In recent decades, important aspects of the Buddhist concept of not-self have gotten support from psychology. In particular, psychology has bolstered Buddhism’s doubts about our intuition of what you might call the “C.E.O. self” — our sense that the conscious “self” is the initiator of thought and action…There is a paradox that can surface if you pursue the logic of not-self through meditation. Namely: recognizing that “you” are not in control, that you are not a C.E.O., can help give “you” more control. Or, at least, you can behave more like a C.E.O. is expected to behave: more rationally, more wisely, more reflectively; less emotionally, less rashly, less reactively.
Here’s how it can work. Suppose that, via mindfulness meditation, you observe a feeling like anxiety or anger and, rather than let it draw you into a whole train of anxious or angry thoughts, you let it pass away. Though you experience the feeling — and in a sense experience it more fully than usual — you experience it with “non-attachment” and so evade its grip. And you now see the thoughts that accompanied it in a new light — they no longer seem like trustworthy emanations from some “I” but rather as transient notions accompanying transient feelings.
There’s a broader and deeper sense in which Buddhist thought is more “Western” than stereotype suggests. What, after all, is more Western than science’s emphasis on causality, on figuring out what causes what, and hoping to thus explain why all things do the things they do? Well, in a sense, the Buddhist idea of “not-self” grows out of the belief undergirding this mission — that the world is pervasively governed by causal laws. The reason there is no “abiding core” within us is that the ever-changing forces that impinge on us — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes — are constantly setting off chain reactions inside of us.
Indeed, this constant causal interaction with our environment raises doubts not only about how firm the core of the “self” is but, in a sense, how firm the bounds of the self are. Buddhism’s doubts about the distinctness and solidity of the “self” — and of other things, for that matter — rests on a recognition of the sense in which pervasive causality means pervasive fluidity.
…psychology has lately started to let go of its once-sharp distinction between “cognitive” and “affective” parts of the mind; it has started to see that feelings are so finely intertwined with thoughts as to be part of their very coloration. This wouldn’t qualify as breaking news in Buddhist circles. A sutra attributed to the Buddha says that a “mind object” — a category that includes thoughts — is just like a taste or a smell: whether a person is “tasting a flavor with the tongue” or “smelling an odor with the nose” or “cognizing a mind object with the mind,” the person “lusts after it if it is pleasing” and “dislikes it if it is unpleasing.”
Brain-scan studies have produced tentative evidence that this lusting and disliking — embracing thoughts that feel good and rejecting thoughts that feel bad — lies near the heart of certain “cognitive biases.” If such evidence continues to accumulate, the Buddhist assertion that a clear view of the world involves letting go of these lusts and dislikes will have drawn a measure of support from modern science.