Identity formation and Buddhism: some issues


Well done, you’ve made it this far. I hope you have found something useful to read in this stream of posts. Whether you agree or not with my ramblings is besides the point, I post because I like to write, to get better at it, and to challenge my own assumptions. Doing so leads me to think further, challenge myself more, and then share that with whoever might find it of use. My own ignorance continues to impress me and I think it wonderful that we have access to so much thought and history, and can struggle and strive to understand our shared human lot and at each phase of new understanding, stare into a open abyss with yet another new horizon looming. There are plenty of holes in this writing. When I reread pieces of it I still find typos, errors, badly worded phrases and room for improvement but it is pointless to be a perfectionist in any sort of creative endeavour. You do your best at the time and even though it’s never quite enough, you put it out there and it opens the way to the next challenge.

The final piece, to be posted tomorrow, will be on the ubiquitousness of stories and is in part a reflection inspired by Glenn Wallis’ description of Cassirer in the last podcast episode we undertook, and in part by my ongoing curiosity regarding the seeming need we have as a species to weave elaborate stories about ourselves in the world.

Identity formation and Buddhism: some issues

The opposite of subjectification is the process of desubjectification, and in the case of identity, it implies peeling away the layers of social conditioning and social formation that we have gone through. At the heart of the desubjectification process is the need to explore identity formation and its curious relationship with the emptiness, space, or void found within each layer of conditioned being that is encountered. One of Buddhism’s great offerings has been its insight into this vacuousness of selfhood along with its elaboration of an immense array of practices designed to acquaint practitioners with it. This insight is present across a plethora of academic fields too. Much of western philosophy recognises, since David Hume, that there is no core to our being or unifying consciousness such as a soul. Psychologists recognise that we have no internal controller or commander driving the bus, and neuroscience has not found anything resembling a self in the brain either. But what do we make of such insight? How we respond to it is of utmost importance if it is to have any productive value after all. In most cases, the emergence of these views in western society seems to have had little impact on how we conceive of ourselves and even those more inquisitive folks who read books such as The Self Illusion likely take the new information on board and then continue on with their lives as usual. It’s quite understandable, though. Subjectively, we continue to feel pretty consistent and the people around us seem to confirm this. We generally experience ourselves as progressing through time with a reasonable degree of stability and we wake up each day and there’s that face in the mirror again. The self as illusory may be a Buddhist truism but our relationship with subjectivity is not abandoned so easily.

Although Buddhism presents us with an investigation into the significance of such an insight and its relationship with psychological and emotional suffering, the degree to which Westerners are willing to go far in exploring the illusory nature of self is questionable. It is worth reflecting on whether it is an ideal that is discussed but rarely mined to its deepest recesses and why resistance to such exploration may be so strong. The lack of awareness regarding the collective formation of self discussed in this text may be one of the reasons with an over-focus on personal narratives only leading explorers of subjectivity so far. Furthermore, and as a contrast to Buddhism, Western psychology generally asserts the need for a robust sense of self, for without it, a whole range of psychological disorders can ensue. History teaches us that not even those supposedly enlightened teachers that made their way over to the West could get away from this truism. On a practical, day-to-day level, a reasonably strong sense of self is necessary for navigating the world and building healthy relationships and the boomer generation’s attraction toward psychotherapy appears to be an attempt to address this imbalance in Buddhism; although this has presented a number of new issues such as the favouring and cultivation of an American middle-class ideal of what psychological health might look like. David Chapman has argued that this has led to the formation of consensus Buddhism in the States with one stand out feature being the unwillingness to explore the more controversial forms of Buddhist practice represented in some Tibetan and Japanese traditions with their wealth of alternative perspectives on practice and frameworks for understanding our human condition.

The experience of selfhood does not magically dissipate when experiential insight of the lack of a central core in our conscious experience of being is had. Such insight can be radically liberating but it can be equally disruptive and highly destabilising. The way we contextualise such insights is as telling as the experience itself and many would argue that the very nature of such experience has to be highly disruptive if it is to be productive of a break from business as usual. Either way, identity remains; however intense or dramatic the experience might be. We continue to exist so what is going on? There are ways of addressing this question and one involves setting up a dualism between a conventional self and ultimate self. Other models of selfhood speak of multiple selves, or modes of selfhood which evolve separately and serve different functions, and this view may be the most helpful in moving beyond the dualistic models and the transcendent, monist self offered up by the neo-Advaita traditions, so often integrated by American Buddhist teachers into their teachings.

Minimalist and essentialist views seem inherently problematic and are ‘ultimately’ incapable of responding to the range of ethical demands we face. A fluid sense of self which navigates a number of modalities of being in the world is one that may be most effective in responding to the globalised world many traditional models of self are struggling with. What would this look like in practice? Abandoning notions of essential and ultimate, we might consider various insights into the nature of a healthy sense of self, embracing the best of the personal-development world and western psychology. We might draw on philosophy too and the challenges it has raised in its analysis of the social formation of selfhood, identity and collectives, and use appropriate meditation techniques to break down our relationship with these forms and their role in the construction of our experience of selfhood. We can ask of these forms of self a question: How is it productive? What does it produce in me and my actions? What does it mirror from the wider world? What purpose does it serve? In our experience, there is subjectivity, when understood as just being an experience of being, we find ripe terrain for exploration.

The experience of self may be an illusion but without it we would be unable to function and this presents us with a question about the development or preservation of aspects of selfhood. Our experience of continuity allows us to make sense of the world we inhabit and our own internal narrative and it seems that some form of story must be present. In this regard the cognitive scientist Bruce Hood makes an important point by claiming that the brain itself creates narratives and that without them we would be incapable of making sense of the world we live in. Certainly, perceiving of the self as a narrative, or set of narratives is a rich arena for exploration and provides a useful basis for analysing the relationship between the individual self narrative and the collective social narratives. The questions then change. What stories allow us to wake up to our human condition? Which stories allow us to live well? How can we weave stories about our species that lead to better conditions for the many, instead of the few? How do we erect these stories self-consciously so that they do not become new forms of ideological imprisonment? This brings us into the history of sociology, religion, politics and economics: That is to say, those collective efforts throughout history to create tales, forms of collectivity that would respond to the questions concerning how we successfully co-exist and make sense of our lot.

2 thoughts on “Identity formation and Buddhism: some issues

  1. I have been struggling with an identity crisis and, at the same time, I have begun to reconnect with Buddhism (this time diving deeper into Vadryana). I know that my past self, though well-liked and fairly successful in life , was nothing but a product of society – blonde hair, hard worker, science and politics obsessed, and loved the stage (was into burlesque and karaoke as hobbies). I can see now this was all based on external validation and a desire to prove my worth/existence to world and have no desire to go back to that but, as you note, do not know how to function consistently without those things. My learnings in Buddhism (which are primarily self-directed, as of late anyway) have created a fear in me to take on any new sense of identity but I have been at a standstill in life for nearly a year now as a result. I’ve suffered from the cognitive dissonance created when seeking help from Western psychology. I’ve lost most of my old friends and family because of it but that doesn’t bother me, however I don’t want to be alone forever. I‘ve thought about joining a monastery to better guide my learnings as maybe I am just misinformed but I prefer to keep a distance from the ritualistic nature of those communities. Perhaps my attachment to a critical mind is my problem. You note in your post that many westerners are not willing to let go of their identity fully – I’m there. But I’m wondering what your idea would be on how to move forward keeping all these modalities in mind? You list a few ways to possibly approach it but I found the ultimate point a little hard to tease out.

    P.S. I also love to write, especially as that is how I personally explore complex topics. I’m thinking about starting a blog about integrating Buddhist principles into Conservation Biology (my field of study/work) and I found your introduction inspiring to just start and get better as I go. I will also look up your podcast for more content!


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