Buddhist thought proposes that we all suffer from a misperception of reality. Our “misleading mind” treats the thoughts, emotions, and concepts that it creates (and which exist only in our mind) as real, thus missing what is true and real in our experiences of life. This includes our concept of self, or the self-referential “I” at the heart of every emotion or desire, such as when we say, “I feel…” or “I want…” In other words, Buddhist thought maintains that our everyday sense of self is mistaken, and until we realize this, we won’t be able to truly get free of all the disturbing emotions that arise within us.
Typically, this is one of the most difficult ideas for people to understand and accept. We are naturally attached to our own identity. The “truth” that is perceived by our senses and reflected in our mind is that there must be an independent, individual “self ” who perceives and experiences everything, and we believe this is the unique person we have grown to become: one with a past, likes and dislikes, talents and weaknesses, hopes and goals, and all the other things we mean when we refer to our “personality.” Many modern people are perplexed and threatened by the Buddhist notion that this self is “false.” Without that, then who are we? What are we? Let me be 100 percent clear: It is not that we don’t exist or that there is no self or identity. The central theme being presented here is that the self does not exist in the way it appears, in the way we believe it to exist.
In fact, showing how our perceived sense of self is like a mirage, and often a self-defeating one, is relatively easy. It’s remembering, maintaining, and living the truth of this that’s hard. Ultimately, in Buddhist thought, understanding or perceiving how the self appears incorrectly is a primary goal. It is the actualization of wisdom, and wisdom is the key antidote to our disturbing emotions and unhealthy mind. Fully actualizing this wisdom, in which all falsehoods fall away, is generally what is meant by the spiritual pursuit of “enlightenment,” but to me this is no different than, and could be considered a euphemism for, “mental health.”
In any case, the main purpose of this chapter is to show how the idea of a “false sense of self” follows logically from everything we’ve discussed so far, and to show how, in practice, this false self gets us into trouble more often than not. Understanding this fundamental function of ignorance is the deepest, most profound of methods leading to mental health and balance. Our mistaken sense of identity is a habitual, primary contributor to our mental dissatisfaction and our limited level of happiness, and we serve ourselves best when we learn to treat it with increasing skepticism
Case example: Emerging Emily
Emily was one of my very first clients. She started seeing me when I was still an intern and has continued to see me off and on until the present time. For the first half of our therapeutic work, she sought counselling primarily to help her be a better single mother for her two sons. However, after her sons reached young adulthood, the therapeutic focus shifted to investigating her relationships with men. She tended to seek men who would treat her poorly; they were often alcoholics or substance abusers who eventually took her for granted. She understood herself to be “codependent” in the classic sense, as someone who was caretaking of another person at the expense of her own well-being.
Emily is an excellent example of how our constructed sense of self—our perception of who we are—can undermine our own happiness, as well as of how transforming that self-destructive “version” of reality can lead us to make better choices and increase our happiness. Eventually, Emily became involved with a man who was not a substance abuser nor had any history of alcohol or drug problems. But their otherwise loving relationship did contain one minor problem—he was married. His relationship with his wife, he told Emily, was on the skids, and they were preparing to separate and divorce. Emily took him at his word, and as time went on, she developed a strong dependence upon his company and affection. For two years their relationship continued in this vein: him on the verge of leaving his wife, Emily waiting in the wings while enjoying his limited companionship. Finally, Emily began to feel hurt, used, taken for granted, and manipulated, in similar ways as in her previous relationships. She knew she should end things, but the alternative, being alone without a man while her own two boys were moving out and on with their lives, appeared far worse. Her decision-making was clouded by disturbing emotions of fear, and this was leading her to cling to a self-destructive relationship under a mistaken belief that it offered her only source of safety and comfort.
Why would she do this? In truth, Emily’s root problem was her attachment to a sense of self that believed it would be happy and complete if she had a man, any man, in her life. Her sense of identity just did not fit without a man. This understanding of self made her behaviour, in her mind, seem logical, and even necessary or justified. We would talk frequently about this: Who was this “Emily” who was not entitled to a loving relationship with a man? Where did this “I” come from? How did it come to dominate her life and convince her to believe in this version of “Emily”? At one point Emily asked me, “Do you think it’s the abuse I suffered as a young girl?” I was taken aback. “Abuse? What abuse?” I asked. This had never come up before. I knew Emily’s father had abandoned the family when she was quite young, and we discussed this as a source of her mindset. Afterward, her mother had become involved with their priest, who eventually left the church to pursue their relationship. However, I didn’t know that the priest had sexually abused Emily and her sister before he got romantically involved with their mother, nor that the abuse continued once he moved into their home.
Here we had finally found a source of the fear and pain that was confusing Emily’s mind when it came to men. Like many abuse survivors, Emily had integrated into her identity her relationship with her abuser. In other words, she had come to accept the terms of the abusive relationship: at a young, vulnerable age, she came to believe she was inherently unworthy of love and respect, and submitting to a male’s authority, giving up her own will and control, was the “price” for experiencing any affection at all. Since then, her self-worth had remained so low that she didn’t believe she “deserved” anything more. It was this “I” that would take the steering wheel whenever she entered into a relationship with a man.
Up until this moment, Emily thought that these emotions, this role she took in relationships, was her. However, once we’d labelled this “I” and identified its source, Emily discovered that this “I” was just one of several identities that inhabited her psyche. She began to see this “I” as a constructed entity, a collection of opinions, projections, and disturbing emotions, rather than something that was absolute. This “I” was more like a persona that had been reinforced so many times throughout her life that it had come to seem “real”—as if Emily had cast herself as a character in a play, and eventually she had played that character so many times she naturally felt it was “her.” Once she understood this process of creating a persona, it began to have less control over her. Emily discovered she could substitute other roles that were more functional, helpful, and healthy. She began to focus more upon these healthier identities, reinforcing them instead, and thus they became more dominant. However, the very process of recognizing the constructed nature of identity, and realizing she could decide who (or how) to be, helped illuminate the fundamental “trick” of her mind. Her previous unhealthy identity of “being no good” was a lie, but then no “self,” no matter how positive and helpful it seems, is entirely “true” or “real” either. Why is this distinction important? Because now, if she finds herself “attached” to an identity that becomes self-defeating, she knows she can change it. She can gain some measure of control over a process that usually controls us and develop more healthy, productive attitudes. The person of “Emily” is only a story or narrative her mind creates as a way to make sense of her experience.
This revelatory process about the nature of our false self is akin to the little dog Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the machinations of the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. Throughout the Land of Oz, the Wizard was dominant, all-powerful, and authoritative, and everyone deferred to him. This is like our ego, telling us what to do and convincing us that it alone is wise and knows all. Then, one day, we get fed up and tired of being sent on wild goose chases, and we discover that the big Wizard is only a rather small, insecure, and powerless old man shouting into a microphone. It is all a ruse. The Wizard dominated for his own benefit; Dorothy never needed him to get her “home.” Our personal Wizard might be the internalized voice of an abuser; it might be the internalized voice of our parents, or of society, or of our profession. The Wizard is not us, however, and we don’t actually need him in the driver’s seat. Invariably, getting “home” and overcoming our self-destructive tendencies require us only to be brave enough to pull back the curtain and reveal our own false sense of self.
A portrait of the false self
Like Emily, we all maintain a false sense of self that we believe to be real. We need to confront and question this belief, since as we will see, the self, or identity, we hold as true and solid is really something that is merely projected upon our minds and bodies. It is a fabrication that we see, relate to, and engage with as something concrete, truly existent, and independent of any other conditions. But it is a phantom, of sorts. When we relate to this phantom as real, we do not see our identity the way it actually exists, and this causes ourselves unending confusion. Buddhist psychology says that “there is someone there; otherwise there would be no experiencer of experiences.” There is an experiencer; it’s just that the experiencer does not exist in the manner we think.
As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” and Buddhist psychology does not disagree. Perception indicates a “self ”; indeed, perceptions are self-created and are therefore, as we’ve discussed, limited. The more important and useful question is: What is the nature of subjectivity? In other words, this chapter poses the age-old question “Who am I?” Who is the “I” who says, “I love ice cream,” or “I am mad at you and need to talk”? It is curious and revealing that we constantly refer to ourselves, our “I,” and yet we don’t really know the manner in which this “I” exists. Where am I? Can you point to your consciousness? Am “I” my physical body: my nose, my face, my leg, my brain? However, doesn’t the self or “I” survive even when we lose an arm or leg or eye?
Am “I” my mind: my emotions, thoughts, memories, and concepts? We might say, “I am my soul,” but it amounts to the same thing, for what is that and where is it located? As we discussed in chapter three, our mind is formless; it has no clear location except, generally speaking, somewhere inside and throughout our bodies. And yet, that formless consciousness cannot be identical with our body because, our body being form, the self cannot be both formless and form. These two are mutually exclusive of each other. Something cannot be space and a rock at the same time. The mind and body might be interdependent, but this does not mean they are identical. This is perhaps the first and most fundamental reason for skepticism: if, strangely enough, we cannot point definitively and specifically to where we are, then why are we so certain we know who we are when we point to our bodies and say, “I’m Steve,” or “I’m Lisa”?
In this way, we come back to the truth that our “false” sense of self is rooted in the mistakes of perception. In chapter three, we used the metaphor of the mirror to explain the Buddhist concept of perception: all perceptions exist like reflections in the mirror of the mind, or like clouds in the sky. Thoughts, emotions, sensations, images, and so on are “objects” that come and go like clouds; a function of the mind itself perceives them but is not identical to them. In this way, we turn the perceptions of our senses automatically into “mental stuff,” like “That is a rock,” “My friend hurt my feelings,” and “My name is Steve.” And these are all the same thing: reflections in a mirror, thoughts that float like clouds in the mind. Our “self ” is nothing until we label it (or name it). The “self ” is something purely relative, constructed, dependent on so many factors, and yet it seems and appears as independent. It acts like a boss or a general of our person when, in fact, it is merely our ignorance, confusion, and habits that allow it to be in charge. To understand this—that the self appears and acts as if it were independent when it is totally dependent for its very existence upon multiple factors—is a huge part of the meaning of wisdom. However, to say there is no inherent, individual “I” is not to say that there is no consciousness, no mind, no experiencer or person there. Just that there is no independently existing, permanent, unchanging self as there appears to be.
Another powerful way to conceive of this is the parable of the stick. The great Indian philosopher Shantideva, who lived hundreds of years ago, noted that when someone hits us with a stick, we become angry with the person, not their weapon. “Although indeed it is the stick that hurts me, I am angry at the one who wields it, striking me. But he is driven and impelled by anger. So it is his wrath I should resent.” We don’t blame the stick that hits us, of course, because it is self-evident that the stick isn’t in control of what it’s doing, nor does the stick have any intention of its own. Literally speaking, the stick is the only thing causing us physical pain, but we know that something besides the stick is causing it to strike. This, Shantideva argues, is also true for us. When our minds become clouded with anger, we lash out. So shouldn’t we be upset with the anger in another person’s head that’s causing them to act, rather than being angry with the person themselves? In this view, the mind of the other person is “suffering” from anger, which now controls their actions and obscures their understanding of reality, both their reality and ours. If we take this angry version of their “self ” literally, as independent and thus to “blame” for hurting us, then we only join them in their delusion. Just because someone else acts irrationally doesn’t mean we should.
Belief in the independent, individual, unique self is powerful, however, and not easily dislodged by logical arguments. Every day, our senses seem to reinforce that each of us is “separate” from everything else. When I walk, I walk in my shoes, not yours. When I eat, I am eating and become full, but I cannot eat and have you become full, nor vice versa. When my son is telling me about his life, it is I who is listening, not anyone else. It is I who notices the new moon at dusk and shares my wonder with my wife on our evening walk. It is our relationship with these experiences that compels us to see ourselves as the centre of our own universe.
In fact, Western culture encourages us to think of ourselves as the centre of our personal universe. Individualism is promoted and even exalted. And yet, in many areas of the world, the idea of “individualism” seems quite strange, if not dangerously wrong-headed. I am not an anthropologist, but I have lived many years of my life in various Eastern cultures where our concept of individualism is regarded as ill-conceived self-centredness. In these cultures, the family, the tribe, the community, the monastery—these identities are more important than the individual self. The “centre” of the universe is the community. Typically, these cultures also teach that the more one looks after oneself, the less one is actually happy. This runs directly counter to the Western “path” to happiness, which is focused almost entirely on pleasing oneself, even at the expense of others. We could say that these are both just culturally relative values and concepts, that neither is empirically valid. But we can look at both to see how well they work, and we can look at how both suggest we solve problems: in the West, an individual just has to try harder, to know themselves better, to be more successful and “happy.” In Buddhism and much of the East, a person must question the concept of “individualism” itself to recover the correct path to happiness.
Further, the notion of “individualism” is historically rooted, which should make us suspicious of its presentation as an inherent “truth.” When psychology developed in Europe and America during the rise of the Industrial Age, it reflected a general cultural shift to valuing the individual over the collective—the family, clan, tribe, and community. The changing nature of society due in part to technological progress, and the rise of consumerism and materialism, led people to value their individual well-being first and foremost, rather than the group’s well-being. Within the writings of Freud and other early pioneers of psychology, the whole notion of “individuation” was born; self-knowledge of one’s personal history became paramount for emotional and psychological wellness. In all these and other ways, Western culture has taught that the path to happiness is “to look after number one.”
The continual, unending process of imprinting only reinforces and strengthens our mistaken concept of “I.” If we have accepted, as modern culture further elaborates, that there is an inherent, real “self ” that makes us who we are, that there is a specific personality that is us, then we constantly “act out” this self in the world and self-perpetuate it. If we believe our perception of our “self ” is real and inherent, then every perception of our five senses, and our every thought and concept, only reinforces this belief and confusion, for every thought and perception begins with “I…” These imprints never go away on their own; if they aren’t actively dismantled, they only develop strength as they are reinforced through repetitive action.
So, for example:
We lose money in a business venture, and we tell ourselves we’re never going to be successful or we’re no good with handling money.
We get a poor grade in school or a poor performance review, and we tell ourselves that we’re no good at certain tasks or are simply “stupid.”
We have a failed relationship, and we tell ourselves we are unlovable or “marriage is not for me.”
Thus, often when we have an experience, we generalize it to a personal “trait.” So, when going through various experiences, we typically reinforce an imprint of who we think we are. In a sense we could say we predispose ourselves to expect that we will live out the “story” that we think defines us, even when that story leads us into perpetual failure or self-destructive habits. It is a vicious and, if we do not intervene, unending cycle. In this way, we embrace our disturbing emotions as the defining source of our self-image because, ironically, our ignorance has tricked us into thinking that the disturbing emotions are “me,” my identity. That is how we get trapped by our unhelpful and unhealthy aspects of our mind, and why our negative views of ourselves can feel so entrenched and real.
Another way we reinforce our false sense of self is through our identification with our “roles.” Many people, when introducing themselves, respond by describing what they do: “I’m a consultant.” “I’m a student.” “I’m a truck driver.” “I’m a parent, father, mother, grandmother…” Oftentimes we respond from the stance of what we think the other person wants to hear. We make a judgment call on what role best defines us, or what identity will make us look good in the other person’s eyes. If we are thoughtful or teasing, we might respond by saying, “I’m a human being,” but we know that’s not what the other person wants to hear. Typically, they are not so interested in who we are but what we are. They want to know our story—what makes us unique or perhaps what makes us different from them—so we try to explain ourselves. And yet, while we might like to think we know ourselves like the back of our hand, in reality we know ourselves about as well as we know who invented the wheel.
How do you answer the question “Who are you?”
The many roles of “I”
The metaphor of acting is useful when trying to understand the multiple “I”s that exist and how they are purely relative in nature. Think of all the different roles that Tom Hanks has played in ten of his most famous movies:
2. Forrest Gump
3. Saving Private Ryan
4. Sleepless in Seattle
6. The Green Mile
8. Apollo 13
9. Cast Away
10. The DaVinci Code
Tom Hanks knows he is not truly Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan or Forrest Gump. Yet, he is considered a great actor because he plays these roles, or identities, so well; his commitment and skill create convincing portraits of wildly diverse people that can genuinely move and inspire us. Further, playing these roles serves a useful purpose (in this case, communication and entertainment). Our multiple identities are much like the multiple roles that Hanks has played.
However, unlike Tom Hanks, who knows he is acting, we typically do not grasp the idea that we are constantly and continually playing roles. These roles, or identities, are relative and temporary and serve a purpose, but they are not who we are in an absolute sense. However, they are who we think we are, absolutely. Sometimes we are more self-aware of “performing” for an audience than at other times, and some roles we play are more comfortable and perhaps are more convincing and successful than others. But being a “good” actor doesn’t change the fact that we are “acting” within every interaction and every relationship, even our relationship with ourselves. In our ignorance, we don’t see and understand this; we are not in control of our actions. We are not in control of our life. It is as if our roles are playing us. We react to circumstances or our disturbed emotions without awareness and are unable to control, change, adjust, or stand up to whatever role we are compelled to play.
Another important distinction is that Buddhist psychology says that “Tom Hanks” is itself just a role, a designated identity, dependent upon what qualities of a person’s personality are paid attention to. When Tom Hanks takes off his makeup and leaves the set, he simply shifts to the real-world roles of “Tom Hanks” the professional actor, husband, son, and so on. It is a delusion to try to identify the “real” person within or underneath one’s multiple identities. We may easily recognize that “mother” and “lawyer” are limited and relative aspects of who we are, but eventually we think, “This is the real me,” the true self beneath the facade. Yet in Buddhist thought, once we attempt to “name” a “true self,” we have failed; all we have done is named, or designated, another relative persona. This idea is essential for understanding our psychology. There is no real “Tom Hanks.” There is no independent, truly existing, findable, inherent “true self.” And in Buddhist psychology, it’s when we fail to recognize this relative nature of our self that we get into trouble in life. For instance, I could say of myself: I am a father, husband, therapist, teacher, son, impatient driver, mellow driver, good golfer, bad golfer, meditator, coach, and so on. But I am none of these concretely, permanently, solidly, independently, or absolutely, even if I do believe I exist in all those ways at certain times and places.
Let’s say someone asks, “Who are you?” and you answer, “I’m a teacher.” There is nothing wrong with calling yourself a teacher; we have to call ourselves something when others ask. Perhaps that is the best role to play for the specific interaction or moment you are in. But if you see yourself inherently as a teacher (as if you were “born to teach”), then you have confused yourself with one limited, and limiting, identity, and you are setting yourself up for suffering. It will be hard to impossible to act like a “teacher” in every circumstance, now and forever. More importantly, rather than choosing effectively the best way to be in any circumstance, you will always be compelled to “be” the teacher because it’s your “true self.” You won’t act in any other way because you won’t see that there’s a choice; indeed, you won’t see this way of being as a “role” or identity at all. By identifying a “true self,” you are compelled to behave and think in that particular way. But imagine if Tom Hanks thought that he actually was Forrest Gump. He’d be considered delusional, since he wouldn’t understand he was an actor. And if he thought he could play only “Forrest Gump,” then he’d be considered a “bad actor.” Actors get “typecast” all the time, so that they are hired to play the same type of part in every movie, and they tend to have limited careers. Thus, we become “successful” actors in our life when we learn to cultivate flexibility, awareness of roles, and control over the ones ignorance compels us to play.
I admit, it can be disconcerting to realize that there is no “inherent” self. Even after considering this idea, we will struggle against this truth. We may recognize that, throughout life, we are constantly changing and that we slip from one identity to another, unconsciously or without deliberate intent. But we try to avoid having “multiple personalities” and the seemingly “schizophrenic” quality of self this implies. We prefer to see ourselves as just one entity with one personality, and so we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to assemble one coherent, consistent, cohesive, unchanging “self.” One way we do this is by cultivating our opinions, beliefs, and “ideals”—our philosophy. In a sense it is more accurate to say that these opinions, beliefs, and ideals hold on to us, for it’s a reciprocal relationship. To have an identity, we need an opinion or belief; to have a belief or opinion, we need an identity. This is really what it means to say that identities are not “real,” since to exist they are interdependent with, or dependent on, other things, like opinions and thoughts and beliefs.
One example is political beliefs: “All politicians are corrupt.” “Government’s purpose is to care for its poorest citizens.” “Environmentalists are out to destroy free enterprise.” These beliefs and opinions filter into so many aspects of our life, and we may take great pride in how studiously we uphold certain principles in every situation: “I always do what I promise, and never promise what I can’t do.” But then, what happens when we fail? What happens when, one time or several times, we overpromise and don’t deliver? Or when we embrace environmental regulations in order to keep the woods behind our home from being turned into a strip mall? We have, by choice, restricted who and what we are allowed to be by rigidly abiding by a “true self ” with certain beliefs and opinions and values. It is common that events will challenge us and force us to act outside of these limits. Often this can cause us to question and doubt our entire worldview, leading us to confusion, doubt, and even anger and depression at having our point of view questioned. We suffer shame, guilt, blame, or avoidance.
It is as if we believe that a different “I,” or subject, arises with each set of beliefs, and we cannot abide this. We must experience continuity of self. Yet our beliefs are learned and acquired; they are not an inherent part of our identity. And since beliefs and opinions are changeable, so is any identity that’s based on them. This is good news given that our changeable nature allows us to acquire more helpful beliefs and shed those that are harmful. We should be happy beliefs are so malleable. Interestingly, like the definition of a “bad actor,” we generally consider those who can only hold one belief, and who treat their beliefs as inseparable from their identity, to be “close-minded” or even bigoted. We recognize when someone has gone too far and become ignorant of the need for flexibility of belief, opinion, and point of view. Thus, even though the full implications of it can be upsetting, we typically understand that, to be successful in our everyday lives, our sense of self must be seen as continuously changeable and adaptable depending upon the context we find ourselves in.
We all, most likely, would agree that we are not our beliefs, our experiences, or our roles. We know intellectually that we are not solely any of these limited things, but there’s the rub. Despite this understanding, we often behave and react otherwise. We “forget” in the heat of the moment. We live in a kind of a hallucination brought on by our emotions, which are experienced so fully and directly it’s as if they take over our mind and we “fuse” our identity with them.
Look at how we talk about our emotions. Usually, we say we “are” the thing that we feel, physically or emotionally. We’ll say, “I am hungry.” And how funny: We’re now no longer a project manager; we are hunger. We say, “Boy, am I tired!” Or, “I am relaxed after that walk.” Or, “I’m mad at my boss and anxious about my job review.” In the moment, we become anger or relaxation or anxiousness. In fact, all day long we are constantly identifying with our emotions, and we treat them as if they are the infallible barometer of our true self.
But are they? As with self-consciously named roles like “father” or “teacher,” we sometimes treat emotional states of mind as permanent aspects of our self. For example, depression. When we’re depressed, the feeling itself may seem unending, as if it will never go away. Of course, we know even our strongest feelings will change over time, eventually, but we may still come to believe that we are a depressive person by nature (or an angry person, or an anxious person, and so on). This quality feels like an unchanging, concrete part of ourselves, and our attitude is: I’m always going to be depressed, now and forever, because that is who I am and how I’ve always been. I am depression.
And yet, this becomes just another limited identity, the “depressed person.” Further, no emotion exists out of context, without being related to or dependent on what else is going on. Certain disturbing emotions arise or are triggered by certain identities, which arise due to particular circumstances. Though our disturbing emotions are experienced directly, arising unpremeditated and instantly in reaction to events, they still remain products of a specific context. We almost never consciously choose how we react. And in fact, we can use our disturbing emotions to help us see and identify the “role” or “identity” particular situations cast us in.
For instance, take stress. We experience stress often, and it can seem diffuse and general. Yet we tend to become anxious when we fear certain consequences, and these are directly related to what we have decided to value. Say you have a deadline for a project you are working on, and you are becoming more and more stressed as the deadline approaches. Naturally, the date of the deadline is itself arbitrary; it is entirely the product of the context of your job. If your deadline is July 15, what is “July 15”? It is merely a label, and its reality as a “deadline” does not exist except as a concept, albeit a concept in many people’s minds. Even the fact that it is a shared concept, a mutually agreed-upon date for the completion of work, does not make the deadline any more “real” in any inherent sense. Indeed, our whole lives are spent in just such mutually agreed-upon fictions, and yet the stress and anxiety we feel don’t seem arbitrary or made up. Once we become anxious, that anxiousness feels real, and it lives inside us until we alone take control of it and transform it
At this point, the deadline is not our problem; anxiety is our problem. We might believe the deadline caused our anxiety, but it has not. We caused our own anxiety by projecting specific beliefs, perceptions, and values onto the deadline. We need to ask ourselves: What identity of mine is affected by this deadline, and how will that role, my sense of “I,” suffer if I don’t meet it? Am I clinging to my reputation as a “good worker,” and thus will that identity suffer if I am seen as irresponsible? Am I clinging to my identity as a competent, reliable, smart professional? If I don’t get perceived by others that way, then am I the opposite: an unreliable, untrustworthy, lazy good-for-nothing? Would this hurt my career path, which provides the money, prestige, and personal satisfaction I want for myself? Perhaps all of this. My anxiety, then, is the direct result of this desire/aversion I have around a specific identity, and my attachment to one outcome, one personality. This one particular deadline is now clearly nothing compared to what I have riding on it. Little wonder that this deadline is causing me discomfort, fear, aversion, dread, and anxiety.
The disturbing emotions that arise are bedfellows of our false sense of self. Another good example is the recent experience of a client of mine, Jack.
He and his sister attended an important meeting with some financial advisors to discuss how to handle the rather large investment portfolio of Jack’s ailing father. Jack related to me how frustrated and agitated he became in the meeting with the advisors. Jack explained, “My sister would not keep her mouth shut. They would ask me a question, and she would answer for me. She butted in and dominated the conversations with inane and irrelevant statements about our family. She would tell stories of family vacations we took as children, conversations my parents had with our teachers in parent-teacher conferences, how our parents didn’t like travelling to Africa, and on and on. It was so unprofessional and embarrassing.”
Clearly, Jack was experiencing the disturbing emotions of agitation, anger, impatience, and embarrassment. He blamed his sister and her behaviour as the cause, but rather than focusing on the false identity that arose or the disturbing emotions themselves, and his discomfort at feeling them, Jack needed to ask: Who is this “I” who was embarrassed?
Looking at the “I” who is embarrassed is a unique, and advanced, practice of Buddhist psychology, which not only considers all emotions to be products of context, but the “I” of the perceiver as well. We assume that the experiencer of an emotion exists quite concretely, and emotions themselves are concrete and real, but the “I” that arises in relationship with the emotions does not exist the way it appears.
In Jack’s case, the feeling of embarrassment is the “object” to be perceived; it’s the cloud passing through the sky of his mind. Yet when Jack experiences this, he doesn’t say to himself: “Jack in the identity of the effective, efficient professional is feeling embarrassed.” He says, “I am embarrassed,” and here is the whole crux of the problem: in the moment, we experience an emotion as the same or inseparable from the I, or the identity, of the perceiver. Upon reflection, we may say, “I have embarrassment,” or “I feel embarrassed,” but invariably, in that initial flash, we are, mistakenly, one with embarrassment. This feeling of unity with the emotion is the problem.
When we are nervous before seeing the dentist, our anxiety is not seen as something separate from our sense of self. We say, “I’m really nervous about getting my teeth drilled,” and the internal experience is not one of a “designated” or “relative” self and nervousness. We are nervousness. This misconception or dynamic, and its variations, is what is in action with all of our problems. When we feel depressed, our self-identity becomes fused with depression. We have an extremely difficult time objectifying or depersonalizing depression. We are depression. This sense of fusion is graded, in that there are degrees of fusion. When the degree of fusion is massive, we could say we get “body and psyche snatched.” We can literally see no end and no alternative to our hopelessness; in fact we become the very incarnation of hopelessness, and then it is not surprising that a depressed person will feel suicidal. Death is considered the only alternative to finding release from hopelessness and its identity of a hopeless self.
Had Jack been completely fused with the emotion of anger, he might have acted out in a similarly “pathological” way. He might have attacked his sister physically or yelled at her to stop. Instead, he told me, he gave her “that look,” and she understood and stopped interrupting him and talking in the way that she was. But until Jack recognizes what identity his “I” is when it experiences, and gets taken over by, anger and embarrassment in these situations, he will always be at the mercy of his disturbing emotions. Indeed, each time it happens he will no longer be the person or role he wants to be, not because of someone else, but because he has become “lost” in a struggle with his own afflictive emotions.
Case example: My heroine, Louise
If we exercise our freedom to choose how we relate with our emotions and how much we draw our identity from them, we slowly and surely become happier and healthier people. If we choose not to let the circumstances of our life dictate “who we are”—even such seemingly inherent aspects of ourselves like our physical body, our gender, and our nationality—we allow our best selves a chance to emerge. This is why Louise—who is a younger sister of my wife, Pam—is one of my heroes. Louise is such an extraordinary example of how our identity is something we can choose. In 1973, Louise was fifteen years old and a renowned child actress in Australia. She was one of the leading characters on a hit TV drama, and on her own initiative, she had dropped out of school to pursue her love of acting.
But that year her life took a sudden detour. The family had spent Christmas a few hundred miles north of their home in Melbourne. Louise, Pam, their father, their brother, and a friend were driving back to Melbourne, and the rest of the family planned to follow later. It was the day after Christmas, or Boxing Day in Australia. The family had stopped for lunch, and when they resumed driving, the children traded seats—Dad driving, the friend in the front passenger seat, their brother and Pam on the sides in the back seat, and Louise between them, sitting in the middle. They were cruising on the two-lane country highway when, apparently, they all fell asleep. No one remembers exactly what happened, but Pam woke up to screaming and there was pandemonium everywhere. They had had a head-on collision with another car. Everyone was wearing seatbelts (which was the law in Australia, a decade before seatbelt laws were adopted in the United States), but Louise was the only one without a shoulder harness. Pam unbuckled her seat belt, got out of the car, and then collapsed. The next thing she remembers is being in the ambulance racing to the country hospital.
Because of Louise’s notoriety, the newspapers covered the story on their front page. Pam suffered spinal fractures and multiple internal injuries, and her brother also had a spinal fracture; however, they were lucky because their spinal cords had not been severed. Their father had massive injuries to his face, and their friend had nothing but a scratch on her forehead. The passenger in the front seat of the other car was killed. Meanwhile, Louise suffered a broken back and her spinal cord was severed. The fifteen-year-old child actress was paralyzed from the waist down, and she would remain paralyzed that way for the rest of her life. And yet, she never missed a beat. While Pam and Louise were recuperating in the same hospital room, Louise never shed a tear or complained about her situation. Pam was in severe pain, with three broken vertebrae and massive internal injuries. Louise felt fine, except she couldn’t walk. She spent her time in the hospital helping Pam feel better by cracking jokes and incessantly telling stories.
When Louise left the hospital, in the midst of what should have been typical “teenagehood,” she remained upbeat. The television series wrote her back into the script by having her character involved in an accident and returning wheelchair bound. Louise continued to land popular TV roles until she gave up acting several years later. She married, gave birth to three sons, and has a thriving public relations business. While she may have given up acting, she has not “given up” in any other sense, and her passion is to provide a positive impact for others.
At one time, she was in charge of public relations for tourism for the state of Queensland. She hosted her own radio shows. She lobbied for the rights of those facing disabilities, and she was instrumental in Australia’s passing some of the world’s most progressive laws supporting the physically challenged. She continues to be in high demand for her motivational speeches, and she never ceases to work for those who are disadvantaged.
She is my hero for all these reasons, but also because she personally opened my eyes. When I first met Louise in the early 1980s, I had never actually known anyone who was “confined” to a wheelchair. I was tentative before our first meeting, not knowing what to expect or how I should act around her. Yet an amazing thing happened: the force of Louise’s personality drove her wheelchair from my image of her. She was not “Louise in a wheelchair” because Louise never identified with her paralysis. Because of her own self-image (which didn’t include her wheelchair), her ability to choose an “I” that fit her happiness with life, she allowed me to see her differently as well. “Handicapped Louise,” she would explain to me, was not a fitting or a useful label. She understood that she was not her condition.
I remember many years later, Louise and I were watching a program about a recent medical discovery. Scientists were having amazing success inserting microchips in spinal cord–injury patients and creating electrical impulses that allowed some movement in the paraplegics’ legs. As we watched the program, I remember becoming encouraged, and I asked Louise, “Would you consider doing this procedure once it became more credible?” I was surprised when she hesitated, then responded, “I’m not that concerned. If somebody needed it more than me, I’d let them have it.” I felt my question was a bit like asking a pastry chef if she wanted a bite of my Pop-Tart.
Louise had decided a long time ago that she was not going to choose an identity, an “I,” that would be defined by what she did not have or by what was lacking: the ability to walk on two legs. Thinking of herself as “paraplegic” just was not all that useful to her.
Lose your self, gain compassion
We resist any effort to deconstruct our created sense of self. While it causes us problems at times, we feel familiar with our identity, and if Buddhist philosophy says that’s a misperception of reality, a “false sense of self,” we might respond: “What’s so great about reality?”
This might be called the “ignorance is bliss” approach to life. And so long as our problems aren’t too big, it’s hard to argue with it. Of course, misconceiving reality, and misconceiving who we are, invariably leads to problems that seriously affect our well-being. And whatever the size of our problems, we won’t attain a higher quality of life. Until we understand who we really are, we’ll never effectively solve our individual problems or those in the world at large and achieve the kind of well-being and happiness that is possible. But typically, it takes problems of great seriousness before we willingly dismantle our attachment to our “self,” to the identity that has served us for so long.
Yet, Louise’s story exemplifies another reason to actively do so. By loosening our attachment to our individual sense of self and acknowledging that all people and things exist interdependently, we become kinder people. We become more compassionate and empathetic. As we “lose” our attachment to our belief in our inherent self, we gain a feeling of interconnectedness with all others—not only with our lover, our children, our parents, and our friends, but with all people in the world. As we realize how our false sense of self leads us to make mistakes and create our own problems, we see that that’s how everyone else operates as well—and this understanding heightens our feelings of affection, kindness, and warmth. As we soften the conception of our self as concrete, solid, and independent, we soften our concept of others as having concrete, solid, independent selves, and we increase our sense of connection to the wider community and the world at large.
We will look at this more closely in the final chapter, but how does this work in practice? Say you are the manager of a business, and you are dealing with an irate customer who insists you (or your company) is “wrong.” Instead of “becoming” the manager and solidly “holding your ground,” you see yourself and the customer as unwilling actors in a play. Really, you are just two people meeting for a short moment in the continuum of life, and what does it matter what part you play, so long as the “problem” is solved and kindness and happiness are increased…for both of you? Perhaps the other person has a tangible issue you can help with (whether or not you “caused” the problem to begin with), and so you solve it, without letting your “defensiveness” at being “wrongly accused” get in the way. Or perhaps the other person needs to be “right” because the “customer is always right.” In this case, if they are rigidly attached to needing to play a certain role, the identity of “the right customer,” why get caught up in that particular drama just because they are? Let go of your own righteousness, and let them be “right.” Perhaps they will learn they don’t need to become angry to get what they want (or perhaps not), but you have acted with compassion and your own peace of mind has not suffered. You can feel a sense of positive confidence that you acted authentically and with kindness. This type of “softness” is authentic kindness and not soppy, artificial, moralistic kindness; it’s the release of judgment. As our rigid sense of self softens and we open up to new possibilities of being, we become empathetic and interconnected with other people. In fact, research is beginning to validate that empathy is typically found in people who register higher levels of satisfaction and happiness in their lives. And higher levels of satisfaction and happiness mean a higher level of mental well-being and health.
Exercise: Getting to know your selves
This is a contemplation to be performed before you retire for the night. After settling your mind, reflect back to when you first got up that morning. Capture what your first sense of “I” was for the day. For example, “I’m excited about having the day off to go to the beach,” or “Sh@#! I’ve got to rush to make it to that stupid meeting,” or “Man, I’m tired.” After you capture each experience of who you were, make a simple “I” statement and attach your name. For example, “I was excited John,” or “I was agitated John,” or “I was tired John.” See how your identity and your experience were inextricably connected. Then go through your day and capture multiple experiences using the same formula. You should have a number of labels, like “husband John,” “director John,” “angry driver John” “hungry John,” “father John,” and so on. At the end of this exercise, you should be feeling more familiar with how, in fact, we have multiple, even innumerable, identities, even though we experience ourselves as just a single personality. When you conclude, consider: Has your sense of self softened with respect to some of your more rigid, ingrained identities?