Suffering and the Dialectical Self in Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis

Laurence W Christensen. American Journal of Psychoanalysis. Volume 59, Issue 1. March 1999.

Steve, a gay generation Xer in his late twenties, comes to see me troubled by years of suicidal depression. Despite his talents, he doubts his place in the world and cynically assumes he will “get through” his life by presenting a “nice” front. He longs for a loving relationship with another man, yet is terrified that if people get to know his “real” self they will discover he is a monster-flawed and inadequate. To avoid being rejected, he acts in such a way that others are either entertained or confused. Having been sexually molested by a psychologist, a friend of the family, for years as a young boy, he is particularly mistrustful of those showing interest or kindness toward him.

Being both a Zen Buddhist meditation instructor and a psychoanalyst, I have speculated as to how I would work with this young man in light of these two traditions. Although a number of other authors have written about this topic (Engler, 1981; Epstein, 1995; Fromm, 1959; Rubin, 1996; Suler,1995), I find it rewarding to continue to explore the interface of these traditions in my clinical work. From the perspective of the Zen traditions I have studied (Beck, 1989, 1993; Maezumi and Glassman, 1976, 1977, 1978), Steve would be instructed to develop his capacities for focusing and awareness through meditation, in order to increasingly tolerate the presence of depressive thoughts and moods without being overwhelmed or condemning himself further. That is, Steve would develop the capacity to experience having the depression instead of experiencing the depression as having him. We would work toward him directly experiencing the various components of his negative “core beliefs” (Beck, 1993) about himself, such as “I’m inadequate and unlovable.”

Ultimately, Steve would have a growing experiential awareness that he is not inadequate in the pervasive way he has believed himself to be, though he may have remnants of such core beliefs. He would develop the awareness that he is lovable and that he does not engender hostility from others. He would begin to directly experience, without judgment or commentary, his core beliefs (including the subcomponents of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations) as part of the pattern of constantly changing energy that he normally identifies as “self.”

With an awareness of the ever-changing nature of the self, Steve would also come to directly experience these patterns of energy normally identified as “self” as being connected to and dependent on innumerable other people, things, and causes, extending out through space and time, such that he experiences no clear separation between his “self” and the rest of the universe. Or as Buddha is reported to have said, “Above the heavens and below the earth, only I exist” (Maezumi and Glassman, 1978). Directly experiencing this awareness, time and time again over the course of many years, Steve would begin to unravel the knot of “me being depressed” selfpatterns with which he has identified for so long. This would lead to more flexibility, freedom, and compassion in his life both for himself and others.

As a relationally oriented psychoanalyst, I would work with Steve somewhat differently, although with some of the same goals in mind. I would begin by empathically listening to him, trying to have a felt sense as well as intellectual understanding of the suffering he is experiencing. Initially through my compassionate understanding of his suffering, he would begin to develop an interest, compassion, and understanding for his own suffering. The second goal would be to identify in our sessions enactments of problematic patterns with others that support his negative beliefs of himself and lead to depression. We would try to experience as deeply and directly as possible those moments when he is feeling inadequate, afraid, or restricted and to also share with each other our mutual experience and understanding of those moments.

Steve and I would clarify how such patterns occur, as well as any avoidance and fear around them, trying at all times to see more clearly the beliefs he has about himself and me, particularly his “bad-me” beliefs (Sullivan, 1953). We would see if his beliefs about himself and me match the ongoing experience we are having, and if so, how we both contribute to re-creating these patterns. In short, we would try to see if the bad-me patterns are supported by his actual experience with me. It is expected that ultimately his experience would not support his bad-me beliefs and that such dissonance would help to expand his sense of himself with others using our relationship as an example.

In the process of helping Steve enjoy a greater sense of ease and freedom, Buddhism and psychoanalysis highlight the nature and role of suffering and the nature and role of the self. In this paper I suggest that suffering and self are interrelated and that they interact in perpetuating mental pain. From a Buddhist perspective, not understanding or experiencing the self clearly or correctly leads to suffering (Sangharakshita, 1980). In both Buddhism and relational psychoanalysis the self can be seen as dialectical, for instance, it has both subjective (“I”) and objective (“me”) components that constantly and inseparably interpenetrate with each other. “Difficulties in living,” as Sullivan (1953) calls pathology or suffering, occur when this dialectic is ignored or out of balance. In other words, suffering occurs when the interpenetration between the objective me-self system and the subjective I-self is obstructed.

I further delineate the Buddhist contribution to the understanding of the self by proposing that three main features or marks (laksanas)’ define the dialectical self: (1) the self is both process and structure, (2) it is associated with both suffering and liberation, and (3) it is interdependent with others and at the same time separate. These dialectical poles are related to current trends in the relational psychoanalytic perspective. Finally, a model incorporating Buddhist and relational analytic ideas in clinical work with the self is presented.


The issue of human suffering has occupied both Buddhism and psychoanalysis since their inceptions (Engler, 1981; Epstein, 1995; Frankl, 1963; Freud, 1927; Kelman, 1959; Rubin, 1996; Sangharakshita, 1980; Suler, 1995). However, these two traditions differ in their understanding of how suffering relates to the issue of self. Little has been written in the psychoanalytic literature of the past 20 years on the nature or definition of suffering per se. A computer search using PsycLit, Jourlit & Bookrev (from the American Psychoanalytic Association), and )list (Psychoanalytic Journal Listing and Information Retrieval System) yielded only eight psychoanalytically based articles or books published in the past two decades that dealt with the nature of suffering and its definition.

Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), catalogues the three sources of suffering and the various “palliative measures” for dealing with it.

We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations with other men. (p. 24)

Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments, and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures … There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitute satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it. Something of this kind is indispensable. (p. 22)

Freud (1926) pointed out that the main threats related to suffering are object loss, loss of love, and physical loss (e.g., castration). Freud suggested that depressed affect (mourning and melancholia) and anxiety are biological reactions to the occurrence or threat of these painful losses. Both of these affects prompt the individual to avoid unpleasure and seek pleasure (Freud, 1926).

Anxiety and depressive affect have been the central focus of most psychoanalytic views on psychopathology and suffering (Brenner, 1974,1982; Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983). Both anxiety and depression relate to loss (Brenner, 1982). Brenner (1974, 1982) has made the observation that depression relates to loss in the present or past, whereas anxiety relates to loss in the future.

From a relational perspective, the real or anticipated loss of either self or loved objects always involves the experience of loss of both self and other, since self is always in relation to and dependent on the other (Aron, 1996; Kohut, 1971; Mitchell, 1988; Stolorow and Atwood, 1992; Sullivan, 1953) Thus, anxiety and depression are always about the real or anticipated loss of self in relation to a loved object(s). The loss of the self and object can be real or imagined, interpersonal or intrapsychic. From the relational perspective, there is always a mixture of the real, the imagined, the interpersonal, and the intrapsychic (Aron, 1996).

Thus, a definition of suffering for this paper will be centered around the anticipation or actual experience of loss of self other. This may be the loss of a self-state previously experienced (in memory) or the loss of a potential self-state (in fantasy). Another way of describing this state is that suffering is the anxiety and depression associated with the desire and longing for one’s experience of self to be different than it currently is. In depression the desire relates to a wish that the loss of self/other would not have occurred. In anxiety the desire is that the anticipated loss will not occur or that the current loss will not continue.

Suffering is a desire or wish for one’s experience to not include loss. The degree or strength of a person’s suffering is directly related to the degree that the loss subjectively threatens a particular self-state (Cassell, 1991; Chapman and Gavrin, 1993; Kahn and Steeves, 1986; Rodgers and Cowles, 1997). For instance, the loss of a physical body (death) is considered by many, but certainly not by all, to be a threat to the totality of one’s self. Considered extreme suffering by some, death may be the most intense suffering humans endure (Becker, 1973; Loy, 1992). For others, extreme suffering may be related to the desire to be loved and/or never abandoned, fear of “losing one’s mind,” or the desire to be not be with someone (Freud, 1927).

Steve is both depressed and anxious. He wants things to be different than they are and hence is suffering. He is depressed about the loss of love or love objects he once experienced with his mother and father. He is also anxious that others will leave him and thus he will experience loss with a potential partner. He desires not to be experiencing the loss of a past love (or the loved objects) and he desires not to experience the possibility of losing love (or the loved object) in the future.

This definition of suffering just derived from psychoanalytic sources is close to the Buddhist view, that suffering is wanting things to be different than they are at the moment. However, from the Buddhist perspective, all of life is associated with suffering. Not only psychopathology but normal “healthy” living is associated with suffering. In Buddhism the continuum between mental health and psychopathology is a matter of degree. How much an individual suffers is related to the degree to which he or she desires things to be different.

When the Buddha expounded his first teachings (known as the Four Noble Truths), he outlined a simple formula for the relationship between desire and suffering. In the First Noble Truth as restated by Fischer-Shreiber, Ehrhard, Friedrichs, and Diener (1994), Buddha equated all existence with suffering: “All existence is characterized by suffering: birth, sickness, death; coming together with what one does not like; separating from what one does like; not obtaining what one desires; and the five aggregates of attachment that constitute the personality” (p.109). In the Second Noble Truth, Buddha speaks to the origin of suffering: “It is craving, which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, that is, craving for sensual pleasure, craving for being, and craving for non-being. This is called the origin of suffering” (Majjhima Nikaya, 9, 16). In the Third Noble Truth, Buddha answers the question: “And what is the cessation of suffering? It is the remainderless fading away and ceasing, the giving up, relinquishing, letting go, and rejecting of that same craving.” (Majjhima Nikaya, 9, 17). In the Fourth Noble Truth, Buddha outlines the Eightfold Path for the alleviation of suffering: “Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration” (Digha Nikaya, 22, 21). It is clear from these Four Noble Truths that Buddha thought the cause of suffering is “sensual craving, craving for being and craving for non-being” (Majjhima Nikaya, 9, 16). Buddha states that we crave pleasurable things and avoid unpleasurable things, as well as crave for a self, or in some instances, no self.

Thus, we arrive at a definition of suffering from both the psychoanalytic and Buddhist traditions: the desire for one’s experience to be different than it is in the present. Intense desire and suffering may be experienced as anxiety and/or depression, relating to future or past loss respectively. Regardless of whether suffering is identified as anxiety or depression, desire and suffering always relate to the self in that desire is for (1) a pleasurable experience that the self will acquire, (2) being (existence), and/or (3) nonbeing (nonexistence).

The Dialectical Self In Buddhism

Buddhists maintain that for the most part in our ordinary life desires relate to the desire for and clinging to the view of a permanent, separate, unchanging self (Sangharakshita, 1980). The Buddhist principle of codependent production outlines a 12-factor formula describing how desires contribute to the creation of being and likewise how being contributes to the cycle of desire (Sangharakshita, 1980). Put simply, when one desires something, one both creates and is dependent on a separate self for the desired object to exist and also to be possessed. However, Buddhist psychology also states that all pleasurable experiences are fleeting and continually changing. Pleasure is therefore experienced as loss (suffering), which leads to new desires and the attempt to gain new pleasures to compensate for the loss. The view that a separate self exists perpetuates and is driven by desires in the endless cycle of becoming (codependent production) (Conze, 1970; Skilton, 1994).

Steve is caught in this cycle. He desires to be loved to counteract the sense of a permanent self that he views as unlovable. This belief system supports and is supported by his view that he is in need of “outside” love. However, because of various psychological difficulties such as transference counter-transference patterns (see Mitchell, 1988), “self-fulfilling prophecies” (Merton, 1948, Watchtel, 1987), enactments (Levenson, 1991), and selective inattention (Sullivan, 1953), Steve participates in experiencing and/or in pulling people to actually “fail” him to some degree. He experiences this as losing the love he “needs” and also confirming that he is inadequate and unable to be loved. This will lead to more “vicious cycles” (Horney, 1950) of desire and suffering.

One of the foundations of the Buddha’s teachings is that nothing permanent, stable, or separate can be found which is the self, “or a wrong view arises in him as follows: This my Self, which speaks and feels, which experiences the fruits of good and bad actions now here and now there, this Self is permanent, stable, everlasting, unchanging, remaining the same for ever and ever” (Majjhima Nikaya, 2, 8). If the view of the self as separate and permanent is false, what is the correct view? Buddha noted that all phenomena including the self have three essential characteristics or marks (laksanas). All phenomena including the self are (1) constantly changing, (2) unsatisfactory (constant decay and loss)/associated with suffering, and (3) without a separate self (i.e., they are interdependent with all other phenomena) (Skilton, 1994).

Although the absence of a permanent, fixed self is generally heralded as a foundation of the Buddha’s teaching (Engler, 1981; Rubin, 1996, Suler, 1995), it is not so much the self that Buddha encouraged one to relinquish but rather one’s attachments to the view of a separate self. As Perez-Remon argues in Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism (1980), the Buddha spoke not only of nonself (anatman) as a true understanding; he also spoke positively of the self:

The self, the dearest thing for man, becomes an absolute value, which has to be preserved by all means and in preference to everything else … Man should never give up the self. He should never surrender the self … One should not transgress against the self. (Samyutta Nikaya, I, 41).

Buddhism emphasizes not being attached to self or to no-self, to both, or to no view of the self.

The paradoxical notion that there is both a self and not a self is resolved in Buddhism through a dialectical approach labeled the Middle Way (Skilton, 1994). Buddhist psychology does not deny that the self exists, but argues that instead of a self that is fixed and permanent, the self is dialectical, having both form (structure) and yet constantly changing (being empty of a permanent essence), being separate and yet interdependent. This Middle Way avoids attachment to the idea of either a permanent self or no self (Sangharakshita, 1980; Skilton, 1994). Since the belief in a separate and perduring self is so pervasive (for an interesting example that has led to years of controversy in the Interpersonal community, see Sullivan, 1964). Buddhists have emphasized the side of the dialectic that speaks to the impermanence and nonsubstantiality of the self (Sangharakshita, 1980).

It was clearly a mistake … to deny categorically that the self exists … Under certain circumstances it may be useful to teach that there is a self, under others that there is none, and under others again that there is neither a self nor a notself. An absolute “is” or “is not” is useless and misleading. (Conze, 1970, p 130)

As Nagarjuna (a 1st century A.D. Indian Buddhist teacher) points out, attaching to either side of the dialectic results in suffering: “Buddha’s have referred to a self, they have taught no-self and they have also taught neither self nor no-self” (Mulamadhyamakakarika, 18, 6). This points to the heart of the dialectical nature of the Buddhist Middle Way: True reality can only be apprehended by not clinging to either existence (eternalism) or nonexistence (nihilism).

The Three Marks (laksanas) provide a framework for appreciating the dialectical self and comparing the Buddhist view to the relational school. The first laksana states that the self, like all phenomena, is impermanent or in constant change while having form or structure, depending on the forces and causes making up the phenomena. Viewed in this way, phenomena I-self are seen as being totally dependent on “outside” influences for their existence (Fischer-Schreiber et al., 1994; Sangharakshita, 1980; Skilton, 1994). In terms of the self, we are not only what we eat and breathe, our genes, our family and culture, we are not separate from every thing or event that has occurred throughout time. Various psychoanalytic authors have described a similar concept with regard to the mind, using such constructs as “the distributed mind” (Bruner, 1990) or “the myth of the isolated mind” (Stolorow and Atwood, 1992).

The second laksana states that the self and all phenomena are associated with being unsatisfactory or creating suffering. This follows the Buddhist logic that if everything is in constant change and decay, it will not be satisfactory since it slips away as soon as you have encountered it. This leads to loss, suffering, and the desire for things to be different. However, just like every other phenomenon, suffering itself is impermanent and without a separate essence (self). From the Buddhist perspective, there is no separate self who is experiencing the suffering. Thus, in a paradoxical turn, Buddhism states that suffering too is conditioned by external causes, has no essence, is inseparable from other phenomena, and thus is empty and liberated from any constraints. In the dialectic of the self from the second laksana, the self is both associated with suffering and with liberation and joy (Conze, 1970; Garfield, 1995; Kalupahana,1986,1987; Nagao,1991). As Nagarjuna explained, “There is not the slightest difference between cyclic existence (loss, desire, and suffering) and nirvana (liberation)” (Mulamadhyamakakarika, XXXV, 19).

With regard to the third laksana, the self is said to have no separate essence. Typically the Buddhist teachings divide phenomena into five “heaps” or skandas: form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness, each of which can be subdivided ad infinitum, into component parts. Why do you harp on being? It is a false view for you, a mere heap of suffering, this. Here no “being” is got at. For as when the parts of are rightly set, we utter the word “chariot,” so when there are the heaps by convention, “there is a being” we say. (Samyutta Nikaya, I, 135)

Viewed in this way there is no indivisible essence that is the building block of existence. Thus it is said that the self, along with all phenomena, is “empty.” It has no separate essence or soul. This is not to say that there are not phenomena. Phenomena exist because of their codependence with other causes and phenomena, which also have no separate essence and are constantly changing in an interdependent web of existence. The self is “empty,” made up of innumerable divisible parts that depend on other parts and “outside” causes, all of which are not separable from the self.

In summary, the three laksanas when used as a reference for understanding the dialectic nature of the self suggest that the self: (1) has structure (form) and is impermanent (empty), (2) is unsatisfactory (associated with suffering) and also liberated (joyful), and (3) has no separate essence (interdependent) and is also separate. These three bipolar constructs of the dialectical self are comparable to the ideas of a dialectic self in the relational psychoanalytic tradition.

The Dialectical Self In Relational Psychoanalysis

A movement has been growing in psychoanalysis in the past 20 years that goes by different names: relational (Mitchell, 1988), dyadic systems perspective (Beebe et al., 1992), intersubjective (Atwood and Stolorow, 1984; Benjamin, 1988), social constructionism (Hoffman, 1991), and interactional (Ehrenberg, 1992; Fosshage, 1992). The relational perspective has roots not only in the Freudian/ego psychology tradition but also in the Interpersonal School, British object relations, and self psychology. One of the threads in all of these theories is the focus on the interactional or relational nature of experience, the mind, and the self. The “other,” be it an interpersonal or intrapsychic other, is seen as an integral coparticipant and cocreator in both the subjective experience and objective structure of the self. No longer is there a reliance on the “myth of the isolated mind” (Stolorow and Atwood, 1992); there is only a self in relation to others (Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983; Hoffman, 1991; Sullivan, 1953)

This relational perspective has attempted to deal with various seemingly paradoxical perspectives of the self in psychoanalysis (Aron, 1996; Mitchell, 1993, 1997): one person vs. two person, intrapsychic vs. interpersonal, objective “me” vs. subjective “I,” multiple vs. singular self, continuous vs. discontinuous self, etc. In this perspective the self is dialectical in nature and only through an appreciation of the interaction of paradoxical opposing poles can a full appreciation of the self be achieved. The use of the Buddhist concepts of the Middle Way and the three laksanas (marks) offers a model for viewing the dialectical self in this way.

As mentioned above, the Middle Way states that siding with either pole of a dialectic (e.g., self or nonself) results in craving, clinging, and suffering. Nargajuna made the cornerstone of his teaching the refinement of the dialectical approach to the self (Kalupahana, 1986). In the West, dialectical thinking is most associated with Zeno, Socrates, Fitchte, Hegel, Engel, and Marx (Reese, 1995). As opposed to the more familiar dialectical triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of Fitchte and Hegel, the definition of dialectics in this paper focuses on the interaction and codependence of opposites, which creates a fuller representation of the whole. “A dialectic is a process in which each of two opposing concepts creates, informs, pressures, and negates the other, each standing in a dynamic (ever-changing) relationship with the other (Ogden, 1986, p. 206). Dialectical or paradoxical thinking has been important in psychology (Gergen, 1991; Guidano, 1991; James, 1890; Kegan, 1982; Rappoport, 1986; Linnehan, 1993; Riegel, 1979) and relational psychoanalytic theory (Aron, 1996; Benjamin, 1988; Chodorow, 1986; Ghent, 1989, 1995; Hoffman, 1994; Mitchell, 1988; Modell, 1984; Odgen, 1986; Pizer, 1992; Stern, 1983).

One dialectic of the self that appears to encompass or relate to many others and serve as a representative of other dialectics of the self is the simultaneous perspectives of a subjective “I” (I-self) and an objective “me” (me-self). James (1890) appears to be the first Western psychologist to address this phenomenon of the self. Although he does not use the term dialectic, he points out the paradoxical ability of the self to be experienced as both a subject (I-self) and an object (me-self). For instance, we experience ourselves as both the subjective agent of action, such as writing a paper, and simultaneously are able to objectify the self who is writing by commenting on the act: “I’m doing a pretty good job today.” This view of the self as simultaneously an object of representation and also the subjective agent of representation and action has remained an important maxim of modern self-concept research and psychoanalytic thought (Auerbach and Blatt, 1996; Bach, 1985; Fast, 1995; Guidano, 1991; Harter, 1996; Lewis and Brooks-Gunn, 1979; Modell, 1993; Oosterwegel and Oppenheimer, 1993; Shafer, 1968; Wolstein, 1993).

Much of the psychological research and psychoanalytic theorizing has focused on the objective nature of the self, leaving the subjective side of the self relatively unknown experimentally and theoretically (Harter,1996). Perhaps this reflects the difficulty in trying to objectify one’s own subjectivity. As soon as we become reflective of ourselves or our experience, we move from the subjective to the objective. James (1890) saw the I-self as all the moment-to-moment experiences that flow by in our stream of consciousness. He (James, 1890) postulated that we could not find, at least from a psychological perspective, the knower of those experiences, “the thoughts themselves are the thinkers” (p. 216). Traditionally, the subjective I-self has been regulated to “self-as-process,” whereas the me-self to “selfas-state.” (Guidano, 1991; Johnson, 1986) For the, purposes of this paper, the I-self may be understood to include all our experience: the perceptual, emotional, bodily, mental, volitional, and spiritual experience that we have, without it becoming objectified (Guidano, 1991; James, 1890). Many emotional difficulties have been attributed to problems in objective self-representations (Fairbairn, 1944/1952; Jacobson, 1964; Kohut, 1971; Sullivan, 1953; Winnicott, 1965). For instance, in a recent study, Auerbach and Blatt (1996) found that individuals with schizophrenic and borderline diagnoses appear to have difficulty maintaining consistent objective self-representations. Patients diagnosed with schizophrenia were not able to establish or maintain any core objective me-self, whereas patients diagnosed with borderline personality disorder have a core objective me-self, but it is very unstable and highly reactive.

Recent contributions to the understanding of the objective me-self in both psychology research (Harter,1996; Markus,1990) and psychoanalysis (Beebe et al., 1992; Bromberg, 1994; Davies, 1996; Mitchell, 1993; Stern, 1985, Sullivan, 1953) suggest that the objectively represented me-self is multiple and hierarchical. That is, a multiplicity of objective self-systems are activated at different times or with different people, but a global or universal sense of self also exists. The various schemas associated with the multiple self-systems are used to guide and direct our interactions with others in the world.

A dynamic and interdependent relationship exists between the I-self and the me-self (Guidano, 1991; Harter, 1996), such that one never exists separately from the other. Much like the symbol for the Tao, not only are they in a mutually influenced interaction, but there is always some objective within the subjective and vice versa. The ongoing experience of the I-self is organized and structured through influences from objective me-self schemas. The me-self schemas were developmentally shaped and continue to be influenced by the subjective I-self experiences. On the one hand, there is always an effort to assimilate the ongoing I-self experience into already known and validated me-self schemas. On the other hand, if the I-self experience is compelling enough, the me-self would accommodate and change to accommodate the dissonance (Guidano,1991; Miller, 1996; Piaget, 1954, Sandler, 1976).

Difficulties occur when there is a lack of sufficient flexibility or structure in the me-self schemas to assimilate or accommodate the I-self experience. Two examples would be (1) little or no stable objective me-self, as in individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, and (2) the me-self is too narrow, inflexible, or anxiety filled, as in the individuals with borderline conditions (Auerbach and Blatt, 1996). Various defenses are constantly utilized to ward off and shape new experience or conversely to prevent painful split off “bad me” or “not me” (Sullivan, 1953) me-self schemas from coming into awareness.

Finally, the self in relational psychoanalysis is both intrapsychic and interpersonal (one person and two person) (Mitchell, 1988). Intrapsychic meself schemas and I-self experiences are influenced and dependent on each other as well as on the interpersonal me and I experiences. Likewise, the intrapsychic me-self representations help to form and influence the inter personal. Both are necessary for and interdependent with the other.

The dialectics of the three laksanas-impermanence vs. form, suffering vs. liberation, and interdependence vs. separateness-can be used to further delineate the dialectic of the me-self and the I-self. If one side of any of these dialectics is overemphasized, difficulties arise. For instance, with reference to the first and third laksanas, the view that the intrapsychic objective me-self is permanent and separate would lead to the craving for that self to remain the same. Indeed, the view that the me-self is permanent and separate is commonly held by most individuals and indeed most analysts, as represented by Ernest Wolf (1991): “my conviction that I am the person who was born in a certain place at a certain time as the son of the parents whom I knew and that I am the person who has had a history in which I can identify the ‘I’ of yesterday as the ‘I’ of yesterday and, hopefully, of tomorrow” (p.169). James (1890) and Sullivan (1964) were among the first to argue against the idea of a separate and “perduring” self, stating that attaching too strongly to the idea of such a self leads to difficulties in living. Thus, even though the self, particularly the me-self schemas, has structure and form, it is also interconnected and ever-changing.

With respect to the dialectic of suffering vs. liberation, the psychoanalytic literature only hints at a dialectic between psychopathology and freedom. Freud (1919) argued that the repetition compulsion and transference neurosis, as painful as they are for the patient, provide an avenue for successful treatment, and that suffering contains the key to cure. Cruel though it may sound, we must see to it that the patient’s suffering, to a degree that is in some way or other effective, does not come to an end prematurely. If, owing to the symptoms having been taken apart and having lost their value, his suffering becomes mitigated, we must reinstate it elsewhere in the form of some appreciable privation; otherwise we run the danger of never achieving any improvements except quite insignificant and transitory ones. (Freud, 1919, p. 163)

Contemporary analysts have suggested that such inevitable difficulties as enactments, countertransference, failures, and impasses are necessary components of an analysis (Bromberg, 1994; Hoffman, 1991; Levenson, 1991; Mitchell, 1997; Stolorow and Atwood, 1992; Symington, 1983). From a relational perspective, it may only be by suffering through the transference and countertransference entanglement that an experiential understanding of the problem occurs (Bromberg, 1994; Levenson, 1991).

Buddhism encourages practitioners to be aware of and experience the desires, thoughts, and feelings connected to a view of a permanent self as being in constant change and without substance. Similarly, working with suffering from a perspective that integrates Buddhist and relational theories, the patient and analyst would become aware of and more directly experience the suffering of anxiety and depressed affect through the tools of empathy, inquiry, and enactments. For instance, in depression the loss and accompanying self-attacks, despair, and loneliness would be explored with the hope that those experiences could be tolerated, first in the presence of the caring analyst and then more and more by the patient alone. Second, the negative me-self states that the patient is desperately trying to avoid would gradually be experienced in the relationship with the aim of unraveling the belief in a fixed, permanent and perduring self associated with that me-self system. Because of new I-self experiences with the therapist in the session, the patient would begin to modify the negatively colored meself system.

Clinical Considerations

From an integrated Buddhist/relational perspective, the patient in his or her work with the analyst is constantly attempting to do two interactive things to maintain a permanent and separate me-self: (1) assimilate all I-self experience into already established me-self schemas (e.g., transference), and (2) shape the “real” interpersonal relationship so that the I-self experience fits into preexisting me-self schemas (e.g., enactments and projective identification). If the me-self has sufficient flexibility, multiplicity, and cohesiveness, interactions with others and resulting l-self experiences will not differ greatly from the established me-self schemas and suffering will not be extreme. That is, the patient’s and the analyst’s ongoing experience of relating with each other will fit their objective sense of who they both are.

However, since no one’s objective and conceptual sense of reality is the same as the actual experience, the obiective and subjective selves will differ to some extent, and clinging and suffering will inevitably result. In other words, transference and countertransference enactments will occur. To work with these disparities, it follows from this framework that the job of the analyst is to experience and understand, as clearly as possible, the difference between the I-self experience and the me-self systems (meaningmaking, understanding, schemas, etc.) in both analyst and patient. Second, the job of the analyst is to provide, in the sessions, experiences that will counter or expand the objective me-self. Often this will happen through the empathic enquiry into the enactments themselves as they are played out in the session, sometimes only after a difficult period of suffering on the part of both the patient and analyst.

In the case of Steve, our work often centered around the isolation, loneliness, and detachment he felt in his life and relationships with others. On the surface he was bright, entertaining, creative, good-looking, and extravagant in a way that provoked interest or anxiety in others. However, most of these attributes were used in ways to protect me-self systems in which he viewed himself as vulnerable and monstrous. Letting people close meant they would see his monstrous self and leave or hurt him. He considered his cutting and insightful cynicism to be evidence of his unlovableness. In addition to fearing abuse from others, Steve was cautious of his own internal feelings and thoughts, lest they destroy or offend the people he was dependent upon.

Steve viewed a good portion of his self as bad or “not me” (Sullivan, 1953). He put tremendous energy into hiding these parts of himself, instead, showing me only the “good me.” There was an entertaining and emotionally detached manner in his dress, behavior, speech, and stories that were used almost exclusively in our interactions. Over a short period of time this entertaining became routine and predictable, leading to boredom and sleepiness on my part. Sleepiness is sometimes a signal for me that something is going on in the relationship that I’m not aware of, such as fear, anger, or detachment. Bringing such suspicions and drowsiness to his awareness felt awkward and it took some time to understand the resistance I think we both created. I worried that Steve would feel hurt by the implication that “he is putting me to sleep,” and thus confirm his view that he was inadequate. On the other hand, not saying anything and becoming drowsy could be seen as a similar enactment.

In the framework of a Buddhist/relational analysis, I suspected that Steve was anxious about an experience in our relationship that was at odds with various me-self schemas, and that he was attempting to control the interaction in order to adjust his I-self experience. There was a repetitive nature to our interaction that suggested to me that both he and I were becoming somewhat fixed and static. The question I posed to both of us was whether this pattern was a familiar experience for him and if we could try and understand it together.

Steve admitted that he could identify similar patterns with others dating back to family dynamics where he would be entertaining with his parents, feeling that unless he kept up the show they would lose interest or even use him for their own needs. The alternative was to be in his room alone filled with anxiety and depression. Steve said he was very relieved to be able to talk about this situation since he thought he was doing something wrong and he was trying to hide his inadequacies. He remarked that he was trying to make his entertaining seem natural, but it really did not seem natural to him, although it was ironically the only thing he was familiar with. He also admitted that he had noticed that I was drowsy, but he had interpreted it to mean that he was not very interesting (entertaining). This of course made him more anxious and he tried harder to keep my attention. He said he had never before thought of talking to anyone about this circumstance. The chance to talk about it was a new experience and touched him with gratitude.

We next tried to pay attention to when the pattern of Steve-being-entertaining and me-being-entertained was more present and when it was not. Although it seemed to Steve that this pattern or some variation of it was present most of the time, we gradually noticed that it was most present when he was feeling particularly good and “didn’t have much to talk about,” or when he was just beginning to feel bad or depressed but was hoping the feeling would not last or that he would not have to tell me about it. Both of these times were filled with anxiety for him and he associated it to being unsure of himself and his relations with others, in this case me. If he was feeling good, what would he talk about? Would he be able to hold my attention? Would he be interesting enough? Would we end therapy? Likewise, if he was starting to get more depressed, he would need me more and more, and would I be able to handle it? Would I get angry like his mother and father and abandon him, or abuse him like the psychologist to whom he had originally looked for comfort? Would he be unable to contain all of his anxiety, fear, and rage and explode in an outburst of temper and anxiety, thus losing me?

From repeated instances of similar situations, we started to construct a story that began to illuminate many dark areas of his experience and self. In theoretical terms, it was a story that reflected a reformulated and expanded me-self system. Now, in addition to experiencing himself as someone who with much effort was busy entertaining me (as well as others) and desperately at times attempting to hold my flagging attention, he was beginning to share this experience with me and elicit a caring and interested response. At first this scenario was only from me, but over time he also became compassionate toward his fearful, entertaining me-self systems that he had attempted to protect but also loathed. He also began to develop a capacity to see the various parts of his me-self system as less discontinuous or dissociated and more in relation to each other and to me.

Finally, we began to see that he was often responding to behaviors of mine from his I-self experience, which he formulated as replications of patterns with earlier problematic figures. My interest and kindness aroused in him suspicion that I was only being nice as part of my job and that I really would not like him if I were not being paid (reminiscent of the psychologist who abused him). We discussed the truth in those beliefs, in that if we knew each other in a different context our relationship would be different; we really did not know how that would be, but we speculated on some possibilities. However, did this perspectivistic truth mean that the relationship and feelings that we both had in the current relationship should not be acknowledged, accepted, and trusted? This questioning led to further exploration of who he thought he was to be cared for in such a way by me and did it match with the experience we were having in the sessions.

Gradually Steve’s experience of himself in our relationship came into clearer focus and in clearer distinction with his me-self system beliefs. Even though some of the negative beliefs were enacted in the sessions by my becoming drowsy, therefore making his I-self experiences congruent with his me-self beliefs, being able to talk about this pattern and track the comings and goings of it in the session provided actual direct contradictory experience of these beliefs. The me-self was expanded to include some genuinely interesting aspects of his entertaining as well as beginning to include the bad- or not-me patterns that were previously dissociated.

The goal with Steve is to broaden his me-self schemas so that they are less restricting. It is hoped that this process will continue throughout every patient’s life even after analysis ends. Psychoanalysis from this perspective is a deconstruction (or destruction as my Zen teacher says) of the self (see Levenson, 1988, for a discussion of deconstruction from an interpersonal perspective). In Buddhism a similar goal, if there can be a goal in Buddhism, is to directly experience over and over again the absence of a solid, permanent me-self. The me-self patterns that do continue to arise as a result of evolution, learning, and human conditioning can be experienced relatively quickly as “empty” energy patterns without the intense identification and attachment that normally goes along with “this is who I am, what I’m like.”

Most patients are not interested in the long and difficult endeavor of deconstructing the self past the point of reducing their anxiety or depression. If they are interested in such a pursuit a Buddhist teacher using more formal insight and meditative practices may be more helpful (e.g., Beck, 1989, 1993; Chodron, 1994; Goldstein and Kornfield, 1987). However, even among Buddhist teachers there is an attempt to incorporate Western psychological principles at every level to aid in their work with American students.

In summary, the integrative model presented here can be of use in considering how the self functions in relation to suffering. Understanding the dialectical nature of the self allows the analyst to attend to both the subjective and objective aspects of the intrapsychic self as well as how they manifest in the relationship with the analyst. Particular attention to the subjective I-self experience and its matching with the me-self system schemas will offer opportunities for clarification of patterns associated with suffering as well as opportunities for new experiences and expansion of self systems.