Identity Flexibility and Buddhism is the name of a chapter I wrote a few years ago. An expanded title could’ve been: Identity Flexibility and Buddhism: Anatta from the ‘Inside Out’. Anatta refers to “non-self,” usually listed as the third characteristic of existence. The first is Anicca or “impermanence” while the second characteristic is Dukkha or “not a permanent source of satisfaction.” If we can think of our self as impermanent, then our self is not an entity but a process. We are constructing, deconstructing, constructing…a self dependent on conditions.
So why is Identity Flexibility anatta from the ‘inside out’? As one psychologist, Jack Engler (Transformations of Consciousness), put it roughly — “We need to develop our self before we can let go of our self.” As we are able to be more flexible and responsive to what arises, this identity or limited, conditioned self has less and less of a hold on us. Along with being healthier, it sets us up to experience the transcendent, the selfless.
What, then, is the function of this conditioned self or identity? We could say it is a suboptimal solution to our navigating life ranging from recognizing our own hand to working through relationships. Asomatognosia is a disorder in which one does not acknowledge ownership of one’s body parts. And Capgras Syndrome is the non-recognition of family members as family members. Brick Johnstone, a neuropsychologist, underscores the commonality of these as
disorders of self. The organism is unable to integrate, to own, to recognize the hand as “my” hand, to see the person as a member of “my” family. The self loses its coherence; it disintegrates.
While this is an intriguing viewpoint on self (as an integrating function — my hand, my family member, my thoughts, my feelings, even my self…), it helped me come to a deeper appreciation of Jack Engler’s encouragement to develop the self. There can be a temptation to turn the conditioned self, the ego, the identity into a villain. Note that the guidance above is not to get rid of but rather to “develop our self.” “Spiritual bypass is using one’s spiritual path as a way of ignoring or bypassing painful or suppressed emotional issues (that perhaps could benefit from a psychotherapeutic relationship).” (Mary Aubry, personal communication) This underscores sila, ethical conduct, in the wholesome development of self which, in turn, is key to letting go of the self. Spiritual Bypass belies its own name as it is a roadblock!
The experience of selfless states can be awe-inspiring, transformative and supportive of our practice. They can help us with perspective, with not taking the ups-and-downs of life with so much reactivity or seriousness. Nikki Mirghafori describes this as a sense of “okayness” which enables her to meet experience without being threatened. This can support us in being authentic and compassionate in sharing with and confronting others. Karen Armstrong says: “We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind.”
Transcendent, selfless, non-dual experiences, as powerful and moving as they may be, however are not the ‘be-all and end-all’. Do they really help us to fare better? After all, we still “chop the wood and carry the water” regardless of our spiritual plane. In this conditional world, we need a well-functioning, developed self to deal with the vicissitudes of life. In the Buddha’s case, it was dealing with a bad back. He’d begin a talk, then turn it over to a trusted monastic, and listen
while lying down. I like to think he was the pioneer, assuming the monastic’s talk was okay, of saying “I approve this message.”
Empathy, putting your self in another’s shoes” (i.e., circumstances), requires a self which can imagine the experience of another while, at the same time, not getting over-identified or lost in that experience. Our capacity to offer compassion, be it nurturing or fierce (think ‘momma bear’), requires this empathic capacity of the self. And, in Brick Johnstone’s research, he indeed found that empathy was enhanced by right hemisphere (integrative) functioning while this was not the case for forgiveness, an act which involves letting go of the self. To be more descriptive, when right hemisphere functioning was disrupted, this adversely affected empathy while enhancing, to a limited extent, forgiveness.
The “Brahma Viharas” in Buddhist psychology refer to: metta (lovingkindness or lovingfriendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathetic joy — being able to experience pleasure in the good fortune of others rather than jealousy or envy), and upekkha (equanimity, a sense of impartiality or balance in the face of the vicissitudes of life). One practices and develops these qualities, and they speak to healthy/wholesome self development. These four qualities or “perfections” help us to meet whatever life ‘throws at us’. If it’s one of the 10,000 joys, can we take pleasure in others’ good fortune and also in our own rather than getting jealous or anxious? Are we able to savor and really receive them? If one of the 10,000 sorrows, can we not be knocked over but keep our balance, our calm/cool/equanimity, in their presence and perhaps also rally compassion for others and/or ourselves? And, can we generally come from a place of friendliness, of wishing well for all beings? Practicing in this way, our efforts on behalf of one’s self and others are altruistic; the distinction or valuing of one’s self over others is greatly reduced if not gone.
If we are able to do this, then we are coming from a space of non-greed, non-aversion, and non-harming. If this is the case, then, according to Sariputta (monastic in the Buddha’s time known for his wisdom), we are realizing the cessation of suffering (3rd Noble Truth) — we’re “nirvanaing.” Our development of self can lead to experiencing moments of selflessness. At the same time, there are direct practices that can help us in ‘letting go’ of the self.
So, think of your practice in terms of wholesome self development and that of non-self/transcendence not as competitive but as complementary. Transcendent experiences can be inspiring, awe-inducing though, if not combined with ethical self cultivation, can actually lead to clinging and craving setting up additional roadblocks. If induced by charismatic individuals especially in large groups, it can lead to an unhealthy disinhibition of self and loss of heedfulness and discernment. Be careful and mindful not to create roadblocks!