2. And here we come to a necessary distinction: ego and ‘ego’, or self and ‘self’; the necessary, real or true ego, and the contingent ‘ego’, the ‘false ego’. Based on the previous considerations, it might seem that the latter is what is meant by the empirical, worldly ego, or ‘outer man’ of philosophical discourse (as in Frithjof Schuon), but that would be an error, since that ‘ego’ does nothing, being merely an impostor, or a mask, thus ultimately as unreal as the son of a sterile woman. What is real – though ambivalent, as will be shown just below in this same paragraph – is the soul (jiva in non-dualistic advaita philosophy), that is, the subject, one of his sides, as it were, facing the higher, spiritual domain and the other facing the outer world. This last, outer or ‘empirical man’, is the doer and the sufferer – this is the way he sees him/herself (cf. ‘Explanation’, p. 9, et passim).
Similar remarks can be made for now about individual and ‘individual’, the second term referring to a limited, narrow view, actually an ideology, that is, viewing the individual, and the individual viewing himself, as ‘self-sufficient’, ‘self-motivated’, independent and autonomous –in other words, the product or result of individualism (about which there would be much to say in psychological and sociological terms). The first (individual or jiva) is a metaphysical entity, rooted in being… but why ‘ambivalent’? The answer is that while the second, ‘individual’, stands for a psychological construct (as the ‘ego’, its equivalent term, is such, obviously), what can be said of it – namely, that this deluded ‘individual’, rootless, ‘for himself’ alone, happy may be at times, but mostly forlorn, and subject to all sorts of dis-ease if not despair(1)- is by and large the actual description of the ‘normal ego or individual’! And so a clarification is in place:
So far the pairs ego-‘ego’ have been presented as equivalent to individual-‘individual’, the second term in both pairs being clearly false, non-existent. Ultimately, however, the first term of each pair has to be put into brackets if not denied altogether, the reason being that ego and individual are not what they appear to be and are generally taken to be: separate end independent entities (doers, thinkers, feelers). What we are now putting in relief is that to the extent that an individual or ego thinks himself to be independent and separate he is the subject of ignorance. These two terms- ego(-‘mind’) and individual(-‘body’)- are conjointly equivalent to ‘body-mind’ as per Advaita (a term which means ‘not-two’), and, while what this expression –‘body-mind’- signifies is not devoid of reality altogether, it is not wholly real either. The reality behind this conjoint concept is spoken of as mithya in advaita. Mithya is best translated as phenomenon-a, ‘what appears’. All things in the world, all transactions, whether inner or outer, are no more than appearances. ‘Reality’ is what always is the same, unchanging.
Having just dealt with the ambivalence concerning the term individual, this last is not, however, opposed, contradictory to what is universal, since the individual can be seen as a/the focal point of the universe, not confined to limits; a focal point of radiation which contains the whole universe (2) (we owe this observation to lama Govinda, a Mahâyâna Buddhist). On the other hand, so long as an individual considers himself separate and identifies himself with his body and/or mind (or as having an individual conscience), he cuts himself off –psychologically speaking- from everything else – quite an isolation! And thus instead of having it all –better, being ALL in his own substance- ends up with nothing, that is, with ‘himself’ alone. Accordingly, it does not matter in the end whether we place the word individual between colons or not, and ditto with ego. Can we speak any longer of an ‘authentic’ ego or individual once we have gone into the metaphysics of it?
fn 1 “The tragedy of this delusion of individuality is that it leads to isolation, fear, paranoid suspicion, and wholly unnecessary hatreds” E.E. Hadley, quoted by A. Coomaraswamy in ‘Who Is “Satan” and Where Is “Hell”’ –Coomaraswamy 2: Selected Papers, Metaphysics, R. Lipsey, ed. (Princeton, 1977).
fn 2 Since it is a focus of ‘unitary consciousness’ which, as such, is capable of encompassing the whole.
Is the ego, then, not the basic disorder –a veritable nest of disequilibria- the one and only ‘subject’ of dysfunction? From the Buddhist perspective at least, it is not just a question of there being a number of personality types and disorders, which can be described, diagnosed and treated by whatever means are available to the therapist, but over and above that that personality itself, and including the notion of person, are ultimately a disorder, or an illusion (3).
The problem, to repeat, lies in ‘self-identification’ and attachment to what is a limitation of being – both based on ignorance. These tendencies (attachment and ignorance) are two of the three ‘poisons’ or defilements as seen from the Buddhist perspective; the third one -aversion, anger or hate- follows, of course, by implication or extension (fig.1). The result is suffering, which ties that triad with another related one: duhkha, anitya, anâtmân – suffering, impermanence, non-self (trilakshana, ‘the three marks of existence’).
fn 3. We could thus have titled this essay: ‘The Problems of the ‘ego’’, or ‘Freedom from the ‘self’’.
The three ‘poisons’ – addiction, aversion, delusion
(Fig. 1) (Imagine an inverted triangle – ‘Ego’ in the centre)