his vision of a genuine American, and Western, Buddhism, free from the cultural trappings that sometimes distort the Buddha’s essential message of wakefulness. Born in 1965 in northeast India, Rinpoche received comprehensive training in the meditative and intellectual disciplines of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism under the guidance of many of the greatest masters from Tibet’s final pre-exile generation. Among the many organizational roles he juggles, he is the founder and principal teacher of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist practice centers. His latest book is Rebel Buddha (Shambhala Publications) forthcoming in November 2010.

For more information, visit Rinpoche on Facebook, Twitter and his website.

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23 Responses to “Ego: the source of most of our problems. ~ Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche”

  1. Shanon says:

    This is a fantastic article. Thank you so much for it. It’s what I needed to read!

  2. Greg says:

    Very nice article. So much truth.

    The concepts presented are so foundational that we doubtless find a field of brambles between us and realization, but the well-written words of a teacher can be such an encouragement, beckoning to us from across the bramble-strewn stream, inviting us to become a stream crosser.

    Guess a good analogy today would be trying to cap the karmic leak that obscures our consciousness with sticky, black, inky stuff as we attempt to swim across the stream.

  3. mirci says:

    Great article, very inspiring. Thanks dear friends of Elephant and thanks to the DPR :)

  4. Bill Schwartz says:

    Rinpoche,

    In Chicago we say keep your friends close and your enemies closer. The same thing can be said about the ego. Having an ego and being a dharma practitioner isn't the contradiction so many of us make it into.

    The key is whether you practice analytical meditation or not, whether you fearlessly as you teach us to do, which is examine that tug of what Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche calls "shenpa" when the rubber meets the road for us as Buddhists.

    Ego is like a wish-fulfilling jewel for me as a dharma practitioner. It's the gift that keeps on giving. There is nothing like the feeling of looking for my ego and finding instead nothing but causes and conditions instead.

    I can track it down like my childhood hero, explorer and frontiersman, Danial Boone, smell the campfire and declare, "ego was here two hours ago" but that's as close to ego even a buddha can find.

    There is no permanent, singular, and independent "ego" to be found in the aggregates. It isn't enough to just read this truth and declare yourself ego-free. We have to own our egos as dharma practitioners.

    It is such a blessing to have you on Elephant Journal. The presumption these days is that Buddhists don't believe in ego and therefore we must have nothing to do with the world for fear of our egos.

    There is an antidote for ego (marriage, children, life in general) but none for this irrational fear of ego so common among Buddhists these days. Ego is nothing to be afraid of but instead a source of realization.

    That which obscures our view is clinging to view itself, whether we call it ego or self, upon further investigation all we find is the luminous nature of the mind. Thank you for bringing this dharma to Elephant Journal.

    May we always practice dharma and benefit being. Karmapa Chenno!

    Bill

    • ceci miller says:

      So appreciate your chiming in, Bill. Your thoughtful points are really helpful in absorbing Rinpoche's teaching here, and that's a real service to EJ readers. Mil gracias! :)

  5. Shunyata Kharg says:

    Rinpoche,

    You might like the following image:
    http://www.psystyle.biz/uploads/posts/2009-01/123

    It's the cover of an album entitled "reality is just a myth" by the group "mahamudra".

    I would be very interested in you writing an article about "truth". For example: the oration "the Earth revolves around the Sun" is generally considered to be true while the oration "the Sun revolves around the Earth" is generally considered to be false. We know, from the Buddhist perspective, that the Earth, the Sun, the movement and the properties of truth and falsity are empty of inherent existence. From the point of view of emptiness there is no basis for discrimination between any of these phenomena.

    So what happens when we meet a group of people who hold as true that the Sun revolves around the Earth? Of course, the truth or falsity of this example of mine does not necessarily cause suffering either in the people who hold the belief or in others they interact with. There are other examples that do. The belief in a substantial, independent, self-powered ego-soul, for example. But here I'm interested in the general class of true, for example, the truth of anthropogenic global warming. We are not to cling to such truths, but at the same time we are not to remain silent when we see them ignorned by others, especially when these truths cause suffering. Listening to wisdom about how to approach people who ignore such truths is the point that interests me most at the moment.

    For some reason a song comes to mind. "Should I stay or should I go?"
    http://listen.grooveshark.com/#/s/Should+I+Stay/2

    ;-)

    Amor et Pax,

    Chris.

  6. Tricia Ptak says:

    We were just discussing how the ego has brought forth the generalized downfall of humanity. Most of our social ills are a product of id impulsivity and ego deliverance on that desire.

  7. Diana Mercer Diana Mercer says:

    Thank you Rinpoche, for your reminder and unique insights. I am so happy to have read this today.

  8. Nick says:

    What a profound and applicable teaching.
    I really appreciate the analogy of the clenched fist; it really helps me understand all the sound and fury that signify nothing.
    Thank You!

  9. [...] original publicado no elephantjournal.com Esta entrada foi publicada em Budismo, Mestres, Tradução e marcada com a tag Dzogchen Ponlop [...]

  10. Great article – it's nice to see Rinpoche blogging here.

    While Buddhism has known about the illusory nature of self for 2,500 years, Western psychology/philosophy is finally catching up. Postmodern constructivist theory suggests we have no "real" self, but rather a collection of transient selves – which we sort of average out into one sense of "me." None of the selves are "real" because they socially constructed – they are dependent upon the interpersonal situation for their existence. We only exist as selves in relationship to an other. We are designed to create these relationships from our first moments of life in order to survive.

    When we meditate or by some other means become able to observe the workings of what we call mind and self, we see mind and our collection of selves as objects that are fleeting and impossible to hold onto. It is in this moment that we find ourselves no longer relating to an other – because there is no other. In that space we are free, we are relaxed, and we are at peace – and we are on the path to freedom from craving.

  11. [...] Buddhism Just read a great article from Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on ego. It can be found at http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/06/ego-myth-of-the-self-dzogchen-ponlop-rinpoche/ Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche Talks about Ego at [...]

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  13. [...] become a finder all any one of us ever has to do is let go of the fears and desires of the ego, absolutely and unconditionally. It obviously goes without saying that this is easier said than [...]

  14. [...] we disserve not only ourselves, but Divinity, itself, as it shines through us. And yet by clinging too tightly to that small self which only serves itself, we do exactly the same [...]

  15. [...] of the fence the grass is pretty green? Am I treating my fears, self-doubt, self-judgment and shame with kindness and compassion? Do I love myself just the way I am? Or am I constantly comparing myself with others who seem more [...]

  16. [...] Entire religious streams and many wisdom traditions condemn it altogether or at least spend most of … A multitude of rules and practices have been put in place to avoid it. At the very least the ego is tagged with getting in the way of spiritual evolution, and at the worst it runs amok, creating a variety of unsavory results, from the socially unpleasant to the outright disastrous. I admit there is some well-earned basis for this reputation. [...]

  17. [...] In Buddhism this is called “ego-clinging.” [...]

  18. [...] and/or seems uncertain and the wonderful ego rises up to save the day. In a zealous moment, the ego declares, “There is a problem that must be [...]

  19. cynowanie z polyskiem

  20. I understand what you're saying – however we want to conceive of it linguistically, the felt experience is the same thing – it's true that _many_ postmodern models are nihilist to some degree, but an integral model recognizes that individuals and cultures got through developmental stages of increasing depth and span – in Western psychology, the postmodern stage is only now emerging, which why we are seeing so much interest in multiplicity and in mindfulness in psychological research – and yes, the objective content is different, but the subjective experience is similar from what I can see

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