In my last post I discussed Dissociative Identity Disorder, but I left the discussion dangling on a more general consideration of the self. I pointed out that Buddhism does not believe in a core self, but does concede that we all have a core sense of self. This paradox appears to vanish once we understand that what Buddhism really asserts is that there is no permanent self, but there is a functional sense of self experience, which may make the idea seem more understandable. Unfortunately, what we might be prepared to accept in theory, we are slow and reluctant to acknowledge in experience, especially as the perception of permanence, particularly regarding the self, appears to be one of our most cherished illusions. One of the chief goals of Buddhist meditation is to see through that illusion and realise the truth of impermanence as an actual reality. Merely saying we are impermanent may be little more than a grudging concession to observable fact, as when we are forced to admit that we have grown old. Yet, oddly, we seldom notice impermanence in action when things improve and our desires become fulfilled. This, we tend to think, is how things should be and should remain unless seemingly better possibilities arise. But how can we grasp the truth of our impermanence as individual subjects without thinking of it as the annihilation of self consciousness?
My oldest friend, a gifted poet who has experienced dissociation, shared an interesting observation which sheds some light on this issue. "I have no doubt that I have been experiencing dissociation since late childhood," he writes. "During these episodes I don't wonder who I am, I wonder where I am. I am conscious of not being in the thing that notices that I am not there." The "thing" to which he refers is his body, which we normally consider an essential part of our being. Yet he didn't blank out or become unconscious. He simply experienced himself as somehow absent from the alien object that his body had become. In other words, as if he were exiled from his own bodily presence, he felt like he was nowhere.
My friend's reported experience would be quite familiar to most therapists. Clients often come in with similar reports and sometimes even re-experience dissociation in the act of recalling it. Their feeling is usually one of dread and nullification, which is often expressed in such words as "I felt like nothing." Yet, even in the depths of their dissociation, the desire for self integration appears to remain. This usually manifests itself as a desperate fantasy of being someone or somewhere else, away from the traumatising experience which led to the dissociation. It can be compared to reaching for a lifeline in a different identity or place in the world and coming away empty handed. But it may be rather misleading to describe the experience in this way. Generally, people don't intentionally dissociate (unless they're trying to induce a trance or taking drugs). Rather, dissociation happens to them, often on the trigger of a vague memory that never develops into a clear recollection, but remains subliminal in everything but its terrifying affects. Healing may occur by making sense of a traumatic memory by converting it into a meaningful, though certainly not a happy episode in someone's self narrative. But we still might wonder where the space of dissociation--the sense of being nowhere-- actually is.
As I mentioned before in my previous post, some people can fall prey to experiences of dissociation in their spiritual practices. Yet, perhaps more commonly, others on a spiritual path experience ego loss without any attendant feeling of anxiety or dread. On the contrary, ego loss for these people is experienced as supreme liberation. Nirvana, after all, means to blow out or extinguish and refers directly to halting the drive for self perpetuation. Moreover, Buddhist meditation can bring about states of consciousness in which the meditator's sense of self dissolves through meditative absorption. From another tradition, Ramakrishna, the great 19th Century Hindu mystic, compared enlightenment to merging with the divine and described the experience with this striking simile: "By constantly keeping one's attention on the Source, the ego is dissolved in that source like a salt doll in the sea." As in dissociation, mystical rapture can induce a feeling of being nowhere. Yet, the difference between dissociation and deep spiritual experience couldn't be greater. But even if the similarities between dissociation and states of egoless mystical rapture may be superficial, the question remains: why does the mystic find an abiding tranquillity in being nowhere, whereas others experience being nowhere as terrifying self negation?
It is all too easy to say that attachment to the self is the root of the issue. In fact, as I have consistently argued throughout this blog, the self is always the issue, both for psychotherapy and spiritual practice. But if the self is conceived as a psuedo-entity that must be constantly fed with the things it craves in order to be sustained, we may begin to understand both what unites and separates dissociation and enlightenment. Dissociation involves craving for self integration that the helpless sufferer cannot find. Enlightenment permits the effective surpassing of the self by abandoning craving altogether. But rather than resort to the empty truism that the best way to deal with dissociation is to become enlightened, we should consider that the crisis of self that brings someone into therapy presents an opportunity for experiencing things in a different, hopefully better way. Fortunately, therapists don't have to be enlightened to assist in this process. But we do have to be aware that the way to understand anyone's experience of self is by understanding his or her attachments. As for being nowhere, the testimony of mystics suggest that in itself may not be the problem. The problem may lie in the feeling of desperately needing to be somewhere else.