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Langan - What on closer examination disappears

What on closer examination disappears

by Robert Langan, Ph.D.

Consider yourself.  The invitation to do so is made both by Buddhism and by psychoanalysis.  Each, in its own way, proffers a technique of examination, and each, I propose, encounters an elusiveness central to the nature of human being.  What on closer examination disappears is self, self itself.  As Mitchell (1993) says, "The most striking thing about the concept of self within current psychoanalytic thought is precisely the startling contrast between the centrality of concern with self and the enormous variability and lack of consensus about what the term even means" (p. 99). Mitchell's overview of the current theoretical ferment discerns two main metaphors of self: the spatial and the temporal.

The spatial is familiarly Freudian: The self is like a structure in space, perduring through time, modifiable, but essentially the same unto itself. The self is the bedrock of "I."

The temporal metaphor, on the other hand, construes self as multiple and discontinuous.  In line with Bergson's (1912) argument that "I" now am different from the "I" of a moment ago because "I" now subsume a moment's more experience, the temporal self is ever in flux, malleable as Proteus (Langan, 1995, 1997a), as impossible to grasp as an indivisible moment in time.  Rather than bedrock, the self is quicksand, its solidity illusory.

Instead of arguing for one metaphor over the other, Mitchell rightly recognizes that both describe plausible aspects of experiencing oneself, and that a dialectic tension exists between them.  For a dialectical metaphor, Mitchell (1993, p. 115) suggests thinking of self-experience as a cinematic film.  Each frame of the film is discrete and discontinuous, like the self one might experience at a given time in a given circumstance.  Yet the frames running together in motion provide the continuity of a motion picture, the integral sense of self constant through time.

What the metaphor overlooks, I feel, is that between each pair of frames there is empty space.  Self bestrides no self. The dialectical understanding of self is useful but limited: What had been the constancy of the sun in the sky becomes more like a child's sparkler writing a signature in the dark.  Both sun and ephemeral sparkler shine and catch the eye; both draw the eye away from the pervasive dark.  That dark, I suggest, is an unattended void that underlies the dialectic.  The dialectical understanding does not suffice.  Thinking of self-experience as both constant and temporary skirts an issue directly addressed by Buddhism: the problematic experience of no experience, no experiencer, no self.

Though he recognizes some similarities between the temporal view of mind and the Buddhist view of self as illusory, Mitchell (1993) maintains that, "Whereas the Buddhist ideal involves a letting go of content and a surrender to process, the analytic ideal involves a dialectic between an exploration and immersion in content and a freedom to move past it in the flow of experience" (p. 248).  The two ideals may not be quite so dissimilar as he maintains.

The comparative theologian de Silva (1975) provides a different theoretical approach to these self-same issues.  He sets out to reconcile the Christian vision of man as possessor of an everlasting soul, responsible for its salvation, with the Buddhist doctrine of no self (anatta), according to which the self is not everlasting because, fundamentally, there is no self to last in the first place.  Further, the doctrine of no self is seemingly contradicted within Buddhism by the tenet of karmic rebirth.  Who is reborn, if no one is there?

At first glance, the Christian response to the fact of death is denial through resort to eternalism, while the Buddhist response is a resignation to nihilism.  By de Silva's reading of the original Hebrew of the Bible, however, the very notion of the eternal soul is an artifact of translation into Greek.  Lost in translation is the sense of soul not as separate but as spirit existing only in personal-communal relationship with others.  The self, in this conceptualization, is a transcendent phenomenon arising through I-Thou relationship.

This emphasis on self derived from relational flux rather than objective certitude is mirrored in Buber's (e.g., 1923) philosophy, which Margalit (1993) encapsulates as substituting for the Cartesian "I think. Therefore I am," the more apt "We meet. Therefore I am" (p. 70).

The Buddhist conceptualization of no self, according to de Silva (1975), betokens not the annihilation but the transcendence of the separated, monadic self.  He writes, "The spiritual meaning of anatta is the realisation that by oneself one is nothing and that it is by self-negation or denying oneself that one's true self can be discovered in a relationship" (p. 6).  The cycle of rebirth, then, has nothing to do with passing along a monadic entity and everything to do with the re-creation of qualities of relationship.  What one does matters, karmically, because what one does generates the possibilities of how one may come to be.

Thus, Mitchell's view of the analytic situation's involving an immersion in the content of who one is combined with the freedom to flow past the fixity of that content is not so far from the Buddhist view that what is does matter:  It matters in its relation to potential transcendence.

It would be possible to stop with this relational commonality between psychoanalysis and Buddhism.  To do so, however, would be to stop short of the full implications of no self.  The liberating recognition of relationality still restricts no self, in effect, to not self.  That is, there is self, separated and solitary "I," which implies not self, or "You."  The recognition of our relationality transcends the separation, allowing multivalent possibilities of who "You" and "I" may come to be.

As you read these words, as you try to understand what I am saying, in your effort to engage my thought you become as I am, trying on for size the cloak of my thought.  I am not my thought, yet you make me by taking up my thought.   You hold your idea of who I am:  You hold me in mind as I hold you.  I come to you out of nowhere, to your where, and to nowhere I go if you thoughtlessly let me go.  My "me" is up to you.

Even in the playing out of these multivalent possibilities, however, form follows form follows form.  To return to the cinematic metaphor, it is as if movie follows movie follows movie, the projector grinding on and on and on, one's eyes never glazing despite the endless triple feature of a day after day after day continuing life.  Yet the projector can be stopped.  The relational aspect of perpetually reformable self is undercut by the more paradoxical conundrum of utter no self.  Suler (1993) has it that the Zen answer to whether there is a self or not is this: There is no self, but as well, there is no no self.  This sort of answer slashes back to undercut the dialectic.  Dialectical understanding poses the wrong questions.

The dialectical pendulum swing from spatial self to temporal self, from continuous to discontinuous self experience, from separateness to joinedness, each swing suffers from its suggestion of familiar knowability.  As the paradox begins to be understood as a dialectic, it loses its mystery, reduced to the comprehensibility of words.

How can I not be here, when I sense myself to be here?  How is self no self?  What on closer examination disappears? Both psychoanalysis and Buddhism, from my point of view, provide methods that allow some experience of this mystery. The psychoanalytic method is the recurrent situation created between analyst and analysand. The Buddhist method is meditation.

Epstein (1998) provides a psychologically sophisticated and clear introduction to meditation for those who do not know much about it, and a clarifying reminder of what is most important about meditation for those who may know too much about it-for those so assiduously practicing meditation that they may have become distracted by the method and may have forgotten the point.  The essence of the method is deceptively simple: simply to return attention, over and over again, as attention inevitably wanders (wherein lies the difficulty), to something as simple as the breath.  The point of the method, the reason for practicing meditation, is to awaken to the profound nature of being.

It occurs to me that I have two practices.  One is the practice of psychoanalysis.  The other is the practice of meditation.  I first got interested in meditation during college, then let it go and picked it up variously over the years, until about 10 years ago, when I began what has evolved into a daily practice.  It occurs to me that that was when I was finishing my formal psychoanalytic training.  I think the experience of my analytic training, in conjunction with myriad personal factors, led toward meditation.  It occurs to me, in fact, that I do not have two practices but only one. I do not mean to say that psychoanalysis is meditation.  At the same time, I do not mean to say that psychoanalysis is not meditation.  Let me try to explain why I think I have only one practice.  My explanation will suggest that analysts who have never thought much about meditation may find that they have been practicing meditation all along-just like Moliere's bourgeois gentilhomme who was pleased to be informed that he had been speaking "prose" his whole life, when he thought he had merely been talking.

First, to dispel a culturally common misperception about meditation, indeed, about Buddhism as a whole: The misperception is that Buddhism advocates a self-centered withdrawal from the world, and that meditation induces a druglike trance state conducive to that end.  Not only is it ironic how precisely opposite this is to the facts of the matter but it is interesting, psychoanalytically speaking, to consider how much threatening anxiety the invitation of the Buddha can arouse.  The threat is so great as to prompt tar and-feathering Buddhism into a facsimile of its opposite.  What is the essence of the threat?  The Buddha's radical, undermining suggestion is that there is a method you can follow to find out that you are not who you think you are, that the world is other than it appears.  The method involves allowing yourself to open, ever more deeply, to the nature of experience.

Now speaking of methods recently tarred black and purportedly made ridiculous by fluff-headed feathers, I ask you to consider psychoanalysis.  Some would have it that psychoanalysis is an omphalocentric, self indulgent waste of money and time, best avoided so that one can take the proper pill and properly get on with the business of living. Psychoanalysis is styled as a process of getting shrunk by a shrink, parodied into a facsimile of its opposite.  Why is there such a strong need to denigrate psychoanalysis?  Psychoanalysis poses a threat.  As I see it, the threat of psychoanalysis is its radical, undermining suggestion that there is a method you can follow to find out that you are not who you think you are, that the world is other than it appears. The method involves allowing yourself to open, ever more deeply, to the nature of experience.

You begin to see why I think I have only one practice, not two.  From my point of view (Langan, 1993), admittedly a revisionist history of psychoanalysis, Freud's fundamental discovery was that you are not (entirely) who you think you are, and that his method can reveal how this is so.  Unfortunately, however, Freud obscured the gaping significance of his discovery by postulating that as much as you did not know who you were, he did.  And the Freudian proclivity was to reduce the shimmering complexity of human experience to a stinkpot of snarling aggression and rapacious lust. Freud's metapsychological explanations of what's what, of what makes the mechanistic psyche tick, can be seen as an effort to cling to the security of an answer, to explain away something appalling about his fundamental discovery. Freud's effort is to avoid the void that subtends human experience.

Epstein (1998) recounts Freud's frustration when, during one of those summer strolls through the Alps. he realized how his two companions were so isolated in their thoughts that they were unable to appreciate the fleeting beauty of a summer flower.  They would not allow themselves to feel beauty, lest they also feel loss.  And, according to Epstein, Freud lacked a method to breach their isolation.

Some of my favorite times with Freud are those summer strolls through the Alps, never knowing when the next milkmaid might appear to present herself for a half hour of psychoanalysis.  But from my point of view, Freud did have a method.  It is as if during one of his mountain walks he had stumbled across a chasm at the edge of what is known. Understandably, he did his best to scramble back away from it, proffering his understandings to keep things known. The Buddha, too, came across the void, but instead of backing away, realized the paradoxical un-understanding of the Heart Sutra (Hua, 1980), which goes, "Emptiness itself is form; form itself is emptiness."  I shall return shortly to the relevance of this sutra for psychoanalysis, and in particular, to how it reflects an implicit meditative awareness in the self observing setup of the psychoanalytic process.  First, however, I think it would be useful to illustrate what I am talking about with a clinical example.  

[N.B.  Relevant clinical material was here deleted in the interest of confidentiality.  It describes a patient's surprise during a couples's session at the feeling of not recognizing his longtime companion, then his subsequent surprise in an individual session at not recognizing himself.]  ... Yet that firmer sense of self would require the retention, paradoxically, of the unfirm self-unfirm, not infirm, a self revisable because provisional, a self provisional because it served as a passing substitute for a self that was ever elsewhere, never there.

Emptiness itself is form; form itself is emptiness.  The fundamental self seems never to arrive, yet never to have departed.  From this perspective, psychoanalysis does not change who one is, because at base there is no who there to change.  Psychoanalysis changes how one is, how one allows into awareness and chooses among the possibilities of who one might be.  Past choices dictate present possibilities.  Present choices bear the burden of opening up or closing down future awareness.  How one chooses has crucial importance.  From this perspective, psychoanalysis, like meditation, is a tool that can be used to arouse awareness, first, to the fact of free choice, that one is perpetually choosing what to be aware of, and second, to the fact that one is unavoidably answerable for one's choices.

From this perspective, psychoanalytic transference, the carrying over of past relational patterns to people in one's present, is a special instance of the Buddhist law of karma, the dependent arising of the present from the past, the cause-and-effect relation between past choices and present possibilities.

I am reminded of a reminder I once saw on the subway.  As my eye idly wandered about the car, I suddenly noticed that the usual small sign by the window did not say, "Air-Conditioned Car: Please Close Windows.'  Instead, in graphics and typeface perfectly matched to the subway standard, the sign said, "Karma-Conditioned Car: Please Watch What You Do."

From my perspective, both meditation and psychoanalysis are methods to help us watch what we do.  What is explicit in meditation may be implicit in psychoanalysis, yet each method entails the development of an introspective awareness that expands the possibilities of choice in how we live.

According to Epstein (1998), Freud lacked a method to open his friends to the transient beauty of the Alpine flower, so obsessionally defended were they against the grief of loss which is love's mirror.  "In Buddhism, breaking through the mind's isolation requires something other than just analysis.  It requires a new way of being with the mind, one in which its observing functions take precedence over its reactive ones.... [Meditation substitutes] a more benign care-taker, of a watcher or observer, for the split-off mental functioning of the obsessively thinking mind" (p. 75).  But to my way of thinking, the essence of psychoanalysis lies precisely in its requirement of a new way of self-observant being with the mind.  The observing analyst mirrors and models the observing self of the analysand.

Psychoanalysis is not analysis in the sense of a knit-browed effort to come up with whys and wherefores, or to supply a person with ever-more ample narrative constructions of self.  If psychoanalysis becomes just that, it bears further self-observation.  In the act of such observation, that which was beginning to become closed and rigidified into form instead begins to become open and empty of fixity.

It is all too easy to teeter on the slipperiness of words when trying to talk about this distinction.  The quality of attention shared by the methods of psychoanalysis and of meditation is an analysis that does not analyze, a holding on to a letting go (Langan, 1997b).  Adam Phillips (1994) puts it this way: "It is almost as though Freud is saying that [people] already have something like an analyst inside them, 'simply [observing]'; and that a person comes for analysis when this inner analyst can no longer sustain evenly suspended attention.  That this internal figure has forgotten how to forget" (p. 32).  The work of psychoanalysis, then, like the work of meditation, entails remembering how to forget so that one can forget to remember.  Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.  The sutra does not deny form; it gives form meaning by its relation to emptiness.

Yet emptiness does not bear a dialectical relation to form, in the sense that emptiness is merely the absence of form.  Meditation does not merely replace isolation with an ever-more open connectedness.  Its goal-or for that matter, the goal of psychoanalysis-is not in the end to be able to exclaim, "Lo!  And now I am One with the Flower that Bloometh but a Day!"  It is not just a matter of shifting the balance between isolation and connectedness, important as that may be; rather it is a matter of undercutting the duality of isolation and connectedness.  After all, isolation and connectedness are both forms of relatedness.  And form, as both Freud and the Buddha found, and as I think each of us, trembling between birth and death, knows, is perched on a void.  The radical implication of emptiness is that one can experience, or at least have an intimation of, the transcendence of form.

The Buddhist commentator Chang (Milarepa, 1962) puts it this way:  "The patterns of thought of sentient beings are of a limited or finite nature.  When one realizes the truth of Voidness . . . the limitative patterns of thought are fundamentally transformed [by] the absolute, universal, and interpenetrating state of all the different aspects of existence in the light of the Void" (p. 36, fn. 14).  So voidness means neither absence nor extinction; it is best defined by its indefinability.  He says, "Voidness denotes the relative, flowing, undefineable, and ungraspable nature of all things.  Philosophically it represents the illusory and dream-like nature of phenomena; psychologically it signifies a total liberation from all bondage" (p. 8, fn. 2).

How might this "total liberation from all bondage" be understood psychoanalytically?  This is no small question, and this is not the place to expatiate on it.  But the answer shows itself, I believe, in the quality of how a person goes about living.  It may entail something of that gingerly playfulness toward reality about which Winnicott (1971) wrote.  The liberating factor may be living with some tincture of the realization that one is making oneself up as one goes along.

Think again of my patient's moment of not knowing himself.  The moment can be construed as an intimation of fundamental voidness.  The moment was facilitated, perhaps, by my presence.  The presence of your therapist, whose basic holding assumption is that you are there, allows you to let go of the busywork of keeping yourself familiarly present.  The letting go, the not knowing, is a small death of self.  This small death allows rebirth and reconstitution of self.  From this psychoanalytic perspective, then, the Buddhist idea of the cycle of karmic rebirth is relevant not to past and future lives but to each moment of being.  Each moment, as it were, brings me a new self, a new choice as to how I am to continue going on being.  My self of the past shapes my self of the moment, yet my self at this instant is not all of myself.  As a concept, indeed, as an ongoing experience, self holds no finality.  It is ever dissolving, ever appearing anew, only more or less there.  The "new birth" that Winnicott (1949/1975, p.188) maintained all individuals are really trying to find is not some distant goal; it just happened; it is happening again, if only we can notice, if only we can begin to observe.

Psychoanalysis and meditation, I suggest, are both methods of observation, each approaching from a different direction a profound insight into the nature of human being.  You might say that psychoanalysis allows one to forget a world too much remembered, and that meditation allows one to remember to forget.  Either way, the effect is to live more fully, openly, and responsibly in relation to the extraordinary fact of discovering oneself alive.


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Buber, M. (1923). I and Thou. W. Kaufman (trans.). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,1970.

de Silva, L. A. (1975). The Problem of the Self in Buddhism and Christianity. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Epstein, M. (1998). Meditation. Chapter 3 in Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart. New York: Broadway Publications.

Hua, H. (1980). The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra, with Verses Without a Stand and Prose Commentary. R. B. Epstrin (trans.). San Francisco: Buddhist Text Transation Society.

Langan, R. P. (1993). The depth of the field. Contemporary Psychoanalysis 29: 628664.

Langan, R. P. (1995). I thou other: Fluid being in triadic context. Contemporary Psychoanalysis 31: 327-339.

Langan, R. P. (1997a). Proteus reprised. International Forum of Psychoanalysis 6: 45-49.

Langan, R. R (1997b). On free-floating attention. Psychoanalytic Dialogues 7: 819839.

Margalit, A. (1993). Prophets with honor. New York Review of Books, XL #18, 4 November 1993, pp. 66-71.

Milarepa (1962). The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, vol. 1, translated and annotated by G. C. C.
Chang. Boston and Shaftesbury: Shambhala, 1989.

Mitchell, S. A. (1993). Hope and Dread in Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.

Phillips, A. (1994). On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Suler, j. R. (1993). Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Eastern Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock. Winnicott, D. W. (1975). Through Pediatrics to Psycho-Analysis. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Reproduced with permission.


Robert Langan, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.  He is a Supervising Analyst at the William Alanson White Institute, and teaches there and at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy.  As well, he is on the editorial board of Contemporary Psychoanalysis.