We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
The third mark of existence is the mark of non-self—also called non-ego, or egolessness.
Of all the discoveries of the Buddha’s practice of vipasyana, this was perhaps the most revolutionary.
There is an important distinction between the “ego” of Western psychology and the “ego” of Buddhist psychology.
The first—as discussed briefly in Chapter 13—is considered a necessary function, while the second is considered an unnecessary mistake.
Freud’s own revolutionary insight was into the tension between conscious and unconscious processes of the mind—especially between the conscious ego and the unconscious, instinctual id. The Buddha also concerned himself with conscious and unconscious mental processes, but it would be more accurate to use the terms “unaware” or “not-knowing” to describe what the Buddha meant by this.
For the Buddha, ego encompasses the entire landscape of confusion.
He would have seen all of the processes identified by Freud—no matter how unconscious they are or how much you’ve brought them into your awareness—as the functioning of ego. In this more global sense, the Buddha saw ego as a fundamental, dualistic confusion about your relationship with the world.
This dualistic confusion is your underlying belief that your subjective experience of yourself—the “I”—and the world you perceive “out-there,” are two separate realities, each with its own independent existence. Through his penetrating vipasyana, the Buddha saw that this dualistic perception was a profound distortion of how things really are. He also saw that this distortion is kept alive through endless mental and emotional grasping and fixation, and that as long as you continue to believe that your dualistic version of the world is real, you are unconscious in the deepest sense, and you suffer.
In order now to avoid confusing Freud’s definition of ego and the Buddha’s definition of ego, when describing what the Buddha discovered in looking deeply at the suffering mind, I will use the term ego-fixation.
Ego-fixation is the process of repetitive mental constructions that keep rebuilding themselves (and collapsing) moment after moment in order to keep reinforcing your belief that the dualistic separation between yourself and the world is real. These repetitive constructions unfold in a stable pattern that has five components. The Buddha called these the Five Skandhas.
How Ego-Fixation Grows Like a Tree
The word “skandha” means “heap” or “aggregate.” The traditional analogy is that ego-fixation is like a heap of different particles both coarse and fine, mixed together and then added to water in order to make concrete. The end result is solid, but the components are distinct and each has its own particular quality. You can also think of the development of the skandhas as growing like a tree.
The Roots of Ignorance/Form
Ego-fixation begins at the roots, deep under the ground. The roots are the first skandha, called Ignorance/Form. It is in the first skandha that the mind initially ignores the possibility of openness, free of duality. “Openness” here refers to the Buddha’s realization that the mind and what it perceives are not two separate things, but are a single, unified field of awareness, or knowing.
According to the Buddha, within the fundamental openness of your awareness, ego-fixation starts as a very deep split, or experience of duality, based upon ignoring that openness. You mistakenly assume that this sense of separation you perceive between yourself and the world all around you, from moment to moment, is ultimately real. So you begin to create an entire world. And you can only maintain this mistaken assumption by ignoring the original, open ground of your awareness over and over again.
In your everyday life, you aren’t even in touch with that ignorance anymore; you don’t even remember when it happened, or that it happened. Unfortunately, this split conditions everything: all of your thinking, all of your painful emotions, and all of your actions arise out of this split that you can’t even remember or access for the most part.
In this way the first skandha is down in the roots and under the ground, because it’s unseen. You have ignored the openness of reality and then are no longer aware that you did that and that you keep doing it.
Out of this Ignorance arises Form—the everyday world of subject and object, this and that, “I” and “other.” The word “form” points to the fact that what could be an open, fluid, and free experience of life becomes solidified and frozen into a dualistic pattern, like flowing water freezing into immoveable ice. It is then assumed to be ultimately real.
The Trunk of Feeling and Branches of Perception
The tree of ego-fixation grows out of the ground and becomes visible, and more and more articulated and complex. You start adding embellishments to the original duality to make it more convincing. As it grows and emerges out of the ground, you experience the second and third skandhas of Feeling and Perception.
With Feeling, the roots of the first skandha become the trunk of the tree. Here you take a primitive stance in relationship to the object—you either want to grasp it, reject it, or pay no attention to it because it holds no interest for you, no emotional charge. Feeling is the primitive experience of “me and my friend,” “me and my enemy,” “me and something or someone I couldn’t care less about and hardly even notice.”
When the branches begin to articulate themselves further out of the trunk, you experience the third skandha of Perception/Impulse, in which you begin to act toward the object in a way consistent with your Feeling—drawing it toward you, pushing it away, or screening it out.
It’s the level of “me wanting to take care of my friend,” “me wanting to destroy my enemy,” “me actively ignoring everyone else altogether.” This way of perceiving the “other” is impulsive by nature, based as it is on the primitive bias established in the previous skandha of Feeling, so that there is no room for clarity or objectivity in the perception itself.
The Numerous Twigs of Concept
When the branches begin to articulate themselves further, you experience the fourth skandha, called Concept or Formation, in which you begin to attach value judgments to your experience of the object. These value judgments are polarities—good and bad, beautiful and ugly, brilliant and stupid, and so on. It’s the level of “me wanting to hurt my enemy because he is bad, ugly, and stupid,” or “me wanting to help my friend because of all her wonderful qualities,” etc.
At this point, you make use of the logic of comparison in order to give your original bias more credibility. The skandha of Concept is especially powerful because its reliance on logic gives it an intimidating veneer of plausibility. It is as if the more primitive motivations of the second and third skandhas have now been given a respectable cover. Like a lawyer building your case, you now have unassailable reasons for asserting or defending your territorial grip on your world.
The Fluttering Leaves of Consciousness
Finally, from these twigs grow myriad leaves that flutter in the wind. This is the culmination of the process, the fifth skandha, called Consciousness. These are all those discursive thoughts and all those little emotional upheavals you experience moment to moment in your meditation practice. A steady rustling sound of thoughts and emotions blowing here and there drones interminably on in your mind throughout the day (and even in your dreams.) This is the final stage of this growth of ego-fixation, an elaborate hoax that keeps you from seeing your true nature clearly.
The fifth skandha could also be compared to a congressional filibuster—when a Congressman holds the floor indefinitely, even reading the phone book aloud from cover to cover, to prevent a bill he knows he will lose from coming to a vote. At this level of the process of over-complication, you talk endlessly to yourself about your predicament with lover or friend or enemy, spinning story lines of all kinds to create a seemingly solid, airtight narrative of your world and your life. It’s your own private “As the World Turns” soap opera.
Growth at Lightning Speed
The Buddha found that this fixated process of complicating your perception happens very fast, which is one of the reasons it is so difficult to expose. To return to the metaphor of mixing concrete, when any experience arises, you collect and solidify and build the five skandhas with lightning speed, in fact—at the rate of 60 times per second! It’s the inner equivalent of a particle accelerator in nuclear physics.
The key point here is that your ego-fixation is always unconscious and unaware of its own assumption that there’s a solid world “out there” separated from your solid world “in here.”
What keeps the game of ego-fixation endlessly going is this lack of awareness that you are really an open ground free from these conceptual labels and divisions.
You are constantly ignoring that open ground.
On the deepest level ego-fixation is the state of being perpetually unconscious and unaware. The Buddha saw all this clearly and unmistakably through his practice of vipasyana, and the knowing that arose from this practice.
The Power of Projection
By being unaware, ego-fixation creates a cramped and limited version of reality based on projection.
Projection is a fundamental concept in both Buddhist and Western psychology. The derivation of the word from the Latin, “jection”, means throw and “pro” means forward, or in front of.
The mind is constantly throwing its version of reality in front of itself, as it were, so as not to see clearly what is actually there.
It’s like throwing a veil over someone’s face, and then seeing only the veil rather than the face that the veil is covering. Projection creates an ongoing misunderstanding and perpetuates a distortion in the way you experience the world. You’re constantly seeing things through the filter of your misinterpretation. This is the activity of projection.
It isn’t quite accurate even to say that the ego-fixation of the skandhas is doing this. Ego-fixation isn’t doing the projection; ego-fixation is the process of projection itself. That’s why we can say that ego-fixation (and therefore the skandhas) doesn’t really exist, because there isn’t really anything anywhere that is doing this. It’s not a thing, but rather a process that keeps flickering over and over again in the basic openness, like a bad light bulb. But it’s so constant and all pervasive that you are not able to see anything else, so you conclude that it’s real.
Ego-fixation is like watching the images on a screen when you go to a movie. At a film, you are watching images being projected on a blank screen, 24 images per second. You could stop them at any single place. Do you ever stop your DVD movie because you want to go get something from the kitchen? Or because the story has become so frightening that you need to break its spell for a moment? Then all the drama that had you in its thrall is just frozen there in a single, isolated frame. When the imaginary sense of continuity is cut, your belief and participation in the illusion instantly collapses.
The world of ego-fixation is just like that. It’s like the projection of a film, in that it gives the illusion of continuity, and creates a 24/7 suspension of disbelief. You lose track of yourself altogether, even though if you simply stop the projector, the discontinuity of separate images becomes obvious. Therefore you make your projections reality as a permanent, continuous thing.
The Imposed Reality of Suffering
While this experience is real, it is not real in the sense of being solid and fixed and unchanging. It is real in the way its vividness affects how you perceive the world, how you experience it, and therefore how you live your life.
Your projections become real in the sense that they lead to suffering. That suffering is the reality of ego-fixation.
No one, not even the most ingenious Buddhist philosopher, will ever be able to tell you that your suffering isn’t real. That doesn’t work. That’s what is so powerful about the truth of suffering in the three marks of existence: you can’t use one of the marks in order to escape the other. However, the illusory projected world that causes so much of your suffering is not real. It is a fabrication. You make it up, moment to moment.
In Shambhala warrior language, this world that you have created out of your projections in order to give yourself a sense of security, is the cocoon.
When you practice meditation, you develop more and more curiosity and longing to explore the cocoon, to see through it, and to live a life that is not conditioned by it.
You see that what you thought was giving you a sense of security is actually a kind of prison for you.
The Delightful Freedom of Egolessness
When the teaching on non-ego-fixation or egolessness is presented, people tend to get upset and very threatened. In light of this, it is helpful to give a metaphorical example that casts the teaching in a more positive light for you—since it is actually a tremendously liberating experience. Indeed, the Buddha taught that egolessness is the basis of enlightenment.
Living with ego-fixation as your main reference point is like swimming with all your clothes on. You are weighed down, less buoyant, and your movements are restricted. There is also a constant sense of struggle and an underlying fear that you might sink and drown. Letting go of that unnecessary accumulation is like taking off the clothes and swimming naked. You experience the freedom and joy of that simplicity, that lightness, that direct contact with the water. Your anxiety and struggle vanish. Such a relief!
In the beginning you don’t experience egolessness that way. You are so accustomed to your self-created little world that any threat to its existence makes you very fearful. Any sudden loss—whether a person, object, or habit—that makes your familiar world shift or feel less solidly real, can bring on a powerful anxiety.
From this point of view, the practice of meditation is to slowly get used to the openness and freedom that comes from not needing to check back to your habitual patterns all the time. What you are doing when you sit and meditate is looking at your mind as if in a laboratory. You are looking at your mind and watching it spin.
You begin to see that the way your mind is spinning during meditation practice is precisely the way it spins when you are out in the world, relating to your life. The difference is that during meditation you give yourself the luxurious opportunity to look closely at that mind instead of taking its chatter for granted.
If you look long and deeply enough at your mind, you will discover that it’s not what you thought it was. All the great spiritual traditions say, the truth will set you free. The truth is that your mind is fundamentally open and free of conceptual limitations. The freedom you experience in meditation results from simply being able to see clearly the ongoing game of fixating on your experience—and then realizing that you actually don’t have to participate any longer.
Cultivating this ability takes time. It takes time to become accustomed to openness. It takes time to work through all the fears and emotional reactions that you have about the possibility that there might be a different way to approach your life. But you have time. You still have time. In fact, most of you who are reading this probably have much more time than I do at this point!
Don’t waste that time.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner