Tag Archives: id

Am I Responsible for my Thoughts?

You have heard it said … “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  But I say to you that anyone who so much as looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Matt 5:27-28

At first glance it would seem that what Jesus is saying in this famous passage is that a man is responsible for the thought of lust that passes through his head at the sight of a beautiful woman.  Presumably this man is responsible for all his other thoughts as well and with this responsibility comes shame and guilt if the thoughts are wrong.  That is certainly the way I understood the passage growing up.  This is a very shame-based way of viewing the mind and places a heavy and unnecessary burden on impressionable minds.

This is true because the mind is constantly churning forth thoughts.  Anyone who has meditated quickly figures this out.  This is especially true for someone who is new to meditation.  Sitting still with closed eyes, trying to concentrate on a mantra or trying to clear the mind is a very difficult task.  Seemingly random thoughts will sneak in here and there and you will follow them until you remember that you were supposed to be meditating.  This will happen over and over again.  Performing this exercise will reveal how difficult and how much effort it takes not to identify with these thoughts.

Meditation will also reveal the several layers or parts to the mind.  There are at least three.  The first is the part that churns forth ideas without morals.  This is sometimes called the id or the ego or monkey-mind.  Sometimes this is associated with the limbic system or the primitive, reptile brain that seeks pleasure and tries to avoid pain.  This part of the mind lives in the moment and does not think ahead.  The second,  is the part of the mind that chastises the self for the lust, envy, anger that the first part thinks about.  This part is sometimes called the super-ego or conscience.  This is probably associated with the prefrontal cortex or modern brain that can think ahead and moralizes and judges.  Finally, there is the part of the mind that observes the other two parts.  This is sometimes called the true-self, the atman or perhaps the soul.  Most of the time the observer is asleep or identifies itself with one of the other two parts.  Meditation, is a way to keep the observer awake but that is a topic for another blog post.

In the shame-based universe, a person is responsible for their thoughts.  But how can a person bear the responsibility for something he has no control over?  Would it not make more sense to say that a man is not responsible for the initial thought but is responsible for how he reacts to that thought.  After all, it is possible to reject a thought or not act on a thought.  When this happens, this is the observer part of the mind not identifying with the thought churning part of the mind.  Adopting this way of looking at one’s thoughts takes practice in order to believe the truth of it but it does alleviate a great deal of unnecessary guilt and shame.



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Defining the Mind

There are many theories on the mind and many different terms used to describe how the mind works.  For example, the term “Ego” can mean different things in different contexts.

Dictionary.com lists six distinct definitions for ego, the first two of which are the ones most commonly used in popular culture.  Although these terms are commonly used (sometimes interchangeably) they are quite different.  The first definition is:

the “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.
This definition, I believe, refers to the type ego that you might hear used by Yoga instructors, Eckhart Tolle, or Depak Chopra.  This ego is the “false self” that separates itself from the “true self” to cope with and survive in reality.  This ego is often referred to pejoratively as a problem to be overcome or a sickness of some kind.  This is true in a sense because this type of ego often is maladaptive and creates more problems than it originally set out to solve, but this type of ego is also a defense mechanism protecting the self from external assaults.  I believe that was the original intent behind bringing the ego into existence.  It’s an ally that comes to help but then takes over.
The second definition of ego is:
the part of the psychic apparatus that experiences and reacts to the outside world and thus mediates between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the social and physical environment [also known as the ‘super ego’].
This is the Freudian definition of ego I learned as a psychology major in college.  This ego works in concert with id and the super ego.  The id is the primitive part of the mind that covets.  The super ego is the moralistic part of the mind that councils not to listen to the id.  The ego is the part of the mind that decides between the id and the super ego.  This ego seems more like beneficent administrator than the false self ego.
There are other systems used to define and classify the parts and functions of the mind.  In other posts I have talked about the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.  There seem to be some correlations between the “false self” ego, the id and the limbic system.  They all seem to covet and do not do not seem concerned with moral issues.  But the limbic system and the id do not think in terms of language and logic but rather emote whereas the false self ego can be critical and judgmental as well as emotional.

Similarly there appear to be parallels between the super ego and the prefrontal cortex.  Both of these concepts can think logically and use language.    The prefrontal cortex is able to receive the urging from the limbic system but then use reason to decide whether it makes sense to act on it.  The super ego challenges the id in a similar but slightly different (more moralistic) way.

The freudian ego and the true self do not seem to be similar concepts.  The freudian ego is similar to the prefrontal cortex in that it receives advice from the id and the super ego and decides the best course.  The true self is mostly awareness combined with compassion and a small amount of will.  This is more of a spiritual concept.

Then there is thinking and feeling overlaid on these structures.  Thinking is labeling, conceptualizing, making into words, reasoning, planning remembering.  Feeling is a physical sensation in the body in the body connected to an emotion such as happiness, sadness, fear.  Feeling is more primitive but it is also more honest.  Thinking is more advanced but can engage in falsehoods.

The conclusion seems to be that there are many overlapping concepts use to describe the mind and its functions.  But they do not fit together seamlessly and can cause confusion.  The reality is that all these concepts do overlap in a manner that is probably not understood completely by any one (or perhaps all) schools of thought.  It might not even be helpful to design an entire system to encompass them all.  Where would that get us anyway?


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