For the most part, we experience ourselves as stable and persistent beings, apparently immortal; yet there is also a sneaking awareness of our impermanence, the fact that “I” am growing older and will die. The tension between these two conflicting perceptions is essentially the same one Shakyamuni Buddha himself felt when, as the myth has it, he ventured out of his father’s palace to encounter for the first time an ill man, an aged man, and finally, a corpse. While most traditional religions resolve this tension by claiming that the soul is immortal, Buddhism does the opposite. Not only does it accept our mortality in the usual sense, but it also emphasizes the doctrine of anatta, or “no-self.”
Anatta is central to Buddhism, and is closely connected to another fundamental Buddhist idea: dukkha. Dukkha is usually translated as “suffering,” and is understood more broadly as frustration or unhappiness. Although psychotherapy today has more specific insight into the dynamics of our mental dukkha (repression, transference, etc.), Buddhism points more directly to the root of the problem: it is not death that underlies our deepest fears and mental suffering, but the more immediate and terrifying suspicion that anatta gives rise to—that “I” am not real right now. This suspicion appears in us as a sense of lack and motivates our compulsive but usually futile attempts to ground ourselves with a fixed, unchanging identity. Traditionally, religious institutions reassured us that this sense of lack will be resolved, and local communities provided a social home and role that made us feel more comfortable with ourselves. Today, our more individualistic culture means it is my own responsibility to ground myself—hence the ferocious competition for fame, money, sex appeal, and other things that, it is believed, will make me “more real.”
How is it, then, that we make this mistake, and where does it lead us? Buddhism, it turns out, both describes the problem and offers a solution.
According to buddhist teachings, the sense-of-self breaks down into sets of impersonal mental and physical processes, whose interaction creates the illusion of self-consciousness—leading us to believe that consciousness is characteristic of a self.
But consciousness is like the surface of the sea, dependent on unfathomed depths that it cannot grasp because it is a manifestation of them. The problem arises when this conditioned consciousness wants to ground itself—to make itself real; it cannot succeed, however, any more than a hand can grasp itself, or an eye see itself. Its perpetually unsuccessful effort is shadowed by a sense of lack, which we experience as the feeling that “there is something wrong with me.” In its purer forms, lack appears as what might be called a generalized guilt or anxiety that gnaws on one’s very core. For that reason such guilt tends to become guilt for something, because at least then we know how to atone for it. And free-floating anxiety becomes a fear of something, because that way, we have something to defend ourselves against. Often, we look for objects—material wealth, status—in the outside world to protect ourselves against the invented causes of our distress.
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