“We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else.”
On summer afternoons when I was a child, I would sit for hours on my Grandma’s patio. She and I would rock together in our creaky chairs under the shade of the old apple tree, sometimes with the ripening apples plopping down around us. “Grandma, talk to me,” I would say. “Ain’t life grand,” she would begin, a propos of nothing in particular. Then we would talk together for hours while Grandpa tended his flowers and the day softened into evening. I have virtually no conscious recollection of the details of what she spoke about, but the gift of her attention, of her talking and listening with this small girl is buried deep in my bones and in the very physical structure of my brain and mind.
As immature organisms, relationship with other humans is central to our development. The maturity and coherence of our nervous systems develop through interactions with the more mature and (presumably) more coherently organized nervous systems of adults. This means that we develop through relationship. We learn over the first two decades of our development to organize ourselves effectively in making meaningful sense of the chaos of both internal and external sense impressions. It appears that the primary mechanism for the health of this developmental process is the ability of a child’s caretaker to sensitively perceive, name in language, and respond contingently to the young child’s own internal states via the adult’s awareness of such child signals as eye contact, facial expression, body language and vocal tone. Adult assessments or responses that are non-contingent, incongruous, frightening or fragmented compromise the developing brain’s information processing capacity and coherence. The resulting incoherence then results in restricted flows of information as well as suboptimal capacity for assessment and processing of both internal and external experience. These lead further to less effective social interactions and, later, less competent conceptual, linguistic, and relational skills.
Neurobiologists, then, would credit the importance of my shared time with Grandma and other sensitive adults in my life as far more than the cultivation of pleasant memories. As we talked and spent time in presence together, these important neural connections and coordinations were forming between the left side of my brain with its logical, organizational, linguistic and conceptual capacities and my brain’s right side with its more experiential, symbolic, emotional and nonverbal skills. The very physical structure of my human brain required this energy exchange for its billions of neurons to myelinate properly and for them to develop the capacity to function together in systematic and effective ways. Similarly, I was able to come to awareness of the strong emotional impulses from my limbic system, (mostly) without losing either consciousness or control. As relational experience and mind skills became more complex, my organized brain became more and more able to know the “felt sense” of implicit memories and to translate these as needed into conscious and workable explicit forms. Thus, as this human body grew, the mind became increasingly skilled at knowing, remembering and learning from experience without chaotic overwhelm or extremes of unwholesome behavior. This formed the basis of the development of a personal identity, a sense of a personal self with perceived continuity over time.
Another developmental perspective comes from the point of view of emotional development within the human child –parent attachment system. For me, these human interactions with Grandma cultivated a secure attachment which I then could rely on as a safe and comforting harbor for retreat and repair when I was distressed. In addition, it also offered a secure base from which I could move out and explore my ever-expanding world. Grandma did this partly through language and partly through the energetic exchange of our simple presence together. She and other important adults in this way helped to cultivate in this human organism a mind and a psychological sense of a self who was safe enough to navigate this otherwise overwhelming world. By my brain’s maturity at around age twenty-five, I was able to think in an organized way, reflect on my own and others’ experience and have some voluntary control over my behavior. The mind became coherent, which is to say balanced, responsive and organized. I thus became capable of open, balanced, fluid and flexible interactions with both my internal and external worlds.
The young in every human culture in the world develop through this sort of relational presence with more mature community members. Every culture has a way of helping its young to develop a sense of self. The actual way these selves are organized varies widely from culture to culture. For some, the “self” may refer primarily to what we in the west know as an “ego: “the personal organization and functioning within a single body. For other cultures, “self” may refer more to membership in a particular family group or clan or geographic community. In every case, however, this human “self” is constructed. It is an organizational process which develops over time to impose some sense of order and predictability upon the otherwise overwhelming and chaotic flow of sensory data. From this perspective, then the “self” is not a “thing” so much as an important and necessary strategy: a process.
As psychotherapists, our cultural role in the west has become that of priests or midwives or, perhaps, grandparents of sorts whose job it is, in part, to assist with this ongoing self development. In speaking and listening together, we help to cultivate this coherent and effective brain functioning and self construction and to help to repair it when development has gone awry in some way. As with my grandmother, this importantly includes the relational presence needed to enable individuals to repair the inevitable and sometimes debilitating developmental confusions and lapses that occur for all of us on our human journey. In our professional training as healers, we appropriately study and become expert at many of the dozens of skillful ways of understanding these developmental processes and at facilitating these developments and these repairs. When accomplished well, this self-developmental process leads to an enhanced sense of a personal self who is experienced as relatively separate from others who are perceived to be external. Ideally, this self has an adequate-enough sense of safety and stability over time, and has a capacity to sustain creative and flexible intrapersonal as well as interpersonal activities. This becomes a phenomenological sense of an internal “myself” in relationship with external objects or “others.”
From this perspective, however, we tend to think of suffering as inevitably involving some failure or deficit in this internal self construction. We imagine suffering as the result of something either lost or incomplete that can be, indeed must be, ultimately understood, repaired or acquired. Here is where it gets tricky. This perspective does have merit, most obviously in light of instances of significant trauma and its resulting developmental problems and/or brain incoherence. However, it can come to view “healthy” functioning as life without pain or difficulty. We can mistakenly imagine that this constructed self, this human life can somehow be completely stabilized and perfected, if we just study or try or practice enough. We can think of the personal self as a “thing” that belongs to “me” and that it is or can be separated from other beings and from the impermanent, unfolding flow of life on this planet. This view can inadvertently cultivate an expectation that, with enough understanding or hard personal work, the dilemmas of life can finally and completely be resolved by an independent self. If there is the unpleasant or loss or failure, it must mean that someone, somewhere, must be doing something wrong, and that it – or they – can and should be fixed. Within this frame, western psychotherapy can become an endless effort to strive for “something better,” for a cultivation of a permanent, separate self whose perfection eradicates normal human existential anxiety.
Nowhere in the Buddha’s teachings does he directly address the child to adult neurodevelopmental processes or even interpersonal and social processes of normal or abnormal human child development. In general, his teachings assumed the mature and coherent organization of healthy adult brains. Like a good researcher, however, and without benefit of modern MRIs and EEGS and CT scanners, he examined carefully and diligently the workings of his own mind. He saw the construction process: how the self is constructed, moment by moment by moment of mind moment after mind moment. He saw the truth of impermanence: that the self is relentlessly arising and passing away, each moment conditioned by the one that came before. He saw that our “selves” and our very lives are much like the separate frames of a movie that get strung together and that we then think are real. Like enchanted movie-goers, we forget this fabricated and constructed nature of our personal reality. We take the movie to be real and our “selves” to be the stars of the show. This is what the Buddha referred to again and again as our human “delusion” or “ignorance.” In modern times, even scientists begin to speak in similar terms. Western neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel, in writing of current studies of the human mind, notes that recent understandings suggest that “the idea of a unitary, continuous ‘self’ is actually an illusion our minds attempt to create.”
So in speaking of “no-self” the Buddha was not saying that the psychological and phenomenological self does not exist. He was saying that it does not exist in the way that we usually think that it does. And it never has. This constructed self, always partial, always incomplete, always changing, is unreliable and unworthy of our ultimate allegiance. So in speaking of “no self,” we are not suddenly getting rid of something solid and real, but rather, invited to release our misperceptions. The Buddha invites us to wise view: to come to understand – and, indeed, experience – the conditioned, impermanent, impersonal and profoundly interconnected nature of life on this planet. He invites us to discover for ourselves that the anxieties and discomforts of this human life are universal. He invites us to learn that deep peace and happiness cannot be accomplished through acquisition of, or grasping at, more of anything. We can never acquire enough: enough sensory pleasure, enough possessions, enough accomplishment, enough recognition, enough safety. There will always be change in life on this planet: everything that is built will ultimately crumble and everything that crumbles will ultimately rise again in some different form. The body, a constant source of challenge, will age and ultimately die. Anything that goes up will ultimately go down; everything that goes down will ultimately go up again. It’s just how life is on this planet. No matter how robust our bodies are or our brains are or our relationships are, these too will grow and change over time. As the Buddha investigated his own heart’s longing for release, he discovered the “middle way:” a path that abandoned the extremes of trying to perfect a “self” who could outrun human life through acquiring more or even through extremes of asceticism and denial. He taught the freedom, release, joy and profound happiness of learning to let go and to be fully present and fully alive with life in each moment, just as it is.
Despite our love for one another, neither Grandma nor I could prevent the sorrows of Grandpa’s death. Nor could we avoid the grief and the painful practical realities of her slow descent into dementia. But for each of us – even to the very end – we could cultivate and know a deep love and compassion that nourished us both as we shared our journeys. The woman who lived through two world wars and who was affected profoundly by the Great Depression, whose youngest child had become inexplicably disabled, whose life was filled with the joys and sorrows of any human life, could know, could remember, could teach “Ain’t life grand” to its very final moments.
As psychotherapists and healers of every sort, we are called to witness the sorrows and the joys of human life. We study and learn and bring our care and presence. We apply our best professional practices. It is important and right that we do this; these are our own contributions to the easing of suffering. It is also important to remember, however, that true healing does not mean that we “fix” life or that we “fix” any self – our own or others’. Being human cannot be ultimately secure, and cannot be “fixed.” It cannot, even, be “fixed” by spiritual practices: by acquiring the best spiritual teacher or by becoming a perfect meditator or – as the Buddha himself discovered – by the most excellent chants or diets or yoga postures. Human life cannot be ultimately “fixed,” but it can be discovered and it can be lived. Its mysteries can be known and experienced and received. Releasing Identification with the constructions of our minds, we learn to live with great wisdom, tenderness and compassion.
So as healers, we help with external conditions when we can. We remember, however, that ultimate healing occurs not in perfecting a self and not in fixing either external or even internal circumstances, but in the qualities of our hearts and minds. In these, we learn to meet our life and ride its waves of experience as they are and as we are. We learn to discover wholesome action revealing itself in this moment to moment awareness. Just this. Just this.