Adina Morguelan Ascher, PhD, LCSWProfessional Psychotherapy Services 
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Comparing and Contrasting Buddhist and Western Conceptionsof Self

Posted on October 12, 2013 at 6:50 PM

Comparing and Contrasting Buddhist and Western Conceptionsof Self

by Adina Morguelan


                It will be helpful to begin with a brief sketch of the Buddhist concept of the self before beginning to compare it with the Western viewpoint.  According to de Silva (1979), “The Buddha denies the existence of any permanent entity” including the self and sees it rather as a “psycho-physical complex” (p. 16). The Buddhist “law of dependent origination shows the conditionality of all physical and mental phenomena” and it follows from this premise that there is no “abiding substance” to be found in either the physical or the mental manifestations (de Silva, p. 16).  Rahula (1959) echoes this account, “According to Buddhism, the Absolute Truth is that there is nothing absolute in the world, that everything is relative, conditioned and impermanent, and that there is no unchanging, everlasting, absolute substance like self” (p. 39).  Also, the “Buddha denied categorically, in unequivocal terms, in more than one place, the existence of…self, or ego within man or without” (Rahula, p. 57).  Finally, from the Buddhist perspective, “It is the vague feeling ‘I AM’ that creates the idea of self which has no corresponding reality, and to see this truth is to realize Nirvana, which is not very easy” (Rahula, p. 65). 


                Many scholars (e.g., Engler, 1993; Michalon, 2001; Welwood, 2000) assert that the concept of self is central to Western psychoanalytic theory as well as Buddhist psychology, or Abhidhamma.  While both traditions share the common goal of alleviating suffering amongst human beings, the main difference between the two approaches lies in how the self is understood and treated.  On the one hand, for Western psychology, the self is seen as something to be protected and bolstered; achieving a strong sense of egoic identity is seen as an important developmental milestone.  In Buddhism, on the other hand, the self is seen to be the problem; in this view, it is the act of clinging to the idea of a solid and distinct egoic identity that clouds our ability to experience reality as it really is.  


                For example, Engler (1993) writes, “The fact of the self is the central clinical issue in both psychologies.  But the fate of this self is also an issue on which the two psychologies under consideration seem diametrically opposed.  [For Western psychology] the deepest psychopathological problem is the lack of a sense of self…In contrast, from the Buddhist perspective the psychopathological problem is the presence of a self and the feeling of selfhood” (p. 118).  According to Engler, the main therapeutic goal of psychoanalysis is “to ‘regrow’ a basic sense of self” whereas for Buddhism it is to “‘see through’ the illusion or construct of the self” (p.119).  Although the ultimate goals around treatment of the self differ between these traditions, Engler contends that Buddhist psychology and psychoanalytic object relations theory posit similar views on the nature of the self.  For both approaches, “What we take to be our ‘self’ and feel to be so present and real is actually an internalized image…constructed by a selective and imaginative‘remembering’ of past encounters” (Engler, 1993, p. 118).  The tricky part about the self is that we experience it as real and solid even though it is really illusory.  Engler writes, “The sense of self is characterized by a feeling of temporal continuity and sameness over time” (p.118).  


                Likewise, Michalon (2001) writes, “In the West, the self is perceived as an enduring entity…a strong ego is affirmed as a key to success in work, interpersonal relationships, and life in general…ego is strengthened in therapy and low self-esteem is corrected” (p. 207).  In contrast, for Buddhism, “the self is affirmed as a nonenduring entity, a result of ephemeral mental and physical aggregates…an illusion leading to the creation of a sense of false continuity that resists the inevitable impermanence that comes with life” (Michalon, p. 207).  It is this unwillingness to accept the fact of the transient nature of reality that is seen by Buddhism as the root cause of suffering.  Michalon maintains that through sustained practice of Buddhist meditation techniques such as “deep concentration and mindfulness” it is possible to dissolve the boundaries of the separate self and “see deeply into the interconnectedness of a wide range of life experiences” (p. 207).  Despite differences between these traditions in how they treat the self, ultimately Michalon (2001) believes that the “complementarity of the two approaches, when practiced by correctly trained therapists, is gaining greater acceptance in view of their focus on different needs and timing in therapy” (p. 211).  He explains,“Western psychotherapies are expert at addressing intrapsychic conflicts…[whereas] Buddhist psychology address[es] more specifically the cause of our suffering as part of the impermanent nature of our self and its fictional aspects” (Michalon, p. 212). 


                Similarly, Welwood (2000) explains “Western and Eastern psychology do share an importantarea of agreement regarding the nature of the ego identity: they both see it as a construction, fabricated through the power of conditioning” (p. 40).  He goes on to state that, for Buddhism, the self “is the ongoing activity of holding oneself separate, making oneself into something solid and definite, and identifying with this split-off fragment of the experiential field” (Welwood, p. 42). Likewise, for Western psychology, “the conventional self is not something given in the nature of things, but is, rather, a construct…we are trying to establish some kind of sameness from day to day” (Welwood, p.152).  Welwood contends that both Western and Buddhist psychologies see the formation of the sense of self, or ego identity, as a solidifying of impressions that we receive from feedback about ourselves coming from our relationships with others and the outside world.  He states, “In this way we develop an ego identity [and] to form an identity means taking ourselves to be something, based on how others relate to us” (Welwood, p. 106).  


                According to Aronson (2004), Westerners “have oriented ourselves more and more to developing our particular notion of the independent self” (p. 19).  He asserts that we “strive for emotional separateness… [because] to be distinct is to be outstanding” in our culture (Aronson, p. 20).  Drawing on the work of cultural psychologists Richard Shweder and Joan G. Miller, Aronson points out that in the United States, our culture is such that “individuals and their unique preferences matter more than rules of correct behavior or a vision of how the parts of our society relate one with another” (p. 21).  Congruently, Aronson calls attention to the long line of developmental psychologist that have contended “children should grow up to have their own identity and make choices independent of others ’influence” (p. 21).  These culturally embedded attitudes have led most Westerners to highly value and become deeply identified with our independent and extremely individualized selves.  In contrast, for Buddhism, Aronson maintains the self “has no essence or substance that can be found…it does not exist in an ultimate way” (p. 68).  He maintains that, “The various Buddhist schools…all agreed that the mind operates through the conjunction of a variety of functions without a superordinate personal self that has ultimate existence” (Aronson, p. 73).      


                Epstein (1998) asserts along the same lines, “While psychotherapy has a long tradition of encouraging the development of a strong sense of self, Buddhism has an even longer tradition of teaching the value of collapsing that self” (p.xviii).  Epstein (1995) describes how Western psychology has been “preoccupied with…questions of the nature of theself...[and yet] has had trouble providing a satisfactory answer for the problem of the self” because it begins from the premise that the illusory self is a real and solid entity (p. 152).  He also argues that Western “psychology has been suspicious of the wisdom traditions of the world’s great religions because these traditions have preserved a capacity of the self that Western psychology has all but whited out” (Epstein, 1998, p. 85).  Western psychology has viewed “the self as something that has to be developed or improved throughout its one-way journey towards separateness…rather than…as an expanding and contracting, separating and merging organism” (Epstein, 1998, p.85).  In contrast to the Western view of the self, “Buddhism has always made the self’s ability to relax its boundaries the centerpiece of its teachings” (Epstein, 1998, p. xix).  Epstein (1995) proposes that Buddhist practice might help Western psychology better understand the true nature of theself.  He asserts that when Buddhist meditative practices are engaged, “When the powers of concentration and mindfulness are directed onto the actual experience of ‘I,’…what had once seemed very stable suddenly becomes very unstable [and] the reflection that had assumed an independent existence in the psyche is seen for what it always was –a metaphor or mirage” (Epstein, 1995, p. 153). 


                Our inability, especially in Western culture, to recognize the fallacy of our concept of an individual self causes much suffering and could be seen as the root of many of our modern societal problems. Buddhism teaches that “the self is not what we usually think it is and that it has no separate enduring existence as an entity” so that clinging to it cannot provide us with any true security and is ultimately a waste of time and energy (Segall, 2003, p. 98). Consequently, the distinct false self that we create and cling to “separates us from the rest of creation…we believe ourselves to be this free mental thing that stands outside of materiality and causality…[so that] when we wake up to our existential continuity with Being, we realize that when we harm others we are harming ourselves” (Segall, p. 97).  Segall (2003) contends that “Our clinging to a separate, enduring self can become a false refuge from existential anxiety and can impede a genuine awakening to our human condition” (p. 98).  It follows that awakening to the true natureof our relationship with reality leads to the understanding of our interconnectedness with all that is. This realization encourages the development of compassion because it leads to “the understanding that there is no difference between self and other, and that in helping someone else one is helping oneself and all beings” (Segall, p. 101). 


                An integrated Buddhist and Western definition of the self might look somethinglike this: “The emotional and intellectual expression of an experience of otherness in the present” (Twemlow, 2001, p. 13).  Twemlow (2001) asserts that modern Western psychology has begun to arrive at similar conclusions about the nature of the self that echo Buddhist teachings.  He lists the names of several theorists (such as Kirshner, Hegel, Winnicott, Klein, Stern, Hume and Lacan) who have been instrumental in outlining these modern Western psychological perspectives. By way of these theorists, the self has come to be seen as “intersubjective” – “as a verbal construct, rather than a reality in itself” (Twemlow, p. 13).  Furthermore, “the self does not exist until it is interacting and the individual does not exist…until he/she is interacting with the world around” (Tremlow, p. 15).  In elucidating the areas where these Buddhist and Western theories of the self converge and overlap, Tremlow draws attention to the potentialities that may arise from this orientation.  Particularly the emergence of “empathy, especially with those whose values are very different…[and] a less judgmental attitude” (p. 14). 


                If the Western attachment to the idea of a separate and distinct self could be loosened a bit by integrating into our psychological theories a Buddhist understanding of the self as impermanent and illusory then perhaps we could recognize our interconnectedness with Being.  The realization of our lack of solid boundaries and our extreme interconnectedness with all that is might then help us to realize deep compassion towards other living beings and towards the earth itself. This realization has potential for profoundly impacting our experience of and orientation towards the whole of existence.  

 

References


1.  Aronson, Harvey B. (2004). Buddhist Practice on WesternGround. Boston, MS: Shambhala Publication, Inc.  


2.  de Silva, Padmasiri. (1979). Basic Features of BuddhistPsychology. In An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology. New York, NY: Rowman& Littlefield Publishers, Inc.


3.  Engler, John H. (1993). Becoming Somebody and Nobody:Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. In Roger Walsh & Frances Vaughn (Eds.), PathsBeyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision (pp. 118-123). New York, NY: G. P.Putnam’s Sons. 


4.  Epstein, Mark. (1995). Thoughts Without a Thinker. New York,NY: Basic Books. 


5.  Epstein, Mark. (1998). Going to Pieces Without FallingApart. New York, NY: Broadway Books. 


6.  Michalon, Max. (2001). “Selflessness” in the Service of theEgo: Contributions, Limitations and Dangers of Buddhist Psychology for WesternPsychotherapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 55(2), 202-218. 


7.  Rahula, Walpola. (1959). What the Buddha Taught. New York,NY: Grove Press. 


8.  Segall, Seth Robert. (2003). On Being a Non-Buddhist Buddhist.In Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (pp.75-108). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.


9.  Twemlow, Stuart W. (2001). Training Psychotherapists inAttributes of “Mind” from Zen and Psychoanalytic Perspectives, Part I: CorePrinciples, Emptiness, Impermanence, and Paradox. American Journal ofPsychotherapy, 55(1), 1-21.


10.  Welwood, John. (2000). Toward a Psychology of Awakening:Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation.Boston, MS: Shambhala Publication, Inc.  

 

 

Categories: Eastern Religion