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Buddhist No-Self

Robert Waxman

May 5, 2011

Abstract

The core teachings of Buddhism focus on healing the mind, body, and spirit. Most individuals will suffer emotional, physical, and spiritual pain during their lives, and Buddhism offers a cure to heal their suffering. To begin the healing process, the individual can read the primary teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Once individuals understand the fundamental doctrines of Buddhism, they can choose to either embrace or dismiss these teachings. For those Western-minded skeptics, the healing practices of Buddhism may appear to be unfamiliar or fanciful. However, those with an open mind will realize that Buddhist healing methods offer many alternate techniques for restoring balance to the human being. Such healing methods have been evolving over the past 2,500 years. Especially important is the topic of the false self and its detrimental effects on body, mind, and spirit. Of equal importance is the notion of the true self and its beneficial effects on the individual's worldview and overall health. This paper will explore the topic of Buddhist healing and the ways in which the individual may be relieved from pain and suffering.

The Buddha said, "My dharma is the practice of non-practice." Practice in a way that does not tire you out, but gives your body, emotions, and consciousness a chance to rest. Stopping, calming, and resting are preconditions for healing. If we cannot stop, the course of our destruction will just continue. The world needs healing. Individuals, communities, and nations need healing. (Hanh, 1999, p. 27)

For healing to take place, suffering must recognized as part of the human condition, and there must be an identification of the causes of suffering. In Buddha's Second Noble Truth, the gist of the teaching is to understand the reasons for suffering. Once there is an identification of the source of suffering, the process of healing can begin by practicing the tenets of the Eight Fold Path.

Welwood (2000) speaks about the psychological issue of the false self as a major cause of suffering (p. 140). He contends that the false self causes distress because individuals are not being true to themselves:

The first and most difficult step is to expose this wound - our disconnectedness from our larger being, and the suffering it creates. In this pain is our healing. If we turn away from it, we only add another link in the chain of contraction, and denial that constitutes our dis-ease. If we are open to it, however, it will put us direct contact with those aspects of our experience we have cut-off or denied. The first step in healing is to acknowledge our disease. (p. 140)  

The issue of the false self deserves further discussion as it relates to Buddhist healing. If this type of neurosis is a primary cause of mental anguish, then it is worthwhile to explore the nature of the false self and the true self as referred to in philosophy and psychology.

In Ernest Becker's (1973) Pulitzer Prize winning book, Denial of Death, the author speaks about Soren Kierkegaard's (1813-1855) definition of the "symbolic self", which is similar to the notion of the false self. Becker, a cultural anthropologist, believes that Kierkegaard was an early theorist of psychosis, and Kierkegaard describes the symbolic self as causing the type of pain and suffering that Buddhism speaks of in the Four Noble Truths. According to Becker, Kierkegaard was interested in restoring the individual's mental health by reversing the effects of cultural pressures on the individual. Kierkegaard contends that the individual creates the symbolic self as a coping mechanism, which is the primary cause of mental imbalances and ill health:

Kierkegaard gave his psychological description because he had a glimpse of the freedom for man. He was a theorist of the open personality, of human possibility. In this pursuit, present-day psychiatry lags far behind him. Kierkegaard had no easy idea of what "health" is. But he knew what it was not; it was not normal adjustment -anything but that, as he has taken such excruciating analytical pains to show us. To be a "normal cultural man" is, for Kierkegaard, to be sick - whether he knows it or not: "there is such a thing as fictitious health." But Kierkegaard not only posed the question, he also answered it. If health is not "cultural normality," then, it must refer to something else, must point beyond man's usual situation, his habitual ideas. Mental health, in a word is not typical, but ideal-typical. It is something far beyond man, something to be achieved, striven for, something that leads beyond man himself. The "healthy" person, the true individual, the self-realized soul, the "real" man, is the one who has transcended himself. (p. 86)

According to Becker's (1973) interpretation of Kierkegaard's theories on mental health, there appears to be a similarity with the Buddhist notion of the individual's ego creating a false sense of self. In the Buddhist sense, the ego is the false self, which is maya or illusion. With Kierkegaard and in Buddhism, the ego is pushing the individual to keep pace with cultural, societal, religious, and historical norms, which bolster the individual's feelings of self-worth and allow the individual to feel "normal." Unfortunately, this frenzied process of keeping up with cultural normalcy causes individuals to sacrifice their true passions for the sake of outward appearances.  Such individuals may also be fearful of being ridiculed, or ostracized by others. Consequently, individuals repress their true selves by convincing "themselves" that society knows what is best for them. These individuals behave in accordance with socially acceptable norms and seek acceptance from others. However, the sacrificing of the true self will eventually catch up with these individuals, and they will suffer mental, physical, or spiritual pain because of the repression of their natural inclinations.

Kierkegaard is in agreement with the Buddhist notion that a person can heal the mind by rising above the false nature of the self. This process of self-realization allows individuals to be free from the pressures of society and live life in accordance with their inner truths. As individuals become more enlightened to nature of reality, their true inner nature will begin to unfold, and they will no longer feel repressed or limited. According to Kierkegaard and the healing practices of Buddhism, the individual feels exhilarating joyfulness from achieving personal freedom, which helps to heal the mind, body, and spirit. Therefore, when individuals live in freedom and in harmony with their true selves, they will feel whole, content, and at peace.

 On the topic of personal freedom, humanistic philosopher Eric Fromm (1941) speaks about the benefits of self-realization, which coincides with Buddhist healing practices. In his book Escape from Freedom (1941), Fromm discusses the issue of spontaneity as one of the primary benefits of being free from the dictates of society. While most of his book focuses on the individual's feelings of powerlessness, isolation and insecurities, Fromm also offers a philosophy of hope with the intention of removing these fears. Fromm's solution to achieving self-realization is similar to Kierkegaard's theory on this subject and the teachings of Buddhist healing practices:

We believe that there is a positive answer, that the process of growing freedom does not constitute a vicious circle, and that man can be free and yet not alone, critical and yet not filled with doubts, independent and yet an integral part of mankind. This freedom man can attain by the realization of his self, by being himself. What is the realization of the self? Idealistic philosophers have believed that self-realization can be achieved by intellectual insight alone. They have insisted upon splitting human personality, so that man's nature may be suppressed guarded by his reason. We believe that the realization of the self is accomplished not only by an act of thinking but also by the realization of man's total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the extent to which they are expressed. In other words, positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality. (p. 258)

Although Kierkegaard and Fromm (1941) are both discussing the benefits of self-realization, Fromm is adding an emotional component to the healing of the mind. He is also suggesting that fully integrated human beings should express their unique qualities in everyday life without hesitation. These types of individuals are free from stress, inhibitions, and the pressures created by society. Additionally, such individuals do not feel the need to conform to cultural patterns that are not in alignment with their true selves. To illustrate this theory, Fromm uses the example of an artist who lives creatively, spontaneously, and without feeling obligated to behave like others (p. 259). He says that independent artists have no need to create a false self because their inner truths are essential to their creative identities. Accordingly, their creative talent is manifesting itself in their artwork. Conversely, the commercial artist who is only concerned with selling art (or becoming famous) has a different intentionality that seeks to impress others and gain their approval. In this case, the artist is relying on the false self to create an intriguing persona to attract the attention and publicity for commercial purposes. However, these artists are drawing on the power of their egos by attempting to simulate an expression of their true selves. Such artists are not reflecting the emotions of their inner world, and therefore, a sense of authentic introspection is lacking in their work. Consequently, Kierkegaard, Fromm, and Buddhist teachings find agreement on the point that there cannot be a simulation of the true self, nor can there be a simulation of an expression of the true self. The true self is simply being "true to thy self." Accordingly, the false self, in combination with the ego, is not the real person. Therefore, the unreal person, who wears the mask of the false self, is attempting to obtain recognition, inflate self-image, and receive maximum compensation for uninspired work. Thus, it becomes clear that the false self is one of the major causes of suffering for the individual. Eventually, these individuals will want to find a method of healing to relieve such suffering. Buddhism offers the type of healing that is effective when the mind is overwrought because of wrong intentions, wrong concentration, wrong livelihood, wrong actions, wrong speech, wrong mindfulness, wrong views, and wrong efforts (issues resolved through the Eightfold Path). 

The notion of finding the true self was the goal of psychologist Carl Rogers (1961) in his well-known book, On Becoming a Person. In a striking similarity with Buddhist healing techniques, Rogers speaks about peeling away one layer at a time to discover who the real person truly is (p. 123). He confirms that most of his clients wanted to know "who they are?" and "how they could become themselves?" (p. 123). While developing his unique form of psychological therapy, Rogers describes his experiences with patients who were seeking freedom from the limitations of the false self:

I have stated that in a favorable psychological climate a process of becoming takes place; that here the individual drops one after another of the defensive masks with which he has faced life; that he experiences fully the hidden aspects of himself; that he discovers in these experiences the stranger who has been living behind these masks, the stranger who is himself. I have tried to give my picture of the characteristic attributes of the person who emerges; a person who is more open to all of the elements of his organic experience; a person who is developing a trust in his own organism as an instrument of sensitive living; a person who accepts the locus of evaluation as residing within himself; a person who is learning to live his life as a participant in a fluid, ongoing process, in which he is continually discovering new aspects of himself in the flow of his experience.  (p. 124)        

In this encapsulation of his theory, Rogers (1961) is describing the false self as a series of masks that are hiding the true person underneath. He uses the word "organic" to describe the natural experiences that are desirable for individuals, which can open their minds to discovering who they really are. This process of healing the mind is congruent with Buddhist teachings of stripping the ego of its power and letting go of attachments in the outer world. There is also a reference by Rogers, which encourages the patient to allow the natural flow of events. This concept directly corresponds to the Buddhist philosophy of life. In summary, Rogers posits that individuals are not living as their true selves, and it is necessary to clear away mental obstructions of societal conditioning before they can awaken to who they truly are. Buddhist healing has supported this notion for over 2500 years.       

Turning to Tibetan Buddhism, in Plaken's (2008) article "Psychiatry in Tibetan Buddhism: Madness and Its Cure Seen Through the Lens of Religious and National History," the author discusses the battle between true self and the false self. He contends that the false self feels the effects of past karma, which perpetuates the cycle of suffering and attachment to objects of desire. Conversely, the true self is aware of the illusory nature of reality and is developing compassion, loving kindness, and wisdom:      

Tibetan Buddhists view the self as the problem, and that getting rid of the self or of identity leads to enhanced karma and closer approximation to ultimate enlightenment, was incomplete and distorted. We learned there is a notion of selves in conflict in Tibetan Buddhism that is reminiscent of Winnicott's (1960/1965) notions of a true self and a false self. One might think of the false self in Tibetan Buddhism as involving those aspects of a person governed by envy, hatred, ignorance, and desire, while the true self, which is to be cultivated, recognizes the impermanence and emptiness of life, the value of compassion and the ultimate wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism. According to Professor Kevin Volkan (2005), the "self" in Buddhism is responsible for naming and then becoming attached to the things it has named or conceptualized. Out of human need, the self inevitably seeks to preserve the attachment to the things it has named and conceptualized, but does so in a world of utter impermanence. One's judgment becomes clouded and one's karma adversely affected by the pursuit of these need-based efforts to hold onto attachments to the creations of the self. According to Volkan, then, the project of Tibetan Buddhism is to reduce the grasping of the self, allowing it to become more fluid and less needy. Letting go of these needs is intended to reduce the amount of negative karma generated in life and the amount of delusion about the world. Perhaps this is reminiscent of the depressive position. (p. 418)

Plaken (2008) posits that the false self loses its power as the individual expends negative karma. As the individual purifies the nature of the self, the true self rises up, while the false self dissolves away. An example of such an individual is Ebenezer Scrooge, who overcomes his negative karma on Christmas Eve and discovers his true self on Christmas morning. Scrooge loses his attachment to money during the night, and the next morning he buys the largest turkey in town as a gift for the Cratchit family. He also develops a strong feeling of compassion for Tiny Tim and wants the boy to live. Scrooge's mind heals through the process of self-realization (with the help of three ghosts), and he gains a deep understanding of his selfishness and the misery he inflicted on others during his life.              

Discussion

If the false self is a major cause of suffering, how can Buddhist healing treat or cure the psychological wounds that have manifested within the individual?  Welwood (2000) identifies Buddhist methods or paths that can assist the individual in the healing process and stop the causes of suffering (the Third Noble Truth). First, he describes the practice of meditation as a technique for eliminating painful thoughts that are associated with the false self:

Especially in this era of advanced future shock, when the meaning holding people's lives together erode ever more rapidly, identity crises inevitably escalate at an ever-increasing rate. Meditation is a way of learning to accept and welcome this, by letting go and falling apart gracefully. As we sit, we can see that most of our thoughts are about ourselves; in fact, they are our way of trying to keep ourselves together from moment to moment. When we no longer reference these thoughts, the self we've been trying to hold together in a nice, neat package begins unraveling right before our very eyes. As soon as we stop trying to glue it together, it quickly comes unglued. This allows us to see how we are constructing and maintaining it, and how that causes endless tension and stress. (p. 154)  

Meditation is an effective psychological tool for deconstructing the false self and for allowing the true self to emerge. Through meditation, the individual learns to control the mind, and the process of healing occurs as a natural by-product of eliminating negative, self-defeating thoughts. Meditation is a useful method for healing because it allows the individual to become self-aware, enlightened, selfless, wise, and joyful. Through meditation, the individual removes conditioned thoughts and eliminates destructive behaviors that perpetuate pain and suffering. Therefore, meditation is one of the most popular forms of Buddhist healing, which also increases self-knowledge and allows the individual to transition from a false sense of self to a true one.

Welwood (2000) speaks of a method of Buddhist healing that involves changing the individual's view of reality (p. 141). He says that "being present in the moment" helps the individual to understand the truth about reality and allows the individual to open the mind:

Instead of building bigger or fancier boxes, we need to develop the antidote to all our partial views of reality: being present with our experience as it is. This is unconditional presence. We could also call it beginner's mind. As Suzuki Roshi put it, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's there are few." We have all become experts at being ourselves, and in so doing we have lost our ability to be present with our experience in a fresh, open-minded way. (p. 141)    

By maintaining a presence of full awareness, the individual is not worrying about false realities, or expending mental energy on illusory possibilities or perceived probabilities. Thus, the mind is under control and is focusing on the "now moment." Accordingly, the mind replaces its continuous ramblings with a worldview that includes right mindfulness, right view, right concentration, right intention, right livelihood, right effort, right action, and right speech (the Eightfold Path). Those individuals who practice these fundamental Buddhist precepts on a daily basis will begin to feel the healing effects within a short time.  

Cantwell (1995) comments on the types of thoughts emanating in the mind in her article "The Tibetan Medical Tradition, and Tibetan Approaches to Healing in the Contemporary World." Cantwell claims that the mind is responsible for creating patterns of behavior, which will either contribute to an individual's sense of well-being, or result in some form of ill health (p. 159). She contends that most individuals suffer from a true lack of identity, which corresponds to the problem of the false self and its emphasis on attachments, desire, and ego-based gratification:

In Tibetan Buddhism, the mind is said to be the "King," generating physical, psychological, and emotional habits patterns, which create the conditions leading to future happiness and unhappiness, and which are the driving force of the whole of phenomenal existence. The sorry state of affairs of worldly existence is said to be marked by suffering, impermanence, and the lack of any real or lasting individual identity. Its root cause is the fundamental state of ignorance, which gives rise to the "three poisons" - attachment or desire, aversion or hatred, and indifference or delusion. This simple set of three qualities are sometimes elaborated into a group of five, or other longer lists of emotional afflictions. (p. 159)

This description by Cantwell supports the notion that the mind is the most important aspect of the human being. Therefore, by directing the mind toward the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the individual will begin thinking in a manner that is conducive to healing.

Another method of Buddhist healing involves the giving of loving kindness. In an article by Dr. Steven Aung (1996) "Loving Kindness - The Essential Buddhist Contribution to Primary Care" the author discusses the importance of physicians' attitudes toward their patients and the practice of "metta," which are acts of compassion and loving kindness. Aung explains that effective Buddhist healing should include right mindfulness radiating from the physician. Therefore, physicians should assimilate and practice the virtues of Buddhism, so they can treat their patients in the best manner possible. Naturally, the patient will react to the demeanor of the physician, and thus, it is essential that the physician treat the patient with loving kindness, compassion, joy, and selflessness:   

The practice of loving kindness (metta) requires considerable discipline from the physician. It must be given with: Saydana (selflessness), signifying that one must serve others without any expectation of reward; karuna (compassion), implying gentle, warm, open, and intelligent communication; Mudita (pure joy) at the good fortune of others. Thus, the "pill" that is included in every Buddhist healing act is comprised of loving kindness, selflessness, compassion, and sympathetic joy. These are among the most unusual and, indeed, the most humane "drugs" in any preventive or treatment program, because they must be synthesized from within the body, mind, and spirit of the physician. Inherent in the practice of metta is the realization that physicians must first heal themselves, that they commit themselves to attain and sustain attitude of genuine, heartfelt, loving kindness. These ideas are evident in the teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha: By patience and forbearance, by a nonviolent and harmless life, by loving kindness and compassion. (p. 1)

Aung makes an important point about physicians healing themselves first, before attempting to heal others. Physicians who are insensitive to their patients' needs and who have not developed "bedside manners" will usually cause their patients to feel uncomfortable and nervous. When patients are sick, the last thing they want to feel is additional stress or tension. Therefore, physicians who have caring dispositions will find that their patients will respond in like manner to their tenderness, sensitivity, and good-natured approach. Such patients will also tend to relax, which helps to advance the healing process. Interestingly, Aung takes this point much further. He says that physicians are not just individuals who heal others. They are also human beings who should create an emotional bond with the patient and should have a natural sense of empathy for "the other." He is making it clear that this type of humanity should be the standard mindset for physicians who are dedicating their lives to the healing process.

Conclusion

In this paper, the false self is the main topic of discussion because it is a primary cause of pain and suffering for human beings. The citations on this subject by Kierkegaard, Becker, Fromm, Rogers, and Welwood support the notion that the false self is repressing the true passions and desires of the individual, and thus, blocking their inner growth. Such individuals who are conforming to the demands of society are in need of creating an outer persona, which allows them to find acceptance by others. The driving force behind their outer persona is the ego, which creates many layers of the falsity and masks the true nature of the real person. As time goes by, the true self struggles to emerge into the psyche of the individual, which causes an inner battle to occur between the true and false selves. This on-going battle creates conflict, despair, frustration, and confusion within the individual, and there comes a time when the pain and suffering becomes unbearable. Finally, individuals arrive at a juncture in life when they realize they are inflicting pain upon themselves, and have the opportunity to implement Buddhist healing techniques to restore health to the mind, body, and spirit.

Once individuals have made the commitment to eliminate their false beliefs, their thinking patterns will change as they follow the principles of the Four Noble Truths. Consequently, they need to do the following, acknowledge the existence of suffering, identify the causes of suffering, put an end to the causes of suffering, and subsequently, follow the teachings of the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path will direct individuals to be mindful in the present moment, seek a vocation that fits their talents, meditate (concentrate) on a daily basis, have good intentions, make good-faith efforts, speak well of others, act for the common good, and have a positive worldview. These basic Buddhist principles lay the groundwork for healing.

The elimination of the false self and the restoration of the true self allow individuals to be free from the limitations of culture, society, organized religion, etc. When the true self becomes the real person, there is a cessation of stress associated with maintaining a false persona. Additionally, for Buddhist physicians in the health care field who are treating other Buddhists, they need to follow the precepts of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Accordingly, they will naturally practice compassion and loving kindness while treating their patients. Such Buddhist caregivers are also and life coaches for those who are ill, and they carry a great responsibility to "walk the walk" in Buddhist healing. Unless such caregivers believe in the Buddhist path to leading a balanced life, they will not set a good example for those receiving treatment from them. Therefore, individuals who are caring for the sick should have a belief system based in Buddhist principles, if they are encouraging their patients to live according to such principles to maintain health.   

References

Aung, S. K. (1996) Loving kindness: The essential Buddhist contribution to primary care. Human Medicine Health Care, 12(2). Retrieved from http://www.humanehealthcare.com/Article.asp?art_id=621

Becker, E. (1973). Denial of death. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Cantwell, C. (1995). The Tibetan medical tradition, and Tibetan approaches to healing in the contemporary world. Kalash: A Journal of Himalayan Studies, 17(3), 157-184. Retrieved from http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/kailash/pdf/kailash_17_0304_full.pdf#page=73

Hanh, T. N. (1998). The heart of the Buddha's teaching. Berkeley: CA: Parallax Press. 

Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom. Rhinehart.

Plakun, E. M. (2008). Psychiatry in Tibetan Buddhism: Madness and Its Cure Seen Through the Lens of Religious and National history. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 36(3), 415-431. Retrieved from ProQuest database http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.humanisticpsychology.org:2048/pqdweb?index=14&did=1580045321&SrchMode=2&sid=6&Fmt=6&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1298410220&clientId=20668

Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a psychology of awakening: Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the path of spiritual transformation. Boston, MA: Shambala. 

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