‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’
‘There is nothing in the experience of the cosmos that fits the bill of being eternal, unchanging, or that deserves to be clung to as “me” or “mine.’
In last month’s post, I wrote about dukkha, the second of the three “universal characteristics” recognised by the Buddha as being inherent in all experience. The first of these three is impermanence, and the third is anatta, usually translated as “not-self.”
Of the three, not-self is sometimes the hardest to make sense of because in English, it can sound like non-existence: I’m supposed to somehow become a non-entity, a nobody, and try to efface my personality so I have no individuality. But this is a serious misunderstanding, because when approached correctly, experiencing anatta on deeper and deeper levels helps us to live life in more alignment with who we truly are.
As with all of the Buddha’s teachings, this understanding can be developed progressively. To begin with, we can explore it on a more psychological level by paying attention to our thoughts, particularly any self-referencing thoughts. Often these are happening as background chatter, but when we start to notice the content of them, it can be quite shocking to recognise how distorted, limiting and sometimes just outright cruel, our self-perceptions and self-views can be.
A few years ago, I started to tune in to the tendency in my mind to make very definite “I AM …” statements – for example, “I am always late,” or “I am so judgmental,” or “I am a hopeless meditator.” But when I really paid attention, very few of these thoughts were completely true. Just a simple example: “I’m always late.” When I thought about it more carefully, I had to acknowledge that yes, I’m sometimes late, but the majority of times, I’m actually punctual.
We can even think of this as an ethical practice, keeping the commitment to not lie, and question: “Is this statement I’m making really true?” We might notice the tendency to eternalise, fix, make solid whatever the perception is, and to recognise how much we love to create stories and inhabit them, even if the stories are painful ones! Then remembering the intention of non-harming that underlies all the ethical training, we might feel more resolve to let go of those stories.
Sometimes this letting go happens quite naturally on retreat, when the mind is very quiet and mindfulness very sharp. Then we might start to notice the subtle contraction, tightening, and closing down in the body and mind whenever we have a self-referencing thought of any kind. We begin to catch the mind in the act of constructing identity, and to feel how limiting it is.
I’ve seen this in my own mind at times, almost as if it’s fabricating a flimsy kind of structure out of old bits of timber and rusty iron and bent nails, desperately cobbling something together, some kind of armature or scaffolding as a defence against impermanence and the myriad possibilities that can come from just being, rather than constantly doing …
Maybe you’ve experienced this too: the agitated contraction around a limiting self-view, then a sudden unexpected letting go, followed by a few moments of deep ease and happiness. Often this letting go and the relief that comes afterwards can feel quite new and unfamiliar, and it can take a bit of getting used to. Sometimes it’s followed by a kind of backlash, or even an attempt to go back to the previous misery, perhaps because we’ve invested so much time and energy in it! But with practice, we learn not to believe the backlash, and to recognise the deeper truths about who we are. We come more into contact with what we might call our Buddha-nature – our highest human capacity.
I think of the Buddha’s own life again (as much as we can know of it from the discourses). And I imagine what my own life would have been like, if he had not chosen to go beyond what his family told him was possible, what society told him was possible, what his first teachers told him was possible, and what the conditioning in his own mind told him was possible.
Because the Buddha was willing to challenge all of that, my own life has benefited enormously, and I feel inspired to risk stepping out of my own comfort zones. When some aspect of my ego baulks, I remind myself that the teachings on anatta are not intended to be easily digestible, because in fact, as the English dharma teacher John Peacock says:
“You’re not going to change if you feel comfortable!”
John Peacock The Buddha doesn’t do ‘cozy’ http://www.bcbsdharma.org/2015-2-3-insight-journal/