Many of the psychological dynamics described in the present chapter revolve around issues of change and loss in relationship. Nowhere is impermanence more evident. As Buddhism teaches, we are of the nature to lose everything and everyone that we hold near and dear. Apart from loss through sickness, old age, and death, life is a succession of conscious and unconscious losses as we grow from childhood to old age: the loss of the mother-child connection, the loss of youth, the loss of friends, the loss of opportunities, etc. As Judith Viorst (1986) proclaimed in the title of her well-known book, Necessary Losses, losses are necessary in order to develop positive identity and sense of self. Loss is the price of living.
The Buddhist view is that we suffer because we conceive of “selfhood” in ways which are fundamentally misguided. Feeling separate reflects a fundamental ontological error: the self is not separate from the universe of which it is a part. A remedy for this problem of reifying the self is prescribed in Buddhism. It calls for insight into anatta and a radical change in self-identity. Indeed, one of the purposes of Buddhist meditation practice is to generate direct experience of anatta so that this transformation can occur.
In contrast, inquiring deeply emphasizes relational experiences within the framework of ordinary self. It is a psychotherapeutic approach which highlights the defensive functions served by misguided views of self and other (“mistaken identities”). Self-identity is held in place by psychological needs. As reflective awareness is brought to bear on the various psychological layers of experience, psychological structures of self gradually become reconfigured.
In both Buddhist mindfulness practice and inquiring deeply, one goal is to develop increasing clarity about the constructed nature of self and the “personality view” that holds it in place.23 Gradually, such experiences penetrate and transform the suffering inherent in psychological selfhood. An important part of this transformation is the reconstructing of psychological narrative, sometimes including the narrative account of self itself.
It seems fair to say that for most of us, most of the time, life is lived within the domain of ordinary self-experience.24 And so, relational problems—human problems—tend to be pervasive and universal, even among dharma practitioners. This leads me to the conclusion that dharma practice is not “complete” with respect to the task of addressing psychological suffering.
People often object to this conclusion, sometimes strongly so. They argue that since the Buddha taught that the end of suffering was possible, if suffering has not ended in a particular instance, that speaks only to lack of mastery of the practice (Kearney, 1999). There may be some truth in this; be that as it may, it is also important to recognize that the “end to suffering” which the Buddha taught is not the same as psychological healing. Causes and conditions of psychological suffering—emotional problems—are embedded in the structure of personality and are therefore persistent, often unconsciously so.
The experience of “awakening” or “liberation”—the end of suffering promised in the Buddha’s four noble truths—entails a radical shift in self-identity on another level entirely: direct experience of the truth of non-self (anatta). Personality does not get enlightened (Sumedho, 2007).