Self Psychology meets Buddhism: Between Emptiness, Equanimity and the Selfobject funnction

Self Psychology meets Buddhism:
Between Emptiness, Equanimity and the Selfobject funnction [1]

Gabriela Mann

The main characteristic of our being self psychologists is our profound conviction that the presence of one person constitutes the selfhood of another. This profound contextual perspective was first introduced by Kohut and later adopted as a basic assumption in the community of self psychology.  We believe that to obtain understanding is the first step in a good self-psychology therapy and that this can be attained via empathy and by fulfilling a selfobject function for our patients.
Our connectedness with our patients is not just an ordinary verbal interaction.  In fact it is our transformative presence which evokes and brings out in the patient what is disavowed, disguised or unrealized. We assume an infinite openness to changeability and provide non-intrusive support. We do not stick to one interpretation nor are we the analysts who “knows it all”.  We are endlessly attuned to and immersed in the micro changes of the selfobject matrix which constitutes  the patient’s state of mind. Such presence cultivates possible transformations of the mind.
Kohut coined the concept of Selfobject function. Kohut also concerned himself with the transformations of narcissism. In his seminal paper “Forms and Transformations of Narcissism” (1966), he delineated several possible transformations of individual narcissism into supra-individual forms of narcissism and described their immeasurable transcendental value. The transformations are expressed in empathy, accepting transience, wisdom, humor and creativity– yet; Kohut never specified how we can bring about these transformations (Lachmann, 2008).
We assume that it is relatively easy to demonstrate the nature of creativity and humor. They are visible in the hour we spend with the patient and appear in psychoanalytic literature from its earliest days. Empathy also appears in psychoanalytic narrative accounts, but it is not usually depicted in the unique manner in which Kohut elaborated it, namely that observer and the observed are inseparable.  It is more complicated to demonstrate the ideas of wisdom and the acceptance of transience. It may be that these transformations are too metaphysical or too complex to be described.
Since we wish to comprehend transformations more clearly, we ask whether we can enrich ourselves through knowledge of Buddhist concepts and practice methods. The Buddhist tradition offers practices that enhance wisdom and promote the acceptance of impermanence. Such practices consist of close observation of the mind, its emotional logic, its false representations as well as its lucid moments. Buddhist philosophy was intended to deal with and cure human suffering.
One Buddhist idea that comes to mind instantly when thinking about transformations is Bodhisattwa.  Most people live by their desires and ambitions to attempt to gain material advantage.  In distinction, according to Buddhist tradition, there is the Bodhisattva, an ordinary person who attained Nirvana because of being enlightened and released from suffering, who takes up a different course in his or her life. The Bodhisattwa moves in the direction of Buddha and adopts the vow to help all sentient living beings and to protect the helpless and the needy. The Bodhisattwa is committed to fulfill this ethical promise.
This humane position expresses profound faith in human nature. In Buddhist tradition it is believed that any one may be a bodhisattva since all people have a Buddha nature within themselves.  For this reason we can devote ourselves to fulfilling the Bodhisattwa function.  An important idea is that it is not enough just to be familiar with the definition of Bodhisattva. What is much more important is to accept the actions of a Bodhisattva and to cultivate them within one’s own mind.
This concept of the Bodhisattwa instantly reminds us of the concept of being human among humans, and fulfilling a selfobject function vis a vis an individual other or the human community.  We may consider the Boddhisatwa as a Buddhist equivalent of a selfobject. The Bodhisattwa actually realizes the idea of transforming personal narcissism to supra-individual participation within cosmic narcissism.
We are concerned with an infinite exploration of the potential evolution of the primordial untraumatized self.  We explore the whole non-split human existence.  We are concerned with the prospect of eliminating vertical splits through our practice. It is important to mention that towards the end of his life, Kohut emphasized that along with cohesiveness and self formation, life’s meaning has its own individual significance and has to do with the fact that we belong to an endless chain of events and occurrences. Here Kohut reinforced the idea that nothing is permanent or independent of other phenomena.
 The emphasis is on infinite transformation: “I think that one isn’t really alive if one doesn’t somehow down deep in one’s bones feel this eternal rhythm of life, this coming and going of which one is only a link in a chain… It goes beyond my individuality to something broader and more enduring than this little me that is common…”(quote from the interview Kohut gave to Randel close to his death (April, 1981).
We look in more detail at Buddhist teachings and come to identify two essential ideas in regard to transformation: the concept of emptiness and its correlate equanimity. These concepts may shed light on and elaborate our understanding of the underlying qualities that make us into “selfobjects”. What does a selfobject consist of?
Buddhism teaches us that infinite transformation = impermanence is a derivative of the empty nature of things. Emptiness is a complex concept which consists on the realization that no phenomena including human beings have an intrinsic existence. The practice of relieving suffering requires that one empties oneself from preconceptions and desires so as to be receptive to living in the moment as it comes, accepting the moment with no attachment to prior ideas. This is what is called “emptiness”.  Bion (1967), who was also informed by Eastern philosophy, defined this situation very clearly in his famous suggestion that the analyst work without memory, without desire and without understanding. He put emphasis on the importance of a process of intuitive receptivity to an unknown truth, yet he did not tell us how to train ourselves to be in this “empty “state of mind. And what does it really mean for the analyst to be “empty”? Is it the neutrality and abstinence that Freud spoke about? In fact, we know that Freud totally failed to be abstinent “empty” when it came to his beloved patients.
Being a selfobject  – immersed in empathy, not in identification – is the closest position to what Buddhists define as “emptiness”.  Buddhist thinking  teaches us how to train the mind to preserve a state of emptiness so as to be able to welcome any “guest” with mindfulness, whether there is preconceived  positive thought or a threatening-negative one. With emptiness, and it’s correlate, equanimity,  it is possible to relate to all thoughts as equally significant.
I hope to demonstrate how helpful it can be for us as Self Psychologists, who aspire to function as selfobjects to our patients and to others in general, to cultivate states of emptiness and its correlate equanimity. Emptiness and equanimity widen our empathic capacity, promote refraining from judgmental positions and thus increase our curative function as selfobjects. We train and transform our mind to keep it lucid, clear and open.
A few words about Emptiness
Let’s take the simple example of water. Water is a source of life for the thirsty, it is a habitat of living for fish, it is a prerequisite for the growth of trees and plants, it is a source of energy. Water does not have one particular function. The function is determined by the specific context.
Let’s consider a wave; we can see it approaching; being high or low and a moment later it is part of the sea.
Water has different functions and different manifestation; it is empty of one formative connotation.
We realize that there are different dimensions to reality. If we consider that what we see we relate to as conventional wisdom, we comprehend the conventional world or the world as we know it. Conventional wisdom covers all understandings of the world as it functions, as it manifests itself. We realize that things are labeled and have accepted designations.
However, there is also another kind of wisdom which is the ultimate wisdom. It contradicts the divided way in which we ordinarily perceive the world. This is the experience of ultimate truth or emptiness. It is important to remember that emptiness here does not refer to nothingness or some kind of nihilism. It refers to the fact that ultimately our day-to-day experience of reality is ’empty’ of many qualities that we normally assign to it. Describing this experience (of emptiness) in words is not easy, as language is itself based on differentiations and contrasts. (Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh).
Thich Nhat Hanh (2001), a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and eminent teacher of Buddhism, shows his students a cup of tea and asks: What is in the cup? The immediate answer, of course, is tea. And where did the tea come from? From the thermos. And where does the water in the thermos come from?  From the river.  In other words, when we look at the cup of tea we see the thermos, the river, the rain and the rainclouds. This illustrates the ultimate perspective, as opposed to seeing merely the thermos and the tea. Things do not come into existence or cease to be, but reveal themselves under certain circumstances and lose the quality of presence when circumstances change. That which is invisible may exist as a seed in the reservoir of our awareness, a seed that can be watered or dried out.
The Self has similar dimensions. It is not an isolate, neither is it a fixed entity. We need to conceive of the idea that the same self – in different circumstances- presents in different manifestations. All these manifestations are part of one ultimate self. We must especially take note of the fact that the wounded self may be split, fragmented or disintegrated. It may be totally invisible at one point and emerge fully at another point in time and circumstance. So if we search for a deep conviction of “what is the real self?” we come to the conclusion that the self, too, lacks a steady and independent substance. There is no “independent self”. There is an impermanent self; a self that has infinite cohesive manifestations into which its vast potential can be actualized. Potentiality is the underlying bedrock of all possible states.
We accept infinite oscillations between formation and potentiality (Raanan,   ). We renounce our conventional concepts about the self’s health or pathology and believe that emotional problems are transient, everlasting fluctuations of the self. We cultivate the belief that a suitable context, or appropriate selfobject functioning promote healing and reduce suffering.  The healthy self cannot possibly be independent or self sufficient; it infinitely requires suitable conditions for realization of its ultimate empty inherent existence at any moment.
Sometimes the empty quality of the self is referred to as “No Self”.  An example of this thinking is offered by Master Dogan’s famous claim: “ To study and learn the way of the Buddha, is to study and learn your own self. To study and learn your own self is to forget yourself. To forget yourself is to be enlightened by the myriad things of the universe” (Dogan, Shobogenzo, p. 370) These words emphasize the idea of no singularity; emptiness.
I wish to emphasize the idea that “emptiness” or no-self is not s selflessness; it is not the annihilation of the self. Emptiness or no-self has relinquished the idea that the healthy self must have a particular formation. It is the practice of renunciating a particular state of mind, deconstructing of common assumptions such as separateness and independent existence. With good mindfulness, one can relinquish one’s perception of a particular “I”, physically as well as mentally. We touch on the pre-reflexive self, still unconditioned by conventional experiences, what we refer to as the virtual self.   We allow for the emergence of new perspectives in regard to ourselves and the “other”. To put it differently, renouncing one’s own self is the precondition to immersing freely with the other’s self, getting into her or his shoes and possibly sharing their suffering. This is the essence of empathy and selfobject functioning, as described by Kohut.
Such a profound empathic position naturally relates not just to the individual self but also to an idea that suffering is universal and that I am there to experience and share the suffering of the other. This position is echoed in various current Self Psychology writings. One instance is Sucharov’s work on wholeness[2] (2013, 2001, 1992 ), which I have discussed (Mann, 2013) that  illustrates the infinite interconnectedness which goes beyond a particular individual to shared history, and shared trauma. 
The main idea here is that being attached to a particular idea about how the self must be or into which direction it should develop, restricts the inner freedom that we wish to grant to our patients’ selves.
A patient tells me that she came to the session after a great deal of preparation. At the beginning of the session, she announced that she wanted to talk to me about her frustration and anger with me. She felt that this ability to express discontent is something that she has gained in the course of our work of seven years in analysis. She felt entitled to express it out loud. She went on to tell me how lonely and helpless she feels because “she knows” that I am unable to share the suffering she experiences as a single woman. She knows, even though I never discussed it with her, that I got married relatively early in my life and she assumes that I cannot possibly comprehend the misery of a single women. She believed that because I was never such situation that I lack the ability to be with her in this regard. She explained to   me that what she was saying was presented to me deliberately and in a “contained” manner; it is not, she wanted to say, an impulsive angry outburst. She said that she is devastated by this missing link in my empathic capability.
Even though we discussed this issue many times before, the way she presented her feelings on that particular day threw me instantly, this time, into the mental state of a helpless women in her forties, who is unable to manage the task of finding sufficient love in her life and cannot constitute a family. I felt that I was suddenly thrown into this devastating situation. I imagined all the things that I would be deprived of, that which could have happened yet did not. An incomplete life… Then, my mind jumped to thoughts about my motherhood: what kind of a mother am I, who cannot furnish my daughter with enough feminine stock to go about life and find her own happiness? A cloud of deep sadness overcame me. I realized that I was probably experiencing some aspect of the dissatisfying and insufficient motherhood which she was immersed in for so many years. I felt how tragic and disastrous this is for HER AND FOR ME, for both of us as “daughter” and as “mother” interchangeably. Along with my grief, I also respected the fact that she did not want to be with such a mother anymore.
I told her that I may have denied her something that she should have gotten from me: the motherly inspiration that every daughter is entitled to get from her mother and that I was apparently unable to give to her. I could not be there in the way she needed me. My hand was too short (a Hebrew expression)…This is a very difficult situation for her. I told her that it may be that I am not suited to help her in this particular respect. I had tears in my eyes. I could not hide my pain.
The next day she came in and shared a dream:
“I had a special dream, it is related to you. I thank God that I woke up by chance; otherwise I would not have recalled the dream. It is strange. There was an event in the lower floor of your house.  It was related to the end of the year and there were about 10-20 girls, each connected to you somehow. I was aware that I am connected to you therapeutically. I realized that you have other “favorites” but I did not mind that too much. There was a ceremonial atmosphere and perhaps someone read something. Perhaps a movie was shown… There were chocolate chip cookies that were words. Each had a different taste and meant something different.
Here is the main point: There was a child perhaps aged 3-4 or 7-8 who was very sweet. The boy said something which was amazing; none of us could have said such a thing. It was a complex and wise sentence: “When I am sad, I am happy and then I can be sad. “ It seems to be a childish contradiction but it was not. It was a profound idea. There were three steps: sadness, happiness and sadness. Even now I can hardly repeat it.”
In her free-associations about this dream she said that it was very natural that I would have a small boy. She thought that it was clear that she was the boy, as well as one of the girls. She continued: “It is connected to something that you said about sadness and I could be happy about that. Maybe it means that where one can be immersed in sadness, one can also be truly happy. I feel significant when you sense my sadness …”
Transforming the self via the function of being a selfobject requires strict adherence to the principals of emptiness and impermanence. In the example, the patient could renounce her sadness when she felt that I experience her pain not as part of the transference or counter transference but as a human being; a daughter, a mother, a woman. It is the shared human experience which is not reducible to a specific interpretation. This enables her to feel happiness. Sadness and happiness are interchangeable emotions that come and go, much like passing clouds in the mind.  We are continually subject to the universe and its infiniteness, as well as to the fact that we are each an individual self, limited in time and space and to our own patterns of being. This paradoxical and seemingly contradictory truth needs to be cultivated in the mind of the analyst before it can be transmuted in the minds of our patients.
As I mentioned before, equanimity is the correlate of emptiness and supports it profoundly. When our state of mind is equanimous, we can listen to anything patients tell us in an open, accepting manner and we do not give way to emotional upheavals. Buddhism offers practices to cultivate equanimity:  we concentrate on situations that evoke pleasant compassionate feelings, situations in which it is easy to experience empathy. Once this is accomplished, we try to maintain such feelings towards increasingly difficult subjects, including those  with whom we are less familiar and subjects toward whom we have grievances, anger or even rage. We try to preserve our receptivity and to keep our openness to any subject or any topic that comes into mind.
The profound significance of equanimity is a realization of reality’s transience. Wework on dissolving aversion into kindness when we contemplate how we are all interconnected and even alike on in an ultimate dimension. Freedom and mental space are promoted this way.
While some people may regard equanimity as aloofness, neutrality or indifference, it more often produces a deep and undivided connectedness to whatever the subject presents. This is is undoubtedly the challenge of any self psychology therapist who strives not to collapse into duality or counter transferences ( Lachmann,   ) while directing engaging complex issues and human suffering. Equanimity is a dimension of transcendence.

A Guesthouse (Jalal Rumi, Suffi poet)

This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight . . .

Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I hope that my talk on these Buddhist concepts illustrates their profound relatedness to the theory of self psychology. We cultivate the idea that the self has endless manifestations and infinitely oscillates between formation and non formation. The selfobject function consists in our openness to endless changeability. We realize that there is no steady self-formation, no singularity; we are the “other” at any moment as best as we can.

[1]This lecture was given at the 36th IAPSP Annual international Conference FORMS AND TRANSFORMATIONS OF CONNECTEDNESS, Chicago, 2013.
It was part of a Pre- Conference workshop:”Forms and Transformations of (inter-) Connectedness – Self Psychology as a Harmonious Bridge between Psychoanalysis and Buddhism”.
[2] See Orange’s work (2006, 2011)  and her use of  the Levinasian notion “Hinneni “, John Ricker’s work on “Why is it good to be good?”,  Kulka (1995, 2005) and  Brothers (  ). We may also consider that current ideas such as system theories, self and mutual regulation and motivational systems (Stolorow and colleagues 1987, Beebe and Lachman 1966, Lichtenberg, Lachman and Fosshage, 2011) all aim at a broad understanding of a continual changeability that goes beyond the particular self; Complexity theory.