Buddhist psychology is what we call a non-self psychology. According to Buddhist teachings the self is a delusion which we create as a defensive structure to protect ourselves from knowing the realities of life. This Buddhist analysis rests upon an understanding that, as humans, we are bound to experience afflictions (dukkha) of many kinds throughout our lifetimes. These afflictions may be small or large.
Because we are afraid, we seek for ways to avoid knowing what inevitably we do know. In explaining the second of the Four Noble Truths, samudaya, the Buddha taught that initially we attach to sensory pleasures. Our senses grasp at pleasant things in order to avoid grasping other aspects of life. We use our senses to distract ourselves from knowledge of dukkha. We drink too much, eat too much, watch television or make love. In an immediate way, this alleviates the pain we are experiencing. Dukkha, however, returns all too quickly. Having once tried to avoid dukkha through sensory escape, we hold the propensity to use the same sensory pleasure again as a means of escape. Soon we have created a habit. We have found our way of distancing pain. We have also created a habit pattern that persists. This is the process of attachment-formation.
The way that habit patterns become established is outlined in the teaching of the skandhas. This teaching describes a cyclical process whereby reactions (vedana) lay down the mental formations (samskaras) that in turn create a mentality (vijnana) that leads to the likelihood of future repetitions of the same pattern of reaction. This cyclical repetition is the mechanism of delusion. It is the wheel of samsara. The process that is being described here is the creation of not just one habit but of a collection of reactions that together create a fabric of attachments. This fabric becomes established and rigid. We can say it develops a stickiness (alaya), clinging onto us, or we onto it. Rather as the child’s security blanket, it seems to have the power to ward off painful feelings and protect us from knowing our human frailty.
This collection of habit patterns, developed through many repetitions of sensory escape patterns, is the foundation of the self. We come to identify with our habitual behaviours and preferences. We identify with our world-view, which is itself a product of our search for perceptual objects (rupas) that confirm our habitual way of being. This is the second route of escape listed in the teaching on samudaya. It is the creation of the self.
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