In our discussion group today, we'll begin by looking at Jessica Benjamin's “Doer and Done To,” and continue an attempt to maintain some comparative dialog between psychoanalytic notions of the self and Buddhist notions of the self, continuing what we began by looking at Phillip Bromberg's theory of multiple selfs in his “Standing in the Spaces.” Jessica's work on intersubjectivity, mutuality and the third I think will shed light on something of what we mean in Buddhism by interdependence, which is an aspect of the self that Buddhists often rush by in their hurry to get to the self's impermanence or the self's non-existence, but anybody who talks about Buddhist psychology, the first thing they say is, "Well, Buddhists think the self doesn't exist."
But in my experience, this is by and large just wishful thinking, because people come to practice because of all the problems they're having with their self, in themselves, with other selves, and the idea that the self doesn't exist is usually a very welcome idea, that somehow the slate can just get wiped clean, and this thing is giving me so much trouble, will it just go away, or somehow we'll find out it doesn't exist or it doesn't matter, or I'm able to find some place above or beyond, or to the side of all the problems that are bringing me to practice.
In the west, in theories of the self, entangled with theories of the soul -- and those were always devised to try to untangle our relationship with our bodies -- there was a feeling that in some way we are tied down by this body, that there ought to be a part of us that is not dependent on our physical bodies, that is not subject to all the pains and sufferings and mortality of being embodied. Not only ought there to be a pure, essential aspect of us that will exist independently of the body and exist after death, but a big part of what you got in the west was the idea of a soul that is separable from the body.
This is the basis of what usually gets called dualism, that there two substances, mental or spiritual, and physical, and that these two entities can exist apart from each other. All of it is a fairly undisguised attempt to separate and purify the parts of ourselves that we think are problematic and the parts we want to idealize. The parts we want to get rid of, obviously, are the ones that involve mortality and pain and suffering, usually also sexuality, which everyone thinks gets us in trouble, and for some reason they want to do away with. It seems like a bad idea that if only we could be rid of that, life would be a lot simpler.
In Buddhism we get much of the same tendencies, the desire to rid ourselves of desire, the idea that bodily needs, sexuality, physical dependencies are the problem. And so one way or another, the notion of there being no self is an attempt to undercut the self of our daily life that has needs and desires, and to see if we can find some way to stand apart from that, or be free from that. In fact, our practice on a day-to-day basis, as I describe it, is looking in the mirror, and trying to be honest about what we see there. Our practice is first of all an embodied physical practice. It's not abstract or intellectual, it's sitting, sitting in a particular posture, one that makes us after not a very long time acutely aware of having bodies that breathe and that ache, get restless, and you see, that's not sort of an unfortunate byproduct of the practice, it is the practice. It is a practice of being embodied, of trying to be at home in our bodies, even as our bodies are a source of pain and all sorts of things that we wish were under our control, but aren't.
But to say that the self doesn't exist, is pretty much equivalent to saying that the body doesn't exist. Or that the floor and walls, and the scroll and the walls don't exist. They're all equally true, but we tend to invest the statement with very different meanings. The nonexistence of the self means that it has no impermanent unchanging nature, that it's constantly defined and subject to contingency. If we want to have a lesson in impermanence and interdependence, the body offers as good a lesson as anything possibly can. Our body is always changing, aging, it's vulnerable, it's full of needs, it can't exist alone, and the idea that there's some place it's going to go, or some state we're going to reach that will transcend all of that is one of the main curative fantasies that brings people to practice.
The so-called non-existence of the self really plunges us back into the reality of interdependence, the reality of impermanence. It's not a magical release from those things. The whole idea of a self as a permanent entity is the fantasy of being the rock in the stream, that I am an unchanging experience or agent in the midst of my life. The whole fantasy of self is of something that is in some way apart from, independent of, and impervious to the outer flux. So to say there is no self is to really return us to the vulnerability of impermanence. And yet, how quickly everyone means just the opposite: finally free of the self, I am going to be free of all the vicissitudes of life, and I will be in some state that is suddenly of transcendent imperturbable equanimity. That's really what everybody wants, what everybody says they come here for. That's really what the bottom line is, this fantasy of imperturbable equanimity that we think we'll achieve through meditation. And there's a way in which we have to spend years changing that fantasy, until we give it up once and for all and try to come to terms with what's left over.
By studying the psychoanalytic texts, I hope to introduce a little emotional realism into our practice. In general, we should pay close attention to who we think we're going to become as a result of our years of practice. What we think we will be able to eliminate, get rid of in the process of becoming that idealized self gives us a good clue towards who we really are, and what it is that we need to come to terms with in our practice and in our lives.
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