A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

19. Chapter Nineteen


1.    Distinguishing the Ego


The self was above defined – from a philosophical perspective – as the apparent Subject of cognition and Agent of volition and valuation. But – in common parlance – most people identify themselves with much more than this minimal definition. To clarify things, it is therefore useful to distinguish two meanings of the term.

In its purest sense, the term self refers to what is usually called the soul or person. In a colloquial sense, the term is broader, including what intellectuals refer to as “the ego”. The latter term – again from a philosopher’s point of view – refers to the material and mental phenomena, which indeed seem rightly associated with our self, but which we wrongly tend to identify with it. Thus, by the term ego we shall mean all aspects of one’s larger self other than one’s soul; i.e. all extraneous aspects of experience, commonly misclassified as part of oneself.

This is just a way to recognize and emphasize that we commonly make errors of identification as to what constitutes the self[1]. If we try to develop a coherent philosophical system, looking at the issues with a phenomenological eye, we must admit the self in the sense of soul (i.e. Subject/Agent) as the core sense of the term. The latter is a non-phenomenal entity, quite distinct from any of the material and mental phenomena people commonly regard as themselves.

We tend to regard our body, including its sensory and motor faculties, as our self, or at least as part of it. But many parts of our body can be incapacitated or detached, and we still remain present. And, conversely, our nervous system may be alive and well, but we are absent from it. So, it is inaccurate to identify our self with our body.

Nevertheless, we are justified in associating our self with our body, because we evidently have a special relationship to it: we have more input from it and more power over it than we do in relation to any other body. Our life takes shape within the context of this body. For this reason, we call it ‘our’ body, implying possession or delimitation.

With regard to the mind, a similar analysis leads to the same conclusion. By ‘mind’, note well, I mean only the apparent mental phenomena of memory and imagination (reshufflings of memories), which seem to resemble and emerge from the material phenomena apparently experienced through the body (including the body itself, of course). Mind is not a Subject, but a mere (non-physical) Object; a mind has no consciousness of its own, only a Subject has consciousness.

This limited sense of mind is not to be confused with a larger sense commonly intended by the term, which would include what we have here called soul. I consider this clarification of the word mind very important, because philosophies “of mind” in which this term is loosely and ambiguously used are bound to be incoherent[2].

The term I use for the conjunction of soul and mind is ‘psyche’. Of course, below the psyche, at an unconscious level, lies the brain or central nervous system, which plays a strong role in the production of mental events, although it is not classed as part of the psyche but as part of the body. Some of the items we refer to as ‘mind’ should properly be called brain.

The term “unconscious mind”, note well, refers to potential (but not currently actual) items of consciousness stored in the brain (and possibly the wider nervous system); for example, potential memories. Such items are called mind, only insofar as they might eventually appear as mental objects of consciousness; but strictly speaking, they ought not be called mind. The term “unconscious mind” is moreover an imprecision of language in that the mind is never conscious of anything – it is we, the Subjects, who are conscious of mental items (mental equivalents of sensory phenomena, as well as ideas and emotions).

Thus, mind refers to a collection of evanescent phenomena, without direct connection between them, which succeed each other in our ‘mind’s eye’ (and/or ‘mind’s ear’) but which lack mental continuity, their only continuity being presumably their emergence from the same underlying material brain. The mind cannot be identified with the self, simply because mental events are experienced as mere objects of consciousness and will, and not as the Subject and Agent of such psychical events. Moreover, the mind may momentarily stop displaying sights or sounds without our sense of self disappearing.

Nevertheless, our mind is ours alone. Only we directly experience what goes on in it and only we have direct power over its fantasies. Even if someday scientists manage to look into other people’s private minds and find ways to affect their contents, one person remains in a privileged relationship to each mind. It is therefore proper to call our minds ‘ours’, just as we call our bodies ‘ours’.

Thus, the self, in the colloquial sense, is a collection of three things: soul, mind and body – i.e. spiritual, mental and material experiences. But upon reflection, only the soul counts as self proper – the ego, comprising mind and body, is indeed during our whole lifetime “associated with” our strict self (that is, soul), but it should not be “identified with” that self. The ego is merely an appendage to the self or soul, something ‘accidental’ (or at best ‘incidental’) to it.

However, this should not be taken to mean that the soul has no share in the ego. Many of the physical and mental traits that comprise the ego are at least in part due to past choices and actions of the soul. The soul is thus somewhat responsible for much of the ego; the latter is in effect a cumulative expression of the former. Some people have big, mean egos, to their discredit; others have smaller, nicer egos, to their credit. Moreover, the soul tends to function in the context of the ego or what it perceives as the ego.

In more narrow psychological terms, the ego is a particular self-image one finds motives for constructing and clinging onto. It is a mental construct composed of images selectively drawn from one’s body and mind – some based on fact, some imaginary. Compared to the real state of affairs, this self-image might be inflationary (flattering, pretentious) or it might be depreciative (undemanding, self-pitying). Ideally, of course, one’s self-image ought to be realistic; i.e. one must at all times strive to be lucid.


2.         Dismissing the Ego


On a practical level, such insights mean that what we regard as our “personal identity” has to be by and by clarified. We gradually, especially with the help of meditation, realize the disproportionate attention our material and mental experiences receive, and the manipulations we subject them to.

Because of the multiplicity and intensity of our sensory and mental impressions, we all from our birth onwards confuse ourselves with the phenomena impinging upon us. Because they shout so loudly, dance about us so flashily, weigh upon us so heavily, we think our experiences of body and mind are all there is, and we identify with them. To complicate matters further, such self-identification is selective and often self-delusive.

It takes an effort to step back, and realize that body and mind phenomena are just fleeting appearances, and that our self is not the phenomena but the one experiencing them. Even though this self is non-phenomenal (call it a soul, or what you will), it must be put back in the equation. We may associate ourselves with our bodily and mental phenomena, but we must not identify with them. There is no denying our identity happens to currently be intimately tied up with a certain body, mind, social milieu, etc. – but this does not make these things one and the same with us.

Gradually, it becomes clear that our personal confusion with these relatively external factors of our existence is a cause of many of the difficulties in our relation to life. We become attached to our corporeality or psychology, or to vain issues of social position, and become ignorant as to who (and more deeply, Who) we really are.

To combat such harmful illusions, and see things as they really are, one has to “work on oneself”. One must try and diminish the influence of the ego.

Specifically, one has to overcome the tendencies of egotism and egoism. Egotism refers to the esthetic side of the ego, i.e. to our narcissistic concerns with appearance and position, our yearning for admiration and superiority and our fear of contempt and inferiority. Egoism refers to the ethical side of the ego, i.e. to our material and intellectual acquisitiveness and protectionism.

The issue is one of degree. A minimum of self-love and selfishness may be biologically necessary and normal, but an excess of those traits are certainly quite poisonous to one’s self and to others. Much daily suffering ensues from unchecked ego concerns. Egotism produces constant vexation and resentment, while egoism leads to all sorts of anxieties and sorrows.

On this point, all traditions agree: no great spiritual attainment is possible without conquest of egocentricity. Self-esteem and self-confidence are valuable traits, but one must replace conceit with modesty and arrogance with humility. Meditation can help us tremendously in this daunting task.

Of course, it is none other than the self (i.e. soul) who is egocentric! The ego is not some other entity in competition with the soul in a divided self, a “bad guy” to pour blame on. We have no one to blame for our psychological failings other than our soul, whose will is essentially free. The ego has no consciousness or will of its own: it has no selfhood.

The ego indeed seems to be a competing self, because – and only so long as and to the extent that – we (our self or soul) identify with it. It is like an inanimate mask, which is given an illusion of life when we confuse our real face with it. But we should not be deluded: it is we who are alive, not the mask.

Rather, the body and mind (i.e. the factors making up the ego) are mechanistic domains that strongly influence the soul is sometimes negative ways. They produce natural inclinations like hunger for food or the sex drive or yearning for social affiliation, which are sometimes contrary to the higher interests of the soul. For this reason, we commonly regard our spiritual life as a struggle against our ego inclinations.

Not all ego inclinations are natural. Many of the things we think we need are in fact quite easy to do without. As we commonly say: “It’s all in the mind”. In today’s world, we might often add: “It is just media hype” for ultimately commercial or political purposes. People make mountains out of molehills. For example, some think they cannot make it through the day without a smoke or a drink, when in fact it is not only easy to do without such drugs but one feels much better without them.

Often, natural inclinations are used as pretexts for unnatural inclinations. For example, if one distinguishes between natural sensations of hunger in the belly and the mental desire to titillate one’s taste buds, one can considerably reduce one’s intake of calories and avoid getting painfully fat. Similarly, the natural desire for sex for reproductive purposes and as an expression of love should not be confused with the physical lusts encouraged by the porno industry, which have devastating spiritual consequences.

Thus, the struggle against ego inclinations ought not be presented as a struggle against nature – it is rather mostly a fight against illusions of value, against foolishness. It is especially unnatural tendencies people adopt or are made to adopt that present a problem. It is this artificial aspect of ego that is most problematic. And the first victory in this battle is the realization: “this is not me or mine”.

Once one ceases to confuse oneself with the ego, once one ceases to regard its harmful inclinations as one’s own, it becomes much easier to neutralize it. There is hardly any need to “fight” negative influences – one can simply ignore them as disturbances powerless to affect one’s chosen course of action. The ego need not be suppressed – it is simply seen as irrelevant. It is defeated by the mere disclosure of its essential feebleness.

Meditation teaches this powerful attitude of equanimity. One sits (and eventually goes through life) watching disturbances come and go, unperturbed, free of all their push and pull. The soul remains detached, comfortable in its nobility, finding no value in impure forces and therefore thoroughly uninfluenced by them.

This should not, of course, be another “ego trip”. It is not a role one is to play, self-deceitfully feeding one’s vanity. On the contrary, one experiences such meditation as “self-effacement” or “self-abnegation”, as if one has become transparent to the disturbances, as if one is no longer there to be affected by them.

This is, more precisely put, ego-dismissal, since one has ceased to identify with the forces inherent in the ego. Such dismissal should not, of course, be confused with evasion. It is abandonment of the foolish psychological antics – but this implies being very watchful, so as to detect and observe them when they occur.

There is no need for difficult ascetic practices. One has to just become more aware and sincerely committed; then one can nimbly dodge or gently deflect negative tendencies that may appear. Being profoundly at peace, one is not impressed by them and has no personal interest in them.

Many people devote much time and effort to helping other people out materially or educationally. This is rightly considered as an efficient way to combat self-centeredness, although one should always remain alert to the opportunities for hidden egotism and egoism such pursuits offer.

Granting Monism as the true philosophy, it would seem logical to advocate ‘altruism’ as the ultimate ethical behavior. However, this moral standard is often misunderstood to mean looking out for the interests of others while ignoring one’s own interests. Such a position would be simplistic if not dishonest. If we are all one, the all-one includes and does not exclude oneself.

Thus, I would say that whilst altruistic behavior is highly commendable and admirable, working on oneself first and foremost would seem a very necessary adjunct and precondition. Conceivably, when one reaches full realization, one can pretty well forget oneself altogether and devote oneself entirely to others – but until then one must pay some attention to one’s legitimate needs, if only because one is best placed to do so.


3.         Relief from Suffering


Many people look to meditation as a momentary oasis of peace, a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the world, a remedy against the stresses and strains of everyday living. They use it in order to get a bit of daily peace and calm, to get ‘centered’ again and recover self-control, so as to better cope with their lives. Even so, if they practice it regularly, over a long enough period, for enough time daily, they are sure to discover anyway its larger, more radical spiritual benefits.

One general goal of meditation we have not so far mentioned is relief from suffering. We all to varying degrees, at various times of our lives, experience suffering – and nobody really likes it[3]. The wish to avoid or rid oneself of suffering is often the primary impulse or motive for meditation, before we develop a broader perspective (like “spiritual development”, for instance) relating to this practice.

Thus, “liberation” is often taken to at first mean “liberation from suffering”, before it is understood as “liberation from restraints on the will”. These two interpretations are not as opposed as they might seem, because suffering is a negative influence on volition, so when we free ourselves of the former, we experience the latter’s release. Contentment, the antithesis of suffering, implies a smoothly flowing life.

The relation between meditation and relief from suffering is not always simple and direct. Although it is true that over time meditation renders one immune to many disturbances, it may first for awhile make us much more sensitive to them[4]. When we are more unconscious, our faculties function in coarser ways, so we feel less. As we refine our faculties, and become more conscious, we naturally feel more clearly. For this reason, a meditator may even on occasion find inner peace a bit scary and build a resistance to it, like someone who gingerly avoids a surface he suspects has a static electricity charge[5]. Peace, too, takes getting used to.

Suffering should not be confused with pain, but rather refers to our psychological response to feelings of pain. Some people cannot handle felt pain at all; whereas some, though they feel the same pain, do not take it to heart as much. Moreover, suffering refers not only to experienced pain, but may refer to lack of pleasure; i.e. to the frustration of not getting pleasure one wished for or expected, or of having lost pleasure one had for a while.

All this of course concerns mental as well as bodily pain or pleasure. Pain or pleasure may be felt as a purely physical sensation (e.g. a burnt finger or a pang of hunger); or as a visceral sentiment occurring in the body but having a mental cause (e.g. cold fear in the belly or warm love in the chest); or again, as a purely mental experience (e.g. a vague feeling of depression or elation).

Suffering primarily refers to actual pain; but it often refers to remembered or anticipated pains. For example, one may suffer for years over a bad childhood experience; or again, one may suffer much in anticipation of a big and difficult job one has to do soon. Suffering can also relate to abstract or conceptual things, whether past, present or future. For example, one might suffer at the general injustice of life. In all such cases, however, some present concrete negative feelings are felt, and the suffering may be taken to refer to them.

Buddhist teaching has the fact of human suffering at its center. This is made evident in the Four Noble Truths taught by the founder of this religion, viz.: (1) that life is suffering, i.e. that suffering of some kind or another is inevitable in the existence of sentient beings like ourselves; (2) that such suffering has a cause, namely our attachments to things of this world, our desire for pleasures and aversion to pains; (3) that we can be rid of suffering, if we rid ourselves of its cause (attachment); and finally, that the way to be rid of suffering is through the Eightfold Path.

The latter list of means includes meditation, as a very effective tool for discovering one’s attachments and the ways to break away from our addiction to them. Just as soon as one begins to practice meditation, one discovers its power to make us relatively indifferent to pain or lack of pleasure – i.e. to make us suffer less readily and intensely.[6]

Buddhists argue, additionally, that the ultimate obstacle to freedom from suffering is belief in a self – for to have a self is to have particular interests, and therefore to experience pain when these interests are frustrated (as is inevitable sooner or later) and pleasure when they are (momentarily) satisfied. It follows, in their view, that liberation from suffering (the third Noble Truth) would not be conceivable, if the “emptiness” of the self were not advocated. For only a ‘non-self’ can be free from the blows inherent to an impermanent world like ours.

However, I beg to differ from this doctrine, not to categorically reject it, but to point out that an alternative doctrine is equally possible. We could equally argue, from a Monotheistic point of view, that when the individual soul dissolves back in the universal Soul, which is God, it is conceivably free from all subjection to the vagaries of this material-mental world. The illusion of individuation, rather than the alleged illusion of selfhood, may be considered a sufficient cause of liability to suffering; and the removal of this cause may suffice to remove suffering.

Again I emphasize: the debate about the self is theoretical and does not (in my view) affect the effectiveness of meditation.

The practical lesson to draw from the Buddhist teaching is the importance of ‘attachment’ in human psychology. This realization, that the root of suffering is the pursuit of supposed pleasures, or avoidance of pains, is central. Anxiety, frustration, vexation, anger, disappointment, depression – such emotions are inevitable under the regime of attachment, in view of the impermanence of all mundane values.

If worldly pleasure of any sort is pursued, pain is sure to eventually ensue. If the pursuit of pleasure is successful, such success is necessarily short-lived, and one is condemned to protect existing pleasure or pursue pleasure again, or one will feel pain at one’s loss. If the pursuit of pleasure is unsuccessful, one experiences the pain of not having gotten what one wanted, and one is condemned to keep trying again and again till successful. Similarly, the avoidance of pain is a full time job with no end in sight – a pain in itself.[7]

It is therefore wise to steer clear of attachment, and develop a more aloof approach to the lower aspects of life. This not only saves one from eventual suffering, but releases one’s energies for the pursuit of lasting spiritual values.

Meditation helps us (the self, the soul) to objectify and thus transcend the feelings experienced in body and mind. This can be understood by contrasting two propositional forms:

  1. “I feel [this or that feeling]”, and
  2. “I am experiencing [having a certain body-mind feeling]”.

These two sentences might be considered superficially equivalent – but their different structure is intended to highlight important semantic differences. In (a), the subject “I” is a vague term, and the verb and its complement are taken at face value. In (b), the subject “I” is a more specific term, and the verb and complement are intended with more discrimination.

In (a), the subject considers the act of feeling a feeling as its own act, an extension of itself. In (b), the subject lays claim only to the cognitive fact of experiencing, considering all else as mere object relative to this exclusively cognitive act. The sense of “I” is therefore clearly different in the two sentences: in (a), the ego is meant, whereas in (b) it is the self or soul that is meant.

This is to illustrate that to transcend feelings, we have to objectify them, and more precisely identify our “I” or self with our spiritual dimension (or soul) rather than with our body and mind.


Drawn from Meditations (2006), Chapters 12-14.



[1]           The word ‘ego’ originally, in Latin, meant ‘I’. Nowadays, in English, it is commonly understood in the pejorative sense used by me in the present essay. I do not subscribe to the sense used in psychoanalytic theory, which presents the ego as a segment of the psyche “mediating between the person and reality”. Such a notion is to me conceptually incoherent, since it ascribes a separate personality (i.e. selfhood) to this alleged segment, since to “mediate” anything implies having cognitive, volitional and evaluative powers. The ego of psychoanalysts involves a circularity, since it raises the question: who or what is mediating between the person and reality, and on what basis? The common sense of ‘ego’ is, I would say, closer semantically to the ‘id’ of psychoanalysis.

[2]           Equivocal use of the term mind leads some philosophers into syllogistic reasoning involving the Fallacy of Four Terms, in which the middle term has different senses in the major and minor premises, so that the conclusion is invalid.

[3]           Not even masochists, who use one kind of pain as a palliative against another kind of pain. For instance, they might pursue physical pain to avoid having to face some sense of guilt or to forget some unpleasant childhood experience.

[4]           A meditator may barely notice a sudden loud noise like an explosion, yet find “music” like rock or techno (with very few mellow exceptions) utterly unbearable! In contrast to a non-meditator, who might jump up with fright at the explosion, yet find supermarket canned music relaxing.

[5]           Such resistance has been called “the dread of enlightenment”. In fact, most people who have heard of meditation but have never dared to try it have this dread. They think that they will somehow get lost and drowned in the sea of enlightenment. Indeed, they will do so – in the sense that they will lose their individuality. But what must be understood is that this prospect is not frightful but cause for elation.

[6]           In yoga, they teach an attitude called pratyahara, which consists in focusing clearly on pain one is feeling, calmly assessing its exact extent and intensity; after awhile, a pain thus stared at tends to disappear or at least it feels less urgent. This is, then, a sort of detachment from or transcendence of pain – not through avoiding it, but by facing it.

[7]           Suffering takes many intricate or convoluted forms. Consider for instance the frustration of a rich man, who already has everything he could possibly need or want, and so finds nothing new to spend his money on. He is not free of material attachments, he has the necessary material means, but the world has nothing more or new to offer him. This is a danger of riches – because the tendency in such situations is to turn to new, more and more perverse, sensations.

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