Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom and Just One Thing: Developing A Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, talks about how to develop compassion for yourself.
Rick Hanson PhD
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. He’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide.
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Buddhism teaches that there is no self so how can you have self-compassion?
Buddhism doesn’t teach that there is no self. It teaches that you shouldn’t cling to anything as being yourself. You shouldn’t cling to an idea of yourself. In having self-compassion, there is suffering and there is compassion. Neither of those is ultimately a part of yourself. Both are impermanent phenomena that arise, and pass like clouds through a blue sky. The clouds aren’t part of the blue sky, just as those feelings and emotions do not constitute a self.
I think you are incorrect: Buddhism most certainly does teach there is no self, although I think you make a very good point about clinging being the real issue. If the self exists at all it is as an illusion. The Buddha says that we can look and look and look everywhere and we will never find a self. So clinging to an illusion would seem rather stupid. But what is the self? What do we mean when we talk about self? The prevailing view held by most of us is that we are distinct, separate selves which exist past, present and future. This is the concept rejected by the Buddha.
I’d suggest you do a bit more research. Anatta is not “no-self.” It is “not-self.” The Buddha suggested that having any idea of a self is the cause of suffering. That includes the idea that there is no self. For example, in MN 2:
“As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self … This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views.”
Needless to say, the Buddha points out that believing one has no self is a major obstacle to spiritual progress.
The way the Buddha uses the term anatta is that we observe anything which we might identify as a self or the basis of a self, recognize that it is impermanent, and reflection “this is not me, this is not mine, this is not my self.” It’s “not-self” not “no self.”
I wrote a book about this. It’s called “Living as a River.” You might find it helpful.
Additionally, what you say is inconsistent with the Buddhist emphasis on self-metta. Here’s the Buddha in the Udana:
One should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.
The Buddhist practice of lovingkindness and compassion begins with having lovingkindness towards oneself (using the term “oneself” in a very vague and general way!)
I apologize for writing that you are incorrect. That was hasty of me. Rather I see that we have different ways of looking at this – which is good, I think. I see absolutely no difference (except a tiny semantic difference) between “no-self” and “not-self”. Everything I have read about anatta over the years seems to point to it’s meaning as: “There is no self.” I have also experienced the truth of this in my own practice, so it’s been very useful to me. Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful and fascinating discussion.
Everything you have read about anatta over the years may to point to its meaning “There is no self,” but that just shows how widely misunderstood the term is :)
Any view about a self, whether its the view that we have a permanent one or that we have none, the Buddha described as being like grabbing a snake by the tail — it ends up coming back to bite you.
You’re talking about ‘view’ but what I’m talking about is my pervasive sense that I am a self. The way I understand it the Buddha specifically taught that this sense of self is an illusion. I agree with you that clinging is an issue but that’s not what I’m talking about.
I can completely agree with that.
It’s funny that I have enjoyed a number of exchanges such as this one and I almost always forget about ‘skillful means’, which I think is one of Buddhism’s most amazing and brilliant concepts. It should be obvious that we would see anatta differently just because we are in different places in our Buddhist study and practice. I think I should get the words “skillful means” tattooed on my forehead so I can’t forget them ever again!
I’m not at all sure what you mean by “skillful means” in this context, unless it’s that Buddhism uses the language of “self” (e.g. self-control, self-metta) even though it encourages us to abandon the language of self and clinging to self. Is that what you meant?
No. I was thinking of it in a broader context of simply meaning that there is no single dogmatically correct understanding. Our understandings reflect who and what we are as much as what the teachings (which can vary from sutra to sutra) are. We are both correct in respect to where we are on our own paths. I have always liked the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a rigid Buddhist dogma. I attribute this to the fact that the Buddha did not promulgate a belief-system but a set of practical almost scientific principles and steps which can lead to liberation. Steps which he did not ask us to believe in but just to try out to determine whether or not they work. Thus, your understanding of anatta works for you and mine works for me. Both are contained (in my opinion) in the Buddha’s teachings. Thanks again for a wonderful discussion.
Yes, there’s no absolute Buddhist dogma. Actually, all teachings ultimately become hindrances and have to be left behind, as the parable of the raft illustrates. This is one reason for holding views lightly, and recognizing that they are meant, as you say, to be steps to lead to liberation, not as truth propositions to be defended. This implies that we should always be open to letting go of our views, especially those of the self.
The attachment to something as constituting a self is very subtle and profound. You can see all ten of the fetters as a progressive series of ever-more-subtle attachments to be broken.
Well, I won’t be leaving the raft behind anytime soon. I’ll be needing it for at least another kalpa or two!
It seems to me the real problem is the idea of the self. Where does this idea come from? In my opinion it comes from the culture and seems to develop from early childhood onward. What do you think?
It’s best not to think in terms of kalpas! The Mahayana tried to build the Buddha into a kind of cosmic deity, and in doing so they exaggerated the amount of time it takes to get enlightened. In the Buddha’s day many became Arahants very quickly, and he encouraged people to realize Nibbana here and now. If you believe something’s not possible, it can make it impossible.
I really can’t say for sure where a sense of self comes from. I’m sure it’s mostly evolutionary, although there are aspects of it that seem to be a seeking after security in the face of change (we like to define ourselves), and parts of it are to do with the difficulty our minds have with appreciating change. These are things I go into in my book (except for the evolutionary bit). I think our culture can certainly play a role, but what is culture but other people’s minds — other people who also believe in selves and who try to pigeonhole us so that they feel more secure…
I’m a life-long Science Fiction fan so I’m perfectly OK with kalpas.
I think you are exactly right about “seeking after security in the face of change.” What I have learned is that there seems to be a vicious loop – the ‘self’ seeks the ‘self’ but never finds it because it doesn’t exist. (This might be the original craving.) But it goes on seeking instead of just giving up. Weird. What I’ve tried to do is just be mindful of this endless seeking and quietly strive to peacefully end it. When I catch myself in one of these loops I just smile and chuckle and acknowledge what I have been doing. There’s not much else I can do.
The practice I wish I’d learned years ago, that I’m going to tell you about now? Notice how your experience is un-owned. “You” don’t make any of your experience happen. Sensations — sounds, smells, etc — just happen. Emotions just happen. Thoughts just happen (notice what happens when you try to stop them!). “You” don’t make any of this happen. So right now, notice how your experience just happens without you doing anything to make it happen. (Notice how the thought, “That’s crap. I do make and own my experience” just appears, unbidden.)
You can even remind yourself, as you note particular experiences bubbling up, “This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this.” And you can notice that even that thought just happens. The intention to have that thought just appears, and the thought itself just appears. Where from? How? It’s like it all just bubbles up from some dark, inaccessible chasm that is “not you.”
Give it a try, and see how it goes.
What you have written reminds me of a book I read years ago: Thoughts Without a Thinker.
Haven’t read that book, but that’s the idea. There are thoughts, but there is no owner of those thoughts.
You wrote: “Notice how your experience is un-owned. “You” don’t make any of your experience happen.” I agree, but for me this goes much further than experience. (I’m not sure there is such a thing as experience.) I don’t make anything happen. I can’t make anything happen. I don’t exist. The whole existence/non-existence dichotomy is a product of delusional thinking. Stuff just happens. Whatever is just is. It’s all perfectly ordinary but extraordinary, too. As Thich Nhat Hanh says: “The real miracle is not to walk on water. The real miracle is to walk on the Earth.” Indeed!!!
“This goes much further than experience.” There is nothing but experience.
“I don’t make anything happen. I can’t make anything happen.” That’s true.
“I don’t exist.” That’s kind of true.
In order to have ‘experience’ there has to be an experienc-er – i.e., someone or something to do the experiencing. But there isn’t. So there’s just ‘what-is’. Experience implies a duality that isn’t real. As if the event or happening is separate from the mind or self which experiences it. But that’s not the way things are. (In my understanding, anyway.)
There can be experience without an experiencer just as there can be thoughts without a thinker. Experience is happening, but there’s no experiencer to cause it or own it, or to experience it. There is just this experiencing.
That’s exactly how I experience it.
We can tie ourselves in knots with language :)