His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks of Buddhism as having three aspects:
- Buddhist psychology and science – how the mind works, as well as cosmology
- Buddhist philosophy – a highly developed system of logic, and a very deep analysis of reality, cause and effect, and how the world works
- Buddhist religion – various ways to develop ourselves within the context of past and future lives, rituals, prayer and so forth.
He also says that the fields of Buddhist science and philosophy have a great deal to offer the world, totally separate from Buddhist religion. In line with this, I developed a practice called “Integrating the Various Aspects of Our Life,” which is a mixture of Buddhist science and philosophy. It can be used in a therapeutic context, either individually or in groups, but it doesn’t and indeed shouldn’t be restricted to those who are having emotional problems; it can be of help to everyone.
The Self in Western Psychology
In psychology, we speak about a healthy ego and an inflated ego, and I think everyone would agree that having a healthy ego is very important for being able to deal with the difficulties and reality of everyday life. A healthy ego means that we have a positive view of ourselves (and therefore usually of others also), a sense of self-confidence, and an ability to deal with whatever might come up in life. An inflated or unhealthy ego means that we think we are more important than anyone else, and that we are always right and should always get our own way. This naturally brings problems and conflicts with others because this sense of self is not based on a realistic view. There exist other unhealthy attitudes about the self that don’t fall into the category of inflated ego, such as having a very negative self-image, which can also cause tremendous problems in dealing with life.
The Self in Buddhism
Buddhism talks about the self a great deal, but normally we don’t use the word “ego” because it’s a term that is defined quite specifically by different philosophical and psychological systems, and they don’t really correlate with the Buddhist idea.
Buddhism talks about the conventional self and the false self. When we have a healthy ego, then Buddhism would say we are thinking of ourselves in terms of the conventional “me.” When we have an inflated ego or low self-esteem, then we are thinking in terms of the false “me.”
In Buddhism, we understand the self through deconstructing each moment of our experience, which is made up of many components:
- Sensory experience – every single moment, we are seeing sights, hearing sounds, feeling physical sensations, and so on.
- Basic mental factors – there is always some degree of attention, concentration, interest, tiredness, and so on.
- Emotions – various emotions accompany each moment. They could either be positive, like love, patience and compassion, or negative, like anger, greed and jealousy.
- Feeling – we always feel some level of happiness or unhappiness. It might not be a very strong feeling, but it’s always there.
- Compulsiveness – many of us experience a certain compulsiveness to act or speak in a certain way, which, while we might feel we consciously control, is often conditioned by our habits, upbringing, environment and so forth.
All of these are changing at different rates, all the time, and are what make up our own subjective experience from moment to moment. This continuum occurs from when we are born, until we die.
How do we experience it? Each of us experiences it in terms of “me.” We impute a “me” in terms of this ever-changing basis, which is interesting to analyze. Is there anything about it that is always the same? You look at a picture of yourself as a baby and say, “That’s me,” and one of you as a teenager, saying, “That’s me,” and one as an adult, “That’s me too.” What are we recognizing in terms of this “me”? There’s nothing really solid about the “me” that we’re identifying in each of the pictures, but nevertheless it’s still me, and not you. So we impute this “me” on a long continuity of moments of experience, an entire life, just as we impute a year on a continuity of 365 days.
If we keep this fluid idea of each moment, “Now I’m doing this. Now I’m doing that. Now I’m experiencing this. Now I’m experiencing that,” then we would call this the conventional “me.” On this basis, we can have a healthy sense of self. The problem comes when we have a fixed idea of a solid “me,” and we identify with one picture in this long series of experiences over a lifetime. It’s as if we freeze the movie of a lifetime and identify with that single frame or a small part of it, with the frame occasionally changing.
In ordinary language, we would say that we’re fixing ourselves into a certain identity of who it is we think we are. It could be, “I’m a young person with a strong, attractive body,” which might not always fit with what we actually experience, bringing dissatisfaction. We look in the mirror or weigh ourselves and think, “That’s not me. I can’t possibly weigh that much.” Alternatively, we could identify with our intelligence, or our money, or our occupation; the list goes on.
A good example of this is that when we’re in a relationship, we often base our identity as being a member of that couple. This is one scene in the movie of our life. But then the other person breaks up with us and we suffer tremendously, because we still hold that identity of being a member of that couple, even if we aren’t. The only way to get over it is to have more and more experiences after the break-up so that we have something new on which to impute our sense of “me”: “Now this is who I am.” Until we have a certain amount of post-relationship experience that we can think of in terms of “me” and “my life,” we’re still going to be stuck on thinking of ourselves in terms of being a member of a couple.
This method of expanding the basis for imputing “me” is helpful in terms of not only ourselves but others as well. We tend to think that if we have a close friend or lover or something, that we’re the only one in their life and they should always be available for us, losing sight of the fact that they have other friends and things happening to them. So when they don’t call us, we don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that they don’t love us, but realize they might have other things going on in their life. We expand our basis of imputing them not just on their relationship with “me” and not just on this one incident of not calling, but have it include everything and everyone in their lives too.
We could even use a Buddhist logical analysis to help us in this situation. What are the pervasions between the two sets of “my friend doesn’t call me” and “my friend doesn’t love me”?
- It could be that my friend calls me and he or she loves me.
- Or my friend calls me and he or she doesn’t love me.
- Or it could be that my friend doesn’t call me and doesn’t love me.
- Or my friend doesn’t call me, but still does love me.
So if my friend didn’t call me, there is the possibility that my friend still loves me. So we examine why wouldn’t my friend call me? It could be for other reasons besides my friend doesn’t love me. It could be they’re busy. It could be their phone doesn’t work. It could be the battery isn’t charged on their cell phone. It could be for a lot of reasons. So it is illogical to conclude that my friend doesn’t love me. Just because my friend doesn’t call me, that doesn’t prove that my friend doesn’t love me. That is an invalid line of reasoning. That’s Buddhist logic.
Developing a Healthy Sense of “Me”
In order to develop a healthy ego or healthy sense of “me,” we need to be able to impute “me” in terms of what’s happening now, and not get stuck in memories of the past or visions of the future. That’s the general principle. The technical terms are a “self” and “a basis for imputation of a self.” The basis is the moments of our experience.
Looking at the whole continuum of our lifetime so far, we have experienced and been influenced by everything that has occurred in it, whether we remember it or not. This means we’ve been influenced by all the various members of our family and friends, and by our schooling, teachers and all the various things we’ve learned. We’ve been influenced by all the jobs that we’ve had. We’ve been influenced by all the media and entertainment that we’ve seen. We’ve been influenced by all the different places we’ve lived and travelled to. Our life – everybody’s life – is filled with a tremendous amount of experiences and influences, which affect what we now feel: how we think, behave, and speak. All of it exerts an influence, maybe not all of it at every moment, but the whole vast expanse of experiences comes together to shape the way that we are.
One of the main sources of problems is when we’re not aware of all these influences that affect the way we think, speak and behave, or when we identify strongly with a particular influence to the exclusion of others. There are also unconscious influences that we don’t acknowledge, and certain influences that we are in active denial of.
The whole process of integrating the various aspects of our life deals with having a more holistic approach, by trying to be aware of all of the influences that we have and integrating them into a holistic picture. That way, as more and more experiences happen in our lives, the basis on which we impute “me” will also continue to grow. Although what’s happening is a single moment at a time, and we are imputing “me” on that moment, nevertheless within that moment the influence from our whole life is going to be present.
I’m aware of some therapies where you try to identify the negative influences that we’ve had, say, from our parents. You make a whole list of the habits and things that come from your mother, and another one for your father, to try and become aware of it. The focus is usually on the negative aspects, but also sometimes includes neutral things, like I like to keep my house neat clean or I like to throw stuff away or not throw stuff away. I like to eat at a certain time. These are neutral things, right?
But these negative and neutral things are only part of the picture. It’s also very important to become aware of all the positive things that we’ve learned or been influenced by from our parents, as well as from the rest of our family and friends, schooling, occupation and so on.
There is a natural tendency for people to want to be loyal: loyal to their family, loyal to their occupation, loyal to their gender, loyal to so many different things. What happens is that unconsciously we are loyal to negative aspects. So if our parents are always telling us we’re no good, then sure enough we act in a terrible way, in a sense to be accepted that yes, we are no good. It’s not helpful to be loyal to negative aspects though, is it? Of course we can’t just deny these influences, but it doesn’t actually do any good to complain about it. While it needs to be acknowledged, “Okay, I’ve had these negative influences,” it doesn’t really help to put the blame on parents or school or society for the negative things we inherit from them.
So we acknowledge and try to understand it. But then what? The point is not to exaggerate and dwell on it. We can see that we’ve had negative influences and understand that it’s not something we ourselves want to perpetuate. Instead, we should try to emphasize the positive aspects that we’ve inherited. If we do this, then we’ll automatically have a very positive attitude, one of gratitude rather than blame. If we think our parents were no good, well, what do no-good parents give birth to? No-good children! Even if it’s unconscious, this is most likely what we’ll think, leading to all sorts of issues of low self-confidence and low self-esteem.
There are of course exceptions – those who can rise above it all. But I’m speaking about what usually happens. If we try to have a positive attitude about the things we’ve inherited from our parents, friends, school and society, it will give us a more positive view of ourselves, which leads to self-confidence. With this, as long as we don’t inflate that “me” into “I’m so wonderful!” but keep it realistic, then that’s a healthy ego, a healthy sense of self.
Integrating the Various Aspects of Our Life
This sense of respect for ourselves is a very important factor. We can learn to develop this, and self-confidence, by integrating the various aspects, particularly the positive ones, into our lives.
Considering the Various Spheres One by One
One simple method is to look, one by one, at the various spheres that have influenced us:
- Each of the individual members of our family, as well as our friends, from childhood up to the present
- Our native country or region we belong to, and the culture and religion (or lack of religion) that we grew up in
- The major fields of study we have learned in our life, and the sports we’ve played
- Our teachers, those from whom we’ve learned something significant in our lives, whether spiritual or non-spiritual
- The various partners we’ve been in relationships with, and children if we have them
- Significant incidents that have happened in our lives, for instance an accident or serious illness or winning the lottery
- The different jobs and places we’ve worked, and our colleagues
- Our economic situation, good and bad.
There is a whole long list of things that have made up our experiences during our lifetime, and have influenced the way we are now and how we deal with things.
We take them one at a time, and first think of the negative influences. It’s important not to deny them. But then we let go, knowing that there is no point in complaining about them because that doesn’t help at all. We then look at the positive things we’ve gained, and seeing that they are important and helpful to us in our lives, we decide to be loyal to them, rather than be unconsciously loyal to the negative aspects.
Quieting the Mind First
Before we do this, it’s good to quiet our minds so that we have a clear head to think about these things. We need to train in simply letting go of compulsive thoughts and feelings, particularly negative ones that come up. When we bring up the negative things that have influenced us, it’s easy to get stuck on them – “That was so terrible. That person was so horrid. They hurt me so much” – and continue on an internal dialogue loop that has a very compelling force to it. It’s necessary to quiet this down so we can focus on the positive things.
There are so many methods that are suggested from Buddhist training, but the easiest is one we can call “letting go.” You have your hand in a fist and then open it up and let go. While making that gesture, you do something similar with your mind, imagining that your mind is like the fist, which is holding on tightly to a compulsive thought, which you then relax and let go of. Of course the disturbing thought might come back immediately, so you may need to repeat it.
Another method is to view your mind – the whole sphere of thoughts and emotions – as a vast ocean. The negative thoughts are like rough waves on the surface, but we are the whole ocean, and the waves don’t disturb the depths. We don’t want to be like a boat on the surface being tossed by the waves, but also not like a submarine in the depths trying to avoid them. Thinking that these thoughts are a small part of the whole ocean can help us to quiet down.
Reaffirming the Wish to Be Happy
The next thought we need to have is, “I want to be happy. Everybody wants to be happy, and nobody wants to be unhappy. I have feelings and emotions, just like everyone else. Just as the way other people treat me affects how I feel, the way I treat myself affects how I feel. So why be self-destructive? It’s not that I’m bad and I need to punish myself. That’s silly. Who suffers from that other than myself? It doesn’t help at all. If I want to be happy, then I need to act in a positive way that will bring about happiness.”
This idea that “everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy” is a basic axiom within the Buddhist teachings. If you think about it, it certainly makes sense. The definition of “happiness” in the Buddhist texts is “a feeling which, when it happens, you don’t want to be parted from it, and you want it to continue.” “Unhappiness” is “a feeling that, when you experience it, you want to be parted from it, and you want it to end.” The whole survival instinct, the instinct to continue, preservation of the species, is based on that. What do you want to continue? You want to continue being happy, and the fact that you want to continue is a demonstration that you want happiness, because happiness is to continue. So this is taken as a basic axiom from biology.
It’s interesting. You might want to punish yourself and make yourself unhappy, so you stick your hand into a fire. But the instinct is to take your hand out and you would have to try really hard to overcome that, which shows that we have this natural tendency to not want unhappiness, and to want happiness.
So, we think of the positive things gained from whoever or whatever is the topic of our particular session, with an attitude of appreciation and gratitude. If it is a person from our lives, it could be in terms of how that person directly treated us, like our parents who raised us, or teachers who taught us something very useful. We don’t just identify the good qualities in the other, but also see whether we have them in ourselves.
Picturing Positive Influence Entering Us in the Form of Yellow Light
As we carry out this process, it can be helpful to have a picture of the person, but we can also just imagine them. We can adopt a Buddhist visualization into this, where we imagine some yellow light emanating from them and coming into us, filling us with inspiration to develop those good qualities even further. Visualization really helps to make it easier to develop a certain state of mind. To go even further with this, you imagine yellow light emanating from you, inspiring others, your children, friends, colleagues, or the whole world if you want to go the whole way, to develop them as well.
Integrating All These Influences
Once we have gone through this process with each of the categories of influence, we integrate them all together holistically. We connect both our mother and father’s influence together. We do this with our brothers and sisters, our friends, our school and so on. What positive things did we gain from learning mathematics in school? We might not use it in our present occupation, but has it helped in my life? We need to get rid of the feeling that anything in our life has been a waste of time. Nothing was a waste of time, because there was always something we could have benefited from it. Even the most difficult things we go through in life can provide lessons for us to grow and give us strength to deal with other difficulties. That’s a positive thing we can get out of anything.
The aim of the training is to have a holistic view of ourselves, with a broad basis for imputing and thinking about “me.” On this basis, although we see that there are negative things that have influenced us, they aren’t the ones we want to emphasize. We make a conscious decision to focus on the positive ones.
Making a List
If it helps to be a little more organized, you can make a list as you go through. For instance,
- These are the positive things I inherited from my mother; these are the ones I learned from my father.
- This was the positive influence on my life of growing up – for those of you who are old enough – in the Soviet Union.
- This is the positive influence on me of the present economic situation.
We specify all these points, sort of like a homework assignment. It’s part of the whole process that in simple language is called “getting to know yourself.” When we really know ourselves, then we’re able to distinguish between what is positive and what is negative, what do I want to emphasize and what do I want to diminish. Thus, we gain a holistic view of ourselves.
Using the Model of a Mandala
Another model we can use to network all these influences and integrate them, which is a little bit more graphic, is a mandala. In a mandala in which there are many figures, we are the whole thing. We’re all of them. It’s not that we are only the central figure; we’re all of it. This follows from the model of our body: our body is not just the digestive system, it’s also the circulatory system, the nervous system, and so on, and we’re all of them.
We start by identifying the positive influences we’ve received from, let’s say, eight spheres in our life – for instance: family, friends, partners, teachers, fields of study, jobs, places we’ve lived, and religion. I’m sure we could think of many more, like the talents we have. We could even focus on just one of these spheres and divide it into eight parts, like family into mother, father, each of our siblings, and if we’re married and have children, all of them as well. You then represent each of these spheres with a mental picture of one person or something that represents that sphere, and arrange them around you in the form of a mandala. You’re in the center. If this is too difficult to imagine, you can picture all of them arranged in front of you. Then you imagine that positive influence, in the form of yellow light as before, comes to you from all of them at once. Feel that you are now the entire cluster, the entire mandala of positive influences – this is “me.” Conclude by thinking, “This is what I want to further; this is what I have to offer to the world.” This method is not the simplest thing in the world, but if you can do it, it’s very, very uplifting.