If There Is No Self, How Can I Actualize It?
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” ― Dr. Seuss
The aspect of Buddhist teachings which is often the most challenging for Western psychotherapists is the concept of non-self. Both “self” and “non-self” are complex concepts. However, once their meanings are appropriately unpacked, it becomes clear how psychological inquiry can contribute to dharma practice and how mindfulness meditation can enhance psychodynamic work.
Buddhist meditation practices are designed to allow us to discover directly—experientially, not conceptually— that experience arises and vanishes without there being any individualized core being to whom it is happening. The emphasis in this view is that the experience of self is constructed as a function of the particular causes and conditions in a particular moment. Because self has no existence independent of causes and conditions, it is termed “no-self” or “non-self”. In order to convey the constructed nature of self, Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein uses the metaphor of self as a rainbow—an appearance which arises out of various elements of mind and body.
In the absence of any direct experience to the contrary, each of us naively assumes the view that my ‘self’ sits safely in my body, looking out through its senses on a universe which is other than itself. This idea is philosophically untenable; it has been termed the myth of the isolated mind. We as individuals cannot and do not exist independently from the entire natural world, culture, and other individuals with whom we engage.
We have additional misleading psychological assumptions as well. For example, people tend to assume that “the self” is singular, integral, and continuous, even though this is demonstrably untrue. There are many different facets of subjectivity that must be functionally integrated in order to create the more or less cohesive experience that is referenced in common parlance as “the self.”
In addition to general ideas and assumptions about “self”, people develop all kinds of self-identifications: conclusions about ‘who they are’ based on life experience (including reflections from others). People get very invested in these images and concepts of self and spend a good amount of their life energy trying to confirm and sustain them. In action language, we can call this “selfing”. Selfing often arises as a defensive response to narcissistic injury or threat. It has the function of protecting the vulnerable psyche from psychological pain. By learning to recognize selfing in action – sometimes in the moment, but more often after-the-fact – we can begin to work through any over- investments in self-view.
One of the primary goals of Buddhist practice is to disidentify with what we take to be “self” by recognizing that self is an impermanent composite of interdependent physical, emotional and cognitive components. In everyday and practical terms, this can best be accomplished by learning to recognize how “selfing” lives in our narratives about ourselves and in our behavior with others.
In psychological terms, the key distinction is between healthy and unhealthy narcissism. Healthy narcissism promotes self-actualization – the realization of one’s talents and potentialities. Healthy narcissism is associated with positive self-esteem, accurate reality-testing, and comfortable acceptance of self and others. It allows us to be authentic and to feel comfortable in our own skins, enhancing capacities for autonomy, spontaneity, and creativity. In contrast, unhealthy narcissism manifests as sensitivity to criticism and rebuff and often interferes with the ability to get along with others. It is associated with self-centeredness, defensiveness, arrogance, and grandiosity.
In the framework of Buddhist practice, healthy narcissism facilitates the ability to hold self-view lightly. Unhealthy narcissism, on the other hand, causes people to cling defensively to particular views of self and other, impeding the ability to let go of views which are incongruent with other cues in the flow of experience. By inquiring deeply into the differences between authentic self-experience and defensive forms of selfing, we can begin to discern self-views which are obstacles on the path to realization of non-self.
Such self-reflective inquiry engenders an opportunity to reconstruct our psychological narratives about who we are, including the narrative account of self itself. As the psychoanalyst Roy Schafer has said, “the self is a story – it is the story that there is a self to tell a story to.” Each time we inquire deeply and live into what is unknown, this new awareness begins to reorganize the sense of self as it was previously known. By recognizing that self is not fixed but, rather, consists of patterns of experience that can and do change from situation to situation, self-inquiry optimizes the possibility of pursuing and fulfilling our deepest potentialities, including the Buddhist realization of non-self.