Buddhism teaches that the cause of of our suffering is clinging to what we believe to be our “self” or “ego.” When we feel unsafe or uncertain, our habitual defenses arise, and we tend to cling even more defensively to our ego in an attempt to gain ground in groundlessness. But there is good news: Through mindfulness practice, we come to understand that there is no such thing as a solid “I”, and we can relax our urge to control what is not controllable.
From the Buddhist perspective, nothing exists independently. Therefore, try as we might, there is nothing we can point to that is “I.” Through meditation and contemplative investigation, we come to understand that our identities are not solid, independent or permanent. Who we are, as well as the world around us, is ever-changing, dependent on what arises moment by moment. Understanding and experiencing egolessness is the key to our freedom and emotional health.
In her book The Places that Scare You[a], the American Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron describes the ego’s attempt to gain ground in groundlessness as follows:
“We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure, and it’s also what makes us afraid.”
Understanding that nothing truly exists independently or permanently leads inextricably to understanding that everything is groundless. We can either deal with the basic groundlessness of all phenomena in a healthy way, allowing ourselves to feel our suffering and lean into our fears, or by hanging on for dear life to a sold sense of “I”, which I call the defensive ego. The development of a healthy ego is necessary to mediate life’s changes and be grounded in groundlessness.
Both psychotherapy and Buddhism strive to create a safe place to develop grounding in groundlessness and ambiguity. As Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein has said, meditation practice [as well as psychotherapy] promotes “change and development within the ego, rather than beyond it”. Epstein posits that a healthy ego is essential, stating that meditation seeks to produce “an ego no longer obsessed with its own solidity.”[b]
Similarly, in Freud’s construct of the id, ego and superego, the ego is the executive function of consciousness, mediating between the impulsive drives of the id and the judgmental and self-critical superego. Therefore, one of the primary goals of therapy is to help clients develop a healthy ego, and guide them to overcome their habitual defenses and unhealthy clinging to a solid sense of self out of a fear of groundlessness.
Many of my psychotherapy clients have “perfected” deeply ingrained defenses that they use to, in Pema Chodron’s words, “control the uncontrollable.” It is my job to help my clients discover the fears and negative beliefs that have created their dysfunctional habitual tendencies, and with time and practice, let them go.
Another ego defense is “spiritual bypassing”, or the misuse of spiritual practice to avoid dealing with difficult feelings and issues. Developing a healthy ego is the middle way between the two extremes of solidifying the ego or attempting to forego it altogether.
Because of our emotional histories and developmental wounding, living in ambiguity and groundlessness can be fraught with difficulties, and lead to defense mechanisms that prevent us from living fully. For example, some of us may see things in black and white terms, because ambiguity creates a sense of fear or anxiety. Those with disordered eating control tend to control their food intake as the only way they know to control the uncontrollable. Others may seek to numb themselves with drugs or alcohol or tend to use spiritual bypassing to not feel the sufferings of life. We may also tend toward perfectionism, rather than experience the ambiguity of imperfection.
Another defensive posture of ego is to hold on to the stories of blame or shame we tell ourselves about our lives. As a psychotherapist, I have heard the refrain “but that’s just the way I am” so often. We sometimes cling for dear life to our stories, closing ourselves to a more vibrant life and connection to ourselves and others. The process of therapy, as well as meditation, helps us loosen our grip on our stories and our solid sense of self.
Paradoxically, telling our stories in therapy is a way to loosen their grip. As Mark Epstein says, “The point of telling one’s story in therapy is to be released from the hold it has over you, to set yourself free, not to reinforce the way it defines you. If there is one thing I have learned from my years as a Buddhist therapist, it is that we need not be limited by our stories. We are much more mysterious than they are.”[c]
All of these defense mechanisms arise out of a fear of vulnerability and being open to all that life has to offer. Our emotional wounds often prevent us from seeing the complex nature of the people and events in our lives. Possibilities for growth and renewal can only arise when we are able to rest in the unknown space of groundlessness, let ourselves feel our suffering and let go of our sense of a solid “I”. If we can take a breath and rest in that space, we see that life is truly spacious, vibrant, alive and full of possibility.
The experience of selflessness with the grounding of a healthy ego opens us from the claustrophobia of self-centeredness into the spaciousness of possibility and connection. When we let go of obsessively clinging to a solid “I”, we open to an understanding that we all experience joy, sorrow, fear, anger and all of the vicissitudes of life. We transform the complaint “why me?” into an understanding of “yes, everyone.” In that space of openness, we can let go of fear and increase our capacity for connection and love.
[a] Chodron, P. (2002). The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. (Boulder: Shambhala Publications.
[b] Epstein, M. (1988). “ The Deconstruction of the Self: Ego and “Egolessness in Buddhist Insight Meditation. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 61-69.
[c] Epstein, M. “If the Buddha Were Called to Jury Duty.” Tricycle Magazine. (Winter 2017).
© 2018 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.