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Third Noble Truth: In the Midst of Suffering, There Is Release from Suffering

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BUDDHISM EGO
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I have talked in recent posts about the Buddhist teachings on self and soul, and most recently about Buddhist meditators' tendency to "spiritual bypassing," i.e. moving past the messy and often painful work of wounds, selfish tendencies, traumas, life problems and developmental needs to try to reach an imagined state of transcendence where all of that can be left behind.

A lot of that terrain can be summarized by the pop phrase "getting rid of the ego," which many seem to equate with the goal of spiritual practice. This phrase, which has over 15 million Google hits, implies two things: first, that there is something intrinsically wrong with the ego, and second, that once gotten rid of, everything will be better.

"Ego" originally was a term from Freudian psychoanalysis, or rather an English translation of Freud's original term Ich, which simply means "I" in German. I have come to believe that translations are a major stumbling block to understanding deep matters, whether it is Freudian or Buddhist or something else. For Buddhism, the words "ego-istic" and "self-ish" are more relevant than the words "ego" or "self." "Selfish" and "egoistic" refers to behavior, whereas "self" and "ego" refer to identity. Selfish behavior is a problem; it causes suffering for oneself and others. Self or identity is just a feature of our existence. We each have an identity; even Gautama Buddha had an identity, as he walked the dusty paths of rural 5th century B.C. India offering his teaching to all and sundry. What the Buddha taught is not that we have no identity at all, but that our identity is not fixed; it keeps changing. It has no "own-being," to use a technical term from the Heart Sutra.

"Identity" is perhaps a somewhat more workable term than "ego," because most of us understand that our identity does change. When we are young, we have an identity as college students, or law firm interns, or brides-to-be, or new parents. We have a job, a family, friends, relationships -- taken together this is our identity, which changes day by day, year by year. Because identity changes, it includes loss. We graduate from college and endure the loss of the dorm mates, the Fall leaves in the quad, the favorite professors -- and move into an unknown new world. This is loss, and throughout life loss is always with us, just as the Buddha taught. But when we are young a job comes eventually, we rent an apartment, we find new friends and lovers. in youth, the renewal of our identity comes to us without huge effort. Even a failed endeavor leads to new chances. A failed relationship leads to a new one.

It is on the "downhill slope" of life that the losses to our identity begin to outnumber the renewals. If we lose a job, it is hard to find another one (somebody younger is competing with you for it). If we get divorced, it is hard to find a new partner; all the good ones seem to be taken. Loss hits us harder, and renewal requires more effort.

That is why I've come to feel that, as the ancient Hindus thought in their Four Stages of Life, the second half of life is a fertile time for spiritual inquiry and practice. Buddha taught that loss -- dukkha -- is embedded in the fabric of life. But it is when we are older that the truth of that fact truly hits home. I think the experience of loss is what brings people to want to study Buddhism, and the desire to understand and transform ours and others' losses is what keeps us at it. That was true for prince Siddhartha and it is so for us.

There is no need to "get rid of the ego." The ego, the self, the ever-changing landscape of identity -- none of those are the actual problem. The actual problem is that when loss comes we clutch, we tend to respond fearfully and selfishly, with clinging and resistance; we become ego-istic. Paying attention to all of that, examining it closely over and over with the practices of precepts, mindfulness, and meditation, is the nub of Buddhist practice. It is the work of a lifetime. Loss is not all there is. The fundamental spiritual message of Buddhism is upbeat, not downbeat. Joy in the midst of suffering and loss is not only possible, but attainable. That is Buddha's third noble truth: in the midst of suffering, there is release from suffering.

I actually don't know what it means to "get rid of the ego." But I have had cherished good teachers and wise spiritual friends who have transformed ego and identity into a vessel of awakening and compassion, and who dedicate themselves to continuing their spiritual efforts and working for the relief of suffering wherever they can.That is a good identity to have. It's called "Buddha," which means "awake." Buddha is our deepest identity; it is always with us.