Integrating Our Life: The Basis for Labeling “Me”

[As an introduction to this training program, see: Work-Life Balance: How to Get More Satisfaction in Life]


This weekend, we are going to discuss and practice methods for integrating our life. We don’t actually find them in the Buddhist teachings or elsewhere. They’re an extension of a training program that I developed called Developing Balanced Sensitivity, which is published in a book and which you can find on my website. It’s a series of twenty exercises that are all based on the Buddhist teachings. I took a wide variety of Buddhist meditation methods and teachings and put them together in a slightly different form, in order to help us overcome problems of either being insensitive or oversensitive. Often, in respect to situations of others and of ourselves, either we are insensitive to them or oversensitive. And in regard to the effects of our behavior, either the effect of our behavior on others or the effect of our behavior on ourselves – either we are insensitive to that or oversensitive. So, I wanted to bring in a Buddhist approach to deal with these issues.

When we speak of the true cause of our problems in life, it’s unawareness, and specifically unawareness of cause and effect in terms of our behavior and unawareness of reality of situations with ourselves and others. Although the training program and its twenty exercises are based on a Buddhist set of methods, it is not presented in a Buddhist context or with Buddhist terminology. It requires no Buddhist background. The training program, if done in a full manner with one session a week, takes three years to complete.

Having taught it a few times in its complete form, and abbreviated forms of it here and there, it struck me that different aspects could be added to it. What motivated me to create this program was the fact that there are many people who practice Buddhism for a long time, but then reach a certain plateau in their practice and don’t get any further. The problem was that they didn’t have a clear idea of how to apply the Buddhist teachings to their own lives and the type of emotional and psychological problems that they had. This was something that I observed to be quite widespread. Analyzing the situation, I realized that the conceptual framework within which we conceptualize the type of psychological problems that we have is completely different from that with which the Buddhist teachings conceptualize them.

We think about and experience problems in terms of how we conceptualize them.  We say, “I’m insecure,” or, “I’m insensitive, or oversensitive.” And then we experience alienation. We say, “I’m out of touch with my feelings, out of touch with my body, and even out of touch with myself.” We say, “My feelings are blocked,” for example, and such things. The problem is that none of this can easily be translated into Tibetan. The difficulty here is how to make the bridge between the Tibetan Buddhist conceptual framework and how we actually conceptualize and consequently experience our problems.

Of course, we might think that the Buddhist methods aren’t really effective for these types of problems that are characteristic of us in the West. But, if we really take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, that means that we are confident that the Buddhist methods and teachings that Buddha taught will eliminate all problems, including the ones that we Westerners experience. With that confident belief that the Dharma is broad enough to encompass these types of problems as well, the only challenge was to deconstruct the type of syndromes that we experience, so that if we deconstruct them and see the various components of them, we could see how the various Dharma methods would apply to them. 

So I developed this program dealing with sensitivity issues and it seems to be quite effective from the people who have gone through it. But I saw that more could be added, and one aspect that was not covered fully in the program is the feeling of not being “a whole.” In other words, our lives are not really integrated. We experience our lives as being very fragmented and, of course, that can lead to a lot of difficulties. We can’t really integrate our professional business life with our family life; and neither of those with our sports life, hobbies, vacations and so on. I mean, everything is very fragmented; it doesn’t fit together as a whole. We can turn to a Buddhist theoretical framework to find a method that I think can help with this.

The Conventional “I”

The main point is the Buddhist explanation of the conventional “me,” the conventional “I” or self. When we speak about the conventional “me,” the conventional “me” is – to use the jargon – an imputation phenomenon on the basis of an individual continuum of aggregate factors. An imputation phenomenon is something that cannot exist or be cognized separately from a basis. Literally, it is something inseparably “tied” to a basis. Now, when we talk about the five aggregates, the general idea here is that each moment of our experience is made up of many parts, and each is changing, one moment to the next. Each moment is different; each moment is not the same as the moment before, but neither is it totally different and unrelated either. So, there is a continuum here, and one moment follows from the previous one. We would say that each moment arises dependently on the previous moment.

It’s like the frames in a movie, but let’s not take that analogy too literally, because obviously each little frame can be cut out and be by itself. So, we’re talking not about the frame, we’re talking about the actual movie that plays based on the film. Of course, even that can be edited, so don’t take that analogy too literally either. In one moment of our experience, although that experience might seem like some sort of solid entity, we can deconstruct it into many component parts. We have our body, which moves all the time and will change as we get older. We also have some sort of consciousness, in the sense of either visual consciousness, or hearing or smelling or tasting, or feeling a physical sensation or mental consciousness. And usually all of them are operating at the same time; it’s just a matter of how much attention we pay to each. When we are with somebody, we’re seeing that person and at the same time hearing what they are saying. But we also can simultaneously feel the temperature of the room, it’s hot or cold; we can feel the sensation of the clothing on our body. If we pay attention, there is the taste in our mouth just from our tongue and the saliva, and the air has a certain odor. And we might be thinking about something else, all at the same time. Each of these types of consciousness has an object that it perceives, and here we can either speak of the external object or we can speak of the perceived object, what we call the appearance, which is like a mental hologram that arises in our perception.

There are different interpretations by different Buddhist philosophers and schools about the fine points of these, so I’m speaking in general here. We also have various emotions, both positive and negative, that accompany every moment. We always feel something on the spectrum from happy to unhappy in each moment. When the word “feeling” is used in Buddhism, it refers precisely to this spectrum of happy or unhappy. And we also have various mental factors that help us to connect to an object. For instance, our different levels of concentration, different levels of interest and so on. Then, there are all the various factors involved with this general word of “understanding.” How do we understand the sounds that we hear in terms of a language, for example? It’s a very complex process, obviously. 

So in short, we have a continuum of moments of experience, and each moment is made up of all these different components, and each of them is changing at a different rate. When we ask where the “me” is in terms of this complex of things that’s changing all the time, well, Buddhism has a lot to say about that.

How We Identify “Me” 

Actually, Buddhism says that our unawareness about this “me” – how I exist and what I am, or who I am – is one of the most fundamental causes of our problems. We don’t know how we exist, or who am I as in “I have to find myself” – which, if you translated that literally into Tibetan, would sound like a meditation process of analysis. Whereas when people go off to India to “find themselves,” that’s something quite different, isn’t it? So, most of us don’t know how we exist or we have a completely incorrect understanding of it.

There are two aspects here, which are that we tend to go to one of two extremes. The first extreme is that we tend to identify “me” with some aspect of our experience. This could be our role, for instance, of being a mother or being a father. Or it could be our nationality, or our gender, “I’m a woman,” “I’m a man”; or “I’m the type of person who has a bad temper, or sickness.” Or we identify the “me” based on the religion we follow. So, we tend to identify with one thing – or at best, maybe a couple of things – but we nearly always identify with something. 

Either we identify with one thing all the time, which may be the dominant identity of who I am. Or then, in different situations, we identify with one thing in particular. This can give a very disintegrated type of feeling of our lives, “In business I’m one thing; at home I’m another thing; at the sports club I’m yet another person, etc.” So we can identify with different things in different aspects of our life. 

This extreme of identifying with one or more aspects of our life or experience can lead to many problems because then we’re not very flexible at all. We could get very defensive about our identity, or we might feel guilty about our identity. We can also be very proud or arrogant if we identify with our great looks, high intelligence, or wonderful accomplishments. So, this is the first extreme.

The other extreme is when we imagine that this “me” exists totally separate from all the various aspects of our existence. When we have that type of belief about ourselves, the type of problem that manifests is a feeling of alienation, “I am alienated from my feelings; I am alienated from my body and alienated from myself.” As if there were a “me” separate from all of this that felt alienated.

What I’m explaining here is a very important principle that I can’t emphasize enough, as it is essential for the study of Buddhism. When we learn about all these philosophical positions, things that are being refuted and all of that, don’t just take it as interesting information. Instead, think, “What would it be like if I thought like that and what problems would it bring me?” Then you see the reason why Buddha pointed out the mistakes of these views. Otherwise, it just becomes an intellectual exercise. As my own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, pointed out, it is extremely arrogant to think that only stupid people would think like this philosophical system that’s being refuted in the Buddhist texts.

Doctrinally Based Disturbing Emotions

There’s a point that comes up in the teachings that I’d like to talk about because it’s not usually discussed. When we talk about disturbing emotions, there are those that are doctrinally based and those that arise automatically. The doctrinally based disturbing emotions are those that arise based on having learned a non-Buddhist Indian doctrinal system. Based on that system – having learned it and accepted it – the main consequence is that we think of ourselves in the way in which that system describes and develop disturbing emotions based on that. In addition, we also get attached to the system itself, “This is my system.” We get angry with anybody else who doesn’t agree, “You have the wrong view!” and then, “You are heretics,” or whatever. We get arrogant about it, “I’m so wonderful because I hold this system.” We don’t want to consider anything else. We become jealous of members of another belief group who make more money or stuff like that; we feel we have to compete with them to get members. So there’s a whole cluster of disturbing emotions that arise based on having learned and accepted a certain system and identified with it.

When we first understand voidness non-conceptually and become convinced that the teachings about reality that other systems offer are incorrect, then, of course, we no longer accept that doctrinal system. Because of that, we get rid of being attached to it and no longer get defensive and angry if someone disagrees with it, and so on. That’s how we first get rid of these doctrinally based disturbing emotions. When we develop a seeing pathway mind – it’s usually called a path of seeing – and “see” and understand and the four noble truths non-conceptually, then it rids the mind forever of the doctrinally based disturbing emotions.

Then the question arises naturally, “I have never studied any of these non-Buddhist Indian systems, so when I achieve a seeing pathway mind, what do I get rid of?” This is a very important and relevant question, particularly for the majority of us Westerners who certainly have never studied these Indian systems. The “Dharma Lite” version would be, “Well, when they say doctrinally based, it could be any propaganda system.” So, it could be based on the learning, teachings, or propaganda – propaganda is a heavy word – of any non-Buddhist system, whether we are talking about a Western religion or about communist philosophy, or whatever. That would be the “Dharma Lite” version. The “Real Thing” Dharma version is, “We’re talking about only specifically the non-Buddhist Indian systems.”

From the Prasangika point of view according to Gelugpa, “doctrinally based” includes all the lower Buddhist tenet systems as well. If we speak about the desire that arises based on the propaganda of television commercials, we would have to say that’s something seemingly doctrinally based, but it’s not the actual “doctrinally based.” So, Tsongkhapa addresses this question, because certainly most Tibetans did not study these Indian systems either. Like most of us Westerners, they had never even heard of them. Tsongkhapa answers that everybody has doctrinally based disturbing emotions, whether or not they’ve studied that system in this lifetime. Because just as the teachings of the Buddha have no beginning, and all our mental continuums have no beginning, likewise all these other Indian systems have no beginning. By that logic, everybody has studied these systems at one time or another in the past and has the imprints or tendencies based on them from previous lives, even if they haven’t studied any of them in this lifetime. That’s what we get rid of with a seeing pathway mind. It’s a very interesting answer.

Refuting Doctrinally Based Systems

Now you might be reading this and trying to figure out, “Well, what in the world is the significance of this to me? If there’s a tendency there that’s so unconscious and I get rid of that, what difference does it make? I don’t even know that I have that tendency.” These tendencies are certainly not manifesting in this lifetime. I don’t think many of us go around saying, “Samkhya philosophy is the best and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong,” because most of us have never even heard of Samkhya! How much less so is it something we could identify with, as though it were our football team.

What it must refer to is a way of thinking shaped by this school, with which we would have certain tendencies in this lifetime, and that would also produce problems. So, when I teach about the refutation that Buddhism has of these various Indian systems, we spend a great deal of time trying to identify in ourselves the tendencies that we have to think like that. In other words, what would it actually mean, in real life terms, to think like that, to feel like that? What emotion would that bring up? What emotional problem would that bring up, which would prompt Buddha to want to identify the belief as a source of suffering? If we really take refuge, then the imperative is to analyze like that. Otherwise, why did Buddha bring it up?

The refutation that we have of the “self,” as defined by one of the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems, being either one with the aggregates or different from the aggregates – what in the world would that mean? What it would mean is if we identify with anything in our lives, imagining ourselves to exist in the way one of these systems claim, then we become very, very inflexible. Or, if we’re identifying with several different aspects of our lives, then we can’t integrate our lives at all. On the other hand, if we imagine that “me” is totally different from everything in my life, then we experience alienation. So, these are the problems.

Identifying the Source of Our Emotional Problems

The problem is not merely that the conceptual beliefs we hold are illogical and Buddha said, “Everybody has to be logical,” and so the source of our problems is that we are illogical. Buddha focused on the emotional problems that arise from our faulty ways of thinking. Unless we’re able to connect the illogical way of thinking to what types of emotional problems that generates, we will not be able to relate the teachings to ourselves, to our lives, nor see how to use them to help us to overcome our psychological and emotional problems.

When we approach the Buddhist teachings, which are intended to help us overcome our problems, the first step is to identify what emotional problems we are facing, and then try to see what misconceptions lie behind them. It’s these misconceptions that then need to be refuted. 

At this stage in the development of Western Buddhism, we try to identify the emotional problems that come from our doctrinally based misconceptions. If we can understand this – even if we don’t understand the doctrinal basis – it’s a good starting point, as Buddha taught methods for overcoming the misconceptions. So, it gives us a method for being able to tackle the way that we experience our problems. Therefore, the Dharma teachings are referred to as a “wish-granting cow,” because we can milk from them a tremendous amount of nutritious milk. The point is that when we hear and read all these teachings, we have to milk from them as much as we can; and we in the West haven’t milked enough.

Identifying the “Self”

Let’s get back to our topic here, which is that the “self” is neither one with any of our different aspects, nor is it different from it. What Buddhism says is that the “self” or the “me” is an imputation phenomenon existing and validly knowable on the basis of the continuum of these ever-changing aggregates. The aggregates are changing every moment, and they are all changing at different rates. That is the basis of the imputation phenomenon, “me.” But how do you establish that there is such a validly knowable thing as a “me?” The only way that you can establish that there is a “me” is in terms of mental labeling. There’s the conventional word, mental label and concept “me.” What is the actual “me?” The only thing we can say for sure is the  “me” is what the word or label “me” refers to, in terms of this basis, the aggregates. The concept and word “me” refer to “me.” It’s not that “me” is created by the mental label, and if you didn’t think or say “me” you wouldn’t exist; that’s absurd. But “me” is merely what the word or concept “me” refers to on the basis of all the changing moments that make up each moment of experience. There is nothing on the side of this basis that is standing there and saying, “Call ‘me’ ‘me.’” There’s nothing like that; there’s nothing on the side of the basis that is holding up or supporting our focus when we are focusing on “me.”

The example that I often use to illustrate this is that of a movie. So, the classic movie Gone with the Wind. The movie plays, and we have one scene after another scene after another scene. Every moment of it is changing. Right? That’s the continuum and the basis for labeling the movie. Right? And all the characters are changing and doing different things at different rates. And it’s a pretty good story, so there’s continuity. So, how do we establish that there is such a thing as the movie? Gone with the Wind? Gone with the Wind, well, that’s just a title,  a name. But the movie Gone with the Wind is not just its title. So, what is Gone with the Wind, what’s the movie? It’s what the title refers to on the basis of this continuum of every moment, of every scene. Gone with the Wind is not just one scene or one character in one moment of a scene; nor is Gone with the Wind something completely different from the continuum of all of these scenes. Also, the entire movie doesn’t play all in one moment. And there’s nothing on the side of each moment of the scene that has a little label there, or a little stamp: Gone with the Wind, Gone with the Wind, Gone with the Wind, like that, that allows us to identify that this is Gone With the Wind. So, what’s Gone with the Wind? It’s what the title refers to on the basis of this continuum.

The same thing is true in terms of “me.” Who am I? What is the “me?” What establishes a “me?” It’s merely what the word “me” refers to on the basis of this whole continuum. The problem is that we identify the “me” with some aspect of the continuum, some aspects of our experience. Or we don’t identify “me” at all with any of it. But “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the entire continuum of aggregates. That is a fact. The problem concerns how much of that basis we mentally label with the concept and word “me” and then identify with as being the true “me” or not “me” at all. 

So, we really need to examine how much of the basis do we conceptually label the “me” on? We often tend to conceptually label the “me” on just some aspects, but not all aspects, and so we leave out certain parts of our life: “That wasn’t me; I wasn’t myself.” We deny some aspects of ourselves. We leave out part of the basis for labeling. Here, we have a combination of both identifying as being one with certain aspects of our experience and being totally different from other aspects.

“Me” Is an Imputation Phenomenon on All Aspects of Our Life

This entire system of exercises dealing with this particular problem – and there are several exercises that deal with this in Developing Balanced Sensitivity – all have to do with becoming aware of the full basis for imputation of “me.” With that expanded awareness, we then learn to conceptually label “me” on that entire basis, not just identifying with some aspects and ignoring others. So we look, for instance, in terms of not identifying just with the present moment, but that we need to see that, as a person, “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the whole continuum of our life and is what the label “me” refers to on that entire basis, not just on a small part of it. 

It’s like when we see an old person in a nursing home and they are decrepit and suffer from dementia, we need to remember that they are not just that appearance we see in front of our eyes. That appearance is deceptive. That person had a whole life, a childhood, an adulthood, probably a family, a career and so on. And the person is what the label of their name refers to on the basis of that whole continuum, not just on what we see with our eyes now. The problem is having too small a basis for labeling, which causes us to become uncomfortable when we’re with this old person, not to really have respect for them.

We can apply this analysis to ourselves as well, as it’s valid for both others and for ourselves. We’re not just what we see in the mirror. That’s not the totality of the basis for the label “me.” Nor are we just that little aspect of “me,” that one-time moment that we identify in our imaginations, like when we’ve said something really embarrassing and think everyone still remembers it. Obviously, that causes a lot of problems.

Similarly, we need to expand the basis of labeling “me” in terms of parts: the body, atoms and so on. That old person is not just the wrinkly outer layer, but is all these other things. The same thing with “me.” Likewise, we can expand in terms of all the different causes for why we act the way we do or why somebody else is acting the way they are. It’s not just, “Oh, you are acting terribly,” but rather, “Maybe they are not feeling well, and their friend yelled at them before and they missed the bus and they were caught in traffic” and so on. All of that is the basis for labeling and for understanding the situation with the other person or with me, why I feel the way that I feel. I’m not saying that the traffic is the basis for labeling “me,” but the effect of the traffic on my mood, that’s part of the basis for labeling “me.” We need to understand the causal factors that influence what we’re experiencing now.

Then, to further deconstruct and expand our understanding of the basis for labeling, we have to take into consideration the effect on that other person, or the effect on myself, of all the people that I’ve known in my life: the way that my parents raised me, my schoolteachers, friends, all these sort of things. And that goes back to previous generations, how my grandparents raised my parents and influenced them so that they influenced me. And then, if we have an understanding and appreciation of previous lives, then how previous lives’ experiences have influenced the various tendencies and interests and so on that I’ve had from early childhood that I can’t explain from my family or environment.

What we are doing here, in our analysis, is combining several aspects of the Buddhist teachings. One is a very expansive understanding of dependent arising: that each moment of our experience arises dependently on a countless number of factors – all of what we have been talking about in the last few minutes – and the analysis of mental labeling. And the other aspect is that the “me” is an imputation phenomenon on each moment of experience, and each moment of experience in the continuum of my entire life has dependently arisen based on millions and millions of other factors. So, we’re expanding our whole understanding in a process of deconstruction of the solidity of anything that we identify ourselves or anybody else with.


What we are aiming at is to overcome the problems of being insensitive to certain aspects of our life and experience, and oversensitive about others. This is the framework out of which integrating one’s life – this new exercise that I’ve developed – comes out of. This is a further step based on this type of balanced sensitivity process. If every moment of our experience, in every aspect of our personality and experience, has been influenced by so many different factors, how do I integrate all of that, so that I have a sense of a “me” that is an imputation phenomenon on all of it in a balanced way? Not leaving anything out, not adding anything, not feeling alienated or whatever. This is the next step in that process.

In the next session, we will work with this process. In doing so, we will spend time actually doing the exercise. There is not that much more to explain about it. And it’s my feeling that this exercise will work even if you haven’t done the sensitivity training, that it can work on its own. But in order to give you some confidence so you don’t think, “Oh, this is just some crazy thing that he thought up,” I wanted to give you the Buddhist background from which it arose. And in explaining the actual method, I will also explain the Buddhist teaching that each of the steps comes from.

And let’s be very clear about it. What we are going to be working with and practicing is “Dharma Lite.” This is not “The Real Thing Dharma.” “Real Thing Dharma” is talking about improving future lives, overcoming rebirth in all future lives, and helping everybody to overcome rebirth. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about “Dharma Lite,” which is how can we adopt the Dharma teachings to help us in this lifetime. 

“Dharma Lite” can be practiced in two ways. One would be just as “Dharma Lite,” thinking in terms of this life and that’s it. Or, we can practice it as a Buddhist method that is a preliminary step on the way to the other steps that I just mentioned, of improving future lives and benefiting all beings, and so on. Following “Dharma Lite” is perfectly okay, as long as we are clear about what we’re doing.