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Meditation Means You Don’t Like Your Self?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 9, 2011

Do you like your self? Does being a person in the world, living, loving, laughing make you happy? Why would you want to lose this self, then?

At present I’m working on a paper which is a Foucauldian reading of Buddhist meditation. As part of it I’m trying to understand the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, translated “no-self”. Here are some quotes:

Consider the way meditation is recommended by some doctors: their view is usually that meditation is simply a therapy for reducing stress. It is true that the ability to manage stress is a likely fringe benefit of meditation. From a Buddhist perspective, though, the point of meditation is to stimulate a process of change and development towards the ultimate goal of Enlightenment.” (Kamalashila, 1992: 4)

Epstein (2007: 42) speaks of “Misappropriation of Freudian terminology by scholars and practitioners of these Eastern traditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the confused concepts “ego” and “egolessness” … “This goal [of egolessness] is understood from a Western psychological perspective, rather than with the more subtle, originally intended Eastern meaning”. He quotes the current Dalai Lama who says, “this seemingly solid, concrete, independent, self-instituting I under its own power that appears actually does not exist at all” (Epstein, 2007: 52)


From a look at the canonical and commentarial works of Theravada, “[Cessation] is, in brief, a condition in which no mental events of any kind occur, a condition distinguishable from death only by a certain residual warmth and vitality in the unconscious practitioner’s body.” (Griffiths, 1986: 13)

Khema has a chapter titled “Removing the illusion of self” (Khema, 1997: 129). Buddha says to Poṭṭhapāda that there are three kinds of “acquired” (or assumed) self. The body, the “mind-made”, and the “formless acquired self”. “The Buddha continues: ‘What is the formless acquired self? It is without form, and made up of perception.’ … [Khema interprets this as] There is neither physical nor mental form. In the infinities of space and consciousness there is nothing that has any kind of boundary, but there is perception. If that were not so, we would not know we had experienced infinite space and consciousness.” Perception can also be considered consciousness. But perception is not “my” self, it just is. (Khema, 1997: 134) But even this is ultimately not the true self, but it’s the best we can do for now at this level of teaching. Although it’s hard, we have to realize we are “thinking in the wrong way” (Khema, 1997: 147,148, 153).

I include one quote from an academic that seems to imply something else. Dr V.V.S. Saibaba (2005: 187) writes, “the condition of the enlightened one is incomprehensible”, but “it is nowhere stated that the Buddha after his parinibbana has been annihilated”. He says this is why it can be considered orthodox even in Theravada to pray to or worship the Buddha- because the Buddha is still in existence.

In contrast, consider these words of Aristotle, from the 8th and 9th books of the Nicomachean Ethics.
“Seeing that we are alive is in and of itself sweet, for life is by nature good, and it is sweet to sense that such a good belongs to us. … All people find the fact of their own existence desirable … Existence is desirable because one senses that it is a good thing” Agamben (2009: 32)

As we can see, these viewpoints are very different. According to Aristotle, existence is self-evidently good and desirable. According to the First Noble Truth, existence is dukkha (suffering) and should not be desired. Although it’s subtle, the goal of Buddhist meditation seems to be to lose one’s own existence. So is meditation ultimately an anti-human activity? I’ve grown up with Western points of view, and I like having the experience of my “self”. I think experiencing a life, and valuing people as individual selves is a good thing.

What about you?


Is existence and the self a good thing? What do you think?
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Agamben, Giorgio. (2009). What Is An Apparatus? Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Epstein, Mark. (2007). Psychotherapy Without the Self. A Buddhist Perspective. New Haven:Yale University Press.
Griffiths, Paul. J. (1986). On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.
Kamalashila. (1992). Meditation. The Buddhist Way of Tranquility and Insight. Birmingham: Windhorse publications.
Khema, Ayya. (1997). Who Is My Self? A Guide to Buddhist Meditation. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Saibaba, V.V.S. (2005). Faith and Devotion in Theravāda Buddhism. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Disclaimer: I’m well aware that a non-adherent of a religion usually makes mistakes in emphasis, nuance and understanding when writing about it. My apologies for any factual errors. I feel uncomfortable criticising a spiritual path from the outside so I’m relying on those writing from the inside. I also acknowledge the large number of good, moral buddhists.

Check out one trippy Western response. “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream It is not dying It is not dying…”
The Beatles | Tomorrow Never Knows

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20 Responses to “Meditation Means You Don’t Like Your Self?”

  1. […] Meditation Means You Don’t Like Your Self? […]

  2. I wouldn’t say the self or existence is suffering. That translation of dukkha breeds more misunderstanding than anything else in studying Buddhism,because it structures the system in such a way that it makes it appear pessimistic. If anything, Buddhism is realistic with some tinge of optimism with practice. The self is neither absolutely good nor bad, such as with virtually everything in the world. Too much of a good thing or too much of a bad thing and vice versa with too little of both are things that I think Buddhists and Aristotelian philosophers could nominally agree about.

    The self is impermanent, but by no means do Buddhists say it doesn’t exist at all. We experience things, so that constitutes a self of sorts, it’s merely that, as Tenzin Gyatso said in the quote you referenced, it doesn’t persist in and of itself, its existence is directly related to other factors outside of itself. The self is dependent on other things just as those things are further dependent on other things. And that allows us to have a perspective of mindfulness and understanding of things on a deeper level.

    • Thanks Jared, very helpful comment 🙂

    • Incidentally, “existence is dukkha” is a direct quote from Theravada nun (Khema, 1997: 132) where she says that the first of the four noble truths is “existence is dukkha” in her commentary on the Poṭṭhapāda sutra.

      • Yes but I suppose it all depends on how strongly you are interpreting the notion of suffering. The complexities are lost in translation. For example, I heard one teacher say that dukka was like saying things can sometimes feel off balance, like a squeaky wheel (‘du-‘ = wheel, “-kka” = bad). If an Emo kid said, “existence is suffering” then he’s being melodramatic. If a buddhist says “existence is suffering” they mean something a bit more nuanced and possibly more moderate.

        • Oh really? That is interesting. I don’t think Khema unpacks duhkka any more than that. Having said that, if “suffering” is not a good translation she, as a Westerner (?) trained for dozens of years in Sri Lanka should know that.

          Perhaps “existence is uncomfortable” would be closer to accurate?

          PS: We’ll need to carry this discussion on further down due to the limit of 4 “nests” of comments here.

  3. If we take the term “anti-human” to mean the statement of anti humanists, then there might be some subtle connection, since Buddhists don’t say humans are absolutely self subsistent or possessing of some absolute essence to them. We are relative and dependent on other things, so Buddhism has a sort of anti humanist sentiment. But if by anti human, you mean anything like saying that humans are somehow inferior or generally to be opposed, Buddhism doesn’t teach that. I recall Gautama saying that being born a human is a great gift in itself, because supposedly we have the greatest potential to become enlightened as humans instead of animals or other more “supernatural” beings, for example. Meditation as a whole is not anti human, so Buddhist meditation isn’t necessarily anti human either. It’s anti Western thinking in some sense, perhaps, but not much beyond that, I’d say

    • Thanks Jared. I was also just thinking that maybe Buddhist philosophy (not so sure about practice) is “logically contradictory”. However, that could also be argued to be a “biased Western” point of view. I don’t know where the two points of view could go from there, as we would seem to end up with a cultural relativism that cannot speak to each other meaningfully.

      • Paradoxical maybe, but not logically contradictory, especially since Buddhism doesn’t ever directly affirm that the self as a whole absolutely doesn’t exist, since that would create a logical contradiction. Paradox only means it is logically puzzling at best. Kind of like Daoist thought in the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi

  4. Ethan Nichtern’s Father (Ethan runs the Interdependence Project, a meditation center) said to him that the teachings of Buddhism are what people would all learn themselves if they were paying attention. Given that, Anatta (anatman) is, as Tricia said on your facebook comments, not so much a nihilistic western idea that we impress upon ourselves in order to deny or repress what already exists; its a recognition of what actually is based on reflection and observation. The basic notion of anatta is already there in western philosophy: no matter how closely you observe your own flow of consciousness, no essential ‘thing’ can be found in the root of your being. Everything is a process (our bodies change and our minds too).

    In fact, identity throughout time is one of the really tricky current problems in philosophy because of this fact. To make things harder, philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that our conscious mind is not actually one unified thing but is more like a dynamically changing series of modules and scripts fighting for dominance. For a brief moment one piece wins out over the others and becomes captain until it disappears in the surge of competing processes.

    I listened to a podcast about buddhism and meditation last night and guess what the key lesson was? That people don’t meditate BECAUSE they don’t like themselves. Funny, right? The argument goes that acting and thinking in “skilful” ways ultimately promotes happiness and leads to increasing clarity and “sanity” (i.e. enlightenment). Rather than meditation being something we do if we hate themselves, as your title and intro suggests, the speaker was saying that people often don’t sit down with their thoughts or emotions in an introspective way precisely because they don’t really love their own self. If something makes us uncomfortable and we experience aversion towards digging deep into our intimate thoughts, feelings, and relationships then we are not likely to enjoy insight meditation or loving-kindness meditation.

    • Thanks for this, Iain. Epstein (Psychotherapy Without the Self. A Buddhist Perspective) says something similar:

      “Buddhist meditation systems that stress the development of mindfulness and the cultivation of insight (vipassana) specifically focus on the “experience of I” within the meditation. The “I” which is investigated is that which is felt to be ‘permanent, unitary, and under its own power’ … or which seems to be a ‘substantially existent or self-sufficient entity’. ”

      Modern psychology shows the the “I” experience is “a constantly changing impersonal process”. “As a result, the self-concept that was once experienced as solid, cohesive and real… becomes increasingly differentiated, elusive and ultimately transparent. This is the cardinal concept of “anatta”, the idea of persisting individual nature that is destroyed through meditative insight.”

      Western psychology has “mapped the structure and function of the ego sufficiently that the changes in the “experience of I” enumerated within the Theravadan Buddhist system can, in fact, be explained within the psychoanalytic framework of the the ego.” (Epstein, 2007: 44)

      He then proceeds to explain over the next few pages the scientific view of the ego. Then he says, “The Buddhist texts agree. Mindfulness, the vehicle of conscious reflection, of ‘remembering not forgetting’ … , leads to insight into the differentiated nature of the psyche and propels the development of the synthetic aspect of the ego, preserving on a moment-to-moment basis, the integrity of a more highly complex psyche.

      Thus, mindfulness is not a means of forgetting the ego; it is a method of using the ego to observe its own manifestations.” (Epstein, 2007: 52)

      The lesson I am taking is that I need to be very careful and precise how I characterise anatman. These comments are helping.

      • Wow, that books sounds really good. And this is a good topic for a post, too! hehe

        • Griffiths, Paul. J. (1986). On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court. is one by a philosopher, that I reference above. The psychotherapist is probably a little more accessible.

      • dougrogers said

        Yes, understand Anatman: that there is no eternal, unchanging, self-existing ‘Self”. It is always dependant on everything else. Everything changes. Everything depends on everything else. There is no first cause.

        And I always point out the Wikipedia page on Dukkha does a very satisfactory job of explaining Dukkha.

        I don’t think you can count on Sai Baba, a Hindu guru and fraudster, as some kind of reliable explainer of Buddhism.

        Anatman is where Buddhism and Hindusim split over atman – soul or self, or self-awareness, ever existing and reincarnating, and anatman – self as an illusion of the five skandhas, of which Perception is one.

        • Thanks Doug, I will check out Wikipedia. I knew someone would associate Saibaba (an Indian academic) with the dubious guru you mention. I wonder if Saibaba is a common Hindi name?

          PS: I’m not blocking any replies, this blog is just set to only allow four levels of “nested” comment. Feel free to carry on the discussion by commenting below.

  5. Just posting again so I can subscribe to follow up comments 😀

  6. dougrogers said

    As to the Sai Baba quote, Karen Maezen Millers article in Elephant Journal addresses this.


    • Thanks, the comments by various people are helping me refine what I’m writing. Some of what I will say is now going to change.

      As per above, poor Dr. V.V.S. Saibaba is an academic and not the same person as Sathya Sai Baba (1926 – 2011, who I just found out died in April this year). From the biography in the book:

      “Dr V.V.S Saibaba (1947-), a Professor at Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam …. he has published many research papers in International and National Buddhist journals…”

      Here are some of his scholarly books http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1274434.V_V_S_Saibaba

      I’ve edited the post to hopefully make this clearer.

  7. It depends how you frame the question, no? If Buddhist meditation (or any activity, really) puts you in touch with the realization that the Self is impermanent, and and that Life is impermanent, and yet inspires you to joyfully participate in the world exactly as it is, I wouldn’t call that anti-human. 😀

  8. Alphonse Schachter said

    i always believe that buddhism is sort of the religion of peace compared to other religions. buddhism speaks of peace all the time.`

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