What a Relief: I Do Not Exist! – No-Self and Emptiness in Psychotherapy
Helsinki Psychotherapy Institute, Hamari, Finland.
There is a long history to the impacts of Buddhist psychology on Western psychotherapy.
As early as 1903, William James made a prediction at a guest lecture at Harvard University:
one day, Buddhist pscyhology and its adaptations will be a part of mainstream psychology.
(Kwee, 2010, p. 33) At the moment, one of its areas, mindfulness (sati) is the object of
ever-growing interest and study. For instance, in 2009, 350 scientific articles were published on
mindfulness and its therapeutic adaptations (Black, 2010). In this article, I will discuss two central concepts of Buddhist psychology: no-self and emptiness. Knowing them also is useful for therapists because, in addition to the therapy orientation, they offer the client a new opportunity to be liberated from suffering. They also offer the therapist a position that has a beneficial impact on well-being at work.
What a Relief: I Do Not Exist! No-Self and Emptiness in Psychotherapy
“To discover oneself is to let go oneself and see oneself in everything."-Nagarjuna
”We are both the mirror and the face in it.” -Rumi
Kerttu, 48, had a heart attack diagnosis three years before we met. She had been treated successfully, and during the follow-up meetings, the heart was doing well. Despite the relatively good prognosis, she felt depressed and anxious nearly all the time. Because of the heart surgery, she felt a fear of death at times and spent most of her time at home, not wanting to meet her friends or do anything active. When I asked what she thought of herself, she replied: "I see myself as an old
woman and a heart patient. I am scared and constantly tired, and I'm afraid the attack will come back."
Therapist: "You are scared and you think the attack may possibly come back."
Kerttu: "Yes... and it bothers me."
Therapist: "It bothers you and perhaps takes all the space from who you are."
Kerttu: "That's right!"
Therapist: "Let us spend a moment with this fear. How do you know you're scared?"
Kerttu: "I'm tense and I have butterflies in my stomach... my breathing is interrupted and tense."
Therapist: "And what part of you knows you are scared?"
Kerttu: "Huh? I don't know."
Therapist: "Who or what is it, who is conscious of these thoughts that 'I am old' or feelings that 'I am scared'?"
Kerttu: "I don't know."
Therapist: "Is the part of you who knows you are scared, also scared?"
Kerttu (thinking and probing for a long time): "No, it is larger than my thoughts or feelings.
It does not feel fear or feel it is ill. It just is. It is calm and peaceful. It just is."
Kerttu began to realize that her story is only a story. And it was not even the whole story.
We began to investigate and deconstruct, to open the heart patient's identity created by
her mind, and little by little, she realized how thin and limiting that identity was. With time,
she began to realize and also feel how her thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations were only fleeting, temporary, and she could relate to them in a lighter way. She could even tell herself: "Welcome, thought! I will listen to you for a moment." During one session, when we had been
doing sitting meditation, she said she feel empty. "This emptiness is a great space
where there is nothing and there is everything. It is peaceful to be in this space."
As she identified with consciousness itself, rather than the content thereof, she could gradually
see how the anxiety-inducing thoughts and experiences were not the thing she truly was.
When she could experience her existence as a consciousness that was always pure and beyond all "egological" problems, she could also rest in this complete emptiness.
In this article, I will discuss two central concepts of Buddhist psychology: the no-self (annatta)
and emptiness (sonyata) . From this starting point, I will open viewpoints on psychotherapy practices and the therapist's well-being. In the future, I will offer a further introduction to the connections between Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapy. Therefore, I will touch upon this ancient, empirical and phenomenological science of the experience and mind only as much as is necessary in order to comprehend these basic concepts.
Writing about emptiness is difficult. Its most essential "quality", i.e. that it has no qualities, makes it impossible to describe as such. An attempt to write about emptiness and the closely connected no-self is completely antithetical to its original non-dualistic, non-conceptual and paradoxical nature. Wittgenstein has expressed this aptly: ”Threre is really something that you cannot express. It appears, it is mystical.” (Wittgenstein, 1971, p. 87)
Generally, we aim to understand concepts instead of understanding the world. Even in therapy, we may get lost in the conceptual realities of our minds. We do not solve problems by thinking. By thinking, we create them. However, we must attempt to describe emptiness, if we wish to integrate it and the possibilities related to it into Western psychotherapy and the lives of our clients and colleagues. According to the paradoxical nature of emptiness, we may perhaps use words in an equally paradoxical way while trying not to say anything. Of course, we may also stay quiet when we are trying to say something about it.
Interbeing in Emptiness
In Buddhist thinking, conditional existence has three marks (Rahula, 1974). 1. Existence is unsatisfying (dukkha). Life as it is usually lived cannot give us a perfect and permanent satisfaction. The English word "dis-ease" is a good description of this. 2. In reality, all phenomena are impermanent, unstable and perishable (anicca). No pleasant state remains forever, and we cannot avoid unpleasant states. 3. No phenomenon or thing has a stable, innate nature (anatta). Because all things are unstable and only exist in relation to each other, they are also empty of a separate being. The term "emptiness" (sonyata) , used particularly in the Madhyamaka school, born into Mahyana Buddhism 500 years after Buddha's death, describes the nature of the ultimate, absolute reality distinct from seeming or relative reality. The concept has been systematically used by Indian philosopher Nagarjuna in a text called the Mulamadhyamaka, written ca. 220 years before our chronology (Kalupahana, 1987; Varela et al., 1997). The epiphany of the emptiness is born naturally, as one understands the selfless and impermanent nature of all conditioned phenomena, as well as their interdependence (paticcasamuppada) in its full extent.
"The empty self" does not mean that the self does not exist. It refers only to the idea that phenomena - even the self - do not have separate, independent realities. Their lasting, ontological state is "empty". When the context changes, the "self" also changes - or more precisely: the "self" in its context is a constantly changing process. When we are consciously and acceptingly in the present moment, there is no separate "knower" and "object of knowledge". There is simply the process of knowing, which we are. We are the world, the being, as it is manifested in its beingness.
When our selves are empty and rise up as a response to immediate experience, we are all closely connected with one another. Families are realized through their members, individuals through families. The therapist and the clients are not separate things outside of their interaction; the therapist creates him-or herself while creating the client, and the client creates him-or herself while creating the therapist (Rosenbaum & Dyckman, 1996). Transference and counter-transference are the two sides of the same coin. When we realize that our deepest essence is in fact empty and that life with its ups and downs consists simply of different manifestations of this "suchness", we can
relate to things more lightly and even rest on the basis of our being. This means that we do not constantly create a dualistic false image of the self and the world that are distinct from one another.
According to Buddhist psychology, realizing and experiencing the emptiness has a liberating effect on our lives (Abe, 1985). We can stop trying: we can do or not do. Regardless of the approaches of different schools, a non-dualistic consciousness adds a depth dimension to all therapeutic work. The Vietnamese Monk Thiet Nhat Hanh calls this state of affairs arising from emptiness "interbeing". It is a very different situation compared to moments where people meet each other while being full of themselves (Nhat Hanh, 2001).
A central question for the therapist is the marathon-runner's question: "How to practice with conscious relentlessness, but without attempting anything in particular?" (Koski, 2005, p.213) This type of approach requires great persistence, practise, sincerity and truthfulness. At the same time, it offers the therapist an opportunity to experience work as a place where one may constantly renew one's well-being. Our work becomes a burn-in-space, where the therapist can practice no more or less than being human in all its fullness.
The concept of emptiness is often misunderstood to mean that there is nothing. When Buddhists
say that all beings are empty, they are not being nihilistic, but referring to an essential truth
that cannot be subjected to the categories of logic. A Zen poem expresses it thus:
It cannot be called emptiness
or both or neither;
but so that it can be exhibited
it is called emptiness.
This so-called quadruple negation means to say that experience of essential reality is completely unreachable for our senses. It will not fasten onto the forceps of our words, as it points at absolute reality, the absoblute, in the midst of all that is chaotic and conditional (Klemola, 1988). Modern quantum physics has also brought the study of emptiness into the limelight and shown that it is like an ocean, from which virtual particles keep bouncing out and disappearing in like flying fish. Emptiness is, in fact, not empty at all, but full of energy (Pasanen, 2008)!
Therapy Between Earth and Sky
In old wisdom traditions, the stupefying metaphysical status of human beings is expressed by saying that we are always standing between Earth and sky. Thanks to our awareness, we are able to transced our immediate being, and because of our physical body, we are tied to the world. Thus, we exist in two realities simultaneously: as beings of reason in a dualistic world built out of concepts, and due to our immediate experiences, in a non-dualistic world of unity (Thering, 2009).
We see the sun rise every morning. Astronomers also see it, but they know that the sunrise is not a scientifically real phenomenon. The sun is a star that does not rise from anywhere. Things only seem that way, because our Earth is rotating. Therefore, we may see the sun from two different angles. In an everyday sense, we may truly see it rising and say so. From an astronomical viewpoint, however, this is not valid.
In Buddhist psychology, there is also discussion of the two truths: the relative or conventional and the absolute (Siderits, 2007; de Silva, 2005). Conventionally the sun rises, but in reality it does not. Relatively speaking, objects exist. In the absolute sense, however, they are empty. It is good and, in many situations, reasonable and functional to act in a dualistic world, but we can simultaneously acknowledge its relativity. We are a bridge between these two truths: we can experience both of them, if we are ready to let go of our ordinary beliefs as well as our conditioned ideas shaped over a long time. A human being is, so to speak, constantly burning with the fire of the unlit and the unextinguishable realization.
In light of the absolute truth, our conditional and dualistic interactions are a delusion, because in reality, we are never separate from other people. Kenneth Georgen, a central theorist of social constructionism, states it like this: ”Being is interbeing. I am linked, therefore I am” (Gergen, 2009, p. 400). Even if the waves of an ocean may seem separate, they are manifestations of the same, wide ocean. This is the so-called absolute truth. According to it, reality is emptiness, a state where observations are intuitively recognized as the unlimited and temporary stream of possible experiences. Once you begin to recognize observations as simply fleeting, random events, they do not weigh on you as much, and the whole dualistic division between "the self" and "the other" begins to soften (Thering, 2008). On the other hand, according to the relative or conventional truth, each wave is separate of other waves in a very unique way. The surfer has to know how to face different waves in the right way, if he wishes to ride them skillfully. This is also true of everyday relationships and therapy. They are, at best, a skillful dualistic dance. In order to be realized as authentic human beings, we should be able not only to understand, but also to observe and experience the world and our humanity in both the relative and the absolute way, full of different forms and simultaneously entirely empty and formless. Therapeutic skill is a skill of living in both the relative dimension of form and the absolute dimension of formless; dimensions of sound and silence, of doing and being.
Experiencing "the self" as empty also does not mean that we need to have a certain technique in therapy. Just like "the self" is constantly changing, our work is also different with different clients. The therapist does not need to strive for strengthening a fantasy of him- or herself, his or her own self, in order to experience the work as meaningful. When we set up in the present moment, we do not need to accentuate our selves. We can rest in our way of working and be influential. When a therapist can experience the no-self, he or she is creating a mental space that is beneficial for meeting the client. When the identification with the self loosens up, empathetic joining in another person's suffering may happen freely and naturally. As the therapist stops striving for a certain end result, the action of him or her and the client is an expression of the no-self and the change usually happens by itself. Just like sound is born from silence, motion from the immobile, the therapeutic relationship is also, at its best, building together a space of possibilities. In this empty space, encounters between people and therapeutic techniques depend on one another and, in the best case, happen as if on their own (Rosenbaum & Dyckman, 1996).
Problems as a Play of Consciousness
Timo Klemola and Tapio Koski in their studies on the philosophy of movement point to similarities between German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the old Zen-Buddhist wisdom tradition (Klemola, 1998 ; Koski, 2000). Heidegger's language is edifyingly poetic. For him, ”a human being is an openness through which that which is as it is gets manifested, but just to the degree we are self open to Beingness” (Klemola, 1998, p. 119). A human being is a light, through which isness lights itself. This light is, however, covered by us with many different masks and covers. Thus, it is a process where the experience of the place of "self" changes. ”The world uses the human being to observe itself. In a sense, it expresses itself through us” (Koski, 2005, p. 222). Owing to our awareness, we are an immense freedom, through which every external and internal object comes and goes. We are a cavity, a crack, an emptiness, an immeasurable space, into which all objects come and out of which they leave. When we see and experience how concepts rise and fall, what is left is simply awareness. In meditation, when we learn to find the part of awareness from which our thoughts arise, we can sometimes experience a state in which nothing moves, the thought does not arise (Koski, 2005). When no self arises, there is also no object opposite to it: there is only being and an awareness of this being. When we recognize that the stream of our mind's representations do not have any stable form, we may rest in this stream of simply being. The therapist is not a problem solver; instead he or she can be the consciousness, which meets - according to Heidegger – itself in the clients in various disguises. Problems dissolve as the erraneously assimilated idea of ourselves as separate, stable beings is deconstructed, opened and reconstructed, constructed in a new way.
By completely accepting the endless manifestations, or differences of "suchness", we may also see and experience the dualistic performance of our interactions as a gate into absolute oneness. The famous slogans of Buddhist tradition, "samsara is nirvana and nirvana is samsara", "emptiness is form and form is emptiness" tell us of how our dualistic observing is in fact only the play of our free and open conciousness (Olendzki, 2006).
The Five Aggregates
The classic Buddhist psychology has been expressed in the so-called Ahbidhamma pikata, or canonical basket. It is a systematic and empirically proven wide theory of the human mind and the phenomenology of experience. It can also be considered a postmodern, systemic model of human consciousness. The model is based on a process view of how our minds deal with information and construct reality. This view emphasises the interdependence of phenomena (Kwee, 2010). It also has its own scientific methodology – meditation - which not only produces scientific information but also gradually transforms the researcher him- or herself (Rahula, 1974).
According to the Abidhamma, the human awareness is not an existing object, but rather an event, a process, which in its contacts shows itself over and over again, giving the person an experience of a constant stream of conciousness (Newland, 2008). Because our bodily sensations and mental events follow each other very fast, we easily create an illusion of a stable entity, which is connected to all events. An oil lamp's flame, burning all night, creates the illusion of a stable flame, and we forget that it is in fact a constant process, in which the heat of the individual flame causes the oil to burn and the birth of a new flame after the previous one "dies". However, the process is so fast that we only see one stable flame all through the night. Another metaphor: our mind creates our self like a movie in a theatre. The self seems real, but in fact, it only concists of the dance of rays of light in a dark room.
According to Buddhist psychology, what we call the self is formed out of the interaction of five entities of phenomena, or aggregates (Goenka, 2008). The first one is our material body (rupa). The sensors in it - or, as Buddhist rhetoric calls them, sense doors - enable us to be in contact with the objects in our environment. However, there is no life in the sensor organs until conciousness (viññana) "wakes them up". When a sound wave meets our ears, viññana knows that the energy packet we call a sound has arrived. After that, a third part of our mind, perception (sañña) begins to act. We recognize sounds as words... praise... good, or critique... bad. We evaluate the words based on our previous experience. Immediately, a fourth part of the mind, emotion (vedanã) is activated. When a sound wave meets our bodies, we sense it, and through the recognition and evaluation of our sensory action, the perception becomes either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. In the end, we react (sankhãra) to our perception. The sound has met with our ear drums... sounds of praise... good... pleasant perception..we begin to like it. "Praise feels pleasant. I want more of this!" Or: the noise has come... words... critique... unpleasant sensation... I do not like this. "This is something I do not want to experience!" (Goenka, 2008, p. 20). The stimulus can, of course, also come from inside us in the form of words or mental images. The same process is initiated: perception, pleasant or unpleasant bodily sensation, the reaction of liking or not-liking, which is followed by attachment, clinging or aversion, distaste and turning away.
Every moment of "selfing" is thus born out of the unique combination of sensory organs, the objects of sensing, the consciousness, perception and feeling. It is built out of the unique, intentional response to any given situation (Olendzki, 2006). What we call the self (atta) is formed over and over and over again in our contact with our external or internal environment. It is a product of the psycho-physical, conditioned and conditioning constallation between the five aggregates, the source of our idea of "self". It is simply an idea, a product of the mind. By identifying (solely) with this idea, we create what the Buddhist thinking considers a constant state of inner dissatisfaction, or suffering (dukkha) (Thering, 2009). Instead of seeing and experiencing ourselves as a continuing psycho-physical event, a verb, we think and experience ourselves as a noun, a sort of machine operator or conductor inside ourselves. Or in a more philosophical language, ”an unchanging, separate entity" (Laumakis, 2008, p. 58). In our ignorance, we do not recognize the deep interdependence between phenomena, and therefore we experience the dynamic selfing process as a constant, firm fact. By identifying with it, in the course of our development, we forget that it is only an image or a construct of the mind. In reality, however, we are not limited to only this body-mind-machine. We may also be aware of and experience a larger self that exists in addition to this small, conceptual self we have, self that observes everything and is a subject ready to be filled with all the objects. This consciousness, however, is not located in our heads. According to the mystics, it is located everywhere. This non-dualistic view has never become particularly popular. People are afraid of emptiness because the related disappearance of ego is often combined with the fear of death. However, in reality, nothing and no one ever dies, the names and concepts simply appear and disappear. The personality does not die, because it is in fact simply a concept.
If we break a broom or a motor cycle into pieces, where is their essence? We can also ask this of the modalities of the self (body, consciousness, perception, emotion, intention) as they are deconstructed. Am I the same thing as my body? Am I skin, muscle and bone, or am I intestines? Am I a constantly changing stream of emotions? Am I these thoughts and beliefs? Am I my intentions? Or am I something greater than all of this changing process? As we deconstruct the conceptual delusion called "the self", what is left is... emptiness, which is potentially full of everything.
Deconstructing the Self
"Exploring the road is to explore oneself. Exploring oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is the same as being one with everything" -Dozen
The majority of psychotherapeutic work is aimed at deconstructing unpreferred identity conclusions or stories, or becoming conscious of the unconscious, or changing suppressing interactions or learning schemes or reaching positive goals. As our experience flows freely, i.e. we are aware in an accepting and non-attached way of our body's sensations and our mind's formations, we are free of our chaining self. Therapy is no longer about compulsively searching for more or building a positive self-image. It is about giving up illusions and clinging; inner growth by letting go rather than building new beliefs or conditionings (Béres, 2009). We can redecorate our cell in a new way or step out of it completely.
At its best, therapy can be a welcoming ceremony, where every moment of our lives - sadness, joy, desperation, happiness, fear, safety - is deeply wished welcome. In this state of the eternal present moment, we are usually able to transced opposites and reach our true freedom. Our work becomes a tool for opening the dimension of unconditioned being, as well as deepening and stabilising it (Epstein, 2007). There is no longer need to defend the ego in any way. Even though "the self" is only a concept, we are constantly concerned about its welfare. When we identify with our self image and the role we act, we become immensely vulnerable: our social mask needs constant approval, it wants to control our whole lives, it fears suffering and death. By identifying with conciousness, on the other hand, we feel at home everywhere. We do not need to fear attacks against our selves simply because there is nothing to defend. When we, in psychotherapy, observe the processes of our minds and bodies as temporary, we may be liberated of the strain and suffering born out of identifying solely with these temporary processes. This is equally true of the client and the therapist.
Deconstructing our conceptual self, i.e. showing it to be a constantly changing process, no-self, may have powerful therapeutic effects. By turning the light of consciousness into consciousness of itself we may experience our identities in a new way. That is when old beliefs, stories and conditionings no longer control us so much. However, in most traditional psychotherapies, this deconstruction is skipped. It is forgotten that "the self" is only a concept created by the mind. These therapies tend to
solve probles, alter beliefs and build beneficial stories (Watson, 1998). By doing this, we are in fact giving the imaginary self an ever deeper and powerful meaning.
Influencing without Influencing
Buddhist psychology offers the therapist a new kind of position, which, according to studies, has a clear connection to our well-being at work (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009). In the old Japanese combat tradition, it is called the wu-wei position (Sorajjakool, 2001). This experience has often been described in religious and combat-related literature, but rarely in connection with therapy. The concept of wu-wei was, in the course of time, shifted from Taoist thinking into the Buddhist Zen tradition. It describes a process where one strives without striving and influences without influencing. This kind of non-doing does not refer to external passivity. It is an action missing only conceptually perceived goal-orientedness. Non-doing is doing without the doer. It is action, where goals related to the strivings of the self have been faded out of doing, and doing and the doer become one. Things happen naturally in the wu-wei zone. Nothing specific is strived for, but nothing is left undone. There have been many studies on the wu-wei experience in the frame of the so-called flow phenomenon. (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988)
People often miss the pleasure of their own doing, because they focus their whole attention on the end result. Too much concern over the result often gets in the way of performing the task, also in the mind of a therapist. In flow, on the other hand, action and conciusness melt in as one seamless wave of energy. A mountain climber describes the process as follows:
"What is strived for is the mind's focus on one thing... that things would turn automatic... in one way or another, the right thing gets done, without ever thinking about it or doing anything to it... it just happens." (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988, p. 60).
When we give up our concept of the self, the self is created in each moment, the self is each moment. When we give up our idea of what a "moment" is, being oneself does not require time in the linear sense. It is the being of time. Our existence is a manifestation of time: we are time. Even change does not require time. It is time and time is change. In the infinite present moment, the therapist and his or her client are completely free. Suffering begins when we step out of the present moment (Rosenbaum & Dyckman, 1996). If a basic question of therapy is "Who am I?", the answer must be "Here I am." If it leads to the question "What or where is here?", we must respond: "Now!"
From the Id to the No-Self
It is interesting to observe that in Western psychology, emptiness is often connected with an experience of alienation and the meaninglessness of life, as well as various psychological disturbances, particularly depression (Didonna & Gonzales, 2009).
In Buddhist psychology, it carries an entirely different meaning. Sonyata means emptiness from an independent, innate existence; it means that no phenomenon or state of affairs has an absolute identity. The interdependent origination of phenomena (paticcasamuppada) can briefly be understood in the following way. All conditional things and events come into being only through the combined effects of reasons and consequences. Identity only exists in the frame of the network that has a relationship with this phenomenon or thing. It is formed out of a network of interdependent phenomena and things. Not only is consequence dependent upon reason, reason is also dependent upon consequence. A state of affairs that exists on its own, independent of all other factors, does not exist anywhere (Dalailama, 2007). Phenomena and things appear as the constantly moving complex process or play of specific reasons and consequences.
Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapies have a very different understanding of suffering (dukkha). In the former, it is mainly used to refer to so-called existentialist suffering. It is born out of our inability to deal with or accept the physical pain related to disease and loss (duhkataduhkata). It is also born out of not always getting what we want and sometimes having to face things we do not wish to face. We also suffer in the hands of the constant change that is part of life (viparanaduhkata). Another source of suffering is the fact that our being is conditional, and our self has no permanent, innate form (samskaraduhkhata) (de Wit, 2000).
In Western psycholotherapies, the word suffering refers to so-called neurotic suffering. It deals with psychological actions, with which we shield ourselves from existential suffering. In a sense, our whole inner life is defense against the experience of emptiness. In early psychoanalysis, the widely described defense mechanisms were not needed to act against our instinctive wants, but specifically to suppot our imaginary selves (Olenzki, 2005). In Buddhist psychology, emptiness is a very different experience: oneness with everything. Disturbing states of mind and unskilled acts are born when we interpret reality in a flawed way and act according to that, either clinging or rejecting.
The differences between Buddhist psychology and one Western therapy, psychoanalysis, are described by the statements of suffereing by their founders. Freud: ”We can only turn neurotic suffering into ordinary suffering." Buddha: ”There is only one purpose for my teachings: to end the suffering” (de Wit, 2000, p. 20).
The concept of ego is also understood in very different ways in Buddhist and Western psychologies. In the latter, it is often linked to the meaning of inner strength and self esteem. According to Buddhist thinking, our ego is born out of the lack of trust linked to our human existence, a difficulty to accept the essential emptiness of our existence. It is a complicated survival mechanism, which is ingrained deeply into the structure and function of our brain - and which can change through experience, just like other mechanisms (Yongey, 2007). What the untrained mind experiences as existentialist suffering will transform in the mind of someone who has meditated longer into a deep compassion towards our conditional existence. The psychoanalyst says: "Where the id is, there the ego must be." The Buddhist therapist says: "Where the id is, there the no-self could be."
Out of Paradise and Back into It
Jan Kersschot, a Belgian alternative medicine practitioner, has made the following, brilliant description of our psychological development particularly from the viewpoint of self-development in his book Nobody Home (2007, pp. 11-14).
Before our birth, we do not recognize the difference between ourselves and our surroundings. It can only be observed by an outsider, for instance a gynecologist performing an ultrasound test. As newborns, we are still pure consciousness, a kind of bare attention. We do not separate what appears in this pure attentiveness; we simply let everything appear and disappear. In this so-called "open attention", there are only sensory perceptions, which float by us like clouds. The question "who am I" is in no way relevant and there is no difference between "me" and the outside world. In Buddhist terminology, this innermost state of mind is called vidya (Trungpa, 2006). Originally, a human being is not a knowing and wanting subject, but an openness. Chogyam Trungpa describes this as an open hall, where there is room to dance around and where there is no danger of stumbling because this kind of space is completely open. It is not difficult to get in this space; rather, it is impossible to avoid.
This state of affairs, however, does not last very long, for we begin to develop our personality to be able to get by in the outside world. The specialization of our nervous system and the development of our memory functions are the first steps into dualism: our environment is broken off into pieces and we became to recognize ourselves as separate from it. We become self-aware, i.e. instead of being one with the space, we recognize it as a separate, firm "other". This is possible when we can use our memories to compare our mental images to earlier situations. A separate world of endless forms is born next to the formless. The world is divided into two: me and not-me. Later, different things and phenomena are more and more linked to "the self": my mother, my bed, my toy. Automatically, another world is also born, where "that is not my mother", "that is not my toy", etc. Gradually, a little persona is born into our minds, usually one living in our head and saying: "I am a little boy/girl" and "This body is mine". We create a little philosopher inside ourselves, the thinker of our toughts. When a thought appears in our heads, this philosopher says: "I have a thought." When a sense of pain is born in our bodies, we say: "I am hurting." Gradually, through many conditionings, we identify more and more with the little persona living in our bodies; its sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. We believe that our mind is located somewhere near our heads, as a separate entity from the surrounding world. We have created an image of reality and set ourselves in the middle of this image, in the middle of an imaginary prison. We imagine that we are a spirit living in our heads, looking at the world through two windows. We accept this concept of ourselves, conditionally born, and begin to react more and more strongly to our own projections instead of seeing - as we did earlier - only what is. We have joined "the human club" and a new - conceptual - world has been born. Somewhere deep inside, however, we constantly recognize that we have lost the experience of oneness and we miss it throughout our lives.
However, sometimes we experience a glimpse of that lost paradise. When we are truly happy, we recognize the deep feeling of fullness, we are thinking nothing. In those moments, there is only that which is as it is. When our thinking actions are not on, there is no hope, there is no fear, there is no complaining, no needs or guilt. On moments like this, we are not identified with our personalities. In other words, "the self" does not exist. For instance, while listening to music, we may sometimes experience how our self disappears. We do not solely hear the music with our ears, but with our whole bodies. There is no difference between the self and the music; it travels through us, it puts itself in the place of "me" and replaces it. Instead of thinking that we live in the music, the music happens in us. Suddenly we experience that we don´t exist in the body-mind-machine that hears the music coming from outside of us, but we are that music. In this situation, music is the absolute truth and the relative truth is our "self" and the orchestra that is playing. This is how a Zen master describes such a moment: "When I heard the bell ring, there was no "me" or "bell", there was only the sound" (Abe, 1997, p. 113). However, it is useful to remember that the non-dualistic consciousness states we experience as adults are developmentally different from our childhood's pre-rational experiences. It is not a regressive state of mind, but a developmentally higher-level ego-transcending awareness.
Therapy as a Mental Exercise
"Personality is what we use to cover our nakedness." Ojansuu
I have previously described how privileged the therapist is in his or her work and how therapy can act as the spiritual and ethical exercise of its practitioner (Malinen, 2009). The concepts of the no-self and emptiness open this idea in an even wider snese. We may, in fact, understand and experience the clinical work as an informal meditation, during which we practice mindfulness. What is this? To answer this question, I will first describe what formal meditation is.
Classical meditation, of which mindfulness is a part, is not a stress management method. Rather, it is an action that challenges our concept and experience of ourselves: who we are and what reality is. Meditation is not psychological self-analysis or searching for the self, because why search for something that does not exist? Mindfulness - or as we may put it in cognitive therapy, mindfulness being (sati)- is a wide, inner state of calmness situated in the center of selfconstellations. In this state, we may observe the events of our minds and bodies without identifying with them. It is the 29th of the 52 skilful mind states described by the Abidhamma, which we can develop on the so-called Noble Eightfold Path. Through practice, i.e. meditation, this state of mind may also become aware of itself (Oledzki, 2005).
Through regular meditation and/or different awareness exercises, we may gradually experience and be aware of the processive nature of our thoughts, sensory perceptions, observations, and feelings. We may identify with a conciousness wider than our minds, which forms the "wide space" in which the perceptions of our bodies and the processes of our minds happen. From the viewpoint of suffering, this kind of identification is different from clinging to the endless melodramas of our so-called little me. In those, we see world only through the imaginary lens of our minds. In this framework, the constantly changing process of reality becomes the most important threat to our selves.
When our thinking mind does not attempt to stamp, understand, separate, classify, evaluate, exaggerate, negate, alter, manipulate, or create stories out of the experience of the moment, we are resting in what is as it is. Now we have an opportunity to observe and be related to situations directly, clearly and freely. To become whole, we do not need any technique, but simply a mind that dares rest in its being. This is realized simply by being together with another person without planning anything, changing anything; by directly experiencing from moment to moment that which is as it is. We are simply awake and convinced that there is no one or nothing that should wake up. The concepts of enlightenment or waking up in the old wisdom traditions is not a mystical thing. It simply means bringing light where it has not been, so that we may see. This traditional Indian story describes this idea well.
"A man walks in the woods and suddenly, he sees a snake before him on the grass. His brother has died of a snake bite, so he is horrified and intends to run away. The sun comes out from the clouds and the man looks once again at the "snake" and realizes that it is only a piece of rope, which he mistook for a snake in the dim light. Now he understands that he has been reacting in the darkness to the virtual reality of his mind and created his fear himself. When enough light hits the piece of rope, the man is also "enlightened" and his fear is dissolved. However, nothing has changed: the rope is still only a rope, and the man walks away, smiling." (Fulton, 2008, p. 57)
In informal meditation, i.e. at the beginning of a therapy session - and every now and then during it - the therapist can recognize his or her breathing and body. He or she can anchor him-or herself into the body: recognizing his or her sensory perceptions, thoughts, emotions, expectations before he or she says anything. Thus, he or she can recognize what he or she is bringing into this moment. Every now and then, during the session, the therapist can ask him-or herself: "Am I present at this moment?" "Am I awake?" He or she can recognize his or her breathing, his or her body. They anchor him or her again and again and again into the present moment.
Practicing mindfulness is a continuous developmental process. It usually brings about a deep change in our way of identifying. We no longer observe the constantly changing contents of the consciousness, but the consciousness itself steps to center stage and the observer and the observed, the subject and the object, the deed and the doer become one. Just like the picture of a landscape changes as we change the camera lens, the picture of ourselves moves into the background as we identify with the unconditioned awareness. It is also good to know that development does not end here. People who have meditated for longer can see through the self observing mind contents, and this is when all of the oppositeness of the subject and the object disappears. There is no longer a self, who observes or knows, there is only the process of observing and knowing. There is no separate observer and observed, no separate knower and object of knowledge, only the conciousness, who or what just happens. Now we have an opportunity to see, non-conceptually and directly, the original nature of our minds and the world. Ken Wilber, who is considered one of the most important theoretical psychologists of our time, has described this dualistic state in his book A Brief History of Everything (2009) by saying: “The second meaning is that Emptiness is not merely a particular state among other states, but rather the reality or suchness or condition of all states, the Suchness of all states. “ (Wilber, 2009, p. 227).
However, as therapists, it is important for us to remember that when we "try" hard to be present, we are most powerfully preventing our presence. When the wave tries to become an ocean, it forgets that both it and the ocean are already water. Trying means stirring the surface of a pond while trying to see deep into its bottom. In modern popularized and simplified versions of mindfulness, the focus is, for many reasons, only on directing one's attention to the experience of the present moment. In the classical Abidhamma literature, however, mindfulness is not considered just a technique. According to this literature, awareness and attention are two different things, and a simple being in the present moment - even if it does bring temporary relief - is not enough to change disturbed or unskilled thought and belief habits. Continuous exercise over a long time is needed so that bare attention and awareness may be used together so that we realize the impacts of wholesome/skilful and unwholesome/unskilful thoughts and feelings on our well-being, and we can increase the former (Rapgay & Bystrisky, 2009).
It is also good to remember that mental techniques may easily become tools for our ego, with which it shines itself and makes itself important (Trungpa, 2006). For the Western person, our selfness has become the object of constant product development: all our time goes into the constant shaping and educating of our selves (Ojansuu, 2008). We are like a woman, who is standing in front of a mirror and trying to be more attractive than before by applying make up on the mirror. The more a therapist understands and experiences his or her no-self in a Buddhist sense, the less he or she needs to use energy on the so-called egological functions: shining and protecting the self. When our identification with the self is loosened, we do not need to be smarter, healthier, wittier than our clients. We do not need to do therapy in order to feel our clients' approval. They do not need to heal or remain sick because of us. When "the self" is defined as the opposite of "the other", a distance forms between ourselves and other people. When we do not identify so much with our selves, we may recognize our natural connection with other people, and our compassion for their suffering may manifest itself freely.
”You don´t have to leave your room. You don´t even have to listen. Just wait. You don´t even have to wait. Just learn to be quietly in your place. The world offers freely to you to be uncovered.”
I have a request for my reader: Forget everything you have read thus far! For if you only try to remember what you've read, you have to begin again in the beginning. Intellectual understanding of emptiness is not the same as a direct experience of it. In order to understand this, it may be useful to think of life and psychotherapy with the help of two dimensions.
The horizontal dimension is related to forms, the different manifestations of the experiential world. In this dimension, during our development, we build our so-called pscyhological self. It is necessary in order to survive in society. The vertical, non-dualistic dimension adds the depth dimension of emptiness (sonyata) or the formless (nidsvadhavata) or simply the consciousness (vidya) or suchness (tathata) into our existence. It liberates us completely from our conditional identity. While solving problems in therapy on the ego-mind state, we may feel a necessary, but often only temporary, relief in our suffering. It does not completely liberate us of dukkha. In the vertical or absolute dimension, psychotherapy is irrelevant activity, for then there is nothing or no one who could be called "the ontological self", who needs therapy, or any problems that should be solved (Engler, 2003). Yet we exist constantly in the conditional reality as well. The conditional and absolute reality are two sides of the same coin. The therapist who understands this can exist and work in both of them. If we say that there is no need for psychotherapy, because there is no individual self, we have been stuck in the absolute of dualism. If we simply repair and fix problems of the separate "self" without perceiving what is already there and free the whole time, we have got stuck in the relativity of dualism. In both cases, we miss the fact that they are two sides of the one and the same awareness.
Non-dualistic awareness does not deny the problems and unsatisfactory nature of our everyday lives, it simply sees them from a wider perspective. From this viewpoint, the goal is not to fix or change anything, but rather to be in what is as it is. This is also not a new method or theory. We may use any method to show the way to the human being's real nature, the starting point or home of all which is as it is (Prendergast, 2003). Non-dualistic awareness is what we need in order to liberate ourselves from existential suffering and our problems. It is always already free of suffering and is simply waiting quietly and patiently to be observed and experienced. It does not separate between the psychotherapeutic goal of individualization and the spiritual option of liberation from the self. Together, they form a powerful oneness, which offers a real opportunity to liberate oneself from suffering.
This oneness also has an impact on our well-being in the work of a therapist. When our idenfitication with the personal identity is loosened or steps aside, it also impacts all of our other roles. We are like an actor standing on stage who realizes he has lost himself in the role and snaps out of his trance. Even if we are still in the role of therapist or Mr or Mrs Smith, we realize that this is only a play. Because of thís, we can develop a considerably lighter attitude toward ourselves. Our ability to identify with a non-dualistic awareness also impacts our work in another way. All therapy orientations emphasize the meaning of acceptance in the work. The dualistic mind, however, can only accept in a conditioned way. It wishes that what becomes accepted would also change. "I accept and love you, if you only get me some ice cream." People who identify with the non-dualistic mind have an endless capacity to be in that which is as it is. Innocently, intimately, with a loving kindness (metta), compassionately (karuna), with a calm mind (upekkha), rejoicing in the other person's joy (mudita) and knowing that the absolute, unconditioned love is the greatest power of the human being (Bernhard, 2010).
Experiencing the no-self and emptiness is an invitation. It invites us to wake up into the full potential of the non-conditioned awareness. When our self is no longer an obstacle, we are capable of an ever more conscious presence. This kind of presence in therapy opens the opportunity ever more freely to investigate a wide inner world and its interactive manifestations.
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sonyata _ _ _
In this article, Buddhist psychology conceps will be expressed in the Pali language. It is the language used by Buddha and also the language used to write his teachings from oral tradition four hundred years after his death.
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