Really Pinning Down The Nature Of Ego

In Fearless Simplicity: The Dzogchen Way of Living Freely in a Complex World, Tsoknyi Rinpoche offers us a tantalizing hint about the nature of the ego:

When you look for this “me,” for this “I” or ego, you find that it is mind. It is the knowing quality that you call “me.” In fact, there is no “me” to find anywhere other than the knowing quality. You can’t pinpoint anything other than the knowing quality. When that knowing quality is misconstrued, it is given the name “me.” If it is understood as just being what it is, then it is called intelligence [or original wakefulness–AT].

p. 100

This is brilliant, though I want to suggest that it’s only one category in a larger taxonomy of egocity.

I. Ego as Knower

In my experience, Tsoknyi Rinpoche nails (let’s say) 70%–to offer a fairly crude estimate–of ego rising. For it very often does rise in the unstated guise, “I am the knower.”

About this statement, however, I need to be clearer. Far better to say that it rises in the regimen of knowing. Thus, it may rise as follows:

  • “I know period.”
  • “I presume that I know.”
  • “I must know.”
  • “I need to know, but I don’t know.”
  • “I doubt whether I know.”
  • “I wish I knew.”
  • “I don’t know how to…, but I need to know how to…”
  • And so on.

II. Ego as Victim

Now we come to what Jung called the inner child. (I like to call it “the little boy” or “the little girl.”) Here, so far as I can discern in my own experience, the rising of ego is not a matter of the knowing quality; instead, it is a matter of lingering hurt. Some examples:

  • I am worthless. I am unworthy.
  • I am unlovable. I am loveless.
  • I am alone. I don’t belong anywhere.
  • I am utterly insignificant. I don’t matter at all.
  • And so on.

Notice that the ego, rising in the presence of hurt, is tacitly adopting the position of the victim.

To see this, take a simple example: you find yourself complaining about cracks in the sidewalk in your neighborhood. “Why isn’t anyone in charge of taking care of this?” This is the ego as the victim experiencing hurt.

What is the hurt? Well, it needs to be discovered. Here is but one hypothetical possibility. “I am the caretaker, and nobody cares about anything or anybody, including–and most especially–me.”

III. Ego as Doer

A third basic guise in which the ego rises is that of the doer. Examples:

  • I have so much to do.
  • I need to plan.
  • I can’t forget X.
  • I’m overwhelmed by…
  • I need to be organized.
  • I’m imagining strategies for…
  • And so on.

Here, the ego rising isn’t coming with the intention of knowing this or that (unless, perhaps too reductively, one wished to say that one want so know what’s the right way to do X or Y). Instead, ego is rising in the mode of the doer.

A Lack of Reduction

I’m not sure that we can easily reduce any of these three to one reduction base (e.g., all have to do, Procrusteanly, with knowing). And, more to the point, I’m not sure that such is necessary.

Speedier Pinpointing

For what we, as practitioners, are really after are simply more skillful ways of identifying ego just when it rises so as to observe it and see it off. The point at hand, in other words, is not to get caught with ego way downstream.

Endnote: Relation to Samskaras

For those curious about the relationship between these three basic types (knower, victim, and doer) and samskaras (= false identities: for more, see here), I would say that these three types are (a) completely formal in nature and (b) are “one hypostasis higher” than the rising of samskaras. After all, samskaras are already content-rich. If “I am the victim” is the one-higher-up basic type, then “I am insignificant” (one samskara) is already one level further down.

Happiness Is A Life Having Come Together Into A Whole

Dear friend,

As for the Signal recording, sorry about that. Obviously, I’m not sure what happened. The basic line of thought was this one:

1.) Let’s suppose, as a child, that you begin thinking about happiness. Naturally, it occurs to you that happiness is pleasure. (This is essentially what Epicureans, or followers of Epicurus, said in defense of their position that happiness = pleasure.) In the nineteenth century, more sophisticated hedonic theories arose from this starting point–most notably the form of quantifiable hedonism known as utilitarianism. 

We may have some doubts about hedonic theories because we might come to understand that we value all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily pleasant. For instance, I value meditation, and it’s only rarely pleasant and, at that, only fleetingly so. But shouldn’t what I value figure in my account of happiness?

2.) As one gets older and in light of the above, one might come to think, “No, happiness is not about feeling good just now or about feeling good over a longer period of time. Given this, happiness must be about getting what I want.” So desire, or desire-satisfaction, theories spring up. For isn’t a happy life one in which we got pretty much what we wanted? 

Like certain others, I find this one suspect too. Shouldn’t, from the outside, we have reason to care about whether John’s scratching himself all day, provided that it was what John wants to do, is actually leading a happy life? “Well, what if John were more well-informed?” If John were more well-informed, then he might come to discover that the center, or focal point, of happiness is not desire or desires fulfilled or even well-considered desires fulfilled.

In my view, the desire theory feels “adolescent.”

3.) At this point, some serious consideration finally arises, and this comes in the form of objective-list theories. These state that a happy life is one that consists of having a specifiable set of goods like safety, health, wealth, knowledge, or whatever. 

Most students, I trust, will find 3 quite appealing. For one thing, it avoids the objections to naive subjectivity found in the first two: what if your pleasure (e.g., the pleasure gained from shooting up) isn’t worth it, and what if your desires (e.g., the desire to massacre countless people) are totally out of whack? For another thing, it starts to build into its account the sorts of things we may have good reason to care about.

And yet, objective-list theories don’t have any grip on the shape of a life, the coherence or coming together of a life. It’s at this point that my favorite comes in.

4.) Eudaimonist theories (eudaimonia is the noun) state that happiness has something or other to do with the relation between (a) virtue, understood as excellent perhaps across a wide array of activities, and (b) happiness, or flourishing. The key points, well emphasized by Julia Annas in an excellent article called “Happiness as Achievement,” are these: the first is that we care about our life as a whole–that is, we care about the overall shape of our life, of how it all came together, of what it is that provides it with shape and coherence.

The second is that we care about “the achievement” of happiness–that is, about carrying it out or bringing it off. For my part, I don’t just care about the idea we call wisdom. I care about (a) how it shapes my life as a whole, helping thereby to organize my daily activities, and I care about (b) actually carrying out being wiser, actually contributing to making or fashioning a wise life. In this sense, happiness is a life achievement–like a complete, or complete enough, work of art–and not a passing feeling, a desire, a (mental) state), or even a sense of satisfaction with my life. The most basic idea is that I can be said to be leading, or to have led, a happy life just in case my life came together around what was truly worth it all (telos).

Happiness Means What Is Best For Me So Far

Nicholas White’s conclusion in his fine book, A Brief History of Happiness, is too quick. His overview of this history sounds like this:

That idea of the concept of happiness looks as follows. A person has various aims, desires, aspirations, things that he regards as worthwhile, things that he enjoys, and so on. Not knowing how to fit all of these things together into a limited time, or how to see them as compatible with each other, or to be sure which of them he should pursue at all or how much, he asks what it is to be happy. He asks this because he expects the answer to guide him in ealing with his various aims, etc. He thinks that it will show him which of them should be retained, and how those that should be retained fit together.

A Brief History of Happiness, p. 162

So far, so clear. Presented with doubts about how to act in this situation owing in key part to the plurality of aims, the agent reasonably asks about how, most generally, to live. The belief is that the general conception of happiness, so understood and so articulated for oneself, will (a) retain what is best or best for me and (b) coordinate or fit what is retained into a coherent shape.

Based on his considerations, White “doubt[s] that we have a single concept of happiness” (p. 164) that can fit the bill, one that would be not only action-guiding but also would supply the asker with “an overall measure” (p. 164) of his condition. Thus, he emphatically concludes, “There is… no general notion of coordination actually used to give us guidance about what to do” (p. 166) in particular or with our lives more generally.

Hmm… My sense is that he’s either running together two different things or else drawing a faulty inference.

Consider the first possibility–namely, that’s he’s running together two different things. If his claim is that there is no single concept, or standard, of happiness, one that is applicable to all human beings, then he has only ruled out what Isaiah Berlin once dubbed monism. Fair enough and, in our time, obvious enough: in an age of pluralism, it will be unpersuasive to most to suggest that one conception of happiness is a “one size fits all.” But here’s the rub: a one size fits all conception of happiness, having been ruled out, doesn’t entail that John or Jane may not have a single conception of happiness that organizes and guides his or her life.

I do. I value Awakening, Wisdom, and Love and believe that I can, in fact, coordinate these basic aims.

The potential inferential error? From the claim that there is no single conception of happiness it seems dubious to conclude that we’re simply left, in situation X, trying to “suss things out” by coordinating our various aims and desires in whatever way appears best to us from that vantage point. Of course, we can do this and often enough do. But must this be our only way of proceeding?

I don’t think so. While–to take an analogy–I don’t believe that there is The One True Diet, I think it’s safe to say that between hopeless, or hapless, Unity and arbitrary plurality there can be secured a “middle path.” I can do my best, based on reasoning and on rigorous empiricism (I try eating various foods out on myself), to come to a way of eating that allows me to (a) articulate and (b) defend a diet that is, so far as I can tell, the best for me, at least to date. And this “best for me, at least to date,” thereby informs and guides what and how I eat and what decisions I make.

Of course, being Socratic, I am open to the ways in which this “best diet for me, at least to date” can be undercut and may need to be modified or revised. Still, it has a certain cogency and coherency in my life.

I don’t see how, when it comes to a more modest yet nonetheless viable concept of happiness, things are in any way noticeably different. When I speak of happiness, in brief, I am articulating a conception that tells me however it is, so far as I can tell, that I am best off. If my conception is robust enough, then it may turn out to be applicable to, or usable by, others as well–but each will need to test and hone it accordingly.