Becoming Nobody

Mark Medweth
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University

Whether we experience confusion, frustration, or enjoyment, such experiences take place through the mind. Thus, whether our interests are psychological, scientific, or religious in nature, it would seem important for us to understand the workings of the brain. If the ego or "self" (interchangeable words in Buddhist philosophy) plays a role in these experiences as well as abnormal development, as some psychologies would propose, we should more carefully examine what part they play in our psychological well being. An examination of some basic tenets concerning the ego, "self," or "I" from a Buddhist perspective reveals a very different view from traditional Western personality theories.

The Western Self

The importance of the ego or "self" which emanates from Western psychology is explicitly extensive. Ego Psychology, typified by Freud, emphasizes the development of the capabilities of the ego (Muzika, 1990). Cognitive-behavioural therapy deals, in part, with inappropriate self-ideas and fosters changes in attitudes we hold about the "self" (Muzika, 1990). Allport lists a strong ego identity as a descriptor of maturity while Erikson adds ego-integrity to his psychosocial stages of the life cycle (Goleman, 1981). Generally speaking, a wide-spread Western assumption suggests that the ego, "self," or "I" is thought of as a separate system, apart from such aspects as the body, spirit, or even matter in some cases (Welwood, 1976).

While Eastern perspectives of psychology may agree with some Western views of development and treatment (De Silva, 1985), there is a fundamental disagreement as to whether the ego is necessary for normal psychological functioning (Nitis, 1989). In fact, in regarding the conception of "self" as the main source of all suffering, putting an end to the "self" is a key focus of Buddhist psychology. While there are more than 200 varieties of psychotherapy, few of these would suggest that the "self" is an illusion (Muzika, 1990). Most would, in fact, attempt to strengthen such aspects of the person, making them more capable of bearing the pain of one's experience. Since Western traditions would highlight the disappearance of self-other boundaries in major psychoses and borderline cases, it is understandable that the idea of transcending the "self" or ego might be dismissed as regressive psychopathology (Walsh, 1988). However, some of the greatest Buddhist scholars maintain that Western science has yet to learn enough about the brain to appreciate the Eastern understanding of the mind and its implications (Komito, 1983). An examination of general Buddhist views of the "self" leaves the West with much to think about.

An Eastern View of Self

Some Eastern scholars would agree with Freud and others that ego formation is an essential process for the self preservation and protection of the developing organism initially (Nitis, 1989). However, one of the most perniciously false views which is explicitly criticized by Buddhism has been the belief in a fixed-self or ego (Goleman, 1981). Buddhists would suggest that as the ego begins to turn back on itself, exploring its own creation, it provides the intellect with the capacity to identify and classify, thus initiating the attempt to establish itself as a real and solid entity (Nitis, 1989). In other words, the ego or "self" is nothing more than a process of self-deception attempting to provide a basis for security. As a result we begin to use words like "self," and "I." Buddhists would warn us, however, that such words do not actually refer to something concrete but are simply grammatical devices (Giles, 1993).

The Dalai Lama, among others, suggests two kinds of truths for consideration: conventional and ultimate. The words "self" and "I" are used by convention and are necessary in building a strong sense-of-self initially so we can function properly in the world, but these words are not grounded in ultimate reality (Rahula, 1974; Komito, 1984). It is the exaggeration of the conventional designations which is the cause of pain and suffering (Kalff, 1983). The exaggeration of importance results in our trying to make ourselves real; if the sense-of-self is simply a construct, it can try to make itself real by objectifying itself in some fashion, but leads to a perpetual failure and underlying sense of lack in the end (Loy, 1992b). Why do we refrain from examining this possibility?

Intellectually, nondifferentiation seems much too painful to accept, so a state of ignorance is activated, thus causing people to neglect their original state of egolessness or selflessness. Yet Buddhists would suggest we transcend conventional designations and explore our true nature, for the personal "self" or "I" is considered pathological (Muzika, 1990).

According to Buddhist theory, a person is simply an aggregation of five elements: physical form, perceptions, feelings, motives, and consciousness (Giles, 1993). Yet none of these elements when considered separately or in combination can be identified with the "self." Since the inherently existing "self" can neither be found as one with the aggregates or different from them, it cannot logically exist (Kalff, 1983). Thus the illusion of having a self arises because we do not examine our experience closely enough. Instead we look only superficially at our feelings, desires, and beliefs, and become identified with them by convention (Muzika, 1990). Walsh (1988) suggests a closer examination reveals that our continuous sense-of-self is selectively constructed from a myriad of mental contents. In fact the experience of "I" is a constantly changing impersonal process and is seen to be increasingly insubstantial the more closely we look at it (Epstein, 1988). This examination reveals an ongoing, overlapping sequence of different mind-moments, as though they were objects in an environment. Looking closely, it becomes clear that each differentiated moment of perception or thought takes on its specific nature or quality by virtue of the spaces that surround them (Welwood, 1976). Thus, distinct thoughts can be isolated as separate moments, as though they are figures against the ground of some larger mind-landscape, fragmenting the notion of a continuous "self." The human personality could therefore be described as "a river that keeps a constant form, seemingly a single identity, though not a single drop is the same as a moment ago" (Hall & Lindzey, 1978, p. 359). The trouble with overlooking these open spaces within the mind-environment and equating thought-events with a "self" is the anxiety that is connected with the defenses of these beliefs. In addition to this error, a sense of consistency in interpersonal interactions and recognition by others of temporal and interpersonal consistency confirms falsely for us that we remain the same (Engler, 1984).

One concept related to the above argument is dependent origination. The "self" that is refuted above is one that is seen as permanent and independent, as most Westerners would posit. However, this notion of self is negated by virtue of the fact that all phenomena arise together in dependence and are thus void of independent existence. This interdependence is referred to as dependent origination (Kalff, 1983). Just as Hume implied that diversity means no identity can exist (Giles, 1993), Buddhists would suggest that the interdependent diversity of elements that make up a person point to no existing "self." Interdependent factors diametrically oppose the Western conception of autonomous, self-grounded consciousness (Loy, 1992b).

A second related concept is the Buddhist notion of emptiness. Emptiness has been a term used to describe many psychological states in the West including the confusing numbness of the psychotic, incomplete feelings of the personality disorders, identity diffusion and existential meaninglessness (Epstein, 1989). Buddhists, however, refer to emptiness as ultimate reality. Emptiness assumes a defining role in the notion of "self"; it is the experience of emptiness that destroys the idea of a continuous, independent individual nature. Unlike many Western misconceptions, emptiness is not an end in itself nor is emptiness considered real in a concrete sense but merely a specific negative of inherent existence (Epstein, 1988). While the ordinary consciousness perceives things as permanent and independent, Buddhists would counter that perceived phenomena are interdependent and thus empty of permanence and without an identity based on their own assumed nature (Komito, 1984). In relation to the sense-of-self, emptiness does not imply (as Westerners have often interpreted) the abandonment or annihilation of the ego, "self," or "I" but simply a recognition that this "self" actually never existed at all (Epstein, 1989).

Buddhism is not an escape from the world but simply a refusal to extend or exaggerate the importance of conventional reality. In so doing, the mind becomes empty of struggle, allowing us to see things as they are in an ultimate sense. Thus, in Buddhist psychology, the empty quality of the mind is regarded as the true nature of a person. To continue to ignore such propositions in the West, however, can have far reaching and possibly deleterious effects.

Implications of Having a Self

The implications of believing in and thus defending a "self" are wide and far reaching. The suffering, pain, discomfort, and frustration we experience from day to day is a result of our delusive sense-of-self (Loy, 1992b). Buddhist psychology has long insisted that the result of the illusive ego necessarily is fear, jealousy, desire, and despair (Nitis, 1989). One basic difficulty we face is the inevitable insecurity we experience: as long as people are convinced they are separate, self-existing, or autonomous, the more uncomfortable they will feel in the world since separation is an insecure position (Loy, 1992b). These experiences of suffering are maintained by the sense of self we entertain. This does not suggest that the feelings of frustration, fear, or discomfort are not real, but that they are born out of, and are held in place by, the false "self" (Tulku, 1974). It is proposed by some psychologies in the East that such problems as self-esteem, depression, fragmentation, worthlessness, and loneliness, are all considered subsets of the more enveloping problem of having this "self" when examined as a clinical condition (Muzika, 1990). Essentially our constant clinging to this false sense-of-self opposes a universe in which all things are in constant flux, where events last no more than a brief moment.

The belief that we have a "self," according to Loy (1992a), can explain several twentieth century obsessions that, while widely accepted in our society, are merely attempts to real-ize the ego, "self," or "I." The first obsession is fame. It seems the "real" world has been captured more and more by newspapers, television and other forms of mass media. Having been conditioned by others that we are real, the tendency to reassure our "being" by capturing the attention of others will escalate. It has been suggested that many people seek fame as an end in itself because of some reality they believe it confers, a reality they somehow lack (Loy, 1992a).

Another pursuit is monetary gain. While money is an effective and necessary medium of exchange, the excessive and relentless pursuit of wealth witnessed in modern times may actually reduce the quality of life one experiences (Loy, 1992a). It seems that money has become the most popular way of accumulating the feeling of being real. Loy states that people used to go to temples and churches to real-ize themselves but with the decline of religious influence over the past several decades, people now real-ize themselves with such substitutes as wealth. A similar argument can be made for technological advancement. Technological achievements appears to be an attempt to create the ultimate security, but is necessarily doomed to failure in a world that ceaselessly changes (Loy, 1992a). The paradox of all of these pursuits surfaces when one considers that the attempt to "get away from something" is disguised as an attempt to "get to somewhere." A consciousness which attempts to make itself real by fixating on, or objectifying, something is subject to constant dissatisfaction, for it is an underlying sense of lack (or wanting) which cannot be fulfilled which propels us (Loy, 1992b).

The Buddhist solution, what some may consider a radical resolution, to all psychological illnesses is bringing an end to the source of suffering. In other words, bringing an end to the "self" and expanding one's consciousness toward a greater, interdependent identification with reality eliminates the suffering brought about by a sense of lack (Muzika, 1990). For such experiences as pride, embarrassment, envy, etc., which are easily brought about by clinging to an illusive "self," cannot occur when one is selfless, so to speak: how can I feel pride if there is no "I" (Giles, 1993)? The correct position then is to see things as they are in an objective fashion without mental projections, to see that no "self" can be identified with the five aggregates, to recognize the reality of emptiness, and lose one's being in the dependent origination of life (Rahula, 1974). To achieve such a state requires the practice of mindfulness meditation.

The Buddhist Theory of Cure

One can only develop excessive attachments or the need to cling to other things and people if one has misinterpreted their own nature. Thus knowledge of one's true nature would serve as an antidote for this misinterpretation. The true nature of impermanence, emptiness, and dependent origination can be realized through meditation, the Buddhist approach to cure. Mindfulness meditation is simply a continuous attempt to retrain attention (Goleman, 1981). Some have described meditation as the path to forgetting the sense-of-self, thereby becoming nothing (Loy, 1992a). The ultimate purpose of Buddhist meditation is not withdrawal from the illusion of "self" but simply a recognition of one's conditioned and erroneous interpretation (Epstein, 1989). In so doing, the influence of the false belief is weakened.

In meditation, we are investigating the "I" which is felt to be permanent and seems to be self-sufficient. Through examining the natural process of the mind, the inherent existence of the "I" is eventually exposed as a delusion (Epstein, 1989). With careful introspection, each successive mental state is seen to be interspersed with innumerable other feelings, all separated by gaps of space, sometimes described as brief flashes of non-personal awareness or spaces without self-interest (Welwood, 1976).

In meditation there is no appeal to some mystical, other world but merely a need to come out from behind the delusion of the "self" which is the root of our trouble. In the end, the result of meditation is a negation of the belief of a permanent individual nature, rather than attachment to emptiness as though it were something in itself (a view the West often assumes) (Epstein, 1989). The "self" is finally seen for what it really is - a collection of fleeting elements (Giles, 1993). Meditation is a necessary response to the bipolar dualism of the "self" being either real or not real. To resolve this dualism, according to Buddhist psychology, one must become nothing if nothing is what the sense-of-self fears (Loy, 1992b). What one fears cannot be resolved if it is not explored.

As you begin to explore this fear through meditation, you begin to see there are discrete units, these very small chunks of consciousness, and you begin to see that they're always changing. Perceiving these units reveals three basic insights of Buddhism...that everything is impermanent...that there's no abiding self...that seeking and clinging to satisfaction is actually the source of suffering (Goleman, 1981, p. 131).

In an ideal situation then, meditation allows the practitioner to experience these three cognitive insights. With continual practice of meditation, we sufficiently refine our attention process so we can observe our true nature, overcoming our previous inability to perceive the more microscopic level of mind-events (Engler, 1988). This refined attention reveals a continuously changing flux of images, thoughts, and emotions; the mind is deconstructed (Walsh, 1988). There is, however, one warning that accompanies the practice of meditation.

What the Buddhist system at the outset presupposes is a fairly intact or "normal" ego in the individual (Engler, 1984). Thus there are many for whom meditation may not be a viable practice, including schizophrenics, psychotics, borderline, and other personality disorder patients. Aside from this, it can be simply stated that Buddhism assumes the usual sense-of-self which people harbour is an illusion and that this claim can be tested directly by any person who diligently and minutely examines mental processes through meditative practices.


It would seem, in studying Buddhist literature, that there is little concern with the every day problems which lead many people to seek psychotherapy (Muzika, 1990). Buddhism lacks a developmental theory of self and seldom dwells on such symptoms as depression, shame, worthlessness, loneliness, hypochondria and more. The one exception to this disregard for feelings is the deep concern that Buddhism has for the general pain associated with becoming attached to other people and objects. Western science must examine more carefully the role that the ego, "self," or "I" plays in psychopathology, something Buddhism has done for more than 2000 years with the long standing conclusion that the desire to become somebody may not be as important as the wisdom of becoming nobody.


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