Tuesday, November 13, 2007

We Have a Self, Whether We Need One or Not

I am in therapy, and I have reached an interesting point with my therapist. I am feeling as though I must disagree with him on a basic philosophical point. He has told me many times a quote from a meditation teacher which says, "You need to have a healthy self in order to lose it." I can appreciate this sentiment in as much as it points to the unfortunate reality of spiritual bypassing, when we attempt to skip over the issues of our "self" and attempt to realize non-existence without realizing the full manifestation of our existence, which is, of course, disasterous.
But is this whole thing actually as linear as this quote implies? I doubt it.
I have been contemplating this as of late, and wondering if in fact the process of developing a healthy self cannot exclude an understanding of no-self. Let's start with why one has an unhealthy self to begin with.
We can agree - hopefully - that no one has a completely healthy self, as long as they are completely indentified with their individuality. Because, if we are contemplatives, we know that the self is based to some degree on a basic anxiety which is the fear of death. Beyond that, most people have basic styles of neuroses for dealing with this anxiety. Like being too controlling, being too much of a push-over, tending toward anger, tending toward smoothing over things with fake happiness, whatever, you name it, humans do it.
Beyond that, there are much more serious problems. I think these problems are more along the lines that the statement "you need a healthy self in order to forget it," are referring to.
Many of us, due to a variety of circumstances, did not develop a healthy, separate , and distinct sense of self. Perhaps we experienced trauma, abuse, or enmeshment. Perhaps we did not attach properly to our primary care-givers. There are many causes which can lead to a sense of self which is fragmented. Where the person may not understand where they begin and end, where the person may not be able to track their own emotional states, where a person may not feel connected to themselves in a wholesome fashion. There are many forms of this, and as I said, many causes, and it is rather common. So the implication of the statement in question is that one must solve this fragmented self, heal it, fix it. And then that person can go about learning the "true nature" of the self as empty, without inherent existence.
There is a fallacy in this theory, and perhaps more than one.
The first is that from a contemplative perspective, the reason that the sense of self can get fucked up, fragmented, etc. is that it does not exist in the first place. Most people who experience fragmentation of their self, are simultaneously experiencing non-existence.
Non-existence is tricky. It is not like a disappearing act, where the self is gone. No it is not that simple. It is seeing through the self. Seeing that the self is in fact a sort of dance, a play if you will, a set of actors wearing costumes, and when the costumes are taken off, they fall to the ground, with nothing to hold them up.
When a person experiences trauma, they experience and unexpected break in the self. Our survival mechanism is strong, and so this causes extreme fear.
In order to heal this fear, the person must begin to understand that what they are experiencing in terms of fragmentation and fear is not abnormal. It is in fact, completely normal, predictable, understandable.
Perhaps though, a contemplative person on a path of meditation in this situation, could also be helped to understand that their experience of no-self, is also in fact, completely normal, predictable, understandable. This would seem to ease the tendency of the self to hide from its own reality. To hide from its own fear of death by hiding from death itself. By normalizing non-existence, the fear of it could be partially quelled. By thinking that we can by-pass non-existence for the self, must also be wrong. They both happen simultaneously.
We cannot build walls between ourselves and death. The reality of non-existence surrounds us. Many practitioners with an "unhealthy" sense of self actually know this better than those practitioners with a "healthy" sense of self. To ask a practitioner in this situation to not pay attention to non-existence seems like more of the same, more smoke and mirrors leading in a sense to a greater potential for re-experiencing trauma.
Now, lets look at another aspect of this discussion: The "healthy" self.
What is a healthy self? If you google "healthy sense of self" (most DEFINITELY not the best source for psychological info - but it is late and I am lazy) you will get a lot of pages talking about self-esteem. Thinking highly of yourself. I would take this to a somewhat deeper level and say that a healthy sense of self includes a sense of intrinsic self-worth.
In addition, the healthy self includes the ability to move through emotional states and situations without getting deeply stuck or caught in fear and doubt, allowing the human exchange to be fluid, largely positive, and imbued with some degree of clarity about ones own experience.*
(*This is most obviously my definition. I promise to do more citing in my next post).
Where does this type of self come from? Ideally, It comes from great brain chemistry, excellent endocrine function, and kick-ass healthy loving parents with great boundaries. But, if we did not or do not have these things, then what then? Obviously, relearning relational things is important, re-organizing thinking patterns, repatterning relationships, healing old trauma in the body, these are all important, vital things.
I would add however, that a healthy self is an evolving self. In order to truly be a healthy self, the self must not be in fear of itself. It must know that it can look at all aspects of its own experience, without hiding from itself. This is where fragmentation comes from.
To not hide, is to evolve. Evolution of the self, comes from deeper and deeper seeing of things as they are, not just as we want them or think we need them to be. Things as they are, are inherently paradoxical, and through paradox, we become larger, and more complex. Simultaneously, evolution of the self allows us to become more simple, as we develop a greater trust in basic reality. Evolution is vital to the healthy self. Without it, the self must actually create false walls in order to hide from reality.
But where does evolution lead? Why, funny you should ask, evolution leads to non-existence! Evolution inherently points directly at the universal identity that has no preference. There is a road to get there, obviously, but each point of evolution identified by the self, includes a greater understanding, a nearer understanding of this ultimate point. This ultimate point is of course glimped along the way, but each glimpse is colored by the degree to which the self has evolved. The self itself must understand both its existence and its non-existence, healthy or not, in order to become whole. Wholeness in the psychological sense may not actually be the ultimate no-preference of non-existence. But even psychological wholeness specifically could not hide from non-existence, as that would be fragmentation. No, wholeness must point to non-existence as a possibility, as non-existence also points to the self, "healthy" or not.
So the statement "you have to have a healthy self in order to lose it," may in fact not be completely true. It depends on ones view of enlightenment. But regardless, I don't think any path to healing and wholeness could possible preclude reality itself. This would be a further step into madness.
Singning off-