outside in

Parallel to this encounter with genjōkōan, my readings had led me deeper into another important Buddhist concept of the self: its seeming opposite, the no-self. Here the relationship to my emerging framework was more than my own making. For with no-self I had stumbled into the discipline of East-West comparative psychology, which draws heavily on the ideas of Winnicott and his contemporary Carl Jung.

‘The self that Buddhism finds to be unreal is remarkably similar to the “false self” of Winnicott’s psychology,’ writes psychotherapist Mark Epstein. ‘In Buddhist meditation, the dismantling of this false self is encouraged through the deliberate meditative cultivation of unintegration … Once comfortable in a state of unintegration, Buddhist psychology contends, we can begin to see clearly how compulsively we cling to the various images of self that present themselves in our minds’ (2006, p. 313).

Epstein continues: ‘The more comfortable we become in permitting a state of unintegration, the more bits and pieces of self we become aware of. Awareness fulfils its holding function by becoming the swollen and empty container within which the entire process unfolds. Eventually, the still, silent center that Winnicott called incommunicado begins to speak’ (ibid. p. 315).

Winnicott indeed saw a relationship between meditation and our innermost form of communication with our “real” self. ‘In thinking of the psychology of mysticism, it is usual to concentrate on the understanding of the mystic’s withdrawal into a personal inner world of sophisticated introjects,’ he wrote. ‘Perhaps not enough attention has been paid to the mystic’s retreat to a position in which he can communicate secretly with subjective objects and phenomena, the loss of contact with the world of shared reality being counterbalanced by a gain in terms of feeling real’ (1965, pp. 185-186).

I was excited by the discovery of this connection between two major theoretical strands that had been manifesting in the project, but in hindsight I was perhaps too excited to properly reflect on what the link was telling me about my own process. I recognised the bridge and happily installed it in my framework, but I didn’t stop to actually cross over.

What I saw from the far side of the bridge was simply that I needed to achieve unintegration in order to get past this autobiographical phase of the game. If I could sweep up all the bits of self that had fractured during my years of living in Australia, I could tip those fragments into the bin and start anew with the blank slate of no-self. Then I would be able to make work that evoked a more universal resonance, and the game could really begin.

This reading of unintegration became inscribed into my narrative when I encountered what is perhaps the most well-known aphorism in the field of Buddhist psychology: ‘You have to be somebody before you can be nobody’ (Engler 1986, p. 34). The syntax implies a clear goal, a linear progression. Tellingly, Engler (2003) would later revise his thoughts to reflect a more synchronous relationship; an ability to maintain a sense of self while also recognising that the self is process rather than object (Crouch 2011). But at the time I saw unintegration merely as a phase I needed to get through in order to evolve the project, and genjōkōan as a framework to legitimise this inner work.