I wrote a summary about looking into Dissociative Identity Disorder awhile back, the experience of multiple personalities. This won't go into what that is; that summary covered it. The intention was to return to the idea of the Buddhist rejection of the existence of a real self (covered here) in relation to the experience of multiple personalities.
I was just talking to an online contact about this, and it helps frame ideas I've been "kicking around" for a few months to do that, so I'll use parts of how I expressed that here (many thanks to them).
To be clear the assertion that there is no real, permanent internal self is essentially meaningless without a context. Of course our bodies are real, and our social selves aren't unreal, and we function as a legal entity, in an employee role, within the context of a marriage bond, etc. We are real, in most main senses, as an abstract or internal entity. Hopefully this will expand on what that could mean, and will get back to how this applies to DID.
It's a bit overly simple but if the experience of one internal persona is not real, as I think it's not, at least in a limited sense, then the experience of multiple personas could hardly be more or less real. Even the social convention part could be flexible; as of now there is no significant allowance in standard norms for people to manifest more than one internal self, but that could change. It's probably a bit unsatisfying how this doesn't really develop these two sets of ideas much further, that any internal self is just an assumption or convention, and that the external social norm itself might be open to change. I do fill in some background, and offer limited opinion about how this works out.
Back to what the "rejection of a real self" theme is about
It's very difficult to think through what it could possibly mean to say that no internal self is real, the one idea from Buddhism (which again is provisional and functional, not a statement of metaphysical truth or modeling). As I see it that only makes sense or has a meaning tied to a unique introspection and transformation project.
Buddhism is promoting this as a thought model for a particular reason. One might ask "which Buddhist teaching, in which core text?," and for that you need to turn to a Buddhism website and page around through basics. In case your Google is broken this turns up on page one of a search, or this kind of starting point lists other online reference pages, with a bit of interpretation from a monastic source to follow.
I'm talking about my own perspective as an outcome of long study here, what worked for me in internal review. I have two degrees in religion and philosophy based mainly around study of Buddhism but I'm not going back through any of that, or start this out with citing sutras, or other interpretations (beyond doing a little with that to serve as starting points). Buddhism taken as philosophy, as a model for reality, generally doesn't map well to what I take Buddhism to be, but I'll mostly set that aside too.
a favorite picture of my son as a novice monk
Taking up this idea as a conditional supposition works to help examine and to some extent deconstruct the existing assumed version of a self. In practice our form of internal self-definition is really a collection of assumptions, beliefs, preferences, definition through personal history, inherent personal characteristics, outcomes related to memory, and so on. Social roles build on all of that, or are an integrated part of it, both a basis and an outcome.
Why do this internal review, one might wonder. An introspection process like this can help resolve some fairly conventional "ego," reality construct, and expectations issues. We really only can act in the present (kind of a given, when you think about it), but our reality can become overly shaped by regrets related to the past or anxiety related to the future. Lots of self-image themes can be problematic. Here I'm describing a blurring between definition of self and experienced form of reality, the other parts that shape it, which tie to self-definition more than is immediately obvious.
Back more directly to self image, a range of concerns could become negative in ways that it could be helpful to "unpack," and then move on to resolving. These could relate to self-image, in relation to persona or physical appearance, social status and roles, ownership of material goods, social connections, and so on. It should seem a little indirect to start from "self is not real" to move on towards better understanding and then resolving these things, but in my experience it can work, with that functionality the main point.
"Real" in this context refers to the form a particular person has taken up, so it wouldn't be just one thing. For example, self-image could be a huge part of personal definition for someone, related to their physical image and social image, positioning within a subculture and such, or at an economic level. Or that could largely drop out for someone else, and they could define themselves in completely different ways, for example through a set of interests. I think even if someone is isolated on a remote island alone the social image conditioning aspect would never really completely drop out though; that you would define yourself in terms of being separated from social contact, like in that Tom Hanks movie.
As I see it we rely more on psychological models than others, so in a conventional worldview a real and continuous (somewhat permanent) internal self is not taken to be a mental mirrored aspect of a soul, typically. It would be accepted that self and brain function overlap, but the primary model people would tend to use would be psychological, about a subconscious and conscious divide, about inherent forms being exhibited based on innate tendencies, learned patterns of being and response, and so on. We would probably tend to gravitate towards self-definition through defined forms and models, eg. introvert and extrovert, through class level, or the more modern and potentially problematic alpha and beta concepts.
The real meaning or purpose of this negative construct comes in when you consider what "not real" is about. Those layers of being aren't tangible, like the physical body, but they're not exactly imaginary either. All of those social constructs are "real" things, within the limitation that social constructs ground a lot of all of our lives, as assumptions and sets of ideas or conventions.
Of course we go just a little further, and we naturally assume that we experience a real internal self, that the internal persona we experience must map to something continuous and well-grounded, be it a soul, or an output our brain produces. It could be that a self is a conditioned social response that represents a manifestation of our sub-conscious, invoking a divide which really just breaks apart two things we don't experience so directly. It works to question that assumption; what if that self is just assumed continuity, not rigidly grounded at all, or as fixed as it seems? What if what "we" really are is a set of assumptions and response patterns, which are reinforced by social roles and language forms, but nothing more real than that? What if we could reset that, or split it into parts, beyond just having aspects of our self being context related (work-self, family role self, etc.)? I'll get back to that last point.
Limited input about rejection of self from a short reference source
Maybe that's enough framing, or maybe it's not. Just in case let's back up and consider a popular writing explanation of what Buddhism is doing with this supposed rejection of self (or not doing), in this reference article (written by a monk, for what that's worth), “There is no self.”
When Vacchagotta the wanderer asked him point-blank whether or not there is a self, the Buddha remained silent, which means that the question has no helpful answer. As he later explained to Ananda, to respond either yes or no to this question would be to side with opposite extremes of wrong view (Samyutta Nikaya 44.10).
Right, so the idea that there is no continuous, permanent self according to Buddhism isn't a model for reality, a description of the way that things really are or aren't, that can be mapped out easily. It's something else. This following interpretation isn't a core teaching, it's that writer's explanation:
Because clinging lies at the heart of suffering, and because there’s clinging in each sense of self, he advised using the perception of not-self as a strategy to dismantle that clinging. Whenever you see yourself identifying with anything stressful and inconstant, you remind yourself that it’s not-self: not worth clinging to, not worth calling your self (SN 22.59). This helps you let go of it. When you do this thoroughly enough, it can lead to awakening.
I don't really see this as wrong but to me it's also not the most direct and helpful description of the doctrine of anatta, or not self. He adds more detail to that, about a final middle ground:
Some ways of selfing, the Buddha and his disciples found, are useful along the path, as when you develop a sense of self that’s heedful and responsible, confident that you can manage the practice (Anguttara Nikaya4.159). While you’re on the path, you apply the perception of not-self to anything that would pull you astray. Only at the end do you apply that perception to the path itself.
This mostly works, it's just back to the part about "apply the perception of not-self" seeming a bit awkward. It seems a fairly direct reference to what gets abbreviated as "dropping" in Zen, setting aside forms of attachment. In that context it relates to meditation and mindfulness, but that works as a description of Zen in general, and it really doesn't apply much less to other forms of Buddhism. The output of last sentence then gets described as "dropping dropped," which is a cool structure of ideas.
If you are trying to stop obsessing over desire related to sexual attraction, for example, you would need to examine what is going into that and how to disrupt that focus, but I'm not sure that "applying the perception of not-self" would be an effective strategy. If that meant cutting off the personal association with those ideas somehow--the tricky part--then sure, that's it. Or related to reacting in anger, to sorting out why triggers cause that reaction, how to disrupt the internal association and response sequence, and so on.
To a limited extent you would need to understand those cycles of self-definition, assumed context, patterns of input, and your own expectations and responses. You couldn't just wave a general and broad "not self" concept at these themes and resolve them. I'm sure this relates to the cited content being simplified to make sense in summary form, not related to practices that simple being supported (just stop doing it). In the end the final step would be simple, just not doing that thing, not following forms or ideas mentally, but you couldn't just say "I'm not going to get angry anymore" and be done with it.
That author raises another good point:
The belief that there is no self can actually get in the way of awakening. As the Buddha noted, the contemplation of not-self can lead to an experience of nothingness (MN 106).
This could be a reference to different things, but Buddhism is definitely not about nihilism, the acceptance that nothing is real, there is no inherent meaning in anything, with adopted meaning of questionable value. Retaining a lot of the experience of meaning of life is fairly important, but adjusting assumptions going into that and experience of response forms can be helpful.
I'm reminded here of continually seeing a lot of meditations on death stated in Buddhist discussion groups. Those can be helpful for placing life experience; that's the point. You can't really take up a positive modeling (an explanation) or value association for death itself, because it's just the cessation of life. If you think about death quite a bit you can experience the transitory nature of life experience in a different form, or consider more deeply what you value, or which assumptions you hold that you tend to not examine (eg. the importance of social status versus enjoyment of direct experience, and so on).
Back to DID / multiple personality experience
If it turns out that a lot of what people are doing with the standard construct of a self is carrying through assumptions, biases, external forms and roles, and so on then it may not make much difference if that is being applied to one or more internal hypothesized selves, or personas. Application to one continuous and relatively consistent internal form would seem more conventional, but it's not as if that's necessarily grounded in a basis in reality matching that form. It could just be a convention. How would it be different if we somehow regarded our work persona, family role, and friends oriented persona as relatively completely different individuals? Hard to say.
It's best to not lose sight of the context, that people experiencing DID didn't choose it, with this condition brought on by fragmentation of self through childhood trauma. I have ran across what seems to be a parallel form that is completely optional though, the experience of a "tulpa," a made-up internal persona friend, more or less. A Reddit subforum for that interest describes them as "Intelligent companions imagined into existence."
People with DID may not see this "tulpa" theme as so closely related, or positive. But then one problem the psychological treatment community seems to have with DID is that there is a voluntary or intentional aspect to that disorder, that suggestion, often framed as typically offered by a therapist, changes the experience by reinforcing it, in a more diverse and developed form.
I'll set most of all that aside here, and not go far with examining the tulpa theme, just working with DID as best defined as a basic, limited form, involuntary experience, which can develop over time but is not intentional. I will leave off by saying that people discuss tulpas in such groups (as the one cited) as distinct individuals with different points of view, with variations in internal perspective not taking on voluntary forms at all. One recent post there discussed the difference in allowing a secondary persona to drive a car, instead of the main one, discussing how that persona needed more practice, drove differently, and so on. Strange stuff, hard to place, but moving on directly to negative judgement may not be appropriate.
The broad conclusion seems a bit hasty, doesn't it, saying that if one internal persona is really not real then experiencing a half dozen isn't so different? It doesn't necessarily match with the theme that Buddhism sets up review of self as potentially not real for a purpose, to discover which related forms can or should be changed. Or maybe it does?
The reasons for this reasoning step seeming awkward and potentially in error seem clear enough: we've left behind conventional experience as a context, and have crossed into considerations of mental health issues, or at best into voluntary alternate forms of experience of reality that are relatively completely unfamiliar. A trained therapist might reliably consider if an experience of multiple selves is healthy or else negative, or how best to respond through treatment and intentionally adopted perspective.
In online groups where people discuss DID it's a common assertion that therapists vary a lot in how they see the condition in general, and treatment approaches, or any one person's status, and I guess that variation could be problematic. Obviously I'm not discussing this subject here as any form of proposed self-treatment, not really even for people with singular self-identities. Just considering different sets of ideas seems safe enough, but putting these into some form of internal practice would be something else.
Considering broader mental health and perspective issues
I could be wrong, but even beyond the tulpa subject it seems like there are running themes that relate to how human experience is changing, and DID ties together with ways that people could be in the future but were not like in the past, nearly as much, or in the same ways. Almost no one would have imagined that people being "gender fluid" might have become a standard option a decade ago. We're not exactly there yet, but uptake is headed that way. 20 years ago there weren't many exceptions to binary gender self-image, never mind acceptance of those varying over short spans of time. In retrospect it's odd that someone identifying as "gender neutral" took as long to come up with as it did, or at least to become a standard form.
Mental health perspective also changes. Probably just understanding what schizophrenia is, or parts of it, would help explain parts of how conventional experience works. I asked my kids if they ever experienced external voices or separate personalities and one said that he did, that some internal voices seem external sometimes. I'm not overly concerned about that, but I think there's something more common to it that connects with complex typical experience range.
Consider this stat from the Hearing Voices Network reference site:
Statistics vary, but it’s generally accepted that between 3 and 10% of the population hear voices that other people don’t...
Some people hear voices talking when no-one is around. These could be like the voices of people they know, or complete strangers. They might hear many voices, or just one. Voices can shout, whisper, be clear or muffled. They can speak in sentences or say single words...
Some people see things that others don’t. These visions can be very clear and realistic, but they can also include fuzzy shapes, shadows and beams of light. Some people see the voices that they hear, others see insects or spiders. For some, the visions are very complex (like entering into another world)...
Whilst many people associate voice-hearing with diagnoses of schizophrenia and psychosis, research suggests that the majority of people who hear voices have no mental health issue at all.
This probably seems to be headed in a direction I'm not going to follow here, saying that there is a continuum of part of 3 to 10% of the population who hallucinate, with many of those people still experiencing good mental health. My point is that we previously assumed that reality had almost always taken a very consistent, conventional, narrow range of forms, and that may not be what a lot of people had been experiencing all along, related to gender, sensory perception, image of self, and many other issues. If half of everyone is "terribly mental ill" that doesn't necessarily change the nature of their condition, that proportion, but I suspect that something else entirely is coming to light, that it's not that, but just normal variation instead.
Use of "normal" is potentially problematic in that construct. It has long since been normal for Thai culture to accept a third standard gender, M to F transgender, or however that's supposed to be expressed now. 40 years ago that wouldn't be seen as normal in the US, and now it would depend on perspective, normal to many and not normal to some others.
This is an interesting reference on a vaguely related but completely different experience, Eleanor Longden presenting a Ted Talk on "The Voices In My Head," about schizophrenia instead of DID. I'm not trying to say that the conditions are similar; they're surely not. But it is interesting hearing a clear account from someone about experiencing range beyond a singular internal voice and persona, including perspective on that condition, and approach used to maintain maximum functionality, to work with it.
Would Buddhism "work" for people with varying mental health or self-image contexts?
Obviously I don't really know; the point here would be to talk through perspective on it a little instead. It's interesting to consider how someone with 5 or 10 internal experienced personas might only enlist one of them into Buddhist practices, or maybe several. I've talked about it a little with an online contact, a practicing Buddhist who experiences DID, but understandably context for message discussion doesn't seem completely consistent. The practice might become more challenging, related to perspective inconsistency. If I can draw on more feedback from online contacts I might add more from them in other writing later.
It's in an interesting world we live in, that we might become curious about a form of experience like DID and then reach out and discuss it with people who experience it online. I've done that, talk to a few people about it.
Really talking to anyone about Buddhism is problematic, regardless of their perspective. If someone shared 80% of your understanding of the form, purpose, and helpful practices related to Buddhism then discussion with them about the remaining 20% could be interesting, and helpful, if enough use of related concepts matched up. In any other cases it would be problematic to discuss ideas without assuming some exposure base for context, or without getting tripped up by varying use of concepts and terms within different sub-groups or traditions.
Of course any discussion would need to actively avoid self-framing as some sort of accomplished authority, perhaps even if someone was serving in a monastic role. A monk like Thich Nhat Hanh could let that drop; people would get that his interpretation and communication about core teachings isn't a misplaced guru role claim. There are few examples of such well respected, authoritative teachers like him, and in a sense the world is a poorer place in relation to his recent passing, but that is how this transitory existence goes.
The idea of Sangha, or Buddhist community, helps resolve this, by leading practitioners to embrace shared experience, and by placing the role of monks as members within an appropriate context there, in relation to an established set of teachings, and consistent use of concepts. In a Buddhist country more or less the whole country is the community, but then acceptance as a conventional religion also enters in, putting focus on ritual aspects, societal forms, ethics, etc. In "the West" active participation in application of core teachings is more of a focus, beyond it serving as a grounding context for normal life.
To be clear, and to address one key point I've left out, it's hard for me to relate to how challenging it would be to navigate reality with significant mental health issues. I also can't fully relate to how any other person would interpret or utilize any Buddhist teachings, even though I've definitely discussed that with people. At the risk of repetition this is intended as discussion, not some form of practical guidance, and certainly not as definitive interpretation of core Buddhist concepts.
Approaching these ideas in these ways has seemed helpful to me, and to have positively impacted my own worldview. It was a process that took time, that isn't finished after three decades of taking it up. It's hard to even see it as relating to having made progress, as much as how I've just used these concepts might imply. If anything I may have clarified a few prior mistaken assumptions, and shifted perspective a little, and that's about it. Application of Buddhism probably made it easier to consider the perspective of others, and to lighten up in seeing the world only in relation to my own self-interests and biases.
Maybe less is more related to self-image, and people experiencing DID, or tulpas, voluntary related extra selves, would do well to deconstruct those experiences a bit, and to thin them, to scale back the experience of ego. It seems more functional, less demanding, and simpler to experience a more limited version of a singular self, if possible. I can't be sure though; since I've only ever experienced one self that's a guess. It may be no less functional to experience the world through the perspective of multiple selves, or at least it could be interesting, the extra diversity.
Maybe re-framing that is in order. It seems better to me, to have worked well through past effort and trial, to focus less on internal definition, on conventional ego, likes and preferences, self definition and self-image, immediate inclination related to fulfillment of the next desire, focusing on the past and future, and so on. It seems an improvement to also function in accordance with the perspective and interests of others, or to look at contexts from multiple contextual frameworks, without only focusing on one of my own that ties to what I want out of a situation or set of circumstances. But I'm not comfortable extending that to a more objective framing, to say that such an approach is better in general, or that others should attempt this.
Creating and sustaining fictional internal selves may be positive for others. This seems to relate to the tupla case, while for people experiencing DID it's not necessarily about that, per my understanding, since they experience multiple personas in relation to response to early life and ongoing stress. In the DID case it's about working with an existing form of reality, not adopting one, so the experience isn't really "fictional" in the same sense. I don't have a clear feel for to what degree the experience can be adjusted, or that forms are optional.
It is interesting considering how some accounts relate to complex "Sims" simulation program style physical spaces and social structures, and other accounts are nothing at all like that, but it's hard to place that meaning anything in particular. Accounts of experiences vary so much in discussion and study references that it's not really even possible to identify if there is a most standard form of DID experience, but there seems not to be. It can couple with a broad range of other mental health conditions. If people really are experiencing quite different things in relation to DID experience it would seem reasonable that coping or self-development approaches should also vary.
It almost goes without saying but people take Buddhism to be a broad range of things, related to a lot of different practices and core ideas, across a broad range of living traditions, and other forms. I'm not advocating one as most central here, as much as must have seemed implied, just discussing my own interest, past understanding, and approach. It never did overlap that much with DID experience in this discussion, but it seems there could be more connection to patterns in changes in how people self-identify than I'm clear on just yet.