The Three Characteristics: No-Self

Anatta or no-self (sometimes translated as not-self) is the hardest of the Three Characteristics to understand. We can all agree that the things of this world are impermanent, or that there is suffering, but to grasp that you are not you, that “you” as a separate, continuous self do not exist, hits the roadblock of a lifetime of experience. How can I not exist? If I don’t exist, then who or what is writing and reading these words? Whose life is it that I remember, whose future do I imagine? Close on the heels of disbelief is fear of what it would mean for anatta to be true. I might be able to give up a lot of things, but not my precious self!

The Buddha teaches that what we call atta or self (atman in Sanskrit) is really just the coming together of five aggregates, or bundles: form, sensation, perception, mental formation (or fabrication), and consciousness. When I first encountered this teaching, I initially felt a sense of relief that the Buddha left us with at least something to hold onto. The trouble is, holding onto any of these bundles (khandas or skandhas) leads to ignorance, delusion, and suffering. For example, identifying with the body (form)  leaves us with the unfortunate delusion that we can control it, which we do by trying to be as beautiful, healthy, or strong as possible, preferably more so than other people. People suffer from eating disorders when they desire a slender body and have a powerful aversion to fat. In the meantime, the aging process goes on its merry way in spite of our most strenuous efforts at stopping it. Illness strikes, and while medical help is available, some diseases can’t be cured.

Sensations are even less to be identified with the self. We may enjoy pleasurable sensations, but we can’t make them last, nor can we eliminate unpleasant ones. Our thoughts may seem at first to be a more likely candidate, but a few moments quietly observing them should be enough to convince us otherwise. Thoughts arise unbidden and with little coherence, if any. Still, out of the chaos of free association there will be a few thought sequences that can take hold and proliferate, turning into definitions, beliefs, and even entire ideologies. It is easy to grab onto them and find security, even if they are negative thoughts (“I’m ugly,” “I’ll never understand math”). Many of these thoughts are formed in defense against further pain, because if I can be the first to claim I’m ugly or stupid, I’m not going to be vulnerable to another person making those judgments.

What is the field of consciousness that seems to hold all these things together? Nothing more than memories, associations, and projections, which are anything but stable. Our past is gone, and the person we thought we were is gone with it. Yet the belief that each person is a self persists, and in certain respects it serves a purpose. The suffering of my first marriage resulted in part from my underdeveloped sense of self, which made it possible for me to latch on to someone who appeared to have a strong sense of self. Telling a person in that situation that the self is an illusion is utterly useless. It might be more helpful to say that the rage and insults of the partner are not personal, but that kind of statement is an invitation to spiritual bypassing.

Bypassing is a hazard in the spiritual life, regardless of one’s path. St. Augustine originally thought that his faith in God should have made him immune to grief upon the death of his mother, but it wasn’t until he broke down in tears that he began to heal. In the Buddhist path, thinking that “you” don’t really exist or that your own actions and those of others are simply forces of nature, the product of causes and conditions, can function as a form of denial. We have to confront the truth of our own experience, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Believing or even rationally understanding this teaching is not the point; one must experience it directly. There are practices that work to bring about such an experience. One is to ask oneself where the self can be found. Is it in the eyes? Is it in anything the eyes can see? Is there a little man behind the eyeballs looking out on the world? Is it perhaps the brain? Ah, we may be getting somewhere here. Let’s look at the brain and see what’s there. Is the brain afraid of embarrassment? If so, on behalf of what, itself or something else? What is afraid? We know there are parts of the brain that govern various functions. This being the case, then, are there parts of the brain that are the self, the prefrontal cortex, perhaps? If so, why doesn’t it succeed in dislodging unnecessary, paralyzing fear?

Such questions can be pursued with a teacher over a period of hours or even days, until direct insight hits. Other people have arrived at insight by detailed, extensive journaling, writing to discern what they know to be true, or what they know to be true of themselves. For some people, this practice is supported by years of meditation, while for others it is not. Finally, insight meditation practices—noting, body scanning, and the like, supported by concentration practice—can lead to a dismantling of the illusion of self.

The experience of a world unidentified with self is deeply liberating, but it can also be uncanny. We are dug in so deeply with the illusion that we have no idea how anything might appear without it. Life goes on, just as before, nothing changed, yet nothing the same. And absolutely nothing is personal.

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