Emptiness and therapeutic obsession with the self

Thoughts arising from the “Buddhism and Psychotherapy” panel, AAR meeting, Chicago, 19 Nov. 2012.

Interpreting the emptiness of the self as a statement regarding the personal self seems to be motivated by two factors. It may be of use to note the nature of these two interrelated rhetorical dynamics.

First, there is a misunderstanding of ātman as referring specifically to the personal self, rather than to the mistaken conception of any unchanging or permanent essence, whether in relation to persons or other entities of any kind. The conceptual sedimentation underlying contemporary popular religious culture in the US and Europe includes the soul as exactly such a permanent personal essence. The framing of Buddhism as “religion,” therefore, contributes to the ongoing misinterpretation of anātman as related only to the personal self. And, therefore, the ongoing utility of critiquing this misinterpretation, since it involves Buddhism in a framing discourse at variance with the truly radical implications of the concept of anātman.

Second, that misunderstanding is reinforced by the obsession with the personal self, its correction or healing, found throughout the therapeutic culture, whether explicitly psychotherapeutic or more generally as found in the self-help movement. As Luis Gómez noted, the grammatical function of the vast majority of normal usage of of the term “self” are not such as to implicate a metaphysical commitment to an eternal, unchanging self. They are rather simply deictic in nature.

Thus, the incoherence and philosophical shallowness of a therapeuticized Buddhism, expressed in language that tends toward glossing anātman in personalistic terms as “overcoming the self,” or “transcending the self,” or even “healing the self,” becomes invisible. This is not to say that concern with the lives and sufferings is irrelevant, but rather that addressing such concerns is not the function of the concept of anātman.
The personal self is not abandoned, destroyed, overcome, or transcended, healed or made whole, nor displaced by the true self—only the conception of it as permanent is recognized as mistaken. In other words, insight into the emptiness of the self does not dissolve the self, does not eradicate it. It rather allows one to operate free from either attachment to it as one’s true unchanging identity, or fear of straying from it. It is only a dichotomous self-conception of this kind that makes it possible to be “inauthentic” in a crudely comparative understanding of not true to one’s self, as if that self is something separate from the unavoidably messy business of actually living. The emptiness of the self is intended as a statement of fact, not as a (therapeutic) goal of practice. Recognizing this fact, however, recontextualizes the self in a fashion that allows for greater freedom of being for oneself.

One of the concerns voiced by some contemporary Western Buddhists who are trying to understand the tradition is how awakening can be permanent, given the centrality of the teaching of impermanence? All too frequently the dualistics of neo-Platonism inherent within Western intellectual culture—part of the cultural sedimentation underlying our conceptual landscape—slants implicitly toward the conclusion that Buddhas must be eternal, absolute, unchanging. If one considers the nature of Gestalt shifts, however, it may be possible to understand such a change as permanent in the sense of irreversible, and at the same time the result of causes and conditions. (This understanding is reflective of the widespread Mahayana conception of avaivartika, irreversibile, as the attainment of bodhisattvas at some point on their way to full buddhahood.)

At the beginning, one sees only, let us say, the rabbit—as in the “rabbit-duck illusion” perhaps most familiar now from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Suddenly, however, the Gestalt shifts, and one sees the duck. From that moment on, that is irreversibly/permanently, one is aware that the figure can be seen either as a duck or as a rabbit. Such a change of perception is the result of causes and conditions, but one cannot go back to being unaware of the possibility of seeing either figure. There is no way in which the irreversibility of such a Gestalt shift indicates a metaphysical absolute. Attempting to avoid being misunderstood: I am not claiming that awakening is nothing but a Gestalt shift, but rather suggesting a way to understand such a change as permanent, now understood in the sense of irreversible, without hypostatizing a metaphysical realm of absolutes or Platonic essences.

This has ethical significance as well. The notion of ethics as an abstract set of standards separate from the lived actuality of human life against which actions may be measured parallels the notion of the true self as separate from lived being in the world in reference to which one can determine what one truly thinks and feels.


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