Weekly Practice (Not Self & Review)

| February 21, 2012 | 8 Comments

If you’ve been following along each week, first with impermanence, then with mindfulness and concentration, and then with body and feelings, and lastly with mental formations, you  may have caught on to the repeated question, “Is this thought, feeling, body sensation, emotional reaction a solid, unchanging self?”

At this point you need not answer the question with certainty, but I hope you are making the habit of checking everything that arises for permanence and the self. Additionally, many of you likely have heard of the Buddhist concept of not self and may be forming a belief that there is no self. Please don’t! The purpose of this practice is to investigate the nature of what arises in our experience, and to challenge our views, as well as what was claimed in Buddhist suttas.

By now you are probably noticing with regularity that impermanence indeed seems to be a characteristic of existence and everything within it. But don’t stop looking and noticing! You may be developing concentration by focusing on the breath, or you may be developing mindfulness from the things that arise to interrupt your concentration.  You likely have noticed each meditation is different from every other one, and I hope you have been reflecting on your meditations afterwards.

We have examined two of the Three Characteristics of Existence: Impermanence and Not Self. The third characteristic is dukkha, which is sometimes translated as suffering, disappointment, disillusion, sickness, aging, and death. We’re going to save the third characteristic for several weekly practices.

For this week, we are going to review previous weeks, with an extra focus on what is not self.

The Buddha Said

“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’

“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…

“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ . . .

(Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on Not-Self Characteristic)

What Neuroscience Says

So we are a collection of “phenomenological self representational models”. They are not fixed entities but dynamic processes, constantly interacting with different objects, and simultaneously representing the representational relations themselves. (Metzinger 2005) We ‘are’ these models which cannot turn around and catch themselves in action, and so confuse their contents with “themselves”. This confusion is the self-y feeling. We feel as if we are looking directly at the world, yet we are unable to separate ‘ourselves’ from the representational model that is maintaining our lives as a process of interaction with the world, and in the process producing our selves. (Being No One-Neuroscience Disproves the Self)

Meditations

This week use the instructions for previous meditations, either sitting or standing. Focus on the breath for concentration. If a thought, a feeling, a body sensation arises, use mindfulness to notice it and ask “Is this me?” then let the question go and return to the breath. Continue with concentration on the breath, using mindfulness for anything that arises. If an external sound or vibration arises, notice the feeling tone, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Return to the breath. Always return to the breath to increase concentration. Resist getting caught in thoughts. Let them go, returning time and time to the breath. After the meditation, when you have a bit of time, reflect on the previous meditation, returning to the question, “Is a thought self? Is emotion self? Is body sensation self?”

Daily Practice

Be mindful throughout the day of whenever a strong feeling of Me, Mine, or I arises. Notice the process in which that happens. Does a feeling of self arise on a thought with a strong emotional reaction to something someone said? Does a feeling of self arise on a thought with body pain or hunger? What prompts a feeling of ME? How does the feeling of self change throughout the day? Are there long periods where there isn’t a feeling of me, but instead simply of doing or concentrating on a task? What IS the feeling of self?

A really interesting exploration is digging into the question: What is personality? How has your personality changed over the years? What makes up a personality? If you’re personality changes, does that mean it can’t be the self? What periods of your life have drastically affected your “personality”?  What happens when we act outside of what others consider our personality? Is personality a pattern of behaviors that tend to be consistent? Does our behavior define who we are, or can it? What if we change our behavior, intentionally or unintentionally, do we change into someone or something else?

How do labels define your idea of self? Do you define yourself by mother, father, employee, Buddhist, etc? What happens to the feeling of self if you drop those labels? How would you feel internally if someone continually called you by a name other than your own?

Explore your sense of self, when you feel it, when you don’t, what prompts it to arise, how you have defined it in the past, etc. Search with an open mind, and explore the labels you have let others apply to you or you have applied to yourself. How does this affect your feeling of self.

Is it possible that there isn’t a static, unchanging self driving the body, but instead a multitude of processes? Can these processes be controlled? Are they reactions to external and internal stimuli? Reread the paragraphs from the sutta above and from the paragraph from the neuroscience article. Look into your own experience to see if this is true?

Please share your insights, questions, and experience in the Comments below. It’s helpful to others.

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Category: Weekly Practice

Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

Comments (8)

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  1. stephen says:

    What follows is a blogpost of mine on the same theme (buddhishmd on twitter) that I would appreciate your feedback on. Am I going in the right direction and if not please advise. S.

    I, Me,& Mine = The misery of taking things personally

    Case 1- If you get a hit on the back of your head and then spin around and see that it was caused by a small tree branch that fell, then how do you feel?
    Case 2- If you get the exact same hitting sensation on the back of your head and then spin around and see that it was because you were struck by someone holding a small tree branch in their hand, then how do you feel?

    Do you quickly rub your head and then get on with your day in the first case?
    Do you take the second case personally and does it then result in a rush of intense potentially long lasting negative uncomfortable feelings compared to the first case?

    What does it mean to take things “personally” and all the unwanted baggage that goes with that?

    “How could she talk to me like that!”
    “I can’t believe he treated me that way!”
    “Who do they think they are?!”

    Is it possible that being unhappy/miserable/suffering boils to down to taking things personally? But how could I not take things personally when someone just did or said something to ME?

    I think this points to the question of who we think we are (and sometimes we are even told exactly that (often in a very loud voice) as in; “Who (the hell) do you think you are!” Maybe the best answer to that is; “Good question!”

    Who am I?
    Am I my body? – If so then if certain body parts are removed or change am I less myself?
    Am I my thoughts? – If so then my thoughts (and even core beliefs) have changed since I was born – does that mean I am not “me” anymore?
    Am I the totality of my life experiences? – If so then would I not be “me” (the me inside that observes & remembers) if I had had different experiences (e.g. grew up in a different country)?
    Ask the same question (i.e. “Am I this, Am I that?) and the answer always comes back as  “Well,  yes and no”. It seems that nowhere I look do I find a stable enduring sense of “me” other than just this “feeling”.

    Have I said and done things I never imagined I would ever say or do (answer = for sure!).
    So is it possible that even I myself am not 100% sure who “I am”?
    I think so.

    If even I myself am not sure who “me” is then how could anyone else really know who “I am”?

    If no one else can know who I am then how could anything they ever do really be “to me”? Whatever they do is, at worse, being done to their version of who they think I am, as opposed to the “real” me – which is not even really knowable anyway.
    Add to this that most of us spend our time worrying and thinking about how everything relates back to ourselves (the internal narrative that is mostly an ongoing story of “me”). Given all that then whatever goes on is likely not really about “me” at all. That does not mean that things are to be ignored but rather that seeing them for what they really are means seeing that things happen as a result of all kinds of factors that do not all revolve around “me”.

    So if you come at me with a stick I will still run or turn to defend myself, but I will do so with trying to see what is happening from an understanding that trying to hurt  me is not so much about “me” and likely more about what is going on in the other person. Taking things less personally in this way feels like a path to less misery. At least it has for me so far  as I continue in my “n of 1 trial” that is trying to answer/live out the question: “How to live?”

    What do you (whoever “you” really are!) think?
    buddhishmd

    • Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

      Great observations on feeling tone, and how our “view” of the “self” can keep us repeating some unpleasant responses. If instead we come to “see” how our person is dynamic, responses to external or internal stimuli, then we can respond more openly and creatively, break out of the continual making of “me” where we get possessive. Also, seeing the dynamic processes at work allows us to create change so we don’t heap more suffering on ourselves, as you note in the first example of being hit in the back of the head.

      Mindfulness helps us see the processes at work in creating the possessive feeling of mine-making, and simply through understanding we are able to let go and be with the current moment, instead of lost in indignation or other types of thoughts.

      It’s the mine-making that you point to in “taking things personally”. The Dalai Lama pointed out that people who attack us through insults or physically do so because of their own suffering, their own unhappiness, their misunderstanding and delusions. So they deserve only our compassion. To get angry is to indulge in the delusion of mine-making, thereby creating your own suffering.

      Excellent observations and post buddhishmd! Thank you for sharing!

  2. stephen says:

    What follows is a blogpost of mine on the same theme (buddhishmd on twitter) that I would appreciate your feedback on. Am I going in the right direction and if not please advise. S.

    I, Me,& Mine = The misery of taking things personally

    Case 1- If you get a hit on the back of your head and then spin around and see that it was caused by a small tree branch that fell, then how do you feel?
    Case 2- If you get the exact same hitting sensation on the back of your head and then spin around and see that it was because you were struck by someone holding a small tree branch in their hand, then how do you feel?

    Do you quickly rub your head and then get on with your day in the first case?
    Do you take the second case personally and does it then result in a rush of intense potentially long lasting negative uncomfortable feelings compared to the first case?

    What does it mean to take things “personally” and all the unwanted baggage that goes with that?

    “How could she talk to me like that!”
    “I can’t believe he treated me that way!”
    “Who do they think they are?!”

    Is it possible that being unhappy/miserable/suffering boils to down to taking things personally? But how could I not take things personally when someone just did or said something to ME?

    I think this points to the question of who we think we are (and sometimes we are even told exactly that (often in a very loud voice) as in; “Who (the hell) do you think you are!” Maybe the best answer to that is; “Good question!”

    Who am I?
    Am I my body? – If so then if certain body parts are removed or change am I less myself?
    Am I my thoughts? – If so then my thoughts (and even core beliefs) have changed since I was born – does that mean I am not “me” anymore?
    Am I the totality of my life experiences? – If so then would I not be “me” (the me inside that observes & remembers) if I had had different experiences (e.g. grew up in a different country)?
    Ask the same question (i.e. “Am I this, Am I that?) and the answer always comes back as  “Well,  yes and no”. It seems that nowhere I look do I find a stable enduring sense of “me” other than just this “feeling”.

    Have I said and done things I never imagined I would ever say or do (answer = for sure!).
    So is it possible that even I myself am not 100% sure who “I am”?
    I think so.

    If even I myself am not sure who “me” is then how could anyone else really know who “I am”?

    If no one else can know who I am then how could anything they ever do really be “to me”? Whatever they do is, at worse, being done to their version of who they think I am, as opposed to the “real” me – which is not even really knowable anyway.
    Add to this that most of us spend our time worrying and thinking about how everything relates back to ourselves (the internal narrative that is mostly an ongoing story of “me”). Given all that then whatever goes on is likely not really about “me” at all. That does not mean that things are to be ignored but rather that seeing them for what they really are means seeing that things happen as a result of all kinds of factors that do not all revolve around “me”.

    So if you come at me with a stick I will still run or turn to defend myself, but I will do so with trying to see what is happening from an understanding that trying to hurt  me is not so much about “me” and likely more about what is going on in the other person. Taking things less personally in this way feels like a path to less misery. At least it has for me so far  as I continue in my “n of 1 trial” that is trying to answer/live out the question: “How to live?”

    What do you (whoever “you” really are!) think?
    buddhishmd

    • Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

      Great observations on feeling tone, and how our “view” of the “self” can keep us repeating some unpleasant responses. If instead we come to “see” how our person is dynamic, responses to external or internal stimuli, then we can respond more openly and creatively, break out of the continual making of “me” where we get possessive. Also, seeing the dynamic processes at work allows us to create change so we don’t heap more suffering on ourselves, as you note in the first example of being hit in the back of the head.

      Mindfulness helps us see the processes at work in creating the possessive feeling of mine-making, and simply through understanding we are able to let go and be with the current moment, instead of lost in indignation or other types of thoughts.

      It’s the mine-making that you point to in “taking things personally”. The Dalai Lama pointed out that people who attack us through insults or physically do so because of their own suffering, their own unhappiness, their misunderstanding and delusions. So they deserve only our compassion. To get angry is to indulge in the delusion of mine-making, thereby creating your own suffering.

      Excellent observations and post buddhishmd! Thank you for sharing!

  3. PopeEggsBenedict says:

    The times that I often find I have a strongest sense of a permanent self are those where I find myself defending a position or where the self feels threatened or under attack in some way. By which I mean during arguements for example, when there is an emotional response and an instinct to defend the set of conditions currently going towards my ‘self’ in that moment. Being mindful of this actually goes a long way towards defusing anger, leading to a more realistic assessment of what is actually going on!

  4. PopeEggsBenedict says:

    The times that I often find I have a strongest sense of a permanent self are those where I find myself defending a position or where the self feels threatened or under attack in some way. By which I mean during arguements for example, when there is an emotional response and an instinct to defend the set of conditions currently going towards my ‘self’ in that moment. Being mindful of this actually goes a long way towards defusing anger, leading to a more realistic assessment of what is actually going on!

  5. PopeEggsBenedict says:

    Further to my comment above, I’m becoming aware of this more and more, and also that “there long periods where there isn’t a feeling of me, but instead simply of doing or concentrating on a task” as per the piece. What I’m trying to work out now though is what the significance of this is?

    Does it simply show that feelings of self occur when we are referencing ourself in relation to the outside world? If so, what are the lessons to be taken from this?

  6. Derl Derl says:

    Hello and thank you again, Dana, for putting these weekly practices together. Thanks to everyone who has commented as well. The perspectives I find very valuable. I’m beginning to summarize in meditation, so to speak, the concepts that have been gathered here. Many are not new to me, and I find the concepts of impermanence, not self and, observation of the mind intrinsic. Yet, I find that the regular “reminder” of meditation is needed to maintain them day to day.

    I am near the northern portions of the redwood forest now on a vacation with my wife and son. The conservationist in me sometimes says “How can their be six percent of the original redwood stand left in the name of dollars, board feet of lumber, and jobs !?!?” “Ignorance and greed!” Imagine a left hand holding up the mighty sequoia sempervirens and a right hand holding back the onslaught of chain saw and log truck. Trying to stop the worst possible exemplification of the anthropocene! Sounds pretty grand, huh?

    In mindfulness of this it appears that I am fighting to define myself as, this and not that. Missing what really is in a redwood forest; life, death, destruction, the grandiose and small, continual change. Anicca, samsara, samadhi. Experience, with the left hand, right hand analogy shows only what an ever changing “I” wants to see and does not want to see. Not what is actually there.

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