On Being Somebody and Being Nobody

Osgood Hall, Toronto

“You have to be somebody before you can be nobody,” Jack Engler wrote back in the 1970s. In his influential (2003) paper, “Being Somebody and Being Nobody,” he explained he had coined the phrase to emphasize how engaging in mindfulness meditation requires certain ego strengths and capacities:

Some degree of structuralization is certainly required: the capacity for moment-to-moment observation of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations; the ability to gradually attend to experience without censorship or selection; the capacity to tolerate aversive affect; some capacity to tolerate primary process material; the ability to suspend or mitigate self-judgement and maintain a benign attitude toward one’s experience; the capacity for moral discrimination and evaluation of one’s own behavior; and the capacity to mourn.

Engler, 2003, page 48

This is not how people tend to imagine mindfulness. Most people sign up for mindfulness-based groups in order to get rid of their stress rather than to acknowledge and make sense of their emotions to better navigate their lives. This is why I take care to make sure candidates for my clinical mindfulness groups understand how emotionally challenging mindfulness practice can be so they can make an informed decision about participating. I assess if they are in a place in their lives where they are able and willing to tolerate difficult emotions and are not suffering from self-destructive avoidant coping such as severe depression or active addictions, self-harm or suicidality that might be exacerbated by the challenges of meditation practice. If people are in recovery from one of these, I check to make sure that their recovery has reached some level of stability. This carefulness is part of trauma-informed mindfulness-based practice (Treleaven, 2018; Follette, Briere, Rozelle, Hopper & Rome, 2015) which understands that mindfulness meditation is not a panacea and needs to be adapted for people’s specific needs.

Engler argued that the more developed a person’s meditative and spiritual practice becomes, the more important the capacities he described above are. He emphasized the risks of people using their meditation as a form of spiritual bypassing, a way of avoiding facing key adult developmental tasks such as developing a career and mature relationships:

The other point I wanted to make was that spiritual practice doesn’t exempt us from normal developmental tasks. This would not be an issue in traditional Buddhist cultures. But part of Buddhism’s attraction to Westerners is that it can seem to offer a way to circumvent the developmental tasks and challenges of identity formation that are inherent in certain stages of the life cycle, especially young adulthood and the mid-life transition (Levinson, 1978). The Buddhist teaching that one has no enduring self (“emptiness,” “no-self”) is open to fateful misinterpretation in our Western context, namely, that I do not need to struggle to find out who I am, what my desires and aspirations are, what my needs are, what my capabilities and responsibilities are, how I am relating to others, and what I could or should do with my life. The no-self doctrine seems to relieve me of the burden of these tasks and to justify their premature abandonment: if I am (spiritually) nobody, then I don’t need to become (psychologically) somebody.

At times, these vulnerabilities and disturbances in personal identity may reflect disturbances in the subjective sense of self. Here the Buddhist anatto [no-self] teaching can unwittingly serve a different purpose: it can explain and rationalize, if not actually legitimate, a felt lack of integration, feelings of inner emptiness, feelings of not being real, of not having a cohesive self.

Engler, 2003, pages 36 to 37

Engler warns against attempting to address this by simply deepening or intensifying Buddhist spiritual practice:

I also don’t think that it is simply a matter of applying spiritual insight to the rest of one’s life or character… The “continuous training” after initial enlightenment that [Kapleau Roshi] says is necessary can–if it just means more practice–still leave character flaws, personal conflicts, and difficulties in love and work untouched. This is because awareness in one area of life doesn’t automatically transfer into other areas of life (Kornfield, 1993). Spiritual awareness, as Buddhism and other traditions define it, does not automatically yield psychological and emotional awareness in a Western sense. The profound need to defend against trauma and threats to bodily and psychic integrity, as well as our capacity for horizontal and vertical “splits’ in personality (Kohut, 1977), leave sequestered compartments where the memories of past injury and the anticipation of future hurt are deepest. Entrenched characterological defenses and flaws can remain untouched. So we can encounter teachers who have deep realization into the nature of self and reality, but who sleep with students, encourage dependent relationships, need uncritical admiration, are intolerant of criticism or dissent, and insist on an authoritarian structure in their community. or more simply, teachers who are powerful in front of a meditation hall, but who can be anxious, confused, immature, or withdrawn in their personal interactions with others.

Engler, 2003, page 43

Some psychologists who are Buddhist practitioners have concluded from this that while mindfulness can assist in addressing internal psychological conflicts and unfinished business, psychological work should precede developing a mature Buddhist meditation practice:

the aim of experiential therapies is to resolve conflicts experienced between two parts of self and to promote self-integration. The importance and subtlety of resolving conflicts is not sufficiently dealt with in the meditative tradition (Tart and Deikman, 1991). A meditative approach is more focused on letting be. The practice of letting be, which is allowing thoughts and feelings to arise while continuously returning to the breath, is a practice of allowing vulnerability and openness to whatever comes along. Russell (1986) pointed out that meditation helps people to achieve a more expanded awareness and higher states of consciousness, while psychotherapy is centered on resolving emotional problems. Welwood (1980) summed up the difference in stating that the aim of psychotherapy is self-integration, while the aim of meditation is self-transcendence.

Geller, 2003, page 265

While Geller recognizes that mindfulness meditation can assist in the processes of psychotherapy in helping people accept difficult experience, she argues that a mature mindfulness practice is best developed after the work of psychotherapy has completed.

While meditation may offer the possibility of spiritual development that goes beyond experiential therapies, it can be most effective when emotional and psychological development has been achieved and conflicts have been resolved. A sequential approach to therapy and meditation may be most fitting in this perspective. It is important to first respect the developmental tasks of a person emphasized by experiential therapies: resolving unfinished issues, making emotional contact and symbolizing experience in awareness, appreciating self and needs, enhancing skills to meet needs, and increasing self-esteem and personal integration. Then, the person can take on the tasks of meditation: disidentifying with emotional and self concerns, connecting to a basic state of aliveness and energy and subsequently generating compassion for others.

Geller, 2003, page 270

However, in his extensive study of advanced Buddhist practitioners in Asia and the West, Engler did not find anyone who was free of internal conflicts. He argues that our various developmental trajectories in different aspects of our life mature in tandem and at various rates.

Instead of taking a developmental perspective, I think it is more useful to view the pursuit of a spiritual practice, like any other behaviour, as multiply determined. Individuals inevitably begin practice, as they do therapy, with a mix of motives, some conscious, some unconscious, some adaptive, some maladaptive. Suler (1993) identifies ten psychodynamic issues in particular that revolve around meanings related to having or not having an autonomous self. These partially underlie the attraction to eastern forms of spiritual practice. They also predispose to employing practices like meditation in the service of defense rather than self-awareness. Each is more a cluster of related issues than an isolated motivation. These include using practice to (1) pursue narcissistic perfection and invulnerability, (2) calm fears of individuation, (3) avoid responsibility, (4) rationalize fears of intimacy and closeness, (5) suppress unwanted or conflictual feelings, (6) avoid anger, self-assertion, and competitiveness by adopting a passive-dependent style, (7) satisfy superego needs for self-punishment for feelings of unworthiness, shame, or guilt, (8) escape from internal experience, (9) devalue reason, intellect, and reflection on one’s motives and behaviour, and (10) substitute for grief and the need for mourning in the face of loss.

One or more of these motives often continue to influence practice for a long time. It takes effort and courage and a willingness to look at one’s motives before this gradually becomes apparent. Often it requires the guidance of a teacher or therapist. Or it may take some disillusionment or disappointment in one’s progress, or feeling stuck for a long time, or some painful event like a teacher’s betrayal of trust, to wake up and force one to look and see.

Engler, 2003, pages 49 to 50.

It is this recognition of the need to provide meditators with ways of processing the difficult material that can arise in meditation (or, perhaps even more problematically, not arise) that led me to develop emotion-focused mindfulness therapy, integrating experiential and emotional processes into meditation and into how therapists empathically explore people’s meditation practice. I was interested in developing a trauma-informed way to introduce people to meditation that would enable them to develop mature mindfulness practices capable of addressing these kinds of issues, fully integrated with the initial form they had learned.

Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) is well suited for integrating forms of meditation with Buddhist roots because it shares with them a wholistic perspective on human nature that emphasizes the primacy of experiencing and how experiencing and the self are co-constructed by multiple, fluid processes.

[EFT’s] overarching neo-humanist principles emphasize relational presence and growth, comprising: the primacy of experiencing; wholeness; freedom, agency and self-determination; pluralism and equality; presence and authenticity; and growth (Elliott et al., 2004, pp. 21–22). ‘Organismic experience consists of all the ways human organisms experience themselves and their environments through their bodily felt sense (Gendlin, 1962, 1996; Rogers, 1961)’ (Watson, 2011). ‘Experiencing’ as a gerund ‘reflects its active, ever-changing, “nonthinglike” nature (Gendlin, 1962)’ (Elliott et al., 2004, p. 21), reminiscent of the Buddhist principles of not-self (the inability to experience an inherent, non-contingent self) and impermanence. Wholeness highlights the importance of including all the processes of experiencing in therapy (ibid).

Gayner, 2019, page 106

While Geller recognizes that EFT and Buddhism agree about the primacy of experiencing and the lack of an inherent unchanging self, she insists their goals concerning the self are radically different:

In sum, both perspectives share the notion that the self is a process, constantly constructed in relation to experience and environment. However, the goals of each approach in relation to the self are different. From an experiential [therapy] perspective, a new construction of self that accommodates moment-to-moment experience is part of achieving internal integration, adaptation, and need satisfaction. In mindfulness meditation and Buddhism in general, it is the realization of the illusion of a stable and static self, and the advanced disintegration of a self, that is the goal of this approach.

Geller, 2003, 267-268

It seems that the role of the self in the form of mature Buddhist practice with which Geller is familiar is limited to that of a disintegrating illusion. There are, however, many different forms of Buddhism, and not all agree with this perspective. For example, Stephen Batchelor describes how the Buddha of the early Pali cannon was not afraid of using the word “self” in relation to the path he taught:

Gotama has no hesitation in using the first person singular or the words aham or atta (self) in a completely ordinary and non-problematic way. In recalling his key insight into the relation between name-form and consciousness [i.e., that “name-form” (which refers to the entire interaction between an organism and its environment) provides the necessary preconditions for consciousness], he says, “There occurred for me (mayham) a breakthrough in understanding.”50 Toward the end of his life he encourages his followers to rely on themselves (atta) as their island and refuge.51 Elsewhere, he speaks of a person’s identity as a farmer, a craftsman, a merchant, a soldier, and so on, as what is created as a result of the person’s choices and acts.52 One’s self is a work in progress, an unfinished project to be realized, not a fiction that needs to be exposed and eradicated. One can think of oneself as a practice. I forge my personality and character out of how I connect with myself and my world, how I feel about things, how I make sense of what appears to me, how I choose to speak and act, how I attend to what is going on.

Batchelor, 2015, Kindle edition, locations 3463 to 3469.

From this perspective, it is not about getting rid of the self, but of cultivating it supported by a deepening sense of how, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, the self is made up of many non-self elements.

The self is only made of non-self elements. We don’t need to be dogmatic and caught by words – We can say “self” too. If you are not open then you are not Buddhist. Buddhism too is only made of non-Buddhist elements.

Retrieved from https://tnhaudio.org/2013/08/05/insight-of-no-self/

Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) emphasizes softening and letting go of our identifications with dominant self-aspects and empowering feeling-oriented, growth-oriented self-aspects.

[EFT] encourages the emergence of implicit, overlooked, or silenced self-aspects so that the more dominant, vocal aspects can hear the previously ignored aspects (Greenberg, 2015 [2002]; Greenberg & Paivio, 1997)… The result of this process is a new, integrative experience leading to a new synthesis.

Elliott et al., 2004, p. 39

These multiple self-aspects are in turn activated by multiple conditioned patterns of emotions called emotion schemes. These can only be experienced by opening to the multiple processes that co-construct emotional experience including perception, bodily experience, cognitive processes, needs, motivations, memories and action tendencies.

From this perspective, ‘there is no permanent, hierarchical organization topped by an Executive Self or “I”’ (Elliott et al., 2004, pp. 37–38). A sense of self-coherence emerges through various aspects of the self dialectically constructing and integrating our emotional experiencing, not once and for all, but like jazz musicians improvising together in various situations (ibid, page 38). Problems arise not from contradictions between them but hostility or parts suppressing, ignoring or compartmentalizing each other.

Gayner, 2019, page 107

Processes that deepen self-integration and self-coherence by addressing inner conflicts and unfinished business can become aspects of contemplative practice that loosen our identification with rigid, highly defended self-aspects and deepen our awareness of how our experience is co-constructed by the interaction of multiple processes within and around us. Being nobody and being somebody are then revealed as dialectically related themes.

In this way, mindfulness meditation can focus on what seems appropriate in the moment, including practices such as focusing attention on an object, open awareness, and EFT tasks such as experiential focusing and the enactment tasks that address internal conflicts and unfinished business — opening meditation to all the forms of growth we are cultivating in our lives, including both being somebody and being nobody.