Self-care and Selflessness: A Contradiction?

The nearly half century dialogue between Buddhism and Western psychology has created a potential forum for a mutually enriching exchange. It has also raised productive questions about the points of overlap and dissonance between the two traditions. One of the most apparent differences is in the way these disciplines relate to the self. Psychotherapy emphasizes genuine care for the self and its feelings, needs and wounds, helps to restore a continuity in the sense of self when it begins to fragment and investigates how self-denial creates profound psychic disturbance and dysfunction in relationships. Buddhist meditation establishes attentional equipoise, facilitates direct observation of the impermanent, insubstantial nature of the self and culminates in an intuitive insight of emptiness that ends the habits of self-reification and self- grasping at the root of suffering.

Is there a contradiction between the goals of self-care and selflessness, and what does each tradition stand to learn from the other’s approach?

“Spiritual bypassing”: spiritual practice as pain-avoidance

Psychotherapy encourages meditators to take a more care-ful approach to their traumatic wounds rather than circumventing them. I’ve frequently observed meditators devaluing their own personal traumas in pursuit of more exalted and seductive spiritual virtues like the bodhisattva ideal of saving others from suffering. Likewise, some yogis aim for mystical heights of ecstatic bliss hoping to transcend their ordinary human fragility, only to come crashing down to their painful reality once practice is over. This phenomenon of using spiritual tools and teachings to avoid psychological issues, traumatic wounds, and unmet developmental tasks occurs so frequently, that in the early 1980’s Dr. John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing”1 to characterize this tendency. Frequent scandals involving so-called spiritual masters who have had inappropriate relations with their students as well as students who see little psychological progress after years of spiritual practice stand as testaments to the deleterious effects of neglecting basic human needs. Indeed it may be possible to have profound spiritual insights, and at the same time neglect other areas of our complex being – including emotional, psychological, interpersonal or somatic dimensions. If we don’t take all of these dimensions seriously and incorporate them into “the work” of human development – then the shadow-side of our split identity can reemerge outside of conscious awareness, when we least expect it and with painful consequences.

Common forms of spiritual bypassing

Spiritual bypassing occurs when we unconsciously attempt to avoid pain, shame and the unpleasant side of our humanity and can manifests in a myriad of ways. The most common forms I have observed in myself as well as in my clinical work with yogis and meditators include: when fear of rejection, fear of burdening others or conflict-avoidance masquerade as being easygoing, patient and accommodating; when co-dependency poses as care-giving and  compassion; when guru-devotion leads to subservience and conceals unresolved childhood dynamics such as over-idealization or fear of reprisal; when the spiritual virtue of detachment is misunderstood as disinterest and one attempts to avoid pain by disconnecting from feelings and relationships; when spiritual success and accomplishment end up reinforcing narcissism and the very inflated self-images they were designed to see through; when ultimate truths such as selflessness and emptiness are misunderstood and privileged over relative truths and one consequently falls into the nihilistic extreme of self-denial or apathy. All of these examples share one thing in common; they are unconscious adaptations of pain-avoidance concealed in the fabric of spiritual practice. Without a skilled objective observer such as a therapist or teacher to alert us, we can miss our unconscious attempts at bypassing, just as we do the blindspot in a rearview mirror.

If we remain fragmented from the many dimensions of our being including our psychological life because emotions and wounds are too painful and/or no one has been available or sufficiently prepared to help us with them, then spiritual practice and communities are at risk of becoming potential sources for reinforcing early childhood traumas, maladaptive coping strategies and unconscious family dynamics. One of the contributions of psychotherapy is to help us meet each moment of our relative reality with greater self-care, grace, humility and honesty rather than perpetuating the cycles of unconscious self-denial, shame-blame, or emotional avoidance that impersonate spiritual piety, emotional-transcendence and selfless realization.

Mature spiritual practice – an integrative approach

We should remember that one of our evolutionary defaults is to avoid pain at all cost, so it should come as no surprise that so many of us, at some time or to some degree, use spiritual practices and teachings to side-step the most painful and seemingly ugly sides of our humanity. But what if our spiritual practice was grounded in the bedrock of our ordinary human suffering, and transcendence wasn’t about overcoming painful experiences as much as it was about transforming our relationship with them? If we could redirect our attitude and approach in this way, perhaps we would become more adaptable, realistic, and mature, and the reprehensible side effects of spiritual bypassing would significantly decrease. As Ram Dass once said about spiritual practice, “it’s not about getting high, it’s about getting real.”2

It seems many meditators might benefit from developing an attitude in which all feelings – not just pleasant ones – are invited to arise, with the aim of building a new relationship with emotions that recognizes they have something to teach us, rather than dismissing them because they are fleeting or somehow superficial. While there is always the possibility of becoming obsessed or preoccupied with on our feelings (a common reason why meditators don’t pay much attention to them), this has less to do with the nature of feelings themselves than with the habit of mind to reify and fixate. Rather than throwing the baby of emotions out with the bathwater, some have argued3, we could allow feelings to serve their evolutionary function as messengers, pregnant with meaning, use our critical intelligence to decode that meaning and apply our discriminating awareness to appropriately modulate the extremes of psychic fixation and denial.

Buddhist mindfulness meditation instructs that we “touch-and-let-go” of our momentary experience in a continuous flow of self-observation. Other Buddhist techniques, such as contemplative analysis, instruct that we pause on certain themes or subjects and explore them deeply with critical reason. In Dr. Jeffrey Rubin’s novel approach, he advises that we combine the two with a third instruction taken from psychotherapy, which involves observing, validating and decoding our emotions. Borrowing from the strength of psychotherapy, Rubin proposes that if meditators took the time to analyze feelings as they arise rather than suppress or dismiss them, and learned about what our human hopes, fears, needs and wants might be alerting us to, this could potentially enhance both our meditative process and overall psychological development. Only then, having acknowledged emotions and extracted their value, would we rehearse the second skill, central to Buddhist practice, of recognizing emotions as temporary and letting nature pass in its own due course. Perhaps that is double the work, cultivating two skills – emotional analysis and releasing, but twice the payoff. Obviously conservatives from either tradition might contend that the original techniques of each were contaminated by the influence of the other, and this seems a reasonable objection. Meanwhile, if such an integration prevented the unnecessary distress created by spiritual bypassing, would it be worth our consideration?

Reconciling emptiness with relative experience

Is there an inherent contradiction within an integrative approach that respects the meanings of our emotions and validates our relative needs while cultivating a deep intuitive understanding of their impermanence and emptiness?

Emphatically no. After all, the ultimate truth of emptiness does not deny the relative, it allows it. Emptiness is the lack of inherent existence – an ultimate view teaching that points to the essential openness of phenomenon, which permits them to be experienced in multiple ways depending on one’s relative perception and past conditioning. Take the benign example of ten dollars; is it a significant amount? The answer is open and relative depending on the point of view. Essentially ten dollars is empty of inherent value, its not fixed any particular way in and of itself, and thus emptiness proves a kind of openness that allows various interpretations of its value, from the banker to the broke. In this way the ultimate reality doesn’t negate, obstruct or destroy relative feelings, needs, wounds or experiences but allows them to be felt deeply, personally and within context. This accounts for the variance in how people experience the same traumatic event, those entrenched in their victim’s perspective can be devastated for the remainder of their lives, while those able to shift perspective and generate a grateful attitude can use pain as a growth opportunity to connect with others and life-as-it-is. Emptiness challenges any reified experience as either essentially bad or good, pleasant or painful, exposing circumstances as open for interpretation, and thus reminding us that all our experiences can be consciously transformed if we wish to work skillfully with them. If things didn’t exist with this essential-openness, then we could never change because we would be bound to the fixed way that things initially appear. But because of the radical openness of ultimate reality, then even our most painful, relative wounds and traumas can be felt deeply, validated, and transformed through refined perception, attitudinal adjustment and positive action.

Beginning to balance our relative reality with the ultimate, rather than giving preference to the ultimate at the expense of the relative, is a major task of the spiritually adept. Too often we  hedge or defend against human needs and feelings, keeping them at arms length rather than truly embodying and validating them. This kind of distancing only reinforces our fear of emotions and keeps us in denial of our human condition, thereby atrophying our abilities to tolerate and navigate real life experience. Not being sufficiently adept at negotiating a full range of human emotions leaves us confused and overwhelmed when they arise, and apt to seek the frightened child’s escape, avoiding them even by means of the very thing that is meant to help us grow – our spiritual practice.

Buddhist meditation and selflessness

On the other side of the dialogue, Buddhist meditation and wisdom training can help those in psychotherapy go to the subtle depths of the psyche and the causal origins of suffering, to loosen the self-reification habit that binds us to compulsive replication of unnecessary stress and trauma. A common misunderstanding of the concept of selflessness is that we don’t have a self at all, and that, by extension, there is no one home to care for and no real wounds to heal. This is classic bypassing. Selflessness is subjective emptiness. While emptiness points to the open nature of things, selflessness points to the open nature of the self. Selflessness is not an invitation to deny our relative needs and experiences as if they were utter delusions or inconsequential matters relative to the high pursuit of enlightenment. This is classic spiritual hubris. Selflessness is a medicine to heal the mind that holds, fixates and identifies itself with particularly narrow, restricted, or traumatic views of self and other. When we rigidly identify ourselves and others, we limit and confine the potential in each of us to learn, grow and change. The narcissistic person needs the teachings of selflessness to see through their grandiose-self, as much as the co-dependent person needs to see through their worthless-self identification. Once you say I am “this” then by consequence you limit yourself from ever becoming “that”. The mind habit is to hold, once you open, its apt to hold again, like a involuntary reflex. If you dislodge your sense of inadequacy, you then might hold to your sense of ordinariness, if you were to dissolve that, then the mind might hold to its self-sense of spiritual supremacy. Perhaps this is one reason why some spiritual masters succumb to delusions of grandeur and divisive deeds even after having profound and authentic realizations. In this way, there is a perpetual habit of holding that requires our constant vigilance, beyond the moment of the so-called direct, non-conceptual, intuitive realization of selflessness is achieved. For even after the pinnacle breakthrough of non-dual wisdom, the spiritual work remains unfinished and the Buddhist meditative literature articulates a continued process of habituating one’s mind to these glimpses of ultimate reality.

I hope we don’t minimize the powerfully liberating insight of selflessness, confusing it with self- annihilation or mistaking it simply as an antidote to selfishness. After all, one could be charitable and even altruistic, but still be holding to a fundamental fixed identity as such. Selflessness actually permits the momentary self we do experience while refuting the habit of the mind to reify to self-constructs and images. Indeed there is someone home, who needs love and deserves care as much as the next person, but that someone isn’t a fixed someone in and of itself, that someone is constantly changing and infinitely evolving process. You might say there is a selfless self, if a middle-way helps prevent you from falling into either extremes of self-fixation or self-annihilation. Can we validate the self enough to supply it the love and attention it deserves, without becoming blindly engrossed in who we think we are, thus cutting ourselves of from all that we can be?

The long standing dialogue between Buddhism and psychotherapy continues to intrigues me, and as I learn about what each has to contribute to the other tradition, I’d hate to minimize or idealize either tradition along the way. Psychotherapy can teach Buddhism to be more loving to the relative self that we do have, so as not to fall prey to spiritual bypassing and its consequences. On the other hand, Buddhism can teach psychotherapy more about the self that has never existed, exposing the insidious mental-reflex to reify and fixate upon self-concepts and self-images, which lead to suffering. This dialogue points to the tolerance of cognitive dissonance that is required for authentic psychological development and spiritual progress. We must train to hold these two truths simultaneously, our relative human needs and wounds with our ultimate open nature.