VOLITION and Allied Causal Concepts
Chapter11.COMPLICATIONS OF INFLUENCE
An apparent issue relative to freedom of the will is the force of habits, good or bad. If we have freewill, how come we have habits that are sometimes so very hard to break? Some habits once acquired remain with us all our life, becoming (what Aristotle has called) ‘second nature’ to us. Bad habits, like (for instance) smoking tobacco, are often seemingly more easily acquired and difficult to shake off than good habits, like (for instance) keeping one’s home clean and in order.
We can define as ahabitany volitional type of behavior (response to stimulus), whichdue to its repeated performance in the pasthas become easier to do or more difficult to abstain from doing. The force of habit is, then (in our view), that ofinfluenceon volition, but this influence is special in that it is acquired and strengthened by repetition. The more often and thoughtlessly we allow ourselves to do something stupid (or not-do something intelligent), the more likely are we to do (or not-do) the same again. The more often and thoughtfully we encourage ourselves to do something intelligent (or not-do something stupid), the more likely are we to do (or not-do) the same again.
Habits appear to be due to the phenomenon ofreinforcement. It seems to be a law of the psyche thatevery volitional act increases the ease for a similar response in similar circumstances. Thus, a prior volition influences a later volition, for good or bad. Underlying habit formation is a snowball effect.
Thus, Every time one takes up a challenge, it becomes easier to take it up again the next time it is presented; inversely, the more often one demurs, the less likely does taking up the challenge become. Every time one gives in to a temptation, it becomes easier to yield to it again the next time around; inversely, the more often one resists, the less likely is it to overwhelm us. Note that these two formulas are two sides of the same coin.
This law details more precisely how habits are formed: every strong act (taking up a challenge or resisting a temptation) produces an influence for the next opportunity, making it a bit easier; every weak act (failing to take up a challenge or giving in to a temptation) produces an counter-influence for the next opportunity, making it that much more difficult. The exact measure of influence is not specified here, but it is never infinite – i.e. it never makes freewill impossible thenceforth.
The process of habit forming or habituation consists in repeatedly responding in a certain way to a certain kind of stimulus. Thus, the habitual or customary is a quasi-automatic reaction or routine that we have more or less voluntarily instituted over time, for good or bad. We acquire a ‘default’ behavior pattern, which can only be broken by a willful de-programming or a corrective program. Thus, for instance, repeated laziness can only be overcome by repeated energetic behavior.
We should mention, incidentally, the role of repetition inlearning. Not all learning is based on repetition; most depends on trial and error and other methods. But once a decision is made (by or for the learner) to memorize certain ready-made information or skills, this is often achieved by repetition. One may, for instances, memorize a prayer or some martial arts movements. This form of learning applies to animals as well as humans; for example, a lion cub may repeatedly imitate its parents’ hunting techniques.
We may distinguish between a habit ofactivityand a habit ofpassivity. In the former case, some positive will is involved in the behavior pattern concerned; for example, saying ‘good morning’ to people one meets. In the latter case, the habit consists in not-willing something that might have been willed in a given circumstance, so much so that the stimulus may be ignored; for example, one may get used to a noise and cease trying to smother it or escape it, and even stop noticing it.
Habits we approve of do not normally constitute a problem, though we may conceive situations where we desire to at least conceal them. It is habits we evaluate as self-destructive in some way that we wish to avoid. The best way to avoid bad habits is to steer clear of temptations, while the forces involved are still at a manageable level. Once habits are acquired, their influence may be so intense that punctual effort may not suffice to free ourselves of them; a certain course may then be called for, involving effort great enough over time to overcome the undesirable tendencies. The additional effort required may be just to remember that one has a habit to resist, or much more conscious planning, resolve and perseverance may be called for. A new, counter-habit may have to be instituted.
2.Obsessions and compulsions
If we advocate freewill, we have also to give a convincing account of the obsessions and compulsions that most people experience to some degree at some time in their lives.Obsessionrefers to any persistent or recurring thought or emotion, especially an unwanted one, which cannot be stopped at will.Compulsionrefers to a seemingly irresistible impulse or urge to act in a certain way, especially an undesirable way.
Common examples of obsession: a man may have the image of a woman he is infatuated with displayed in his mind for hours at a time; or a woman may for days mentally replay a painful conversation she had with her boss at work; or a man may spend his life trying to ‘prove’ himself to someone long since dead who made a wounding critical remark once that keeps echoing in his ears.
Common examples of compulsion: a student may periodically drop whatever he is doing and masturbate, although seeing the self-destructive effects of his impulses he keeps promising himself to take control; or a wife cannot stop herself chattering to her husband all the time, even while knowing he dislikes it and it drives him further and further away from her; or a manager cannot help it, but he just loves manipulating and torturing his employees.
Many psychological theories have been built around such apparently involuntary events in our inner and outer life. Some are optimistic, believing that humans can overcome their weaknesses and improve themselves. Others are pessimistic, considering people as mostly sorry puppets in a show they did not write but only at best watch. It is significant that the former theories tend to encourage us to rise to the challenge, whereas the latter tend to promote our resignation. The former facilitate virtue; the latter, vice. For this reason, the issues must be dealt with.
Even when one sits and meditates, one is often completely submerged by ongoing thoughts – significant or insignificant mental images, meaningful sounds (words) and meaningless ones (e.g. a musical tune) – and even sometimes by the perception of bodily sensations and emotions, which may cause voluntary motor responses (e.g. fidgeting, scratching or getting up). One may have recently had an exciting experience, positive or negative, which stirs one up, churning one’s mind and body, in reminiscence or anticipation.
Now, one’s self or soul may try and recover control of the situation, wishing to find peace of mind, serenity, equanimity. One tries and tries, without success. Sometimes, one is so caught up that one even forgets to try! One is drawn in, sucked into the maelstrom. Occasionally, one becomes momentarily conscious of the situation, and valiantly tries for a moment to apply some voluntary meditation technique like breath awareness or stopping thoughts, or even just making one’s agitation itself the object of meditation. But one cannot sustain it; a moment later, one’s attention is carried away by the strong currents of thought, like a leaf in a turbulent river.
Where is freewill in such cases, one may well wonder? Though the thoughts, emotions and movements involved are to some extent involuntary, in the sense of coming from the body, they are also surely to some degree produced by the self, with some measure of volition. Regarding the involuntary portion, we can compare the situation to that of a man tied to a chair and forced to hear an audio tape or see a video movie; even if this is against his will, he retains freewill but cannot exercise it. But, regarding the voluntary portion,how can the self act against its own will?
One might propose as an explanation of obsessions and compulsions that the soul is self-divisible, i.e. that it may split itself up intoconflicting parts. What is voluntary to one fraction is involuntary to the other. One compartment may hide things from another. One part may make demands on the other, and be obeyed or ignored. And so forth. The splitting of soul would have to be regarded as an initially voluntary act or series of acts; these however could not be undone at will, but require a certain amount of voluntary inner work to reverse.
And I think that this proposition, that the soul may function at cross-purposes with itself, is largely assumed. It may sometimes be healthy. For instance, one’s “moral conscience” may be considered as a reserved portion (of varying size!) of the soul, assigned by oneself with the permanent task of overseeing the remainder of one’s soul, judging its actions and shouting foul when they deviate from certain norms. Often, it is pathological. Some people seem to have deep chasms in their inner personality, which may last a lifetime and severely damage all their behavior.
This notion of compartmentalization could explain why meditators call the achievement of inner peace ‘Samadhi’, which I gather means ‘integration’ in Sanskrit, i.e. (in the present interpretation) unification of the soul. But, while I readily concede that the idea of soul division may be a useful metaphor, I would not grant it as literal truth that easily. We must first try to explain the data at hand in less assuming ways.
To understand the aetiology of obsessions and compulsions, in a manner consistent with freewill and without making any too radical additional assumptions, we have to examine such processes in more detail.
With regard to obsession, our above theory of freewill does not exclude that the brain may bombard the subject (cognizing soul) with manifold impressions. We have not suggested that all information used in volition has to be called forth voluntarily, but have at the outset recognized the mental domain as an intermediary between the physical and spiritual domains, such that the nervous system may provide the subject with uncalled-for data to consider (which may be relevant or irrelevant to will – it is up to the subject to judge). That the soul does not always have the powerto stopsuch involuntary input at will does not therefore put freewill in doubt.
The uncontrollable arrival of data for cognition is not per se the problem of obsession, since volition is not involved in it. Whatisobsessive, and needs explanation, is when the soulto some extent voluntarilyinvites or sustains thoughts or consequent emotions,even while wishing to stop doing it or pretending not to be doing it willingly. In such cases, volition is in fact involved in the apparition of cognitive data. In such cases, the problem of obsession is really a problem of compulsion. For this reason, we are justified in lumping both problems together as here, and treating them as one. The underlying cause of the one is the same as that of the other.
Let us therefore turn our attention to compulsive behavior: what is its nature, cause and cure? Consider for simplicity’s sake some examples from my own meditations:
- One day, I notice I am very talkative, constantly commenting on everything around me, and verbally directing almost everything I do. Why such verbosity? In my case, it is perhaps due to being a writer of philosophy, who has to express things in words. This turns into a habit hard to shake off. Linguistic rehearsal is also involved, preparing phrases for writing. Or again, perhaps I am unconsciously trying to communicate with someone by telepathy.
- Another day, I notice I am planning a great deal. Not just planning ahead for somethingabout tohappen, which needs immediate choices and decisions; but planningfurther ahead, for things that will happen a few hours, days, weeks, months or years from now, as if I will be unable to make the appropriate choices and decisions at that time (although I will in fact have more precise data at hand then). And worse still, not just planning for what isprogrammed tohappen (for example, I must contractually leave my apartment in a few months); but even planning for whatmight possiblyhappen, even if improbably (for example, what I would do if I was on an airplane hijacked by terrorists, as in the TV movie I just saw). Why such orgy of planning, beyond all rational utility?
- On yet another day, I am fully absorbed by thoughts of petty conflicts I currently experience with people. This person said something that vexed me; the memory keeps returning and I consider the event from all possible angles: I wonder how I should respond, or debate if I should respond; I perhaps consider different scenarios, with responses and counter-responses. By association of ideas, I then move on to some other person, who I remember behaved in a similar fashion. I wonder what motivates such people, why they so lack ordinary decency or civility, where their moral or social education failed. Thus, my mind remains focused for long periods on events irrelevant to my present attempt to meditate – why?
Thankfully, my meditations are not always that troubled and confused; and when they are, my mind does eventually calm down. Also, compulsions are not always undesirable; for example, the compulsion to solve an intellectual problem is valuable at the right time and place. But the issue here is: what is the common character of such busyness, why is one unable to simply turn it off, how is compulsion of this sort compatible with claims to freedom of the will? The answer it seems to me is with reference to:wanting(here using the term in a specialized sense) – which implies lacking something, a negative condition, whether one positively wants something or instead wants to avoid or evade something.
I may want to remind myself to say or do something; so, I keep repeating it mentally until I can act it out physically. I may have missed an opportunity, which does not present itself again (soon enough, if ever). I may know I will never in fact (at least, not so long as I am sitting in meditation!) get the chance to respond to some past event; so I am condemned to react to it in imagination, again and again. I may be tortured by an unanswered question, or some forgotten item of memory; so, I keep searching for an answer.
In all such cases, there is a ‘hole’ needing to be ‘filled’, an issue to resolve, a problem to solve, a task to be performed, some unfinished business to attend to. The situation is so constructed as to keep one ‘suspended’, almost powerless to untie oneself in the present context. Thus, what drives volition in such cases, is not a positive force, but rather something negative, a lack – a want.
If we now turn our attention to compulsive behavior on a more physical plane, we can discern a similar pattern. Volition is here too driven indirectly by negatives, rather than directly by positives. It is sucked in, rather than driven. That is what makes compulsions particularly insidious: they are not due to the presence of some temptation or obstacle, but to the absence of something. In ordinary desire or aversion, the object is relatively manifest and identifiable; in the ‘wanting’ involved in obsession or compulsion, the object is more concealed or deeply buried. Being absent, that thing is necessarily difficult to spot and be dealt with. There is a black hole, perceivable only by its effects. Thus, to overcome a compulsion, it is imperative we uncover the hidden term in the equation.
Consider, for instance,drug addiction. A voluntary act is always involved, such as reaching out for a glass of liquor, or lighting a cigarette or joint, or using a needle, for instances. Such an act is usually preceded by a mental rehearsing of the act: one imagines oneself doing the act and enjoying its sequels. Perhaps a foretaste of things to come is feasible, like getting a whiff of smoke. One first mentally toys with the idea – then physically executes it.
The drug addict thinks or claims the drug will provide relief from physical, mental or ‘existential’ suffering. The drug is not intended or expected to cure anything, but only as ‘compensation’. The alleged suffering may take the form of insufficiency of pleasure or excessive pain. The relief the drug offers takes the form of an escape from suffering; the drug does not abolish the suffering, but only momentarily conceals it. For this reason, the drug is bound to be objectively harmful in some way over time; for if the suffering used as a pretext is objective, it remains untreated. The drug may additionally introduce its own physical, psychological or social damage in the equation; the addict may develop health, emotional and/or social difficulties. Because of its ineffectiveness or counter-effectiveness, the drug’s use tends to excess. After some time, the drug’s effects thus come to ‘justify’ its use: a vicious circle is created.
The compulsion to resort to the drug is thus more than a mere habit based on repetition. There is an initial argumentum, which gives the addict a pretext; this may be false and misleading. The addict considers himself or herself as being disadvantaged in some way (emotionally, socially, whatever), and proposes to make up for such deficiency by means of the drug. Real problems, existing before the drug-addiction, are ignored; and real problems, due to the drug or the addiction, are produced; the latter also remaining unsolved. To free himself or herself from the addiction, the addict cannot merely make an effort of will at the time of the compulsive urge, but must first intellectually unravel the convolutions involved and then stay aware of them. Then only can willpower (“just say no!”) do its blessed work over time.
The existence of compulsive behavior need not therefore be considered as putting freewill in doubt. Volition is indeed influenced, here as in all cases; but that which is really doing the influencing is relatively concealed. For this reason, it is particularly difficult for simple volition to overcome compulsive influences; often, mere strength of will does not do the job: what is needed is awareness and cunning.
The agent must first realize and admit he is entangled in some knot, then make the effort to unravel it. This means identifying the unresolved issue, the quandary, the missing link, behind the compulsion; and neutralizing it, somehow. Mere revelation may well suffice in some instances – just seeing the absurdity or circularity of the compulsion dissolves it. In most cases, some priority must be set: i.e.some illusory or lesser value must be abandoned in favor of some real or greater value. If the dog lets go the bone, it can pick up the steak. Often, more long-term work on oneself is required, which may include theoretical studies, detailed observation, analysis and modification of one’s patterns of thinking and doing, and (in my view, most important and effective) meditation.
Another example we can give, that is relevant to current social mores, is the psychology ofsexual hedonism; this is very similar to drug addiction.
The facts of human nature, which everyone can verify by extrapolation from their own experience (though saying this is not an invitation to ‘experiment’ with such matters), are the following. Given free rein, the senses ultimately make no distinction regarding age, gender or species or any other issue of causation; all they care about is getting more pleasure and less pain. The senses devoid of rational guidance are only concerned with quality and intensity of sensations, without regard as to their sources or their consequences.
People who imagine that happiness is to be found in sensual experience pursue the latter relentlessly. After a while, they become more and more blasé to such experiences, and start looking for new experiences. The sensitivity of their sense organs having been diminished by repetition and excessive friction, they desperately yearn for novelty that arouses other sensory receptors or the same receptors in other ways. They thus sink deeper and deeper into more and more depraved sexuality, in a sort of mad desperation.
The result is not happiness, but self-contempt and self-defeat (not to mention damage caused to others, used as tools or accidentally affected).
Desire is not proof of need; people can and do desire things that cause them (and others) much harm. People often use their reason to find pretexts for their sensuality, to rationalize it – but in such case, reason is subservient to emotion. To be free of sensuality, one must admit the independence and supremacy of reason over it.
Note also, concerning sexual orientation: in general, spiritually pure people find impurity repulsive, whereas the impure feel at home in the midst of it. The impure find the pure attractive, but only as an opportunity to spread impurity, only in order to soil the pure. The impure are most attracted by the equally impure, to express their impurity; or by the more impure, to increase in impurity. As impurity spreads in a society, tolerance for it proportionately increases; by and by, impurity becomes more demanding and aggressive.
3.The ego abhors a vacuum
It is interesting, finally, to compare our above conclusion concerning ‘wanting’ as the driver of obsessions and compulsions, and the Buddhist principle that ‘desire’ is at the root of all human action (creating karma and thence further ‘desire’, in a seemingly endless cycle). We have earlier seen that volition usually has some goal (perhaps always so, if we discount apparent whims, granting them to have ends of sorts). In the present context, we have noted that sometimes the purpose involved in volition is particularly perverse because misleadingly eclipsed.
A very perspicacious observation of Buddhist psychology, which explains a lot in the present context, is thatthe ego is constantly seeking stimulating experiences so as to reassert its existence and identity. This is the basic ‘selfishness’ or ‘egoism’, and ‘vanity’ or ‘egotism’, of the ego or false self. By the ‘ego’, we may understand the (partly or even largely erroneous) self-image of the soul. It is a mental projection, a set of notions and suppositions about itself, which the soul confuses with itself. The self-as-ego always needs buttressing one way or another. We may put it as: ‘the ego abhors a vacuum’.
As I have explained in myPhenomenology, the ‘ego’ consists of aspects of one’s body, mind and soul – some correctly experienced or inferred, some wrongly assumed, some fancifully projected – to which one (i.e. one’s soul – the cognizing, willing, evaluating self) attaches to as one’s very ‘self’. It is a partly true, partly false self-image, weaved selectively and with fictional embellishments, to which one clings tenaciously in the belief that its loss or damage would be unbearable.
Being a cognitive construct of the soul (and not itself a soul), the ego hasno will of its own(even though we sometimes speak of it as if it did).It is not a separate entity competing with the self – although we often present it as such, because that is a convenient image, a useful figure of speech. Every supposed voluntary action of the ‘ego’ is an act of the soul or self, for which the latter remains fully responsible.Nevertheless,the ego-constructstronglyinfluencesmost thoughts and deeds of the soul, sometimes for the good, often for the bad, acting like a veil to knowledge and an obstacle to volition, in the way of a filter.
Bodily sensations and sentiments are major constituents of the ego, which have a particularly powerful influence on identity and behavior, due to their enormous and insistent presence. But many other factors come into play, too, such as ongoing mental chatter.
A common affliction today (in men as well as women) is repeated gazing at one’s image in the mirror. This is not just amusing narcissism, but an expression of the ego’s deep insecurity and need for confirmation of existence and identity, as well as a preparation for social projection.
A similar affliction is looking at photos or films of oneself, and showing them to other people.
Our ego is also ‘relative’ to other people, in that we project some of it (usually the more flattering aspects, though often also aspects that may excite pity and charity) to them as our social persona (partly as cunning construct and partly incidentally or accidentally). To the extent that one manages to convince others of the personality projected – through one’s words and deeds, as well as physical appearance – one reinforces one’s own conviction in the said self-image.
Although ego building is possible in isolation from other people, it is (for good or bad) made easier in many respects in social contexts. The reason is that other people only know the individual through some phenomenal factors, whereas the individual also has intuitive (non-phenomenal) knowledge of self. With other people, we can selectively ‘show and tell’; also, they linger on the past, instead of letting it stay in the past, since the image of us they memorize is accumulative and rather rigid.
The ego is essentiallyrestless and insecure. It prefers pleasant experiences; but if such are unavailable, it will just as well seek painful ones rather than none at all. Fearing to face its own vacuity, it will seek sensations, thoughts, distractions and possibilities of self-identification (e.g. listen to heavy metal music on the radio or watch a scary movie on TV, or just go to sleep and dream, or play games with someone). It will invent artificial intellectual problems, so as to have something to think about and express itself through. It will create psychological, existential or social problems for itself, so as to have something to respond to and a role to play. That is, our problems are often not accidental, or even incidental, to our pursuits, but their very purpose.
In particular, the ego’s need for stimuli helps explain why man is such a social animal. Of course, humans do objectively need each other: for common survival, for procreation, to bring up children. People care for each other, support and help each other, work together for the common good, enrich each other culturally. But modern novelists, journalists and psychologists have come to promote a great emotional dependence in people (which paradoxically breaks down human relations in the long run, because it is misguiding). To correct this erroneous tendency, by showing up the subjectivity of many social bonds, is not ‘cynicism’, but lucidity and compassion.
Most people quickly feel lonely if they are alone. Although the said hunger for stimulation can be satisfied without resort to company (especially as one matures), the easiest way to satisfy it is through human exchanges. The advantage here is precisely the maximum give and take involved. One gets sensory input, and one has respondents in front of whom to project a social persona. One acts, one gets feedback, one reacts – one is almost never ‘bored’. With a companion – a family member, a friend, a lover, a colleague, even an enemy if need be – one is always kept busy and entertained. One prefers a nice, loving relationship; but one might settle for an argument or a fight, or just a walk in a crowded shopping center. If a human companion is unavailable, a pet will do.
The motivation behind our constant grasping and clinging after objects of desire may be nothing more than a frantic, desperate attempt by the non-existent ego (i.e. to be precise, the self confusing itself with this imagined entity)to assert itselfthrough stimulants and ‘ego games’. This would be (according to the said thesis) the mother of all compulsions, whether bad or good. Therefore, if we managed to abandon our delusive self-identification with this illusory self, we would be freed of all compulsions.
A further explanation given by Buddhism is that “existence is suffering”. The ego necessarily gives rise to suffering – being finite, it is inevitably subject to repeated vexation, frustration, pain, fear, anger, hatred, despair, boredom, and so forth, whether due to the presence of objects of aversion or to the absence of objects of desire. This suffering is expressed emotionally, as a sort of background noise of negative feeling, underlying to some extent all one’s experiences, even those that superficially appear positive. This negative substratum, of which we are sometimes acutely conscious and sometimes only vaguely aware, stronglyinfluencesour behavior, causing us to think and act non-stop, often in deviant ways (such as drug taking), in a blind and hopeless attempt to rid ourselves of the inexplicable unpleasant feeling.
The Buddhist principle of desire is thus very general: it refers to a sort of gluingof the self to all objects of cognition and volition, called attachment or variously desire, grasping, clinging. However, such attachment is not easily shaken off. The opposite acts – viz. detachment, indifference, renunciation, letting go – are equally forms of attachment, insofar as they are intentional acts. Escape from or avoidance of attachment is impossible, if it is itself a pursuit of sorts. The whole difficulty of ‘liberation’ is that the latter circle must somehow be squared. Thus, Buddhism teaches more radically that there is compulsiveness of sorts in all our actions, which can only be eliminated in the ultimate ‘enlightenment’.
We may includeinhibitionunder this term, as a special case of compulsion, where the tendency involved isabstain fromthe exercise of will, as it were ‘against one’s will’ or contrary to one’s better judgment. In this perspective, not-willing is a sort of will.
Simpletirednessoften plays a role in such effects; and that is significant, because it shows that they remain basically issues of influence rather than credible objections to freewill.
The psychological processes involved apply equally well to more metaphoric ‘drugs’, of course. The ‘drug’ may be food or sex, for instances. In such neurotic situations, of course, eating has little to do with bodily hunger, and sexual intercourse is no more than using someone as an aid to masturbation or at best mutual masturbation. The ‘drug’ may also be more masochistic, something negative rather than positive. In a way, all use of drugs may be considered masochistic, since it is self-destructive behavior.
For example, cigarette smoking makes one more, not less, nervous.
The following account is inspired by Buddhist doctrine, but I have adapted its terms. Thus, most schools of Buddhism deny existence of a “real (individual) self” (here called soul), admitting only an illusory “conventional self” (here called ego) and a substratum for all existence called “Buddha nature” or “original ground” (what we might call a universal soul). In my view, granting the existence of such an undifferentiated substratum, we would be hard put to understand how or why it would give rise to egos (false selves), if we did not assume that the universal whole is first in the interim apparently broken into individual fractions (real selves). Although Buddhist theorists enjoy provocative paradoxes, we must remain critical and logical.
Note that our use of the term ‘ego’ here derives from its popular use, and is not to be confused with that in the psychology of Freud (which refers to a ‘realistic, practical’ segment of the psyche), though it may encompass aspects of the latter concept, as well as of the contrasting concepts of ‘id’ (an ‘emotive, impulsive’ segment) and ‘superego’ (an ‘idealistic, regulatory’ segment).
It is interesting to notice how we converse with ourselves, sometimes in the first person singular (I, my), sometimes in the second (you, your), and more rarely in the third person (saying ‘one’ or ‘we’, as here). One may also wordlessly project a physical image of oneself doing or having something. All such discourse may, together with other events, be added to the basket that constitutes the ‘ego’.
For this reason, the ego may be referred to as the prison of the soul, or more poetically (to use a metaphor dear to Jews) as its place of exile. The ego usually involves an inflated vision of our importance in the scheme of things, due to the maximum proximity of our body and mind in our perspective on the world; but the ego is also in fact an artificial limitation on the natural grandeur of our soul.
This means, for instances, treating momentary appearances as established realities, or transient or occasional traits as lifelong characteristics.
The relativity of ego is also, by the way, an insight drawn from Buddhist psychology. Truly, the East is a rich mine of human understanding.
Of course, some people are loners against their will, because they cannot handle the challenges of relations. Hermits, on the contrary, avoid human or other contacts, so as to reduce unnecessary stimulation, and the artificial problems that come with it. They wish to simplify their life and experience to facilitate meditation. But some people manage to meditate in the midst of disturbances.
This is the first of the “Four Noble Truths” at the core of Buddhism. Note that one does not experience the emotion the French call “le mal d’être” all the time; one may be very happy for a long time, unaware of this substratum. But this happiness is inevitably temporary, i.e. it is dependent on causes and conditions like good health, a loving spouse, material plenty, etc. It is brittle, fragile; and at some level, we all know it and brace ourselves for the inevitable end.
This is worth comparing to the concept of an “evil impulse or inclination” (yetser haraa), proposed in Judaism. According to the Rabbis, all men and women, naturally, by the mere fact of being physically constituted, have such an inherent negative tendency. This is not, however, all bad. When people work against such resistance (the matter weighing them down, as it were) to achieve good, they acquire credit. But moreover, it is sometimes a good thing when they fail to overcome it. For example, yielding occasionally to sexual desire makes reproduction possible; if everyone was too saintly, there would be no one left.
See my essayUngluing the mind, further on (chapter 16.1).