Alan Cohen

Self and No Self

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“In conscious life cosmic being reoccurs as human becoming. Spirit appears in time as a product of nature, and yet it is spirit that envelops nature tirelessly.” Martin Buber

This is a topic which includes and transcends both psychological and spiritual traditions. We can begin with the questions: “What is self?” and “What is no self?”.

In Western psychology, we see self as being of central importance. We say that it is good when someone has a sense of self, or has good self- esteem. We speak of someone’s self-image, and even their ideas of self. In these constructions, self is a noun, a thing. We have a narrative construction of our interpretation of our past experiences, which we name “me”. This “me” may be overinflated, underinflated, or otherwise distorted. It must be, since we are clearly not objective observers of our subjectivity. Alexander Lowen, a student of Wilhelm Reich and the creator of Bioenergetic Analysis, wrote that psychological health is the coinciding of our image of our self and our actual self. That is a step forward, but Lowen is still stuck in the paradigm of the “noun” of self – i.e. self-image or self-concept.

Gestalt therapy took us further in looking at self. In Gestalt therapy, self is a verb. It is the experience of contact between the “organism” and its environment in the immediate, passing present. It is the awareness of “me” meeting “not me” in all of the complex possibilities. It is the sensory experience of a breeze touching one’s skin; it is the joy of seeing a friend’s face; it is the excitement of engaging with a new idea; it is the sadness of loss; it is sleepiness asserting itself. In Gestalt therapy theory, self is the experience of meeting the passing present, engaging the world, preserving oneself or growing, feeling pleasure or pain or boredom, and moving into the next present moment. Groundbreaking! Self is not a fixed thing! Self is fluid and always emerging. If we can only disengage from our fixed ideas – our narrative of self – long enough to notice it!

But in this frame, self is still defined and experienced by a duality. It is familiar meeting non-familiar; it is my vision meeting the flower; it is my fingers meeting the keyboard; it is my dry tongue meeting the cool water. In this way of seeing our experience, we notice that we are part of a larger field, that we cannot separate our self from that which is outside our skin, and that our experience of self can only be in relation to that which is not self. We live in the world, and we are of the world.

So, what is no self? It is not what Western psychology means when it refers to a pathological condition. It actually is not what Western psychology has any way of understanding – and the few forward thinkers in Western psychology have made stabs at borrowing from Eastern traditions (sometimes giving credit, sometimes taking credit). Even approaches to psychotherapy seem to have their own narrative, which often distorts the actuality of what is happening and what has happened. So, despite what some approaches say, Mindfulness meditation was not discovered twenty years ago – what ego to claim otherwise! But, now back to the subject at hand:

  • One way of considering this question is to say that if self is awareness of the organism’s contact with the field, no-self is simply awareness. It is the field itself with no other. It is awareness that is not reflecting off of anything. And as such, there can be no self – since there is no other.
  • Of course, this defies the logical mind, which is actually constructed to deal with the world of duality – the world we live in day-to-day. It is not something we can understand, and it is not an experience that we can will ourselves to have. Some systems of meditation (not all) allow our individual awareness to diminish content – we become more immersed in awareness itself than in awareness of some thing – and eventually to lose all content. Then we have Awareness, but no object of awareneness, no content, no other. We have “no self”. But again, our self, which is constructed to engage an other, has no capacity to grasp “no self”. Although “no self” is actually the basis of self: we can have no awareness of unless there is awareness.
  • Another way to consider this is that everything is an expression of “no self”, of awareness itself. Quantum Mechanics posits that all matter is just a manifestation of patterns formed by an undifferentiated field of energy, which we know is there, but can’t observe because it has no form. This field of formless energy is much like awareness is to our consciousness, our self. And some traditions consider that this undifferentiated field of energy is actually Awarness. If that is so, then “no self” is actually all things, since Awareness composes all things. In this way of understanding, “no self” is Self. No thing is every thing.

So, we have self, we have “no self”, and we have Self. We have individual consciousness, we have the pure awareness that underlies our individual consciousness, and we have Awareness or Self, which is actually all things and so cannot experience an other. All exist simultaneously, right in this moment, as you read these words. And all are essential to what is – from our day to day maneuverings to our ontological being, to Being.

Alan Cohen

What Is Awareness?

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Awareness is the central element in any approach to psychotherapy or human behavior, but it is likely the most neglected aspect when it comes to our inquiry. In psychoanalytic theory, “awareness” was seen as being synonymous with “consciousness”, but was not defined as a phenomenon. Instead, focus was put on two other elements: the defenses against awareness (resulting in “the Unconscious”); and “insight”, which was seen as an illumination, an understanding of the explanation for the problems or life issues of the patient. Insight was a focus on content, even though it might be accompanied by emotion. But awareness itself was not discussed. In cognitive therapy, focus, again, is put on the content of thought. The effort is on illuminating irrational content and substituting functional content. Awareness itself, however, is taken for granted. It is as if we are so concerned about where we drive, and how we drive, and the route we take, that we forget that we are in a car! While our daily destinations may be important, attention to the vehicle itself may prove to have some significant impact on all of our journeys! Gestalt therapy was devised as a therapy which placed a focus on awareness. This brought our focus to the transient present moment – which is the only time that awareness can occur. We speak of contacting the present moment, through a flow of ever-changing objects of awareness. I may be aware of a need, and as soon as it is satisfied (and I am aware of the experience of satisfaction), I become aware of the next “figure”, or object of awareness. Awareness is constant, even though what we are aware of is constantly changing. Regardless of the content, regardless of the vibrancy (what Gestalt therapy calls “good contact”), regardless of the emotion, awareness itself is constant. So, what is awareness? Curiously, even Gestalt therapy neglects to be clear about that question. It is taken as a fact, as something that “occurs in contact”, but is not defined beyond that. But, this is where meditative traditions have much to offer us: awareness is the constant energy that underlies our consciousness, regardless of content, regardless of functionality or irrationality, regardless of culture. Awareness itself is the constant in a field of constant change.

Alan Cohen

How Do We Experience?

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As you read this page, you are experiencing. You may be experiencing interest in what may unfold before you, or you may be experiencing skepticism about the value of what this person has to say. Or you may be experiencing your sore back. Or hunger… In all of these cases, there is a focus of interest or need that both draws your attention, and serves as a lens through which your experience is formed.

In this forming of awareness, the way you experience yourself and the way you experience the world is created. The external object of perception is not the primary shaper of experience, since the same object can be experienced very differently by different people. What creates the meaning of the experience are the attitudes, beliefs, needs, and world view of the perceiver. So, in the process of contacting the present moment, awareness is brought to some object of awareness (figure), which may be external (e.g. this blog entry) or internal (e.g. hunger) and is given meaning by the background (e.g. personal history, biases, cultural environment, zeitgeist, etc). Our emotions, then, are felt responses to the relationship between the figure and the background. So, a glass of water would have very different meaning, and would evoke a very different emotional response from a man struggling in the desert, than from a man sitting in a restaurant. And their response to the water (figure) would be a function of the degree of need or interest that the figure/ground relationship elicited. We are constantly forming such figures in relation to a (personal, environmental, cultural, economic, etc) background. As soon as that particular figure (object of awareness) passes, it is replaced by another. More likely, there are numerous figures occurring simultaneously, and “competing” for primary focus. This process allows us to address the dominant need of the moment, whether in relation to physical survival, emotional safety, pleasure, or whatever, and to thereby maximize the survival and growth of the person.