Conceptions of the Self in Western and Eastern Psychology
Yozan Dirk Mosig
University of Nebraska at Kearney
The concept of the self in Western psychology derives primarily from the work of Freud, Jung, and Rogers. To some extent Western formulations of the self evidence a homunculus-like quality lacking in some Eastern conceptions, especially those derived from the Vijnanavada and Zen Buddhist traditions. The Buddhist notion of self circumvents reification, being an impermanent gestalt formed by the interaction of five skandhas or aggregates (form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness). Each skandha is in turn a transient pattern formed by the interaction of the other four. The fifth skandha includes eight consciousnesses, one of which results in the experience of the ego or self as homunculus, which Buddhist psychology rejects as delusion. Implications for psychotherapy and everyday life are discussed.
The concept of the Self takes many forms in Western psychology, but invariably involves to some extent a dimension of “thingness,” the reification of a homunculus assumed to reside within the individual, who is the thinker of thoughts, the doer of deeds, and the feeler of feelings. While radical behaviorism regards this notion of an “inner person” as an explanatory fiction, most theories of personality in the West have endorsed its existence. The psychology of Buddhism, on the other hand, rejects the notion of an inner self and proposes a radically different view, where thoughts exist without a thinker, deeds without a doer, and feelings without a feeler. This paper will compare and contrast these differing views emerging from Western and Eastern psychology, and examine their relevance for psychotherapy and everyday life.
The origins of the notion of an inner self in Western psychology and philosophy are found in the idea of the soul in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which notion was actually derived in part from the writings of Philo, a Jewish theologian, and Plotinus, a pagan neo-Platonic philosopher. The theological dimensions of the concept of soul were elaborated by Augustine of Hippo as well as by Thomas Aquinas, from where it passed into the hands of Rene Descartes, and from there, almost unchanged, but referred to as “mind,” into the realm of 19th and 20th century psychology. Essentially the soul, mind, or self was viewed as an inner substance or entity, different from the body, in charge of volitional processes, essentially a “little man inside of the head,” a homunculus within the individual, ultimately responsible for the person’s thoughts and actions.
Sigmund Freud (1940) offered a complex model of this inner self in his tripartite analysis of the human personality into id, ego, and superego, which became a distinguishing feature of his psychoanalytic theory. While the unconscious and non-rational id stood for the biological component of the personality, and the superego, another non-rational agency, for the internalized social dimensions of the individual, it was particularly the rational ego, who functioned as the homuncular executor of the personality. The ego in turn served as the model for the self in a number of theories developed by those who wrote in the wake of Freud.
Alfred Adler (1927) proposed the notion of a “creative self” which interpreted both the innate abilities and the experiential components of the individual, developing a style of life to compensate for perceived inferiorities and achieve a degree of personal competence and superiority under the influence of an innate “social interest” or Gemeinschaftsgefuehl. Karen Horney (1950) distinguished between the “real self” and the “idealized self,” the former being regarded as a unique central inner force common to all people and the latter as a fantasy resulting from social pressures and expectations. According to Horney, the congruence of the “real self” and the “idealized self” is the hallmark of a healthy personality. Erich Fromm (1964) specified unique human needs that must be satisfied in order to achieve self-fulfillment, and argued that no human society had yet been developed that successfully met the needs of the self. Gordon Allport (1961) made an interesting distinction between the self-as-object and the self-as-knower, asserting that the former could be approached with the descriptive tools of psychology while the latter was to remain a subject for philosophical speculation, outside of the realm of science. Since it is the self-as-knower that labels and classifies the characteristics of the self-as-object, it stands for a homunculus whose own inner self cannot be reached without infinite regression into absurdity. It was precisely this inner self that was rejected by B. F. Skinner (1971) and the radical behaviorists as “explanatory fiction.”
Perhaps it was Carl Gustav Jung (Jacobi, 1942) who provided the most significant expansion of the homuncular thesis in psychology. He did so by distinguishing between the ego as center of consciousness and the self as the emergent integration of the polarities of the personality. With Jung the self, transcending the ego, became ultimately identical with the whole psyche. The self-realization of Jung became the model for the concept of self-actualization in the humanistic psychologies of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, and it was the latter who added a phenomenological dimension to the self. Rogers (1951) defined the self as “an organized, fluid, but consistent conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the ‘I’ or ‘me,’ together with values attached to these concepts.” However, despite emphasizing a pattern-like notion of the self, his allusions to the “self-structure,” as well as the suggestion that the self can actually revise or modify the structure of the self, retain a homuncular quality, albeit not as sharply drawn as that of his predecessors. The fuzzier Rogerian self does offer some points of commonality with the Eastern conception of the non-self, as will be clear from the discussion that follows.
Although some Eastern conceptions of the self, most notably those derived from Hinduism, which center on the Vedic notion of the atman or soul, are similar to Western ideas of the self, Buddhist psychology provides a radically different interpretation. The Buddhist notions of the self are derived from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Shakyamuni Buddha, or simply Buddha (“the one who is awake”), after his experience of enlightenment under the bodhi tree over 2,500 years ago. The psychological commentaries of the Buddha, collected in the Abhidharma Pitaka, were further elaborated in India by Vasubandhu nine centuries later, providing the basis for the Yogacara or Vijnanavada conceptions of consciousness and the self.
Reification is the process by which the mind makes a thing (res), or a material object, out of a concept or an abstraction. By extension, it is making a thing out of a form, a shape, a configuration, a Gestalt, a perception, or an image. It is to “thing” an event or a phenomenon, to transform an ongoing, fluid process, into a frozen and static spatial or temporal cross-section of the same, endowing such construction with the qualities of reality and separateness. Vasubandhu understood that every single object differentiated by the mind out of its global and holistic experience is created by this process, including the concept of the individual self, the “I” or “me.” Reifications are little more than delusions, and refer to momentary states remembered from the past experience of the person (whose concept of himself or herself as a separate individual is itself a reification). People constantly act, behave, and live out their lives as if reifications were actually real, separate entities, rather than the delusory constructions of the mind.
Language has developed as a system of communication for myriads of reified concepts, and consequently consists primarily of reified labels. These labels tend to perpetuate the illusion that reified concepts are actually real, existing objects, for their reality seems to be attested to by the very fact that labels exists for each of them. Language automatically fosters further reifications, in a vicious cycle which prevents the individual from effectively communicating in a non-reifying, nondualistic manner. This is one of the reasons why “ultimate reality” is essentially “ineffable.” As Lao Tze put it, “the tao that can be told is not the real Tao.”
Buddhist training consists largely of short-circuiting the reification process, by using non-verbal, non labeling experiential practice (such as meditation) to become “awakened” to the “as-it-is-ness” of inexpressible reality. Because of the delusory nature of any labeling process, with its consequent reifications, any attempt to offer a name for the unnamable Reality must always fall short, although sages have offered terms such as Thusness, Tathagatagarba, Buddha Nature, Dharmakaya, Suchness, the Big Self, the Absolute, or the Tao.
According to Walpola Rahula (1974), “Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of a [separate] soul, self, or atman. According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of a [personal] self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of “me” and “mine,” selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world, from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.”
It is important to realize what is meant by the “self” rejected by the Buddha as illusory. Not only are human beings declared to lack a soul or self, but so is everything else: rivers, mountains, this paper, and your pencil, all lack a separate self. What this means is that they cannot have any existence except in terms of the interconnected net of causal conditions that made their existence possible. All things (including human beings) are composites, in other words, they are composed of parts, and have no real existence other than as temporary (impermanent) collections of parts. They are essentially patterns, configurations, or Gestalten rather than objectively existing separate entities. They possess no separate essence, self, or soul that could exist by itself, apart from the component parts and conditions.
Consider, for example, an automobile. Does it have an essence or a “soul” when separated from its component parts? Does it have any real existence apart from its parts? One could try the following mental exercise. Removing one of the tires of the car, one could ask oneself, is this the car? Successively taking away the windshield, a door, a piston, a bolt, the radiator cap, and continuing until the last piece of metal, plastic, glass, or rubber has been removed, one would never find the part which, if removed, transforms what remains into a non-car. Such part, if found, would have represented the essence or the “soul” of the car, and yet it was nowhere to be found. Now all we have is a pile of parts—where is the car? At which point did the car disappear? If we reflect carefully we are left with the realization that there never was a car there—all that was there was a conglomerate of parts temporarily connected in a certain way, so as to result in a particular mode of functioning, and “car” was just a convenient label to designate this working arrangement. The word “car” is nothing but a label for the gestalt formed by the constituent parts, and although it is true (as realized by Wertheimer and the other Gestaltists) that the whole is more than the sum of the parts (one cannot drive sitting on any of the separate parts, or on a random heap of them, but driving is possible when one puts them together in a certain way), it is equally true that a gestalt cannot continue to exist when separated from its parts. The gestalt, the “whole,” cannot exist by itself; it does not have a separate self or “soul.”
But what about a person? According to Buddhist psychology, what we call a “person” is the composite of five groups of elements or skandhas. The skandhas are form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. Just as an automobile is a temporary collection of car parts, a person is a temporary arrangement of these five aggregates or skandhas. There is no separate, independent self or soul that would be left if we removed form (which includes the body), feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. While these aggregates are together, the functioning gestalt we call a person exists; if they are removed, the gestalt ceases to be. For this reason, the self can be said to be “empty” of reality when separated from its component aggregates— a view of the self radically different from Western perspectives. But it is not only the self that is empty, and cannot exist by itself; the skandhas themselves are also empty.
The five skandhas, like everything else, are dependently arisen, and cannot exist by themselves. Take the form of one’s body, for example. What would remain of it, if one removed one’s perception of it, one’s feelings about it, one’s impulses to act on it or with it, and one’s conscious awareness of it? Form is empty of reality when separated from perceptions, feelings, impulses, and consciousness. And what about feelings? They also cannot exist by themselves. Feelings are feelings about something, about one’s body, one’s perceptions, one’s impulses, one’s state of consciousness. The same is true of the remaining skandhas—each one is composed of the other four. They are in a state of interdependent co-origination, they inter-are (Hanh, 1988).
The teaching of “dependent origination” is at the core of the Buddha’s teaching or Dharma. In its simplest expression, dependent origination is a law of causality that says “this is, because that is; this is not, because that is not; when this arises, that arises; when this ceases, that ceases.” Despite the apparent simplicity of this formulation, it is a farreaching principle, that leaves nothing untouched, and, in fact, causally connects everything in the universe, for it implies that all phenomena, whether they be external objective events or internal subjective experiences, come into existence depending on causes and conditions without which they could not be. These causes and conditions can themselves be either internal mental states or external events.
Borrowing an example from Hanh (1988), consider a piece of paper: it can be, because a tree was, since the tree had to be in order to be cut down to make the paper. This same piece of paper, is also because there was rain and sunshine, for without them the tree could not have grown. The same is true for the seed and the fertile soil, and for the logger who cut the tree down, for without them, the tree would not have been there for the paper to be. But for the logger to be, his parents had to be, and the food they consumed, and all the conditions that made their lives possible, and those lives upon which theirs in turn depended, and on, and on. There is no end to this causal interconnectedness. Everything in the universe is connected to this piece of paper through a web of causal conditions. If the component conditions are regarded as elements, we can say that this piece of paper is composed of non-paper elements, or, in other words, that conditions other than the paper itself are necessary for the paper to exist. Stated differently, the paper cannot exist by itself; it lacks a separate self, soul, or essence. The same is true for anything else in the universe, including a person. It is also true of cognitive or mental states, because for every emotion, for every perception, for every thought, there are necessary causal conditions without which they would not have come into being. Everything is dependently arisen, everything exists only if the necessary conditions are there. This means that nothing is ever truly independent or separate from everything else.
The interconnectedness, or “interbeing,” of everything in the universe, implied in the principle of dependent origination, finds an elegant expression in the metaphor of the jewel net of Indra, in the Buddha’s “Flower Ornament” sermon (Avatamsaka Sutra). In this sutra, the universe is likened to an infinite net, stretching out in all directions, in which at every intersection of two strands is found a precious jewel. Each of these jewels reflects the whole net, so that the entire universe is contained in each part of it (Loy, 1993). The Buddha conceived of the universe as composed of an infinite number of Dharmas, which are described as “point-instants” having infinitesimal extension and only momentary duration, somewhat analogous to the particle-waves of quantum physics (Soeng, 1991).
The following exercise makes the same point experientially. Close your hand into a fist and look at it. What do you see? A fist. Is it real? It certainly seems to be. Now open your fingers. What happened to the “real” thing called “fist” that was there a moment ago? Where did it go? Now consider your self, your ego. Is it real? Certainly. Or is it? What would remain of it if you removed form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness? Just like the term “fist” is a convenient label to designate a particular (and transient) arrangement of the fingers, the term “self” or “I” is nothing but a label for an impermanent arrangement of the skandhas. There is no little man inside of the head, no thinker of thoughts, no doer of deeds, no inner ego or self, other than the temporary gestalt formed by the skandhas. This is the Buddha’s concept of anatta, and this is why the Buddha declared the self an illusion.
But the concept of anatta does not negate the person, nor does it diminish it. On the contrary, it empowers the individual by erasing the boundaries of separateness that limit the personal ego or self. The person becomes transformed from an isolated and powerless individual struggling against the rest of the world, into an interconnected integral part of the universe. The person’s boundaries dissolve, and the person becomes the universe. This is the realization known as enlightenment, the emergence of the big self, the Self with capital S, which is boundless. In the words of the Zen Master Sekito Kisen (700-790), a sage has no self, yet there is nothing that is not himself (Mosig, 1998).
This can be grasped best with another metaphor, often found in Buddhist literature. Consider a wave in the ocean. It has no reality separate from the water, and although its form seems to last as it continues to move on the surface of the ocean, it is composed each moment of different water particles. It seems so real, and yet, if we look deeply, we can see that there is no thing called “wave” there at all; all there is, is the movement of the water. The wave has no separate “self,” no reality apart from the water. But now look again: where are the boundaries of the wave? Where does the wave end and the rest of the ocean start? In reality, it has no boundaries, the wave and the ocean are one, the wave is the ocean, and the ocean is the wave—the separation was just an illusion created by our perceptions and by the words we use to describe them. Now stretch your imagination, and assume for a moment that the collection of elements forming the wave had resulted in the phenomenon of consciousness. As long as the wave was unaware of the nature of the ocean, believing itself to be separate and independent of it, it might develop attachments and aversions, fears, jealousies, and worries about its size, its purpose, its importance, its possessions, or its destination. Clearly any such concerns would vanish instantly upon realizing the water-nature of the ocean, and its oneness with it. In the same way, all human problems and suffering disappear when the illusion of a separate self is eliminated.
The exhilarating and liberating effect of dissolving the illusion of the “I,” “me,” or “self” is reflected in these words by Achaan Chah:
Hey, listen! There is no one here, just this. No owner, no one to be old, to be young, to be good or bad, weak or strong. . . no one born, and no one to die. . . . When we carry a burden, it is heavy; when there is no one to carry it, there is not a problem in the world! (Kornfield & Breiter, 1985, p. 174)
Since upon realizing the universal oneness of all, the “selfless Self,” everyone and everything is oneself, this transcendent wisdom generates universal compassion and caring of everyone as oneself. To hurt another becomes to hurt oneself; to help another is to help oneself. True wisdom is automatically manifested as universal compassion, just as true compassion manifests itself as wisdom. Wisdom and compassion are dependently arisen, they “inter-are.” In the final analysis, wisdom is compassion, and compassion is wisdom (Mosig, 1989).
The psychological insights of the Buddha were explicated by a number of commentators after him. One of the most important ones was Vasubandhu, an oustanding Buddhist scholar living in the 4th century. He was a founder of the school known as the Vijnanavada (“path of knowledge”) or Yogacara (“application of yoga”), and the author of one of the most important books of Buddhist psychology, the Abhidharmakosa.
According to Vasubandhu, all that can be experienced to exist is “mind only,” or the mental processes of knowing. There is experience, but there is no subject (no atman) having the experience. Vijnana, or “consciousness,” the last of the five skandhas, is a multi-layered concept, including both conscious and unconscious aspects. There are eight consciousnesses, not just one. The first five correspond to the five basic sense fields, and share the same level of depth. They are the consciousnesses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Below is the manovijnana, the integrating basis of the five sense consciousnesses, which has functions such as knowing, evaluating, imagining, conceiving, and judging. It is essentially a perceptual and cognitive processing center. Next comes manas (“mind”), where complex thinking and awareness takes place based on the information processed at the previous level. It is here where the illusion of a subjective “I” or “ego” arises. Being aware of the phenomenon of awareness results in the mistaken notion of an inner perceiver who is having the awareness and who is separate from it. This false sense of self or ego-individuality defiles the first six consciousnesses and is the source of all sort of psychological problems and delusions. Finally comes the vast unconscious alayavijnana, or “storehouse consciousness,” which is the passive or potential ground out of which emerge the other seven consciousnesses. It is the repository of all potential activities of the other consciousnesses. These potentials exist in the form of “seeds” (bija) (Hanh, 1974, Epstein, 1995). These “seeds,” upon development, produce all sorts of mental phenomena. Furthermore, in the alayavijnana, the “seeds” affect each other in various ways. These “seeds” are “watered” by con scious activities, so that, for example, engaging in kind or compassionate thoughts makes the seeds of compassion ripen and grow (i.e., become more powerful), so that it will be easier to think compassionately next time. Allowing oneself to indulge in anger or hatred waters the corresponding seeds, so that it becomes easier to grow angry and to experience hate. This is why mindfulness of thoughts is so important, and why the “right effort” aspect of the Eightfold Path deals with cutting off negative or destructive thoughts as soon as they appear, while nurturing positive ones. This develops positive mental habits rooted in the seeds of the alayavijnana, and has far-reaching effects on the life and well-being of the individual.
The alayavijnana is a vast unconscious realm, which is often compared to a stream, constantly flowing and renewing itself. If the individual is likened to a wave in the ocean, then the alayavijnana is the unconsciousness (or subconsciousness) of the ocean, providing the continuity of the karmic process. Jung’s collective unconscious is the closest concept in Western psychology, with the archetypes being somewhat analogous to “seeds,” but the Buddhist concept is vaster and more dynamic, allowing as it does for the “seeding” of the unconscious (Hanh, 1991). Although the archetypes in the Jungian collective unconscious manifest themselves in dreams and visions, the individual cannot modify their character. The “seeds” of the alayavijnana, on the other hand, can be made stronger or weaker through selective attentional and reactive phenomena.
The eight consciousnesses should not be conceived as separate, but rather as eight manifestations or functions of an ongoing process. Think of a room illuminated by seven lightbulbs. The illumination is one ongoing phenomenon, integrating the contributions of the individual bulbs. In this example, the electricity that activates them is the equivalent of the alayavijnana. There are eight consciousnesses, and yet these are ultimately one (Epstein, 1995).
The psychotherapeutic applications of Eastern and Western psychology have been examined by a number of authors (e.g., Watts, 1961; Goleman, 1981; Loy, 1992). Both aim at effecting a positive change in the mode of functioning and the lifestyle of the individual. However, Western psychotherapy is designed to effect such change in persons experiencing psychological or behavioral disorders, while Eastern disciplines affect primarily the practical everyday life of normal or healthy individuals. Buddhist psychology is concerned with the alleviation of the unnecessary suffering caused by the delusion of the separate self in human beings in general. The delusion of separateness results in cravings, grasping, clinging, greed, selfishness, hatred, fear, feelings of alienation, loneliness, helplessness, and anxiety, which afflict those “healthy” as well as “unhealthy.”
Western psychotherapy, in its efforts to heal the neurotic individual, attempts to strengthen the ego, or to foster the development of a stronger “self,” and yet it is this very notion of self which Buddhist psychology sees as the root cause of human suffering. Eastern psychotherapy attempts to dissolve the experience of the self-as-separate entity and replace it with a feeling of interconnectedness, the non-self or selfless Self implied in the Buddhist concept of anatta. This radical change is seen as the key to liberation from dukkha, the dissatisfaction and suffering of human existence.
Nevertheless, it is not enough for the healthy, liberated individual to eliminate the delusion of the separate self. While understanding universal interconnectedness and absolute reality, the emptiness or nothingness of Buddhism, the person needs at the same time to experience reality in the relative sense, where individual identities exist. The integration of the two levels of awareness, the absolute and the relative, is essential for the normal functioning of the healthy human being in society. When crossing the street, it is not enough to contemplate an approaching car and to realize that we are one with it. Although it is true that the car, the road, our bodies, and everything else are nothing more than temporary collections of countless particles (or fluctuations of energy, at the quantum level of analysis) and that all there is, is an ocean of energy, where car, road, and person have no more reality than the transient shape of a wave on the surface of the ocean, unless we act in the relative plane, and get out of the way of the car, the collection of skandhas that allows this awareness to occur will be promptly dissolved. What is needed is appropriate action in the relative world, while maintaining awareness of the big picture. This larger awareness guides the individual in compassionate action, and eliminates unnecessary worries and suffering about impermanent events, which can now be accepted as the momentary contents of reality.
The different conceptions of the self in Western and Eastern psychology have clear implications for psychotherapy and everyday life. Despite their differences an integration of Western and Eastern approaches may be possible or even necessary. It could be argued that the self needs to be strengthened before it can be abandoned. Culture may play a critical role in this process. The delusion of the separate self is likely to be stronger in individuals raised in individualistic societies, such as those of Europe and America, and may be weaker in collectivistic societies, such as those of China or Japan, where the harmony (wah) of the group takes precedence over the needs of the individual. Western approaches may be extremely valuable in giving the person (primarily in individualistic societies, but to some extent also in collectivistic ones) sufficient self-confidence and maturity to discard egocenteredness. This in turn prepares the individual to transcend the isolation of the separate self through the realization of the universal interconnectedness stressed by Buddhist psychology as the gateway to wisdom and compassion.
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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Yozan Dirk Mosig, Department of Psychology, University of Nebraska at Kearney, Kearney, Nebraska 68849. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org