Being Somebody and Being Nobody
In the first chapter of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, Jack Engler sets out to reconcile ‘Buddhist teaching about no-self and newer psychodynamic thinking about the importance of self-development in object-relations theory and self psychology’ (35). He notes that often the use of Buddhism by psychoanalysts has attracted ‘notoriety and criticism’ and it has been condemned for its ‘developmental position’ (35). Engler states that he will set out the case for being “somebody’ and then the case for being “nobody”.
1.On Being Somebody
Engler begins by stating that ‘it takes certain ego capacities just to practice meditation or any spiritual practice’ (36). This is because such practices are ‘based on observing moment-to-moment experience’ and committing oneself to such a routine can ‘strengthen[s] fundamental ego capacities’ (36). The problem is that fro some therapists the idea of “transcending the ego” is meaningless, since “ego” is in this context, ‘a collective term designating the regulatory and integrative functions’ and to lose that, would be ‘to surrender the very faculties that make us human – the capacity to think, plan, remember, anticipate, organize[sic], self-reflect, distinguish reality from fantasy, exercise voluntary control over impulses and behaviour [sic], and love’ (36).
Engler suggests that Buddhist practice does not ‘exempt us from normal developmental tasks’ and this is part of Buddhism’s attraction to Westerners’ (36). However Buddhist teachings are sometimes misinterpreted leading to the following view: ‘I do not need to struggle to find out who I am, what my desires and aspirations are, what my needs are, what my capabilities and responsibilities are, how I am relating to others, and what I could or should do with my life’ (37). In this case, the lack of selfhood relieves this ‘burden’ and the misapplied practices suggest that there is no need ‘to become (psychologically) somebody’ (37).
Engler suggests that Buddhist teachings can also be misapplied in relation to ideas of the self and perfection:
The enlightenment ideal can itself be cathected narcissistically as a version – the mother of all versions! – of the grandiose self: as the acme of personal perfection, with all the mental defilements (kilesas) and fetters (samyojanas) eradicated – the achievement of a purified state of complete self-sufficiency and personal purity from which all badness will be removed, which will be admired by others, and which will be invulnerable to further injury or disappointment. “Perfection” unconsciously comes to mean freedom from symptoms so one’s self will be superior to everyone else’s, the object of their admiration if not envy. (37)
Finally Engler mentions a misguided ‘mirroring or idealizing type of selfobject transference with teachers that remain impermeable to reality-testing for far too long, especially in the case of Asian teachers who are often perceived as powerful beings of special aura, status, and worth’ (37). Engler adds: ‘In their unique presence one can feel special oneself, thereby masking actual self-feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, and shame, or even worse, feelings of being defective or flawed at the core’ (37-38). Engler concludes that there is no way to practice meditation without facing problems in our own characters structures and he is aware that it ‘can serve defensive aims’ (38).
2. Change in Spiritual Practice: Gradual or Sudden? Partial or Complete?
Drawing on an exchange between Philip Kapleau Roshi and a student interviewer, Engler brings out the fact that Buddhist practices will not instantly solve one’s doubts and anxieties about one’s self – in fact, it only draws attention to them. In practice, the path towards enlightenment or kensho is extremely painful and difficult. First, Engler states that the subject must have reached ‘the end of the path’ so that there is a change ‘in our normal relationship to experience in that moment’ (39). In this kind of being, pain can be faced ‘without judgement, censorship, condemnation, or the wish to extrude’ but rather ‘with clarity, openness and compassion’ (39). Similarly, pleasure in the moment does not lead to ‘attraction and clinging’ (39).
Buddhism negatives the ‘reactive approach-avoidance response’ that much of psychoanalysis believes to be innate in human beings (39). Its aim is to discover how to maintain such a state of being in every moment and it is at this point that ‘self-generated suffering’ will be no more. However, this does not happen overnight – this is clear particularly in the Theravada tradition, but also in Buddhism generally and its ‘classical and commentarial traditions’ (39). Rather it occurs in ‘stages or increments, much as change occurs in psychotherapy’ (39). Self-generated suffering continues until one reaches the “extinction” or niroda of ‘unwholesome mental factors’ or samyojanas and this is experienced in four “path-moments” or magga, each of which represents the extinction of ‘a specific group of pathogenic mental factors’ (40). This is the real emphasis of Buddhist teaching according to Engler.
The four groups of magga are as follows:
1. The extinction of ‘core beliefs about the self – “maladaptive cognitions” or “core assumptions” in the language of cognitive psychology – pathogenic beliefs about who we are and how we become free’ (40). E.g. the self as ‘singular, separate, independent, and self identical’ (40). At this stage though the subject can still ‘act in unwholesome, selfish and uncompassionate ways’ (40).
2. Libido and aggression are tackled in the next stage, interpreted in Buddhism as kama-tanha or “desire for sense pleasure” and vyapada or “ill-will”. These are only “weakened” at this stage as they are ‘deeply conditioned’ motivational states (40).
3. Kama-tanha and vyapada are completely eliminated at this stage. Unlike psychoanalysis, Buddhism does not see these drives as inherent to the personality.
4. The last group interrogates mana or ‘the “conceit” of “I am” ’ (41). This factor encourages us to compare our sleves with others and it is ‘the root of all narcissistic striving’ (41).
Engler notes that these stages are similar to those of psychotherapy which tackles: ‘beliefs, perspectives […] amenable to modification’; ‘[c]ore motivational and drive states and their bases in affective reactivity’ and ‘narcissistic investments in the core sense of being a separate self’ (41). The task needs to tackled be in stages. Zen concords with this in differentiating between little and great kensho: ‘The realization of emptiness can be small or large, but it’s just a first glimpse of enlightenment’ (41).
3. The Need for Personal Work
Reaching enlightenment is a difficult task according to Engler and just because a subject has found enlightenment in one area of their life, it does not mean that their journey is at an end. Engler gives the example of teachers who sleep with their students or a monk who while achieving enlightened meditative states, was not able to sympathise or interact with others in an enlightened manner. Engler also notes that practice in the West seems to be different: in the overwhelming need for subjects ‘to deal with emotional and relational problems’ which are not necessarily unravelled in the uncovering of meditation (43). Students may also experience what Zen describes as makyo (‘or manifestations of delusion’) (43-44). In addition, patterns of painful behaviour sometimes return and meditation simply may not solve certain specific problems. A sense of self and self-esteem is essential before a student can follow a meditative path.
4. Limitaions of a Developmental Model
Engler notes that there are problems with the notion of becoming somebody before becoming nobody. A developmental model of this kind privileges spiritual enlightenment of psychological healing and it ignores the possibility of psychological health being improved via meditation. Also you cannot categorise subjects’ development so easily. In addition how can a nobody have a developmental line?
Engler rejects a developmental model and prefers instead to think of ‘spiritual practice’ as ‘multiply determined’ (49). He proceeds by drawing on Suler’s ten psychodynamic issues ‘related to having or not having an autonomous self’, which include using practice to:
1. ‘pursue narcissistic perfection and invulnerability’;
2. ‘calm fears of individuation’; (49)
3. ‘avoid responsibility and accountability’;
4. ‘rationalize [sic] fears of intimacy and closeness’;
5. ‘suppress unwanted or conflictual feelings’;
6. ‘avoid anger, self-assertion and competitiveness by adopting a passive-dependent style’;
7. ‘satisfy superego needs for self-punishment for feelings of unworthiness, shame, or guilt’;
8. ‘escape from internal experience’;
9. ‘devalue reason, intellect, and reflection on one’s motives and behaviour [sic]’;
10. ‘substitute for grief and the need for mourning in the face of loss’ (49-50).
These are motives that have to be overcome.
5. On Being Nobody
Engler now begins to consider what it is to be nobody beginning by considering the psychological self versus the ontological self. What kind of self are Buddhists talking about? Engler answers this question by stating that Buddhists are not talking about ‘the psychologically “differentiated” self’ of Western tradition, ‘am autonomous individual with a sense of differentiated selfhood having its own nuclear ambitions, goals, design, and destiny’ (40). This kind of bounded selfhood was ‘unknown in Buddha’s day’ and in the countries from which Buddhism has emerged, there is much more of a sense of “we”-ness (51). Engler states: ‘The self is experienced as embedded in a matrix of relations and as defined by those relations, not just a matrix of human and social relationships but the more encompassing matrix of relationships within the world of nature, and ultimately the cosmos as a whole’ (51). Still, Buddhism does understand the ‘basic ego’ and ‘normal psychical functioning’ and Engler believes that Buddhist sages have had a very strong sense of what it is to be psychologically healthy (51). Rather the Buddhists aim their criticism at the notion of an ontological self, that is ‘the feeling or belief that there is an inherent, ontological core at the center [sic] of our experience that is separate, substantial, enduring, self-identical’ (52). For Buddhists, this kind of selfhood (the atta) ‘cannot be found in any of the constituents of experience as an autonomous, ontological core’ (52). E.g. a chariot does not have an essence, simply parts.
Engler questions why human beings feel the need to represent the self in this ontological guise. Buddhist teachings do not address this issue. Why do we adapt the self in such a manner? To answer the question, he offers ‘four fundamentally different types of self experience’ that each embody ‘a different core experience of selfhood’ (53).
1. Self as Multiple and Discontinuous
Engler points out that we all act differently at different times with different people. Interacting with others is a learning process and sometimes we experience ourselves as ‘a representation of the other’, while at other times we experience ourselves in relation to an other (54). Most extreme are the alter egos in multiple personalities. So there can ‘be more than one “I”, more than one version of “myself” (55).
2. Self as Integral and Continuous
Usually there is a master version of selfhood which creates ‘a sense of continuity’ (55). This selfhood enables ‘cohesiveness’, ‘personal agency’ and ‘personal worth’ (55). It belongs to us, it is our true self, it is ours to reveal or hide. This kind of selfhood can also work along with a Discontinous Self, so the self can be ‘multiple or singular’ (57). This selfhood is useful in Western societies ‘where the sense of continuity and invariance is no longer carried and maintained by the supra-individual, invariant group’ (57).
3. Unselfconscious Experience
This is a kind of selfhood where a strong ‘sense of self’ is lacking and we become ‘completely at one with what we are doing’ (58). Engler adds that ‘the knower, the knowing and the known are experienced as one’ (58). It is associated with meditation and mysticism, and psychoanalysis tends to see it as a regression. We experience this in everyday experiences (when our name is called and we respond instantaneously) or peak experiences (‘a Zen archer who lets the arrow loose without deciding or intending to let it go’) (59).It is not that one loses selfhood, but the self is organised around experience. Engler adds: ‘It becomes possible when walking, as Zen says, to just walk; when running, to just run’ (62). Unfortunately, this is often ‘temporary and transient’ while problems of self are suppressed (64).
This goes beyond realising that there is no ‘separate self’(‘Thoughts do not need a thinker’) an it reaches towards making a new mode of being via two routes:
• Route One: shifting subjectivity ‘from representations of the self to awareness itself’ (65) – this involves the recognition that one ‘cannot directly observe the observing self’ because ‘we are that awareness’ (66).
• Route Two: directing ‘awareness from the moment-to-moment manifestations and experiences of self’ (67). This involves concentrating on ‘every object of consciousness, without preference or selection’ (67). Such ‘mindfulness’ offers ‘insight into the nature of all representations of self and reality as constructions only and as ungraspable in any real or definitive sense’ (68). Through this route, certain psychological functions that once occurred automatically are subject to awareness. The self is regulated by impermanence as are all objects of perception. There are no ‘things’ because nothing is as solid as that word suggests. Confronting this loss is an important part of the process.
Engler, Jack. ‘Being Somebody and Being Nobody: A re-examination of the Understanding of Self in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism’. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue. Ed. Jeremy D. Safran. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003. 35 -79.