According to Hinduist and Buddhist philosophy, the ego is a major source of human suffering. Hence, Eastern mind-body practices like yoga and meditation are intended to quiet the ego, to deflate one’s sense of self-importance, in order to improve well-being.
Indeed, we know from a myriad of scientific studies that mindfulness practice factually improves well-being. But is this really due to a quieting of the ego? In a new study, Gebauer et al. (2018) conducted two experiments to investigate the underlying mechanism:
- In the first experiment, 93 yoga students filled in questionnaires after hatha yoga practice (test group) and without practice (control group) over 15 weeks.
- In the second experiment, 162 meditators filled in questionnaires after metta meditation practice (test group) and without practice (control group) over 4 weeks.
The questionnaires inquired participants’
- self-centrality (= the degree to which a participant sees his mind-body practice as central to his self-image; the highest degree being total ego-identification with the activity),1
- self-enhancement bias (= self-esteem, communal narcissism,2 and the sense of being better than average in mindfulness skills compared to other group members), and
- well-being (= hedonic and eudaimonic well-being).
The results: All variables were significantly higher after mindfulness practice, compared to non-practice. This means that those who had just practiced yoga or meditation had a bigger ego than those who didn’t. Statistical analyses also showed that the self-enhancement bias mediated the positive influence of mindfulness practice on well-being. This is the exact opposite of what is taught in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Mindfulness practice boosts the ego because, like every other practice, yoga and meditation involve skill development, and whenever we improve a skill, we feel good about ourselves. This is the true pride, the joy of self-improvement, I so often talk about on my podcast as well as in my book Willpower Condensed.
Does this mean that Buddhism is debunked? Well, there are at least three problems with that clickbait claim:
- The study only investigated immediate effects on Western practitioners and doesn’t permit extrapolation to long-term and lifestyle effects on Yogi masters and Buddhist monks. However, the short-term effects are still problematic for Eastern philosophies and the study found no differences between beginners and experts.3
- The questionnaire items, which evoked a self-conceptual frame, were somewhat a methodological trick that forced people to think about their ego and judge it. However, since the ratings were compared to a control group, the results are still meaningful.
- The teachings of Buddhism are not limited to one claim about the ego, and the ego is more than self-centrality and self-enhancement bias. Buddhists see the ego also in a fixation on desires4 and selfish interests, in the mind’s obsessive judging, in the identification of consciousness with conscious thoughts, and even in one’s basic sense of personal identity (the self that is transcended, or the ego that is “killed,” during flow states, mystical experiences, psychedelic trips, and schizophrenic episodes). However, the most common notion of ego is the one measured in the study.
To minimize confusion, we shall distinguish clearly between the ego as self-centrality (vs. a less psychologically dependent level of interest), the ego as hubristic pride (vs. the more adaptive emotion of genuine pride), the mind that thinks and judges (vs. consciousness as pure subjective experience), and the static beliefs we have about ourselves (fixed self-schemas vs. a more dynamic, interconnected self-concept).
Now, what do we want to do with our new knowledge? We know that meditation makes us happier, cools our minds, sharpens our foci, and strengthens our wills. So let’s keep practicing mindfulness! But let’s not delude ourselves about what it does to our sense of self. Meditation strengthens our pride, and this is a good thing so long as our pride is true.5
Gebauer JE, Nehrlich AD, Stahlberg D, Sedikides C, Hackenschmidt A, Schick D, Stegmaier CA, Windfelder CC, Bruk A, Mander J (2018). Mind-Body Practices and the Self: Yoga and Meditation Do Not Quiet the Ego but Instead Boost Self-Enhancement, Psychological Science, Epub ahead of print, doi: 10.1177/0956797618764621.
- Is the Ego Useful?
- Why Pride Will Never Die
- To Grow Stronger, Be Humbled
- 21 Ways to Misuse Mindfulness Meditation
- Are Pride and Humility Good or Bad? (Affective Ethics)
- You may compare this to a Wall Street workaholic who is ego-identified with his money and his ability to make more, a bodybuilder who is ego-identified with his strength and muscles, a pickup artist who is ego-identified with his ability to seduce women and get laid, and a martial artist who is ego-identified with his fighting prowess. For them, their particular activity and ability is highly self-central, just as mindfulness skills and respective character traits (“I’m such a calm, loving, serene, and attentive person!”) can be for yogis and meditators. Of course, the self-centrality of mindfulness is somewhat paradoxical because it involves ego-identification with not being ego-identified, which is probably why spiritual enlightenment is so rare.
- Communal narcissism is rooted in grandiose self-beliefs about one’s social functioning. For example, “I’m the most helpful person I know and the best friend one could have” or “I’m a natural giver: I give more, care more, and listen better than anyone else” or “I’ll make the world a better place by bringing peace and justice to it” or “Nobody cares about our team’s mission as much as me.” Communal narcissists are narcissistic about their loyalty, empathy, kindness, compassion, altruism, moral virtue, team spirit, social competence, emotional intelligence, etc.
- Participants’ average meditation experience was 4.44 years with a standard deviation of 8.07.
- This usually includes the problematic goal of increasing well-being in the sense of “achieving happiness.”
- I should note that the study didn’t measure the emotion of pride, so I’m adding my own theory here, though we know that pride correlates with factors of self-enhancement, particularly self-esteem. Nonetheless, true pride, which is about judging one’s actions rather than one’s static self, shouldn’t be positively associated with self-centrality and communal narcissism; this poses a problem that demands further research.