In spite of my skepticism, I still needed to investigate that joyous spaciousness Buddhism promises, “our most fundamental state of mind, before the creation of ego.”
So I began practicing Vipassana meditation. This is a practice of “bare attention” or “simple awareness”—just noticing what goes through the mind, without pursuing it, reacting to it or evaluating it. (If those happen, you just give them bare attention.) Compassion, however, is indispensible.
(Vipassana is also called “insight meditation” because its aim is insight into how the mind works, in contrast to forms of meditation which aim to induce an altered state of consciousness.)
My practice was not very regular. I attended no retreats or training sessions or formal classes with authoritative teachers. It was just me and my curiosity: what is going on in my mind? As Charlotte Joko Beck says, “ ‘What is all this thinking?’ ‘What is it that I do?’ … ‘How does it happen that I am constantly thinking about this instead of that?’ ”1 The playful child in me was delighted to find it was okay to pay attention to myself.
Then one day I was arguing with my husband. He was yelling at me, and I was feeling my habitual urge to shrink into the floor.
Your criticism is unfair, nasty and cruel; your manner is bullying. You shouldn’t do this to me; I can’t take it; it’s not fair. This is verbal abuse, emotional abuse; I’m already damaged, I can’t handle this; you’re a sadist. This is unbearable, I hate this, I don’t have to take this, I want to get out of here….
In the midde of this I suddenly realized that I was thinking that I was hurt and scared. It was something my mind was doing. I thought of myself as a victim. But that didn’t mean I was a victim, it was just a habitual thought.
I could step back from that thought, apply Vipassana attention to what my mind was doing in the argument. And as I watched myself think those habitual thoughts, I felt a great freedom from them. I still felt hurt, scared and timid — and it was really hard to feel that. I wanted to blame Jesse. It must be his fault. But instead I just watched myself feel those feelings, think those thoughts.
“Negative ego” instead of “weak ego”
I saw how this elaborate system of defenses I had built up was ego, from the Buddhist perspective. A negative, self-defeating kind of ego, but just as much an illusion and a burden as the self-promoting kind.
Rita Gross explains:
from the Buddhist point of view, someone who is intensely co-dependent and someone who is intensely macho or sef-aggrandizing suffer equally from ego. Ego…is any style of habitual patterns and responses that clouds over the clarity and openness of basic human nature. Self-effacement is just a style of ego different from self-aggrandizement, but both equally cause suffering to self and others. “Ego” names the defence mechanisms, projections, and other tactics habitually used to cope with and ward off direct experience. All ordinary people have some ego-style, some style of grasping and fixation. The amount of ego really isn’t quantifiable; someone who is forceful doesn’t have ‘more ego’ than someone who is shy and retiring.2
Self-deprecating mental habits are the reverse of self-aggrandizing ones — but equally ego.
Seeing through the illusion
When I identified with the image of myself as weak, sick, codependent….(you name it), I was not only contributing to, but even being my own cage. When I could step back (ever so slightly!) and watch it happen, it no longer comprised all of me. There was something else happening too. My habitual victim self-concept suddenly did seem empty of the reality I had seen in it a moment before. I had learned to dematerialize the cage.
The freedom of getting behind/under/beyond all that identification was the first thing in my whole life that finally gave me an authentic feeling of self-confidence. I can’t say strongly enough how big a change this was for me.
1 Beck, Nothing Special, 1993, 193.
2 Gross, 1993, 162.