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At the first cross-cultural meetings of Eastern masters and Western therapists, the Dalai Lama was incredulous at the pervasiveness of “low self-esteem” that he kept hearing about. He went around the room asking, “Do you have this feeling? Do you have this?” When all of the Westerners nodded yes, he just shook his head in disbelief. In the Tibetan cosmology, such feelings are representative of the hungry ghost realm, not of the human realm.

The sense of self that most Westerners experience when they begin meditation is not necessarily the same as that of their Eastern counterparts. The Western emphasis on individuality and autonomy, the breakdown of the extended and even the nuclear family, the scarcity of “good-enough” parenting, and the relentless drive for achievement in our society leave a person all too often feeling cut off, isolated, alienated, hollow, and longing for an intimacy that seems both out of reach and vaguely threatening.

In our culture, this sense of separateness is often experienced very early in life. Meditation practice tends to stir up these early feelings, just as, according to Freud, hypnosis, free association, and the careful attention to what is present “on the surface of the patient’s mind” will. Western meditators often begin practice only to find that they rather quickly uncover remnants of these feelings of separateness, and that these feelings do not necessarily go away with further meditation. Suffusing the meditative experience can be a longing that stems from the conviction that there is something deficient in the person who longs. This feeling of unworthiness often requires special attention of a psychotherapeutic kind, which traditional meditation teachers are not trained to provide. If these early feelings are not exposed and accepted, the longing to fix them will corrupt the meditative experience.

It is here that I have found the greatest need for a combined approach drawing on both meditation and psychotherapy—tailored to the needs of the hungry ghost as well as to the human realm of the Buddhist Wheel of Life. The pretas, or hungry ghosts, are probably the most vividly drawn metaphors in the Wheel of Life. Phantomlike creatures with withered limbs, grossly bloated bellies and long, narrow necks, the hungry ghosts demand impossible satisfactions; they are searching for gratification for old unfulfilled needs whose time has passed. Their ghostlike state is representative of their attachment to the past.

In addition, these beings, while impossibly hungry and thirsty, cannot drink or eat without causing themselves terrible pain or indigestion. Their throats are so thin and raw that swallowing produces unbearable burning and irritation. Their bellies are in turn unable to digest nourishment; these are beings who cannot take in a present-day, albeit transitory, satisfaction. They remain obsessed with the fantasy of achieving complete release from the pain of their past, stubbornly unaware that this desire is fantasy. But it is crucial that their fantasy be owned as fantasy. The hungry ghosts must come in contact with the ghostlike nature of their own longings in order to be free.

Western feelings of unworthiness are rooted in just this kind of “hungry ghost” scenario. Prematurely estranged in our childhoods, many of us are unable to find or sustain intimacy in our adult lives, becoming preoccupied instead with the unresolved frustrations of our past. Just as the hollowness of the hungry ghosts must be experienced in such a way that reparation is no longer sought from impossible sources, so the Western student afflicted with such feelings must make the hollowness itself the object of his or her meditation. Only then can self-loathing be transformed into wisdom, a task in which both psychotherapy and meditation may well collaborate.

When a person recognizes that needs from the past were never and can never be met, that obstacles from the past were never and can never be overcome, there is often a sense of profound outrage. It is this kind of realization that tends to characterize the estranged Western experience in psychotherapy and that also tends to disrupt the meditative experience. It is this very outrage that is the hallmark of what has come to be called narcissism: the vain expectation, and selfish insistence, that one’s sense of hollowness should somehow be erased. Too often in our therapies we assume that by merely tuning in to these feelings of outrage we will be released from them, but this is rarely the case. Reclaiming one’s outrage does not readily bring the situation to a resolution, since the only resolution that can be imagined is an impossible one: the retrieval of a connection that has already been broken.

Meditation practice actually offers a means, not often accessed by contemporary Western therapies, of temporarily assuaging this hollowness. This is done through developing states of sustained concentration in which ego boundaries dissolve and feelings of delight predominate. Such states, which in the Buddhist cosmology represent the highest and most pleasurable desire realms, represent developed gratifications which, in themselves, reinforce a sense of optimism, hope, and possibility.

Buddhism also offers a skillful means for relieving feelings of outrage, by shifting the perspective from how outraged one feels to the question of who feels outraged. This shift can do more than merely counter one’s hollowness with delight, but can also reveal what the Buddhist psychologies consider the relativity of the narcissistic emotions.

In the Tibetan tradition, according to the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, the best time to clearly observe the self is in a state of what is called injured innocence, when we have been insulted and think, “How could she do this to me? I don’t deserve to be treated that way.” It is in this state, Thurman says, that the “hard nut” of the self is best found; and the self cannot be truly understood, from a Buddhist perspective, until it is seen clearly as it appears.

This state of injured innocence is the Buddhist equivalent of unworthiness and outrage, but in Buddhism it becomes a tremendous opportunity rather than a place of resignation. From the Buddhist perspective, to reach this state of injured innocence, to hold the feeling of outrage in the balance of meditative awareness rather than compulsively reacting, is the entrance to the path of insight. It is just this moment that all of the preliminary practices of meditation have been leading up to. For the path of investigation is, above all else, about investigation into the nature of this “I” that feels injured. Until it is felt, it cannot become the object of meditative scrutiny. This is the crucial boundary between self and no-self. In my practice of psychotherapy, I have to somehow celebrate the appearance of this elusive “I,” to convey to my patients at the moment of their most poignant indignation the possibilities that are now open to them. In Zen this might be called the “gateless gate,” the doorway to the path of insight.

There is no way to overestimate the power of this approach in dealing with the reactive emotions that color the experience of unworthiness. The crucial step, from the Buddhist view, is to shift the perspective from the reactive emotions to the feeling of “I” itself. In so doing, one’s investment in outrage is gradually withdrawn and replaced by interest in exploring the nature of “I.” It is not that the emotions or the feeling of individuality necessarily disappear (although some Buddhist schools go so far as to assert that they eventually do), but that the life goes out of them as the feeling of “I” is found to be so much less substantial than was first assumed.

The Buddha taught a method of holding thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the balance of meditative equipoise so that they can be seen in a clear light. Through this method, the customary identifications and reactions that usually adhere to the emotions like moss to a stone are stripped away, allowing the understanding of emptiness to emerge. This understanding has vast implications for the field of psychotherapy, promising relief from even ordinary suffering. As the self is thoroughly investigated, it seems, its presence becomes more and more ambiguous. Even the duality of self and no-self can start to feel artificial. As the Third Zen Patriarch articulated with great clarity:

When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way,

nothing in the world can offend,

and when a thing can no longer offend,

it ceases to exist in the old way…

If you wish to move in the One Way

do not dislike even the world of senses and ideas.

Indeed, to accept them fully

is identical with true Enlightenment.


This piece has been adapted from the Spring 1995 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 11, No. 2) Text © 1995-2020 by Mark Epstein and Inquiring Mind. 

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