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Lions Roar : May 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2007 31 self involves learning to use certain names and pronouns such as I, me, mine, myself—words that create the illusion that there must be some thing being referred to. If the word “cup” refers to this thing I’m drinking coffee out of, then “I” must refer to some- thing too, right? Wrong: this is one of the ways language misleads us, by pointing to something that isn’t there to be found. Yet Buddhism differs from most of modern psychology in two important ways. First, Buddhism emphasizes that there is always something uncomfortable about our constructed sense of self. Much of contemporary psychotherapy is concerned with help- ing us become “well-adjusted.” The ego-self needs to be repaired so it can fit into society and we can play our social roles better. Buddhism isn’t about help- ing us become well-adjusted. A socially well- adjusted ego-self is still a sick ego-self, for there remains something problematical about it. It is still infected by dukkha. This suggests the other way that Buddhism differs from modern psychology. Buddhism agrees that the sense of self can be recon- structed, and that it needs to be reconstructed, but it emphasizes even more that the sense of self needs to be deconstructed, to realize its true empty nature. Awakening to our constructedness is the only real solution to our most fundamental anxiety. Ironi- cally, the problem and its solution both depend upon the same fact: a constructed sense of self is not a real self. Not being a real self, however, is also what enables the sense of self to be decon- structed and reconstructed. And that is what the spiritual path is about. BUT WHY IS A CONSTRUCTED SENSE OF SELF so uncom- fortable? “My” sense of self is composed of mostly habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and acting. That’s all. Those im- permanent processes interact with each other and give rise to a conditioned sense of being a self separate from other selves and things. If you strip away those psychological and physical processes, it’s like peeling off the layers of an onion. When you get to the end, nothing is left. There’s no hard seed or anything else at the core, once the last few thin layers have been peeled away. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing. The basic problem is, we don’t like being nothing. A gaping hole at one’s core is quite distressing. Nothing means there’s no thing to identify with or cling to. Another way to say it is that my nothing-ness means my constructed sense of self is ungrounded, so it is haunted by a basic sense of unreality and insecurity. Intellectually, this situation is not easy to understand, but I suspect that most of us actually have some innate awareness of the problem. In fact, if our sense of self is truly empty in this way, we must have some basic awareness of this problem. Yet it’s a very uncomfortable awareness, because we don’t understand it or know what to do about it. This is one of the great secrets of life: each of us individually experiences this sense of unreality as the feeling that “something is wrong with me.” Growing up is learning to pretend along with everyone else that I’m OK, you’re OK. A lot of social interaction is about reassuring each other and ourselves that we’re all really OK, even though inside we feel we’re not. When we look at other people from the outside, they seem quite solid and real to us, yet each of us feels deep inside that something is not right—something is wrong at the core. Here another modern psychological idea is helpful: repres- sion. Although Freud’s legacy has become quite controversial, his concept of repression, and “the return of the repressed,” remains very important. Repression happens when I become aware of something uncomfortable that I don’t want to deal with, so it is “pushed away” from consciousness. Freud believed that what we mainly repress is our sexual desires. Existential psychology shifts the focus to death: our inability to cope with mortality, the fact that our lives will come to an end, and we don’t know when—maybe soon. For Buddhism, however, fear of death focuses on what will happen in the future, while there is a more basic problem we experience right now: this uncomfortable sense of unreality at our core, which we don’t know how to deal with. Naturally enough, we learn to ignore or repress it, but that doesn’t resolve the problem. The difficulty with repression is that it doesn’t work. What has been repressed returns to conscious- ness one way or another, in a disguised or distorted fashion. This “return of the repressed” is thus a symptom of the original aware- ness we didn’t want to deal with. How does our repressed sense of unreality return to con- sciousness? As a feeling that there is something missing or lack- ing in my life. What is it that’s lacking? How I understand that depends upon the kind of person I am, and the kind of society I live in. The sense that something is wrong with me is too amor- phous. It needs to be given more specific form if I’m to do some- thing about it, and that form usually depends upon how I have been raised. In modern, developed (or “economized”) societies such as the United States, I am likely to understand my lack as not enough money—regardless of how much money I already have. Money is important to us not only because we can buy anything with it, but also because it has become a kind of collec- tive reality symbol. The more money you get, the more real you become! That’s the way we tend to think, anyway. (When a wealthy person arrives somewhere, his or her presence is acknowledged much more than the arrival of a “nobody.”) Because money doesn’t really end dukkha—it can’t fill up the bottomless hole at my core—this way of thinking often becomes a trap. You’re a multi-millionaire but still feel like something is wrong with your If you strip away your psychological and physical processes, when you get to the end nothing is left. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing. The problem is, we don’t like being nothing.