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.
But the problem is that no object can ever satisfy us if it is not really an object that we want. When we do not understand what is actually motivating us—according to Buddhism, our desire to become real, which is essentially a spiritual yearning—we end up compulsive, grasping repeatedly at what cannot fulfill us. According to Nietzsche, someone who follows the biblical admonition literally, and plucks out his own eye, does not kill his sensuality, for “it lives on in an uncanny vampire form and torments him in repulsive disguises.” Yet the opposite is also true: those of us who think we have escaped such a spiritual drive are deceiving ourselves, for the drive to escape our lack and become real still lives on in uncanny secular forms that obsess us as long as we do not know what motivates us. Even fear of death and desire for immortality symbolize something else: they become symptomatic of our vague intuition that the ego-self is not a hard core of consciousness but a mental construction, the axis of a protective web spun to hide the void. Thus, those whose constructions are badly damaged, the insane, are uncomfortable to be with because they remind us of that fact. We turn away from what is in front of us.
As Ernest Becker wrote, “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation [lack]; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
According to Otto Rank, contemporary man is neurotic because he suffers from a consciousness of sin just as much as premodern man did, but without believing in the religious conception of sin, which leaves us without a means to expiate our sense of guilt. Why do we need to feel guilty, and accept suffering, sickness, and death as condign punishment? What role does that guilt play in determining the meaning of our lives? As Norman O. Brown remarks in Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History, “The ultimate problem is not guilt but the incapacity to live. The illusion of guilt is necessary for an animal that cannot enjoy life, in order to organize a life of nonenjoyment.” Even a feeling of wrongdoing gives us some sense of control over our own destinies because an explanation has been provided for our sense of lack. We need to project our lack onto something because only in that way can we get a handle on it.
In contrast to the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism does not turn the sense of lack into an original sin. The Buddha declared that he was not interested in the metaphysical issue of origins, and emphasized that he had one thing only to teach: how to end dukkha. This suggests that Buddhism is best understood as a way to resolve our sense of lack. Since there was no primeval offense and no divine expulsion from the Garden, our situation turns out to be paradoxical: what ails us is the deeply repressed fear that our groundlessness, or no-thing-ness, is a problem. But when I stop trying to fill up that hole at my core by making myself real in some symbolic way, something happens to it—and therefore to me.
This is easy to misunderstand, for the letting go that is necessary is not something consciousness can simply do. The ego cannot absolve its own lack, because the ego is the flipside of that lack. When generalized guilt is experienced as the feeling that “something is wrong with me,” there seems to be no way to cope with it, and usually we become conscious of it as the neurotic guilt of “not being good enough” in this or that particular way. The Buddhist path challenges us to respond differently. The guilt expended in these situations is converted back into the simple feeling of guilt, and rather than find an object for it, we simply endure it, and do not invent stories about ourselves to protect ourselves from it. The method for doing this is simple awareness, which meditation cultivates.
Letting go of the mental devices that sustain my self-esteem, “I” become more vulnerable. In that state, there is nothing one can do with the guilt except be conscious of it and bear it and let it burn itself out, like a fire that exhausts its fuel, which in this case is the false sense of self. If we cultivate the ability to dwell in it, then ontological guilt, finding nothing else to be guilty for, consumes the sense of self and thereby itself, too. From this Buddhist perspective, our most problematic duality is not life against death but self versus nonself, or being versus nonbeing. As in psychotherapy, the Buddhist response to such dualisms involves recognizing the side that has been denied. If death is what the sense of self fears, the solution is for the sense of self to die. If it is no-thing-ness (the repressed intuition that the self is a fiction) that I am afraid of, the best way to resolve that fear is to become nothing. The thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Dogen sums up this process in a well-known passage from Genjo-koan:
To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
“Forgetting” ourselves is how we lose our sense of separation and realize that we are not other than the world.
This type of meditation is learning how to become nothing by learning to forget the sense of self, which happens when I become absorbed in my meditation exercise. If the sense of self is an effect of self-reflection—of consciousness attempting to grasp itself—such meditation practice makes sense as an exercise in de-reflection. Consciousness unlearns trying to grasp itself, real-ize itself, objectify itself. Liberating awareness occurs when the usual reflexivity of consciousness ceases, which is experienced as a letting go and falling into the void. The ninth-century Zen master Huang-po wrote, “Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real dharma.” Then, when I no longer strive to make myself real through things, I find myself “actualized” by them, says Dogen.
This process implies that what we fear as nothingness is not really nothingness, for that is the perspective of a sense of self anxious about losing its grip on itself. According to Buddhism, letting go of myself into that no-thing-ness leads to something else: when consciousness stops trying to catch its own tail, I become no-thing, and discover that I am everything—or, more precisely, that I can be anything. With that conflation, the no-thing at my core is transformed from a sense-of-lack into a serenity that is imperturbable because there is nothing to be perturbed.