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The 1001 Forms of Self-Grasping

or ...
Do You Really Have to be Somebody Before You Can be Nobody?

An interview with Jack Engler
by Andrew Cohen


Jack Engler

Jack Engler is one of the pioneers of transpersonal theory, a relatively new way of thinking about human development in which Western psychological theory meets Eastern enlightenment philosophy. He is a practicing psychotherapist who also teaches Theravada Buddhist "mindfulness" meditation and Buddhist psychology. He is also the man who made the by-now famous declaration: "You have to be somebody before you can be nobody." His statement has become a catchphrase in much of the Western Buddhist world and almost a commandment among transpersonal psychologists and theorists. Because enlightenment is traditionally understood to be about the death of the ego, I wanted to ask this psychologist who is deeply steeped in Buddhist practice and philosophy what he meant when he originally made that statement back in 1981.

Engler's journey on the contemplative path began at age sixteen, when he read The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton's autobiography. This initiated a long and winding adventure that took him from the University of Notre Dame to Benedictine and Trappist monasteries in Europe to Thomas Merton's monastery in Kentucky. After Merton's strong discouragement of Engler's inclination toward the monastic life, he pursued novitiate training with the intention of becoming a university chaplain and professor and continued further academic study in England and Germany, where he got a degree in theology. He then went to Oxford to get a doctorate in biblical studies. Reaching an impasse in his personal, intellectual and academic quest, he experienced what he called a "personal crisis—a personal and spiritual dead end." He returned to America in 1969, became a social activist and then began teaching religious studies. He eventually made a decision to "start graduate work all over again" in psychology and religion at the University of Chicago, where he got his M.A. and Ph.D. He came to the end of his search when, one day, he entered the Vivekananda Vedanta Society bookstore in Chicago. Driving by the small bookshop and knowing nothing about Vedanta, he said, "Something prompted me to just jam on my brakes and go inside." In the back of the store he found a copy of The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera. "I got about thirty pages into it," he said, "and I knew that I had found what I had been looking for all my life. It was instantaneous." For his doctoral dissertation, he devised a research project that would take him to India to study Buddhist psychology and practice meditation. While there he spent time studying at the Nalanda Institute and did extensive research with practitioners from the Calcutta Buddhist community, many of whom he described as having reached "at least the first stage of enlightenment." The data he compiled from this research was groundbreaking, endeavoring to "establish cross-cultural validation of the psychological changes at each major stage" of Buddhist meditation practice. Upon his return to America, his aspirations changed, and he decided that rather than remain in academia, he would go into clinical practice because, he said, "I had finally seen not only my own suffering but everybody else's. India just profoundly changed me that way."

Is it true, as transpersonal therapists like Jack Engler advocate, that Buddhist meditation and Western psychotherapy work together to liberate the different levels of self that make up a human being? Is it true that "personal issues" need to be addressed in a more personal, therapeutic framework, whereas the deeper and more profound dimensions of letting go occur on the meditation cushion? Is it true that enlightenment experiences usually do not liberate the self from the effects of childhood trauma or attachment to the personal and fundamental narcissistic tendencies? Are the transpersonal therapists correct when they assert that there is no fundamental contradiction between a psychology that endeavors to heal the ego and a spiritual teaching that encourages us to abandon it?

I looked forward to meeting the man who said that "you have to be somebody before you can be nobody" because for a long time I have wondered if that statement was really true. Was it really true that you have to be somebody before you can be nobody?—that one needs, as the transpersonal therapists say, to have a strong ego, a strong sense of self, before one would have the kind of confidence necessary to take that mysterious leap into the unknown? From my own experience as a spiritual teacher, I have found without exception that if enlightenment is the context and the goal of the spiritual quest, then allowing any room whatsoever for the endless needs, pains, anxieties and frustrations of the narcissistic ego always has only one outcome: giving air, water and food to that which, in the spiritual experience, is recognized to be completely unreal. I was curious to know why the transpersonal therapists never seemed to see things as that black-and-white. Indeed, Engler's declaration has become so widely accepted as a truism in most spiritual circles these days that I wondered whether his words were being used by some teachers, students and therapists alike at times to avoid the potentially overwhelming implications of having to step beyond the ego entirely in order to experience directly what enlightenment is all about. But first, I needed to ask him what his definition of ego is from his perspective as a psychotherapist as well as his perspective as a proponent of Buddhist enlightenment teachings.


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Our Ego Issue


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