Buddhist Mindfulness, Experience and the Self:

by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche the 9th

Except from talk given April 5, 2009,
Maitripa Contemplative Centre, Victoria, Australia

Traleg Rinpoche gave a series of 21 talks on the topic of Mindfulness and Cognitive Therapy, on retreat in 2009. Although making clear to his audience that he was not a Psychologist, he joked “on the other hand I have been reading psychology stuff for years and years. I even started reading Freud back in India when I was a monk and it gave me bad Freudian dreams”. On a serious note, Traleg Rinpoche was extremely well read in Western Psychology and was engaged pursuing a Ph.D. in ?? during the time of these talks. So in addition to being a lineage holder receiving the a strict, traditional Buddhist education from a young age, he also had training in these topics from Western educational systems.

He begins the 21 talk series on an interesting note, “laying the ground” as he says that from a Buddhist perspective, the end goal of meditation is full Enlightenment, a perfect state he carefully differentiates from Jack Kornfield’s notion of After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Unlike meditation experiences, which is what this book theme seems to be referring to, actual perfect Enlightenment is considered to be possible, a state completely beyond suffering, otherwise, as he says “what is the point of enlightenment?”

Throughout the serious he features various Western adaptations of Mindfulness, with the overall theme of Buddhist meditation having good compatibility with Cognitive Therapy, as well as being overall encouraged and supportive by most Western adaptations of Mindfulness. For example he goes in depth in relation to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) approach to dealing with physical and emotional pain. By his assessment, he considers Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR program to be genuine and true to its Buddhist roots, and not adapted to suit Westerners (except in language/terms and the ‘body scan’). In addition, MBSR’s approach is “in keeping with the traditional Buddhist perspective..not to push pain away but in a sense embrace pain, work with it, and one does so through acceptance and through the practice of mindfulness. Then you become a more integrated, more whole person.” He does take some issue with Kabat-Zinn’s notion of integration involving only the

“Notion of intrinsic awareness. So only awareness is real; nothing else is real. They are not even part of you. I said, ‘Yes, it’s true that, as he says, you are not your pain. That’s true insofar as the cup is not the handle, but the handle is part of the cup.’ Similarly, whatever emotions, feelings, thoughts you have, the pain you have, are part of you but you are not that pain or you are not this particular thought or this particular feeling. The thoughts, emotions, and feelings and so on are part of you.”

The longer excerpt I have chosen is one in which Traleg Rinpoche clarifies this notion of self and experience and expands on the notion of ‘Mahaparusa’ or Great Person: the Buddhist use of the dynamic self/experience complex as an tremendous opportunity to become a fully Integrated person – not separate or detached from the world as some Westerner philosophers and psychologists have misconceived. In this passage, he uses some of these criticisms as a means to clarify some of the common misconceptions about Buddhist concepts such as Mindfulness, Mediation, and Self:.

In Buddhism it’s not just the experience that is the primary thing but what we make of the experience, what significance or meaning we attach to the experience. That actually carries more weight than the experience itself. This is true even on the conscious level. What is really traumatic or what is not traumatic or benign or harmless is determined by the way in which we appropriate our experiences to ourselves. This then leads to what I want to talk about in relation to the self.

As we found with Jack [Engler], he has said many different things about how meditation may weaken our sense of self-image, self identity, rather than strengthening it. Fear of individuation, avoidance of responsibility, fear of intimacy and closeness, passivity, dependence, self-punitive guilt – all these things that he talked about have to do with the idea that if you practice meditation then you will get caught up with these self-demeaning ways of relating to yourself.

As he also said, you may become less competent, may become vague and indecisive, two-minded, et cetera, so you can’t make up your mind. Because you don’t have a strong sense of self you use detachment – the Buddhist notion of detachment or something like that – to not get involved, to stay apart so that you don’t have to feel. You may be fearing that you will be hurt. If you get involved with people [you may fear that] the people may let you down or betray you and then you would feel terrible. So you pre-empt that by saying: ‘I’m a Buddhist, I should practice detachment so I’m not going to feel anything’, thereby you keep yourself safe.

They say they feel that way regarding Buddhist practices because it may actually have an adverse effect on people’s development and their effort to integrate themselves, that if you deny certain aspects of yourself and so on you are not going to grow. If you don’t confront your fears, if you don’t feel vulnerable, if you don’t feel unwanted, rejected or whatever – if you don’t feel these things then you are pretending everything is all right, everything is hunky-dory. Everything is not hunky-dory; there is a volcano brewing inside which may explode later in the form of a nervous breakdown or psychotic episode or something like that. This is their view, of course. Buddhism, as we know, has a very complex view of the self. Within Buddhism also, as you know, there are many different ways to understand the self but all Buddhists agree that …we make a distinction between the person and the self. Self is what the person has it’s called [in Tibetan] gang zag gi bdag – gang zag, [in Sanskrit] purusha, meaning person; and bdag, [in Sanskrit] atman, means the self. So gang zag gi bdag means the self of the person.

Normally in our deluded state, according to Buddhism, we think of the self as something immutable, unchanging, unitary. When we say we think that way, it does not mean we actually conceptualise about it or we have any kind of articulated notion about these things but on a very fundamental level, almost an instinctual level, we have this belief. There was an American philosopher called George Santiana who had this notion of animal beliefs, beliefs that are so innate, so embedded in our psyche, that it’s almost like an instinct.

So when it comes to the self, in Buddhism we talk about it in two different ways:

1. One is on the instinctual level – thinking that ‘I have this self, there is this self in me’. Self is some kind of mysterious entity residing within us but to be distinguished from one’s thoughts, emotions, feelings, body, memory, et cetera. So self is the ‘owner’ of all these things. The self claims ownership of all these things by saying: my body, my feelings, my emotions and so on and so forth.

2. According to Buddhism that is a misguided notion, of course, but this is encouraged by more articulated notions of the self, encouraged by education, meaning if we are taught theories of atman, theories of soul or something like that then we might identify the soul with one’s own inner self. This soul that’s being talked about is then identified with one’s own self.

In either case, Buddhism says this is a misguided way of looking at things. There is no such thing, a self that is hidden in us, some kind of mysterious entity residing there or a more philosophically refined concept of the same notion, saying the soul is eternal, everlasting, unchanging, xpermanent, non-corporeal, surviving death – things like that.

According to Buddhism, that’s a mistaken notion because there is nothing that is there that corresponds to this more instinctual, innate belief in our self as existing as a unitary thing and there is no self corresponding to the more philosophically refined view of the same entity.

Of course, in Buddhism, when we talk about things like that we have varieties of Hindu philosophies in view because so many of the Hindu darshanas, as they are called – schools, philosophical schools – talk about different things like that: Samkhya yoga, Mimamsa, Vedanta and so on. They all have different theories of the soul, including the Jaina tradition.

In Buddhism what we try to do is to link self with the person. Instead of thinking of the self as totally separate and existing independently, self as dissociated from the person… In all of these traditions that propound a theory of the self, they think of the self as something very spiritual. The self or the soul is seen as very spiritual, something unchanging, immutable, whereas everything that makes up the person is the opposite of that. The person changes, the body ages, the mind goes dull, whatever, but the pure inner essence of the individual does not change. This is their view.

Even though we may not have that kind of notion of the self, nevertheless according to Buddhism, we all believe that the self is separate from our psychophysical makeup. The psychophysical structure is maintained by the self or the soul or whatever, but it stands apart. In Buddhism when we talk about selflessness or anatman we are not saying that there is no self. What we are saying is that that self that we think exists as the owner, the landlord of the house of our embodiment.

My point is that we think of the relationship as the owner and ownership; owner and what is being owned. Self thinks: I own this body, this is my body, this is my feeling, et cetera. What Buddhism says is that the self is extracted, if you like, from what makes a person, what a person is – extracted, drawn from what makes up the person. Therefore, self is actually not separate from the person. Self is not like a pilot sitting in the cockpit, directing the aircraft, ship, whatever. The self is very much embedded and – to use more philosophical, theological terminology – immanent in one’s own personhood. It is not transcendent to our empirical, conditioned way of being. If we see it like that then we realize that in Buddhism we are not saying that there is no self or there is nobody. If what we call the self is closely tied to the person that one is then, through deconstructing and reconstructing the self, we can transform ourselves in relation to becoming a different person.

Yesterday we were talking about how an ordinary person can aim towards becoming a mahapurusha or a great being. Mahapurusha means great being – a Buddha is a mahapurusha. Maha means great – like Mahayana – and purusha means a person. One can become a great person, a great being, through the integration of the self and through understanding its relationship to one’s personhood. In other words, instead of devaluing our conditioned existence and way of being in the present time, for example, the self then is able to properly make use of one’s thoughts, emotions, feelings, beliefs, memories, attitudes, et cetera, because the self is not thinking in terms of: I have these thoughts, I have these emotions, I have these feelings.

In meditation what one is trying to do is to merge the self with one’s own experiences. The experiencer and the experiences do not stand apart. This is the interesting part. Unlike what he was saying about the notion of detachment or the notion of the practice of mindfulness, awareness, et cetera – when we practicing mindfulness, awareness and so on it does not mean that one’s own self is looking at the experience, whatever it might be – standing apart and objectifying that particular experience.

Being mindful, being aware of whatever is arising, whatever is present, means being with it whereby you are not thinking: I am having this experience or I am having that experience. If you are thinking: I am having this experience or that experience, then you are not really practicing mindfulness, awareness, fully. If you are looking at your own thoughts, emotions and feelings drifting past in front of the gaze of your awareness, looking at it as if it’s happening to somebody else, having some kind of – what I think psychologists call dissociative experience, then that is not mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness practice and awareness practice are done in order to claim ownership of whatever it is one is experiencing, not to disown them further. Disowning them is what we already do, in terms of our deluded way of dealing with our experiences. If we disown them then, as the psychologists might be saying, the danger might be that we would put some kind of lid on certain unpleasant experiences and we would have a fear of having such and such an experience. Unconsciously one might be thinking: I don’t want to have that experience or I don’t want to think that or I don’t have that feeling or I’m afraid that I will have such and such experience or whatever.

But if you are trying to narrow the gap between what your experience is made up of and you as the experiencer, the self, then there is a chance, at least, through the practice of meditation, of the tension between the two being diffused. In that case there will be more acceptance of the whole gamut of one’s experiences rather than being judgmental, fearful, paranoid, uncomfortable with oneself, uncomfortable with one’s experiences, uncomfortable with certain thoughts, certain emotions, certain memories: I don’t want to remember that, I want to remember the good things.

Meditation would not encourage one to suppress or not face unpleasant experiences. One thing that has to be said here – and I will say it [again] in a short time when I touch on this more – is that in psychotherapy generally and especially in psychodynamic type of therapy, there is always a lot of emphasis on dredging up all the unpleasant experiences, but if you have pleasant experiences then that is not encouraged at all. In fact, they may see that as another tactic that you are using to avoid facing up to reality, facing up to the truth. The truth is always seen as very unpleasant, very disturbing, painful – that kind of thing.

In Buddhism both painful and pleasant experiences can be incorporated into oneself if we think in this manner – we are not saying: I have this experience or I have that experience because the experiencer is the experiences, as Buddhism says. What is an experiencer without experiences? There is no such thing. The experiencer only has legitimate existence as long as that experiencer is capable of having experiences. Once the experiencer ceases to have the capacity to have experiences then ‘experiencer’ has no meaning. An experiencer that has ceased to have the capacity for experiences has become redundant, has no function.

That shows that it’s not the case that there is something called the experiencer that is the self or whatever we may call it: the ego, the super ego. It’s not the superego in the Freudian sense but some people talk about the big self or the big ego, as opposed to the little ego – me and mini-me…

The less the distance between oneself and one’s experiences, the less tension and therefore greater capacity there is to embrace, to take on board varieties of experiences – good, bad, neutral; pleasant, unpleasant; encouraging, disturbing; inspirational, discouraging, all kinds of things. That capacity would go towards strengthening one’s ability for self-transformation, to forge ahead and not feel bogged down, burdened by all the unpleasant experiences and so forth. If the distance is great then there is tension, as I said, and when the tension gets intense one would feel like all this unpleasantness is beginning to bear on one, to push one down and render
one incapacitated. Then one would be thrown into despair, into depression and things like that. That is one thing.

The other thing is … how the Buddhist notion of selflessness does not lead to diminution of one’s concept of the self but enhances one’s ability to function better. One’s ability to be decisive, to be autonomous, et cetera, would be increased unlike what [Jack Engler] was saying. If we are not at war with our emotions, feelings, thoughts, et cetera, and not thinking certain emotions, thoughts and feelings are our enemy, if we are not thinking that they are some kind of intrusion, uninvited guests barging in and taking over, having a party – if there is some way of being able to accept these things then we become strengthened.

Then not only can we get benefit from pleasant experiences and so forth because we are feeling good, we have positive emotions and we are thinking good thoughts and things like that – but even when we have bad, unpleasant experiences because of anger, jealousy, shame, guilt – all the things that Engler lists – even during those times we can become strengthened. That is the thing.

So instead of leading to self-conflict or self-diminution, ..one is able to take these things on board through the practice of meditation…

As we said before, the fundamental reason why there is this resistance – to use his expression –  why we resist facing these things is because of fear, because we think: Something terrible is going to happen to me. If I let myself be fearful then I will be destroyed; or if I allow myself to feel shame or this or that then that will make me less of a person; or let’s say if I feel ashamed just by thinking about such and such a thing, if I now allow myself to think this then just by thinking about the shameful thoughts one feels as though one has been reduced, one is reduced as a person, one feels like one has been halved, you are afraid.

In Buddhism, as I mentioned before, there is no inner self lurking behind to be harmed, to be compromised, to be annihilated – whatever self there is, is the sum total of your experiences. So if you are not thinking like that then your fear should gradually diminish. You have more courage in terms of being able to take on board varieties of experiences because you are not then thinking of them as being something separate. As I said before, the less you think of these things as being separate, the less fear you will have because you are not thinking: All these things will harm me, it will do some lasting damage, I will become less of a person if I let these things come out into the open – or even thinking: If I let them come out then other people are going to notice these things and then what are they going to think about me? I will become diminished as a result of that. I will be made so little. Everybody will want to ignore me. Nobody will want to talk to me. People will be laughing not only behind my back – they do that already – but even to my face. That’s the thing. I think it’s very important to think that way [of self and experience not being separate]. Then we have a healthy attitude towards ourselves. To have a healthy attitude towards ourselves, from the Buddhist point of view, is to see ourselves as we are in relation to the sum total of our experiences.

If we do not do that then we exercise selective attention. We choose to pay attention to certain things and ignore other things. Even if we have good experiences we hardly notice them and if we have bad experiences they get blown out of proportion. Even when we have certain [good] experiences following a bad experience we see those new experiences in the light of the past bad experience. The subsequent experiences become coloured by that one bad experience. Sometimes this can go on for a long time. So we end up exercising selective memory. We choose to remember certain things, but usually only bad things, and forget the good things that we should remember. We choose not to. So a healthy attitude towards self means being able to accept varieties of experiences, thinking that: All these are me. But when we say: All this is me – at least from the Buddhist point of view – we don’t have to then think: This is the real me. When we look at all the different experiences that we have had so far and think: This is me, this is the stuff that I am made of – it does not mean ‘This is me’ full stop, because one also realises that one is an evolving being.

Our self, as we have it, is always in a state of flux, as Buddhism teaches, which is interpreted as being a very liberating notion, at least from the Buddhist point of view. It’s an open book. The last chapter has not been written yet. Many chapters lead up to this point but there are many more to be written. It’s an unfolding story. That’s how one has to think of oneself. Then we can think in terms of transforming oneself as a person, becoming a different kind of person.