Searching for New Contrasts: Whiteheadian Contributions to Contemporary Challenges in Psychology, Neurophysiology and the Philosophy of Mind

The chapter ‘The Universality of Impermanence‘ in this book focuses on what the self, ‘I’, me, actually is and how I, like everything else, am impermanent.

The Universality of Impermanence †

Clive Sherlock*

Process philosophy

Process philosophy can have far-reaching implications for psychology especially when applied to the ‘self’. According to process philosophy everything depends for its existence on the conditions that give rise to it.1, 2 I take ‘everything’ here to include us: our selves, and the concepts of a self, or self-nature, of everyone and everything else. Realisation of this leads to a psychology that is radically different from contemporary western psychology because the way we conceive the causation and nature of self is strongly influenced by and strongly influences how we live our lives and how we deal with our own and other people’s psychological problems.3

Insight into life depends on familiarising ourselves with life at first hand – not by thinking about it. The taste of salt can only be known by tasting it in the mouth, it can never be known by speculating or theorising. Neither sensations nor concepts can be conveyed directly from one person to another, but they can be pointed at – by words, for example. This discussion is therefore an attempt to point the reader to the actual rather than the conceptual.

Whitehead was aware of similarities between [what he called] philosophy of organism and Far Eastern thought: ‘The philosophy of organism seems to approximate more to some strains of Indian, or Chinese, thought, than to western Asiatic, or European, thought.’4, 5 Presumably Whitehead was referring here to Buddhism, which in effect gives a clear exposition of philosophy of organism and process philosophy.6, 7 I shall refer to these similarities and compare them with contemporary western psychology in order to suggest how philosophy influences psychology.


Both process philosophy and Far Eastern religions are diametrically opposed to contemporary western psychology with regard to certain basic assumptions about self. In practice, if not in theory, most western philosophy and psychology assumes the existence of real, enduring selves and first causes that are not subject to the laws of cause and effect.8 That is, they are not seen as mere concepts due to causal conditions but as somehow self-sufficient and self-determining. It is not usual to question the very existence, or nature, of the one who is assumed to possess a mind, to do the thinking, the seeing, the hearing (and so on for all the senses) or the one who is assumed to suffer from depression, anxiety or stress but this is precisely what is done in Buddhism and is what I shall do here.9, 10

The common assumption that each individual human being has a self which is an independent, enduring entity and which is the agent of voluntary functions leads (as efficient cause, in Whitehead’s terminology) to a psychology whose aim is to maintain, support and augment that self. Process philosophy would argue against this view and maintain that self, like everything else, is not independent or enduring, and that there is no agent giving rise to voluntary functions – there is no actual ‘I’, there is no actual ‘me’.11, 12 The Buddha made an analogy saying that self is only a name for a particular assemblage of various parts just as a chariot is. There is nothing that can be called a chariot other than that assemblage. Self is seen as a series of events arising and ceasing due to (efficient and final) causal conditions. The urge to maintain, support and augment self is a manifestation of self-preservation which is inherent in all forms of life. In human beings, however, when this same self-preservation of life is associated with self it causes dissatisfaction, suffering and sorrow because, as well as feeling, we also think, speculate, imagine, anticipate and try to determine and control the quality of our lives. A psychology based on process philosophy sees this urge to preservation of our personal selves as misguided and, in the long-term, as counterproductive.

Life is impermanent

Understanding impermanence is the key to this problem. Whitehead said: ‘The elucidation of meaning involved in the phrase ‘all things flow’ is one chief task of metaphysics. But there is a rival notion, antithetical to the former … This other notion dwells on permanences of things – the solid earth, the mountains, the stones, the Egyptian Pyramids, the spirit of man, God.’14 While we may accept that Whitehead’s physical examples are finite and impermanent, we do not so readily accept this of the spirit of man or God because to do so would threaten us personally in our very existence.14, 15

The popular view is that most, if not all, things and events have at least a degree of permanence but it is not generally recognised that this view is due to how we conceive and conceptualise things and events. The individual frames of a movie film giving rise to a steady picture and the apparent flow of waves in water are well-known, but often ignored, examples. Series of events can, and do, give the impression of things flowing and if the differences between successive events (that is, between successive moments of consciousness) are small, the impression is one of entities having continuous existence.16

A candle flame

Believing in enduring selves we behave like children viewing the flame of a candle. The flame seems to last as an unchanging entity for some time. And then, when the flame is blown out, the children might look to see where it has gone. But of course it cannot be found. When the candle is relit, the new flame looks just like the earlier one – it is the same size, the same colour, the same temperature – and the children, being naïve, may be forgiven for assuming that it is the same flame that existed before and that has now come back. That is, the children believe that the flame they see is an enduring entity and that it continues to exist in some way as it burns, when it changes shape and even when they know it has been blown out. As adults we know that the flame is not an enduring entity but a process, a chemical reaction, which is dependent on prevailing conditions (wax, heat and oxygen) and we know that each moment of flame is an efficient cause of the next moment of flame. We know that when blown out there is no longer any flame.17 We also know that the new flame is not the same flame as the one before. Similarly, we ourselves, our thoughts, memories, fantasies, opinions, concepts, sensations and emotions are not continuing entities. Like the flame each moment of thought is an efficient cause of the next moment of thought. Importantly, it is also an efficient cause of the next moment of emotion and the emotion is an efficient cause of the next moment of thought as well as of the next moment of emotion. And yet, as children regard the candle flame, so we believe our thoughts (and so our selves), our sensations and emotions to be real enduring entities.

An eddy

Self can also be likened to an eddy in a river. The essence of an eddy being a circular movement turning against the flow of the main stream. The circular flow attracts more water, and whatever is in it, into itself. The existence of an eddy depends on the momentum (energy) of the main stream and on a disturbance, for example, a stone that partially blocks the flow, in that stream. These are analogous to the life energy (three drives – see below) and our clinging to attachments (whatever we hold on to in order to maintain our status quo, our security or comfort). Just as an eddy is nothing other than the energy and water of the main stream, so a self is nothing other than the energy and flowing consciousness of life. But self sees itself as separate from and other than all else.

I the doer

Another common assumption is that self is the subject of sense-perception and thinking, the passive recipient of external events, unwanted thoughts and emotions, the owner of consciousness, a mind and a body, and the instigator of thoughts and voluntary actions.18 And yet, when we examine the foundations of our basic assumptions about self we cannot find anything that could be called a self.19, 20 At best, all we can find is memories that give rise to a sense of prior existence and thoughts that say ‘I think’, ‘I remember, ‘I see’, ‘I hear’, ‘I smell’, ‘I taste’, ‘I feel’, ‘I do’, ‘I want this’, ‘I do not want that’, ‘I am depressed’, ‘I am anxious’ or ‘I am angry’, and, ‘therefore I must exist’. The assumption that these verbs must have a subject results in belief in our selves; and the sense that things existed before results in there appearing to be continuing entities.21, 22

Further, self is then regarded as the originator of thoughts, speech and actions, and is assumed to have power to control certain aspects of life. Most of us, at least in western societies, believe that we should be able to exercise the power of self-will to get what we like and to get rid of, or to get away from, what we do not like: unwanted sensations, emotions and thoughts (in other words, what we perceive, feel and think). Although our assumptions and beliefs exist only as concepts in the mind, nevertheless we tend to hold on to them and insist on having our way according to them. Ridding ourselves of disappointment, for example, becomes a lasting problem only because we hold on to the frustrated expectation and then do not like the inevitable emotion. To deal with this we try to get rid of the emotion, usually by suppressing it and thinking about it. And we believe we are thereby dealing with it.

I the sovereign

Whenever life is not how we would like it to be most of us aim to augment and develop the sense of self, which, by definition, means to make ourselves feel better on our own terms – that is, to get what we want. And so far as psychologists and doctors are concerned, if what we want is considered to be unsuitable, at least for our own good, then this has to be changed first. Our aim, like that of the psychologist, is to relieve the suffering individual of unwanted sensations, emotions and thoughts. We attempt this by trying to get rid of them or by trying to get away from them. In this we do not question, let alone try to change, the individual self because the sanctity and sovereignty of self is taken for granted. Instead, attention is focussed on the sensations, emotions and thoughts, on their causes and on ways of changing them to suit us.

Blissfully unaware that emotion generates thoughts

This holding on to our concepts and rejecting the emotions is the real crux of the problem because ultimately what matters to us is how we feel – not what we think. Thoughts, sensations and emotions are only problems if we do not like how we feel about them and cannot, or will not, tolerate the attendant feelings. In order to relieve dissatisfaction, suffering and sorrow we must pay attention to the urge (which is an emotion) to have our own way. As long as our attention is with thoughts and concepts we remain blissfully unaware of the emotions and of what they are doing in us and to us. When upset or excited the underlying emotions (which are how we feel) drive us in thought, word and deed. When anxious we think anxious thoughts, we talk anxiously and we behave anxiously. This is how vicious cycles arise leading to grave disturbances and perturbations in us. It is important to recognise that what needs to be dealt with is the emotions and that this cannot be done by thinking. Emotions lead to problems because, until they have been tamed, humanised or civilised in us, they will remain wild and primitive and will continue to control us in thought, word and deed.

Vicious cycles

As part of the process of life (which process is life), thoughts are but constituents of the vicious cycles driven by emotional energy. In this it does not matter whether our thoughts are right or wrong; what matters is that we cling to them as if they were real continuing entities, or representations of real continuing entities, because our clinging is the main condition giving rise to the sense of self (see ‘eddies’ above). In other words, in these circumstances, the contents of our thoughts are less important than the effects of the emotions. As long as we are unaware of these causal connections the thoughts will act as efficient causal conditions giving rise to further emotions, thoughts, speech and actions. If not able to achieve what we want to our satisfaction, for example, we feel thwarted, frustrated, threatened and insecure. And then, not liking these feelings we try to get rid of them. If repeatedly unsuccessful we become increasingly upset and disturbed as ever stronger emotions arise in us and we try to get rid of them. We are so convinced of the need to resolve our problems by thinking that we unquestioningly give our attention to the thoughts and so we remain unaware of the physical emotions driving us. Eventually we are overwhelmed by these emotions and we break down with depression, anxiety, stress or unacceptable behaviour – all because we cannot, or will not, tolerate how we feel. In this are the two aspects: taking for granted that our thinking selves are all-important, and not being able or willing to bear and tolerate our feelings.

These brief outlines give a general overview of how our basic assumptions (whether conscious or not) affect how we live, how we feel and what we think – all of which are the subject matter of psychology.

Clutching illusions

Most people would agree that it is unreasonable and even counterproductive to be attached to and to rely on illusions. And yet this is precisely what most of us do. In contrast to the assumptions and beliefs of contemporary western psychology, process philosophy, especially as is explicitly made clear in Buddhism, regards self as nothing more than the effects of series of thoughts and memories, both of which are constantly changing: coming into and going out of existence as flowing streams.23-26 A psychology based on this latter view of self aims to undermine our delusions about self.

Buddhism describes how we are normally pre-occupied with our likes and dislikes and how, to satisfy these, we are driven by desire, aversion and delusion – the three basic drives of life in human beings. These drives are manifestations of emotion. Delusion here means our inability or reluctance (turning a blind eye) to see how things really are. As long as we are attached to self these drives will give rise to distorted, because biased, perceptions, thoughts, speech and actions. This means that while engaged in our personal views, opinions and beliefs we cannot see that they are biased and distorted. Instead, we believe that how we see life is how life actually is. These distortions also give rise to and perpetuate the illusion of self. From the point of view of self we want to believe that we and others are permanent – we have a vested interest in imagining, thinking and believing that we and they are permanent – which is largely why we turn a blind eye to any evidence to the contrary. The moment we see that our thinking is biased we no longer hold on to the distorted thoughts: the illusion is broken. But seeing is not thinking, it is awareness with insight.

According to process philosophy, everything – every conscious and every unconscious moment – comes into existence and goes out of existence depending on its efficient and final causal conditions. The difficulty in applying such a philosophy to ourselves arises because we are bound up in and are attached to our thinking selves. We identify ourselves with whatever we are attached to and we feel threatened when it is challenged, or lost, or even at the mere suggestion of letting go of it. In order to hold on to something secure we maintain an attitude of objectivity, especially by losing ourselves in and preoccupying ourselves with ideas and concepts. We are reluctant to look inside for the one who seems to have them.

Let it go

When we do see our selves as merely ever-changing series of effects we live radically different lives. To this end Buddhism, in particular, encourages the non-attachment to ephemeral things and concepts – to letting go of whatever is held on to. Consequently, vicious cycles do not form, and so, when expectations are not clung to, disappointment is brief and does not escalate; when ideas and opinions are not clung to, disagreements do not lead to anxiety, anger or depression.


In practice, insight comes from changing how we live, not from what we think – although what we read, hear and think may lead us to change how we live. Instead of trying to achieve personal, self-centred goals and ambitions, however reasonable these may be, we have to learn to let go of our attachments to what are, in reality, only passing phenomena – not necessarily discarding them, but no longer clinging to them. And then, when what we want is unattainable or ceases to be we are not disproportionately upset; and when what we do not want (including disturbing feelings) is with us we do not overreact against it. To be effective these changes have to be emotional, which is physical and corporeal, rather than mental. That is, we change in such a way that those emotions no longer arise in us in response to life not going our way. This is in sharp contradistinction to suppressing, denying, rationalising or analysing in order to understand intellectually, to come to terms with or to get rid of emotions. Contrary to what might be expected, letting go and not clinging to our attachments brings relief and trust in life, as opposed to trust only in self and thoughts, and so brings a sense of security which is not dependent on thinking or circumstances.

The moment to moment coming into existence and going out of existence of consciousness is all we can ever know of the flow of life, of ourselves and of anything else.27, 28 In order to resolve dissatisfaction, suffering and sorrow, it is necessary to stop trying to grasp and understand this process from the seemingly separate and static point of view of a continuing self and instead to learn to go with the flow of life by always remaining in the actual physical moment – that is, in the main flow – which we are actually in any way.29 We can learn to live the life that is us. To do so is to become totally absorbed in what is here now in physical reality. Because everything in and around us is constantly changing it is difficult to see the processes underlying the appearances. By trying to grasp and hold on to changing phenomena we become confused and insecure.30 The antidote for this is to remain quiet, alert and vigilant inside while open to and taking part in life as it actually is.31 This is not to change what we think or to ignore how we behave. Our thoughts change according to how we live. Without an interfering self the senses, mind and body function unimpeded and undisturbed because there is no self-concern and what they reveal in consciousness is how life is at each moment: coming to be and ceasing to be, as it is put in Buddhism. A single thought is likely to disturb the equilibrium and create a new self. In practice, remaining quiet and still is difficult and may be impossible when consciousness is too disorganised or chaotic – whether due to excitement, agitation, brain damage, drugs, or functional disorder. However, for anyone who embarks on changing themselves, there needs to be a gradual transition towards harmony within. When we are excited or upset consciousness is disturbed and perturbed and has to quieten down before becoming clear.32, 33


Conscious awareness without a self that regards itself as a separate entity, without a self that is deceived by thoughts, arises in and is fostered by meditation. This is an inner state (of consciousness) in which there is no trying to become something other than what already exists – what already is; no trying to get anything or to get rid of anything. Buddhism likens the cessation of self-concern and self-interest to the extinction of the flame of a candle. When causal conditions cease so their effects cease and the chain (vicious cycle) is broken forever. With regard to this same changed state the Taoist philosopher Lao-tzu said, ‘What the caterpillar calls the end the rest of the world calls a butterfly.’ 34 The end, or cessation, of self as we know it is the beginning of a life that flows freely, is fulfilled and fulfilling, independent of our likes and dislikes and of social and material circumstances.


†   C. R. F. Sherlock in Riffert F. & Weber M. (Eds.) (2003): Searching for New Contrasts. Whiteheadian Contributions to Contemporary Challenges in Psychology, Neurophysiology and the Philosophy of Mind. Wien: Peter Lang. (pp231-242) ISBN: 3-631-39089-0

References and notes

Note: PR = Process and Reality (Corrected Edition). A N Whitehead. (Eds. Griffin DR, Sherburne DW). 1978. The Free Press.

*   Sherlock, Clive is a psychiatrist. He founded Adaptation Practice, a secular rendering of preliminary training for a Zen Buddhist practice.

1  PR, p 150: ‘An actual entity is at once the product of the efficient past, and is also, in Spinoza’s phrase, causa sui. Every philosophy recognizes, in some form or other, this factor of self-causation in what it takes to be ultimate actual fact.’ [The point here being that everything has a cause other than itself.]

2  PR, p 244: ‘…nothing floats into the world from nowhere …’

3  Points such as these are based on clinical experience and research. It is not clear how far Whitehead used his own philosophy to examine his/him self.

4  PR, p 7.

5  PR, p 108: ‘The state of things, according to the philosophy of organism, is very different from the scholastic view of St. Thomas Aquinas, of the mind as informing the body.’

6  PR, p 244: ‘This function of God is analogous to the remorseless working of things in Greek and in Buddhist thought.’

7  PR p 342-343: ‘So long as the temporal world is conceived as a self-sufficient completion of the creative act, explicable by its derivation from an ultimate principle which is at once eminently real and the unmoved mover, from this conclusion there is no escape: the best that we can say of the turmoil is, ‘For so he giveth his beloved – sleep. This is the message of religions of the Buddhist type, and in some sense it is true. … The notion of God as the ‘unmoved mover’ is derived from Aristotle, at least so far as Western thought is concerned. The notion of God as ’eminently real’ … The combination of the two into the doctrine of an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator … is the fallacy which has infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and Mahometanism.’

8  Believers in contemporary theistic religions take their God, or Gods, as being enduring real entities for which there are no antecedent causes: they just are. Holding such beliefs entails turning a blind eye to evidence and accepting concepts which are purposefully driven by emotion (as a hidden reason) unbeknown to the believer. I am not denying the divine but observing how we human beings conceive whatever it is.

9  Eccles, J. 1973. Facing Reality. Editiones Basel. Springer-Verlag Berlin. (First published as Volume 13 of the “Heidelberg Science Library” 1970). p 44: ‘What am I? This is a question which each of us can ask ourselves, and which is quite unashamedly a looking within ourselves – an attitude which is called subjective and introspective.’

10  Takakusu, J. 1975. The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy [1947] University of Hawaii, Honolulu Edited by Chan, Wing-tsit and Moore, Charles A. p23-24 ‘According to Buddhism, all human beings and all living things are self-created or self-creating. The universe is not homocentric; it is a co-creation of all beings. … everything is inevitably created out of more than two causes. The creations or becomings of the antecedent causes continue in time-series – past, present and future – like a chain. … these divisions are interdependent …the formula of this theory is as follows: From the existence of thisthat becomes; from the happening of thisthat happens. From the non-existence of thisthat does not become; from the non-happening of thisthat does not happen.

11  Takakusu ibid. p 13: ‘Every human being has ātman (little self). … Brahmanism, therefore, is an effort to seek the ultimate principle, Brahman, by studying one’s self, ātman. The Buddha denied the existence of Brahman and ātman, and advanced a new theory of anātman (no-self), for, he declared, all things are changing and it is unreasonable to look for an absolute principle or an eternal self.’

12 PR, p 29: ‘It is fundamental to the metaphysical doctrine of the philosophy of organism, that the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change is completely abandoned. An actual entity is at once the subject experiencing and the subject of its experience.’

13  PR, p 208.

14  Leggett, T. 1977. ‘On the Heart Sutra by Abbot Obora’. Translated by Leggett, T in The Tiger’s Cave. (First published Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London, 1964). p, 47: ‘This contrary life in which we cannot be what we like to be, when examined from within, produces a desolation.’

15  PR, p 43: ‘… in separation from actual entities there is nothing, merely nonentity – ‘The rest is silence.’ … ‘The Castle Rock at Edinburgh exists from moment to moment, and from century to century, by reason of the decision effected by its own historic route of antecedent occasions.’

16  PR, p 210: ‘This transition … is the ‘perpetually perishing’ which is one aspect of the notion of time; and in another aspect the transition is the origination of the present in conformity with the ‘power’ of the past.’

17  Eccles, ibid. p, 45: ‘It is the same self that awakes to another stream of consciousness …’ [This is an example of an eminent scientist who unquestioningly assumes the presence of a continuing self – despite his discussing the question ‘What am I?’]

18  PR, p 151: ‘Descartes in his own philosophy conceives the thinker as creating the occasional thought. The philosophy of organism inverts the order, and conceives the thought as a constituent operation in the creation of the occasional thinker. The thinker is the final end whereby there is the thought. In this inversion we have the final contrast between a philosophy of substance and a philosophy of organism.’

19  PR, p 211: ‘The analysis discloses operations transforming entities which are individually alien into components of a complex which is concretely one.’

20 Eccles, ibid: p 45: ‘…because of memory, each of us links his life together into some kind of continuity of inner experience, which is what we mean when we talk of a self or person. This involves a recognition of unity and identity through all past vicissitudes. … we wake up after each period of unconsciousness, recognizing, because of memory, our continuity with the self of the preceding day, and we continue with our trains of experiences.’

21  PR, p. 150. ‘Descartes’ argument, from the very fact of thinking, assumes that this freely determined operation is thereby constitutive of an occasion in the endurance of an actual entity. He writes (Meditation II): “I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it.”

22  PR, p 107: ‘But a living nexus … may support a thread of personal order along some historical route of its members. Such an enduring entity is a ‘living person’. [I argue against there being ‘an enduring entity’ and suggest that there is only the appearance of one.]

23  PR, p 211: ” ‘Actuality’ means nothing else than this ultimate entry into the concrete, in abstraction from which there is mere nonentity. In other words, abstraction from the notion of ‘entry into the concrete’ is a self-contradictory notion, since it asks us to conceive a thing as not a thing.’

24  Takakusu ibid. p 18: ‘Selflessness (no substance) and impermanence (no duration) are the real state of our existence …’

25  PR, p 150: ‘… efficient causation expresses the transition from actual entity to actual entity;’

26  Stcherbatsky, Th. 1974. The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word “Dharma” [1923] London, Royal Asiatic Society. (Reprinted Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1974). p 9: ‘an object which cannot be viewed as a separateobject of cognition or a separate faculty of cognition is unreal, as e.g. the soul, or the personality. Being a congeries of separate elements it is declared to be a name, and not a reality …’

27  The Buddha said that all we can ever sense, think and know comes through the six senses, which in Buddhism are the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body (touch) and mind. They involve eighteen entities: the sense organs as listed, their objects (forms, sounds, smells, flavours, tangibles and thoughts) and the consciousnesses that arise when object and organ are in contact with each other (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling and thinking). Therefore he called these eighteen ‘The All’. There is nothing else.

28  Eccles ibid. p 46: ‘… this conscious experience is all that is given to me in my task of trying to understand myself … only because of and through my conscious experience do I come to know of a world of things and events …’

29  PR, p 343: ‘… love … finds purpose in the present immediacy … love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.’

30  PR, p 340: ‘Yet the culminating fact of conscious, rational life refuses to conceive itself as a transient enjoyment, transiently useful.’

31  Takakusu ibid. p15: ‘… “knowing and regarding reality as it is.” That means one should know the true facts about this earthly life and look at it without making excuses, and regulate one’s daily conduct of life according to this knowledge and standpoint.’

32  PR, p 32: ‘…a principle of unrest, involving realization of what is not and may be.’

33  Stcherbatsky ibid. p 48: ‘… elements … we take to mean … the reality of … sense-data, and … of mental phenomena … The … salient feature of Buddhist elements is that they represent dukkha, a term which has always been rendered by suffering, sorrow, etc. Sufficient as this interpretation may be for popular literature, it is evident that theoretically something else is meant. Such expressions as “the element of vision is sorrow”, “all elements influenced (i.e. influenced by desire to live) are sorrow” … the elements described above are perpetually in a state of commotion, and the ultimate goal of the world process consists in their gradual appeasement and final extinction.’

34  Lao-tzu. 1964. Tao Te Ching. Translated by Lau, D. C. Penguin Books