How the Self & Reality Develop: What Buddhist Psychology Teaches us About Reality

Traditional_bhavachakra_wall_mural_of_Yama_holding_the_wheel_of_life,_Buddha_pointing_the_way_out.jpgIn Buddhist psychology, we have many concepts that are presented in many ways, in a variety of different languages. The teachings are simply a way of life. They need not be religious, spiritual, or otherwise. The teachings are simply an approach that has proven to be useful in living life.

Of these ideas, the Twelve Nirdanas are part of the first teachings that most students of Buddhism encounter. The word nirdanas can be translated as links. These twelve links describe how we come to perceive the world. Much like a cognitive psychology of sensation and perception, the twelve links show how our worldview come to be through a series of linked ideas, each idea leading towards the next, from ignorance to death. We can think of the Twelve Nirdanas as a stage process of human development of personality. We can understand how the self (called the ego in Latin) develops from conception through death.

Let’s take a look at the Twelve Nirdanas and see what they have to teach us. I will be reading and interpreting the nirdanas as they are presented in Dwight Goddard’s classic text, A Buddhist Bible.

The Twelve Nirdanas

  1. Because of ignorance, the principle of individuation as discriminated from enlightenment which is the principle of unity and sameness, the primal unity becomes divided into thinking, thinker, and thoughts by reason of which there appear the “formations” of karma.

    When we are in the womb, we have no concept of self. There is no me or  I; what we come to call ego (Latin for I). The words me, I, self are words. As we learn words –signifiers for the signified experience– we begin to discriminate between me and not me -self and other. This is a basic understanding in psychological research -it is not until about 18 months of age that a baby first recognizes itself in a mirror. Before this mirror phase experience, when we realize ourself the first time, there is no self-concept. What is experienced is wholeness, oneness with all experience. The psychologist express this as mommy and me are one. With language we begin to shape an idea of self-other, me-you, and with it the emergence of an I that can think about me. This is self-consciousness, the moment that I become the object of my own subjectivity. The birth of the self is generated by the grammar that shapes us. We come to learn that we are separate selves from each other. The event of experiencing this separateness is called ignorance. When we realize the initial oneness that preceded this sense of a separate self from others, we have Enlightenment. To put it simply Enlightenment is a remembering of what we forgot when we taught who we are. The self is something that is formed through culture and society. When we lose the self, we get back to the pre-ego state of being, like the infant, and are able free ourselves from the suffering that comes from the false notion that we are separate from nature.The word karma here does not mean reward and punishment, or some kind of you get what you deserve. That is a Western interpretation. Karma simply means action. The Buddha realized karma when he observed a farmer plowing a field, uncovering and earthworm with his hoe, a bird swooping down to eat the worm. Everything action leads to another action in a connection. Karma is an awareness that our actions lead to other actions. Good and bad, reward and punishment is not part of this thinking. What is part of the thinking is the awareness of action and what further action that act might invite.
  2. Because of these karmic “forms”, the principle of consciousness emerges.The “formations” of karma of the first verse becomes the focus of the second verse. Formations habitualize into forms. What is a form? A form is something that gives shape to that which it is applied. A form forms the materials of which it is utilized. Our consciousness arises from the forms with organize our experience. This is not too difficult to understand if one takes the long-view. The experience of the related of actions becomes crystalized into predictable of forecastable experiences. Our ability to forecast, predict or see connections between events is the experience that we call consciousness. A restatement might be helpful.We speak and write the word water. However, the written symbol water, or the spoke word can not make us wet. We can not drink the word water. However, the written and spoken signifier (water) signifies the sensory experience of the signified sensory experience. Furthermore this signifier becomes something that we reify; treat as real. These reified mental concepts are the formations from which consciousness emerges. To be conscious is to be conscious of something. The formations or signified mental concepts become the events that are linked together into past, future, and present -our experience of consciousness. This concept takes time to figure-out and understand. If you keep working through it in your mind, and let go or pre-conceived ideas about consciousness, it will be clear. This takes time and thoughtful contemplation.
  3. Because of the principle of consciousness, mentality and body emerge. With these forms or mental concepts comes the emergence of conscious awareness. Awareness of something is awareness of one’s physical body and one’s own mind. Out of conscious awareness emerges observation of one’s thoughts, and one’s body. Notice that we speak of our thoughts and our body. There is a feeling that we are proprietors of the thoughts and physical flesh that we observe.
  4. Because of mentality and body, the six senses and the organs appear. We are aware of the senses individually through observation. We observe separate senses and organs, rather than a whole. However those individual sensations are not yet integrated into a whole.
  5. Because of the six senses and the organs, sensations and perceptions arise. We sense and perceive reality. Keeping in mind that these sensations and perceptions emerge out of concepts, we can catch a glimpse of the illusory nature of reality. This is the part of our psychic process into which integration of sensations becomes organized into perceptions that we experience as reality.
  6. Because of sensation and perception, feelings and discriminations arise. In evolutionary terms, discrimination would be understood as understanding differences and arranging those differences by usefulness to our survival. I think that in a higher sense, we come to judge and arrange our sensation, perceptions, and feelings by how well they serve our newly formed ego, or sense of continuity.
  7. Because of feelings and sensations, thirst and craving arise. This is an important step to understand for self-insight. We come to crave and desire certain sensations and feelings associated with specific concepts that we have judged useful to our ego. This is not mere craving food, or thirsting for water. This is a desire for that which supports our ego.
  8. Because of thirst and craving, grasping and clinging appear. We become so focused on the symbolic order of the judgments that take place, and what their significance hold for our sense of self, that we cling desperately to possess those objects, or the feelings that they produce in us. This is the emotional hoarding that can take place in our desire to possess another person or objects. It is a grasping for security.

  9. Because of grasping and clinging, conception takes place. We call this ultimate form of clinging onto conception. It is the physical desire to duplicate, to create with another human being, as well as the desire to multiply the objects we cling-on to for their emotional charge of security. This is something felt emotionally, and only conceptualized intellectually. To get a sense of this, think of time when you knew logically the reason of some experience, but the emotional arousal of the experience dominates over logical thought. There is a moment when our understanding penetrates into the emotional level and we feel insight rather than think it.

  10. Because of conception, the continuing process of existence goes on. We cling to and reproduce one another, objects, and ideas. The self is time-based process, not an object or thing that exists in isolation. This is why the scientific measurement and search for objective understanding cannot get at the bulk of what we mean by being-human.

  11. Because of the continuing process of existence; growth, sickness, old age, decay, and death take place. The process of growth and decay are essential to existence. Again existence is a process based in time, rather than an object based in space.

  12. Because of sickness, old age, and death; sorrow, lamentation, pain, and despair arises. Thus arises the whole mass of suffering. Suffering is an essential feature of existence. You cannot live a life without suffering. However, much of our suffering is produced by actions and thoughts that are outside of this basic, natural suffering that is essential to existence. We can learn from that suffering, and also learn how to reduce that suffering. This is the insights provided in The Four Truths and The Eightfold Path.

We can see through the twelve stages of existence how ego emerges, the self  develops, reproduces, decays, and then dissolves. We call this birth, living, and death. We can also appreciate how consciousness, self-consciousness, and reality emerge from our psychological processes. This is an important aspect in Buddhist psychology. To be aware of not only the illusion of reality, but the reality of the illusion itself is to gain Enlightenment into the nature of ourselves and the realities we live in.

Ways-of-Experiencing the World: How Your Worldview Shapes Your World

liberat.jpgThe German thinker Immanuel Kant is regarded by many to be the greatest thinker of modern philosophy. There are numerous introductions to Kant and his thinking available, a few of which I will list at the end of these thoughts. One of Kant’s many areas of thinking was on thinking itself. Kant introduced a concept into philosophy which he called transcendental idealism. This term is often intimidating to newcomers to philosophy, but the basic idea is not complicated. However, the implications of the idea are radical to our common experience of reality.

Transcendental idealism is the idea that the mind organizes sensory information, speculation, and memory in such a way that the the meaning transcends the individual ingredients of information. Think of it this way, a cake has separate ingredients that when ordered in a certain way become what we call a cake. Kant’s idealism could be thought of as ideaism -ideas construct our experience of reality. An example might help to understand this idea. We can have water droplets and sunshine, but the rainbow needs a conscious mind to become a “rainbow”.

One of the native features of the human mind, Kant said, was our tendency to organize information into causal relationships. This idea feels strange when we first encounter it. Attributing cause and effect to two events is how the mind is set-up to function. Most of the time the mind is right in establishing a relationship between two things, say smoke being caused by fire. The mind organizes this into a causal experience naturally, and it was of great benefit not only to our evolutionary ancestors, but also to modern humans. However, the relationships that exist between two events are not always related causally. Rain, sunlight, and an observing person do not cause the rainbow, they are interactions that manifest the process of the phenomenon we call a rainbow. More accurately, this is not a rainbow, but rather a rainbowing. We see process rather than object.

Idealism uncovered a way of seeing the world that emphasized process rather than object. The implications have been immense -and controversial. We could spend many years discussing the implications, but I would like to focus on an aspect of our everyday experience. The implications of this on our daily lives is monumental and will lead to a veering off into a new way of experiencing the world we live in.

Before we begin,  I would like to clear-up any confusion that might take place between Kant’s Transcendental idealism, and R.W. Emerson’s New England Transcendentalism. Those of you who read my work know that I often refer to R. W. Emerson, so I would like to clear-up a common confusion from the start. Although Emerson was influenced by Kant, his transcendentalism is something different than what Kant was describing and what we are talking about here. For the sake of brevity, I would suggest thinking of Emerson’s transcendentalism as something that is more spiritual. It is a concept largely rooted in Hindu thought. Kant’s transcendental thought is more like contemporary cognitive psychology theory, in which sensory information (bottom-up processing) and mindful thought (top-down processing) combines to create reality.

Today we understand that how the human mind organizes experience varies between culture to culture, native languages, eras, and individuals. If anything, Kant’s radical idea (it caused an event in philosophy known as the Kantian split) was in fact more radical than he realized. The fact that we can find the idea occurring 2,500 years earlier in both Eastern and Pre-Socratic thought is a topic for another day! The point is this: Just as the heart pumps, he brain minds information into knowledge.

Take for example two assumptions we make about how we become who we are; this idea we call the self or me. Depending on one’s way-of-experiencing the world, how we become who we are is often broadly attributed to one of two causes: our upbringing and our genetics. Traditionally in psychology this is called the nature-nurture debate. Although most contemporary psychologists claim they do not take an either-or approach to this, it has been my experience that they do. Talking about 40% nature and 60% nurture is like talking about choice in the potato chip aisle at the supermarket. It still comes down to potato chips -or nature versus nurture- despite the apparent differences in packaging.

Some folks, and their professions not only follow but energize their way-of-thinking, see the biological determinism in everything. Addiction, sexual desires, moods, personality, and motivation are largely viewed in biological terms. These are the proponents of the four Fs way of seeing the world: we are driven by fighting, fleeing, feeding, & fornicating. In other words, all aspects of why we do what we do can be understood by survival or passing on our genes. We are largely expressing biological drives. This is one way of experiencing the world, and for those who choose this point of view, the world will concede. These individuals understand themselves and others as biological automatons, and their way-of-being in the world corresponds to this belief. The biological determinists point-of-view leads one to understand themselves and others in an evolutionary, biological, or neuroscientific way. Who am I? I am a function of my biology.

On the other hand we have the environmental determinists. These are people who believe that who we are is determined by how we were raised, our socioeconomic class, or our education. Ask this person how they became who they are and they will point to how they were parented (for better or worse) or how they are a product of which neighborhood they happened to grow-up in. The environmental determinist point-of-view leads one to understand the themselves and others in a sociological or social psychological way. Who am I? I am how and where I was raised and live.

How one comes to view themselves and others will largely determine which way-of-experiencing the world they will be drawn towards. Once they arrive at an understanding, they will often evidence to support their assumptions. Largely this leads to a kind stagnation that confirms their point-of-view. The argument between the nativists and the empiricists largely reinforces the either-or point of view, much like political parties. Evidence is a matter of point-or-view, as we saw in the People’s Choice Studies of the 1930s. These studies found that Democratic campaign ads reinforces the beliefs of Republicans. In other words, evidence compliments the ideology of the individual. The lesson here is to become aware of how our belief pre-establishes what we see in the world.

One such thinker did just this. Deeply invested in a biological determinism, William James found himself in a crisis. In his own words:

“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the fist part of Renouvier’s second “Essais” and see no reason why his definition of free will–“the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts”–need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present–until next year– that is it no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will… Hitherto when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe it as well; believe in my own individual reality and creative power.”

 What has happened in William James’ thought is monumental. So monumental that it changed his life forever. When James gave himself permission to believe in what he felt, namely that there was an option beyond determinism, he became free to experience and live as-if her were free. Once freed from the logic of biological and environmental determinism, he flourish in the logic of autonomous, volitional, free-will. What this means for us is as profound today as it was for James in the nineteenth century. In a culture in which we are lead to believe that who we are, what we are capable of, and how we act is determined by our upbringing, our income, or our biology, we are free to choose how to react to our past, our present, and our future. Free-will has practical consequences in how we live. Rather than becoming marionettes to genetics or circumstances, we choose how to react to our biological and environmental histories and circumstances. This is the ultimate act of free-will: to chose to believe in free-will. This is an empowering lesson that we can live by to transform how we understand ourselves, and how we manifest our lives in a creative process.



Immanuel Kant with Warnock & Magee

Kant, The School of Life

Film on Kant


On the Merits of Walking in the Opposite Direction of Your Destination


By the time many Americans and other foreigners made the voyage to Switzerland to meet with the world renowned Dr. Carl Gustav Jung, his name had become synonymous with living a creative, artistic life. It is no wonder that many creative individuals flocked to Lake Zürich to ask Dr. Young to be their guide into their individual and collective unconscious.

In his middle years, Jung was often Conducting analysis from his sailboat. Along with using the I Ching, Jung used his sailboat and Lake Zürich as a teaching apparatus. He would direct the patient to the helm and ask them to navigate the course to the opposite shore. Continue reading

You-ism, Me-ism, & Real-ism

“Today humanity, as never before, is split into two apparently irreconcilable halves. The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposite halves.” -C.G. Jung, 1959

MattGiobbiThe sentiment that our lived world is a manifestation of our psychic lives is deeply rooted in our human history. Contemporary interpretations of the idea are very popular and very controversial, and it seems to me that much of the ridicule that the idea receives is more of a statement about the motivation for such ideas, rather than the idea itself. The mind as an active participant in creating our experience of our lived world is not contested by most neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists. The active mind is the central point of what we call cognitive psychology. Yet, talk about manifesting what we want in life by focusing on it mentally receives skeptical reactions and even ridicule. It seems to me that the ridicule is mostly aroused by the motivation, not by the concept itself. Continue reading

Living a Self-Actualized Life

maslowWe can generally observe that we are motivated to seek happiness. The word happiness is a rather slippery term that means different things to different people. Typically, the qualities that we believe will bring us happiness are directly related to what we feel we lack. This sense of lack often originates in beliefs we form in childhood, and reinforce through our adult lives. Although a sense of lack can be a great motivator for change in our lives, the results of achieving or securing the things we lack often fail to bring sustained happiness and a sense of wholeness. Whether our lack of money, education, social-status, or respect be the motivation for our pursuits, the achievement of these things often fails to bring us to a place of completeness. The belief that fulfilling our individual sense of inferiority will make us happy seems like common-sense. However, there are many who achieve intellectual, material, and social success who continue to be extremely unhappy. So what then do we need to do to gain a sense of wholeness and completeness? It has little or nothing to do with wealth, formal education, and social clout. In fact, these three pursuits are often distractions and obstacles to true self-actualization.



Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who spent his life studying the characteristics of people who achieved contentedness. His term, self-actualization is the Westernized version of the Eastern concept of enlightenment. In fact, much of Maslow’s theory is inspired by ancient insights from Eastern thought. In 1987 Maslow published his findings after a lifetime of examining what self-actualized people believe and how they live. Maslow compiled a list of fifteen qualities that truly content people possess. Continue reading