Conceit (“māna” in Pali) has a special meaning in the Buddha’s teachings; it has a broader and more profound definition than “stuck up”. Conceit is the delusion that our experiences ARE ourselves, and that our self has boundaries and substance and continuity. According to the Pali canon, conceit is the last defilement to fall away before full awakening. Freedom from this delusion is an insight into anattā, that is, the fact that any idea of a self we might claim is insubstantial and temporary.
This is an advanced lesson, so I hope if you find it more confusing or upsetting than interesting, you’ll just skim it and file it away for later investigation.
At the root of conceit is our strong tendency to mentally create and re-create, incessantly re-create, our sense of self. If we pause in this self-creating activity, even briefly, the self disappears entirely, and at some point we notice this disappearance and easily start up the I-making again. If you sometimes get absorbed in doing an activity, especially an artistic project, you have some sense of what I’m referring to.
Then the Venerable Ananda approached the Blessed One, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said to him:
“Bhante, could a bhikkhu obtain such a state of concentration that (1) he would have no I-making, mine-making, and underlying tendency to conceit in regard to this conscious body; (2) he would have no I-making, mine-making, and underlying tendency to conceit in regard to all external objects; and (3) he would enter and dwell in that liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom, through which there is no more I-making, mine-making, and underlying tendency to conceit for one who enters and dwells in it?”
[The Buddha replies] “He could, Ananda.”
[The Buddha goes on to say this is possible through the stilling of all activities, i.e., nibbana]
from AN 3.32, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
As a further explanation, the Buddha described three specific ways in which we create a sense of self:
And what are the three kinds of conceit that are to be abandoned? (1) Conceit, (2) the inferiority complex, and (3) arrogance: these are the three kinds of conceit that are to be abandoned.
from AN 6.106, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
In this sutta, the Buddha points out conceit (in our usual sense) and its opposite, an inferiority complex. Any mental judgment that we are better than or worse than other people is a form of conceit; it’s a way we place boundaries and say to ourselves, “this is me”. Arrogance is next on the list of imperfections, so we’ll get to it next time.
Meanwhile, consider how these three activities solidify our sense of self and are entirely unnecessary: “I am superior to X”, “I am inferior to X”, and “I am more important than X”. Try to imagine what it would be like if these thoughts either didn’t come up at all, or if they did come up, we passed over them as soon as they appeared. In this way, we could reduce or eliminate an important source of our self-inflicted suffering.
Imperfections that defile the mind:
(1) covetousness and unrighteous greed
(2) ill will
(6) a domineering attitude
(13) conceit (mana)
from MN7, translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi