Sunday, May 27, 2012


Potential.  It's the word my teachers in high school always used when talking about me to my parents.  "She has so much potential, if she'd just apply herself," they'd say.  I was, in fact, well aware of my potential.  I saw it as having more long term relevance than as something immediately useful to me in the present.  In my mind, I needed to do just well enough to get into a decent college.  After all, what good was potential in high school?  I wanted to have fun while I had a lot of time and few responsibilities.

I stuck with my plan.  I became a serious student as soon as I started college.  I had a lot of goals for my life and my career.  I received a lot of positive feedback from my professors.  Many of them commented on how well I write.  One professor wanted me to work as a research assistant in his lab.  The reason I came to his attention was because I consistently earned the highest grade in the class on every exam.  As I progressed in my academic career, I was encouraged with increasing frequency to pursue a Ph.D.  By the time I finished my master's degree, I felt sure I was destined to do great things.

That was seven years ago.  Today, I can't help thinking that I haven't lived up to my potential.  For a few years after I finished college, I had the drive and determination to accomplish more.  I embarked upon several endeavors (working towards specialized certifications, returning to school for my Ph.D., etc.).  None of them worked out, for various reasons.  Most recently, I'd hoped to Also, I was not going to be permitted to take any time away from my traditional work responsibilities to devote to the project.  Eventually, the whole thing fell through.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting around the table chatting with a group of my family members.  We started talking about our "dream job" and what a dream job would offer that our current jobs don't.  Everyone had something they wanted from a job.  When it was my turn to share I simply shrugged.  "I don't know," I said.  "I thought you wanted to do research," my mom replied.  "I don't really want to do anything," I stated.  This drew a laugh from everyone at the table.  For me, however, I felt confused.  I hadn't known I was going to say that; I hadn't even known I felt that way. 

After giving it some thought, I determined that my comment had been a fairly accurate reflection of my feelings.  I don't really want to do anything other than what I'm doing in my job now.  Is this because my work leaves me completely fulfilled and I am 100% happy with my job?  Well, no, not exactly.  I guess it's more complicated than that.  It's not really that I don't want to do anything else.  It's more that I have no idea what else to do. 

I started out in life with so many goals and ambitions.  I achieved the major ones -- the master's degree, the clinical social work license, the job doing psychotherapy.  As I see it, the problem is that I haven't been able to accomplish anything beyond that.  It's not that I haven't made any effort.  Sometimes the circumstances just weren't right.  Other times, I lacked the necessary resources.  And then, at some point, I became disillusioned.  Still, I hate to think that I peaked at the age of 25...

I started out in life thinking I was destined for greatness.  Even now I believe I am capable of doing great things -- I have the potential, so to speak.  But what great things?  And how?  Lately, I get stuck on these questions.

What about you?  Do you ever feel like you're not living up to your potential?  How do you know when you are living up to your potential?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Use of Buddhist Practices in Western Psychology

The Buddhist tradition and the field of Western psychology define the "self" (or ego) in similar ways.  They agree that the self is not something a person is born with; it is therefore not an inherent human trait.  They both see the self as something that develops over time in response to one's interactions with others and with the environment.  They agree that the function of the self is to integrate our subjective experiences in order to provide us with a sense of internal cohesion and personal continuity (personal continuity is the sense that "I" am the same person from one moment to the next).

Buddhism teaches that the self we perceive as a solid and integrated entity is, in reality, just an illusion.  If we focus our attention on our internal experiences, we will eventually see that this "self" is nothing more than a collection of experiences - of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and sensations - that arise and then pass; there is no permanent substance or structure - no "self" - underlying these experiences.

This is, in fact, quite consistent with many of the mainstream theories underlying Western psychotherapy practice.  Psychodynamic and constructivist theories suggest that, for each person, the sense of self is achieved through the interactions of many different "self representations."  A self-representation is an unconscious collection of related schemas (ideas and beliefs) that produces a particular experience of the self in a given moment.  A person has many self-representations and any of them can be dominant at a given moment in time.  Thus, the "self" one experiences "is actually being constructed anew from moment to moment" (Jack Engler, "Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation").

In short, when we talk of the "self" in Buddhism or of the "self" in Western psychology, we can be sure we are talking about the same concept.  The differences in how the two traditions deal with the self is not in how they define it; rather, it is in the role each believes the "self" plays in human lives and human functioning.

Whereas Buddhism sees the self as the primary source of all human suffering, Western psychology sees it as necessary for healthy functioning.  Buddhism teaches that suffering can only be alleviated when a person realizes that what he perceives as a cohesive, integrated, and continuous self is only an illusion and that it disappears under close scrutiny. 

In contrast, Western psychotherapists see the lack of a stable, integrated, and cohesive self as a major cause of suffering.  A self without cohesion is fragmented; complete fragmentation results in psychosis.  In less extreme forms, a loosely cohered self caueses a person to experience a deep sense of emptiness accompanied by desperate (but unsuccessful) attempts to fill it.  Western psychotherapy practice seeks to alleviate suffering by strengthing the self, fortifying its boundaries, and integrating its various components.

Which tradition is right?  Do we suffer because we believe in a self that doesn't exist?  Or do we suffer because our self needs to be integrated and strengthened?  And how is it that Western psychotherapy borrows from Buddhist practices that seek to accomplish the exact opposite of what it aims to achieve?

There are some psychotherapists who make this very point and argue that Buddhist practices have no place in psychotherapy.  Others embrace Buddhist teachings and practices wholeheartedly and use them as the foundation for their psychotherapy practice.  Still others believe that Buddhist practices have a place in psychotherapy but caution against using them as substitutes.  Practices like insight and mindfulness meditation are not equivalent to psychotherapy.  In fact, as we've already established, while meditation and psychotherapy both aim to relieve suffering, they do so via fundamentally opposite strategies. 

I think it is interesting to note that Western psychotherapy borrows from Buddhist practices, but not the other way around.  Buddhism borrows nothing from Western psychology.  When Western psychotherapists use specific Buddhist practices as interventions they use these practices outside of their original context.  They do not use them as they are used by Buddhists.  Buddhists engage in various types of meditation with the ultimate goal of achieving enlightenment (which also brings about freedom from suffering).  When a psychotherapist teaches a patient to engage in mindfulness meditation he does not do this in an effort to help this patient see through the illusion of self to become enlightened.  Rather, he hopes that insight (Vipassana) mediation and mindfulness meditation will help the patient to build ego strength.  He hopes to strengthen the patient's "self" by teaching him to observe his thoughts and feelings objectively, to approach his internal experiences with acceptance, or to recognize the role that identifying with maladaptive thoughts plays in generating negative emotional states.  These are all functions that Western psychology traditionally ascribes to the ego.  These are all worthwhile endeavors but they are not goals that are pursued within a traditional Buddhist framework. 

I suppose there is a bit of irony in how the West has chosen to embrace Buddhist ideas.  We adopt Buddhist practices in an effort to achieve goals that are completely at odds with the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.  This is at least the case in terms of using Buddhist practices as psychotherapy interventions.  In reality, to do anything more would require a complete change in worldview for everyone involved. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Self in Western Psychology

There are too many theories of self within the tradition of Western psychology to count them all.  To my knowledge, no one has ever attempted to cover them all in one place and at one time; the task would be enormous, not to mention time consuming.  For these reasons, I do not endeavor to be the first to attempt this task.  Instead, I will attempt to present an overall view of the self in Western psychology that incorporates the most prevalent and commonly used theories. 

In general, the goal of Western psychotherapy (particularly when rooted in the psychodynamic tradition) is to strengthen the self in order to improve functioning, facilitate healthy regulation of emotions, and increase ability to cope with both internal and external stressors.  Most Western theories of psychological development assert that "the self" develops through a series of hierarchical stages, with each new stage representing a higher level of self achievement than the one before it. 
An infant begins its life with no sense of himself as an individual separate from his external environment.  The infant embarks on his self-developmental journey in the context of his relationship with his mother (or primary caregiver).  The infant is dependent on his mother for all of his basic needs.  He has only to cry and his mother is there to provide what he lacks.  For this reason, he comes to see his mother as an extension of himself; he perceives an entity he calls "me and mommy" that is separate and distinct from the rest of the world.  As a young toddler, the child begins to recognize that he is his own entity, existing in his own body, separate from everything and everyone, including his mother.  He begins to try to manipulate objects and interact with people in his environment.  Eventually, as he becomes more confident, he begins to venture farther and farther away from his mother and for increasingly longer periods of time.  As the child gains a growing sense of himself as an individual separate from other individuals, he gradually becomes aware that his actions affect others.  He develops the ability to feel guilty when he does something that hurts another person. 
Each stage of the developmental process must be navigated successfully in order for a child to eventually form an integrated personality and a healthy sense of self.  The successful resolution of each stage endows the ego with a specific ability or "virtue" that contributes to healthy functioning.  While development continues throughout the life span, the years from birth to adolescence have the most significant impact on personality development.  If all goes well, an adolescent will enter young adulthood with the ego strengths of hope, willpower, purpose, competence, fidelity, and love.

The culmination of psychological development is a differentiated self.  When a person is differentiated, he is able to function as an autonomous individual with his own ideas, opinions, goals, and pursuits.  He is capable of maintaining healthy boundaries with his family and friends; he is neither controlled by nor enmeshed with others, nor is he emotionally cut off or disconnected from them.  He has the capacity for emotional intimacy.  A well differentiated individual can separate thoughts from feelings.  He is able to regulate his emotions such that they do not overwhelm his ability to think rationally. 

While the self gradually develops into a separate and independent entity, it does so only in the context of one's relationships with others.  I am aware of no theory that conceives of the self as developing in a vacuum; there is widespread recognition that the self develops in (and is therefore influenced by) a broader cultural and interpersonal context.  I am also unaware of any theories suggesting that the self emerges fully formed.  Rather, the self is always seen as something that must be developed over time; it requires specific things in order to do this successfully. 

In terms of how self is defined in Western psychology, most schools of thought recognize at least two "realms" of the self: the conscious and the unconscious.  Not every school of Western psychological thought attends to the unconscious aspect.  Behaviorism, for example, focuses on changing overt behaviors without addressing the possible unconscious factors that drive them.  Other theoretical orientations address the unconscious factors in mental illness indirectly.  For example, cognitive theory focuses on changing irrational automatic thoughts, rules/assumptions/schema, and core beliefs.  Automatic thoughts tend to reside just below the surface of conscious awareness and can usually be accessed pretty easily.  Schema, followed by core beliefs, occupy increasingly unconscious levels, which are less accessible to conscious awareness.  For this reason, the presence of certain schema and core beliefs is typically inferred from associated automatic thoughts and emotional triggers.

While we are not, by definition, aware of the contents of the unconscious mind, the unconscious nevertheless has a significant influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 

At the center of the conscious realm of the self lies the ego.  The ego serves many purposes and is vital to healthy and adaptive functioning.  Among other things, the ego acts as a gatekeeper between the conscious and the unconscious.  The ego determines, based on a number of factors, what material is allowed into our conscious awareness and what material is to remain unconscious (and probably, to a lesser degree, what information is to be discarded completely).  The ego is also responsible for organizing the personality so that it is coherent and consistent.  It is essentially responsible for creating our "sense of self." 

The true self consists of both the conscious and the unconscious.  To experience the true self, a person must integrate his conscious and unconscious minds.  This requires becoming aware of the material hidden in the unconscious mind.  This material is often difficult, aversive, and anxiety provoking (which is why the ego has not allowed it into conscious awareness).  Becoming aware of this material also means dealing with (and tolerating) the negative emotions associated with it.  This is a difficult process, but one that promises very desirable payoffs.  To experience the true self is to expand one's consciousness and to more fully know oneself.  A perosn's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are controlled by unconscious material so long as that material remains unconscious.  To become conscious of this material is to begin to gain control of it (and to therefore gain greater control of one's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors). 

Despite its many necessary functions, the ego can hinder one's quest to experience his true self.  Recall that one of the roles of the ego is to act as the gatekeeper between consciousness and unconsciousness.  Thus the ego can, at times, interfere with efforts to know the true self by preventing unconscious material from entering conscious awareness.

Essentially, the basic premise of Western psychotherapy is that a fully developed "self" is necessary for healthy psychological and emotional functioning.  The inability to regulate emotions, to cope with and tolerate distress, or to maintain intimate interpersonal relatinoships with appropriate boundaries are all recognized as symptoms of a poorly developed self.  Perfectionism, anxiety, compulsiveness, self-destructive behaviors, or rigid beliefs are also manifestations of an underdeveloped self.  Thus, the goal of Western psychotherapy is to build and strengthen the self, which in turn leads to an alleviation of symptoms and improved overall functioning.

It seems to me that modern Western psychology does not take an ontological stance in its conceptualizations of the self.  In this context, I use the term ontological to refer to "the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality."  (I'll admit it - I just quoted from Wikipedia).  Ontology deals with such questions as "What does it mean to exist?" "When does something cease to exist as opposed to simply changing?" (What if a person sustains brain damage?  His personality is not the same as it was before the damage occurred.  Is he still the same person)?  "What makes up the identity of a person or object?" 

These questions have been contemplated by countless Western psychologists and psychiatrists over the years.  Some have taken a philosophical approach and have generated theories based upon ideas emerging from their own intellectual thought.  Others have formed theories generated from their observations of and interactions with patients.  Still others have taken a more spiritual approach, drawing from the teachings of various religious and spiritual traditions and combining them with traditional psychological theories.

Western psychology has always struggled to be taken seriously as a "hard" scientific discipline.  In order to assert its legitimacy as more than just a pseudo-science, it has adopted increasingly rigorous standards for ideas, information, and practices it is willing to accept as valid.  As a whole, psychology and psychiatry are no longer willing to accept or endorse anything that has not been studied empirically via controlled scientific studies.  (There is, of course, significant variation among individual practitioners in their willingness to engage in psychotherapy practices that have not been empirically validated).

Because of this, the field appears to be moving towards an embrace of an almost reductionist coneption of the self.  This is increasingly the case as new technologies are developed that enable researchers to study directly the activities of the brain.  The neurological underpinnings of phenomena that have traditionally been ascribed to the self (e.g., thoughts, feelings, perceptions) are being identified and explored by researchers via sophisticated brain imaging techniques.   Because these phenomena can be observed on a neurological level, there is a broad assumption that all human experience is simply a result of the various physiological functions of our brains and bodies.  To me, this conclusion seems to ignore one of the basic principles of the scientific method: correlation does not equal causation.  It also assumes that everything that exists can be observed directly and demonstrated objectively.  There are, of course, other ways of knowing; its just that Western society as a whole tends to reject anything they cannot prove.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"No Self" in Buddhism

In Western societies, we tend to view "the self" a distinct entity that lies at the core of our being.  Each person embodies an individual self that is completely separate from everyone and everything else in the universe.  The self is experienced as integrated and continuous; even as a person grows and  changes, there is still a core "self" that remains the same. 

The Buddha asserted that this perception of an integrated, continuous self is just an illusion.  Rather than being a separate, distinct entity, what we experience as the "self" actually consists of five overlapping processes.  These processes are known as the Five Skandhas (or the Five Aggregates).  They are:

1. Physical form: our physical bodies
2. Sensation: the five senses plus our emotions
3. Perception: thinking, conceptualizing, reasoning, etc.
4. Mental formations: thinking habits, biases, willfulness, intention, desire, etc.
5. Consciousness: awareness

These are the things that make up the illusory self.  This illusion of self is maintained because we attend only to the surface of our experiences.  We identify with our wants and desires, our feelings and memories, our likes and dislikes, and our ideas and beliefs.  We see our thoughts and feelings as part of ourselves instead of as passing phenomena.  If, however, we can take a step back from these processes and observe them individually as they come and go, we will begin to realize that there is no core, enduring "self" that exists outside of these experiences.  Instead, we will start to notice the space between these phenomena.  Over time, we become aware that our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, like all other things, materialize and then fall away. 

Buddhism identifies "the self" (or the illusion of self) as the source of all suffering.  When we are immersed in our physical, mental, and emotional experiences, we inevitably identify with some of these phenomena; they become integral to our sense of who we are (our self concept or sense of self).  We become attached to those things we identify with; the threat of losing any one of them is perceived as a threat to our very existence.  With attachment comes the fear of loss.  However, since all things are inmpermanent, loss is inevitable.  We instinctively know this, yet we cling to our attachments in an effort to prolong the inevitable.  We are aware of the futility of our efforts, yet we refuse to accept it.   This is suffering.

The illusion of self also gives rise to aversion and desire.  We divide everything into two categories: "Things I like and want more of" and "Things I don't like and want to avoid."  Thus, every thought, every feeling, every experience is seen in terms of how it relates to one's "self:" it is either something I like or something I don't.  We embrace what we like and reject what we don't.  This accepting and rejecting prevents us from simply experiencing whatever is present, in the moment, as it occurs.

The doctrine of anatta or "no self" is a controversial one.  Over the centuries, it has given rise to a number of different interpretations (and consequently, misinterpretations).  It is frequently referred to as the most poorly understood of all the Buddha's teachings.  Part of the disagreement about how the annata doctrine should be interpreted stems from the fact that it seems inconsistent with other Buddhist teachings, such as the cycle of rebirth.  It also seems at odds with other major religious and spiritual traditions, all of which presuppose the existence of some kind of immortal self or soul.  Finally, the Buddha himself was very vague in his teachings about the doctrine; this led to confusion about how it should be interpreted. 

So what exactly did the Buddha say about anatta?  For this, we turn to the Pali Canon.  The Pali Canon is a collection of the earliest Buddhist texts.  (Buddhist teachings were originally transmitted orally.  After several centuries, they were aggregated and transcribed into a collection called the Pali Canon).  Nowhere in the Pali Canon does it explain how the anatta doctrine should be interpreted (hence the confusion).  The Pali Canon does, however, provide an account of what happened when the Buddha was asked directly whether or not there is a self: he refused to answer the question.  He explained that the question itself is misguided and should therefore be set aside.  Elsewhere, he teaches that reflection on the self (to include whether or not it exists) causes one to become "enmeshed in views" and thereby leads to suffering. 

The concepts of "self" and "no self" imply ownership and identification.  They create a mindset in which we categorize things as "me" or "mine" and "not me" or "not mine."  The controversy itself creates a false dichotomy that inevitably causes clinging to one extreme or the other.  The path to enlightenment, the Buddha taught, is not found in extremes; true liberation is achieved by following the Middle Way. 

The Middle Way is neutral and unconditioned.  When we observe without judgment the rising and the falling away of all phenomena we see that everything arises from nothing and then goes back to nothing.  Even what we identify as "mine" - our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations - are not exempt.  As we examine our experience in this way, we begin to see that our thoughts, feelings, and sensations are "not self" and we release our attachment to them.  Many people believe that this is the true meaning of "no self" in Buddhism; a practical, "not self" strategy for liberation from suffering by letting go of one's attachments.

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