A friend of mine who often finds himself in rather high powered company through the promotional work he sometimes does told me about a recent experience of his that left him somewhat disquieted. It was during a photo shoot in London for some sort of publicity campaign which brought together an assembly of diverse talents that would assure the final product would meet the highest professional standards in advertising. The mood in the room was friendly and energetic enough, yet my friend found himself unable to share in the cheerful spirit of camaraderie. "It was their talk," he explained. "All they were talking about was the stuff you'd find in the Sun: gossip about celebrities and things like that. But the thing was I couldn't tell if they were actually interested in it or not. I mean who could possibly be interested in rubbish like that? Yet that's all they talked about."
The ubiquity of celebrity culture is one of the vexations of modern life. Even if you try to remain aloof from it, you still know more about celebrities--people who are famous for being famous--than you would ever want to know. Part of this is due to the pervasiveness of various social and mass media, which keep a pipeline of celebrity gossip flowing incessantly into the public arena. But another reason has to do with the question of seriousness that occurred to my friend during the photo shoot that he attended. Were the other people there really interested in the lives of celebrities that they were discussing or were they only joking about matters that they actually felt were beneath them? My friend couldn't tell. So perhaps a third possibility can be suggested. They were not speaking either out of true interest or intentional irony so much as they had adopted tones of playful half interest because it was the easiest, most natural way for them to converse with each other. Besides, everybody regards celebrity gossip as mere fodder for idle conversation, just as everybody knows that the manufactured glamour of celebrity isn't quite real, either. But perhaps this was the cause of my friend's feeling of unease. The empty conversation didn't occur because of any real interest of the participants. They just sort of fell into it because they had no other, real interests to speak of. Their idle chatter filled a void.
A photo shoot is hardly the place for a symposium so perhaps it would be a mistake to be disappointed by the vacuous conversation that took place there. Yet, like my friend I too find that celebrity gossip often becomes the preferred theme of many casual social encounters and thus cancels the possibility of more serious and stimulating conversation. Indeed, I think we both wondered where serious, spontaneous conversations are supposed to take place, even as we conversed freely about psychotherapy, politics and religion in his kitchen in north London. But the seriousness, not to say solemnity of our conversation, violated a certain unspoken protocol of most casual social encounters: don't talk about serious matters as if they seriously matter to you.
Psychotherapy, of course, begins with an entirely different premise as it seeks to discover the hidden, inner truth behind the mask required for social interaction. The idea here is that behind that mask there is a true self that never dares express itself for fear of censure or exclusion. According to this view, psychotherapy creates a safe environment for the client to remove that mask, allowing the true self to emerge. Although it is sometimes useful to think along these lines, we should be careful not to reify any simplistic notion of a self that finds its truth in an act of cathartic self disclosure. It is far better to think of a true self experience based in authentic possibility rather than of a true self. But observing such a fine distinction hardly makes realising the truth of self any less elusive. Still, the idea persists that there is a truth of self that has a pre-existent objective status, even if we ourselves don't know what that truth is. It is just "out there", presumably observed with patient disinterest by psychiatrists and other experts in human behaviour, even though it is supposed to lurk unseen and unknown within us.
Psychotherapy should attempt to see things in a different light. Not because there is no objective factual truth or that such truth is unimportant to psychotherapy, but because a merely objective view of human affairs can never fathom human experience which will always involve factors that will escape prediction and prior understanding. Above all, it will miss the happenstance of the everyday world within which each individual life must make its self discovery and appears predestined only after the fact. This inherently anxious state of affairs is usually easy to ignore by losing oneself in meaningless diversions and the idle supposition that important matters are best left to specialists and experts. But a crisis of self that robs idle pleasures of their diverting power and forces one to distrust second hand certainties taken from experts can bring about a turn towards truth that is anything but consoling. For the truth of self can never be entirely factual, but must rely on a faith that can never be conclusively verified. Such a moment of truth must also be a moment of doubt.
I have no doubt that dealing with a crisis of self is what psychotherapy is all about. And I am also aware that the view I express here owes more to my reading of Heidegger and Sartre than to the Buddha. So how does Buddhism figure into any crisis of self?