One of the main teachings of Zen Buddhism, and a teaching that many people tend to get stuck, is the teaching about no-self. Sometimes we hear this idea described as “selflessness” or “egolessness.” It freaks some people out
because they immediately think that they are going to have to give up their “self," meaning their personality, their sense of "who they are," and become some kind of Zen robot.
Hopefully, a teacher calmly explains that no, you don’t become personality-less. When Buddhists refer to “no-self” or “selflessness” or “egolessness” it means that we believe there is no permanent self. Nothing is permanent, even “we” are impermanent. We are not the same person we were when we were five, or twenty, right? This leads to a second freak out and many debates on Zen forums about the existence or nonexistence of a soul. No one has an answer to that question. None of us know, and if anyone says they do…run. You are free here to believe in a soul, or not. One thing is irrefutable though. Everything changes.
The word "egolessness" to no-one's surprise, means “without an ego.” Without an ego? The ego is a really important part of who we are!
The American Psychological Association states that the main functions of the Ego:
Determines our perception of the external world,
Develops our self-awareness,
Helps us problem solve
It controls our adaptation to reality
Helps us with reconciliation of conflicting impulses and ideas
Regulates our affect - or how we present to the world
These are very important functions.
Also, there is a part of the brain called the Amygdala. It’s a small almond-shaped portion of the lobe located deep within the brain:
According to The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer reviewed journal of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the function of the amygdala is:
To store memories, particularly emotional memories
Helps us process and respond to threats and fear
So, when something happens, and we feel hooked, or threatened, the amygdala is involved, we get hooked and the ego helps determine our reaction to the hook.
The ego is behind flipping someone off in traffic.
Feeling like your opinion is the “right” and only one? Ego.
Lying to protect yourself? Ego.
Judging someone or a group of people? Ego.
Judging a situation or circumstance? Ego.
The Ego also protects us from the fear of death and What Comes Next
The Ego informs the “me” to believe " I "am separate from everyone else.
Our ego drives our sense of who we are.
Most of everything that comes from the Three Poisons (greed, hate and delusion) comes from the Ego running amok.
Buddhism asks us to lay our Ego down. During Zazen, our practice is to meet life as it truly is in that moment. In order to do that, we have to lay down our ego - our biases, our self-righteousness, our reactiveness. We sit in silence as thoughts and feelings come up. Some good, some not so good. We breathe, and breathe again, experiencing and releasing what is. If we’re brave enough to stay with this - if we can hold our seat even when we want to run (that’s ego), even when we think that this Zazen thing is crazy (that’s ego), even when we think we’re thinking too much (that’s ego), even when we don’t see “change” (that’s ego). If we can keep sitting with the fear, and the anger, and the anxiety, with all of it, We eventually come to the reality that thoughts are just thoughts/ Feelings and emotions pass because nothing is permanent.
One of the most important reasons we practice like this is that it is a training ground for our everyday life. On the cushion. we take our ego off, fold it up and lay it down. We find that without it, something changes, something opens up. When we can lay our ego down, when we can drop our “rightness,” our “deservedness,” our jealousy and our anxiety and anger, we might be able to see that what is behind much of our reactions comes from fear.
We’re afraid we won’t be heard - so we get loud.
We’re afraid that the guy who cut us off in traffic almost caused an accident - our knee jerk reaction is to flip them off.
We think or say something like, “Could this cashier go ANY slower?”
We judge people by the way they look, or the way they talk among other things
The Ego is driving the bus.
When we practice laying our ego down, parking it for just a bit, we feel a release, an expansiveness, a boundlessness. We find that in letting go of our need to be right, our need to be powerful, our need to be seen, there is…peace. That is liberation.
All those needs and all those reactions cause suffering. With practice and laying down the ego for just a bit, we experience the spaciousness of non-suffering. We realize we’re not so different from everyone else. We really realize that our reactions can cause suffering for ourselves and others.
We realize there is a different way.
With more practice, we can jump the grooves of our habitual behaviors and reactions. Like a record needle, we can jump out of the groove that keeps us skipping back to repeat the old stuff over and over again. We can pop ourselves out of that groove to a place that’s even and smooth. If a scratch occurs, (i.e. when we hit the bumps and rough spots in life) we’ll be able to recognize these situations and our thought processes for what they are and act from a different place because we’ve learned to lay our ego down.
Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck wrote, “The minute we have even a passing thought of judging another person, the red light of practice should go on.”
My version is: “The minute we have even a passing thought of judging ourselves, others, or a situation, check your ego. Take it off. Fold it up and set it down right there, right next to you for a second, and Practice.”
Everything changes. We change. Nothing is permanent. Everything is impermanent. We live. We die. While we are here, it’s helpful for us to know that the “me” that is “me” is ego-driven. Buddhism asks us to lay the ego down, lay down the ideas of an “I” “me” and “mine” for just a bit so that we can experience the boundlessness of reality as it is.
May we each be a blessing
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