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Conversations with Godwin

4: Ego and Relationships


Jyoti: I thought we might discuss the ego and its discontents tonight. The concept of the ego is quite amorphous, but basically what I'd like to talk about is its nature as a separate self, and when we are constituted as a separate self, what that means for our relationships with others.

A second thing is this: there is probably no greater cause of misery in the world than the ego - so why do we hold onto something that is, by its very nature, going to cause us so much pain and suffering? Although I can see that people might do so in ignorance, still a lot of people sincerely want to get to a different level - but still they cling and hold onto their egos.

Godwin: Firstly, about this question of separateness - how does it come about? I think that one way in which this sense of separateness may arise could be from language: when we are children we are told that this is my body, and at some stage in development you experience that your body is separate from other peoples', and then that also extends to what one possesses also - thinking 'these things are mine', and that other things don't belong to you. So then there is a division, or boundary that is centered in relation to one's self and one's possessions.

That also extends to other things like identification on the group level: I'm a Sri Lankan, a German, or whatever it is. Or, I'm a Christian, a Buddhist, and so on. Then one considers oneself as distinct from and separate from others. In this connection the Buddha once said something very profound, he said: I use language, but I am not misled by language.

But when we use the word 'me' or 'mine' we really believe in this convention, and then a sense of ownership arises. As meditators we need to realise the limits of language and concepts and then perhaps we can get a glimpse of what it means to go beyond concepts.

Now I would like to look into another aspect, where we think we have control over our minds and bodies, and ask: How far is that correct?

Jyoti: Well, it may not be absolutely correct, but nevertheless there does seem to be some of way in which I'm in control of my body that I'm not in regard to yours. For instance, if I want to lift my arm up it goes, but now if I say to you: lift your arm, it doesn't move! So it does seem to me that in an eminently practical way to be the case that I seem to have a closer connection with 'my' mind, with 'my' body, than I do with yours, or with anybody else's.

I think this is one of the reasons why the problem emerges in the first place - there really does seem to be a control over the microcosm of myself, that doesn't quite extend to the macrocosm of the world.

Godwin: I suppose that this is one way in which we might get an idea of separateness. Because we experience some degree of control over our minds and bodies the idea arises: I am the master, I am the captain. But I would suggest that this is a relative, and not an absolute experience. Let us look at some examples - our thoughts, for instance.

As we were saying before, thoughts just go through our minds without our having much control over them, we have to concede that a lot of the time they just arise on their own. Now let us look at the body, when we sit in meditation for an hour and a half at a stretch, can we sit in such a way that pain does not arise? Obviously, for most people, this is not the case.

But what does that show? That we have no control over the sensations that are arising on our bodies. This aspect is very much emphasised in the Dhamma. The real condition of living in samsara is a condition of absolute insecurity whether in regard to one's mind or body - we are really at the mercy of the four elements.

Now turning our attention to relationships. I often reflect how nearly all our conflicts are due to how we relate to ourselves, or to others. This is the problem of ownership. What we have to see, to realise, is that there is this mind and this body, but there is no owner. The idea of an owner is a construction of our imagination. This idea of ownership also extends to other people, so that we say: My girlfriend, my child, my mother. We assume that we own them, and with this concept the idea arises that whatever I possess should behave in a certain way - the way I have defined it.

Jyoti: If you have ownership then you feel you have control, and then when things are not happening in the world according to how you would like them to, that's when the conflict arises, isn't it? If 'my' girlfriend goes off with another man, which is not how the situation would be if I could control it, then it gives rise to pain and distress.

Godwin: That's a good point. With the idea of ownership inevitably the idea of control arises. Another way of understanding the problem of relationship is that what we have done is to make a kind of bargain. You like someone, you give someone affection, and then you expect something in return, and if that is not forthcoming you start to dislike or even hate the other person. You feel cheated because it was an investment. It is through this sense of investment that various emotions arise: jealousy, rejection, hatred, and so forth. It shows how very quickly love can turn into hatred: but with unconditional love, that can never turn into hate.

Jyoti: It's surprising how influential one little word can be, isn't it? If, for instance, as you are walking along someone says something nasty to you, then you go away feeling terrible. However, if, as you are walking along, someone smiles at you, you go away on a cloud! How very differently we react to these different occurrences, you are just going along being yourself, but suddenly how you feel has been radically changed.

Godwin: This brings up an important point, which is how dependent we are on other people. If we are praised we are happy, if we are blamed we get depressed. Our state of mind, our happiness, our suffering, is dependent on what others think about us.

Jyoti: So perhaps now is a good time to discuss the second thing that I spoke about earlier, which is: Why do we hold onto this fixed idea of ourselves?

Godwin: I think there are a number of reasons for this. One reason is that we have simply got used to it. Secondly, we sometimes know things only intellectually, but realising things experientially is another thing altogether. Sometimes our insights happen with only a very limited part of our being, but if we are to experience these things properly then it must be with our whole being. Another thing could be that sometimes it's as though we have split personalities, in the sense that we carry around an image of ourselves, of what we really are, of what we should become. This can come about by repressing certain things.

Another reason could be because of the tricks our minds play on us: various subtleties, and self-deceptions that arise because of the defence mechanisms in our minds, so that we don't see clearly our own deficiencies and short comings, we rationalise certain things to ourselves. Our minds can play many such tricks on us. I like to give the example of pride: maybe at some point you realise you are acting conceitedly, so then you start practising humility - but then you become proud of your humility! You want to impose it on others, and you want them to acknowledge that you are a humble person.

So I like to introduce the idea of playing with the ego. Not being so serious, so intent. There should be an element of joy in meditation. We should be able to laugh at our egos, just looking at all the trouble it causes us, then you will be able to get a certain distance on it. When you can learn to play with the ego, then the need to project any image can lessen. If one can learn to laugh at oneself, then we are not giving energy to this conflict between what we are, and what we should become.

Another interesting area is to observe how other peoples' egos are working - not in a judgmental way, of course - just to observe it very dispassionately: this can be very useful in our relationships with others, when we can learn about ourselves and others in this way.

Jyoti: As I've said before this was one of the first things I ever learned in meditation, that a lot of what one sees, and doesn't like about others, is really something one has projected. Now if I meet someone and find I don't like them, when I sit in meditation I have a good long look at myself to see if what I don't like about them is not really something that I don't really like about myself. There's a certain insight to be gained in this way.

Godwin: It's a very good exercise. All of this shows us that what is most important is how one relates to oneself. If you truly understand yourself, you will understand your relations with others. Ordinarily we look at others only in a critical way, but this is simply a defence mechanism. People who are always over-critical of others don't yet understand themselves.

Jyoti: When, in meditation, you come to an understanding of your own limitations, I think you can also at that point understand other peoples' limitations.

Godwin: Yes, in meditation we try and understand our limitations, that we still have imperfections. Otherwise we start beating ourselves because we are only human! This is how suffering and self-hatred can arise.