by Michael Maciel
One reason why Eastern religions seem to differ from Western religions is in the way one interprets the words of the other.
Take the word “ego,” for instance.
In a culture that values individualism (the West), the word “ego” has a positive connotation. But in a culture that subordinates the individual to the society in which he or she lives, it has a decidedly negative connotation.
The West values the individual because of what that person might add in terms of value to the community, whereas the East demands conformity so that the community can preserve the values it already has.
The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, points out that in the East, the word “ego” means what we in the West would call the “id.” In other words, it’s not so much what a person thinks about him or herself, but whether they can control their animal nature.
In the West, we value each person as an individual. We place an individual’s human rights above the rights of society. But if a person loses himself to addiction—if his actions are no longer under his conscious control—then his value to society plummets.
Why? Because when people give way to these kinds of desires, they lose their ability to make rational choices. Their pre-frontal cortex shuts down and, along with it, their inner vision.
And in the West, the most valuable attribute of an individual is inner vision.
In the East, the most valuable attribute of an individual is his or her identification with society as a whole. The rights of the individual are only valid inasmuch as they serve the greater good. Individualism is frowned upon; conformity is the expected norm.
Why? Because the “ego” is equated with the irrational part of the psyche, so the individual cannot be trusted to form rational judgements.
We have to be careful when we adopt the jargon of the East. We may use the same words, but their meanings can vary drastically. Words such as “oneness,” “karma,” “desire,” and the concept of “doing nothing” do not translate well into the Western mindset. Unless we get the context right, nothing is going to match up.