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
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
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.
Author of ‘Inner Harmony through Mindfulness Meditation
Atlanta, August 3, 2015
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