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.

Starter Marriage

NOTE: I have not posted in awhile, because I have had some reluctance about putting this out there. Here it is, finally.


I was not prepared for the sexual revolution. According to my upbringing, sex before marriage was forbidden, and anyone indulging in it was ruined, particularly women. My parents were clear that they had refrained from sexual activity until they were married, and then remained faithful to each other thereafter. I was also brainwashed by the mythology of romantic love, believing that falling in love rendered a person immune to interest in anyone other than the beloved. I had little to no concept of my own sexuality, much less anyone else’s.

My first year at an all-women’s college was traumatic. Early in the fall we met potential dates at mass dances called mixers, where people judged one another solely on appearance, or at parties fueled by alcohol. The women all wanted to enhance their status by landing dates with attractive, high-status men, while a large majority of the men were looking mostly for sex. My fragile ego could not have handled casual sex, yet most of the men I dated pursued it aggressively. Coming from a family that was bonded to the point of suffocation, I looked for a place of safety.

I first discovered that my social anxiety could be curbed by alcohol, and so I drank when at parties or on dates. This wasn’t exactly safe, but it was at least temporarily pleasant. I wanted a more permanent solution, a boyfriend, but finding a compatible mate wasn’t easy in an environment where I met the opposite sex under such artificial conditions. I joined the orchestra and the debate club at a nearby university, but over and over found myself back at square one when potential relationships fizzled. Finally, one evening in the spring of my sophomore year, I was with someone I’d been seeing for awhile at a chamber music performance at his dorm. We were circulating afterward, and I found myself looking up into the eyes of a very tall, very broad-shouldered young man who looked at me as if he had suddenly seen the promised land.

I was at that time feeling desperately depressed. My relationship with my date was completely superficial, although we made a beautiful couple when we went out together. He also happened to be the person who was in the right place at the right time when I finally gave in to the relentless sexual pressure of the preceding two years. The experience was disappointing, of course, and by the time of the concert we were both sick of each other, although I would be the one who ended up getting dumped. I felt like a used tissue tossed into the trash. And then all of a sudden I was at the center of attention to a powerful, handsome man who wanted nothing more than to scoop me up into his arms and hold me there forever.

Did I love him? Eventually, I suppose. After feeling so devalued I certainly loved the fact that he adored me. I also was attracted to what I perceived as his strength. I had an underdeveloped sense of myself, who I was or what I wanted. He, on the other hand, had strong ideas about everything. This appealed to me because I wanted to know his secret. Most of all, he wanted me. “I want to take you away from your previous owners,” he said at one point, referring to my parents, whom he antagonized almost immediately.

The violence started early, but it didn’t register as dangerous. He would throw something against the wall, or grab something with enough force to break it. The things that set him off were confusing to me, but because I was so unsure of what was real and what was not I accepted his touchiness as legitimate. He had a strong sense of what he was entitled to and flew into a rage when thwarted. I tried to see things from his point of view, although occasionally I would venture to argue, which only made things worse. It didn’t help that some of his opinions seemed legitimate (for example, my parents were overprotective and controlling), but the lengths to which he would go to assert himself threw him into continuous conflict with other people, including me.

We were married while we were still in college. My parents tried to prevent me from going through with it, but they were helpless in the face of such a forceful opponent, especially as I had come to regard their interference with hostility. Our marriage lasted for a little over three years. In that time we moved out of our respective dorm rooms into an apartment, and then into two others, the last one halfway across the country. Every time we moved he would have to make extensive repairs to avoid paying damages, mostly to holes he’d punched in the wall. Every time we moved I would scope out the new building for places of escape and safety in case things got out of control.

Did I think this was normal? I knew I didn’t like it, but I also thought I bore at least part of the blame when things went wrong. I certainly wasn’t mature, even for my age: I was anxious, insecure, jealous, and plagued with irrational expectations. What I failed to realize was that none of these faults warranted being grabbed by the hair and dragged around the room, threatened with severe bodily harm (“Get out of here before I break your jaw!” he roared at me once), screamed at (in the car, when turning left: “Get your fucking head out of the window!”), or threatened with a gun. And yet all through everything I thought I was free, that I was making decisions and standing up for myself, not seeing that the only things I was free to decide were things he didn’t care about.

Over time the range of things he didn’t care about grew narrower and narrower; he smashed his immense fist into the coffee table when I put on a shade of nail polish he didn’t like, and bellowed at me when I bought a dress he hated (“It looks like a goddam bag!”). Finally I left, flew home to the parents I had rejected when I married, and felt grateful beyond words for their protection.

For awhile the ensuing divorce was the most important thing in my life, until other concerns began to take over. For a bit longer I was haunted by fear and anger, which took extra time to work themselves out of my system; however the hardest thing to overcome was a sense of disorientation: how could I have been so completely wrong about what was happening? It was as if my entire perspective had flipped over in a moment. I could not trust my own ability to make sense of the world. This fundamental distrust would remain with me for many, many years.


For years, I kept my daily life separate from my relationship with Mark and Tommy, even to the point of denying they were a problem for me. In my first experiences with therapy, I mentioned them as a matter of course while giving the family history, but insisted that my real problems lay elsewhere. In the meantime, however, there was a subterranean river of grief that would break through to the surface occasionally, surprising me for a spell before disappearing again. The water metaphor is an apt one, because when I finally accessed the grief, I did so through tears that seemed to have no end.

I remember clearly a scene at Tanglewood during my first summer there. I was just 18 and was between my first and second years of college. I had had a difficult time managing and masking my stage fright, but on one night in particular it broke through during a concert of the Fellowship Orchestra, when I felt so panicked that I abruptly rose from my seat among the violins and walked off the stage in the middle of the performance. Backstage I almost literally ran into a trombonist who had unsuccessfully tried to romance me earlier in the summer. We walked around the grounds while I poured out my anguish in a flood of shame and frustration, until my parents found me and my father took over. He told me that he and my mother had watched me struggling with this torment for years, and he urged me to give up.

Now in the American vocabulary, quitting is commensurate with failure, made all the more blameworthy when it is chosen. What’s more, being advised to quit meant that I would never know whether I might have succeeded in conquering my fear if I had persevered. So I struggled with the notion as we walked, the fork in the road between the easy way out and the valiant fight to the end. And then my parents drove me home, and I somehow was moved to dig out the family photo album, pictures of me and my brothers as we were growing up, and I cried over them for what seemed like hours, grieving for all that I had lost.

That night marked the beginning of my tears. For years thereafter I would cry over my brothers almost any time I was left alone. If I was on a bus, I would turn my face to the window and cry. If I was alone in my room, I would pace the floor and cry. I cried in therapy, I cried in bed at night, I cried wherever and whenever I was alone. There were thoughts that were guaranteed to trigger the tears, like the thought of how sad it was and how much I missed them. Sometimes I would dwell on a fantasy of my brother Tommy’s death, imagining a phone call, usually while I was in a large group of people. In my fantasy I would break down completely, finally relieved of the heavy burden of maintaining an appearance of functionality.

At some point I began to suspect that the grief was for myself and had little to do with the people my brothers actually were, but I could not make sense of that distinction until my mother told me that when she first learned of the diagnosis, particularly of the younger of the two, she grieved for herself, then grieved for them, and then finally grieved for me. As the sister my grief may have come third in line, but it still had a place, and so I continued to grieve for myself.

Along with the grief there were painful fantasies of what might have been. I would look at young men who seemed to be my brothers’ age and wonder what my life might have been like if these “normal” people had been my brothers instead of the ones I had. I imagined Another Laurel, the one who grew up in a normal middle-class American family, the family that was taken away from me. What would she be like? I understood enough to know that it was impossible to tell, but the question needled me nonetheless. The family I actually had appeared to live out its life under a cloud of sadness and isolation. What would it be like to live differently? Would I be like these carefree young people I saw around me? (although of course I had no real concept of what their lives were really like either).

There came a day when I was listening to an interview on the radio, about the complex emotions of parents of autistic children. I suddenly thought, “I’m done with that.” I wasn’t done with grief, but I was done with thinking things either could or should have been other than what they were. I may have been painfully slow about it, but I had finally passed through the earlier stages of grief into a grudging acceptance.

The Three Characteristics: Suffering

Dukkha, “suffering” (also translated as “unsatisfactoriness”), is central to the Buddha’s teaching; in fact, he reputedly said, “I teach only suffering, and the end of suffering.” We’ve already encountered the role of suffering in the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha also appears as one of the three marks or characteristics of existence, permeating our lives and our surroundings through and through. There are things that please us, beguile us, hook us in; but none of these things satisfies.

When we’re young, we are full of plans for what we want to do with our lives. For most of us, these plans might include things like a career, marriage, children, a nice place to live, money to spend on necessities and a few luxuries, travel, hobbies, good food, nice clothes, and friends. Young people are encouraged by their families and teachers to look to the future and to consider their immediate difficulties to be transitory. I recall a conversation with my mother and one of her friends, during a time in my life when I didn’t fit in. “Some day,” they told me, “none of this will matter.” They were wrong: as I became an adult, the identity I formed in adolescence proved to be remarkably tenacious.

Enter the Buddha and his teachings regarding dukkha. One of my dharma teachers, Kenneth Folk, has said that “the Buddha is not your friend.” Warm, rosy predictions of a brilliant life in samsara, the turning wheel of birth and death, are entirely unfounded. Some adults in our own culture might agree with him once we hit our midlife crisis, when we realize that our fond hopes in youth have not materialized; or maybe they have, but without bringing the happiness we had expected. People may be tempted to jump ship, make a career change or look for a new partner, or buy a new house or car they can’t really afford. It might work out in the short run, but letdown is inevitable.

From time to time I imagine my life as if it had been different in some significant way. Maybe I never had the stage fright, and would be able to perform in music ensembles without stress. Maybe I had the kind of systematic focus that would allow me to work an eight-hour day, go home and relax, engage in an enjoyable hobby, and then go to sleep without difficulty. Maybe I wasn’t plagued by the grandiose illusion that I needed a big, fat career, and so would never be constantly comparing myself to others, or feeling like a failure just doing a good job day in and day out. In other words, I imagine a life without dukkha.

This Other Laurel is still a meditator, I’ve decided. She gets up early, makes herself a cup of tea, maybe takes a brisk walk around the block, and then settles down for some cushion time. After work she heads to the meditation center for a half hour sit with a group before heading home. She also volunteers in her community (because of course, she has the energy for it). She lives simply but comfortably; she is not tempted to spend more than she earns. Is she married? Sometimes I imagine her as single, but it seems like a lonely life to me, so I give her my husband, except he’s the Other Husband, also free of dukkha.

I have found a place for this paragon to live, and have even imagined her car and her wardrobe. The entire fantasy seems to be an equivalent of the dreams I had as a young person, except instead of dreaming of my imaginary future, I dream of an imaginary past. But although I can see the outer trappings of this person’s life, I am unable to make sense of what lies within. I can only try to imagine the absence of things like stress, depression, boredom, regret, negative judgments, and anxiety, all the while knowing that it is impossible.

Traveling allows us to see other places, and imagine what life might be like for us if we lived there. We read novels or watch movies and television shows in order to put ourselves in the place of the protagonist. Maybe we fall in love with one of the characters—the protagonist’s love interest, most likely—or imagine ourselves working in that person’s occupation. Such experiences help us to broaden our understanding of what it means to be a human in the world, to place ourselves in another person’s skin or context, which is an essential component of a moral education. Still, they can never be more than the product of our imaginings.

I have recently longed to move somewhere else, either to the city that is an hour’s drive from here or to a warmer climate, or maybe even out of the country altogether. These longings are accompanied by imaginings of Other Laurels living in Other Places with the Other Husband. Yet several years ago I looked out the kitchen window at the trees in my neighbor’s yard, and just realized, “This is it!” I laughed. It was so simple that I might not even have noticed. This is it, just this. This is all that is it. No other, no else. Just this.

The Big Wow

I think it was in a post by Brad Warner that I first heard about The Big Wow, or perhaps it was just on one of the Internet forums I frequent. The Big Wow is the overwhelming, transforming, hit-by-a-bolt-of-lightning mystical experience that changes you forever after. Everyone wants one of those, and once you get it, you spend a good part of the rest of your life wanting another, and another, and another. Yet it’s not the Big Wow that actually transforms you; it’s the plodding, day-to-day grind of sitting in meditation, doing walking meditation, practicing mindfulness during the day, questioning yourself, and getting your act together on a number of fronts (which is what the Noble Eightfold Path is all about). You may be able to draw on the memory of that experience to motivate yourself to keep plugging away, but in the long run it’s a mistake to make too much of it.

My Big Wow happened when I was 19. It was March of 1973, and I was returning to college from spring break. For some reason, my violin teacher had loaned me her car for the week, a reflection of how close we were during that period. I was traveling east on the Massachusetts turnpike, going a little over 70. There was a school bus in front of me, and we were approaching a slight hill. I got in the left lane to pass the bus, accelerated to about 80, and then without warning the school bus pulled in front of me (I can still see it in my mind’s eye). Being a young, inexperienced driver, I did the opposite of what I should have done: I slammed on the brakes, putting the car into a tailspin. I overcorrected with the steering, tried the brakes again, and then began to panic as I lost all control of the car.

What happened next is hard to describe. I remember skidding back and forth over the highway with a few other cars in view, and I remember a look of concern on someone’s face through a window of one of those cars. I recognized with a sickening horror that I might not be able to get out of it alive, when suddenly I surrendered and everything stopped. I felt myself gently pulled upward, out of my body, and I felt the various parts of my identity fall away as if I were dropping layers of clothing. I had a thought: so now this one is over, the one called Laurel, tall, blonde, a violinist—and so it ends, and now I’m returning. And then I was flooded by an indescribable love, and thought briefly with regret about my parents, how they would grieve. But consolation was immediate: soon they will know, in no time at all. And there was relaxation into that love which was my true home.

The next thing I recall was returning to myself in a daze, with the car on the left shoulder, facing in the opposite direction of the road. I had no idea how I got there. I eventually made my way to the right shoulder, where I was approached by a kind man who had stopped to help me. I slowly followed him and his family  to the nearest rest stop, and had a cup of chicken soup and some tea. “See,” he told his young daughter, “Laurel went through all that and now she’s sitting right here.” We parted and I drove the rest of the way into Boston.

It would have been lovely if, in the aftermath of that experience, I could have integrated its insights and lived my life forever free from the fear of death. Instead, I was left with another phobia about driving on highways, which has stayed with me to this day. It would also have been lovely if I had gained the kind of perspective that would have led to better mental health, or at least more maturity. No such luck. I did spend time and energy puzzling over it, in an attempt to put it in some kind of framework that would make it intelligible. At the time I was under the influence of my Christian Scientist music teacher, who urged me to put it out of my mind and not speak of it. Traffic accidents fall in the same category as illness, something that involves the unreal material world, which according to that doctrine we must transcend.

Later, when I became serious about Christianity, I viewed my experience as an encounter with the pure love of God. I read mystic writers with a sense of having something of my own to bring to the table, feeling a little smug about it, to be honest. I had fallen into the trap of seeing myself as special, an inevitable pitfall of the spiritual life. Later still, as a Buddhist, I saw it as one of the stages on the Path of Insight. In some respects it fits the profile of both traditions. I have come to prefer calling it The Big Wow, however, because that term is just irreverent enough to keep it in perspective. Such things can happen, and then other stuff happens, and it’s best not to wallow in it. The most such an experience can do is inspire you to keep practicing when you might otherwise skip it. It is ancillary, not central. That is all.


The Three Poisons: Aversion

I am going to admit one thing right here: I am an aversive type. Figuring out one’s type tends to resemble reading about symptoms of various diseases on the Internet, in that a person can easily imagine being afflicted with all of them. Still, when I face up to my most basic reactions to the world, the answer is clear.

Aversion, or hatred, is the flip side of desire. People have a strong response to something, but instead of wanting to draw it close, the impulse is to push it away. Aversive types walk into a room and find the one jarring note, the flaw that ruins everything around it, while greed types find themselves wanting everything they see.

Each of us flavors our aversion in our own way. When I was younger, I hated noise: the sounds of other people eating, chewing gum (especially bubble gum!), laughing loudly, snoring, just living their lives. I was the annoying neighbor who would pound on your door and demand you turn the music down, or track down a radio outdoors and tell the malefactor to turn it off. I was the silly person who would come outside in her bathrobe at 7:00 a.m. and tell the guy to quit mowing the grass while I was trying to sleep. You get the picture, I’m sure. On and on it went. Barking dogs, crying babies, children playing, weekend parties, the folks in the apartment downstairs making love, everything. I say I used to do this because for the most part I’ve stopped. Until that happened, though, my life was always just one intrusive sound away from being bloody hell.

Then there were the quarrels. For pretty much all of my life I’ve had at least one person in my immediate surroundings who would drive me crazy. Usually, but not always, these people have been women. I’ve journaled about them, talked endlessly about them, carried on interior monologues about them, dreamed about them, and ground my teeth when around them. Exposure would mean fresh fodder for rumination, although absence brought scant relief. The only way of getting rid of an obsession would be to find another one to drive it out.

Typically, the objects of my wrath were colleagues, peers, co-workers. Often they were rivals. In most cases, the adversary would either initiate or at least participate in the hostilities, out of jealousy or a desire to gain dominance. Seminars and department meetings were excellent venues for carrying on a passive aggressive campaign, finding just the right weapons to inflict pain without anyone else knowing what was going on. For an academic, this would mean introducing subtle notes of disagreement to discredit the other’s point, undermining without appearing to do so deliberately. At parties and social gatherings, hostilities might escalate through subtle flirting with another woman’s husband.

After hours, I engaged in countless phone calls and coffee breaks with allies, in which we’d rehash the person’s misdeeds, stupidity, bad hair, or whatever. I tried bringing these things up with my husband, but he was not a satisfying sounding board because he almost always would signal either boredom or disapproval, precipitating a fight between the two of us. All I can say is, Stephen, I’m sorry, and I am eternally grateful to you for sticking by me through all this tedious nonsense!

Aversion frequently drives people to embrace causes, which in turn leads to admiration from like-minded people. I have an award plaque from our local AAUP chapter for having advanced the cause of academic freedom. What that amounted to in reality was declaring all-out war on the college administration, standing up in faculty meetings, sending out all-faculty emails, participating in a grievance procedure, and ruminating day and night on the wrongs perpetuated by the evildoers. I had a tight-knit group around me keeping the fire alive, all of us assuring one another that we were fighting the good fight.

My actions actually helped both individuals and the college as a whole, but underneath all of it I knew that something was off. I was exhilarated, but I was also miserable, for I had no peace. It took me years to understand what it means for seemingly virtuous actions to come from a dark place. I am grateful beyond words to have learned this lesson.