The Crystallization of the “Ego”: Matthew Ricard


Among the many aspects of our confusion, the most radically disruptive is the insistance on the concept of a personal identity: the ego.


Buddhism distinguishes between an innate, instinctive “I”—when we think, for instance, “I’m awake” or “I’m cold”—and a conceptual “self” shaped by the force of habit.


We attribute various qualities to it and posit it as the core of our being, autonomous and enduring.


At every moment between birth and death, the body undergoes ceaseless transformations and the mind becomes the theater of countless emotional and conceptual experiences.


And yet we obstinately assign qualities of permanence, uniqueness, and autonomy to the self.


Furthermore, as we begin to feel that this self is highly vulnerable and must be protected and satisfied, aversion and attraction soon come into play—aversion for anything that threatens the self, attraction to all that pleases it, comforts it, boosts its confidence, or puts it at ease.


These two basic feelings, attraction and repulsion, are the fonts of a whole sea of conflicting emotions.


The ego, writes Buddhist philosopher Han de Wit, “is also an affective reaction to our field of experience, a mental withdrawal based on fear.”



Out of fear of the world and of others, out of dread of suffering, out of anxiety about living and dying, we imagine that by hiding inside a bubble—the ego—we will be protected.


We create the illusion of being separate from the world, hoping thereby to avert suffering.



In fact, what happens is just the opposite, since ego-grasping and self-importance are the best magnets to attract suffering.



Genuine fearlessness arises with the confidence that we will be able to gather the inner resources necessary to deal with any situation that comes our way.



This is altogether different from withdrawing into self-absorption, a fearful reaction that perpetuates deep feelings of insecurity.



Each of us is indeed a unique person, and it is fine to recognize and appreciate who we are.


But in reinforcing the separate identity of the self, we fall out of sync with reality.


The truth is, we are fundamentally interdependent with other people and our environment.


Our experience is simply the content of the mental flow, the continuum of consciousness, and there is no justification for seeing the self as an entirely distinct entity within that flow.



Imagine a spreading wave that affects its environment and is affected by it but is not the medium of transmission for any particular entity.



We are so accustomed to affixing the “I” label to that mental flow, however, that we come to identify with it and to fear its disappearance.


There follows a powerful attachment to the self and thus to the notion of “mine”—my body, my name, my mind, my possessions, my friends, and so on—which leads either to the desire to possess or to the feeling of repulsion for the “other.”



This is how the concepts of the self and of the other crystallize in our minds.



The erroneous sense of duality becomes inevitable, forming the basis of all mental affliction, be it alienating desire, hatred, jealousy, pride, or selfishness.



From that point on, we see the world through the distorting mirror of our illusions.



We find ourselves in disharmony with the true nature of things, which inevitably leads to frustration and suffering.



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