This piece by Thanissaro Bhikkhu addresses an issue often encountered in unbalanced approaches to mental development/cultivation. One can hear and read the terminology of psychology or Buddhism and New Age mixed in ways where it becomes unclear what is meant, and by which school of thought – but mixing the words “psychology” and “ego” in the blend seems to lend remote credibility to unrelated statements even if the words are being used to mean different things.
One of the tricky topics is the labeling the “ego” as an enemy or an evil thing to be destroyed through practice. And that conviction according to the author is to be avoided as it would be in fact psychologically detrimental and missing the point.
Find a few relevant passages introducing his point below:
From this perspective, egolessness would be a disaster. A person devoid of ego functions would be self-destructive: either a beast with uncontrolled impulses, or a neurotic, repressed automaton with no mind of her own, or an infantile monster thrashing erratically between these two extremes. Anyone who tried to abandon ego functioning would arrest his psychological growth and lose all hope of becoming a mature, responsible, trustworthy adult. And as we know, self-destructive people don’t destroy only themselves. They can pull down many of the people and places around them.
This is not only the view of trained Western psychologists. Buddhist communities in the West have also begun to recognize this problem and have coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to describe it: the way people try to avoid dealing with the problems of an unintegrated personality by spending all their time in meditation retreats, using the mantra of egolessness to short-circuit the hard work of mastering healthy ego functioning in the daily give and take of their lives.
Then there’s the problem of self-hatred. The Dalai Lama isn’t the only Asian Buddhist teacher surprised at the amount of self-hatred found in the West. Unfortunately, a lot of people with toxic super-egos have embraced the teaching on egolesness as the Buddha’s stamp of approval on the hatred they feel toward themselves.