Psychological Self vs. No-Self

As a therapist and a meditation teacher, I live a surreal life. At the office I’m helping people to gain greater self-esteem, more positive self-regard, and encouraging them to see themselves as competent, empowered and strong. But when I teach meditation I strongly encourage people to see that the self is an illusion. On the outside it could seem as if I’m working against myself.

It’s the same for a lot of people who meditate. Most meditators accept that no-self is a core truth of reality. But many have also taken intro to psychology classes and have read a lot of self help books that promote healthy acceptance of the self. It is not unusual for people who regularly attend meditation retreats to also do a lot of self-development, such as adult education and travel. Clearly, in meditation circles, it can seem like we are pretty mixed-up about ourselves. It’s as if we have a love-hate relationship with the “self.”

How are we to make sense of this apparent paradox? The self is indeed an illusion, but why care for and cater to it?

The Psychological Self vs. No-Self

The self in Western psychology is viewed as that function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences. It takes raw sense data, memories, and other cognitive functions and turns them into recognizable narratives. It is critical for everything that we do. Without a strong sense of self, we literally could not make sense of anything that happens to us.

What is fascinating is that in the western psychological view, the “self” or the “executive function” is actually a process and not really a thing. It waxes and wanes all the time, goes into the foreground and background of awareness depending on how much we need it, disappears when we sleep, is not the same as it was when we were little, much less the same as it was last year, and is even subtly different than it was last week.

So far, this should make a lot of sense to both psychologists and meditators. But here is where things get interesting: we all know that processes are not solid and change all the time, yet in this particular process there is a nagging sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in that process somewhere. As if the process itself were a real solid thing in the same way that a table or chair is.

It is this unshakable sense of a solid “me” in the midst of this process that is the “self” that is referred to in the Dharma. When we talk about “no-self” in Buddhism, we are pointing to this sense of a solid self in and calling it an illusion. The process of “selfing” is real, the belief that it is somehow a permanent “me” is not.

To help understand how important this illusion is imagine that another mental process had this same illusion tied to it. Take memory for example. When we experience a memory we know that it isn’t “real” in the sense that it does not have a reality outside or our mental functioning. We know that memories come and go, are subject to change and can be forgotten. But what if every time you remembered something you assumed that the memory itself was “real” in the same way that a table or chair is real. That it was substantial and lasting. Even though you could not literally see or experience the memory with your five senses, you still had the unshakable belief that it was a real and solid thing that is supposed to last. Wouldn’t this be a set-up for frustration? Memories slip and slide out of consciousness and like every other mental function they are subject to dramatic change. If we expected them to never go away and always be there, we would constantly be in distress. This is exactly what is happening with us in terms of the self-process.

While the self-process creates narratives that organize our experiences into something recognizable, the illusion of self is inserted as a main character into all these narratives. We expect the character to be the same all the time, to never change or go away, to be “real.” And yet each moment we are running into a stark reality: the self is not as real as we believe it to be, and it certainly does not last. Over time this sense of solid “me” becomes the most salient feature of all of our experience and our greatest source of anxiety. The fact that we see this constantly changing process as a solid “me” creates endless problems for us because it sets up a never-ending fight between us and reality (and reality never loses).

What is odd is that according to psychology, this sense of a solid self is not an issue. In fact it is not really addressed at all. One part of the psychological literature explains that the self is a cognitive process like any other, and then another part of the literature goes on about protecting and promoting a healthy “self.” The fact that we are taking a process and turning it into a solid thing in our minds is simply not addressed.

In psychology, this point may have been missed because of the bias to study and theorize about pathology rather than health. The illusions and problems inherent in a “normally” functioning mind just don’t get a lot of research lab-time. So most theory in psychology works to get damaged selves back to “normal functioning.” Buddhism on the other hand, starts with the assumption that normal functioning is full of suffering caused by a false sense of self, and works to get people from a state of “normal” to enlightened.

Joining the Psychological Self with No-Self

In the book Transformations of Consciousness Jack Enlger, a psychologist and meditation teacher, attempts to reconcile the eastern and western approaches to self by proposing that these two traditions should be joined in a “spectrum model of self development.” The central idea being that the illusion of a solid self is a necessary developmental step that supports people in their learning and growth, but that once resilient mental health has been attained the direction for further growth lies in the shedding of this illusion.

What is great about this model is that it proposes that you can support someone in building their self-esteem and support another person in seeing through the illusion of self, and you are really doing the same thing: encouraging growth along the spectrum of self development, but from two different points. Further, Engler suggests that movement along the spectrum is a fairly linear process. People must begin with a strong solid self in order to move to the next developmental step of seeing it as an illusion. Engler is famous for boiling this idea down into the phrase: “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”

I see a lot of value in Engler’s model, but given my own experiences I would change it sometwhat. Rather than a linear model where the person goes from developing a self to seeing through the illusion of self, I would propose a dimensional model, where self development and insight develop concurrently. This can be imagined as an x/y axis with self development and insight development as separate axes.

This model makes more sense for a number of reasons. First, people who attain very high levels of insight also tend to be greatly engaged in further self development: travel, education, career changes, relationships, etc. They also tend to make the same mistakes that go with self development that people without insight make (any review of the scandals of meditation teachers should confirm this). This is something that you really wouldn’t expect with the linear model, because self development should stop when you reach that part of the spectrum where you are attaining insight into no-self.

In my personal experience, growth in insight has in no way inhibited or stopped self-development, rather it has made the process more fun and easier to understand. At the core of this dimensional model is an assumption that is somewhat different than Engler’s: seeing through the illusion of self does not make the self disappear. The self remains, it continues on in the lived experience, but it is no longer the center of experience anymore. It is put in its proper perspective, as a simple, natural process of the mind, like any other. The sense that this organizing process is a real permanent “me” diminishes with insight. Even with great insight the natural process of growth and change, of what we would call “self development” continues to unfold, but the self is no longer believed to be “real”, it is simply an experience like any other.

So, while on the surface it can seem like we in the enlightenment traditions are pretty mixed up about the self, the opposite is actually true: we are clear about who we are. That does not stop us from growing, having fun and being human. It simply gives us greater awareness of the process.

About Ron

To learn meditation, no matter where you are in the world, just send an email to: alohadharma@gmail.com

Posted on May 2, 2011, in buddhism, Dharma, Enlightenment, Meditation, no-self, vipassana, Wisdom. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. KahukuFawnfromOhio

    Ive thought about the same ideas before.
    After 38 years, Self is just now starting to be my friend. Being able to admit this feels great!

    • Yes! The self is an illusion, but it isn’t evil or terrible. It’s just another part of life, to be seen, understood and appreciated. Those of us who wake up and discover that the self is our friend are pretty lucky – some people wake up and discover that the self is a complete jerk!

  2. Rodrigo Fonseca

    Ron,

    Unconsciouly, I’ve followed your model of combining self-development with no-self awareness for some years. However, somehow i’ve end up really, really, ambitious, to the point that i was aware of it but even then i couldn’t control my desire to growth, control and dominate. And since i’ve combined my personal growth with magick and psychic stuff, i’ve really, let’s say, ”got the power”.

    Needless to say, it was a recipe for disaster, and now i am waking up almost every day feeling an urge to annihilate myself, not to mention the extreme emotional misery felt along the day. Unless i’m very mindful and equanimous about these sensations, i totally get caught by them, in a spiral of misery that only releases me from torture after total nervous exhaustion.

    Then, i’ve lost all the desire to improve my ”self”, in fact i look at it through very skeptical eyes. Only when I feel an emotional release (and they are really strong, a combination of laughter and cry permeated with a deep sense of compassion for all fool beings like me that tried to enhance an etheral illusion) is when i also feel that i can do something improving about myself.

    So, thinking about it, I guess we can’t talk about only one kind of self improvement. Both the wise enlightened Zen master, and the crazy political dictator could be said to be extremely honed in their discursive and charismatic ”skills”, in other words, they are both self enhanced. However, while the first act upon these skills as an expression of joy and compassion, the second seems to use them in order to desperately escape his fear of being considered weak (or whatever it may be).

    In my own experience, i though to be a good Zen monk, but really I was the mad dictator (dangerous combination!), desperately trying to protect my wounded self from the horrors of nothing. In this way, self-development is a mortal trap, and I fell really luck not to have taken my life, or get crazy.

    The only positive side, we may say, is that it brough me here! I had the amazing opportunity to see an insane self in action, which made me suffer so much with it that i surrendered into selfless experiences. Subsequently, I could compare both existential modalities and make a decision about them.

    Now, it seems, i’m passing through a Dark Night (by the way, your description of it was very helpful), and i now welcome it heartly. I’m not going to escape it anymore…

    Thank you doctor, keep up with your amazing work. Any advice is sincerely welcomed.

    • Rodrigo, your account sounds very painful and I really feel for you as it must be torture to go through this. My concern as I read this is that I don’t hear you mention a relationship with a teacher or therapist as you go through this – I HIGHLY recommend that you do not go through this alone. Please meet with someone and discuss this stuff so that you can get some support. This is particularly true if you wake up with the feeling of wanting to “annihilate” yourself. Please don’t carry that burden alone, reach out – that is what sangha is for!

      • Rodrigo Fonseca

        You are right Ron, i have no teacher neither therapist, except loads of reading on mystical traditions around the world and lots of faith and understanding. I think it is time to get out of my lone cave and find some other cosmoadventurers.

        Thank you again doctor.

  3. Dear Ron:

    I am a patient in therapy, working through a 20-year history of child abuse, and learning to set healthy boundaries by defining a separate sense of self so that my physical and emotional boundaries won’t be violated like before. I recently learned Vipassana meditation and have been reading about Buddhism’s no self, and was very confused about the Western therapeutic direction about building a self versus the Buddhist illusion of self. What would you suggest a healthy attitude to be in simultaneously building up a healthy sense of self with regard to setting boundaries and keeping in mind that the self that is being built is an illusion? I almost feel like, why would I bother building a house when it would be torn down anyway? Your clarification is much appreciated.

    • Phuc, thank you for asking this question – as it is one that I bet a lot of people have and is one of the reasons that I wrote the post.

      When a person has been through traumatic violations like what you describe the first and foremost priority is to reestablish safety. Feelings of safety, safe behavior, safe relationships and safe habits of mind. The self needs to be strong and whole again, and that is no illusion. What you are describing in your comment, therapy and meditation, sounds like a good way to do that.

      But it makes sense that you are confused about the self given that we are trying to see it as an illusion in vipassana, but trying to build it up in therapy. The confusion comes from the use of the word “self” – in therapy and in Buddhism, it is used in different ways to refer to different things.

      In therapy the self is the sense of personality, it is what is being protected by healthy boundaries, and it is what holds the stories, memories and hopes of the person. It organizes everything into a sense of wholeness that makes sense of the world. It is absolutely worth building, worth nurturing, worth cherishing and protecting.

      However, we can come to believe that this self is a solid permanent thing that should never change – and this is the illusion we are trying to break through in meditation; it is where a lot of suffering comes from. The self is a process that changes all the time. Because it changes all the time therapy can work and a self can heal – a self that was violated can become a self that is empowered, and this is possible because it is not a fixed solid thing, but rather an ongoing process. When the sense of self is not seen as a changing process but rather as a fixed idea, the suffering that results is stress, frustration and a constant anxiety. Seeing that this fixed permanent self is an illusion is what vipassana is for.

      You ask what a healthy attitude would be. My recommendation is to see the self as a vital and critical aspect of your life that should be protected, nurtured and understood. The self is as important to your psychological well-being as the breath is to your body. Is the breath “real”? Absolutely. Is it a fixed permanent object? Absolutely not. The same applies to the sense of self. Take good care of it and see it as an important part of life.

      I would wait until the sense of self feels safe again before diving into vipassana fully. Meditation that supports self-care and well-being would be more useful in getting you to a place where vipassana would be appropriate. I would recommend Metta (loving-kindness) meditation for now, with a plan to gradually move into vipassana, under the guidance of a teacher, when you feel safe again.

      Phuc, thank you again for your question. I hope that this helped. Please do not hesitate to contact me through this site with further questions.

      Ron

  4. Thank you Ron for your clarification and recommendation! I feel much relief with a better understanding and direction. I am so glad you wrote this post!

    Is Metta meditation something that needs to be practiced with the guidance of a Metta meditation teacher like in Vipassana?

  5. This video feels right, thank you!

    I look forward to reading your post on metta!

  6. This is a great post. Thanks so much for writing it. Your model makes a lot more sense. It would be great if there could be some research into it.

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