The Fiction of the Self

The Paradox of Mindfulness in Clinical Practice

Ronald Siegel

What if our therapeutic goals of improving self-esteem, developing a stable and coherent sense of self, and identifying and expressing genuine, authentic feelings all turn out to be symptoms of delusion? And what if the current mindfulness craze---if we take it seriously enough---changes who we think we are and what we’re trying to do in therapy?

Like atomic energy in the 1960s, mindfulness is lately being seen as the cure for everything. Depression, anxiety, alienation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, financial difficulties---you name it and there’s a mindfulness-based remedy for it. And while it’s true that reducing stress and giving us respite from our incessant thoughts can make almost any condition feel better, serious engagement with mindfulness practice is likely to produce an unexpected, often unwanted effect: it can lead us, and our clients, away from our comfortable constructs and toward a radical reappraisal of who we are and what our life is all about, upending our psychotherapy practices in the process.

In the Buddhist traditions from which many contemporary mindfulness practices derive, mindfulness techniques evolved as tools for deconstructing our usual view of ourselves and the world, for waking up from conventional, socially reinforced fictions about who we are and how to find happiness. This awakening occurs to the degree that we no longer believe in the self. It involves realizing what’s called in Pali—the language in which the Buddha’s teachings were first recorded---anatta, or non-self.

The mindfulness practice that leads to recognizing anatta is deceptively simple. It begins with cultivating concentration---choosing an object of awareness, such as ambient sounds, the breath, or other body sensations, and returning attention to that object every time the mind wanders from it. Once some concentration is established, we open the field of awareness to attend to whatever predominates in consciousness. Throughout the process, we try to accept whatever arises, whether pleasant or unpleasant.

If we engage in this simple practice long enough, we discover that our sense of being a separate, coherent, enduring self is actually a delusion maintained by our constant inner chatter, which generally features “me” at its center. From mundane decisions (“I think I’ll get the salmon with wilted spinach tonight”) to existential fears (“What’ll I do if the lump is malignant?”), this chatter fills our waking hours. Listening to it all day long, we come to believe that the hero of this drama must exist.

But if we practice mindfulness long and often enough, this conventional sense of self can start to unravel. By repeatedly bringing our attention to sensory experience in the present moment, we see that what arises in consciousness is a kaleidoscope of sensations and images, regularly narrated by subvocal words, which themselves arise and pass.

How We Construct Reality
Ancient Buddhists described the process by which we construct reality and our sense of self much as modern cognitive scientists do. It all begins with sense contact: the coming together of a sense organ (the eye or ear, for example) with an object of awareness. These sensations are then immediately organized into perceptions, conditioned by language, personal history, and culture.

The mind doesn’t stay at the level of perception for long, however. It immediately adds a hedonic or feeling tone to all experience (“I like this” or “I don’t like this”). And almost as soon as the feeling tone enters consciousness, intentions arise. We have an impulse to hold onto pleasant experiences and push away unpleasant ones. Over time, we develop habits of intention that we might call dispositions or conditioned responses---collections of habitual responses to our likes and dislikes. These dispositions become important elements in our identities (“I’m a liberal,” “I listen to classical music, “I hate jet skis,” “I’m into mindfulness,” and so forth).

What we see through mindfulness practice is that creating a sense of self is actually an impersonal process. As the neuroscientist Wolf Singer famously said, “The brain is like an orchestra without a conductor.” These impersonal processes---sensation, perception, feeling, intention---unfold moment after moment, relentlessly narrated by thoughts that themselves arise and pass.

Non-self in Psychotherapy
Seeing how our sense of self is constructed isn’t just a topic for abstract philosophy. In Buddhist psychology, awakening to anatta, or non-self, is central to psychological freedom. And even glimpsing anatta in our mindfulness practice can have profound implications for how we practice psychotherapy.

Some changes are simple. Instead of asking in therapy, “How did that make you feel?” we could inquire, “What’s happening right now?” Instead of helping our client identify his or her authentic self, we could highlight how everything changes moment by moment, including who the client thinks he or she is.

Another advantage to losing the glue of a coherent identity is that it enables us to connect more readily with others. To the extent that we can see both the saint and sinner in ourselves, we’re better able to accept others, warts and all. Our judgments about good and bad tend to lighten, and we can more readily feel compassion toward other people when they act in less-than-noble ways.

This blog is excerpted from “The Fiction of the Self.” Read the full version for FREE in the January/February 2015 issue.

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Topic: Mindfulness | Anxiety/Depression

Tags: add | attention deficit | attention deficit hyperactivity disorder | consciousness | depression | ED | habits | hyperactivity | mindful | mindfulness techniques | neuroscientist | practices | psychology | psychotherapy | psychotherapy practices | TED | therapy | stress | anatta | Ron Siegel

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