How to Find Your Non-Self

Finding fullness in emptiness.

Posted Feb 23, 2020

Within Western psychology, until recently the prevailing view has been that we each have a self which exists as something that is autonomous, individual and largely separate from everything else that exists. However, this viewpoint is somewhat one-sided, reflecting the orientation toward individuality within American and some Western European cultures.

This differs from cultural constructions of self within certain Asian, Latin American, Southern European and African countries, which emphasize the importance of interdependence. Indeed, in the West, it seems that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" more so than in parts of Asia, where "the nail that stands out gets pounded down."

Given these cultural differences, it’s unsurprising that as part of the growing assimilation of Eastern psychological and philosophical principles into Western culture, there has been a steady increase in research seeking to test the accuracy of assumptions concerning how the self truly exists. A key outcome from such research appears to be that the more we try to locate, define and pin-down precisely what constitutes the self, the more elusive becomes the idea of a self that exists inherently or autonomously.

In order to find appropriate words to describe this phenomenon, it has been necessary to expand the glossary of psychological terms, whether by coining new words altogether or borrowing some from ancient Eastern literature sources. Examples of such words and concepts that are steadily being integrated into the contemporary academic literature include boundary-lessness, inter-being, non-dual self, emptiness (of self), and non-self. These terms all essentially point toward the same idea, which is that while we perceive that we and other phenomena possess a definitive self, this so-called self doesn’t exist in as concrete a manner as most people assume.

A good way to understand this idea is to think about how things exist in a dream. In the dream reality that we encounter when asleep, the dreamer typically experiences that things are real and exist as separate entities. But as soon as we wake up, we are reminded that apart from an illusionary image appearing within the landscape of our mind, such entities never truly existed in the inherent sense of the word. While phenomena appear and we clearly perceive them in a dream, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see and accept that such phenomena are empty of a substantive self.

According to some emerging scientific perspectives, the same principle basically applies to the waking reality where we live out our lives and share experiences together. During waking reality, our habitual response is to perceive that we – as well as other people and phenomena – have a separate self and exist in absolute terms. Yet when we subject this mode of perceiving to robust scientific and logical scrutiny, it appears to be fundamentally flawed.

This is because any given phenomenon only manifests due to contributions made by other phenomena. Take the human body as an example, which relies for its existence on (among numerous other things) trees and plants that provide oxygen, oceans and clouds that provide water, sun that provides warmth, and organic matter that provides sustenance. In other words, one thing implies the existence of everything, yet for this very reason, no one thing intrinsically exists anywhere.

As I discussed in my previous article on ontological addiction (also known as self-addiction), we and all other phenomena exist only in a relative manner and apart from a categorical label, something that constitutes the intrinsic self of a given object can never be located in absolute terms. However, while we are of the nature of non-self or emptiness, rather than meaning nothingness, emptiness in this context also implies fullness, based on the above-mentioned idea that one thing implies the existence of all things.

These new psychological insights into ancient contemplative principles appear to be supported by emerging research from other fields of scientific inquiry, such as quantum physics. For example, the principle of quantum entanglement implies that individual particles exist as an inseparable whole, whereby even particles separated by large distances demonstrate linked quantum behavior. The observer is also included as part of this inseparable system, because the behavior of such linked particles changes at the point when they are subjected to measurement.

Experiments within quantum physics have also demonstrated that it’s possible to make certain materials vibrate in two different energy states at the same time. This is the kinetic equivalent of matter being in two different places simultaneously, suggesting that at the subatomic level, matter doesn’t occupy a fixed position and could conceivably exist nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The Many Worlds Interpretation within quantum physics also asserts that there are a vast number of realities or present moments happening simultaneously, contributing support to the idea that there is much more to reality than meets the eye.

Returning to the field of psychology, recent research has shown that through fostering an awareness of non-self or emptiness, individuals report experiencing a greater sense of fullness, along with related improvements in psychological health (e.g., stress and anxiety), physical health (e.g., pain symptoms) and spiritual health. Such an awareness of non-self is typically cultivated by using specific meditation techniques aimed at investigating the true nature of self. These techniques begin by using concentrative meditation until a suitable degree of meditative calm and focus is acquired. The next stage involves using more penetrative meditative techniques to try to search for the existence of something that constitutes a Me, Mine or I. Each time this meditative search process is correctly applied, it inevitably leads the individual to the same conclusion, which is that a self that inherently exists is nowhere to be found.

References

Ducasse, D., Van Gordon, W., Brand-Arpon, V., Courtet, P., & Olié, E. (2019). Borderline personality disorder: From understanding ontological addiction to psychotherapeutic revolution. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, Advance Online Publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00406-019-01029-6.

Ducasse, D., & Van Gordon, W., Courtet, P., & Ollie, E. (2019). Self-injury and self-concept. Journal of Affective Disorders, 258, 115-116.

Hawking, S. (2006). The theory of everything: The origin and fate of the universe. San Francisco, CA: Phoenix Books.

Hawking, S., & Mlodinow, L. (2010). The grand design. London, England: Bantam Books.

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253.

O’Connell, A. D., Hofheinz, M., Ansmann, M., Bialczak, R. C., Lenander, M., Lucero, E., . . . Cleland, A. N. (2010). Quantum ground state and single-phonon control of a mechanical resonator. Nature, 464, 697–703. 

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Ontological addiction: Classification, etiology, and treatment. Mindfulness, 7, 660-671.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Diouri, S., Garcia-Campayo, J., Kotera, Y., & Griffiths, M. D. (2018). Ontological addiction theory: Attachment to me, mine, and I. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7, 892-896.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Dunn, T., Sapthiang, S., Kotera, Y., Garcia-Campayo, J., & Sheffield, D. (2019). Exploring emptiness and its effects on non-attachment, mystical experiences, and psycho-spiritual wellbeing: A quantitative and qualitative study of advanced meditators. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 15, 261-272.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2017). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9, 309-318.