I found myself standing outside the retreat center near Worcester, Mass., on a snowy evening in January. Every year, two or three mindfulness meditation retreats are offered by Harvard, funded nearly entirely by an anonymous donor. The retreat would last five days with daily practice that mostly entailed sitting silently on cushions in an empty conference room. I’d have no one but myself for company.
Harvard runs on ego. Admittance is treated as a character trait, or at least an important marker of talent and status. The academic culture demands blind self-assuredness and, in return, offers a sense of chronic inadequacy. Social organizations equate exclusivity with quality, a fact that manifests through drawn-out and opaque comp processes. It’s hard to imagine a Harvard built on anything other than zealous individualism and evaluations of status and achievement. To even question the pretext of individualism would knock the entire system off its axis — which could explain why alternative understandings of the self interest me so much.
I’m no exception to the rule. I owe the majority of both my successes and failures in life to my fragile yet demanding ego. At best, my craving for admiration and fear of admonishment drive me to develop talents or over-perform in academic contexts. At worst, they lead me to prioritize virtue signaling over authentic selfless behavior, paralyze me in social settings, and self-evidently, make me exhaustingly introspective.
More importantly, individualism isn’t a particularly compelling framework for understanding how the world works or how we should operate within it; mounting evidence suggests individual choice has little to do with individual outcomes, which to a much greater extent are influenced by environment, experience, genetics, and social structure. Even more pertinently, the logic of self-interest rings empty when viewed from afar: Despite our tendency to privilege our own experience, we can’t all have needs and interests more important than each other’s.
Yet even at Harvard — a place whose foundations are built on individualism — there are people trying to see things differently.
The retreat I went on is intentionally secular, but modern mindfulness practice has its origins primarily in the Satipatthana Sutta, a Theravada Buddhist discourse outlining the practice of meditation. I became interested in the retreat because I was drawn to the answer to individualism that Buddhism offered. Anatta, the doctrine variously translated as ‘non-self’ or ‘egolessness’, is seen by Theravada Buddhism experts as one of the central theses of Buddhism. A loose summary of the doctrine is that there is no ‘essence’ or ‘soul’ in any of us. Instead, the self consists primarily of transient phenomena, with little to distinguish the difference or relative importance of any two people.
Maybe mindfulness isn’t the answer to the mistaken belief in a permanent self. But it can be a method of understanding and experiencing selfhood deliberately, a potential first step toward the realization of selfhood’s illusory nature.
I became louder on the retreat. Not through my words — for the most part, I said nothing at all— but the voice in my head became more crass, demanding, intrusive. I listened to myself sizing up others and ruminating on how they must be sizing up myself. I worried about how my posture looked to those behind me; was my back straight enough?
Every time someone walked too quickly, took too long to get lunch, breathed too loudly during sitting practice, I heard myself ask: Who was meditating better? Who really got it? Who saw through the ostentatious facade of it all, beyond the vague talk of awareness and insight? Who knew this commodified genre of mindfulness practice was nothing more than a crossroads between cultural capital and cultural appropriation, topped with a worldview marked by rampant passivity?
I listened as my mind reiterated these questions louder and louder as time dragged on. Meanwhile, the ironically simple mechanism behind mindfulness was working perfectly well in the background: I was aware that I was asking these questions.
These judgements and doubts pass through my head every day, but most of the time, I’m not even aware of them; the habit is simply too natural. On the retreat, I watched how my brain had been working the whole time — after all, who else is there to listen to in silence but yourself?
Without my phone to distract me in passing moments or friends to talk to when I became restless, my brain became an empty gymnasium, with thoughts bouncing and echoing endlessly off the walls. Yet, after some time, I’d invariably find stillness.
As I heard myself think, I experienced something shared by many meditators, ruminators, and other internally-oriented people: a pervasive sense that somehow these thoughts were being sent to me, out of my control and from an unknown source. They didn’t necessarily reflect on who I believed myself or wished myself to be. They were resistant to any attempts toward control or avoidance. Most importantly, they were almost always there.
In cognitive science, my experience follows a popular theory referred to as the ‘modular mind.’ It claims the existence of many different mental modules that compete for our attention in every moment, with the conscious self functioning only as a public relations director might serve a company: someone to interpret and present the inner workings of our brain favorably. Author Robert Wright directly links the modular mind theory to Buddhism, describing the experience through the image that “thoughts [are] received by your conscious mind rather than created by it.”
The idea that we might not be the originator of our thoughts challenges ego in a fundamental way. It’s nice to feel that you can take credit for a particularly insightful comment about Middlemarch during seminar. It hurts to feel that you had a rude passing thought about someone for whom you care deeply. It’s nice to feel that your place at a particularly exclusive university was earned through our unique intellect and tireless work ethic. It hurts to think these things might be as biologically-driven as our heartbeats, controlled by the brain and experienced by a PR-like consciousness merely inclined to believe in personal control.
An even more challenging Buddhist concept is that of Pratītyasamutpāda, or dependent arising, often simplified as ‘interconnectedness.’ In this model, the nonexistence of the self isn’t merely the lack of a permanent, perceiving self. It’s also a consequence of the fact that no meaningful distinction can be made between ourselves and others, as no subject or object can possess a cohesive, individual nature.
I didn’t perceive pratītyasamutpāda on the retreat. For the most part, I still felt like me. I glanced at my reflection in windows a bit too often, I poured myself an entire mug of coffee even when doing so finished the pot, and I spent a substantial amount of time reflecting on my past and wondering about my future.
Yet some long-term meditators describe a complete ego-death, wherein they realize there is no fundamental difference between themselves and their neighbors, or their enemies, or the birds in the sky. The implications of such an experience on life at a school like Harvard could be profound — treating others with unkindness or choosing to ignore the gap between life experiences dictated by privilege becomes much harder to justify when the differences between you and “them” are indistinguishable.
After returning to Harvard, I now find myself slipping away from the awareness I thought I’d gained in the woods an hour west of here. My thinking is again becoming automatic to the point of unconsciousness. But this might just explain why meditation isn’t considered a singular event and instead a daily practice — one that, in some traditions, requires many lifetimes to achieve mastery.
The Satipatthana Sutta begins with incredibly basic instructions: Sit in an “empty place,” with “legs crossed” and “body erect.” That instruction pretty accurately sums up my experience during the five-day retreat in January. Yet I’ve found the experience of mindfulness isn’t itself in keeping perfect posture, but instead simply in hearing yourself wonder if your back is straight enough.
— Magazine writer Tyler T. Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. This is the first installment of his column about counter-theories of selfhood, “Who’s Driving this Thing Anyway?”