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Horizons: Family Office & Investor Magazine

Patricia Woo: Who am I? Self as Process and Implications for Family Offices

Monday, September 19, 2022

Patricia Woo is Partner of Squire Patton Boggs in Hong Kong where she is also co- head of the firm’s global family office cross- practice team with around 60 partners from different offices. She is a fund, trust and tax lawyer noted for her practice in helping global ultra-high-net-worth families set up, restructure and operate investment-centric, service-centric, and comprehensive value- centric family offices.

Patricia is a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst, Chartered Tax Advisor, member of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners Academy Community, Certified Islamic Finance Executive and member of the Centre for Understanding in Conflict. She holds a STEP Certificate and Diploma in International Trust Management, STEP Advanced Certificate in Trust Disputes and Advanced Certificate and Diploma in Fund Administration. She also holds a BA in Philosophy and Economics (summa cum laude) from the University of Pittsburgh, MSc in Financial Economics from the University of London, LLB from the University of London, PCLL from the University of Hong Kong and PGCert in Consciousness, Spirituality and Transpersonal Psychology from Middlesex University.

Patricia is recognized in Who’s Who Legal: Thought Leaders – Private Client (1st Edition) 2020 and is a recipient of the 2021 Global Law Experts Annual Awards (Private Client Lawyer of the Year in Hong Kong 2021, Trust Lawyer of the Year in Hong Kong 2021 and Tax Lawyer of the Year in Hong Kong 2021), the Corporate INTL Magazine 2021 Global Awards (Private Client Lawyer of the Year in Hong Kong and Trust Lawyer of the Year in Hong Kong) and the High Net Worth Award Winner in Hong Kong of the 2020 International Advisory Experts Award.

Evan Thompson (2015) has written that “self is a pro- cess, not a thing or an entity.... [It] is a process of “I ing,” a process that enacts an “I” and in which the “I” is no different from the Iing process itself, rather like the way dancing is a process that enacts a dance and in which the dance is no different from the dancing” (pp. xxxi & 325).

Are family offices “all about the process”?

I have a vivid recollection of an occasion where I have learnt a new way the concept of “process” can be relevant to my line of work as a lawyer specializing in building single family offices for the ultra-wealthy. It goes back to year 2018. I was speaking at a con- ference organised by a private bank. While I was sharing how to combine spirituality with my legal work, a fellow panelist, chief operating officer (COO) of a major family business who also runs the family’s family office, said family office is all about the pro- cess. I see and treat family members as unique souls, so his emphasis on “process” alone gave me a feeling of being detached, materialistic or perhaps even a bit unhuman. After the conference, I never had the chance to speak with him about his perspective and the context that gave rise to it but what he said did leave a lasting impression.

On second thought, I started to see things from his perspective. As COO, his responsibility is to make sure family affairs are dealt with in a systematic way. To organize actions and keep track of progress, his view of a family office is understandably pro- cess-driven. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “pro- cess” as “a series of actions that you take in order to achieve a result”. I always feels that this is a mostly (if not purely) mechanical, so here are my questions: What about the experience? What about the people?

Thompson’s “self as a process”

As mentioned, Evan Thompson depicts “self as a process” and this provides a response to my ques- tions from a fresh perspective. Like the COO, Thomp- son also uses the word “process” but the angle is completely different. He refers to “self” as an “expe- riential process” and holds that a self is enacted in the process of awareness. The self is therefore an experience and never a constant.

He divides consciousness into different stages: dreaming, sleeping, waking, dying etc. We all have a bodily self that handles manual tasks, but when the task becomes mentally absorbing, the bodily self recedes and is overtaken by the mentally im- agined self of the past or future. When one goes to sleep, the sense of self (and the boundary of one’s impression as an individual) disappears until it resumes in dreams, capable of experiencing from both the inside, first-person and the outside, third person-perspective. To Thompson, death is not only a breakdown of bodily functions and outer signs of consciousness but a subjective dissolution of the sense of self.

The essence of his “enactive” view of the self is that a self is an ongoing process that enacts as “I” and in which the “I” is no different from the process itself. The self depends and relates to the world by “find- ing and creating meanings” (Thompson, 2015, pg. 328) and seeks to form “a self-perpetuating whole in relation to the environment”. (Thompson, 2015, pg. 325) In thinking and planning modes, the self shifts from the immediate present to the past as recollect- ed or the future as projected. Such abilities enable I-making at “biological, psychology, and social levels”. (Thompson, 2015, pg. xxxix)

Why is the concept of “self” relevant to the work of a family office lawyer?

One might ask: why and how is the concept of “self” relevant to the work of a family office lawyer? Although I handle funds, trusts and tax for the ultra-wealthy, I work with people. So it matters who these people are, what views they hold and how they see themselves, others and the world and beyond. Some clients come to me looking for solutions to protect, invest and pass on assets. Tangible arrange- ments can be made without taking a pause and revisiting who the wealth creator or the wealth holder is as a person. But with this overly-simplistic approach comes a gap that leads to disputes since family mem- bers do not understand why and how the decisions were made. Such understanding cannot be attained without an understanding of the decision-maker as a “self” by others and himself.

Successful planning can be taken to the next level with a sensitivity to the richness of the concept of self. Two clients, frustrated by the need to redo the legal structure due to complex tax issues, approached us for help. After two short meetings at public places, we had a long meeting at their home. Before we started, they asked to pray together. It was one of the most moving moments I have had in client meetings. “Lord, we know that although we appear to be owner of the wealth, we are only the custodian you have chosen.” So they said in the prayer. “The wealth we hold matters, but what matters more is how we put it to good use. We now surrender the process of restructuring to you and asked for the best solution.”

Another client, a Tibetan Buddhist, wanted to formalize the charitable efforts dedicated to education of young females in the Qinghai Area and she told me at various occasions that she knew the feeling of familiarity and the aspiration to this particular cause is the result of a past life connection. A discussion about past life issues took place with yet another ultra-wealthy individual who cold called for help with family governance enhancement to resolve family disputes. He was fully aware that the disputes should be first resolved at the energetic level before long-lasting results can be achieved.

What these clients have in common is an awareness of a “self” beyond the bodily, mental and relational senses. They are those who are open to and embrace religious and spiritual mystical influence in what we live, how we make decision and what we decide on. Such attitude and approach give deeper breadth and depth to succession planning as an important aspect of life.

Usefulness of seeing “self as a process”

Every family operates on both individual and collective levels but rarely conscious, inner understanding is gained. Not all clients and the family members are naturally intuitive and understand what is meant by “looking inward”, so Thompson’s notion of “self as process” provides a framework that helps one makes sense of his or her reacting to life events, decision-making, understanding the emotions and best of all communication with oneself and others.

Particularly, seeing “self” as a process of enacting makes one aware of the consequences of the Buddhist concept of dependency, especially conceptual dependence, arising. (Thompson, 2015, p. 330) When one tries to give meaning and explanation to things, it is a decision one makes to focus on certain conditioning relations that mutually specify each other. To give rise to a different meaning, another set of conditioning relations will have to be chosen. The view we hold will therefore depends naturally on the conditions we are cognitively aware of and the choices we make.

The Buddhist framework of the five aggregates not only supports a meditative exploration but also provides a systematic tool for one to develop awareness of his experience as “self”. (Sills, 2009, pg. 93-94) Such a framework helps one become more attuned to the emotional changes in daily living situations, and encourages self-understanding. (Karunamuni, 2015, pg. 4)

Thompson (2015) described the five aggregates as five sorts of basic psychophysical activities that make up a person. The first aggregate (form) includes the body’s sensory systems and the “registration” of the sensory qualifies. The second aggregate (feeling) represents the immediate experience of any event of sensory registration as being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The third aggregate (perception) amounts to “stereotyping”. The fourth aggregate (inclination) relates to how one reacts in particular ways to the feeling arising in the second aggregate. The fifth (and last) aggregate is one of consciousness, implying one’s inclination to give attention to one thing rather than another. (pg 336-338)

Each aggregate is a psychophysical process featuring experienced moments that are impermanent, arising, and perishing from moment to moment (Analayo, 2006 as cited in Karunamuni, 2015, pg. 3). An array of meditation-based psychotherapy methods such as insight meditation (Vipassana) and Dharma therapy have been developed applying the five-aggregate model. Many with Vipassana training and experience have been taught in the tradition of Goenka during a 10-day intensive meditation courses at a Vipassana Meditation Centre. This particular Vipassana meditative practice encourages one to focus the attention on subtle somatosensory awareness, scan and monitor the sensations throughout the body while remaining neutral as to mental or emotional reactivity. (Cahn, Delorme & Polich, 2010, pg 40)

Dharma therapy is a therapeutic intervention modelled after the Buddha’s path to awakening. The clients are initially taught how to breathe peacefully and learn to enjoy and be mindful of their own breathing and subsequent other method and know-how of mindfulness so that they can develop a “spiritual oasis” where there is concentration, awareness and clarity, enhancing the ability to develop insight and deal with the problems. (Sik, 2004, pg. 10)

Multiplicity of selves

Though useful in helping one become aware of the subtle changes to the “self”, seeing the “self” as a largely linear process has a blind spot where the multiplicity of selves and its therapeutic value are concerned. In this context, a discussion of “parts work”, which suggests that an individual is consisted of multiple selves and/or sub-personalities rather than a single self, as described in Internal Family System (IFS), Psychosynthesis and Voice Dialogue Therapy, is warranted.

The IFS model holds that a person is an internal family with the Self as a leader and bearer of certain wholesome qualifies such as acceptance, compassion and clarity. There are also other parts that are protective in an extreme way or parts that are hurt, vulnerable due to past emotion injuries. These parts have lost “trust in the leadership of the Self”. (Schwartz, 2013, pg. 808) Through a process of inner focus and dialogue, Internal Family System Therapy aims to help one with self-acceptance and reduce judging people with behaviors that resemble the parts of them they hated.

Psychosynthesis posits that our way of thinking, feeling and behaviors is “conditioned” by the environment. If a person faces a non-empathic environment, he would develop a survival personality which suppresses such experiences and suffer from primal wounding. To survive primal wounding, one has to “disown” the experience of pain and suffering by splitting it off from the ongoing awareness. Such hidden wound becomes a person’s inaccessible lower unconsciousness. Not only the wounds but also the positive aspects rejected by the non- empathic environment, constituting the higher consciousness can become also inaccessible. The key is to re-discover these disowned parts. (Firman and Gila, 1997, pg. 163-165)

According to Voice Dialogue therapy, many selves emerge during development, but people become identified exclusively with the ‘‘primary selves hat have best served to protect them and reject or ‘‘disown’’ of other selves that do not fit what the environment demands. Different from IFS and Psychosynthesis, in Voice Dialogue, there is no ‘‘authentic self’’ or ‘‘higher Self,’’ as all selves are deemed authentic just as they are. (Berchik, Rock & Friedman, 2016, pg. 91)


“Part work” advocates the benefits of acknowledging the multiple selves and sub-personalities and restoring them to the natural state and all approaches referred to above, though they may not provide an answer to what the ultimate selves are, aim to make each of us a more complete, better person. Sills (2019) offers an additional angle to “self as a process”, seeing self as a process of creation and expression of an intrinsic motivation or urge-to- become, although such process of self-expression is both conditioned and conditioning. (pg. 85-86)

The developmental notion of the self becoming what it is destined to be might not fully address the self’s potential and need to transcend and embrace the religious, spiritual and mystical aspects and perspective of life. Cunningham (2021) stressed the importance of the transpersonal aspect of self- development, referring to Maslow’s later amendment of his hierarchy of needs to including the need of self-transcendence, a concept that goes beyond self-actualisation, which Maslow considered is not sufficient in explaining transcendent experiences and values. (pg. 189-190)

Thompson included such altered state of consciousness as lucid dream and near death experience as part of the self as a process, but the range of self-transcendent experiences available to human can be much broader as studied by Yaden et al. (2017). Such self-transcendent experiences represented by temporary transient mental states characterized by self-diminishment and increased feelings of connectedness. These states display a “unitary continuum” ranging from awe, wonder and psychological flow to full-blown mystical experiences, displaying varying degrees of intensity. One might feel the boundaries falling away between oneself and the surrounding environment to varied extents. (pg. 3) Many people report that their “sense of self” and/or self-boundaries temporarily disappear during their self-transcendent experiences, which are often reported to be profoundly positive. (pg 11)

Self, No-Self and connecting with the Universe

The core essence of Thompson’s notion of “self as process” is the Buddhist concept of “no-self”. By no-self, he does not hold the view of “neuronihilism” which sees self as an illusion constructed by the brain. (Thompson, 2015, pg. xxxix) Rather, he believes in dis-identifying from the concept of a constant, permanent self. Self-dependence arises when one clings to the idea of a self that does not change (which does not exist) and such an idea only leads to, as many Buddhist believes, suffering.

An alternative angle to look at the concept of “self” could be that of “self” as part of the Universe. It represents an enlarged concept of “self”. Perhaps the ultimate goal of the “self” is to reach Taoism’s “Nothingness” and Buddhism’s “Emptiness”, which represent a state in which “the mind empty of self and its cravings, but does not mean the nonexistence of the mind”. (Ho, 1995, pg. 123)

Self-liberation (from suffering) is a long process and the diminishment of self is where one starts the journey of detaching from the fixated concept of self and becoming more connected with the Universe and eventually reaching emptiness. Smaller, subtle shift in the sense of Self will help one find the path and pace that works. The Internal Family System, for instance, helps the spacious essence existing inherently in the individual to emerge. Schwartz (2013) calls such essence, usually characterized by a profound sense of calm, confidence, clarity, connectedness, and creativity, the Self and believes it corresponds to no-self in Zen. (pg. 809) Engler and Fulton (2013) illustrated the therapeutic potential of no-self by considering the use of Internal Family System and depicted the clinical meaning of self and no-self with a continuum. (pg. 179)

Welwood (2000) holds a similar belief of emptiness, which is a “larger dimension of mind – the presence of nonconceptual awareness, or nonthought” and that such “larger nature of consciousness has no shape or form”. (pg. 49) The choice of word “larger” seems to hint a process of expansiveness, which could be achieved by practice.

Zen Master Sasaki Rosbi echoes the fluid nature of “Self” (and no-self). Instead of focusing purely on expansion, his idea of “self” is an awareness that “comes” and “goes” and therefore endlessly, repeatedly “expanding and contracting”. When the opposite forces “unite” and become one, there is emptiness. Emptiness is not something static but is itself activity. (Puhakka, 1998, pg. 137)

Many ask whether the concept of self is still relevant in Buddhism and Buddhist psychology if no-self is the desired state. Yang (2019) citing Master Shen-Yen responded that transformation involves a process of self-knowledge, self-recognition, self-growth and self-dissolution. The first three stages and the construction and purification of the self are prerequisite of reaching the state of “no-self”. Without the progress accumulated during the first three stage, self-dissolution and ultimate enlightenment is just not plausible. (pg. 110)

Concept of self in families and spiritual lives

Processes are useful in a well-organized family and family offices, especially for the super wealthy who need standard, procedures and reliable and predictable ways to handle their affairs. But how can we bring individual self and the collective together for sustainable betterment? Thompson’s “self as process” offers the opportunity to incorporate individual, inner process to the overall process of the family. It will inspire families and its members to slow down and immerse in the conscious awareness of how “self” unfolds under varied circumstances. By becoming more aware, one is able to describe, understand and communicate the experience arising from family and personal events. Only when one is able to do so, one is able to appreciate not only the process going on within himself but also the process taking place in others in the family and the associated conditioning that comes with it.

Meditation-based psychotherapeutic methods are tangible tools that families can use to help their members under professional guidance to develop the ability to “look inward” and gain a deeper understanding in how one feels, reacts, thinks, makes decision and interact with others in the family.

Practices that develop mindfulness, according to Vago and Silbersweig (2012), can contribute to “changes across dimensions of self-processing, such as the development of self-other relations that transcends self-focused needs and increases prosocial skills like empathy and altruistic behavior”. (Yaden, et. al., 2017, pg.4)

Exploration of multiple selves allow parts and/ or sub-personalities suppressed in a family environment to be heard, understood and brought back to light. Giving the “self’ including the multiple selves and/or sub-personalities the voice they deserve, and seeing and soothing them in a complex system such as an ultra-wealthy family (and the family office) might be first unsettling for patriarchs or matriarchs who want control more than anything in the family.

However, once the patriarchs or matriarchs understand the importance of the concept of “self” and the breadth and depth it encompasses, they will become more receptive to the benefit it can bring to the family.

A family and its members will only flourish if they are afforded the freedom and flexibility to adapt to the ever changing and evolving world (both inner and outside). The more one is capable of exploring the notion of “self” and how it relates to the higher dimension, one has a more profound understanding of what the wealth and position and every material attributes linked to being rich and powerful means. Only by doing so, these wealthy families are capable on putting their wealth to the best use and truly sustainable. A successful family office is one that supports not only family as a process, but also “self” as a process.


Analayo, B. (2006). Satipatthana: The direct path to realization. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse

Berchik, Z., Rock, A., Friedman, H. (2016) Allow Me to Introduce My Selves: An Introduction to And Phenomenological Study of Voice Dialogue Therapy. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 48(1), 88- 112

Cahn, B, Delorme A, & Polich J. (2010). Occipital gamma activation during Vipassana meditation. Cogn Process (11), 39–56

Cunningham, P (2021). Introduction to Transpersonal Psychology: Bridging Spirit and Science. London, UK & New York, NY: Routledge.

Engler, J., & Fulton, P. R. (2012). Self and no-self in psychotherapy. In C. Germer & R. Siegel (Eds.), Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.

Firman, J., & Gila, A. (1997). The Primal Wound: A Transpersonal View of Trauma, Addiction, and Growth. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Ho, D. Y. F. (1995). Selfhood and identity in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism: Contrasts With the West. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 25 (2), 115-139.

Karunamuni, N.D. (2015). The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind. SAGE Open. April-June 2015: 1 –7

Puhakka, K. (1998). Dissolving the Self: Rinzai Zen Training at an American Monastery. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 20(3), 135-159.

Schwartz, R. C. (2013). Moving from acceptance toward transformation with internal family systems therapy (ifs). Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69(8), 805-816

Sills, F. (2009). Being and Becoming: Psychodynamics, Buddhism, and the Origins of Selfhood. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Sik, H.H. (2004). Dharma Therapy: A therapeutic intervention that builds on the Universal Dharma with mindfulness practice as one of its key components. The 2004 Conference on “Cross Road Between Chinese Culture and Western Counseling Models” cum Inaugural Seminar of the United Centre of Emotional Health & Positive Living, Hong Kong, China, 8-9 July 2004

Thompson, E. (2015). Waking, dreaming, being: Self and consciousness in neuroscience, meditation, and philosophy . NY: Columbia University

Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood Jr, R. W., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017). The varieties of self- transcendent experience. Review of general psychology, 21(2), 143-160

Yang, P. (2019). [Dharma response to and resolution of sufferings]. In P.H. Chen (Eds.), [Integrating Religion and Spirituality Into Counseling]. Taipei, Taiwan: Psygarden Publishing.

Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Vago, D. R., & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self- awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): A framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, Article 296.

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