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​Anxiety, Stress and Suffering

​Redundant is what is in excess; essential is that which is non discretionary. There is no sharp line between essential and redundant, and there are always many things in between that, depending upon who is judging, alternate between inadequate, neutral, or desirable. So it is with human behavior: Between the essential self, that guides our lives on the right path, and the redundant ego, which can take control of our behavior without us even noticing, there are tons of routines and data in a 'working memory', a notion that I have omitted to mention in my notes, aiming at conceptual simplicity.

My omission proved inappropriate. Dr. Luis H. Ripoll, a New York psychiatrist and Professor of Mount Sinai Medical Center, expressed his disagreement with this simplification in a detailed review of one of my recent columns. "I believe it is both impossible to rid oneself of this so-called 'redundant' ego and to live purely from one's 'essential' self", writes Dr. Ripoll. His review makes necessary the reference to the 'neutral' working memory that, in the terminology of the subject, I was originally reluctant to use. (Click here --> to see Dr. Ripoll's review​. Please go to the bottom of the linked page.)

This working memory contains all the instructions and data for everyday life that, though useful, are neither essential nor superfluous. Let us clarify this matter a bit with our use of language. The ability to speak and communicate is a crucial function of the essential self; the bad habit of telling lies that some people develop is part of the redundant ego; the languages we speak are in the working memory. The list of what is in this working memory includes general or specific skills, the records of everything we know, our personal history... and a myriad of data and procedures.

The essential self for someone who grows up with her parents would be similar to the one that would act in the same person if they had given her up for adoption when newborn. The working memory and the redundant ego, on the other hand, would contain completely different data, depending on the course that took the life of that person.

​The Buddha denominates mental formations to the conditionings, routines and data we acquire either on purpose or involuntarily. Mental formations can be harmful or wholesome; the harmful mental formations - cravings, aversions and biased views - are the conditionings that make up our redundant ego and we must eliminate. Wholesome mental formations, such as healthy food preferences and favorable habits, which we must preserve, are part of the working memory.

Doctor Ripoll also says rightly that “the ego is not equivalent to the self". The ‘ego’ most often relates to the opinion someone has of him or herself while ‘self’ is the character that makes a person different from other people. The word 'ego' has a connotation of size (as in 'he has enough ego for doing that) and that is why the redundant ego has variable magnitude. The elimination of this redundant ego allows the essential self to take over the direction of our life.

Other thinkers, with no connection with Buddhism, have expressed ideas that suggest the existence in each person of an essential self and a ‘corrupted’ redundant ego, without any reference to such expressions. According to the best known quote by French-Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, "We are good by nature but corrupted by society." In another dissertation the same author writes: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains... He was good by nature

​, but he is damaged by the pernicious influence of society and human institutions." The natural goodness of man may be assimilated to his essential self; the corruption that society adds on him is equivalent to the redundant ego.

​Rousseau is quite pessimistic. At the beginning of his well-known 'Emile, or On Education', notes the philosopher that "Everything degenerates in the hands of man." The Buddha, in contrast, is more optimistic and in the third truth of Buddhism he declares: "With the extinction of cravings, aversions and biased views, that is, with the extinction of the redundant ego, suffering ceases." The Buddha's suffering, in the contemporary world, is best known as anxiety and stress, glitches these that we all want removed from our lives.

Gustavo Estrada
Author of ‘Inner Harmony through Mindfulness Meditation

Atlanta, August 3, 2015


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