Can I let go of my “self” if I can still hold onto power?

In class the other day, I mentioned that my I think my ego gets in the way of my accepting emptiness/essenceless as Nagarjuna believed it to be.  How could I not have an essence, not even in this world?  It’s easy to accept that a table lacks essence (actually, even that was hard at first), but moi?  My mind or self has been with me all throughout my years on earth and will stay with me at least until I die.  Isn’t it permanent and special while I am living on earth?

Actually, I was surprised by my resistance to Nagarjuna because as an agnostic, I don’t have a set idea as to why I think we are here or what truly happens when we die and I am really quite at peace with not knowing.  Usually, this allows me to be quite open to learning about religions because I don’t have my own beliefs to interfere with learning about the beliefs of others.  But I have really been feeling uncomfortable when trying to think about the validity in giving up a sense of self.

So why the resistance?  I just watched a film in EDU 239 (Counseling Theory) where several prominent psychologists were talking about Freud and the power of our unconscious, and that’s when I thought that perhaps my covert unconscious mind was crying out for me to hold onto my “self” since that is all I have.  Perhaps since I don’t know what will happen to me later, I have been unconsciously clinging to what I believe I have here now.

But later in the film, psychologist Aaron Beck talked about his Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and how altering the way you think is powerful enough to change your behavior.  One unhappy woman had been dumped by her boyfriend was convinced that she could only be happy if she was in a relationship, but when Beck asked her about the happiest time in her life, it was when she was a graduate student, a time when she was single!  Eventually, she changed her cognitions about equating being single with being unhappy, and this allowed her to enjoy life as a single woman.

Beck focused about the power of the mind and I now believe that this is what I felt was missing from Nagarjuna’s teachings, at least for me.  I reacted the same to Nagarjuna as I did when I went to a few AA meetings (I started drinking a lot when I was going through my divorce).  Their motto was that the mind was powerless to control one’s drinking, but I kept thinking to myself, what about the power of the mind?

Perhaps Vasubandhu felt the same way as I did in that AA meeting, as he reinterpreted emptiness to mean that an object is empty because it only exists because of our minds (Garfield’s Chapter 3).  Wow, so our minds are so powerful that they create our world!  Perhaps I won’t mind having an essenceless, yet powerful mind.  I look forward to finding out if I can let go of the idea of unique self as long as I am still able to believe in the power of my mind.


Charlie Rose, Around the Table: The Legacy of Sigmund Freud and Roots of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, May 23, 2007 (Video)

Garfield, J. L. (2009). Vasubandhu’s trisvabhavanirdesa (treatise on the Three Natures).  In W. Edelgass & J. L. Garfield (Eds.), Buddhist philosophy (pp. 35-45). NY, New York: Oxford University Press.

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3 Responses to Can I let go of my “self” if I can still hold onto power?

  1. gglynnferrarone says:

    This perspective was very interesting. I believe that the mind more often than not stands in the way of our happiness and freedom, so I liked to see and understand your perspective on the power of the mind. I’ve wondered if believing our minds are powerful equates to having an ego – is it really so bad to believe that we hold power in our minds? Human minds have created amazing things. And beyond that, when exploring the emptiness path of Buddhism I’ve often found myself berating my mind for the walls it has created. But this doesn’t seem productive for any path. I am still struggling with the very difficult question, do our minds create our unhappiness or does our belief in the existence of the mind create unhappiness? Thanks for the thoughts!

  2. AU says:

    I found your post really interesting because that powerfulness of mind that seems to be reassuring is also what the emptiness school believes to be getting too close to the idea of a self. I think in America especially we are taught the importance of ourselves (I have a sign hanging in my room that says, “In a world where you can be anything, be yourself”) so it is hard to accept that in Buddhism there is no self for us to be. I wonder if more Western Buddhists subscribe to the Mind-Only school for this reason, without realizing that they are attracted to it because of the mind’s resemblance to self.

  3. Star Lord says:

    I think this was an interesting paper and totally understand why it is hard to accept that you yourself have no essence. It reminds of a sort of speech someone gave me and some other students over a year ago about how we ultimately weren’t special. It was a bit saddening and hard to come to terms with because you want to believe that you are special and that there’s something to you that makes you this distinctive person and so I totally got how you felt. I wish I remember the speech in more detail because I feel it relates a lot to these ideas and had a deeper meaning than what I am currently expressing (I’ll have to ask the person to tell me it again and I’ll share it with you–but I digress haha). I also really liked the connections you made to the film you had seen in another class! Freud is interesting with ideas about the notion of self and I think he’d agree with your conclusions about wanting to hold onto your idea of “self” as he seemed to believe that one’s “self” is really important to them; especially in terms of when thinking about or comparing one’s “self ” to another. I thin Freud believed that we saw ourselves as being special over others and sort of more important, so as you mentioned that sort of ego. A morbid example of this is one dealing with how Freud believed people assessed death which was that when someone died we are sad about it, but ultimately we are glad that it wasn’t us thus we constantly put our selves and worth above others, even in really tragic times like death! Anywho, really great paper! 🙂

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