The topic of no-self has been explored enough for now, but before moving on to whatever comes next, it might be helpful to bring to the forefront some discussions from the commentaries on the last post. One question that arose is: How does selflessness jibe with the need to honor one’s past and its lessons? Another is, What role might no-self play in dealing with mood instability? Much of the language that follows has been pulled from my replies to comments, but some of it is new. This essay is longer than usual, but it covers some important ground. It will also clear the way for me to move on to another line of inquiry.
Maturation proceeds in stages, as discussed in the last post. For instance, forgiveness is vital, but it usually needs to be preceded by some processing of injury. First we look at what happened and how it affects us, then we begin to find ways to forgive. Jumping to forgiveness before expressing pain and outrage risks denying the depth of injury and betraying the delicate child within. On the other hand, staying stuck in resentment leaves us mired in the past and focused on negativity.
The task of adopting selflessness is quite similar, but it covers a larger territory. Here we are talking not just of a single injury, or even a single person’s series of affronts against us. Instead, we are looking at the entire autobiographical self, with all of its justifications, explanations, predictions, limitations, and so on. Before we can let go of all these narratives and declare them beside the central point of life, we might need to understand what we’ve been through, how we believe it’s affected us, and what we’ve been telling ourselves. Moving into oneness with creation, to a full realization of no-self, before delving into the details of personal story risks giving up the opportunity to gain wisdom from the specifics of a particular life’s trajectory and its impact. (An old post from 2010 shows me at an earlier stage, when hearing the suggestion that I let go of my personal story sounded like the wrong advice. I believe it was just too early for me back then.) But staying enmeshed in our conceptual model of our lives and personalities keeps us constantly working with past and future. We find it hard to enter the stillness of the present moment, and remain faithful to our regrets, fears and self-imposed limits. The narrative self also separates us from others by emphasizing what makes us unique and downplaying our similarities to others.
In my own case, I spent many years in therapy discussing my past. Eventually I went on to write blog posts and memoir pieces about some of the traumas I endured. Although I think this process might have been hastened through therapy focused on the present rather than the past (which I eventually found), it seems to have been necessary for me to tell my story and process it.
In time, however, I began to see how despite the rather extreme experiences of my childhood, I wasn’t different in any meaningful way from anyone else. From there it wasn’t a big leap to understand how my entire sense of personal isolation and uniqueness was an illusion. Without doubt there is a spectrum of experience: some of us came from the more traumatic end of the continuum, and some of us didn’t. But it’s a rare person who isn’t recovering from something. Such realizations helped bring me to the brink of no-self realization.
Even so, to recognize ‘self’ as non-existent doesn’t mean denying the importance of personal history (though it does remove some of the impetus to talk about it). It is, instead, a refusal to accept isolation. If I think of my body-mind as a disconnected unit persecuted by the world, I am unhappy. If I think instead that I am part of a vast universe of interacting components, some material, some mental, some spiritual, I stand a much greater chance of finding peace. The past few posts have explored the advantages of no-self in some detail, but the truth is beyond words. It must and can (in due time) be experienced to be appreciated.
It’s important for those with traumatic pasts to understand that no-self isn’t a rejection of one’s being. Without this clarity, there might be a tendency toward dissociation and self-abasement. What we’re aiming for is the dissolution of arbitrary and isolating boundaries, not an annihilation of what makes us unique. Rather than identifying with a lonely, island self that stops at the skin, one merges one’s personal story with the vital, holistic cosmos that extends forever. In this way, we can see our life trajectory and personality in context. They are the products of circumstances (including biological ones) that extend deep into the past. In like way, our activities affect others and will ripple into the future. This outlook helps us see how intimately we are interconnected with our entire species and with all life on earth. We may appear to be islands in an isolating sea, but we are connected to the planetary body as one mass.
What does this task of ego dissolution imply for mood instability? A reader pointed out that both mania and depression partly result from our tendency to focus on ourselves. In the former case we may see our own strengths in an unbalanced way that excludes the equal strengths of others, causing grandiosity. In the latter case, we focus on our regrets, our injuries, and our fears, while forgetting that everyone struggles with similar issues, to varying degrees. We obsess about narrow concerns and fail to see the ways in which our trials are universal. (Eckart Tolle’s writings were cited in the comment as being relevant to the project of using selflessness to combat neurosis. Although I haven’t mentioned Tolle except in passing on this blog, his approach has informed much of the background thinking behind my writing.)
Selflessness, by connecting us to the human story as described above, removes some of the wind from the sails of powerful moods. We see that we are members of a whole primarily, and struggling individuals only secondarily. With these insights, and as I progress ever further, I feel more and more stable. My mood crises tend to be less frequent and shorter-lived, because I don’t take my self and my concerns so seriously.
However, I have not yet escaped completely my vulnerability to intense and painful mood states. Perhaps I never will. They become easier to bear as I can view them from a bit of distance, using an observer stance. But they still occur.
This fact reminds me to always consider my mental processes (and life as a whole) from as many perspectives as I can manage. Identifying the role of egoic consciousness in bipolar mood swings doesn’t negate the contribution of the nervous system, for instance. Some of us appear to be more sensitive and reactive physiology than others. This doesn’t mean we are more egotistical than our stolid counterparts, but self-focus affects us differently. Meditation can help with reactivity by teaching us to regulate our breathing, relax tension, self-soothe, and so on, but it isn’t always enough to block crises entirely.
For a year I managed completely without drugs, using only my increasing mental skills. It worked reasonably well, but after a great many stresses earlier this year I spun into a full-blown manic crisis. It only lasted about a week, and I remained able to watch from a detached stance, but the energies were far too extreme for me to meditate or even sit still. I couldn’t sleep and could barely talk, my mind was so agitated. I had little choice, under the circumstances, but to resort to medication.
The point is that despite the import of some of my past writings, I’ve been forced to accept that there are ways in which my nervous system over-reacts that (so far, at least) cannot be completely resolved through the spiritual path. Meditative consciousness, understanding the mind, and so on are all essential, but it is useful to remain as integrative as possible and draw in other sources of assistance as needed.
In this essay, as I’ve delved into the process of attaining no-self and the necessity of connecting it with other perspectives, my hope has been to place the ideas of this series of posts in a larger context. There is always a risk, when one feels enthusiastic about a path, of contracting around it as if it provides the remedy for all ills and negates the need for personal exploration in other directions. Locking into a single philosophy is often comforting, but it risks generating attachment and constriction. This is true even if the framework that one finds supportive is deeply thought out and possessed of few flaws.
We seldom serve our better natures by limiting our worldviews. There is no problem with believing we have found some answers, as long as we remember there are always other valuable ways of looking at things.