Category Archives: vipassana

The Physio-Cognitive Stage

The Physio-Cognitive Stage

  1. The Physio-Cognitive Stage
    1. Mind and Body
    2. Cause and Effect
    3. Three Characteristics

    I call the first phase of mediation the physio-cognitive stage because the insights associated with it are primarily about the body, mind, and their connection and characteristics. This stage can feel pretty mundane, and practioners often don’t even know that they are in this stage. I had no idea that I had gone through it the first time it happened. It wasn’t until things got exciting that it became clear that I must have already gone through these and it wasn’t until I went through them many times that I was even able to see them clearly.

               

    Mind and Body

    The physio-cognitive section of the path begins when the meditator enters into the stage of Mind and Body. During this stage the meditator’s mind begins to sync up with the beginnings of phenomena, and when they note whatever comes into awareness the meditator begins to distinguish their thoughts from their bodily sensations. This can seem pretty mundane and uneventful, but it is actually pretty valuable information. It is an understanding that is needed before any further insights are possible. For those who are particularly attuned to their own states, they may notice a subtle shift from being the thoughts and sensations to watching them.

    The primary insight that is gained in this stage is that the mind and the body are truly different. Of course we all know that this is so on a cognitive level, but there is a big difference between knowing this and seeing it in real time. Actually seeing these truths as they are happening has a profound effect on the mind. Oddly, while the effect can be profound, in that certain doubts vanish, it is an effect that can be easy to miss. This is often true of many of the insights that occur. This is because the insights do not leave an imprint on us at a cognitive level, but at a much deeper level.

    Cause and Effect

    As the meditator continues to see the mental and physical phenomena arising in awareness, a moment happens (and it often is just a moment or two) where some connection or interaction between mind and body becomes apparent. For example, let’s imagine that a meditator is doing noting -style meditation where they make a brief note of whatever arises in experience.  The meditator sees that there is an image in their mind of the car that cut them off in traffic that morning, they may note “image”, then directly following that is “anger” and then the next notes are “tightness”, “ache”, “tension”, etc. In that instant a connection between what the mind does and the body experiences becomes obvious (so obvious that we often miss it). Here we see that thoughts are connected to feelings are connected to behaviors are connected to thoughts and so on, in a chain of cause and effect.

    Beginners usually do not know that they have even been through cause and effect, not only because it is brief and uneventful, but because this is usually stuff that we think we know already. But we only know it at a cognitive level, and if you haven’t guessed it already, I don’t give the cognitive level much respect when it comes to the path. Knowing something at the cognitive level can make it seem like we understand something, but the big difference between a cognitive understanding and a deep insight is that cognitive understandings change what we think, but deep insights change how we are.

    An important thing to note about the stage of cause and effect is that some people can easily get stuck there. Because cause and effect is all about the connections between things, it can be a quagmire for one’s individual mental content, in other words, your “stuff.” But please remember that the path is not about understanding your stuff (though that can be a nice side-effect), it is about understanding reality itself. Getting caught in your stuff can be a very tempting distraction. For example, during this stage it is not unusual to think about something insensitive that you did or said and then notice tension in the face, or burning in the chest or abdomen. Before you know it, you’ll be spinning out scenarios about how your relationship issues or family problems are leading to emotional and physical distress. Will these scenarios be wrong? Not necessarily. But will they support you in seeing reality clearly? Not at all.

    Three Characteristics

    At some point the meditator begins to notice three things about the mental and physical phenomena they are watching: none of them are really “me” (because “I” am watching them), all of them are impermanent, and almost all of them are actually pretty unpleasant or at least unsatisfactory in some ways that are obvious and some that are pretty subtle.  These three insights do not usually occur at a cognitive level (though they sometimes do). A meditator who has gone through this stage might not be able to name what it has taught them, but if they hear about these three characteristics they will instantly recognize the truth of them. From this point forward, there will be something compelling about the three characteristics – they will just make intuitive sense.

    For some, this stage can be pretty unpleasant. The effects of seeing the three characteristics can lead to negative emotions for some meditators. It is impossible to tell ahead of time how strong the possible negative effects of this stage might be, but there is the potential to get stuck in the negativity that this stage can summon up in the meditator. If you are experiencing difficult emotions and wonder if they might be related to this stage, it is worth working it out with a meditation teacher. Don’t stay stuck in any stage longer than necessary to get the insights needed and move on.

    The Physio-Cognitive Stage and Modern Psychology

    A couple of interesting points about these three stages are worth noting before moving on. First, people who are familiar with psychology and with cognitive-behavioral theory in particular will recognize that the first two stages constitute what is called the “cognitive model.” The cognitive model is the notion that thoughts, feelings and behaviors are directly linked and that if you change one of them the other two must change as well. It is the foundation of most modern psychotherapy. Needless to say, getting some direct experience of this and seeing the reality of it can certainly help one to see how to get into and out of problems. Modern CBT, sometimes called “Third Wave CBT”, takes advantage of this by encouraging people in treatment to practice mindfulness and see how thoughts, feelings and behaviors are connected in the moment.

    Because the first two stages are essentially covering the ground that is the foundation of modern psychotherapy, most of what constitutes “mindfulness” training in most clinical settings is actually the experience of these two initial stages and sometimes the third. Mindfulness therapies like MBSR, DBT and ACT emphasize these three insight stages and the therapeutic benefit that can come with them. These kinds of therapies are particularly good at helping people to recognize when they are getting caught in cause and effect, and moving them on to three characteristics. I’d would venture to say that most basic mindfulness trainings that occur outside of clinical settings tend to cover just these three insight stages and end there. Sometimes these stages are even presented as the whole path. However, as you will discover, there is far more.

    Once one has gained insight into mind and body, cause and effect and the three characteristics, the attention moves on and syncs up with the peak of sensate experience. The next stage is the Arising and Passing Away.

The Map

When I first began meditating and read about things like the “path,” “way” and “journey” I assumed that these terms are just metaphors that describe a kind of personal growth that takes place on one’s spiritual quest. I had a vague notion that if I meditated I would gradually become a better person, and that it was this personal transformation that was referred to by the language of “paths” and “journeys.”

Boy was I wrong. What I did not know when I first started, and regrettably took me years to find out, is that there is a clear and richly detailed description of what happens to a meditator from their first sit all the way to enlightenment, and this is what is actually meant by the term “path.”

The map of the path has been developed collaboratively by many master meditators over thousands of years, and can be found in ancient meditation manuals like the Vimuttimagga (The Path of Freedom) and the Visudimagga (The Path of Purification). It is also in relatively newer guides like Mahasi Saydaw’s The Progress of Insight. Some modern-day descriptions are out there as well, and can be found in Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma and A Path with Heart. However, the clearest modern descriptions of the path can be found in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram and In This Very Life by Sayadaw U Pandita.

What the map shows is that there are a series of predictable states and stages that constitute the “path.” Like signposts on the way to enlightenment, the states and stages are signals that one is doing the technique correctly and making progress. These signposts are universal, automatic and impersonal. They happen to everyone who does the technique correctly and have nothing to do with personal growth or individual needs. Rather, they provide a way of seeing clearly into the nature of reality. There are 17 stages on the path to enlightenment, and I will describe each one in detail, but first I would like to present the theory upon which the whole thing sits…

The Theory

To understand the map, and the path in general, it is useful (but not necessary) to understand the underlying theory. If the map describes what states and stages one experiences, the theory describes why one experiences them. In other words, the theory answers the question: what is it a map of?

To understand the theory it might help to start with what actually happens in meditation. Insight meditation, or Vipassana, is “clear seeing” of anything and everything that happens to us in the moment. So, when we do insight meditation we pay very close attention to our experience in the moment and try to see it as clearly as possible. When we do this we soon see that everything in experience follows a similar pattern of arising and disappearing in awareness. It doesn’t matter if it is a thought, feeling or a sensation, it arises and passes away in awareness in the same way. This might seem a little trivial at first glance, but it is actually a radical insight if you fully get it. Everything that you experience is impermanent in the sense that, no matter what it is, it follows the exact same pattern of arising and falling in awareness:

Any experience in awareness would roughly have that same shape through time, whether it was an itch, a thought, a craving for chocolate, or bad mood.

Our attention cannot clearly apprehend this arising and passing without special training, especially very quick successions of arising and passing away, and that is what meditation does: trains the mind to see how all things come and go in awareness at a very fine-grained level.

So this is all pretty geeky, but how does it lead to enlightenment? The reason that this knowledge is useful is because we can use it to experience Nirvana, and ultimately it is experiencing Nirvana which leads to enlightenment. Nirvana is essentially what you experience when you follow all sensations to their very end – they cease completely, and in that moment of cessation Nirvana is there. Nirvana is the unconditioned, the foundation, ground, background, the page upon which existence is written. All phenomena arise and fall out of existence, but Nirvana is always there when everything vanishes. By becoming an expert at watching phenomena closely and training your mind to follow all phenomena as they disappear, you are training the mind to catch a “glimpse” of Nirvana in that sweet spot when the sensations have ceased.

How does this actually work in practice? When we sit to meditate and begin noting our experience, the mind does a very surprising thing. All by itself, the mind begins to sync up on the arising part of the wave-form of all phenomena happening in that moment. For reasons that I have not yet fully understood, when meditation is done properly the mind begins to focus on just one part of the wave-form of phenomena, and it likes to start at the beginning. So, as you are sitting and you notice an itch, then a sound, then a thought and so on, the mind is actually noticing just the arising of those things, just the beginning. Then, an even more amazing thing happens, as you continue attention begins to move along the wave-like structure. You journey along and the mind syncs up on the peak of phenomena arising and passing, and rides the high crest of sensate experience. Then as you continue down the path the mind begins to sync up on the disintegration of phenomena in experience, noticing all the endings of things. Eventually, you get to the far end of the tail of the wave, and attention begins to focus on the instant where phenomena completely cease to be. When the mind fully syncs up with the complete ending of all phenomena it experiences a moment in which all phenomena disappear for a moment, and this is “the mind alighting upon Nirvana” as Mahasi Sayadaw put it so well.

The theory behind the “path” is that essentially it is a process of attention following the birth and arising of sensations, to their peak, to their falling away and utter disappearance. When the mind fully experiences their disappearance, or cessation, it experiences something that lays beyond all of the phenomenal world and which changes the mind of the meditator permanently. It is called it “Nirvana” in the ancient suttas, which simply means “extinction” or “to go out.” When the meditator experiences Nirvana enough times, a profound and subtle shift occurs within them, deep insights become permanently fixed in the forefront of awareness, and certain illusions are seen for what they are. This is enlightenment.

The Map of the Path

 

I divide the map in five overall sections, each with a series of stages. While the stages themselves are standard and can be found in the Vissudimagga and Mahasi Saydaw’s The Progress of Insight, the sections are my creation. I created the sections because they help to organize the path in a way that, I believe, makes the overall experience more understandable. The sections are the Physio-Cognitive Stage (which covers the initial rising arc of the wave-form), The Arising and Passing Away (which rests upon the top of the wave), Extinction (which covers the downhill side of the wave-form), Equanimity (which is at the leveling-off on the far tail of the wave) and Cessation (where the wave ends).

The overall path, from first sit to Nirvana, looks like this. To learn about a section of the path, click the name of the stage (currently under construction).

Physio-Cognitive Stage

1. Mind and Body

2. Cause and Effect

3. Three Characteristics

 4. Arising and Passing Away

Extinction

5.     Dissolution

6.     Fear

7.     Misery

8.    Disgust

9.    Desire for Deliverance

10.     Re-Observation

11.  Equanimity

Cessation

12.  Insight Leading to Emergence

13.  Adaptation

14.  Maturity

15.  Path

16.  Fruit

17.  Review

Dr. Ingram and “Hardcore Dharma” (Video)

In these videos Dr. Daniel Ingram describes the Hardcore Dharma movement and gives a lot of detail about the path to enlightenment. If you don’t know what it is, and you meditate, you need to watch this. (Even if you do know what it is, watch it anyway).

Why Meditate?

People meditate for a lot of reasons. I’ve heard people explain that they meditate to be a “better person”, or as a kind of low-cost alternative to therapy, or simply to relax. However, there is a big difference between what is often promoted as meditation and real insight meditation. Many versions of meditation that are taught are not much more than mystical versions of self-soothing. However, if you learn to do insight meditation properly you will find that there is a huge difference between what we are told meditation is for and what it is actually like. We find that with true insight meditation we do not necessarily become a better person and it is likely that we will become a lot less relaxed (at least for a time).

With real insight meditation you will find yourself identifying less and less with the very idea of being a “better” person. All those personal goals that might have prompted you to meditate in the first place will start to ring hollow. If you do the technique properly you will indeed relax somewhat at first, and this a great thing. However, this will be a prelude to moving along the progress of insight and right into what St. John of the Cross called the “Dark Night.”

The Downside of Meditation – What you need to know

The “Dark Night” in Christianity, also known as “the knowledge of suffering” in Buddhism, is a stage in which the meditator experiences “misery”, “fear” and “desire for deliverance.” During this part of the path you are likely to be a pretty unhappy camper, and for those living with you, they’ll likely wonder why on earth you chose to meditate in the first place. As my wife once diplomatically explained, living with a meditator in the midst of the Dark Night “is the opposite of fun.” Not only will you not be a better person or more relaxed, you may seem a lot worse off than before!

So if good meditation leads to misery, makes you cranky and disconnects you from what you once thought were valuable personal goals, why would anyone ever do it?

Enlightenment: The purpose of meditation

Forget what you have been told about meditation making you more relaxed, less irritable, or a better person. Forget about any goal related to “me” in meditation. Because ultimately, the reason to meditate is to outgrow all of that, and completely let go of “me.” The reason to meditate is to become enlightened.

Enlightenment is the completion of the process that is started when one begins to meditate seriously. Enlightenment happens when the process of waking up to the truth of non-self becomes irreversible. It is the shift from being all-consumed by the drama of a “self” to the realization that the self and all its problems and fantasies were never real in the first place. Being a better person? As insight deepens the idea of becoming a better self seems a bit laughable. After all, who becomes better?

Making a Fully Informed Choice

Why would you, a self, want to wake up? What is the benefit of enlightenment? A lot of the sales-pitches of meditation out there make it sound like a great thing for the self: being more relaxed and a better “me”, who wouldn’t want that? But now that you know that the sales-pitch is essentially BS, you have to ask yourself, why meditate? The path is not easy. Like any other serious goal in life – getting a college degree, running a marathon, raising a family – it is a lot of work and not always a lot of fun. The truth is that, to a “self,” there really is no tangible benefit at all. From the perspective of the self it just makes no sense at all to wake up, in the same way that it makes no sense to the dreamer to get out of bed. The dream is awfully interesting, so why wake up?

If you are not interested in waking up – then don’t. If you simply cannot understand why anyone would ever want to see the self as a fiction, do not start meditating. This might seem like radical advice, but it really isn’t. If you have not started down the path of awakening in earnest, and you really aren’t interested in enlightenment, I’d recommend not getting started at all.

The reason that I give this advice is because there is what I would call a “point of no return” on the path, where the meditator has to finish. Unfortunately, this point comes right at the Dark Night, and if you don’t finish the path you remain stuck in the Dark Night. That sucks. You cannot go back to sleep, so to speak, and yet you aren’t fully awake. You know something is wrong, and feel terribly out of sync with reality. If you stop meditating at this point you stop making progress and stay in misery.

The reason to meditate that most experienced meditators give is “to end suffering.” And though it is correct to understand this to mean the suffering of life itself, there is also a deeper meaning: that the reason to meditate is to end the suffering inherent in the path itself. Advanced practitioners want to awaken because they are tired of being on the path, tired of being stuck in the twilight between awake and asleep. If you aren’t prepared to work your way through that twilight, don’t begin the path, and do not take up a meditation practice.

So Why Do It?

Ultimately, the answer to the question “why meditate?” is “I don’t know.” That is meant very literally. The “I” cannot know.

Even though the sense of “I” doesn’t know why, there is still a drive that impels some people to meditate. It is an undercurrent in your life that nags at you that is much deeper than the “I.” You may not fully understand what it is, and you will likely express it in all kinds of ways, but when you hear that there is a way to wake up from the dream of the self, you will be intrigued.

If you are one of these people, you just know it. For you, the reason to practice is because you are driven to do so. You’ve likely tried to be a “better person” and that seems empty. Trying to relax seems like a temporary fix to a problem with no name. The drive that moves you to meditate is the same one that has moved thousands of enlightened folks over centuries: you know something isn’t right but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

This is what is meant by the first noble truth of Buddhism; that life is “suffering.” More accurately, the dream called “me” is dissatisfying. If you feel that in your heart, if you are tired of being in the dream, you don’t need any more reason than that to meditate.

How to Meditate

Time to tame the monkey-mind

Instructions for Vispassana

What to do with your body

One thing that beginning meditators often get confused about is the importance of posture. It simply isn’t as important as it is often made out to be. Forget what you may have been told about sitting in full lotus and becoming like a Buddha statue – you don’t need any of that. There is nothing magical about difficult sitting poses, and if they are painful for you please don’t use them. They are the product of a particular culture and time, and have very little to do with waking up itself. If you find that sitting on a meditation cushion gets you in the right frame of mind, then go for it, but please don’t think that the cushion or the particular posture does anything special to wake you up. It doesn’t.

What is needed for productive meditation is to simply strike a balance between being comfortable and alert. You should not be in pain and you should not be too comfy. You don’t want to spend the whole meditation session gritting your teeth and wishing it were over, and you also don’t want to be so relaxed that you fall asleep. I prefer to meditate on a folding beach chair that is not very cushy. It is comfortable enough that I can sit for extended periods of time, without being so comfortable that I snooze.

Pick a spot to meditate where you aren’t going to be too disturbed by what others are doing. If you are sitting in a room where everyone likes to come and watch TV, then you’re setting yourself up to veg-out with TV, not meditate. However, you do not need to go into a cave or to a mountain top. Just go to your own room. I prefer to meditate on a on my back porch (called a “lanai” in Hawaii). I can usually get a solid 20 minutes of quiet time there.

How long should I meditate?

If you have never kept a regular meditation, you’ll find it hard to sit for very long at all. Five minutes will seem like a lot of time, and you’ll be checking your watch in disbelief after three minutes. I recommend being kind to yourself and not pushing too hard (that could end up backfiring in the meditation). So if you are finding it hard to sit for longer than 10 minutes, then make 10 minutes your goal. Do 10 minutes once a day for four days. Then add five minutes and maintain that for four days. Keep adding time gradually until you are at 30 minutes. A daily 30-minute sit, accompanied by periodic longer sits should be your goal in the beginning. Once you are more advanced, you can explore lots of ways to vary sitting times and work retreats into your schedule (however, retreats are not necessary).

What to do with your mind

So you’ve got a good chair and a nice secluded spot. You are committed to sitting for at least 10 minutes and want to work up to 30. But once your butt is on the chair, what do you actually do?

First, Build Some Concentration

Concentration is the ability to put the mind on one thing, called an “object”, and leave it there. It is not Vipassana, but it is part of Vipassana, and you need it to get the meditation going. If you were to think of Vipassana as running, getting concentrated is like the warm-up. You need to get stretched and moving before you can run a few miles, especially if you are not used to running. With Vipassana, you need to get the mind steady, stable and strong before you start using it for Vipassana, and that is what concentration does.

To concentrate the mind watch the breath go in and out at one spot (you pick the spot – I watch it at the upper lip or at the tip of the nose, but you can watch it at the abdomen or anywhere), and count 10 breaths. If you can count ten breaths without getting lost, then you are building concentration pretty well, but if you are a beginner then a lot of thoughts will pop up and distract you. You may even lose count of the breaths. No problem. Just go back to 1 and start counting back up to 10. No one needs to know but you, and it is certainly not a competition, so don’t worry about it. If you notice a thought popping up but haven’t lost count, make a brief note in your mind of what the thought is. Give it a label, such as “memory” or “planning” or “fantasy.” As soon as you give it a label just get right back to counting. By giving it a label you are taking away the thought’s power to pull you into a story and get you off-track in the meditation, so practice labeling often! You will need it in the next part of the meditation.

Continue with the counting meditation until you can count up to 10 breaths without losing track, and once you have done so then continue from 10 back to 1. This practice helps to increase your mindfulness of what is occurring in the present moment by giving you instant feedback if you are being unmindful (you’ll forget what number you’re on). This practice also builds concentration by helping you to focus on one thing: the breath. Once you have been able to go up to 10 and back down to 1 several times without losing track of what number you are on, then you have sufficient concentration to begin Vipassana. (This is a bit of an arbitrary cut-off. Each person’s need for concentration practice will be a little different and I highly recommend getting with a teacher to work these things out).

Next, Make Some Notes

Now that you can keep your mind stable enough to stay with one thing for a short period of time, you are ready to use that stability to investigate reality and do Vipassana proper.

When we think of “investigating” something what normally comes to mind is asking lots of questions, and “investigating reality” can sound like a philosophical exercise, but it is not – it is the opposite. Philosophical contemplation requires discursive thinking where the mind is allowed to follow a line of questioning wherever it goes. In meditation though, you want to NOT follow your thoughts, but rather just watch them arise and drop them. This is a subtle shift, but it is fundamental. It is a very different thing to have a thought and take it up and get interested in it, and to have that same thought but simply to recognize that it is only a thought and not get caught up in it. The same with body sensations. You can experience a body sensation as something of great interest or simply watch it. Same with emotions, and the same with liking, disliking and being neutral to things. All of these things can be objectified and transformed into meditation objects that the mind simply watches without getting caught up in them. This is the essence of Vipassana: you objectify whatever you experience in the moment, watch it dispassionately, and don’t get caught up in it. By doing this, the awareness that is doing the watching becomes “disembedded” as my teacher describes it. As disembedding happens you begin to experience liberation from all the things that the body and mind are normally caught up in, what the Buddha described as “samsara.” The more effectively you disembed the more powerful the experience of liberation.

To disembed from thoughts, sensations, emotions and preferences, you only need to do one thing: note them. Simply make a mental note of the experience as it is happening. For example if you have a thought, note “thought”, if you have an itch, note “itch” and so on. It may sound too simple to really work, but it does. By making a note of what you are experiencing in the moment you are taking a clear snapshot of that split second of reality and seeing it for what it is. You are not getting caught up in the story of what is happening, you are simply watching the process of what is happening. At first it will feel a little awkward, and you may have difficulty finding the right words to note what you are experiencing, but don’t worry, keep trying. It takes some time and practice to get to a point where it feels easy and natural.

So, you’ve got the right chair, you have a place to sit, you’ve sat and counted your breath up to 10 and back to 1 several times and you are ready to begin Vipassana. You begin by noting what it is that you have been focused on thus far: the breath. Note “breathing”, or “rising” or “falling” or whatever suits you. Now that you have shifted to Vipassana you do not have to keep the mind on the breath, so let it wander, but use the breath as an anchor object and return to it periodically. You notice a sound outside, so you note “hearing”, and the mind immediately recognizes that the sound is the dog barking and an image of the dog pops into the mind and you note “image.” You love that dog, and begin experiencing warm feelings. You note “love” and as memories of the times you have played with the dog come up in your mind you note “remembering.” Then you remember that the neighbor has complained about the barking, and you note “irritation” and an image of the neighbor comes into your mind and you note “image.” You notice the breath leaving your nose and note “falling”, and then notice the feeling of the chair on your legs and note “pressure.” And so on…

This is the technique for Vipassana: note your experience as it happens in the moment. Imagine that reality is sending thoughts, sensations, and emotions to you down a conveyor belt and you have to put a post-it note on each one as it goes by, and on each post-it note is a one or two-word phrase summarizing what it is. You do not take anything off the conveyor belt, and you do not get caught up in any new shiny thing that comes down the conveyor belt. You simply do your job and note it and let it go.

Why is it called “practice?”

When we sit in meditation we are building up skills that we will use all day long. During a period of sitting meditation you are practicing concentration and practicing Vipassana, but when you get up from meditation you are no longer practicing them – you’re using them. Noting seems awkward at first and you are likely to only do it during sitting meditation, but the goal is to note your experiences throughout your day, to be more mindful, more aware and awake, during each moment of our lives. This transition, from practicing the technique “on the cushion” to using the technique “off the cushion”, is an important turning point for a meditator. When this begins to happen, first with great effort, then with more and more ease, the effect of the meditation becomes very powerful. One makes swift progress along the path, and soon insights begin to arise during wakeful moments throughout the day. If you have managed to take your sitting practice and use the skills in daily life, you are well on your way to waking up.

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.