Teachings on “no-self” remain some of the most misunderstood and potentially damaging in contemporary 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 bandied about in catchphrases outside the context of the depth and complexity in which they arose, and in some cases have become a tool for the enactment of early environments of shame, unworthiness, and self-aggression.
For those with histories of denying their own subjectivity – or having it abused, neglected, or dismissed by way of disorganized attachment and narcissistic injury of all kinds – teachings on no-self can feel all too familiar: “Oh, I get it, I really am nobody! I really don’t exist after all. It’s true that I’m not worthy of existing. Even the gurus have confirmed it. I knew it!”
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 and narrative – popular in some modern forms of “awakening” and “enlightenment” – have a way of creating and entrenching a profound shadow. But, like any effective shadow, it usually remains hidden outside ordinary awareness, where we have an unconscious investment in not seeing into the depths.
We must bring forward as much discernment as we can, to see the ways we may be caught in transcendent teachings such as “no-self” in ways that enact early environments of empathic failure, narcissism, and trauma. And also, of course, to 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.
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 supervision – I have seen the ways that “ultimate” teachings can be used to serve an integrated realization, however in many situations this was not the case. Subtly, certain teachings were being used to further dissociation and unconscious defense against emotional and developmental wounding of all kinds, propping up old circuitry of unworthiness, shame, and self-hatred.
The invitation is to flood our relationship with these teachings with as much nuance, sensitivity, compassion, and insight as we can, so that we may tap into the ways they can truly support an embodied, integral realization, while simultaneously can also be a quick trap door into the unconscious shadow. To compassionately confront and assimilate the contents of the unconscious is an essential aspect of the true hero's journey; if we do not do so, we will inevitably continue to enact the templates of early emotional and psychic wounding.
My new book – The Path Is Everywhere: Uncovering the Jewels Hidden Within You – is now available