The Buddhist concept of Anatta (no fixed self) challenges the common sense idea that we each have a well-defined, permanent “self”. My purpose here is to explore how this is consistent with contemporary psychotherapy. I will also provide a visual metaphor that may help you make sense of some situations.
If we don’t have a fixed “self”, how do we describe who we are? Let’s try “discontinuous self states”. This phrase may feel like quite a mouthful.
I’m first going to talk about the “self states” part. This phrase is in contrast to the common sense experience of “self”. Instead of one fixed “self”, we actually experience many different “self states”.
For instance, think about how different the following situations are:
– You are well rested, well fed, among people you love, with not a care in the world.
– You’re late, really late, for an important meeting. You’ve been rushing to the train station, and everything that could go wrong went wrong. Now, the treaty itself is late and you’re stewing as you keep watching the clock.
– You are watching the Super Bowl, and the team you have been rooting for just won!
You probably noticed a not so subtle drift in the above descriptions. I am not just describing what you feel like (relaxed, nervous, exultant), but the whole situation. This is the point. We are not talking about a “self” that is invariant, independent, but a series of interactions with our environment that produce different “self states”.
Interestingly, this concept is very similar to Buddhist philosophy. According to Buddhism, the “self” is an illusion. Contrary to some forms of popular spirituality, this is not to negate the reality of the world. Instead, this is a bold statement meant to call our attention to the notion that nothing exists in and of itself. For instance, a plant will look very different depending on whether it receives a good amount of water and sunlight, or not. So, the concept of several “self states”, as opposed to “The Self”, is not some esoteric speculation. It is very much something we all can relate to in our everyday life.
What about the “discontinuous” part in “discontinuous self states”?
Well, this means that we don’t always flow from one state into another. Instead of a continuous, seamless transition, we sometimes experience difficulty moving from one state into another.
This happens, of course, in cases of trauma. For instance, the veteran who comes back from the battlefield may have trouble turning off the “hypervigilance” mode — a “self state” that was very useful in combat, but is not appropriate in civilian life. Healing trauma means integration of the dissociated self-states: The mind is no longer “hijacked” by the undigested traumatic situation, but is able to function in present reality.
Traumatic situations are an extreme in the spectrum of human experience. In a less dramatic way, we can all experience some difficulty, at times, in shifting “self states”. I will use a metaphor that illustrates what this feels like.
Let’s imagine that you are playing tug-of-war with somebody else. Each of you is pulling really hard on the rope. Now, the other person suddenly stops pulling. You are caught off guard, and you stumble backwards.
What happened? It takes time for the new information to be processed in such a way that you can adjust to it. Let’s review, so to speak, the slow motion video of the action and freeze on significant frames:
– In Frame 1, you were pulling really hard, and it was the appropriate thing to do because the other person was pulling really hard.
– In Frame 2, the situation changed, as the other person suddenly stopped pulling.
– In Frame 3, you still had not processed the new information (or maybe not even received it?). So you were reacting to the needs of Frame 1, not to the reality of Frame 3.
You simply could not process the information rapidly enough to adjust to the new situation. As a result, you were caught in the turbulence between two “self states”. That turbulence, that imbalance, is something you literally see in the backwards stumbling of Frame 3.
You see from this example why I describe the two self-states as “discontinuous”: In one state, you pull with all your might. In the other, you simply shouldn’t be pulling at all. Total change!
There is a time lag for perceiving and processing some information. It’s hard to switch gears. This is the loophole in the Mind Operating System that makes it possible for us to be deceived by opponents in activities as diverse as swordsplay or football.