This is the first of three articles on applying the principle of anatta, non-self, to our dharma practice. The articles support the next few sessions of the SBA Practice Circle, which meets via online video conferencing at 8 pm Central on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. If you’d like to come experience non-self with us, check out the Practice Circle page to learn how you can join us.
It’s a topic that has come up in the SBA discussion forums more than once: what practical good is the concept of anatta, of not-self? Is it just another piece of abstruse Buddhist doctrine? Or does this most counterintuitive of Gotama’s teachings have some relevance for our practice today?
Our confusion about it at least has an old pedigree; Buddhists have argued about the nature of the self since the earliest texts. On one hand, the whole point of concepts like dependent arising and the Five Aggregates is to show us that what we take for a stable, persisting self is really a concatenation of processes, all of which must be present together for us to be conscious beings but none of which we can point to as the “self.” It is not surprising, then, that one doctrinal thrust of Buddhism has been that there is no self, and that enlightenment consists of dropping the illusion that there is one. We see this understanding played out from the formless jhanas in the Nikayas to later Mahayana concepts such as kensho, in which the dissolution of self-awareness is the key to awakening.
Which has always raised the question, if there is no self, who or what is training and why? When Gotama tells us in the Dhammapada that the sage shapes the self as the fletcher shapes the arrow, what kind of self is he talking about? If there are no selves, then toward whom ought we be expressing the compassion and kindness Gotama set such store by? Why should we care about suffering if there is no one to suffer? Does caring about one’s self and others actually lead us away from awakening? When we raise such questions in the context of our bedrock certainty that I am me and you are you and so of course there are selves, it’s easy to want to simply ignore such a concept as anatta.
But Gotama made non-self one of his Three Marks of Existence, right along with the core teachings of dukkha and impermanence; that might give us pause before we discount it. Since I am writing and you are reading, on some level there must be selves. The question is, what are they?
My favorite modern writer on this is Andrew Olendzki, who says in his book, Unlimiting Mind:
Of all the nouns we use to disguise the hollowness of the human condition, none is more influential than “myself.” It consists of a collage of still images—name, gender, nationality, profession, enthusiasms, relationships—which are renovated from time to time, but otherwise are each a relic from one particular experience or another. The defining teaching of the Buddhist tradition, that of non-self, is merely pointing out the limitations of this reflexive view we hold of ourselves. It is not that the self does not exist, but that it is as cobbled together and transient as everything else.
The practice of meditation invites us to investigate the flux of arising and passing events. When we get the hang of it, we can begin to see how each artifact of the mind is raised and lowered to view, like so many flashcards. But we can also glimpse, once in a while, the slight-of-hand shuffling the cards and pulling them off the deck. Behind the objects lies a process. Self is a process. Self is a verb.
So what is the point of making this observation in meditation? How will it help us be happier and suffer less? For Olendzki, the self not only exists to suffer – in a real way, it is suffering:
What becomes clear through this analysis of moment-to-moment experience is that grasping is not something done by the self, but rather self is something done by grasping. The self is constructed each moment for the simple purpose of providing the one who likes or doesn’t like, holds on to or pushes away, what is unfolding in experience. . . The gift bequeathed to us by the Buddha is the possibility of seeing how consciousness can be liberated from desire . . . When desire is replaced by equanimity, and awareness of all phenomena thus unfolds without reference to self, we gain the freedom to move along with change rather than set ourselves against it.
Practicing non-self, then, is not ultimately about achieving some mystical selfless state of consciousness. The purpose of recognizing how grasping and aversion bring the self into being, and thus into suffering, is to help us let go of the grasping and aversion and thereby free us from the suffering. When we witness for ourselves how the self arises, changes, and disappears, we are free to relax our grip on it, hold it loosely and even ironically, and to see the world and the people around us free of its relentless prerogatives.
Understood in this way, we can see how any practice that promotes equanimity will also promote the awareness of the ephemeral nature of the self. There are some practices that I think are particularly useful to examine the self, and we’ll be exploring them in Practice Circle over the coming weeks.
Practicing Non-Self: What is this?
A straightforward way to examine the self is to go looking for it. One classic practice from the Vipassana tradition is simply to sit with the question, what is this? Who is perceiving? This does not mean simply repeating an inquiring phrase, but to let one’s awareness become the quest.
Sit or lay down in your favorite meditation posture. Give yourself all the time you need to relax your body thoroughly and let your mind settle. When mind and body are resting comfortably in the moment, see if you can find your self. When you are experiencing your self, what are you experiencing? My own perception of self is very much tied with vision and sound, and with the sensations in my face, throat and chest. There is also, of course, the voice in my head, reading me my thoughts. Your sense of self may be similar or different. See if you can find it.
When you have found it, examine it carefully. What is it really like? Can you locate it clearly in the body or the mind? What does the voice in your head sound like?
Now, recognize that you have been examining sensations, even the very subtle “sound” of your thoughts. If there were perceptions, something must have been perceiving them. What was aware of your self? Can you locate that something? If you can, what is perceiving that? If at any time tension or mental noise arise, take time to restore your relaxation and focus before proceeding. Go as deep as you care to, and see what happens.