How the Ego Creates Personal & Social Ills

woman holding a mirror

by Kurt Roggendorf, Ph.D.

Disclosure: as a white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, upper-middle class, graduate-school educated, fully-abled person, I speak from that perspective. While my background may not reflect your experience, it is my hope that there is something meaningful here for you based on our shared humanity.

When we look around us in the world, particularly in the United States, there is no shortage of societal ills: racism, sexism, heterosexism, gender discrimination, homo- and trans-phobia, ableism, ageism, and fear of immigrants, to name a few. Addressing these issues at the societal level can be overwhelming for any individual not only because they are deeply entrenched in our governmental and social structures, but also because they are present consciously or unconsciously in our own minds. 

Research has shown that those of us from dominant groups — white, male, heterosexual, etc. — often have strong, ingrained biases against those from marginalized and oppressed groups, biases that we resist acknowledging and addressing. In research on implicit bias, even those who don’t identify with dominant groups have been shown to have unconscious negative attitudes toward their own identities (I suggest reading the book Blindspot by Banaji and Greenwald for a deeper discussion on this matter).

One explanation for oppressive and oppressing dynamics existing in the mind can be found in a recent book The Healthy Mind: Mindfulness, True Self, and the Stream of Consciousness, by Henry Vyner, a psychiatrist, Buddhist practitioner, researcher, and pioneer in developing the science of the stream of consciousness. He wrote: “The ego is a social institution that is embedded within the individual mind.” Vyner arrived at this insight by conducting twenty-seven years of interviews with Tibetan lamas in order to develop empirical measures for the phenomena that occur during meditative practices. One of his findings is that the mind has two modes of operation, an egocentric mode, and an egoless mode. 

The egocentric mode of operating is based on social norms and mores that are mistakenly taken to be the real “I.” This egocentric mindset, which grasps and clings to what appears pleasurable and tries to push away that which is unpleasant, frightening and foreign, operates on social categories such as right and wrong, good and bad. These categories aren’t based on our core being, but on a constructed self-identity that comes from trying to take what we see as “the best” from the social world around us and use it to label ourselves in distinction from others. These labels then lead to reinforcing and defending what “I” see as “my” ego in the vain attempt to reflect a socially-valued persona, or perhaps to rebel against such a persona by choosing ego characteristics that oppose dominant social constructs but are still based on them. Operating from an egocentric viewpoint creates the conditions to rationalize domination, aggression, exclusion, and callousness; internalize oppression, shame, guilt, and worthlessness; and potentially struggle with multiple, conflicting identities and sets of social expectations.

Meditative approaches can help us get to a different mode of being, “out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing” (as Coleman Barthes phrases Rumi). Vyner calls operating at this level “the healthy mind,” and one of my teachers, Loch Kelly, more vibrantly names it “awake awareness.” As Loch and other teachers have noted, awake awareness isn’t something we create, generate or maintain; it is the underlying nature of our existence. From this viewpoint, awake awareness is our ultimate identity, and the ego is society masquerading as us, making it hard to let go of dysfunctional patterns. 

To more effectively address these negative patterns at a social level, we need, as individuals, to address them within ourselves. By educating ourselves to see the dysfunctions in society, locating and acknowledging them within ourselves, and through meditation shifting our sense of self from the ego to our underlying awareness, we can not only release stress and build resilience, but impact the world around us. To close with the words of Mohandas Gandhi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a [person] changes [their] own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards [them]. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”

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Writing to inspire mindfulness, contemplation and wholesome living, by Copper Beech master teachers, students and contributors.

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