Ego, Features, Fitness, Spirituality

Buddhism And Body Image — Applying The Middle Way Philosophy

The Middle Way was taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Born into a rich family in the ancient city of Kapilavastu, Gautama lived a comfortable, privileged life within the grounds of his family’s palace. Gautama first set foot beyond the confines of wealth and luxury at the age of 29. He was horrified by what he saw — death, disease, misery, suffering. Humbled by this new reality, he was struck by the realisation of the thread of suffering running through humanity. From that moment, Gautama began his quest to find a way beyond suffering, to Nirvâna.

In a moment known as “The Great Renunciation,” Gautama calmly abandoned his life of leisure, giving up his status, wealth and possessions. His initial attempt at awakening was through asceticism, an extreme form of self-discipline. Six years of little food, little sleep, little interaction and hours and hours of meditation each day took their toll; Gautama collapsed in ill health. After this worrying wake-up call, he realised an important truth — an extreme, unbalanced approach would never lead to enlightenment.

Buddhism And Body Image

Despite being accused of cowardice by his pro-ascetic peers, Gautama knew a balanced approach was essential to reach Nirvâna. At the age of 35 he sat beneath The Bodhi Tree, determined to meditate until he reached enlightenment. After 49 days, he became The Buddha (The Awakened One). He then saw things as they really are, leading to his formation of the The Four Noble Truths, a philosophy on suffering. This principal formed the foundation of Buddhism.

The Eight Fold Path is a central teaching in this philosophy. This “path” avoids sensual self-indulgence and self-mortification. Its ethos: balance. This article will apply this philosophy to the complex and sometimes conflicting topic of body image. Below are five separations. Each distinguishes extremities in areas of suffering related to body image, carving a middle way. This is my attempt to structure the unspoken, abstract and often subconscious way spiritual practice has drastically improved my relationship with my body. I’m hopeful it’ll help you, too.

Separation #1: Worth From Appearance

“This Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.” — Excerpt from The Heart Sutra – Translated by Thich Nhat Hanh

Effective techniques to alleviate negative body image require unlearning. What do I mean by this? Improving body image requires us to undo the internalisation of strong cultural messages, messages assimilated since birth. The previous article explores the importance of unlearning the warped and unrealistic cultural definition of beauty. In similar vein, the first separation requires us to unlearn the cultural delusion that how we look has any influence, whatsoever, on our worth. This separation distills worth from appearance, avoiding the extreme of placing value on personal appearance — a remedy guaranteed to cause insecurity and anxiety.

Inherently, most of us agree our worth isn’t skin deep. You may be thinking, “that’s obvious Ricky, tell me something new.” But living and breathing this truth is a far cry from agreeing with it. That’s because intellectual acknowledgment — “I know I should feel this way” — is different from experiential understanding — “I feel this way.”

To clarify, think of a time when you’ve really, truly appreciated someone or something. Remember how it felt. You may have experienced a warming energy moving freely through your body, accompanied by an upbeat sense of ease, an unexpected outpouring of joy. These feelings are spontaneous. They don’t arise because of judgemental thoughts, as the consequence of evaluating a situation and deciding it is a moment for appreciation. These feelings arise in the absence of all thinking. Rarely, if ever, do they follow the thought: “I should appreciate this.”

Now, think of a time when you told yourself: “I should appreciate this moment.” How did you respond emotionally? For me, these types of thought are always followed by a suffocating sensation of guilt, accompanied by a self-sabotaging spiral of thoughts: “Why don’t I feel appreciation for this moment? I must be a bad person.” Self-worth follows this same blueprint.

body image worth
Our worth exceeds our physicality.

The antidote is moving beyond the intellect, to a place we can spontaneously feel self-worth. There’s no magic pill or quick fix; it takes regular meditation and mindfulness practice to cultivate appreciation, compassion, love and acceptance — for yourself, for others, for situations. Experiential understanding in this sense breaks down into increased self-compassion and self-acceptance.

The good news is you don’t have to focus on attaining self-worth. Developing experiential understanding causes self-worth to radiate from within, arising in the absence of thought — just like the appreciation example. And when this feeling radiates from within, the value placed on external factors (including appearance) starts to evaporate, all by itself.

Take action today — here’s a guided meditation on self-acceptance.

Separation #2: Satisfaction From Vanity

“We must distinguish between pride and self-confidence.” — Dalai Lama, Daily Advice from the Heart.

How do we apply the Dalai Lama’s above advice to body image? The key lies with Separation #2: satisfaction from vanity, the sweet spot between body shame and narcissism. Feeling content with the way we look isn’t indulgence. Vanity is. It’s a manifestation of the ego, a fragile form of attachment. Vanity causes suffering because indulgence in the body misplaces self-worth and attaches to the illusion of a fixed concept (more on that shortly). I’m not going to claim I don’t give a damn about my appearance; I cut my hair every three weeks and have an ASOS Premier Delivery subscription.

The Middle Way isn’t a lack of care. It’s taking care of physical appearance, without undue emphasis. This is particularly relevant to exercise and body composition. As mentioned in Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body Image, my body image struggles were sparked by feeling “too skinny” or “weak” or “not manly enough.” I started weight training because I thought building muscle would enhance my self-worth and value. I quickly learned a lesson. Instead, self-judgement increased as self-esteem decreased because I was paying even more attention to my physical form. I had gone from one extreme to the other.

I still weight train, and I finally feel I’ve found balance, most of the time. The key lies with perspective, not pull-ups. I no longer objectify my body as a piece of flesh I’m desperately attempting to sculpt by constantly pushing it to its limits. I value it as a vital extension of me, not something I own. I try to use exercise to increase the mind-body connection (at roughly 70% success rate). I listen to it and respect it by making a further separation.

Separation #3: Functionality From Objectification

“Apart from the obvious health benefits, we received evidence that physical activity can improve body image by diverting attention from what the body looks like to what it can do.” — A Body Confident Future

In a world obsessed with objectifying physical form, switching focus to functionality is an effective way to tackle self-objectification. Exercise plays a valuable part in this process. A philosophy I’ve developed for weight training is:

Switch mindset, from judgement to intrigue. Move from evaluation to fascination.

From the moment I ordered my first protein shake and stepped into the sweaty, windowless confines of my local gym, I was desperate to move away from self-perceived inadequacy. Consequently I began mindset of judgement and evaluation. What did that lead to? It led to constant self-judgement and self-evaluation, even once I’d got going. I’d feel frustrated and downbeat staring at my reflection. I’d obsess over the parts (parts = objectification?) of my body not developing as quickly as I’d hoped.

I’d started to change my body to change my self-esteem, yet I was operating within the paradigm of unrealistic beauty standards. I was placing my worth on how close I was getting to the perfected images I’d seen in the media. This expectation, this hope, was fuelled by a deceptive fitness industry that sells a lie of what is possible, without the aid of steroids. I’d internalised a distorted expectation of the functionality of my body. I wasn’t tuned into me, I was tuned out, hopelessly trying to attain someone else’s look.

The above philosophy has radically changed my outlook. I take a playful approach to the way the body changes and adapts. I try and step back, simply notice changes without actively labelling them “good” or “bad” or myself a success of failure dependent on my reflection. I take a curious approach to when I feel weaker or stronger on a particular day, or how certain foods give me more energy than others. At a basic level, I’ve developed an appreciation for the miracle of the human body, and its ability to change.

Self-criticism does of course still catch up with me. I get days where I feel anxious about my appearance — maybe I’m shrinking, putting on too much fat, incapable of exercising properly, not eating enough, eating too much — but these are reduced, fleeting, they don’t stick and I’m able to step back quicker, rationalise.

Separation #4: Impermanence From Fixed Concepts

“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta

Attachment is fixation. Attachment to fixed concepts causes suffering. Fixed concepts are an illusion — the reality is nothing is fixed, everything is constantly changing. Impermanence (anicca) is central to Buddhism, and one of the three marks of existence along with suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anattā). Ignorance to these three marks causes suffering, as all elements within our universe are transient, in constant flux. The Four Noble Truths, as mentioned previously, are:

  1. All existence is dukkha. Unsatisfactoriness, suffering… Ultimate happiness cannot be found in anything we experience. Gaining six pack abs or dropping a dress size won’t bring happiness.
  2. The cause of dukkha is craving. We grasp at some things, push others away, putting us at odds with the way life is. We grasp perfect beauty standards, we push away images of perceived ugliness.
  3. The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving. We can’t change what happens to us, but can change our response. Our bodies are our own, each a unique shape and size and composition. Severing the craving for a different body and accepting our body as our own can reduce suffering.
  4. There is a path that leads from dukkha. This is the Noble Eightfold Path.

One of the biggest attachments we develop is to the body. Eastern practice offers remedies to this; the Kāyagatāsati Sutta, for example, is practice of developing mindfulness through contemplations on the body. If we can accept the impermanent nature of the physical body, its inevitable fate, the decay over the course of time, we can cultivate a more peaceful relationship with it. Balance with this separation is respecting the transient nature of the body, avoiding attachment (indulgence). Conversely, we simultaneously want to cultivate a sense of ease with this knowledge. Impermanence and eventual death doesn’t justify bodily neglect (mortification).

Separation #5: Health From Aesthetics

Western culture is heavily invested in the idea the self, intelligence and consciousness is all contained in the mind. Other traditions don’t see it this way. Chinese medicine, for example, correlates emotions to specific organs, and treats symptoms accordingly. Viewing emotions are a form of abstract experience is a fallacy — look no further than cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress, referred to as “public enemy number one” for its damaging physical effects. Then there’s growing evidence that gut microbes may influence our mood. A 2011 study by McMaster University discovered implanting bacteria from anxiety suffering humans into mice increased their level of anxiety-like behaviour.

Not only does this study bring new meaning to “gut feeling,” it highlights the symbiotic relationship between mind, body and soul. The way the body is treated has a significant impact on the mind. One of the biggest tools I’ve used to manage depression and anxiety is to make sure I’m treating my body well. At a stage of crisis, the first point of call to assess exercise, nutrition, sleep hygiene, stress, alcohol and drug consumption. My direct experience tells me to achieve an optimum mental state, a solid foundation to handle day-to-day fluctuations, all of these areas have to be in order.

health body image
A focus on overall health, not aesthetics, is proven to improve body image.

Mental health can’t flourish whilst the body is abused by junk food or neglected by lethargy. Sadly, our culture is so set on bodily abuse is taking active steps to better health is sometimes seen as a rebellious (or even presumptuous) act. Just try abstaining from alcohol and see how challenging it is. Forget exercising and eating well to shape up to Instagram models or Hollywood stars; this level of care is crucial not to look good, but to feel great. Ignore the messages saying you don’t deserve it — you do.

That’s why the fifth and final separation is an important one. Learning to tune-in to your bodily sensations and energy can act as a visual guide to your health. This is very subjective and personal to you. Weigh up the pros and cons and be your own guide. If you feel a certain way after eating a certain food, or feel energetic after less than eight hours sleep, follow your guide. If your skin indicates a lack of hydration, or too much fatty food, follow the guide. Respect the body, refer to it, let it guide you to good health.

A final word

Drastically improving body image is possible. But no article, no single tool, no words of wisdom or fads or movements or meditations will magically flip a switch. It takes hard work. It takes daily application of the tools, some of which I’ve shared, many of which are out there, waiting for you to uncover. The moment you consciously decide a negative body image isn’t serving you, is the moment you spark change.

Good luck. You can do this.


Defining The Spiritual Ego

Explaining who you really are.

The human psyche is one of life’s greatest mysteries.What is our innermost essence? What is our life force? Is the idea of who we are a product of the mind, social conditioning, and the thoughts we have? Or are we spiritual beings, both material and divine?

The psyche encompasses all it means to be human. It originates from the 17th century Greek word, psukhē, which translates to “breath, life, soul.” Clearly, more than one approach is needed to tackle such a broad subject.

In psychology and theories arising from the West, the ego plays a crucial role in the psyche. It forms our self-concept and is an essential part of human cognitive function. Conversely, on the spiritual path the ego can be an obstruction to enlightenment. If left to its own devices, it can become a monster that needs to be tamed and transcended. My view falls somewhere in the middle.

In this article I’ll attempt to explain the ego’s role in who you are. Then, I’ll turn to spirituality to highlight how the ego can limit your potential, and what you can do to combat it.

(Podcast interview with Stephan Bodian, the author of Meditation for Dummies, Wake Up Now, and Beyond Mindfulness embedded at the end of this post – Authentic Awakening vs. Spiritual Ego)

Me, Myself And I — The Ego And Psychotherapy

The word ego originates from early 19th century Latin, translating directly to I. The ego is synonymous with Sigmund Freud’s theory on the human psyche. Freud was a renowned neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis in the early 1890s, in an attempt to understand the workings of the human self-image, the I. As well as explaining our motivations and behaviour, psychoanalysis was also used to help treat mental health disorders.

Freud’s theories on the mind have permeated popular culture for good reason; the belief that our thoughts, emotions and motivations are powered by a rich inner universe — most of which we are unaware of — is still relevant today. This inner universe is theorised by Freud in a branch of psychoanalysis, known as ego psychology, which splits the human psyche into three distinct levels of consciousness — the id, ego and superego.

The Id, Ego And Supergo

According to Freud, the subconscious id is the most deep-rooted aspect of the human psyche. It’s our animal instinct. This chaotic aspect of mind is stored deep in the subconscious and seeks instant gratification by following pleasure and avoiding pain. Aptly, Freud coined this the “pleasure principle.”

The ego is an unconscious aspect of mind that acts as a buffer between the id’s overzealous quest for pleasure and the reality of the external world. Aptly (x2), Freud coined this the “reality principle.” Though still looking to satisfy the id, the ego does so in a much more rational, logical manner. In this context, the ego is positive. Let’s call this the “don’t be a dick but still want nice things” principle.

The third and final aspect, the superego, is governed by social conditioning. Moulded around the ages of 3-5, the superego is driven by societal and parental values, and often strives for perfection. This conscious aspect of mind is further split into the conscience (feelings of guilt) and the ideal self (I “should” be like this or like that).

Carl Jung And Ego-Consciousness

This concept of ego was built upon by Freud’s protégé, Carl Jung. In many ways, Jung bridges the gap between Freud’s model of the psyche and a more Eastern approach. Jung believed that while the ego was the centre of the both the psyche and human consciousness, it wasn’t the magic ingredient in the recipe of human life. Instead, he highlights the limits of the ego and placed a lot of importance on the subconscious.

Anyone who has any ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents. Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self.

Jung entered more spiritual territory by acknowledging a mystical element of the psyche that wasn’t necessarily governed by biological drives. But Western theories still highlight the ego as part of our core identity. Granted, the ego plays a crucial role in how we function in the external world, but it doesn’t satisfactorily explain what makes us human.

Freud and Jung pinpoint that there are elements of our psyche that are out of our control. A driving force that influences our decisions. Now, here’s where spirituality kicks in — what are these mysterious elements? Are they simply biological drives built into our DNA? Deep-rooted conditioned aspects of mind? Or is there something greater?

Moving Beyond The Mind — The Ego And Spirituality

“We are living in a material world.” Madonna.

Though quantum physics increasingly merges scientific theory with spiritual concepts, Western theories of the ego are limited to the material world. The central argument of materialism is that only the physical realm exists. If you apply materialism to the concept of what-makes-us-us, then we are exclusively physical beings. Our brain, made of physical matter, contains the mind, and the mind is the source of human consciousness.

The importance of spirituality is that its focus is beyond the material dimension. When you look beyond the material, the concept of who we are dramatically expands. Looking at the psyche from this perspective, we realise what-makes-us-us isn’t the thoughts we have about ourselves, but instead an expansive awareness behind those thoughts, the witness of our inner world.

In Eastern philosophy, this is our true identity. We are connected to a spiritual, divine dimension of pure awareness, pure being, God (eek!). Our psyche isn’t part of a greater whole, it is the greater whole, with no separation in between.

The video below explains how to transcend the ego, whilst remaining grounded. 

The Ocean And The Onion

Now it’s time for a colourful metaphor.

Think of the universe as a cosmic ocean of consciousness. Each and every one of us, on the deepest level of our psyche, is a part of this ocean. The ego prevents us from seeing this reality by deceiving us into believing we only exist materialistically. When we identify with the ego, our self-image helps create the illusion that we are individual and separate from the ocean. We believe what-makes-us-us is the mind, squished into the confines of grey matter, flesh and blood.

Continuing the aquatic metaphor, let’s imagine the ego as an onion, floating on the cosmic ocean. The egoic onion (I’m sticking with this) consists of layer after layer of thoughts (“I’m useless”), beliefs (“there is no God”), opinions (“Bristol Rovers are the best team in the world”) and memories. Identifying with this self-image means living a life whereby the vastness of the entire universe self-deceptively contained in an onion.

Identifying With The Onion And Negativity Bias

The egoic onion explains why spiritual practice emphasises the importance of not identifying with the ego. The onion is minuscule reflection of who you really are. I mentioned above that the ego is integral to functioning in society, and that is true. The issue isn’t the ego, but how you identify with it. Identifying with the onion wouldn’t be awful if it were fresh, pragmatic, logical, rational and selfless. But most of our onions are tainted by a negativity bias, as hypothesized by Paul Rozin’s and Edward Royzman’s 2001 study.

As well as the thoughts and beliefs we have about our identity (“I’m unlovable,” “I’ll never be happy”) and the external world (“things never go my way”), negativity bias also taints our memory recollection, another significant aspect of the onion’s “who am I?.” Rozin’s and Royzman’s study discovered that the potency of negative experiences is much higher than positive, which means our memories of negative events are much stronger. Our onion’s are naturally glass-half-empty.

So not only is the identifying with the onion drastically limiting our potential and cutting us off from the vast ocean of awareness, it also convinces us we’re not really that great. We live our lives convinced we’re the onion, and the story we create of who we are often discounts the positive. Yes, onions can be mature, logical, caring, successful, inspiring and all sorts. We can work on improving our own onion. But an onion can only ever excel in the material world. It is never our full potential.

Identifying with the egoic onion is a global phenomenon. We live in a mass illusion, which Buddhism refers to as maya. For American psychologist Charles Tart — who is known for his work in the field of consciousness — this is a “consensus trance” that is “much more pervasive, powerful, and artificial state than ordinary hypnosis.”

We’re a limitless ocean believing itself an onion. Is that not a shame?

How Do I Mind My Ego?

“Give up defining yourself – to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life. And don’t be concerned with how others define you. When they define you, they are limiting themselves, so it’s their problem. Whenever you interact with people, don’t be there primarily as a function or a role, but as the field of conscious Presence. You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are.”  Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

There are two important elements to consider. The first is that you are not the onion and your potential is unlimited. You are not thoughts or beliefs, but instead, part of a greater whole. That greater whole contains peace, tranquility, love, and all nice things. Understanding you are part of the ocean and not separate can liberate you.

The second element is the importance of the onion in the functioning of day-to-day life. I’m aware that I am much, much more than Ricky. But Ricky (sorry, I) has a value to offer the material world. I’m in a unique position where I can become aware of my own divine nature (as we all can be with spiritual practice), and I can balance my material duties (personal growth, achieving goals, etc) with the knowledge that who I am will forever remain the same.

I do not crave to make the Ricky onion perfect, but through channeling divine traits (such as compassion and love) my onion will grow. Spiritually speaking, I believe the ultimate aim is a healthy, mature onion combined with the understanding of our ever-present, divine, spiritual nature. Again — the egoic onion isn’t the monster. It is vital. But understanding you are much, much more than the onion will liberate you. Seeing the onion allows you to ignore the traits that won’t benefit you, and enhance the ones that will.

To become aware of the onion, meditation is vital. Taking a step back and witnessing the part of the psyche that contains the ego is highly valuable. But always remember: You are not the onion. You’re the ocean. And the ocean is vast. And it’s here. Always.

How do you relate to who you really are? Let me know in the comments section below.