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.