Thursday, April 26, 2012

Self and No Self: Psychology and Buddhism

I was asked by a fellow blogger to write about Buddhist views on the self.  Since my interest in Buddhist teachings originated in my desire to integrate these ideas into my psychotherapy practice, I decided to compare and constrast how the self is conceptualized in Western psychology and in the Buddhist tradition.  This is a rather big undertaking, and one that I will not attempt to complete in one blog post.  "Self and No Self: Psychology and Buddhism" will therefore be my first "series" of posts on a single subject.

Over the past twenty years, Western psychology has become increasingly interested in ancient Eastern practices and traditions.  Among the first to advocate the usefulness of Eastern precepts to Western mental health practice was Dr. Marsha Linehan, the well known pioneer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).  DBT is built around the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.  Since the original publication of Linehan's DBT treatment manuals in 1993, mindfulness and other Eastern ideas and practices have gained widespread use among Western mental health practitioners. 

Since the days when Freud fathered psychoanlysis -- the first form of modern psychotherapy -- the self has been among the primary foci of psychotherapy practice.  As the number of psychological theories have grown, so have the ways in which the self is conceptualized.  Almost every psychological theory has its own unique conception of the self.  Thus, it is impossible to make any overarching statement to summarize how the self is perceived in the field of psychology.  What can be said is that virtually every school of psychology has some conception of the self that influences its ideas about the causes and treatment of mental illness.

This seems to be completely at odds with Buddhist teachings.  Fundamental to the Buddhist worldview is the concept of anatman (roughly translated as "no soul," "no self," or "egolessness"), which asserts that there is no such thing as an immortal soul or core self.  The Buddha taught that nothing exists that is permanent.  Things come into being and things disintegrate.  Humans, like everything else in existence, are made of impermanent substances.  Human beings have no separate soul or self that exists apart from our material bodies. 

Buddhism asserts that the self, which is of central importance to the field of psychology, does not exist.  Just as the concept of self is integral to the understanding and practice of psychology the idea of "no self" is fundamental to the understanding and practice of Buddhism.  How is it, then, that psychology has embraced Buddhist teachings when the two fields are built around opposing fundamental tenets?

Despite differences in their basic beliefs, Buddhism and Western psychology share a common goal: they both seek to alleviate suffering.  Each field approaches this goal in a manner consistent with its own belief system.  The Buddha taught that "the self" is an illusion and that this illusion is the source of all suffering.  Consequently, Buddhism asserts that the way to relieve suffering is by seeing through the illusion of self, thereby bringing the self to an end.  In contrast, Western psychology tends to view the absence of a stable, integrated sense of self as among the most significant causes of suffering.  Thus, many psychotherapists believe that building or restoring a strong sense of self is an important part of the treatment process (the primary goal of which is to alleviate suffering).  In short, Buddhist practice aims to alleviate suffering through losing the self; psychotherapy seeks to alleviate suffering by helping to build, rebuild, find, strengthen, or define the self. 

These are the ideas I will be exploring over the next few weeks.  Next week, I will explore in more detail Buddhist views of the self (or no self).  The following week, I will try to provide an overview of the major theories about the self in Western psychology.  Finally, I will attempt to tie it all together by addressing questions like, "Are the ideas of Buddhist and Western psychotherapy practitioners about the self fundamentally at odds with one another?" "Is there any overlap betwen how Buddhists and Western psychotherapists think about the self?" and "What aspects of Buddhist practice have Western mental health practitioners embraced and what, if any, impact does this have on their ideas about the self?"  This is an ambitious undertaking on my part so I ask that you please bear with me.  I am also open to feedback throughout this process.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. You found such a clear way to present the key underlying difference between psychotherapy and Buddhist practice.

    Thank you!

    I can't wait to read the continuation :)

  2. Therapists have embraced Mindfulness from Buddha dhamma using awareness of thoughts and actions as a useful tool to help their patients. Living in your thoughts is a sure way to depression.
    A favorite quote that illustrates this point easy is Mark Twain's:
    "I am an old man and have known many troubles, but most of them have never happened."

  3. Wow, great idea for a blog series Melody! I would love to see you grapple with this issue. Three questions I have are 1) are we speaking of one's subjective sense of self or some sort of objective self-system? 2) if the self is an ilusion what kind of illusion is it, one that dissolves when one awakens to its illusionary nature or one that persists even when you know it's an illusion? 3) can a person's subjective sense of self disappear while leaving his or her objective self-system still functioning? Anyway, these types of questions might be endless ... looking forward to your future posts. Tallis

  4. Tallis -- I'm hoping to at least touch on these questions, although I'd never pretend to have the "answers."

  5. This really helped as i was struggling with an essay on a topic where we had to compare western and Buddhist notions of the self.


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