Possibly the Ego

One of the most mis-understood and mis-used words to have filtered down from psychology is the word ‘ego’.

In the common understanding of the term, it means a sense of ‘self-aggrandizement’ or making yourself look a certain way to feed your neurosis.

Actually, the ego in Freudian Psychology means the rational part of the being, that is guided by reason. This is opposed to the id, which in a purely animalistic sense chases after what it wants, being driven purely by the pleasure principle.

Somehow the word has changed in meaning and is now almost always used in a negative sense, which properly speaking should be understood as a misfunctioning or malfunctioning ego. A properly functioning ego is desired in both psychology and Buddhism.

Ego definitely does not mean the ‘self’, in the Buddhist sense.

So although Buddhism teaches ‘non-self’ – this does not mean that somehow you have an ego and your task is to destroy/transcend/remove it.

Self Aggrandizement

In this sense, the Buddhist equivalent could be ‘mana’ (maana).

Mana is generally translated as ‘conceit’ – but this also is a difficult term to understand. ‘Conceit’ is a difficult term. We are happy to label someone as ‘conceited’, without a really clear definition of what conceit is.

However you translate conceit – the meaning is not the same as mana.

Mana has three kinds:

  • I am better than another
  • I am worse that another
  • I am the same as another

That is, any kind of comparative judgement is a mistake.

It’s ok to say you are a faster runner, a taller person, or better on computers ….  but if you translate this into yourself being ‘better am I, equal or worse’ (in the sutta way of putting it) – then this is mana.

And the normal idea of ego is close to this meaning. You want to make yourself look better, seem nicer etc… You are worried about getting respect. You are judgemental in giving respect.

Psychologist and Therapist Thomas Bein writes in ‘Mindful Therapy’:

Many … come into therapy and try to play the same part they have played their whole life long, trying to appear better than they are  in order to be liked and respected by the therapist, or trying to appear overly helpless to solicit sympathy, just as they do in the rest of their lives.



 Putting on appearances in order to gain respect, sympathy or be liked (or disliked) is a form of mana, and a trait of a mis-functioning ego.

You might also connect it to self-respect i.e. if you have a healthy self-respect, you will not be judging yourself against others.

Is it possible to be without mana?

One sutta says it is, but only for one who is enlightened.

In one who is an arahant, … who has done what needs to be done [in the practise], reached the highest goal …. there comes no thought “there is one better than I,” nor “there is one equal,” nor “there is one worse.”

While it might be difficult, the practise should take you to the point where you are deconstructing your ‘self-image’. That is, you just see a thought, a mood, an emotional response arise and then disappear. The above judgements then, might come up, but you don’t feed it with any thoughts or give it continuance. If you look closely, the judgement is a kind of fear, which is a bedfellow of Dukkha.

In the meantime, Thomas Bien continues :

if a patient is not open to his pain, … then the [therapy] will lack the power of deep transformation.

5 replies on “Possibly the Ego”

  1. Phillip Moffitt, author of Dancing with Life, says the ego is “self-preservation on steroids.” 🙂

  2. I can often spot the ego at work but it sometimes it seems like I’m at the mercy of it. When I’m meditating or feeling good I can see the ego doing its thing – it makes me smile. When I’m angry or stressed then the ego is too close to see. It would be nice to think that this will become more managable if I keep noting it.

  3. The ego, when it malfunctions then, becoming a distortion of its real purpose sort of reminds me of how everyone starting calling Frankenstein’s monster “Frankenstein” rather than calling it the monster that Dr. Frankenstein made!

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