Posted inOther Teachings

The Suffering of Self, Part 2 of 4, by David Loy

February 25, 2017

A lot of social interaction is about reassuring each other and ourselves that we’re all really okay even though inside we feel that we’re not.


Read Part 1 of The Suffering of Self

But why is a constructed sense of self so uncomfortable? “My” sense of self is composed of mostly habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking and acting. That’s all. Those impermanent processes interact with other and give rise to a conditioned sense of being a self that is separate from other selves and things. If you strip away those psychological and physical processes, it’s like peeling off the layers of an onion. When you get to the end, nothing is left. There’s no hard seed or anything else at the core, once the last few thin layers have been peeled away. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing. The basic problem is, we don’t like being nothing. A gaping hole at one’s core is quite distressing. Nothing means there’s no thing to identify with or cling to. Another way to say it is that my nothing-ness means my constructed sense of self is ungrounded, so is haunted by a basic sense of unreality and insecurity.

Intellectually, this situation is not easy to understand, but I suspect that most of us actually have some innate awareness of the problem. In fact, if our sense of self is truly empty in this way, we must have some basic awareness of this problem – yet it’s a very uncomfortable awareness, because we don’t understand it or know what to do about it. I think this is one of the great secrets of life: each of us individually experiences this sense of unreality as the feeling that “something is wrong with me.” Growing up is learning to pretend along with everyone else that I’m okay, you’re okay…

A lot of social interaction is about reassuring each other and ourselves that we’re all really okay even though inside we feel that we’re not.

When we look at other people from the outside, they seem quite solid and real to us, yet each of us feels deep inside that something is not right – something is wrong at the core.

Here another modern psychological idea is helpful: repression. Although Freud’s legacy has become quite controversial, his concept of repression, and “the return of the repressed,” remains very important. Repression happens when I become aware of something uncomfortable that I don’t want to deal with, so it is “pushed away” from consciousness. Freud believed that our main repression is sexual desires. Existential psychology shifts the focus to death: our inability to cope with mortality, the fact that our lives will come to an end, and we don’t know when – maybe soon.

For Buddhism, however, fear of death focuses on what will happen in the future, while there is a more basic problem that we experience right now: this uncomfortable sense of unreality at our core, which we don’t know how to deal with. Naturally enough, we learn to ignore or repress it, but that doesn’t resolve the problem. The difficulty with repression is that it doesn’t work. What has been repressed returns to consciousness one way or another, in a disguised or distorted fashion. This “return of the repressed” is thus a symptom of the original awareness that we didn’t want to deal with.

Read Part 3 of The Suffering of Self.

David Robert Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism.  © Copyright 2006, David R. Loy. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

Image: Friendship/Self Reproach, by Hartwig HKD, CC by-ND 2.0, from
Featured Image: Self Portrait Trauma Scars, by Jane Fox, CC by-ND 2.0, from

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