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Self / Selflessness

Teachings on “no-self” or selflessness can be misunderstood and potentially damaging in contemporary psychology and spirituality, especially for those struggling with some form of developmental trauma. The actual meaning of these teachings – the revelation of the flexible, relative, constructed nature of the self – are lost as the terms get tossed around in catchphrases outside the context of the depth and complexity in which they originated. In some cases this kind of disconnect can catalyze re-enactment of early environments of shame, unworthiness, and self-aggression.


When there is denial of one's own subjectivity due to a history of abuse, neglect, or dismissal by way of disorganized attachment and narcissistic injury – teachings on no-self or selflessness can feel all too familiar: “Oh, I get it, I really don't matter! How I feel really isn't a priority. Maybe I don’t really even exist. Maybe it’s true that I’m not worthy of having needs or having needs met. I guess if the gurus and teachers are saying be selfless, I must be selfish!”


Rather than leading to increasing freedom, compassion, and flexibility, these teachings – if understood and practiced in half-baked and disembodied ways – unconsciously become another vehicle by which to replay templates of early wounding.


Pathologizing subjectivity – popular in some modern forms of “awakening” and “enlightenment” – has a way of creating and entrenching a profound shadow. And, as is the nature of shadow, self-supression remains hidden outside ordinary awareness, buried in blindspots where we have an unconscious investment in not looking.


Developing discernment is so important here . . . to sense into the ways we may be caught in transcendent teachings such as “no-self” or selflessness in ways that re-enact early environments of empathic failure, narcissism, and trauma. Then . . . can we, at the same time, stay open to how such teachings can be helpful and supportive in loosening our identification with suffering-laden organizations of limiting beliefs, painful emotions, and unhealthy behavior? Consciously, intentionally running both tracks is a mature approach to learning, growing and transforming.


Not all teachings are skillful or compassionate for a particular person at a particular time with a particular developmental history. In working with meditators, yogis, and seekers over the years – and in my own inquiry, therapy, and experimentation – I have seen the ways “ultimate” teachings can be offered in service to an integrated realization. However, in many situations this has not been the case. Certain teachings on selflessness can be conflated with compassion, caring and empathy . . . and unfortunately misinterpreted through filters of low self-esteem, catalyzing dissociation and unconscious defenses against emotional and developmental wounding of all kinds, propping up old circuitry of unworthiness, shame, and self-hatred.


To compassionately confront and assimilate the contents of the unconscious is an essential aspect of the true hero's journey. The invitation here is to open ourselves to as much nuance, sensitivity, compassion, and insight as we can, so that we may tap into the ways all our teachers and teachings can truly support an embodied, integral realization, while at the same time, simultaneously being quick to recognize the possibility of falling through the trap door of self-denial into the depths of the unconscious shadow.



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