Monday, July 20, 2020


I like reading Mark Epstein. He is a psychiatrist and Buddhist who writes with remarkable sensitivity, compassion, humility, and depth. He identifies the ego as the source of many of our problems:

·       Ego is the one affliction we all have in common. Because of our understandable efforts to be bigger, better, smarter, stronger, richer, or more attractive, we are shadowed by a nagging sense of weariness and self-doubt. Our very efforts at self-improvement orient us in an unsustainable direction since we can never be certain whether we have achieved enough. (All the quotes are from Epstein’s Advice not Given: Getting over Yourself)

The ego can be life-dominating. We spend our lives trying to prove that we are a “somebody” and spend a massive amount of energy trying to hide this endeavor from ourselves and others. This pertains even to those who have “arrived”:

·       People with a strong sense of self still suffer. They may look like they have it all together, but they cannot relax without drinking or taking drugs. They cannot unwind, give affection, improvise, create, or sympathize with others if they are steadfastly focused only on themselves. Simply building up the ego leaves a person stranded. The most important events in our lives, from falling in love to giving birth to facing death, all require the ego to let go.

However, Epstein believes that he has found an answer for this stubborn addiction:

·       But there is no reason for the untutored ego to hold sway over our lives, no reason for a permanently selfish agenda to be our bottom line. The very ego whose fears and attachments drive us is also capable of a profound and far-reaching development. We have the capacity, as conscious and self-reflecting individuals, to talk back to the ego.

Epstein believes that by gaining awareness of our situation, through both or either psychotherapy and Buddhist meditation, we can begin to correct ourselves:

·       They learn to make sense of their internal conflicts and unconscious motivations, to relax against the strain of the ego’s perfectionism.

However, a very basic question remains: “Do these means of self-awareness give us accurate self-knowledge, and does this knowledge penetrate deeply enough?” Epstein seems to think so. He claims that the practice of mindfulness is a mirror into the soul:

·       This image of the mirror is central to Buddhist thought. A mirror reflects things without distortion. Our consciousness is like that mirror. It reflects things just as they are. In most people’s lives, this is taken for granted; no special attention is given to this mysterious occurrence. But mindfulness takes this knowing consciousness as its most compelling object.

It might be compelling, but is this form of self-awareness any more profound than the awareness that we are hungry, tired, or angry? I don’t mean to denigrate this kind of awareness, but I doubt that it can penetrate deeply enough to the roots of the ego. Nevertheless, Epstein believes that this kind of awareness is adequate:

·       Without such consciousness, we remain pushed around by impulses and held in check by unrecognized defenses. But when we are able to see the extent of our own fears and desires, there is something in us, recognized by both Buddha and Freud, which is able to break free. Taking responsibility for what is going on inside of us gives hope.

Is there any evidence that this “gives hope,” or are we simply flattering ourselves with a false assurance that we know ourselves and can “break free?” Epstein seems to admit that this question is not easily satisfied by snap answers:

·       We have to both trust and mistrust the mind, often at the same time. This takes practice.

However, what type of practice will enable us to determine if we are deceiving ourselves? Or that we have attained freedom rather than dissociation from ourselves and our humanity?

I am suspect for a number of reasons. For one thing, we suppress material that is highly threatening to our mental stability and sense of self. Why then should we expect that it would be easy to confront this material through psychotherapy or meditation?

Instead, my experience with psychotherapy showed me that the therapist is just as invested as I am in keeping certain things repressed or denied if they come to the surface. For what if I told the therapist, “I am a horrible person, and I don’t deserve to live.” He would help me explore the reasons why I might feel this way, but as a giving person, his goal is to prove me wrong.

What if I confided that I had murdered an entire village of women and children in Vietnam, and without any regret? He might tell me that “others would have also cracked under such pressure,” and that I had to learn to forgive myself. However, he would not consider the possibility of objective guilt, and perhaps I did deserve to die for what I had done. Perhaps he might try to lesson my feelings of guilt by telling me, “You were just following orders, and you need to learn to forgive yourself?”

However, is this tactic covering the problem or exposing it? And does mere self-awareness provide the answer to our problems? Instead, it seems that deep self-awareness is the last thing that we want. Thoughts of our moral inadequacies and the punishment we know we deserve for them are highly threatening. Perhaps this is why it is not enough to be wildly successful and why we also need to constantly convince ourselves that we are morally deserving, worthy, and entitled. This is why it doesn’t matter how much money or power we have accrued. We still feel threatened when our character is maligned by even by a charge that we had wrongly cut into line. This should point us to the understanding that there is an unresolved issue deeper that ego.

Buddha would have answered that we have to live according to our moral nature, and that if we fail to, we will experience the effects of our negative karma. However, what if the effects of this “karma” are even more disastrous than Buddha was able to perceive? What if our moral failure had sentenced us to a perpetual sense of threat and doom? And what if it is this threat that has driven our ego into overdrive to prove our worthiness in the face of this overwhelming threat?

It also seems that we need to go a little deeper with our questioning. What kind of wisdom runs the karma wheel to ensure that we really receive what we deserve? It seems that this kind of justice would have to be administered intelligently.

It also seems that we are also aware of our need for forgiveness, however misplaced it might be. After the war, a Nazi was being medically attended to by a Jew. The Nazi begged for his forgiveness, even though this attendant hadn’t been directly affected by the Holocaust.

Why was forgiveness so important to this Nazi who was facing death? Did he know something that the West has long suppressed, because it represents too much of a threat? Jesus had highlighted this most basic conflict:

·       “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:19-20)

As lovers of the darkness and the lies we spin about ourselves and our worthiness, we hate anything that might expose our real condition. We are guilty as charged by our conscience! Consequently, we flee from the light and anyone who might shed that light. As a result, I have never heard anyone say, “I am seeing my psychologist because I want to learn the truth about myself.” Instead, we seek help for the reduction of our painful symptomology.

Perhaps psychotherapy and meditation do reveal some important things about us, but I doubt that these can penetrate to the real source of the problem – our moral corruption – and certainly cannot rectify the problem. Ultimately, our problem is moral and relational. We have to confess our sins and receive forgiveness, not a self-generated forgiveness.

If this is true, the ego isn’t the problem but the mechanism trying to cover and compensate for the problem. Besides, the ego is deceptive. It is like jello, which can take disguised forms, as in the practice of self-improvement, the pursuit of a virtuous life, or even through religious practices, all used to inflate our sense of our worthiness. It is not that such practices are wrong, but they are deceptively used to cover the real problem – our alienation from God.

Epstein understands that the ego cannot be eliminated. Instead, it must be understood and properly channeled. But how? From my experience and the experience of millions of others, the underlying moral problem must first be adequately addressed rather than denied or drugged. It is the source of alienation from real self-knowledge and from our Creator, as many religions attest. We know that something is terribly wrong with us, and this sends our ego into obsessive overdrive to prove otherwise – that we are worthy by virtue of our attainments and social approval.

Biblical wisdom tells us that, fundamentally, we have to be reconciled to our righteous Creator who proved His love for us by dying for our sins:

·       “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

It is this love alone that has enabled me to face myself and then to stand against the assaults of guilt and shame, despite my unworthiness.

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