In my post: Principles Against Some Common Fallacies...
2. It is not necessary to create a 'self' before you abandon it.
The attempt to square Western psychology with Buddhist psychology sometimes yields useful ideas, bit it also often leads to confusion. The respective attitudes to the notion of 'self' is one of the key dividing lines between the two systems.
Most Western psychology is concerned with enhancing the self just as Western philosophy is much concerned with self-knowledge and keen to assert that self-consciousness is the factor that distinguishes human beings from other beasts. Buddhist psychology, on the other hand, has a completely different view of the matter. Regarding self-consciousness, it is apparent to any pet owner that cats and dogs have self-consciousness and, for instance, are, briefly, quite capable of manifesting such phenomena as a guilty conscience or shame. Regarding self-knowledge, from a Buddhist point of view, as i explained in my Daily Teaching yesterday, the purpose of it is to eliminate obstacles to compassion and cultivate humility through an awareness of our failings. It is not seen as a way of enhancing some special quality that makes humans into super beings. In Buddhist psychology, self is the obstacle. It is the fact that the little light of self is so much right in front of our eyes that makes us unable to see the greater light of truth that pervades the universe.
In order to attempt to reconcile these two disparate systems some people came up with the idea that one has to develop a self before you can give it up. This was a skilful and somewhat deceptive maneuver. It made Buddhism into the senior partner in the arrangement while completely emasculating it in effect. It was the senior partner in that giving up self was thus made into the 'higher' achievement. However, at the same time, the implication was that we are almost all of us at the earlier stage of still needing to build up our selves, so we are not yet ready for Buddhism and should concentrate on Western psychology.
This is not how buddhism sees it. From the Buddhist point of view we have an excessive attachment to self at birth due to past karma. There is nothing so capable of exhibiting self-centredness as an infant. For sure the infant also wants to love and be loved, but that does not change the matter. As we grow up the process of psychological maturation is almost entirely made up of learning to set self aside, at least for brief periods. The mature person knows how, sometimes, to put others first; how to, occasionally, be objective, even in his or her own case; to rise above a situation and not give way to the first selfish impulse that comes along. So at the simplest level, growing up is about getting self under a modicum of control.
However, - and this is where psychology comes in - a good deal of what actually happens is not that self is given up but rather than it is concealed and/or trained into more circumlocutious ways of getting what it wants. Since almost everybody is playing the same game, adult society becomes a rather convoluted affair in which we all half know what we are doing, but still go around in a substantial degree of blindness.
It, therefore, requires quite a high level of sophistication to play the social game well and effectively and this can be the stuff of novels, including some of the best of them, which often give more insight into the matter than many psychology texts. Inevitably there are those among us - and not a few - who develop a variety of malfunctions as a result. Western psychology seems primarily concerned to help people to play the self game more effectively whereas Buddhist psychology has the avowed aim of getting them out of the game, or, at least, getting them to take it less seriously.
Thanks, David, yes, I agree. Psychosis is often presented in the books as a disintegration of self but this is surely topsy turvy. A person who thinks he is Jesus Christ or that the whole world is out to persecute him is not somebody who lacks a sense of self - it is somebody with a fantastically overblown one.
Good thought. Maturation as learning to set the self aside makes a lot of sense. Another thought along the same lines, then, is perhaps what we call outright psychopathology -- depression, obsession, trauma, etc, even psychosis -- may be an excess of self, that is, further reification of and focus on *me* or at least certain aspects of me, in different ways characteristic of each malady.