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If there is no self, then who’s sitting here?

flowing riverDoes the Buddhist idea of “no self” strike you as bizarre or outrageous? Sunada has been reflecting on this difficult concept, and shares her thoughts on it so far. It isn’t just an obscure philosophical point for mental gymnasts, she says. Paradoxically, she thinks the ideas can help us in a very real way toward finding and becoming more of who we really are.

If I asked you who you are, what would you say? Many people might begin by telling me what they do for work – teacher, software engineer, accountant. But no, I’d say. That’s the work you do, not who you are. If you changed or lost your job, that identity would disappear. So who are you really?

OK, then next you might tell me something about your family and your people – perhaps you’re a mother or father, a person of African descent, an American citizen, and so on. But no, that’s you in relation to others. So who are YOU, independent of them?

 There really isn’t anything we can point to within ourselves that we can confidently say is a core essence that will never change.  

So then you might bring up your personality or values – an introvert, a romantic, or that you have a deep love of beauty. But I’d say these are descriptors of ways you behave or what motivates you. They aren’t who you are.

The thing is, we can continue this exercise forever, but we’ll never find anything we can nail down as “who we are.” That’s because everything we come up with is superficial and impermanent. There really isn’t anything we can point to within ourselves that we can confidently say is a core essence that will never change.

Let me be clear that this idea isn’t saying we don’t exist. If we walked into a wall, our bodies would bump against it and we’d feel pain. Yes we exist! Instead, what it’s really saying is that we’re constantly changing beings, always in flux. We’re not permanent, fixed entities. We’re more like rivers. If you stood on a bank and watched a river, the water molecules passing by now would be different from what passed by a moment ago. So then how can we say it’s the same river? Giving it a fixed name and identity is just a convention that humans came up with so we can talk about it. The whole idea is a fiction.

 The problem is that as soon as we attach labels and concepts onto something, our egos kick in and start objectifying it, nailing it down, and spinning off stories to make something permanent out of it.  

At this point, you might argue that there are core aspects of our character that don’t seem to change over our lifetimes. OK, now we’re getting into some tricky territory. The problem is that as soon as we attach labels and concepts onto something, our egos kick in and start objectifying it, nailing it down, and spinning off stories to make something permanent out of it. And that’s what can get us into trouble.

Let me illustrate with an example of my own. Some of the traits that emerged very early in my life were my hard-working and self-motivated nature, and that I enjoyed accomplishing goals I set for myself. The various labels I took on included “high achiever,” “Type A personality,” “motivated by excellence.”

But labels are traps. With every one of them comes a whole string of stories, assumptions, and beliefs. And for the most part, they don’t match with reality. I took my labels to mean I should go after a high-paying, high-status professional job, become part of a “respectable” (i.e. conventional) community … you get the idea. But more than that, I felt I had to do my absolute best at everything I did. I was driven to excel at everything I took on because it made my ego feel good.

Many of you know my life story, so I’ll keep it short here — but basically, my house of cards came tumbling down hard in my thirties. I had so taken in my own stories of what being excellent meant that I wasn’t seeing any of the signs around me that were telling me otherwise. My physical health collapsed and I fell into a depression. Then on top of that, 9/11 happened, which among other things, pretty much closed the door on my career.

 …look at what I’m bringing to the table RIGHT NOW. Not my concepts of who I think I am or should be, but the full, raw potential of what I have in this present moment.  

So what did the idea of “no self” have to teach me about all this? First and foremost, drop the stories. In any given moment when I’m faced with a choice, look at what I’m bringing to the table RIGHT NOW. Not my concepts of who I think I am or should be, but the full, raw potential of what I have in this present moment. Of course, this doesn’t mean I disregard everything from my past. I have all that I’ve learned from my life experiences, all the skills and knowledge that I’ve acquired, and all my personal strengths and talents. But the real question is, how are those things actually manifesting in me right now, and how do they apply to the situation at hand? It’s not about the degrees I have, or the idea that I strive toward excellence, or that I want to succeed. Those are my stories. What’s really present for me right now, and what’s the most positive choice I can make based on that?

The Buddha’s teaching of no-self is about letting go. Let go of our stories, or in short, our egos. Our egos think those stories bring us security, but in reality they act more like ill-fitting glasses that distort our vision. But at the same time, the teaching isn’t telling us to be passive and let the winds blow us around. It’s about being so completely immersed in and open to the present moment that we know clearly and fully what the situation is – including our own strengths and weaknesses. With that clarity of vision, we can choose to flow more in harmony with the way things really are by confidently relying on our known strengths, rather than fighting to hold up our version of a fool’s paradise.

This is where the practice of mindfulness is vitally important. At some point in our practice, we begin to let go of our grasping to uphold “me” as something opposed to “the world out there.” We start subtly shifting away from being dualistically MINDFUL OF various things to sensing that we are just awareness itself, inseparable from our surroundings. We stand naked just as we are, the pure potential present in us right now, and flow intimately with the world as it is. That’s the real gift of mindfulness — to feel so confident and in harmony with the world that we can trust and let go of our lives to it.

 I find the Buddha’s teachings profoundly optimistic and hopeful, because it says that we can change, and we can choose how.  

Back to that notion of character traits that don’t change much – yes, I still have many of those qualities that keep me motivated to do my best at everything I do. But my way of thinking about them has really changed. I now know I’m at my best when I stand back and let the world around me augment what talents and skills I have. I suppose it’s sort of like sailing. Rather than me doing a lot of rowing, I’m learning how to harness the wind so it propels me toward where I want to go.

So if there is no self, then who’s sitting here? I guess the answer is a growing, changing being. In my case, this being also wants to grow toward becoming wiser and more open-hearted, and so every moment, I try to make the best choice I can to point myself in that direction. Where am I going? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Because the more I make positive choices, the more strongly the flow of my life seems to move in the direction I aspire toward.

I find the Buddha’s teachings profoundly optimistic and hopeful, because it says that we can change, and we can choose how. And paradoxically, I’m finding that the more I take in the idea of no-self, the more I’m becoming who I really am.


Sunada
Sunada not only teaches the online meditation courses at Wildmind, she runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, through which she coaches people toward finding their inner wisdom and confidence. You can read about her explorations of mindfulness in her Mindful Living Blog or follow her on Twitter.

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Comment from amy
Time: March 31, 2009, 9:42 am

What a wonderful way to explain it. I’ve always had trouble understanding the concept of no-self, but your words have definitely helped clarify it for me.

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Comment from Roger
Time: March 31, 2009, 10:28 am

This is one of the best things I’ve ever read on no-self. Thanks for sharing!

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Comment from Ted Daniels
Time: March 31, 2009, 1:05 pm

“Who am I?” I ask myself.

Comes the reply: “Who wants to now?”

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Comment from Ted Daniels
Time: March 31, 2009, 1:11 pm

PS on the river image: It’s Heraclitus’s paradox that you can’t step into the same river twice. It didn’t take him long to realize that you can’t step into the same river once.

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Comment from mark
Time: April 14, 2009, 10:25 pm

I found this blog via wildmind; and thanks for the instruction. No-self is a challenge, and I don’t understand yet. A river is not the water; it’s a flow of water in a particular place. If you go to that place tomorrow, you can step into that flow again. Likewise, though I might be ever-changing, I’m always me… the difficulty of answering the question, “who are you” doesn’t mean there’s no answer! There is an answer, but it’s the ultimate koan, and requires a lifetime.

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Comment from Verena
Time: May 5, 2009, 8:36 pm

Ted, I was thinking of Heraclitus too as I read the paragraph about the river. I remember a professor talking to us about it, she said “Why can’t a man step into the same river twice? Because it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same man”.

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Comment from Ted Daniels
Time: May 6, 2009, 12:58 pm

Yeah, Verena, and ultimately of course there is no same anything. I love those pretentious comments I keep hearing about how somebody/thing changed the world (echoey baritone chest voice) forEVerrr. Show me a reversible change and I’ll show you time travel.

So yeah, there was a conference on that at MIT last year. You gonna go?

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Comment from Ted Daniels
Time: May 6, 2009, 1:06 pm

Sorry Mark but it’s not the same flow. It has a different pace, course, contour and temperature now than it did last time. Your first step into the not-the-same water had much to do with that.

It’s like the brain studies proving that the only accurate memory is amnesia, because whenever you haul a memory up that action rearranges the neurons holding it so the memory is different every time you recall (a version of) it. I can’t give you references on this but a little digging’ll get them for you.

This brings up the question of how significant is a difference. In communication theory information is news of difference. When a difference makes a difference then it can be said to have meaning. The change in a river flow day to day will probably not register with our senses at all, but from season to season, when the flow goes form an autumn trickle enforcing thirst on your family to a spring torrent flooding your fields, you’ll notice.

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Comment from Jill
Time: June 18, 2009, 5:27 pm

Thanks Sunada for examining this challenging topic in a way that integrates all the truths that help us live more content lives. I find your idea of letting go of being “dualistic mindful of various things” to sensing that we are just awareness itself to be really powerful. To sit with acceptance and awarenesss through our senses rather than our dualistic cognitive constructs of “me” is helpful in taking us out of our heads and into our bodies.

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Comment from Coral
Time: July 16, 2009, 11:07 am

Thank you so much for this article. I have always had a difficult time with this concept, I think because it wasn’t explained in a way I understood at the time. You have opened my mind to a whole new way of looking at this very powerful insight. Ironically, as I am writing this, it has occurred to me how many times I use the word “I”. LOL

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Comment from Ashley
Time: July 26, 2010, 8:55 am

I think the books, “Mindfuliness in Plain English” & “Beyond Mindfuliness” are two great books on the subject. I think the most important concept Buddhism has taught me so far is…”to let go of things”…. with the letting go process, comes great relief… and a realisation that giving up old beliefs, fears, and even desires… awakens the mind to an inner peace and joy I didn’t know existed.

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Comment from robin
Time: October 8, 2010, 7:26 pm

Does anybody recognize that Hillel (the Elder), from Jewish history also said much the same thing???? if there is no I then who is me? is the actual translation of the beginning: If I am not for myself then who will be for me? but when I am only for myself, then what am i? and if not now, when?

I’d love to hear comments about that!

Hillel taught that you should NOT do to others what you would not have them do to you and the rest is commentary… that fits with Buddahs teachings too, don’t you think?!!

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Comment from Sunada
Time: October 12, 2010, 12:51 pm

Hi Robin,

Yes, what you say about Hillel does indeed fit with the Buddha’s teachings. In fact, all the major world religions teach about love in this sense — that we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Beyond that, though, I don’t know enough about Hillel to comment whether or not his teachings are similar to the Buddha’s. This quote you bring up seems to be talking about something other than what I’ve written about in this article though.

Best wishes,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from Pat
Time: January 4, 2012, 6:20 pm

I am not self, I am awareness born in an entity created to serve the will of the source of the awareness I am. If we focus awareness on the entities of beings, we confine awareness to the delusion of self. In other words, self is the delusion of a confined awareness, a stitch removed – devided – from the fabric of life that blankets the universe.
So, “If there is no self, then who is sitting here?”, the devided are sitting here – the confined awareness of an illusion of self. For the undivided there is no here, there is only now everywhere.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: January 5, 2012, 1:22 pm

Hi Pat,

Thanks for your comments. Generally speaking, I agree with what you’re saying — that each of us is living with a confined awareness that’s much smaller than what’s truly there. I don’t really know what that greater thing is that we are a part of – or even if it’s accurate to call it a “thing”. I’m skeptical that it has a “will” of its own, for example, which implies a separate consciousness. But I do know that my life seems to have a flow of its own, and it’s to my detriment to try to resist it. There clearly are forces greater than me at work, whatever they may be.

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Comment from Pat
Time: January 17, 2012, 4:45 pm

Hello Sunada,
Knowing more of who we truly are is becoming, and when we experience life we come to Know about life, just as we come to know about salt having tasted salt. Its dualities, the essence of choice, creates the illusion of self, self and no-self, and the repository of illusions culminate in the totality of myths which illustrate the deception of life as self.
When we walk in the shadow of darkness we deceive ourselves with the labyrinth of lies disguised as stories, myths about who we are. We become what we believe. Hence, you are what you eat is becoming what you believe. When we digest the stories of our experiences as selves, we begin to decay in the suffering of deceit and when death descends on us, we lose the ability to experience – to Know, becoming lost in the abyss of not knowing.
When we walk in the illumination of the light cast from the unknowable source, the same source as the awareness we are, we come to know about the life within us, or that we are the seeds of new awareness nestled in the temples of the light that is, to witness not just who we are but where we are – we are what is here and now. The greater force at work in us and outside of us, that seems to have a flow of its own, is the Spirit of God, or the will of the source for His Children to become. We are the Fruit of the Tree, acceptance is the way of illumination, love is the labour of our ploughs, and knowing the truth is becoming.
Bless you to walk into your destiny of becoming.

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Comment from Pat
Time: January 17, 2012, 8:16 pm

Hello again Sunada, and hello Robin if you are still out there,
If I am not for myself then who will be for me? This is a beautiful way of illustrating the quest of and for life – true life, because the question is almost in itself the answer. If I am not for myself then I will be for my father, who will be for me, transforming the quest into the becoming. Living your live as Jesus foretells is to live in a way that fulfills the will of the Father, and loving your brother as you would have your brother love you is His will fulfilled. As I have said before, love is the labour of our ploughs. In living His will of loving, and in the light of His truth, we come to know that love is itself life, as evidenced in the death of those who know not this Love.

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Comment from Jorge
Time: March 26, 2013, 9:30 am

The self seems to continue existing even though you gave it a different dimension, it seems in buddha practice zazen there is not any self , not any ‘no self’ which is the self with a new clothes. The self doesnt exist but as a thought, and thought play with that thought giving it the apparence of no self.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 26, 2013, 10:44 am

Thanks, Jorge. The Buddha didn’t teach that there was no self, although he did teach that anything you might try to conceive of as yourself was in fact not-self (anatta). He said in fact that believing there was no self was just another view of self, and that any view of self (this one included) was a source of suffering. So there’s not a self, and there’s not no self”!

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Comment from Jorge
Time: March 26, 2013, 10:58 am

Whats the difference between the self as the ego, me, I, being a story and bringing or living that I in the present? Isnt it just the same belief in the atman? And are you going to believe buddha? Or discovering by ourselves?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 26, 2013, 11:08 am

I don’t see the self and the ego as being the same thing. When you have an insight into the fact that you don’t have a substantive self, you’re still left with a bunch of semi-autonomous processes that embody craving and aversion — and “the ego” seems like a good term for this.

Perhaps that relates to your question about “living that I in the present” which I confess I don’t understand. I think we may be operating from different premises.

And we’re certainly operating from different premises when you ask “And are you going to believe buddha? Or discovering by ourselves?” which is a false dichotomy. It’s not a question of “believing” the Buddha. It’s a question of trying to understand what he understood, which means trying to discover for ourselves what he meant, but more importantly what he experienced. Sure, we’re trying to see the moon, but we do need to look at the finger very closely to see where it’s pointing.

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Comment from Alex
Time: May 10, 2013, 5:18 am

Truly inspiring from Sunada – so I understand this concept of no self and is excellent explanation so one question on who is the observer inside me when I am meditating ? Taking in the insights and figuring out the path ahead – is this me or something else?

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Comment from Rich Cook
Time: June 10, 2014, 8:15 pm

Haha! I love that you end in a paradox. It is always thus, because the guardians at the door to Truth are called Paradox and Confusion, and result from the struggle of the Ego to contemplate Reality. :-)

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Comment from Gerry
Time: June 11, 2014, 10:46 am

This is a great article and discussion – I learned a lot about it. I wonder though how high performing sports people would respond to this approach. I recall the desire, ego and drive in the likes of Alex Ferguson the manager and leader of Manchester United who lead them to unparalleled success………would living like a river work against an athlete who is striving to win gold medals at the Olympics or would it help him/her?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 11, 2014, 3:58 pm

There’s an interesting article just come out about sports and mindfulness, Gerry: The first group of athletes to complete a mindfulness training program developed at UC San Diego won first, second and third place at the 2014 USA Cycling Elite BMX National Championships.

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