Why “No Self” Makes Sense

Angel gets a soul.

With a soul, Angel is good. Without a soul, he is evil.

Descartes is most famous for rooting modern thought in doubt.* He knew on an intuitive level that the default position of thinking is belief. We tend to believe what we experience is true before we have any good reasons for those beliefs. As Michael Shermer argues, much of this happens in the inner workings of the brain and is in service to the brain’s primary function: keeping us alive. For example, if I see bushes rustling around and I fear a bear might jump out kill me so I take shelter, there’s no harm in that even if there’s no bear at all. I might hurt my pride and feel a little foolish, but I can move on with my day unharmed. But that same fear might save my life if there truly is a bear looking for some easy lunch.

Belief by default also applies to who or what we believe we are. I can perceive my body. I can see myself in a reflection, I can see other bodies and objects outside of my own, and my senses tell me that there are things in the world that are outside of whatever it is that is doing the thinking. But what I can’t see is the inner workings of my brain that is doing all of the thinking and interpreting of what comes through my senses. It only feels like there is something inside of my body that is separate from my body. That separate thing I believe I feel is what I call my “self.”

Here’s the kicker. Even though I feel something inside of me that I call a “self” it is nothing more than the neurons firing inside of my brain. There is nothing inside of me that is not part of my biology and there is nothing in science or anything we’ve observed in the history of humankind to support the claim that there is an immaterial substance controlling my thinking and my body. What we call the “self” is actually just a tool to help us survive. It’s a way I describe how all the parts of my body are integrated into one experience. But at base that’s all there is, contrary to the intuitive beliefs we grow up accepting usually without question.

Buddhists solved the self problem by advancing the idea of anatta or anatman or “not self.” It was an idea that flew in the face of the religious constructs around the Buddha at the time which can be found in the varied halls of Hinduism today. Much like the big Abrahamic religions, the religions of Hinduism find the self located in the atman which is the eternal substance that persists after the body dies and is then reincarnated if one is not fortunate enough to have experienced liberation from these earthly moorings. Buddhists got rid of that idea, which incidentally struck a blow to the oppressive caste system, and needed to replace it with a different schema.  After all, there still feels like there is some thing that working inside of this thing I call “me.” What we called “self” is functionally replaced with the series of causes and effects that happen in the body and its interaction with the world which includes the brain. These are called the five aggregates or skandhas. What I call the “self” is really an integrated process of understanding how all the things that work in my body interact with all the things that I experience in the world. But that is all there is. There is no soul commanding my body or brain.

The idea of there not being a soul or permanent self might seem inherently wrong to us because it does not feel right and gives us a lot of anxiety. After all, even in humor and popular culture, we throw around the idea that having no soul makes us inherently evil. The vampires on Buffy the Vampire Slayer find their seat of morality in a soul. Who would you rather be, the champion, soul-bearing Angel who becomes a great hero and gets the girl, or the soulless Angelus who kills not because he needs to suck your blood but just because it’s fun. If Dr. Jekyll has a soul, Mr. Hyde most definitely does not.  It is better to believe in a soul and not be evil, isn’t it? That just feels right. What I’ve learned in the past few years is it what I feel isn’t necessarily true. Another way of saying this is my feelings aren’t facts.

At one point the idea of there being no soul, or that I am not fundamentally some spiritually grounded entity desiring union with God, seemed counter-intuitive and simply wrong at best, or heretical and deserving of hell at worst. Then I decided to suspend my belief that any of those ideas are true. Once I bracketed the emotional attachment to the notion that I am some sort of special “soul” God loves and let the facts direct my intuition, those beliefs began to erode. Here’s the unexpected part – I started to become more satisfied with the world, with who “I” am, and less desiring of being “special.” There is no soul or “self.” This idea seems very reasonable to me now and is where my beliefs are now grounded. All that stuff that I call “me” is just the chemistry and energy in my body working to survive.

So what happens if instead of taking our beliefs as facts we table all those beliefs and then discover the truth based on the actual evidence that we have of our experience? This is a task that requires bravery. There is a risk to suspending beliefs that is rooted in the most basic survival mechanisms of the brain. If you are one who believes in a soul and is reading this, you probably feel the tension already. There is a ton of negative and counter-productive emotional and social baggage you can drop once you suspend that belief. I won’t get into that here, but if you stay tuned I will come back to it.

What if we all started the task of understanding the truth from Descartes’ place of doubt? What if we stopped believing in the things of our experience that don’t really have any foundations in evidence? What if we took a long pause from assuming our beliefs are true because of what feels right? Would you be willing to give up your beliefs in order to get closer to the truth?

*From another angle it can be said that it was actually Augustine who planted this idea long before Descartes.

Rules for a Happy Life: Lean In

fish-355349_960_720Walter Bradford Cannon was a physiologist born in the late 19th century and made waves in the early 20th century when he observed the reactions of animals to high stress situations. What he found is that when animals were presented with stressful environmental stimuli, their autonomic nervous systems combined with adrenaline production to produce a response to escape the danger or to contest it. This is now called the “fight or flight” response in pop psychology.

The central cause of suffering from the Buddhist perspective is attachment. If we become attached to things in our experience too tightly, we are invariably setting ourselves up to experience pain at some point. Attachment presupposes that whatever we experience or possess will stick around forever. But this belief is false. Nothing is permanent and everything that we can experience in this life will eventually go away.

How are these two ideas related? Pema Chödrön teaches about attachment in terms of what is called shenpa. She describes the feeling of attachment as “being hooked.” Think about this like when you get an itch on your skin. It is automatic that you will scratch it with the hope that it will go away. Scratching has the expected result that relief will come soon. If you have ever had a cast and an itch underneath, you may have tried the old trick of bending a wire hanger to get underneath. There are few things that feel quite as pleasurable.

Life has may kinds of itches that we automatically try to scratch in order for the feeling to go away. We often “scratch” by doing what is easy or pleasurable to flee what is unpleasant – have a drink, eat ice cream, watch a movie, go for a walk, go shopping. These are avoidance behaviors that are like “flight” responses. When we get that pit feeling in the gut and the heart races while our thoughts start to get rapid and jumbled, we are hooked. Think about the last time you could not fall asleep because you kept replaying a problem in your life.

I have had a flight response to discomfort for as long as I can remember. A few years ago I read Chödrön’s description of shenpa and I saw myself in it. I was like a fish who had been nibbling on a snack underwater only to have the line snap taught in my mouth and the hook jam under my lip. Rather than relax with it and let go, I would fight the hook doing anything to get away from it. This always made my body and mind feel worse. Like the fish fighting the hook, it would only get deeper and more painful.

Somehow my memory of the misery I created through this response was so short I would do the same thing every time. Psychologist George Kelly (1955), called a disorder “any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation” (Kelly, 1955, p. 831).* My go-to avoidance therapy for many years was drinking. That never worked very well. No matter how many times I avoided the uncomfortable conversation, paying those bills, or dong those tasks the problems still sat there and only got worse as time went on.

The drinking eventually stopped, but the escapism did not. I found that even after I had resolved one set of escape responses, I had replaced them with a different set. Eating sugary snacks, binge-watching TV, playing mindless games on my phone, over-using Facebook and Twitter, etc. became a new set of avoidance behaviors. Whatever I was avoiding that gave me that initial unpleasant sensation of being “hooked” was gone, but I kept doing the same things to escape the feeling.

The solution is to lean-in to that discomfort rather than to run from it. Make the phone call, send the email, have the conversation, make the payment, complete the workout, eat an apple with a big glass of water instead of that big bowl of delicious chocolate ice cream, don’t buy the thing. Leaning-in took a massive amount of energy when I started to do it. But it wasn’t a palpable, physical kind of energy. It was a mental exertion that felt like pulling two electromagnets apart that are desperate to make contact. Once I was aware of that connection about to happen, I would mentally pull them apart by doing the thing I was avoiding. To fix my anxiety, I had to change my behaviors.

This is the basic way that I have been rewiring my brain for the past several months. When I start the self-talk of “I don’t want to do that right now, maybe tomorrow,” I am creating an association of doing whatever it is right then to fight against the years I have conditioned myself to avoid it with something else. I did not want to write this post right now because I did not think I had much to say about it. I did it anyway. I did not want to do pushups today – another small, physical goal I have for myself. I cranked out 86 anyway. And I did both of these things at the moment that my desire to avoid them was at its most intense. Achievement unlocked.

If it’s too big of a deal to complete right at that moment, that’s the time to set a goal, plan a few achievable steps to get there, and then complete that first step immediately. Delaying is another way of avoiding and it just feeds the flight response letting that shenpa hook dig a bit deeper. To change my thinking and be happy, I have to act right now.

Lean-in. Do something. Feel better.

*The statement “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is not from Einstein, nor is it from Benjamin Franklin. It may be actually a modification of Cannon’s quote. A picture of Einstein does not validate that he actually said it!

Source Cited

Kelly, G.A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: Norton (republished by Routledge, 1991).

Part one of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Church: You Make it Impossible to Love You

The film 28 Days begins as uncomfortably as any film could. Sandra Bullock plays Gwen Cummings who after a night of drinking and sex arrives drunk and late to her sister Lily’s wedding. She proceeds to make a complete fool out of herself and destroys anyone’s chance at having a good day.

The line that always gets me is uttered early on by Lily. She looks Gwen in the eyes and says, “Gwen, you make it impossible to love you.”

It is impossible to love an addict. Addicts are the most selfish people on the face of the earth. Addicts have a special brand of narcissism that is deadly and out of control. It is so out of control that the addict is often the last to realize he or she has a problem and in many cases will refuse to acknowledge a problem all the way to the death-bed. I have known people who literally drank themselves to death still convinced that they did not have a problem. As the Big Book of AA says alcohol is “Cunning, baffling, powerful.”

Unfortunately addiction and all of its vicious symptoms of self-centeredness and blatant self-destructive behaviors are not limited to the addict alone. These are behaviors that all of humanity engages in to some degree. The Buddha was aware of this problem. In his teaching everything is suffering and everything is suffering because we can’t let go of anything even if every power of reason tells us that holding on will hurt us and others in the process. If our beliefs about God are challenged, if our property is in danger of getting wiped out or stolen, if we might lose a friend or look bad in front of someone else, or if we get caught with our hand in the cookie jar, our first reaction is to tighten our grip. The threat of losing something is far more powerful than the lure of getting it.

The Christian saints and mystics are very intimate with their discussion of the passions and how our desires latch us on to everything that is not God. It is this addictive behavior that only fuels our ignorance to the good things of the world. Following our passions not only pulls us from God, but pulls us from the people were are supposed to be. The more we refuse to let go of what makes us feel safe and what makes our identity feel solid the more we hurt ourselves and others. The one source of identity that we are to seek is the mystical union with God as God is, not as we insist God to be.

Detaching from the world as we understand it and checking ourselves against the often brutal fact that we are not the center of anyone’s universe undercuts everything we grow up believing about self-esteem and the rewards of the endless popularity contests of a sick Western society. The religious ascetics, mystics, and monks dumped all of this by traveling to caves and deserts to find God and liberation. Their discovery is that God is inside of us. The problem is that the noise and psychological pollution of the world are so strong we are clueless to that simple fact.

Not all of us will go to caves and deserts. So what do we need to do?

The foundation for our spiritual malady is repentance. Repentance comes with honesty. Honesty to any addict can come only when others hold a mirror up to us and tell us more about the truth of who we are. Those who tell us only what we want to hear are called enablers. Those who tell us what we need to hear in order to recover from our world sickness are friends. But if the truth doesn’t sting a little, it’s probably not true.

The church today is loaded with enablers. It is loaded with people so blinded in their own biases and opinions both of their selves and others, that admitting personal responsibility for wrong doing is nearly impossible. From all of the crap surrounding both Tony Jones and Mark Driscoll to all of their apologists; to the crazed behaviors of Bob Jones’ casual way of dismissing its own history of mishandling sexual abuse; or the untold millions of dollars pilfered off the desperate, sick, lonely, and elderly by the likes of Benny Hinn and Robert Tilton; to the bizarre meanderings of Pat Robertson or the sickening cover-ups of Catholic bishops to avoid condemnation for complicity in sexual abuse; the only apology we hear is the kind that is a self-defense rather than a contrite begging of forgiveness.

Worse, even when it seems like an act of forgiveness, it is turned with an amendment of self-defense. Such a dodge nullifies any attempt at repentance. Anything after “but” is indeed bullshit.

Admitting when we are wrong is healthy but somehow we too often have the false idea in our heads that it makes us weak and weakness is a bad thing. The truth is that the admission of wrongdoing and the act of repentance is an act of admitting we are already weak. Humans are fragile creatures. The lie is the persistent bull-headed belief that we must be strong individuals in the face of everything that comes against us. That’s exactly what hurts us.

Even this can go too far into the territory of self-pity. This is also horribly exhausting. This is where we are so caught up in feeling lousy about ourselves that we still refuse to do anything to change. We beg people to look at how pathetic we are rather than doing something different to be less pathetic. This is no longer repentance, it is despondence. Progressives get this way because the expectation of moral purity might be too high. I am not talking about purity, I am talking about honesty.

When a group of people vacillate between bull-headed denial and self-defense on the one hand, and despondence and self-pity on the other, I don’t know about you, but I am done with that group. The only reason I have spent time as a religious person and with religious people in the past is because there is a nourishment that take place where somehow I feel that everything will be ok even when the evidence is to the contrary. Faith and hope merge in a beautiful dance. That’s when religion is at its best.

But the church is not at it’s best.

It’s hard to fill a bucket if people are pricking holes in it. The church is emptying out faster than anyone can fill it and right now it is becoming more and more impossible to love. It is a zero-sum arena of people fighting for self-interest and in that environment, it is not sustainable.

Do your part. Repent of something. Make amends with someone you have wronged and expect nothing in return. Lord knows we have enough people out there who simply refuse to do so.