The No-Self: Psychological and Systemic Implications

I had just come from explaining to one of Blueprint’s editors that if I had to write one more essay regarding the “self” I would loseWeight Exercise all remaining sanity. He then suggested that I might write an article on the Buddhist notion of “no-self.” All right… so as long as this is about the “no-self” I should be okay.

I wonder how many times I have read the word “self” in my academic career? While I believe that a level of introspection and contemplation is crucial for one’s sanity, it is the increasingly individualist and exclusionary nature in which this contemplation occurs that is so problematic. In this contemplation, we are creatures of our individualistic, isolationist culture, which makes us question our every action. By repeatedly analyzing particular behaviours and asking why we acted that way, we end up facilitating a self-obsessed and anxiety-ridden self. Restricting a deeper understanding of the self in relation to others is our lack of a decent vocabulary to help understand a more collective and interdependent self. This occurs largely at the expense of a strong sense of community and belonging. It is in clinging to a “self” or a stable conception of ourselves that we suffer – but all is not lost; there is Buddhist teaching (dharma) to aid us.

Imagine for a moment a Buddhist nun calmly prying our iPods from our clenched fists. What would this “awakened one” say? She would most likely stress the importance of “dependent origination” which stresses that there is nothing that comes into being through its own power, and that every cause/behaviour/action is dependent on a flurry of constantly evolving and changing circumstances – meaning that metaphysical realities and notions of the “self” cannot be said to exist, per se. Instead we must move towards a more interdependent and unified notion of the “self”. I find it impossible to exclude the word “Self” from an understanding of the “no-self.”

One of the most basic foundations of Buddhism is the need to recognize suffering and a dedication to the dharma in alleviating this suffering. Imagine for a moment that the institution of “university” acted as that remedy – providing a doctrine that taught the basics of love, compassion and equality in every possible discipline.

That is what is really at the root cause of our suffering: the obsession and need to cling to a static notion of the “self.” I would even extend individual notions of the “self”. The insistence on clinging to a particular framework that acts to exclude is very prevalent in the ways in which differing disciplines remain disjointed and separate from one another. How does one conceive of the following pairs: Global Studies/ Business, Psychology/Sociology, Women’s Studies/ Economics? Can this notion of “No-self” be understood in a broader ecological context; one in which we can see how our current ideas and frameworks are perhaps missing a level of analysis? Are we clenching too tight to tradition and stability—not opening up to the possibility of change? Are we isolationists in our ideas, biases and philosophies—refusing to extend and encompass a new reality or “no-self”? The connection must be made between our insistence on maintaining notions of stability and static natures in our personal lives and the broader context of the political, social and economic roles that we pursue in the public sphere. I’m not throwing a stable sense of “self” out the door, but I find incredible value in a more fluid and changing view of the “self” that can’t be defined using our familiar language. Perhaps there is even some stability in maintaining a fluid sense of “self” – knowing that one will undergo constant change.

As I reach for my headphones, I’m reminded of the Buddhist nun on my shoulder. I have difficulty staying within the Buddhist doctrine and framework without incorporating broader social and political considerations. While it may be straying completely from the sheer unification and simplicity of Buddhism, I find it critically important to make the personal political. Highlighting how a stable essence affects not only our self-esteem, but also the ways in which we restrict and exclude our own paradigms. This in turn limits the truly interdependent and unified notion of our existence. In other words, keep it interdependent and leave the iPod on low.