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Is awakening a form of depersonalization disorder?

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

Very often, the Buddha describes awakening as the extinction of greed, aversion, and ignorance. On some occasions (e.g. MN 72 and SN 22.85 and 44.1), though, it is also made explicit that the cessation of these three bases of action entails a profound transformation in how reality is experienced and interpreted. Experience drifts towards a markedly impersonal character, or rather, its naturally impersonal character becomes apparent. More specifically, this manifests as the inability (or pointlessness) of identifying any constituent element of experience with one’s own ‘self.’ There is body, but it doesn’t feel mine anymore. There are perceptions, feelings, intentions, and consciousness, they work in their own way, but none of this feels ‘mine’ anymore. This is why the Buddha can claim to be ‘unfindable.’ Since there is no particular element of experience that is personally attached to him or appropriated as signaling his unique personal presence, there is nothing in experience that can be pointed as indicating that the Buddha is there.

The dissolution of the personal feeling of experience is not surprising, given that much of practice consists in cultivating (or simply not obscuring or hiding) the perception of uncertainty (anicca), which in turn entails the impossibility of genuinely regarding anything as suitable for appropriation (anattā). When the practitioner makes the first crucial step on the supramundane path of practice, this is marked by the breaking up of the fetter or yoke of ‘personality view’ (sakkāya diṭṭhi), and upon reaching full awakening, the even subtler form of ‘conceit’ (māna) is abandoned.

Personality view is explained as the usually implicit assumption that all the fundamental components of experience (the five aggregates: the body, feelings, perceptions, intentions, consciousness) are ‘mine’ and ‘I am’ their owner and controller. This is an assumption in the sense it is not something that an ordinary person would usually spell out explicitly, but more a basic and fundamental tenet that is considered completely obvious and certain, and which thus underpins all other actions and ways of dealing with the world. In this sense, ‘personality’ should not be confused with the character traits of an individual, like being extrovert or introvert, talkative or more silent, and so on. Rather, it refers to the sense of ‘being myself’ or ‘being the unique person I am,’ which then might include appropriating certain character traits as ‘my character’ or ‘my way of being.’ But being extrovert or shy is no more ‘personal’ than speaking English or Italian. None of these characteristics have anything unique or personal in themselves. They become personal only insofar as they are appropriated as ‘mine’ or ‘belonging to me,’ like when one buys a piece of furniture in a store and starts regarding that as ‘my sofa.’

On one occasion (SN 22.89), Ven. Khemaka explains that he does not regard any of the five aggregates as self, which means that he has abandoned the personality view. And yet, the sense of ‘I am’ was still not extinguished in him. He compares this to the scent of a flower that surrounds the whole flower without belonging to any of its part in particular. But even this residual sense of ‘I am’ is ultimately extinguishing by just keep observing the uncertainty of the five aggregates. From the point of view of an awakened one, the complete loss of the sense of personality is seen as a supreme relief and the fulfillment of the whole training.

A contemporary Western psychologist reading these descriptions might think that awakening fits pretty well the definition of ‘depersonalization-derealization disorder.’ This is a dissociative disorder in which the subject feels somehow alienated from their experience, detached from oneself, their body, emotions, and surroundings. The sense of reality is altered and everything can seem less real. This experience is usually perceived painfully or as something wrong, so much so that the subject might seek treatment for it. The depersonalization disorder is often associated with some trauma and might be interpreted as a defense mechanism to cope with that. Alternatively, depersonalization might be seen as a natural response to psychologically overwhelming conditions. In any case, depersonalization itself is experienced as aversive.

There is a point of agreement between contemporary Western psychology and the Pāli discourses: the sense of self is constructed, and as anything constructed, it can also be deconstructed or altered (and even cease) due to specific circumstances and conditions. The point of disagreement between the two approaches is that Western psychology regards the sense of self as a normal phenomenon (which it is, statistically speaking and from an ordinary perspective), and normative (in the sense that mental health is often presented as including a resilient sense of self), while the discourses regard it as a ‘disease’ from a soteriological perspective (‘Oppressed by stimulations, [the world] speaks of a disease as ‘my self,’ Ud 3.10).

A core difference between the sort of depersonalization achieved through training and the depersonalization disorder lies in the context in which these states occur. In the context of training, depersonalization is deliberately cultivated and induced, based on a precise understanding of the nature and functioning of experience, which includes an understanding of the conditional relation between craving, self, and suffering. Perhaps more importantly, depersonalization is induced gradually as something upon which the practitioner retains a degree of control (while paradoxically realizing that there is nothing in fact upon which there can be full control, and thus by also relinquishing the need for control). Depersonalization is thus voluntarily induced (as a deliberate choice based on some understanding) for the sake of reducing suffering (if not abandoning it altogether) and it is experienced as a relief and a form of freedom. This is perhaps akin to a sort of exposure therapy in which people suffering from anxiety are gradually led to face situations that might trigger it for the sake of building resilience and ultimately overcome anxiety itself.

In depersonalization disorder, there is arguably no particular map available for one’s experience, nor any specific attempt at reaching a more profound understanding of its structure. But there is something that hurts, and the ordinary unfolding of the sense of self is somehow disbanded. This happens almost on its own, without the subject actually contributing, steering, or retaining any active involvement with the process, which amplifies the sense of a new problematic condition befalling on them. Like being dropped unwillingly in a pool of water or in a thick jungle, one has to face a situation that is poorly understood, whose uncertainty causes anxiety and confusion, without being able to rely on any guidance, nor realizing how going through this ordeal might be of any benefit. Instead of learning how to swim in water or how to survive in the jungle, one is simply abandoned to the dread of the current situation. Without a proper understanding of the constructed nature of selfhood, the disbanding of the ordinary self (the loss of reality of the self) is perceived as wrong, threatening, alienating, and disempowering. From the point of view of the discourses, what would make the depersonalization disorder a disorder (and likely a pathological state) is not the undermining of the ordinary self, but the confusion (moha) or ignorance (avijjā) around the meaning of this experience, which prevents the subject from fully understanding what is actually happening to them and exerting agency in that process.

On one occasion (SN 44.10), the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Buddha and asked him whether there is a self, or whether there is no self. The Buddha does not reply and remains silent. After Vacchagotta departed, he explains that he did not answer positively, since this would not have been consistent with his teaching on non-self, but he also did not answer negatively, because he understood that Vacchagotta was confused, believed to have a self, and telling him that there is no self would have created even more confusion. This latter scenario is akin to the depersonalization disorder, which from the perspective of the discourses is based on the fundamental lack of clarity (hence, a state of confusion) about the nature of selfhood. Its cure is not to try to re-establish the deluded view that there is a real self after all, or simply stating that the self does not exist, but rather understanding the conditional nature of the sense of self and the possibility of leaving it behind altogether. Paradoxically, this leads to abandon a ‘normal disease’ and reach instead an empowering, even if impersonal, 'extra-ordinary' state of lucidity.

Awakening is a healthy form of depersonalization in which the underpinning background belief about selfhood is eroded first, and the sense of personality is relinquished as a consequence, through deliberate and voluntary practice. This follows the opposite order of what happens in the depersonalization disorder, in which the underpinning belief about selfhood is retained, although it somehow disbands and no longer functions properly, without the individual retaining any proper agency in the process, nor really understanding what is going wrong. Awakening is a healthy relinquishment of personality, which does not result in alienation, confusion, or existential dread, but in boundless friendliness and compassion.

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