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Lions Roar : March 2018
HOT OFF THE PRESS to build up the ego in just these ways. When someone is depressed or suffers from low self-esteem because he or she has been mistreated, for example, therapy must focus on repairing a bat- tered ego. Similarly, many people have embraced the meditation practices of the East to help build up their self-confidence. Focus and concentration diminish stress and anxiety and help people adapt to challeng- ing home and work envi- ronments. Meditation has found a place in hospitals, on Wall Street, in the armed forces, and in sports arenas, and much of its benefit lies in the ego strength it confers by giv- ing people more control over their minds and bodies. The ego-enhancing aspects of both of these approaches are not to be minimized. But ego enhancement, by itself, can get us only so far. Both Western psychotherapy and Bud- dhism seek to empower the observing “I” over the unbridled “me.” They aim to rebal- ance the ego, diminishing self-centeredness by encouraging self-reflection. They do this in different, although related, ways and with different, although related, visions. For Freud, free association and the analysis of dreams were the primary methods. By having his patients lie prone and stare into space while saying what- ever came to mind, he shifted the usual equilibrium of the ego toward the sub- jective. Although few people lie on the couch anymore, this kind of self-reflec- tion remains one of the most therapeutic aspects of psychotherapy. People learn to make room for themselves, to be with uncomfortable emotional experiences, in a more accepting way. They learn to make sense of their internal conflicts and unconscious motivations, to relax against the strain of the ego’s perfectionism. Buddhism counsels something simi- lar. Although its central premise is that drive us is also capable of a profound and far-reaching development. We have the capacity, as conscious and self-reflecting individu- als, to talk back to the ego. Instead of focusing solely on success in the external world, we can direct our- selves to the internal one. There is much self-esteem to be gained from learning how and when to surrender. While our culture does not generally support the conscious de-escalation of the ego, there are silent advocates for it in our midst. Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapy both hold out hope for a more flexible ego, one that does not pit the individual against everyone else in a futile attempt to gain total surety. These two traditions developed in completely different times and places and, until relatively recently, had nothing to do with each other. But the originators of each tradition—Siddhartha Gautama, a South Asian prince who renounced his luxurious lifestyle to seek an escape from the indignities of old age, illness, and death; and Sigmund Freud, the Viennese doctor whose interpretation of his own dreams set him on a path to illuminate the dark undercurrents of the human psyche—both identified the untram- meled ego as the limiting factor in our well-being. As different as these two individuals were, they came to a virtually identical conclusion. When we let the ego have free rein, we suffer. But when it learns to let go, we are free. Neither Buddhism nor psychotherapy seeks to eradicate the ego. To do so would render us either helpless or psychotic. We need our egos to navigate the world, to regulate our instincts, to exercise our executive function, and to mediate the conflicting demands of self and other. The therapeutic practices of both Bud- dhism and psychotherapy are often used ADVICE NOT GIVEN A Guide To Getting Over Yourself By Mark Epstein, MD Penguin Press; 224 pp. $26.00 (hardcover) LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2018 76