Archives for category: Spiritual Life

Note: This is part 2 of a multi-part series about the relationship between meditation and psychotherapy adapted from a paper I wrote for my Intro to EWP course at CIIS. For more information see the first post in the series. This brief post gives some background on my meditation practice in order to provide readers with some context.-------- * --------
Personal Background
I started on the Buddhist path after listening to an interview with Jack Kornfield and reading his book The Wise Heart. Practicing meditation felt close to impossible at the beginning but a dharma talk on the topic of patience got me over this initial hurdle. Once I got over that first resistance, maintaining an almost daily practice became much easier and within a few months I started noticing changes in myself, in my perception and in the way I interacted with the world.

Over the next couple of years my practice solidified and I got to know some of the communities born from mindfulness and Buddhist practice. I have found much support in those communities both online and in real life. After getting my first taste of retreat practice in May of 2010 I got hooked and had to get more. Over the next 18 months I attended 9 meditation retreats of various lengths. My practice evolved and changed over time. I was strongly influenced initially by Mahasi Saydaw’s noting practice and later combined it with the practice of anapanasati as taught in Ajahan Buddhadasa’s tradition. The intensity of my practice grew as did the length of each retreat peaking with a 30 day retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where I found myself driven by a deep craving to attain stream entry. This craving suddenly vanished right as I came to a decision that I got what I needed from the retreat and was replaced by intense peace.

I emerged from this period of intense practice vastly transformed and yet at the same time, very much still myself. I have seen the intense suffering that is inherent in clinging to the idea of being a self and tasted some of the liberation that comes with letting go. My faith in the value of the Buddha’s teachings was now completely my own, no longer borrowed from books or teachers. With time, though, I realized that this was not enough. I still found myself tossed into bouts of depression, drifting aimlessly and lacking motivation. This realization drove me to enter psychotherapy.

In the next couple of posts I will describe my personal experience in bringing together meditation and psychotherapy and how each of those supports and, in turn, benefits from the other.

Note: This is part 1 of a multi-part series about the relationship between meditation and psychotherapy adapted from a paper I wrote for my Intro to EWP course at CIIS. It is written from the perspective of a medium-term (around 4 years) meditator undergoing therapy. This first post includes an introduction and a short review of academic literature on the topic. Follow-up posts will include more of my own experience. I hope that this will serve to show why I no longer see spiritual and psychological work as separate but intrinsically connected. Just as importantly I believe that psychological well-being is not separate from spiritual well-being and vice versa.
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Over the last two years my spiritual life has centered around Buddhist meditation practice on the one hand and psychotherapy on the other. Throughout this time I’ve found that the two practices complement and support each in various ways. I’ve found that meditation builds on the foundation created by therapy and vice versa. I’ve seen the two practices intertwine – one practice unfolding inside the other – to the degree that it can be difficult to separate them at times. I’ve read different theories about the relationship between the two practices (see next section) but I’ve yet to reach any conclusions for myself on the nature of this relationship.

In this series of posts I will describe my personal experience of the relationship between meditation and psychotherapy. From that experience, I suggest, arises a complex dialectic between the two practices that is hard to reduce to any simple model. I will divide my experience into two sections: 1) how meditation supports therapy; and 2) how therapy supports meditation but the interdependence between the two practices is so deep that even this simple division will break. I’ll begin, however, with a brief review of relevant literature.

Literature Review
The relationship between psychotherapy and spiritual practice goes back to the very early days of psychology as a science. William James (1902), considered to be the father of American psychology, studied religious and paranormal experience extensively. Carl Jung’s memoir (1963) describes Jung’s relationship with Christianity and its influence on Jung’s life and his work. Jung was also a student of Eastern spirituality and was clearly influenced by such systems of thought when developing his process of individuation (e.g. Jung 1929). More recently, however, and as Eastern spirituality becomes a more familiar part of Western culture, we see an increasing number of studies looking at the direct relationship between psychotherapy and various forms of spiritual practice such as meditation.

One influential researcher in this field is Jack Engler, a psychotherapist and Buddhist meditation teacher. In Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation, Engler (1986) described a linear model with psychotherapy coming before meditation. He famously wrote “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody” (Engler 1986 p. 24), referring to developing a solid ego before turning to deconstructing the ego through insight meditation.

Epstein and Leiff (1986) describe meditation as a developmental process, the higher stages of which are “only accessible when the practitioner’s ego is sufficiently intact to withstand the regressive upsurge” (p. 57). They go into further detail describing the capacity for regression that is required to respond successfully to the different stages of the meditative path and the various pathological responses that are likely to occur at each stage. According to Epstein & Leiff, at least some of these pathological responses can be handled within the contemplative framework, for example pride and attachment to states of meditation may be made objects of meditation thereby allowing the meditator to pass beyond this hindrance. Epstein (1990) clearly breaks with Engler’s, now famous statement, saying that while it is clear that many with borderline personality structure will not benefit from intensive meditation practice, “this does not necessarily mean the the ego must be fully developed, integrated, cohesive, intact or in any other way ‘normal’ before the meditative experience can unfold” (Epstein 1990, p. 4).

Another model of the relationship between spiritual and emotional maturity comes from Cindy Wigglesworth (2006) who, following in the footsteps of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (1995), writes about spiritual intelligence (SQ). Wigglesworth (2006) defines spiritual intelligence as “the ability to behave with compassion and wisdom while maintaining inner and outer peace (equanimity) regardless of the circumstances”. The relationship between emotional intelligence (EQ) and SQ changes through life. Early in life (starting around age 22-25) spiritual intelligence depends on the development of EQ related skills such as empathy and emotional self-awareness. Later in life, however, as we focus on existential questions and following a desire for ego-transcendence the “SQ journey” begins. The development of SQ, at this point, reinforces the growth and development of EQ (and IQ as well). The model that Wigglesworth describes, then, contains a reinforcing feedback loop where emotional and spiritual maturity reinforce each other.

It seems that the linear model proposed by Engler (1986) is slowly abandoned in favor of more complex models describing a richer interaction between the practices of meditation and psychotherapy. In fact, in a more recent interview (Cohen & Engler 2000), Engler himself moves away from the simple linear model towards a less rigid structure. My own experience certainly agrees with the need for a more complex model of interaction. In the next couple of posts in this series I will describe my personal background with meditation and my personal experience in merging meditation and psychotherapy.

Engler, J. (1986). Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation. In K. Wilber, J. Engler, & D. Brown (Eds.), Transformations of Consciousness (pp. 17-51). Boston: Shambala.
Cohen, A. (interviewer) & Engler, J. (interviewee). (2000). The 1001 Forms of Self Grasping. In What is Enlightenment? Vol. 17, 2000.
Epstein, M., Leiff, J. (1986). Psychiatric complications of meditation practice. In K. Wilber, J. Engler, & D. Brown (Eds.), Transformations of Consciousness (pp. 53-63). Boston: Shambala.
Epstein, M. (1990). Meditation and the Dilemma of Narcissism. Journal of Contemplative Psychotherapy, 7, 3-19.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Dell.
James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience. Cambridge: The Riverside Press.
Jung, C. G. (1929). Commentary on “The secret of the Golden Flower.” In Collected Works, Vol. 13, 1967 (pp. 1-55). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1961). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York: Vintage.
Wigglesworth, C. (2006) Why Spiritual Intelligence Is Essential to Mature Leadership. Integral Leadership Review, 6(3), 2006-08.

Going at least as far back as Jung, we’ve seen psychologists promoting the view that psychopathology is not a disease but rather an attempt by the psyche to bring about greater wholeness. There are usually several common factors that go into this view of psychopathology:

  1. The reality of the psyche. In Jung’s view, the intra-psychic experience of an individual cannot be ignored. The psyche has its own life and cannot be reduced to biology or basic psychological drives. The psyche speaks to us through dreams, intuition, visions, synchronicity and more.
  2. The psyche as as self-regulating system. When there is imbalance in the psyche, the psyche itself will attempt to bring back balance and healing. This attempt to restore balance often occurs through the methods mentioned above (dreams, visions, etc.) but in some cases, when the imbalance is too powerful, may appear to be a form of psychopathology. The Jungian view invites to look at psychopathology in a new light.
  3. An archetypal and/or mythical view of psychopathology. By considering the two points above, many researchers recognize an archetypal or mythical element in psychopathology. A good example of this view is in (Lukoff 1985) where we see various symbols and archetypes coming up in the patient’s experience of psychosis. These symbols can be used to gain insight into the patient’s world during the episode and perhaps more importantly can be used later as a source of guidance and insight for the patient himself.
  4. A spiritual component of psychopathology. In exploring the similarities between manic psychosis and mystical states, Lukoff (1988) suggests that there may be unrecognized spiritual insight hidden in what we call psychopathology. This insight may be valuable to the patient personally and may even be significant for society as a whole. A theme that occurs often in this context is that of the Hero’s journey where the hero’s confrontation with monstrous perils (psychopathology in this case) ends up in victory and the hero returns to his people bearing gifts (of insight).

I would like to explore this view deeper, specifically as it relates to addiction. I begin this exploration with the following quote from a letter C.G. Jung wrote to Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) regarding a shared acquaintance and former client of Jung’s named Rowland H.

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.

Jung equates here the alcoholic’s thirst for alcohol with the power that motivates the spiritual search, the the need for wholeness or a union with the divine. Jung goes on to talk about the ways to satisfy this craving.

The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.

According to Jung the way to satisfy this thirst is through a spiritual experience which comes about through an act of grace, contact with friends or through spiritual practice. Jung sees the symbolic connection between alcohol and God in the shared latin root – spirit. Indeed the 12 steps of AA are designed to bring about a spiritual experience based on Jung’s formulation: spiritus contra spiritum.

Following in the footsteps of Jung, Stan Grof (1993) looks at addiction as a form of spiritual emergency. Spiritual emergency is an “evolutionary crisis” (Grof & Grof 1993), a difficult stage that is a natural part of the developmental process. Spiritual emergency can be easily misdiagnosed as a form of psychopathology since they share many common symptoms like changes in consciousness, perception, emotional or cognitive functioning and others. However, a person undergoing a spiritual emergency is usually able to form a healthy relationship with the process and see it as part of an internal psychological process.

Addiction as spiritual emergency is different, since the spiritual component is often masked by the addiction itself or by the addict’s destructive tendencies. However, once we take into account Jung’s thoughts expressed above, the spiritual connection becomes clearer. This is supported by the reports of some alcoholics who describe their first experience of alcohol as containing a numinous character.

Grof (1993) suggests that the addict’s journey through and recovery is similar to a process of ego-death and rebirth. We can see this process by looking at the 12 steps of AA.

To begin with, the addict must recognize that he has hit bottom and is powerless in the face of his addiction, he has lost control of his personal and interpersonal lives and is unable to repair this on his own. The addict is then invited to turn over control to something greater than the personal self. When the addict becomes willing to surrender his will to a Higher Power, he has set out out on the path of transformation.

Next, with the guidance of a sponsor, the addict makes a “fearless and searching moral inventory.” In this step, the addict looks at his old way of being and lists out all the way in which it does not serve him and others. This part of the work focuses on blocks: fears, selfishness, dishonesty, etc. By making this old way of being conscious through self-reflection and through sharing it with another, the addict becomes willing to let go of this old way of being and to create room for something new. It is worth noting the similarity between this part of the healing process and Ken Wilber’s description of self-growth as a process where “the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next.”

It is possible that through the moral inventory, confession and willingness to let go of the old way of being the addict is now discovering a new way of being. In order to integrate the personality and to bring it more fully into this new way, the addict now engages in shadow work through the practice of making amends. Through this practice, the addict brings the light of consciousness to places that before remained hidden. It is important to note that the process of making amends is not about making apologies or seeking forgiveness; it is a process of admitting wrongs and accepting the consequences. In this way the recovering addict integrates those acts into wholeness.

Once the process of integration comes to completion, the addict is ready to engage with the world from a place of freedom and security. He is now becoming established in a healthy way of being and is supported in it through community and by continuing the practices of moral inventory, making amends and meditation or prayer. And, like the mythical hero returning from his adventure, he now has something new to share with the world and is called to do so through a dedication to service.

Of course, this is not the path that every addict takes. Not even every addict that arrives at a 12 step program walks the entirety of this path. But for many, the spiritual component of 12 step work is crucial and for those, the work becomes more than recovery, it is a spiritual practice.

C. Grof & S. Grof (1993). Spiritual emergency: The understanding and treatment of transpersonal crises. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughn (Eds.), Paths beyond ego (pp. 137-44). New York: Tarcher Putnam.
C. Grof (1993). Addiction as spiritual emergency. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughn (Eds.), Paths beyond ego (pp. 144-6). New York: Tarcher Putnam.
Lukoff, D. (1985). The myths in mental illness. Journal os Transpersonal Psychology, 17 (2), 123-153.
Lukoff, D. (1988). Transpersonal perspectives on manic psychosis: Creative, visionary, and mystical states. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 20 (2).

In a 1986 article comparing the therapeutic aims of Psychoanalysis and Vipassana Meditation, Jack Engler reached the conclusion that “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.” In this Engler means that one has to achieve a stable sense of self, a solid and secure psychological ego before one can benefit from Insight, or Vipassana, meditation and even from the attainment of Stream Entry (the first stage of awakening in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition).

As a clinically trained meditation teacher, Engler noticed that some of his students exhibit a “lack of cohesive, integrated sense of self” (p. 33) that likely stems from issues in early childhood. This lack of an integrated sense of self makes insight meditation difficult, if not impossible. These students represent the far end of a spectrum of identity development but even students who are not this far out on the spectrum are suffering from issues that Buddhist psychology is not aware of and is not prepared to deal with. While Insight meditation appears attractive to people in this situation, it is not necessarily helpful.

Engler claims that Insight meditation just like psychotherapy is an “intervention designed to set ego and object relations development in motion again from a point of relative arrest” (p. 48). This new point of arrest is recognized by Buddhist psychology (and not Western psychology) because it has a different point of view. While Western psychology looks at the pleasure principle as a basic drive, Buddhist psychology recognizes that the pleasure principle is driven by faulty understanding (ignorance, avijjā). Through the practice of meditation one can recognize this basic misunderstanding and gain freedom from desire.

In Therapeutic Aims (1986) Engler points out that since Buddhist psychology does not recognize the self-pathologies described above, it is necessary to deal with those pathologies before attending to meditation. This is a “phase-appropriate” (p. 49) model of psychological well being that includes both psychotherapy and meditation, each dealing with issues in its appropriate domain.

In a interview published in spring 2000 with Andrew Cohen for What is Enlightenment magazine (now, EnlightenNext magazine) Engler presents a more nuanced position:

“…in that article, I tried to elaborate it further in terms of a linear developmental model. I wouldn’t do that in the same way today because now I think our spiritual life and our psychological life are much more interwoven. I think the statement still has value in the way I originally meant it, but I would take it out of this tight psychological model of human development where we first have to develop a sense of self and then we will be able to see through the illusion of self.” (p. 2)

In this interview Engler still holds that Insight meditation, specifically deeper practice (for example, on retreat), requires certain ego-strength – the capacity and willingness to face difficult experiences that come up during this kind of practice. He warns of the danger of spiritual bypassing – the use of spiritual practice to avoid real-life problems and difficulties – but no longer holds to a rigid linear process. In fact, Engler goes as far as saying that meditation and psychotherapy support each other!

While it is often said that psychotherapy strengthens the ego and therefore is an impediment to meditative insight Engler sees meditation and psychotherapy as having similar aims but working at different levels. Both meditation and psychotherapy, according to Engler, move us in the same direction, that of a freedom from grasping. Psychotherapy done well relativizes the ego, loosens our beliefs and fixed ideas of self and thus supports our meditation practice.

I was recently (and briefly) introduced to James Marcia’s theory of identity achievement which describes the formation of identity during adolescence. According to Marcia, during adolescence (or in other times of identity crisis) we have the chance to choose between different occupations and beliefs. It is a time to explore and eventually commit to an identity. The result of this process is one of four identity states.

  • Foreclosure – results when a commitment is made without real exploration. This could be by defaulting to the easiest choice or through reactionary rebellion.
  • Identity diffusion – unwilling to explore or commit, one becomes socially withdrawn and un-engaged.
  • Moratorium – this is identity limbo. Often, a transitory state.
  • Identity achievement – having undergone a crisis, explored options and made a commitment one’s identity is now solidly owned and defined.

People often go through moratorium – achievement cycles a few times in life. Often prompted by changing phases of life or by external circumstances. At this point there is the risk of falling back to a previously held position or remaining stuck in one that no longer serves. Spiritual practice is another such cause, I believe, that can bring about an identity crisis leading to a temporary state of moratorium. It is easy at such a time to fall back into a state of foreclosure (for example, clinging to a ‘spiritual’ identity) or even diffusion.

It seems quite clear to me that Identity Achievement is required for spiritual practice to be a healthy and effective process. How identity status is affected by spiritual practice, however, is another question. Is identity achievement different in one who has seen through the veil? How? Do we need a fifth identity state for that?

Here are some of my highlights from the recent Buddhist Geeks conference in Boulder, CO. Al posted a fuller description of the event and some photos on his blog.

Ken McLeod offered a way to look at technology and innovation drawn from Marshal McLuhan. Each new technology, he said, enhances some skills or capacity; makes obsolete something that’s existing (although it may not completely disappear); retrieves something from the past and brings about its own negation. It’s interesting to apply this way of thinking to innovations in the contemplative field:

MBSR reduced meditation to something that is trainable in 6 weeks and made it available to many people. It obsoletes meditation teachers (one no longer needs 20 years of meditation practice to be a teacher). Retrieves a sense of personal path. The negation is that everything becomes highly specialized, loses the original sense of wholeness.

Innovation was a running theme throughout the conference, coming up in multiple connotations. At some point I speculated, based on Julie Melton‘s description of innovation at IDEO, that awakening may be an attitude of constant innovation. A couple of points regarding the possible dark side of innovation:

  • How do we know that we aren’t losing the heart of the dharma? Living in a way that is compatible with the two wings of Dharma: wisdom and love.
  • The dharma is in a constant process of evolution. In fact, we are each constantly engaged in a process of translating the dharma into our own experience.
  • A question that is still unanswered: What does a system that supports and encourages innovation yet maintains authenticity and commitment to values look like?

Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True, spoke about selling the dharma. Tami speaks from years of experience running a prosperous business that is dedicated to inspiring spiritual awakening in the world. Here are some rough notes from her talk:

Separating the religious and profane – common theme in religious history but is there really a separation? How can we bring those worlds together in a way that is helpful, positive?
Answer: Commerce moved by a spirit of service.

Charging money in the open brings the relationship with money and dependency on donors out of the shadow. NOTE: this is likely why it feels uncomfortable.

Sustainable sounds like being just above water. Prosperity creates a fountain and a flow of possibilities.

Regarding access: we can charge and make the teachings widely available at the same time. The two models can coexist. Example: the entire conference was live-streamed for no charge.

Transparency is important. There’s nothing hidden about how we use the money.

An organization that is about making money is not gonna be loved by people. Businesses that are about service feel different to the customer – they organize around service not around money. Lovemarks v trademarks.

Note: This is part 3 of a 3 part series. For context and links to the full series, check out the introduction.

Working With the Self Moment by Moment

Sitting at a coffee shop paying attention to my experience, I notice that my attention is resting behind my eyes; I am the observer. Now, a contraction in my chest and the thought “did they see me looking at them?” I don’t like being that self. Another moment passes and I am now the one listening to the conversation at the table behind me. So it goes moment by moment, “I” become a different part of my experience…

The experience described above is like seeing the individual frames of a movie. If we slow down the projector just enough we can notice that in fact we are watching a fast changing series of still images. The mind seamlessly translates those still frames into one continuous moving image. Similarly, the mind takes all those individual moments of identification with self-thoughts, with memories or with bodily sensations and translates them into one “phantom” experience. This phantom is what we imagine ourselves to be.

Mindful attention slows down the projector, allowing us to notice those individual moments as they scroll by one by one. This is a first step in piercing the illusion of an abiding self and the realization that my idea of who I am is in constant flux. It may not be easy to constantly keep up this practice. Fortunately, there is a sensation we can use as a reminder – the sensation of clinging otherwise known as the ‘self-contraction’.

The act of clinging is often accompanied by the somatic experience of a contraction around the heart center. We may cling to a story about ourselves, or to a fear of losing a part of ourselves. In my experience this clinging is common to many instances of holding onto a rigid sense of self, and supports the belief in this “phantom” core self. If we start looking at these moments of clinging, or contraction, more clearly, noticing when they arise and when they fade away, we may start to unravel this deeper layer of self and open up to a more fluid way of being.


We’ve looked at different ways that the experience of the self manifests in our lives. Starting with the personal sense of self, or the Ego, and the interpersonal sense of self, we saw how those parts of the psyche can be helpful as we interact with the world around us and also how they become a hindrance. We then moved on the Witness and looked at two ways to use the experience of witnessing to move towards greater freedom. Next, we got a taste of Eastern theories of self, or Atman. Finally we looked at working with the moment-to-moment experience of the self to see how we can find freedom in every moment.

It is important to remember that our goal is not to destroy the self or kill the ego (although the ego may feel that way sometimes). Rather, we are trying to reduce clinging, to create more space and to allow a more fluid engagement with our moment-to-moment experience.


Note: This is part 2 of a 3 part series. For context and links to the full series, check out the introduction.

The Witness
Looking closely I can notice the experience that I am the one looking through my eyes; I am the one listening or thinking; I am the one all of this is happening to. I feel calm and comforted by this connection. In a world of continuously changing phenomenon I rest, safely held, in the solidity of the witness. What a relief!

The experience of the Observer, also called The Witness or sometimes The One Who Knows is exactly as its name implies, an experience of some entity sensing the world through my physical faculties. The Witness is ever-present; according to some traditions it continues even through dreams and deep sleep. Often the Ego identifies with the experience of witnessing and enhances it with an aura of agency. I’ll describe how to recognize this egoic clinging in a later section.

Just as Ego is neither good nor bad, there is nothing inherently wrong with the experience of witnessing. The problem begins when we identify with it. This ongoing process of identification supports the illusion of separateness. It keeps us apart from the world and prevents us from recognizing the true nature of experience, which is ever changing and empty of inherent solidity. Challenging this identification, therefore, can be liberating.

One way to begin unraveling the apparent solidity of the observer is by simply resting in the experience of witnessing itself. When embodying this experience as completely as possible we give up the illusion of solidity and see reality in its luminous, ever changing, ever present existence. We also begin to notice that those sensations we so often split off from the rest of the field of experience are an integral part of the field, just like every other sensation.

Another way of working with the witness is asking the question: “Who is having this experience?” By continually asking ourselves this question we can notice that the observer is not as solid as we imagine it to be. We see it moving around in the body, shifting between different senses, and yet the mind insistently claims that all those different experiences are the same thing. Can that be true?


No discussion of the concept of self would be complete without discussing “true-self” and “not-self”. These two views of the self originated in ancient India and are now becoming more influential in the West mainly though the influence of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. In this section I will introduce these two perspectives in the hope that this will serve as a starting point for further exploration and as a background for exploring the sensations of self as described in the next section.

The sanskrit term Atman (sanskrit: self, breath) as used in several ancient traditions from India refers to the true self, the soul or the spirit that animates all life. Some Hindu traditions point to the feeling “I Am,” a realization of being, of presence, that goes beyond the body and beyond mere concepts. This experience, it is taught, is contact with Atman, one’s true self.

Non-Dual traditions such as Advaita Vedanta (advaita, sanskrit: not-two) develop this teaching further to the realization that the practitioner is one with everything, that there is no separation between Atman, the true-self, and Brahman or Godhead, the essential creative force, Divine, All. Since Atman and Brahman are not two but one, it follows that our essential nature is oneness with everything.

The Buddha’s teaching of Not-Self (Sanskrit: Anatman, Pali: Anatta) came about in direct reference to the search for Atman that dominated the spiritual environment in India during the Buddha’s time. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk and scholar, explains that the Buddha’s teaching of Not-Self is not to be understood as a doctrine or dogma but as a strategy to reduce suffering. Through recognizing that any phenomenon that arises in consciousness is not worthy of being clung to as self, we dis-identify with all phenomena, thereby moving beyond suffering.

Note: This is part 1 of a multi-part series based on a short paper I submitted for my Psychology of Spiritual Awakening class. I’ll update the links here as I post the rest of the piece, hopefully I’ll get through all of it in a week or two. For now, here’s a brief overview:

  1. Introduction & Psychological Ideas of Self (this post)
  2. The Witness & Atman
  3. Working With the Experience of Self

At some point in our development the mind identifies a part of our overall experience as special. This aspect of experience is split off from the rest and is given the special role of the self. This sense of self becomes an almost constant companion to us manifesting in different ways, sometimes helpful, sometimes less so. In this paper I will explore some of those manifestations, how we can understand them in terms of eastern and Western theories of self and how can we work with them to bring greater freedom.

This terrain is both wide and deep. Yogis, mystics, philosophers and psychologists have been at work, mapping this terrain for over two thousand years. I do not expect to cover it all in this paper but I hope this serves as an introduction and offers a few practical ways to approach this experience. I will start with aspects of the self that may be easier for the reader to relate to. Most readers are probably familiar to some degree with the personal self (Ego) and the interpersonal self (Persona, Super-ego). I will then move on to the sense of the Observer or the Witness that is described in many traditions. Next, I’ll introduce some views of the self that originate in the ancient East and finally I’ll describe a way of working with the moment-to-moment experience of the self that I’ve found helpful in developing a more flexible sense of self.

Psychological Ideas of Self
The personal I, often called the Ego, serves two main functions and can be experienced in both of these functions.

  1. Maintaining my own view of myself. This is the ongoing story constructed in my mind about who I am, what I do, where I come from and where I am heading.
  2. The agent. This is the part of the mind that is busy planning and acting in the world.

The Ego is very helpful in moving through the world; without it I would be quite lost; however, clinging to the this part of the psyche too strongly can be limiting. When identified with the Ego we often find ourselves in opposition to world, threatened by those who oppose our views or unwilling to share our resources with those around us. Instead of seeing the ways in which we are similar, related and connected to everyone else, we notice our separateness and therefore our basic loneliness.

If we pay close attention we can become aware of the continuity of the self over time. Looking back on my memories, there is the sense that all of this has happened to one person – me. My memories from high school and my hopes and plans for the future have all happened and will happen to this same person. This is another face of the Ego, which allows me to feel continuity in my personal experience and to plan for a better future. At the same time, it helps perpetuate old self-views, opinions and hurts. It may be helpful to question this experience: where is the person that read the previous sentence? Am I really the same person I was when I was 5 years old?

The interpersonal I is composed of Jung’s persona and Freud’s super-ego. This is the part of the psyche concerned with the way in which I function in society and the way I’m seen in society. This is the part of me that is concerned with belonging to the in-group. Another way the interpersonal self is experienced is as the judgmental voice, warning me of violating the group’s unwritten rules. This aspect of the psyche is helpful in navigating the complex relationships we find ourselves in, be it with family, at work or with friends. Just as it includes one group it excludes everyone who is not a part of this in-group. Those seen as outsiders become easy to ignore or even vilify, leaving us with a narrow view of humanity and often justifying cliquish behavior, violence, or even war.

According to Jung the Persona1 (the mask, the way we present ourselves to others) is collective in nature. The Persona is the Ego’s attempt to approach society’s notion of the ideal person. A large part of Jung’s individuation process involves becoming aware of and then letting go of the constructions of the Persona, making room for more authentic self-expression.

So far we’ve been exploring manifestations of the self that are well studied in Western psychology but there are manifestations of the self that Western psychology did does not pay much attention. In exploring these parts of the self, especially our relationship to them, there is the possibility of great freedom. This possibility has been explored at great depth in many different Eastern traditions. In the next section I will present that possibility and how we may experience it.

1 Jung C.G. (1972) Two Essays of Analytical Psychology. Collected Works vol. 7 Bollingen Series.

Compass for the Soul
Over the last few months I’ve discovered a growing willingness to be present with more and more of my experience of myself and the world. I like this kind of change for many reasons. For example, not being at odds with my experience means having more peace. Also, being able to face reality as it is rather than hide from it or wish it was different means I can engage with things as they are and I don’t have to waste mental energy on playing mind games with reality. But what struck me as interesting this time was how bringing attention to difficult places facilitates healing. This is what I’d like to focus on here.

The healing I refer to is the kind of healing that occurs during therapy when one is able to bring the light of attention to dark places. I’ve found myself more often during therapy sessions willing to admit to things I’ve never been able to admit to before (not even to myself). I’ve engaged difficult truths and the difficult emotions that accompany them. Not only that but I’ve also found myself willing to accept the times when I cannot engage things as fully as I’d like to. The result of bringing engaged, accepting attention to those difficult places is that healing can occur in those long neglected parts of the psyche. Needless to say, I’ve been finding myself more dedicated to the practice of therapy because I can feel the effect it has on me.

Over the last several of days as my meditation practice is directed toward the practice of Metta (Lovingkindness) I’ve noticed something else. When I have the intention of holding myself and my experience with kindness, I can be present to even more. For example, moments of distraction that I usually notice only briefly and push away were recognized and held in kind attention. The involuntary reaction of repressing that part of my experience was not as prevalent as it often is, leaving more present and able to accept this moment of “failure.” Bringing this kind of attention to a therapy session could be very powerful indeed!

For various reasons I’ve been thinking recently about the combination of meditation practice and therapy. Reflecting back on my experience, in this way, allows me to see the power of combining both practices, how well they support each other and how they help me in opening up to discover a more whole and more wholesome version of myself. The more I see that, the more I’m convinced that for many of us in the modern world, this is what spiritual practice looks like – a combination of East and West, transcending and transforming.