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.’ . . .
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)
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?”
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.