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I've never been taught psychology so I'm no expert but modern vocabulary includes the words "denial" (like "in denial") and "ego defence".

  • "Denial" appears in this context for example:

    In psychoanalytic theory, denial is a defense mechanism in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence. The concept of denial is important in twelve-step programs where the abandonment or reversal of denial that substance dependence is problematic forms the basis of the first, fourth, fifth, eighth and tenth steps.

  • Denial is explained (perhaps defined) as a "defence mechanism", of which I think "ego defence" is a synonym.

    In psychoanalytic theory, a defence mechanism (American English: defense mechanism) is an unconscious psychological operation that functions to protect a person from anxiety-producing thoughts and feelings related to internal conflicts and outer stressors.

A lot of questions about "ego" and "self" on this site are related to the definition of .


Is there Buddhist doctrine on the subject of "denial" though?

  • Doctrine which explains why or how it happens (how can it happen if in reality there is no ego to defend)?
  • Perhaps more importantly, how to recognise and overcome the problem if it arises in yourself or someone else?

Note:

  • Denying the existence of the "ego" and claiming that anatta is the only reality might be part of the problem. Do the suttas have something to say about ego? Does Mahayana?
  • Doctrine's saying that "ignorance" and "wrong view" and "clinging" exist is Ok but maybe not very specific/actionable. Or is that hitting the nail on the head, i.e. is "clinging" precisely what people mean nowadays by "ego"?

Here are some Buddhist doctrines that I've heard of, which might be related to "overcoming ego":

  • Generosity (e.g. dana)
  • Doctrine about pity (which I think is to do with implying that someone is inferior)
  • Doctrine about conceit (here and here), though the Bhikkhuni Sutta [AN 4.159] also says that conceit is instrumental

There's also this sutta that "it's not easy to teach the Dhamma to others":

  1. ...
  2. The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, 'I will speak without hurting myself or others.'

Note: According to the Commentary, "hurting oneself" means exalting oneself. "Hurting others" means putting other people down.

Maybe one footnote should be enough as in, "a nod is as good as a wink". But if "denial" and overcoming it are as important as described in the definition above -- i.e. "the basis of the first, fourth, fifth, eighth and tenth steps" -- possibly Buddhism might have said more about it?

Maybe it's in texts that I'm not familiar with -- e.g. "admitting faults" is presumably (important) in the Vinaya; and Andriy uses the word 'ego' frequently in answers, perhaps "ego" is more explicit in Mahayana doctrines.


A related topic might be "urgency":

Saṃvega

Saṃvega is a Buddhist term which indicates a sense of shock, dismay and spiritual urgency to reach liberation and escape the suffering of samsara. According to Thanissaro Bhikku, saṃvega is the "first emotion you're supposed to bring to the training" and [etc.]

...

For saṃvega to be an effective drive to practice, it must be accompanied by another emotion called pasada, a "clarity and serene confidence." Pasada is what keeps saṃvega from turning into nihilistic despair by providing a sense of confidence that there is a way out, namely nibbana.

Because I think that procrastination is another form of defence or denial.

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  • anatta does not mean anatman. Atman is a later Hindu concept Oct 29, 2023 at 10:44
  • I think some people (including alcoholic) might conceal or "deny" ego, as an ego-defence mechanism -- is there, isn't there, Buddhist doctrine on that subject? I see tangential doctrine, e.g. to be harmless and non-threatening.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 29, 2023 at 10:55
  • I suffered a lot in the past -- technically not from my own alcoholism, though it could be said that I enabled it, more than I should have if I had been wiser or less isolated, not that other people did blame me. Not the same suffering now but a memory of what can be involved. I'm not alcoholic, after even a little I feel hung-over the next day (or "feeling like crap" as some people put it), which is rarely worth-while for me. And I'm not doing some training -- isn't it likely that some other people can explain it here better than I can?
    – ChrisW
    Oct 29, 2023 at 11:26
  • MN 58: I would take it out, lord. If I couldn't get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have sympathy for the young boy. -- maybe this comment too.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 29, 2023 at 11:30
  • Also I think it's sensible to ask this kind of question on this site. The doctrine is good, and questions about the theory are good, to understand it, but asking about "practical" problems is on-topic too -- does the Dhamma address this modern-day topic, and what about practice? Or is it only that this modern-day formulation of this problem is ill-stated, creates entities (e.g. "ego") unnecessarily, and is more-or-less irrelevant and useless or misleading, so we'd better focus only on e.g, less ego-centric "factors of enlightenment" etc.?
    – ChrisW
    Oct 29, 2023 at 11:48

4 Answers 4

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Doctrine which explains why or how it happens (how can it happen if in reality there is no ego to defend)?

The above is mixing up the mundane with the supramundane. It is wrong thinking. Only Noble Ones have freedom from the illusion of ego. The alcoholic is not a Noble One. The alcoholic is a puthujjana. Therefore, the notion of "no ego" does not apply to the alcoholic puthujjana.

Perhaps more importantly, how to recognise and overcome the problem if it arises in yourself or someone else?

About 'denial', MN 5 says:

  • There are these four individuals to be found existing in the world.

  • There is the case where a certain individual, being blemished, does not discern as it has come to be that ‘I have an inner blemish.’

  • There is the case where a certain individual, being blemished, discerns as it has come to be that ‘I have an inner blemish.’

  • There is the case where a certain individual, being unblemished, does not discern as it has come to be that ‘I have no inner blemish.’

  • There is the case where a certain individual, being unblemished, discerns as it has come to be that ‘I have no inner blemish.’

  • With regard to that, the individual who, being blemished, doesn’t discern as it has come to be that ‘I have an inner blemish’ is called the inferior man of the two individuals who are blemished. The individual who, being blemished, discerns as it has come to be that ‘I have an inner blemish’ is called the superior man of the two individuals who are blemished.

  • Then again, the individual who, being unblemished, doesn’t discern as it has come to be that ‘I have no inner blemish’ is called the inferior man of the two individuals who are unblemished. The individual who, being unblemished, discerns as it has come to be that ‘I have no inner blemish’ is called the superior man of the two individuals who are unblemished.

Denying the existence of the "ego" and claiming that anatta is the only reality might be part of the problem. Do the suttas have something to say about ego? Does Mahayana?

The above question is irrelevant because all unwholesome action involves the arising of self-view or ego. Not knowing this is to not know Dependent Origination due to taking refuge in Bodhi & Sujato who describe Dependent Origination as biological birth rather than self-identity birth. Buddhadasa made it clear that to not know "jati" refers to ego-birth means not knowing anything about the Buddha's Teaching.

Doctrine's saying that "ignorance" and "wrong view" and "clinging" exist is Ok but maybe not very specific/actionable. Or is that hitting the nail on the head, i.e. is "clinging" precisely what people mean nowadays by "ego"?

"Clinging" is the start of ego. Dependent Origination describes four types of clinging; the fourth being self-doctrine clinging. Clinging is the cause for becoming & becoming is the cause for "birth". "Birth" is the maturation of ego where the mind solidifies the sense of "beings or a being within a class of beings". "Alcoholic" is a class of beings.

The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, 'I will speak without hurting myself or others.' Note: According to the Commentary, "hurting oneself" means exalting oneself. "Hurting others" means putting other people down. Maybe one footnote should be enough as in, "a nod is as good as a wink"

The above appears another type of denial. This said, MN 139 is about Non-Conflict and simply says to make the Dhamma impersonal, such as:

  • And how, bhikkhus, does there come to be neither extolling nor disparaging but teaching only the Dhamma? When one does not say: ‘All those [persons] engaged in the pursuit of the enjoyment of one whose pleasure is linked to sensual desires … have entered upon the wrong way,’ but says instead: ‘The pursuit [of alcohol] is a state beset by suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and it is the wrong way,’ then one teaches only the Dhamma. When one does not say: All those disengaged from the pursuit of the enjoyment of one whose pleasure is linked to sensual desires … have entered upon the right way,’ but says instead: ‘The disengagement is a state without suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and it is the right way,’ then one teaches only the Dhamma.

Maybe it's in texts that I'm not familiar with -- e.g. "admitting faults" is presumably (important) in the Vinaya; and Andriy uses the word 'ego' frequently in answers, perhaps "ego" is more explicit in Mahayana doctrines.

The above appears to be seeking a path of non-ego-conflict & avoidance of self-hatred. The Dhamma generally uses personal pronouns in respect to the admission of faults, as quoted above from MN 5. However, it appears personal pronouns can be avoided & the principles of MN 139 can be adopted. Thus MN 139 is the pure wisdom that: the pursuit of sensual pleasure [alcohol] is low, vulgar, coarse, ignoble and unbeneficial; beset by suffering, vexation, despair and fever.

Because I think that procrastination is another form of defence or denial.

Procrastination is doubt. Doubt is a hindrance & a fetter. Doubt is the opposite of faith. Faith is the first spiritual faculty & power.

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  • Thank you, M 139 is on-topic. So what I might have called, phrasing a statement so as to avoid "causing offence" or maybe "ego-defence", is identified in the Dhamma as avoiding "conflict".
    – ChrisW
    Oct 29, 2023 at 12:22
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To me, denial begins with the question, “Why me?”. I mean it can happen to someone else; an acquaintance, a friend, a relative or even a family member but why me? Is it because I did something wrong? Maybe the world or some divine force is unhappy with me and decided to punish me. There is a thousand and one possible reasons and the neurotic mind offers another million more.

Then there is the anger, frustration and bitterness. This is followed by a desperate search for a solution...anything to hold on to and provide comfort (a drink perhaps?).

Surprisingly, the thing that eventually helps to provide a semblance of calm and peace is an acceptance of the reality. Accepting that there is nothing special about me (or you). Since the day we were came to this world, no one had said that bad things (be it the loss of a job, a relationship, a loved one, health and so on) would never happen to us. Now, they finally did...just like what the Buddha said. That is when we understood what anatta and anicca meant. Like what a wise monk (was it Ajahn Chah?) once said, “the heart understood what the mind could not”.

We can be taught all the concepts there is to learn; anicca, anatta and dukkha but we don’t understand them until we tasted them through our hurt, pain and anguish.

To understand what is ego, self or atta. Look within ourselves. Look for something special, a quality, characteristic or trait that was there since the day we were born...in fact it doesn’t even have to be unique; just something that will minimally protect us and provide some assurance against the world and its harsh reality. There is none. But don’t let me convince you; try it yourselves and let me know if you find anything.

Deep down, we all want to defend our ego/self/atta but the irony is, it never defended us during the times of our deepest crises. All it ever did was to deny, get angry, drown in sorrow, thrash about and grasp at anything (in the hope that it will make the situation better) and all the while sinking deeper. Again, don’t let me convince you. The next time it hurts, just ask your ego, self, atta or whatever, “Hey, I need some help here. Where are you?”

Pity, it’s not complicated. Just shout at reality, “I am not asking for a break, just some sympathies!”. And you will know instantly its problem.

So, you learn to go the other way. Follow what the heart teaches instead of listening to the mind. Strangely, the more we listen to the heart, the quieter and calmer the mind becomes. With Metta.

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  • Ah yes, I once saw "denial" and "why me?" listed as initial/consecutive stages of "five stages of grief".
    – ChrisW
    Oct 29, 2023 at 14:43
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Denial is explained (perhaps defined) as a "defence mechanism", of which I think "ego defence" is a synonym.

This confuses the matter. Denial in colloquial english just means "the action of declaring something to be untrue." or "a statement that something is not true." In your usage it means denial/refusal/avoidance to admit a known truth.

The interesting part of your question is why - or the cause - someone might engage in denial and that is where the western notion of 'ego defense' comes in. I don't think it is necessary to invoke doctrines of anatta to explain this. This psychological denial can be thought of as nothing more than a - not very effective - pain response. The docrine of anatta or emptiness doesn't need to be invoked to understand pain response.

Here is a good dharma teaching on the western concept of denial and includes a quote from the 7th Dalai Lama from his Gems of Wisdom:

What deadly sword cuts off all branches of creative activity?

The sword of denial that does not face the reality of what is.

One of the biggest things that many try and avoid at all costs despite knowing absolutely full well that it is coming is the truth of our own death. Many avoid thinking about, contemplating, or even acknowledging the fact of our own deaths in any way we can. Here is a great dharma talk on this topic.

I'd also note that in some readings of Minds and Mental Factors the third item of the 22 secondary maledictions can be translated as 'concealment' or 'denial.'

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  • I meant "ego defence" is a synonym of "defence mechanism", not of "denial". Denial is said to be one of the defence mechanisms.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 29, 2023 at 18:30
  • Thank you for the reference[s].
    – ChrisW
    Oct 29, 2023 at 18:42
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Buddha never said there is no self, neither he said that there is a self. He said Sabbe sankhara Anicca, Sabbe sankhara dukha and Sabbe Dhamma Anatta. Meaning of sankhara and Dhamma must be understood. sankhara means all conditioned phenomena… Dhamma means all conditioned phenomena and unconditioned phenomena. He did not say, Sabbe Dhamma Annicca or Sabbe Dhamma Dukha. Nibbana is neither permanent nor impermanent. Nibbana is unborn , unoriginated, uncreated and unbecoming. It is the escape from originated , born , created and becoming. There is neither acceptance nor denial.

Because we are dealing with an uncomfortable situation , a denial may occur , however true may the situation be. That’s cowardice. Not acknowledging what is , not acknowledging that it is impermanent, not acknowledging that therefore it has no self is cowardice or ignorance. Take for example drug abuse- drug abuse may give momentary relief and we understand it’s Dhamma as “ If you take this drug you will feel ecstatic “ . As the aforementioned Dhamma lacks self , the statement is not true for forever for various reasons. Your body may loose ability to digest the drug. Drug can start having opposite effect on mind etc etc… Denying the Dhamma of drug is ignorance or cowardice. A rational mind will not seek dependence on things or laws or principles which lacks self , instead he will renunciate it , not by denying it but by understanding that it lacks self. We acknowledge what is as what is and are mentally prepared for what it will get reduced to because it is impermanent and therefore we experience dispassion and revulsion towards it. That is not irrational denial but a rational understanding of the Dhamma.

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