The Buddha Was an Introvert

Finding peace of mind in a hectic world

An Introvert’s Guide to Reality

Navigating impermanence, self-induced misery, and the fluid self

In the last post, we explored the Four Noble Truths and became acquainted with the notion of dukkha—that pervasive sense of something being off. In this post, we’ll explore the Three Marks of Existence, which include dukkha. We’ll take a look at how dukkha (often translated as suffering, stress, or anguish) interacts with the other two marks: the Buddha’s important and often-misunderstood notion of not self and the easier to grasp but often hard to appreciate principle of impermanence.

Introverts and extroverts will come from different places with respect to these marks, especially the place where stress binds them and how their model of self holds them back or pushes them forward. (We’ll call dukkha “stress” for the sake of simplicity).

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Stress is largely a constructed process. It is built by memory, internal self-talk, culture, society, and projecting ourselves into the future. To become liberated, we must deconstruct the sources of the stress, namely the Three Marks of Existence. 

Extroverts have a socially-embedded sense of self. “Me” arises out of a wide array of social connections, activities, and stimulation. While most introverts have rich and meaningful relationships, their sense of self is not as socially embedded as the extroverts. Introverts have an introspective-narrative-embedded sense of self.

The flower and face experiment lends some support to this notion. In 2011, a study was published by I. Fishman et al. in the journal, Cognitive Neuroscience.

This study has all the biases that research based on the NEO PI (this stands for the Neuroticism, Extroversion, Openness to Experience Personality Inventory). The NEO PI contains a measure of extroversion. If you rate low on extrovert traits you would be considered an introvert for study purposes. I have argued at length in my just released book, The Everything Guide to the Introvert Edge that introversion is more nuanced than just a lack of extroversion. We need to conceptualize how we think of introversion and be cautious when interpreting results that rely on the NEO.

With these caveats in mind, this study found that people with more and less extroversion processed images differently. Extroverts reacted more quickly to and spent more time looking at images of faces over images like flowers. Introverts gave faces and flowers the same amount of attention. It is not clear whether these are meaningful differences or merely statistically significant differences were found. However, it may point to the fact that extroverts are more socially-embedded than introverts, or embedded in different ways. 

The Three Marks limit us and if we don’t understand them, we can’t possibly be free, not to mention psychologically healthy. 

Let’s look at impermanence. Everything is changing; nothing is fixed. The Buddha made this observation the cornerstone of his teaching. A failure to appreciate impermanence gives rise to a mistaken understanding of self and that gives rise to an increase in stress. The more stressed we are the more we want to find some fixed reference point to find refuge within. This leads to an increase in the denial of impermanence and the cycle escalates and continues.

One of these fixed reference points is self. We treat the self like a thing—a noun. But the Buddha’s phenomenological observations as well as the observations of neuroscientists today can find no such thing. Self is process not matter. The self, whatever it may be, is a verb and not a noun. This shift in syntax can be the difference between being bound by dukkha or liberated from it. 

The self-as-noun gives rise to a self that is vulnerable to contingency. This contingent self-worth is an issue for everyone. It expresses itself in different ways for introverts and extroverts.

Extroverts, for instance, strive for acceptance in their social groups and connections. Introverts, while also connected to people, have a deeper concern: finding significance in a life that goes beyond their social circle. Extroverts are more concerned with the quantity and currencey of their relationships; introverts are more concerned with the quantity and currency of their ideas. These are generalizations, of course.

Whenever a contingency is found, the challenge is to extricate yourself from it. Stress will be the tip off that contingency is present. Stress arises from self-protection—of that self that is not really a thing after all.If the self is seen as a process that is always changing there is no longer anything to protect. A peaceful space opens up.

Here is a brief introvert's guide to reality:

  1. Impermanence is the mark of reality.
  2. Resisting this reality gives rise to stress.
  3. Overlooking that self is also subject to this reality gives rise to more stress.
  4. Use stress as the guide to show you were you are resisting or overlooking the changing nature of self.
  5. Don't be too attached to your ideas. They are not who you are but simply part of the process that you are. When you find yourself identifying with your thoughts, stories, and try to let that be. 
  6. Don't take anything personally, whether it is the contents of your own mind or how the extroverts in your world perceive you.
  7. This too shall pass (the up side of impermanence!). 

Becoming conversant with the Three Marks is a necessary part of any self-liberation process. If we want to change, we must work skillfully with suffering, impermanence, and the self. 

Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Vermont College of Medicine and founder of the Exquisite Mind Psychotherapy and Meditation Studio.

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