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Excerpted from Going on Being by Mark Epstein, M.D.. Copyright © 2001 by Mark Epstein, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.

"Freud evolved one way of looking, and the Buddha discovered another...they were each motivated by the need to find a more authentic way of being, a truer self."

  Mark Epstein, M.D., Going on Being, Part 3

There was something eminently satisfying about this answer; besides having the pithiness that we expect from Zen, it made me look at the entire situation in a fresh way. Shainberg’s roshi hit the nail on the head. Nasruddin’s activity was not in vain after all; he was demonstrating something more fundamental than initially appeared. The key was just a pretext for an activity that had its own rationale. Freud evolved one way of looking, and the Buddha discovered another. They had important similarities and distinctive differences, but they were each motivated by the need to find a more authentic way of being, a truer self.

Somebody vs. Nobody

I love this story because it connects me to something fundamentally true about my own process of self-discovery. I had the sense very early of feeling lost and cut off from myself. This feeling motivated my spiritual and psychological search, but it also had the potential to make me feel terrible about myself. In my discovery of Buddhism, I found a method of cutting through the self- estrangement that so bothered me. I found a new way to look at myself.

In the 1970s, there was a saying in Buddhist circles, "You have to be somebody before you can be nobody." This was a popular statement because of how clearly it summed up a very obvious phenomenon. Many of the people who were drawn to Buddhism were attracted by the ideas of "no-self" and "emptiness" that are central to the Buddha’s psychology. But these are difficult concepts to understand; in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, for example, monks often study the scriptures that explain them for years and years before even meditating. In the West, people who were suffering from alienation or from spiritual and psychological distress often mistook the Buddhist descriptions for an affirmation of their psychological emptiness. "You have to be somebody before you can be nobody," was a way of telling them that their psychological work of raising self-esteem or creating an integrated or cohesive self had to precede efforts at seeing through the ego. In many cases, this was indeed sound advice; but the categorization of people into the two categories of "somebody" and "nobody" created another set of misunderstandings.

When the Buddha taught his middle path, he had the temerity to suggest that both "somebody" and "nobody" were mistakes, that the true vision of who and what we are involves looking without resorting to the instinct of intrinsic reality. "Somebody" was the equivalent of clinging to being, while "nobody" was the same as clinging to nonbeing. In either case, the mind’s need for certainty was shortchanging reality. The correct view, the Buddha perceived, lies somewhere in between. The self-centered attitude is as much of a problem as the self-abnegating one. We can be proud or empty; in either case the problem lies in our sense of self-certainty.

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