The Dhamma of Depersonalization

Depersonalization is a terrifying mental condition, characterized by feelings of bodily detachment, numbness, confusion, anxiety, and that the world and self is unreal. Someone suffering from depersonalization-derealization disorder(DPDR) constantly feels they have no self and their memories aren’t their own. Their perceptions are distorted and the world looks out of focus and dream like. What is someone with this disorder to make of the doctrine of Anattā?

It would seem their biggest fear has come true! Your self is an illusion and your experience of intense detachment is… to be desired? Somewhere, practitioners of the Buddhist dhamma are peaceful and full of bliss because of the realization of Not-Self. Elsewhere regular people commit suicide because of DPDR. These twin tracks of not self experience is interesting to me. A reasonable Buddhist response would be something like the following

“A person with DPDR is feeling intense fear because of their craving and clinging to their view of self and ignorance of dependent origination.”
That’s a good doctrinal response but if you have a derealization episode the only way out is to cling and grasp at any normal feeling of having a self. It would seem bizarre and apathetic to push a person with DPDR disorder to explore further into the numb void of not self.

How can we reconcile Anattā from this mental disorder?


I think this is a good question. There’s tons of stuff in the suttas that, arguably, on the face of it, fly against much of Western psychiatry/psychology, and yet psychology has borrowed much from Buddhism, e.g. mindfulness.

And personally, the Buddhist practice is my biggest source of meaning and happiness, despite the same Buddhism saying that the world is basically meaningless and, not …good, kinda? It’s weird!

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As you say the big difference here is the persons ‘Self View’. In the first instance it is based on Wrong View. I don’t say that to be glib… but even while the person seems to have lost their ‘Self view’ they haven’t really. It is just the loss of a cohesive structure from which to perceive the world - they have lost their anchor (have no ground or reference to anchor themselves in the midst of perceptions) they have not understood or transcended the Delusion that causes Self View to be formed. It is an out of control un-cohesive bombardment of perceptions.

It is then like having the carpet pulled out from under you, as opposed to being let out of prison. In the sphere of No-thingness, this same terror can come to arise if one attains it before Right View is sufficiently developed… It is only when one understands the constraining aspects of ‘construction’ that one becomes free. Otherwise it is an out of control free fall with nothing to hold on to.

In those circumstances the simpler parts of Right View is something good to cling to… Sila, knowing what is wholesome - generating beneficial mind states, not the practices of dispassion for the sensory world and eventually dissolution of sense of self. As the Buddha says, one uses a finer peg to displace the coarser peg. This is a great anchor and framework to have for determining choices. It is something that is relatively straight forward to adopt and cling to. The Buddha taught different things to different people exactly for this reason

I agree that training in perceptions of No Self is hugely challenging. I personally don’t think it is useful except for in the context of a cumulative training regime aka the gradual training. I have no idea how to reconcile the difficulties of teaching (esp the most deep aspects) to anyone who comes along to listen(general public such as online teachings), as especially those with fragile psychologies, can be led into unhelpful areas. That said, I myself am extremely grateful that all levels of teachings have been made available.

I suppose it is like anything really, some people will not be able to use it in beneficial ways… and it will yield an adverse effect. Does one withhold a life saving drug because .01% have an adverse reaction? In those cases identification of ‘risk factors’ is important, and then those with high risk can chose whether engage with it.

No definitive answers but just a few thoughts around the issues you raise :slightly_smiling_face: :pray: :sunflower:


If they are aware of the problem, they sense a wrongness. The feeling that something is wrong is only because there was an original expectation. This original expectation is formed by the self. The fear and anxiety is because of the awareness of a disconnection of the self process. Whose point of reference is making this determination if not the self?

I don’t know the mind of those who suffer from DPDR, but the descriptions you give sound like a form of shock as a result of extreme trauma. The symptoms of shock can include a feeling of disconnection from what is happening as well as “out of body” experiences. :pray:

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Hello Venerable :blush: first and foremost, I’m so happy the internet has been able to bridge gaps between practitioners. To be able to read such a thoughtful response virtually amazes me when I think of how the dhamma was initially spread from person to person and town to town in the Buddhas day.

Anywho, your first two paragraphs show a great understanding and description of DPDR.

This is very apt. It’s certainly not advisable that persons struggling with DPDR and other mental illness jump straight into the deepest parts of Buddhism. A person with intense depression may not find relief in the teachings of dissatisfaction with the whole world. Your emphasis on sila and the gradual aspects of the dhamma is very nice to hear:)

it’s an amazing thing the whole of the dhamma is available and it shouldn’t be hidden. I do wonder how (and hope) people with psychological issues can also find the dhamma inviting and immediately effective. Good in the beginning, middle and end.


Indeed, DPDR and dissociation illnesses are often caused from prior traumas. Out of body experiences are common with these conditions. I’ve been trying to avoid discussing any personal conditions as per the site rules but DPDR is a wild and scary condition! It can really clash with any aspiration to meditate on matters like formless abodes and such.


First you must understand that you suffer from severe mental disorder which can be described as personalization. In Pali sakkayaditthi.

It is so severe and deep that only psychiatrists from Buddha’s Mental Health Institute known as ariyas, are able to provide you with a proper treatment. And that treatment is called depersonalisation, or abandoning of sakkayaditthi and asmimana (conceit I am).

But common psychiatrists are as much sick as you, so in their medical theory depersonalization usually describes the casees not so much of the true depersonalization, but merely person (sakkaya) which doesn’t cease to exist but merely stops to function in more or less proper way.

Unfortunately as it was said, properly functional person is very sick, at least as far as the standard of the Four Noble Truths goes.

Paradoxically to abandon personality first one must have strong personality.

“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, 'You are mad; you are not like us.”

Saint Anthony

But according to the Buddha we can speak about the true mental health only in the case of arahat.

Practicing the four immeasurable perfections - instead of focusing on the self or non-self - is an alternative that centers the attention on the welfare of all; generating the wish for all to have happiness and its causes; generating the wish for all to be free of suffering and its causes; generating the wish for all to not be parted from sorrowless bliss; generating the wish for all to be abide in equanimity; free of bias, attachment and anger.

This practice is conducive to the long term happiness of oneself and others. It centers concern on generating the altruistic wish for the welfare of all which can lessen attachment to selfish thoughts. Notice that the all includes the self, but does not focus or center on it. Having concern for the welfare of oneself equal to the concern for the welfare of everyone.

I hope this might be a helpful suggestion for those who have experienced a shock of trauma and looking for a compassionate practice in order to take refuge.



That would work if it weren’t for their tendency to misinterpret it as something that supports their self-dying perceptions “I don’t have a self; my memories aren’t mine”. I’ve seen them going online asking for help for everyone to respond with “Oh but clearly you do have an ego since you used I in a sentence so everything is alright”, but that contributes in the wrong direction too. not-self would be the antidote, but in practice, they should certainly look elsewhere first (maybe focusing on emotions and the brahmavihārā’s) in order to understand the fact of no-self properly (later on).

When the concept is given context in Buddhist texts, anatta is shown to be the negation of a specific conception of self as something permanent and unchanging, i.e., not a conventional thing, like the everlasting soul of Christians and other Indian religions. Buddhists aren’t saying you can somehow have absolutely no sense of self at all. It’s a different thing that this mental illness.

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Yes, this angle is often very very underrated. Indeed it can be taken very far. Often people talk about ‘the optimal’ but this is largely a fantasy. One has to work with the conditions… So I want to give you hope :pray: :slightly_smiling_face: The practices of Sila can take you very deep. Here I’m talking about Sila in the broadest sense, not just adhering to precepts. By developing kindness, generosity, compassion and being able to take joy in the happy conditions of others one is absolutely moving along the N8fP!

The cultivation of kindness means that one has to focus on the other person, thereby lessening an egotistical view of the world. It is gentle and pleasant and leads to peace and calm. These are necessary pre-requisites for calm and peaceful abiding. As this grows and the Mind becomes more happy and stable… not scary anymore :slightly_smiling_face: then peaceful abiding opens up.

Normally at this point the progression into meditation and through the different levels is cited :smile: but here I’d say - cultivate contentment :relieved: This then naturally leads to good states, it is a totally natural progression… no need to use will here. No craving, no stress, no expectations… One can relax and be kind to all Beings, including oneself. The focus is on the present - and so one doesn’t need a sense of continuity… whatever comes be kind to it … that’s all. A beautiful, nurturing, peaceful abiding - a refuge - a place of peace and safety and comfort. It is really very beautiful :heart_eyes:

May you be happy and well - metta :pray: :relieved: :sparkling_heart:


Beautifully written and your admiration and joy at discovering/practicing dhamma really comes through! Thank you Venerable! :pray:


Thank you :slightly_smiling_face: But I am simply an Upasika - not ordained :slightly_smiling_face: :pray: :sunflower:


The traumatized mind has a tendency to withdraw itself from what is seen, heard felt, known. Like it is not really present. That is ofcourse understandable ,because while intense painful things happen to you, the mind wants away from it. So the traumatic mind is like a mind that is not really present in the world. There is always some veil between this mind and the other person, the world. When this veil becomes really dense then one start to feel like one does not exist, like one has no self, is not really present.

We all have to find a way to re-find trust again, faith, the love, the wisdom, the support that helps us to be open and be fully present in the world. That is a very scary process when you are traumatised. But i hope, i pray, may we all find a way to open our hearts again. May our heart be free, liberated like the Buddha’s.

Never ever doubt the beauty, the goodness, the purity of the heart. Of no person. Not yourself, not Trump, no person, no animal, not Mara. We do not have to doubt the purity of the heart. That is the message of the Buddha to all beings. The heart is not the problem.

Life is difficult but with traumatic experiences it becomes even more difficult. Talking can help but also EMDR for example. Sometimes talking does not help and one must find other ways, as it were, to re-wire the brain.

A Buddha is fully present in the world. There is no veil between him and the world. He has opened his heart fully. . One thing is physical pain, decay, loss, but the pain of a heart that is not open is really a burden. A heart that has problems to trust again. How can one trust people when people have shown to be butchters, abuser. How can we trust life if it shows to be so unsure, unstable, with so much violence, conflict?

Well…euuhhh :blush:

The open heart has so much to give. It is a wishfulfilling jewel. We can feel the beauty of it.

The Path removes all that closes the heart, all the veils too.

It is very normal that confronted with suffering, intens painful experiences, trauma’s, our heart more or less closes. This also happened to the Buddha. He was heartbroken. In a sense we all need a doctor to cure our heartacke. A medicine. Not only traumatizes people.
Especially buddhist :blush:

There is so much misunderstanding, sorry to say but there is. Anatta is not some Path to become a selfless machinery or some Path to reduce oneself to mere impersonal physical and mental processes.
All the instruction of the Buddha are only to become fully open hearted. That is just the same as detachment and the pacification of all defilements.

It was only in full open-heartedness that Buddha was able to defeat Mara. For he long he practiced rejecting, accepting, welcoming, abandoning, blocking, remedying… but this never led to his awakening. Only when he was fully open towards everything things were falling in place.

Dhamma certaintly gives one tools to gradullay, slowly, patiently become more open hearted again after ones heart is broken or hurt. Find trust again. But, with a mental disorder, one must always also and, probably first of all, seek therapy, i believe.

But ofcourse we all are mentally sick. Disorders are gradual.


I assume that the DPDR you mean is not due to understanding the reality of anatta from Buddhist teachings, but rather a wavering perception of the mind/body and the environment.

But actually it is very interesting, that at a certain stage after people understand the teachings about anatta from Buddhism, they can also experience perceptions of terror and fear. This is because throughout life we think there is a core of self that be on it’s own internally, but it turns out there isn’t. However, the understanding of anatta in Buddhism comes based on an understanding of the cognitive process which occurs solely as a conditional process which proceeds continuously, giving rise to the illusion of the existence of an independent core of self internally, whether considered in the mind or in the body. Apart from that, in Buddhist practice there are also other practices that calm the mind, such as maintaining morality and meditation (for example meditation on attention to breathing, with a very calming effect on both mind and body). So the state of terror and fear can be balanced with inner calm; but in the end you will realize that “there is no way out” in the sense that the mind and body are really just continuous processes that condition each other and do not have an internal core that be on it’s own and has control over other parts of the mind and body. This kind of awareness will bring about acceptance and with the effect of disinterest in the formations of mind, body and life; The desire begins to arise to be freed from a series of cognitive processes, mental and physical processes, which actually do not have any internal meaning. This desire to be liberated will encourage the gradual search for the path to liberation (nibbana)…