On the difficulty of getting our heads around “non-self”
A lot of people have trouble understanding the Buddhist teaching of anatta (non-self). That’s understandable, because understanding non-self is difficult. It’s a concept that it’s hard to get the head around.
People assume that “someone” has to be in control. They assume that they have a self that they somehow have to lose. And the thought of losing this self brings up problems: sometimes they fear that if they lose this self, then there will be no control (because someone has to be running the show). Sometimes they think that if there were not this “someone” in control, there would be no possibility of making choices: they assume there has to be “someone” who chooses. They wonder how anyone can live without a self.
The Buddha didn’t actually teach that there is no self. I, and other teachers, often say that there’s no self, but this is just shorthand for saying that the kind of self you think you have doesn’t exist. The self you don’t have — the illusory self — is usually thought of as a unitary entity that sits inside you, pulling all your disparate experiences and actions into a single whole. It’s also in charge. And it’s conscious. You don’t have this kind of self — or in short-hand, you don’t have a self. Therefore you don’t have a self to lose, and those problems of “how to live without a self” don’t arise. You already don’t have a self, and you already do just fine. What you do have is an illusion of having a self, and that illusion makes you do less fine than if you got rid of it. The trouble is that once you believe you have a self, and you recognize that your self isn’t happy a lot of the time, you have to start wondering what kind of self you have. It’s obviously lacking! Maybe it’s broken! Maybe it’s not as good as other people’s selves! The illusory self becomes a real burden and gets in the way of our being happy.
- Self-hatred, self-compassion, and non-self
- Why you don’t have free will (and why that doesn’t matter)
- The five spiritual faculties: freedom in every moment
- “Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void.” Paul Klee
An important aspect of this illusory self is that we assume it acts consciously. It seems natural to think that there are decisions we make consciously (I decide to lift my arm and it lifts), and decisions that we make unconsciously (I’m swayed by advertising to buy this brand rather than that brand of cereal, but am unaware of how my choices have been swayed). But this is incorrect. Even our so-called conscious decisions are made unconsciously. Ben Libet showed back in the 1980s that there’s a burst of activity happening outside of conscious awareness when we make a “conscious” decision to do something, like press a button, and that this activity occurs prior to conscious awareness that a decision has been made. More recently, the ability to look inside the brain in real time, through fMRI, has allowed researchers to know what a person is going to decide a full six seconds before the person themselves. Decisions are made outside of conscious awareness, and although we think that we make decisions consciously, we don’t.
Here’s a video showing some of that research
(I’m afraid you’ll have to manually skip to 47m 53s to see the relevant portion, although if you have the time it’s worth watching the whole video). [The original video was taken down, but this is the portion I was referring to.]
BBC Horizon The Secret You on Vimeo.
Many people think that this is a real problem because they assume that consciousness is the self, or that the self is consciousness. But neither of those things is true. This is all easy to accept once we’ve seen through the delusion of self, but if we’re still caught up in that delusion then it’s hard to process. There’s a sense of bafflement, or the whole question is dismissed as unimportant, or the problems with the self-view are acknowledged, but there’s a “Yes, but…”
Even if you’ve seen through that delusion, it’s hard to describe what’s actually going on, but it’s worth trying. One way of doing this is the form of teaching known as “direct pointing.” Direct pointing (as I understand it) encourages practitioners to look beyond their delusions to see what’s really going on, and to look at the delusions and to realize their inadequacy. The evidence for non-self is omnipresent and should be obvious, but we choose to ignore it. However we don’t all have access to that kind of guidance.
It’s also useful, I think, to try to give people models that better help them to understand conceptually what’s going on. I’ve struggled to come up with metaphors that help people understand non-self, and I think I’ve finally come up with one that is accurate and (I hope) helpful.
The Boys in the Basement
Let’s start with the “boys in the basement.” This is a term that the novelist Stephen King uses to describe the unconscious creative forces that actually write his novels. (Feel free to refer to the “Girls” or even the “Beings” in the basement.) Any writer knows that the words we write emerge, mysteriously, from “down there” in some part of the mind which is intelligent and creative, and to which there is no conscious access. There is a conscious awareness of what “the boys” produce, but we never see them at work. Those of us who write are very grateful for the work that the boys do, down there in the basement. We know that “we” (the conscious parts of us) don’t write anything.
While most of us recognize the operation of an unconscious intelligence, we naturally assume that there is also a “conscious self” that is “up here” and that makes some, perhaps most, of our decisions, and that it relates in some way to “the boys” — that other part of us that’s unconscious. We assume there is a conscious self and an unconscious self: conscious decisions and unconscious decisions. But there is in fact no conscious self. There’s just an illusion of a conscious self. And therefore there are no conscious actions, in the sense that the conscious part of us does not act; it merely is conscious of actions as they take place.
The basement and the empty room
Here’s a model to help you see how this works. It’s a model representing your brain, or your mind.
Imagine a building with a central atrium, from which several other rooms branch. The atrium itself is empty. The other rooms contain various members of “the boys” — think of them as subcommittees with voting powers. To maintain the metaphor of the boys in the basement, imagine that all the rooms connected to the atrium are actually downstairs. The boys in the basement inhabit separate rooms, and so are not a coherent group. There may be several of them in one room, and the group members can have discussions amongst themselves. Even within one room they are not united. And each room has a different “culture” as you would expect to see in separate groups of people. Some are more emotional, some more rational. Some take a long-term view, some are very short-sighted. Some are selfish, some consider the needs of others.
Some of the basement rooms have connecting doors, so that discussion between different sub-groups of the boys can take place, entirely outside of awareness. But in other cases the rooms are entirely separate, apart from the fact that they all open into the atrium, upstairs. Therefore the groups in the different rooms are not all in direct contact with each other.
The communications channels are actually a bit more complicated than this, because we are not simply minds. We are embodied, and bodily sensations and movements also act as means of communication between otherwise separate rooms in the basement. And when we act in the world, we perceive our own actions, and this is itself a form of communication — information flowing from one room in the basement, to the world, back to other rooms in the basement. Speaking, for example, is not only an action that we take, but data that we receive, and so verbal communication with others includes communication between different parts of ourselves as well.
This model attempts to reflect something odd about the brain. It’s based on the fact that the brain was not designed from the ground up, but evolved in fits and starts, ad hoc, and by adding new “modules.” The brain is modular, and some modules cannot communicate directly with some other parts. That’s why I see the “boys” as being in separate rooms. Now the boys may be split up, but they have to communicate, somehow. And that’s where the central atrium comes in. This room represents our conscious awareness. There is no one in this room. The atrium is an empty space. It’s merely a conduit for communications. Therefore, there is no “conscious decision-making.” There is no “conscious mind” that can make decisions. What happens is that there are some decisions — but only some — that pass through the atrium and that various parts of the mind are aware of. We call this conscious awareness.
There are also decision-making processes that take place entirely outside of consciousness. This is like the “boys” having discussions amongst themselves — sometimes just the boys in one room, and sometimes the boys in different rooms having discussions though their connecting doors. This direct mode of communication of course bypasses the atrium, so that some decisions are made entirely outside of conscious awareness.
In this model, there is no central “self.” What we are is a kind of community. None of the members of this community is in charge of the whole show. There isn’t even one part of this community that knows everything that’s going on. Decisions don’t come from one internal source, but from debate amongst many different aspects of ourselves. None of the “boys” is fixed or permanent, either. They’re all in a state of flux.
How this works
To give an example of how this works, imagine a typical situation where there’s emotional conflict. Say someone has said something, and we’ve felt hurt, and we want to say something cutting back to them, but we are also aware that doing so may well lead to further conflict. I see it working like this:
We hear the cutting words. In one particularly deep and dark room in the basement, the message is taken as a threat. From this room, signals are sent down into the body, activating pain receptors in the abdomen. This is what we call “hurt feelings.” The parts of the brain that give rise to hurt feelings are ancient and not well connected to other parts of the brain. The creation of an internal painful stimulus is a form of communication among various rooms in the basement. In this peculiar, round-about way, one part of the brain communicates to others that there is a situation needing their attention.
Having received this embodied message, some of the boys who are more emotional may start clamoring for us to retaliate. Those messages pass through the atrium, and so we’re conscious of them. Some of the boys who take a cooler, longer-term view of our life suggest restraint. And those messages too pass through the atrium. Which will prevail? That depends on many factors, including past habits: are the boys in the emotional room stronger than those in the more rational room? Have they had more opportunity to be exercised in the past? But there is in effect a kind of debate going on. The atrium becomes a conduit for debate, although it’s not a debating chamber as such; the boys stay firmly in the basement, and only their messages travel through the atrium.
There is a debate, but there is at some point a resolution of the conflict. Let’s be optimistic and say that in this case the cooler parts of us make the stronger case and drown out the voices from the more emotional and retaliatory parts. The words, “I felt hurt when you said that,” emerge from one of the verbal parts of the basement. These words are not said by the “conscious mind” since there is no conscious mind that is capable of taking action. Instead, some of the boys send messages to the vocal apparatus and the words appear, straight from the unconscious. We may think we acted consciously (that’s a phenomenon we’ll look at in the next section), but that is a delusion.
The other person hears the words that have been uttered, has their own internal debate, involving their own “boys,” and they have their own response. Perhaps they are apologetic, and harmony between us is restored.
Acting and receiving feedback from our environment leads to changes within us. Our having acted, lessons are learned. Some of the boys are responsible for keeping track of patterns (in the past, this happened and that painful or pleasurable result ensued). The pattern “I did not retaliate and instead expressed that I was hurt” led to the result “I avoided further conflict and instead experienced harmony with the other person.” This correlation is logged, and will affect, in some small way, our future actions. This is how emotional intelligence arises.
In looking at brain activity, we see something very similar to the above. We see the deliberation of the boys in the basement represented as electrical and metabolic activity, which takes place before any conscious awareness of a decision arises. But the one thing I haven’t described is how we come to think that we consciously make decisions. Because there is a persistent and convincing delusion that when we say something like “I felt hurt when you said that,” we initiated the action consciously. We believe there is a conscious mind that makes things happen, even though no such thing takes place.
The “plagiarist,” and the illusion of self
Imagine, if you will, another room branching off of the atrium. This room hasn’t so far been mentioned. It contains another of the boys, and this one is a control-freak. He observes thoughts and impulses passing through the atrium, and he thinks “I did that.” I call him “The Plagiarist.” He doesn’t act, but he thinks he’s responsible for everything he sees going on. He sees a thought going by in the atrium, and he thinks he did it. He’s aware of a decision being made as it arises in consciousness, and he thinks it’s his decision, even though he wasn’t aware the decision had been made elsewhere, in a part of the basement that’s inaccessible to him. He’s like a student who sees a classmate handing in an essay, and he says, “I did that.” The weird thing is that he genuinely believes his own story, much as, in some Buddhist accounts of Brahma, the god genuinely believes that he is the creator of the universe, although he was merely a passive observer of the latest version of the universe as it condensed.
The plagiarist, although he is nothing more than another of the boys in the basement, gives us the sense that we have a self that is conscious and in charge, that responds to incoming stimuli, deliberates, and makes decisions. The plagiarist is absolutely not a self. The plagiarist does nothing. He knows nothing except what passes through conscious awareness. He has no access to the true decision-making parts of the mind, and is unable to initiate any action. He is a mere observer. All he does is claim responsibility for actions taken by others of the boys in the basement, and he attaches the label “I” to them. “I” did this. “I thought that.” Even when those actions change and contradict each other, he still thinks they are his thoughts and actions. One moment “I” believe “I” want to get out of bed. The next moment “I” want to stay snug under the covers. The contradictions do not faze the plagiarist. He is convinced that he is in control. Buddhism calls him ahamkara, the “I-maker” and mamankara, the “mine-maker.”
I mentioned before, in passing, two examples in which we assume there are some decisions made by the conscious mind and other decisions made unconsciously. The examples are: 1) I decide to lift my arm and it lifts (a “conscious decision”), and 2) I’m swayed by advertising to buy this brand of cereal rather than another brand, but am unaware of how my choices have been swayed (an unconscious decision). Let’s look at each in turn.
1. I decide to lift my arm and it lifts. We assume that this is a conscious act: that the conscious mind made a decision to act, and an action followed. Actually, the decision to act was made unconsciously. We know this from neuroscience, where the activity that represents the decision to lift the arm takes place up to six seconds before we’re consciously aware that the decision has taken place. Say we’ve been asked, as part of a neuroscience study, to lift our arm randomly. The boys in the basement decide when a good time is, initiate the decision to act, the decision passes through conscious awareness, and the plagiarist, more or less instantaneously, says “I did that.” There is no conscious awareness of the decision until it emerges from the basement and passes through the atrium. There is still choosing going on. It’s just an illusion that it happens as a result of conscious choice.
2. In choosing one cereal brand over another, exactly the same process happens. In the basement, the boys take into account a number of factors regarding cereal — cost, familiarity, and the promises of excitement and healthiness (for example) communicated by the advertising we’ve been exposed to. The choice to buy the new cereal erupts into consciousness and the plagiarist once again says “I did that.” And so we feel we’ve made a conscious choice. When a scientist comes along and tells us that it’s likely we’ve been swayed by advertising, we may choose not to believe them, because we think we made our decision consciously.
Both situations are identical. Our problem is that we assume that the second case is an anomaly: that normally we make decisions consciously, and that that usual mechanism has been altered. In fact, all our decisions are made unconsciously, by the boys in the basement. The notion of conscious choice is an illusion.
The evidence for non-self (that is, that the kind of self we think we have doesn’t exist) is omnipresent, but we ignore it as an inconvenient truth. We’re very much invested in the notion that we choose consciously. So here are three experiments you can do that will help you to see through the delusion of conscious choice. These experiments are forms of the “direct pointing” that I mentioned earlier.
Experiment 1: Seeing thoughts appear
Our thoughts should be generated consciously. We should be aware of what we’re going to think before the thought appears. So just sit quietly, think “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?” and watch. A thought will appear at some point. Did you know what that thought was going to be before it arose? Can you see how your own thoughts are a mystery to you? Can you notice how, even though you didn’t know what your next thought was going to be, there was an instant sense of “I did that; that’s my thought”? Can you slip deeper into observing your thoughts appearing, and let go of that clinging and identification — let go of that activity of claiming thoughts as your own? Can you let the origin of your thoughts be a mystery to you?
Now you might think, Yes but … I consciously generated the thought, “I wonder what my next thought will be?” Well, certainly that thought arose in consciousness, and you (or your plagiarist) took the credit for it when it appeared. But how did you create that thought? Are you aware of any process by which the words were assembled, and presented to conscious awareness? That thought was just another product of the boys in the basement. It was not a thought generated by the conscious mind, because the conscious mind doesn’t do anything.
Experiment 2: Hearing words appear
Our words should be generated consciously. We should be aware of what we’re going to say before the words appear, fully formed. Now, we sometimes do have thoughts that arise (“I’m going to say this…”), rattle around in the mind, and then appear as speech. Those thoughts, of course, come from the basement. Although the plagiarist takes credit for them, they weren’t created in consciousness, but only passed through it.
Most of the time, though, when we’re in the flow of conversation, our words go straight from the basement to our speech apparatus. It’s interesting to notice this. So the experiment here is to notice how, in the flow of conversation, you hear your own words at the same time as the person you’re conversing with hears them. Become an audience for your own words, and pay as much attention to hearing your speech as if you were listening to someone else.
You’ll notice that you rely on hearing your own speech to know what you’re saying! You have no special insight into what you’re going to say before you hear the words spoken aloud.
Experiment 3: Observing actions
Switching from hearing to seeing, start to notice your hands, and other parts of your body, in action. Become an observer of your own body. Typing is a great way to do this, because your hands are in front of you and easy to see, and because they’re moving automatically. You don’t have to instruct your hands where to go — they just type on their own. Or observe your hands on the steering wheel as you drive. Notice that you’re not having to consciously instruct them how to move. They’re moving on their own. Your conscious mind is not in control. The most it does is to take the credit for bodily movements that are controlled by your unconscious.
Once again, you may think, Yes, but … I can consciously instruct my arm to move.” Well, it appears so. But when you think “I’m going to move my arm” this thought comes from the boys in the basement. If you observe such a thought appearing, you’ll notice that you don’t really know where it’s coming from. And the action that follows that thought also comes from the basement. There are times when you try to move your arm and you can’t — for example if you’ve been hypnotized, or if you’re paralyzed by fear.
I hope can see from the above how free will and non-self aren’t incompatible. Actually, none of our decisions are made by a “conscious mind.” The best that happens is that some of our decisions become known in conscious awareness. But there is still choice happening. It’s just that it happens as a result of thinking processes that go on outside of conscious awareness, and which only later (if at all) pass into the “atrium” of conscious awareness.
It must be said, though, that “free will” is an inappropriate term to describe the kind of freedom to choose that is open to us. The term “free will” is hyperbolic, because our ability to choose is always constrained. We can decide that we’re going to be happy from now on, or that we’re going to stop thinking in meditation, but those things aren’t going to happen. It’s not that these things aren’t under our conscious control: nothing is under our conscious control. The problem is that our unconscious is not a unified thing: it’s composed of varying “basement rooms” containing different groups of “boys” with different agendas. One group of boys may say “Now we’re going to stop thinking” but there’s no reason that other groups should listen to them. Some of the boys are really very short-sighted and primitive, and are inclined to generate thoughts and actions that lead to unhappiness. We just don’t have the kind of unified self that we like to think we have.
But we can and do make choices, even if they’re selected from a limited menu of options. We have a relatively free will. In fact the more mindfulness we develop, the more free our will is.
Non-self and training
Many Buddhist scriptures compare training the mind to training wild animals — especially to training wild elephants. We tend to assume, because we assume that there is a conscious self, that this represents the conscious self training the unconscious mind. But there is no conscious self, in the sense of a conscious entity that is able to act. What these metaphors represent is one part of the unconscious (some of the boys in the basement) training other parts of the unconscious (others of the boys in the basement).
Some parts of the mind are “wiser” than others, and are better able to predict what actions will lead, in the long term, to our happiness and well-being. Our problem at first is that the less wise, more short-sighted, more reactive parts of the mind are powerful and vocal. We may know, on some level, that yelling at people isn’t helpful or that resentment makes us unhappy, but it’s hard to resist, because the “boys” in charge of such actions are strong, and the other boys’ voices are weak in comparison. In fact for a long time we probably didn’t realize that these actions were unhelpful. Our evolutionary history tells us they are. But at some point some of the boys figure out that there are more helpful ways of behaving. From time to time they manage to “outvote” the other inhabitants of the basement, and we begin to associate those actions with pleasant consequences.
I gave an example of this above, where very ancient parts of the brain that keep track of patterns (this event in the past led to unpleasant consequences, while this other event led to a pleasant outcome) can be retrained.
In the elephant-training metaphor, the elephant trainer doesn’t represent a “conscious mind” or “self” training our unconscious forces, but a wiser unconscious part of us training less wise unconscious parts of us.
Where does the illusion of self arise from?
I don’t think anyone knows. I have a hunch, though, that it’s to do with how we create, in our minds, models of the world.
At some point in our early development we start to predict the future. We start to think in terms of “last time I wrote on the wall, mommy was angry; I’ve just written on the wall, and mommy will be angry again.” This is first of all done visually. We remember (see, hear) mommy yelling in the past, and remember how upset we were, and we imagine mommy in the future yelling again, and we feel upset. In this kind of mental activity, we have constructed not only a model of mommy, but a model of ourselves. We run this model of ourselves in various mentally simulated environments in order to predict the outcomes of various actions we take, and to predict how various future events might affect us. We end up with a model of ourselves in the substrate of our own mind. We create a kind of “mini-me,” or homunculus, in our imagination, and refer to it constantly in order to plan the future. Even when we recall the past, we are evoking this homunculus. Notice how, when you recall an event from the past, you see yourself as if from the outside, as one of the characters. You don’t see past events from an internal perspective, through the eyes of your past self, but from an external perspective, looking at a model of yourself in a reconstructed simulation of the past.
Could this homunculus be the origin of our sense of self? Do we in some way take this simulated character representing ourselves to actually be ourselves? I suspect we do. Just for clarity, I’m positing this homunculus as being at least part of the illusion of self. I suspect that we imagine this homunculus as inhabiting the “atrium” — as inhabiting the conscious space that exists in part of the mind — and as being the part of us that generates our actions.
If this is what’s going on, it’s a convincing illusion, but also a burdensome one: this imagined self, as I’ve suggested, is always found to be inadequate. It is dukkha, unsatisfactory. It is always being compared to other imagined selves, and this comparison leads to an inevitable sense of insecurity. That insecurity leads to aversion and craving, which lead in turn to increased, and unnecessary, suffering. And so to reduce our aversion we need first to train the mind to act less from aversion and craving, and more from mindfulness and compassion, and second to lose the belief we have in this illusory self, which we imagine to exist inside us, pulling the strings, and acting consciously.
I hope the model I’ve offered here will help you to dispel that illusion of a self, and to lay down the burden that accompanies it.
Dear Bodhipaksa ,
This article has surly fascinated me to this day. I still revisit and new thoughts resurface. So I wanted to bring up something that I have been debating with.
Let us assume an individual has boys in the basement who are very strongly voiced toward aggression. As a result, anytime there is a conflict, the other boys have virtually no chance to outvote these boys; hence, the aggression wins and as a result more negative karma is created. So I was wondering how could possibly such individual improve and stop generating unwholesome karma?! This is a fight that can’t be won UNLESS there is another force at play that will influence those decisions no matter how strong they appear to be. It may take many lifetimes to shift the power to those boys that lack aggression, but eventually it will happen or we all would be lost for sure.
Is it possible that this force is mindfulness which has the power to fully outvote even the strongest boys?
Interesting questions. I think the forces needed include all five of the spiritual faculties (pañc’indriyāni). Mindfulness allows us to pause and notice what’s going on, wisdom tells us what the likely consequences of our actions will be, faith connects us emotionally with positive outcomes, concentration gives us the ability to stay focused on what we want, and energy allows us to act. No matter how strong our unskillful drives are, there’s always some wiggle-room for choice. We increase the amount of wiggle-room available to us by repeated practice, and so we can start with smaller, easier choices, and progressively it’ll be easier to resist our unskillful urges.
It’s also useful to surround ourselves with ethically positive people (ideally in the form of a sangha, or spiritual community) because being around people who are acting skillfully makes it easier for us to do likewise.
Dear Bodhipaksa ,
There are times in one’s life when we have to choose a path in our life and being indecisive makes the choosing quite difficult. I realize the self is nothing more than an awareness and that all decisions are made in the unconscious part of mind, although with a slight wiggle-room to give us the chance to improve ourselves. But I am talking about decisions that are not unwholesome nor wholesome, such as what major to study, which job to accept, what state to relocate to, get married or not, having another child, rent or buy a house, etc. The list is long. How is one supposed to tackle these situations when the boys in the basement can’t agree upon it and are in deadlock? We can’t live in a state of flux because the mind is turbulent.
I have thought about for quite some times and I think there are couple choices. One is to give it time until the dust settles and look and see which decision has a slightly upper hand and go with, never look back (to avoid regret), and have faith it was the right and wise decision. That is if one has the luxury of time to wait that long. Often time we lack time and have to make important decisions within weeks and not months.
The other option is to take a leap of faith and just stick to a decision. In reality it won’t make any difference what path one chooses as long as it is not an unwholesome decision. Karma will be in force and it will mold the outcome as it should. If it happens to be of negative outcome at the end, just be mindful of it and realize the corresponding karma had to be expressed as it would have at some point in this or next life.
I would like to see what your thoughts are and if what I am saying makes any sense.
“How is one supposed to tackle these situations when the boys in the basement can’t agree upon it and are in deadlock? We can’t live in a state of flux because the mind is turbulent.”
I guess there are lots of things we can do: make lists of pros and cons, talk with friends, do research, listen to our gut responses, etc. As well as, as you put it, to “take a leap of faith and stick to a decision.”
First, I would like to thank you for offering your insight. As a relatively new student of Buddhism, I find this topic both intriguing and somewhat frightening. I was diagnosed with depersonalization some time ago and, upon a recent flare up from it after having subsided for years, found myself turning towards mindfulness meditation and then studying Buddhism to understand myself and how to become more peaceful. The intriguing part for me is to understand why, at times, I feel so detached from the moment or even my body. I am a “Why?” guy, always needing to know the reason behind things so I feel I can fully grasp them. Hence me coming across your very informative article after much Google searching. The some what frightening part is when I start diving into my mind with this information the depersonalization symptoms seem to get worse. Thankfully, due to the meditation practice, I’m able to sit with the symptoms now with little discomfort. However, it can still be initially unnerving as my mind just keeps churning and churning the info I’ve read as I attempt to wrap my understanding around it. Have you had any experience with students or fellow practitioners that may have had depersonalization disorder? And if so, is there any insight you could give me regarding the path I could take to better understand the root cause of these symptoms and how to become more connected to my “self”. I feel like it’s very much connected to this topic.
I’m sorry to hear about what you’ve been going through, although it sounds like you’ve been dealing with it well.
The topic of non-self, and insight practice in general, are probably things you should stay away from for now. The two things I’d most highly recommend are 1) body-based meditations, including yoga, body scanning, and walking meditation, and 2) lovingkindness and compassion practice.
I don’t know much about depersonalization, but I do know from my own experience that too much thinking and analysis cuts me off from my body and feelings, and that focusing on the body and feelings promotes a sense of wholeness and well-being.
Thank you for your advice Bodhipaksa. It’s funny you mention lovingkindness and compassion practice. I just finished an 8 week lovingkindness online course. You are right on point. It helped to focus on connection with myself and others, especially in times when I felt perceptually disconnected. Prior to that, I had read Mingyur Rinpoche’s book, The Joy of Living, and that took me way too far into my head, I think. It answered many questions, and I was able to apply some of the practices and teachings later on with great success. However, it definitely increased the symptoms for a time due to the book’s focus on the mind and it’s inner workings.
I’ve been able to apply the insight techniques that I’ve learned during times of anxiety or depersonalization with great success, and coupled with the lovingkindness/compassion/equanimity directed at myself and then towards all beings, have been able to really sit with the feelings and even observe them. This has offered great relief.
The idea of non-self has helped as well (when I don’t start asking myself questions like, “Who Am I?” or “What Am I?”) because it allows me to remember, in the moments of depersonalization or anxiety, that it’s merely a sensation, it’s temporary, doesn’t define me, and can’t even affect my true nature, just as the clouds can’t leave any permanent mark on the sky. But, I will definitely head your advice and focus on the body-based meditations as well as continuing to focus on lovingkindness and compassion. I’ll do my best not to give into my intense curiosity about this subject until I consistently feel more connected to myself and the moment.
Thank you so much for this article. This has really helped clear up a lot of confusion around the topic of Anatta for me. It certainly reaffirms my faith in the Buddha’s teachings. I love the way you’ve simplified such a complex subject, in a way which makes it easy for even a beginner Buddhist.
You’re welcome, Sidharth. It’s my hope that by providing a realistic model of how our “non-self self” works, and by providing some tools to see through the delusion of self, others will be able to make the shift in perspective that’s required in order for insight to arise.
I read a lot and I keep reading about how we all are one and that it is our wrong perception makes us believe we are separate from everything else. I have been trying to come up with an example that would clarify this a bit better for myself and I was wondering what your thoughts are and if I have the wrong thought process.
I imagined a writer who has written different books, all of which have different stories with different characters. Lets also assume that all these characters actually came to life. Not knowing about their connectedness with all other characters through the author’s mind, their consciousness would make them believe that each have their very own self, completely separate from any other character. Well, in a way they are but not on a deeper level. Their false view does not make them realize that they are nothing more than an extension of a common mind (the author) that has written everything about their personality, their role within that story; basically they lack any real control over their role in that story. They would even go about harming each other not realizing that they are actually harming themselves because of that connectedness. They just don’t see that on a deeper level they all are one. The only thing that makes them appear unique is the expression of the author’s thoughts that is limited to each character.
Would this be a somewhat of a reasonable comparison to our perception of self and ignorance about connectedness with the universe? As a side note, I am not trying to compare the author to a god that rules over us.
I find analogies tend to be less useful the more they depart from reality. For example when you say, “assume that all these characters actually came to life,” I have trouble seeing how this corresponds with anything in reality, and the point of an analogy is to provide a more experiential model that helps illuminate a principle that would otherwise be more difficult to grasp.
In the past, we have talked about the very limit choice we have. Otherwise we would never be able to improve ourself and our previous negative karma would only propel us into a deeper pit. So there is a certain level of decision making capability and as you have said it, there is a very slight amount of wiggle room in terms of making decisions.
I have been thinking about it for quite some time. Based on this article, we, the self, is nothing more than an awareness. So if that is the case, we should have absolutely no decision making capability. The only way I could make sense of all of this is to assume that even any decisions we make to improve ourself is done at an unconscious level, hence, rendering the conscious self without any true power.
What are your thoughts on this? Is my thought process accurate?
“any decisions we make to improve ourself is done at an unconscious level.”
Every decision is taken below the threshold of consciousness, and only once it’s been made does a decision (sometimes) erupt into conscious awareness.
Based on this article, we, the self, is nothing more than an awareness. So if that is the case, we should have absolutely no decision making capability.
That’s not really what I was trying to say. I’m arguing that it’s an illusion that we have a “conscious self” that makes decisions. What we have is a part of us that is consciously aware, and a part of us that it thinks it has made any decision that passes through conscious awareness.
I have been pondering with this idea and I have a question. Kindly correct me if my thought process is inaccurate.
For the longest time, I have been thinking about that when we observe a person’s reflection in a mirror, it may appear as if the person is actually there but wisdom tells us that it is a false perception and there is no actual person present. However, that does not mean that the reflection is not an accurate image of that person.
When we encounter an individual who is full of kindness, it may appear that there is a permanent self who is being kind to us but wisdom also tells us that even though there is no self, that kindness is a reflection of something else that is expressed through that individual.
I can’t stop thinking about what that something is. After all, it is the human nature wanting an answer to every question, however, we can’t possibly know everything until we become Buddha. Certain things are best left alone because it may only hinder our progress. For example, we could never know the complex process of karma as to how all of it interacts and when it will be expressed. Only a Buddha would know. All we need to know is that there is a cause and effect which has a profound effect on all of us and we need to be mindful of our thoughts and actions.
To get back to the what I started writing, I keep wondering what that something is that is expressed through each one of us. Do we actually know what it is or should I just tell myself that whatever it is, it is obvious that I am not it; and I should stop thinking about it because I will never know until I reach enlightenment.
I think I see what you’re getting at. With the example of someone showing us kindness, we do indeed create a story that there is a self there that is being kind to us. In fact our experience is just of being treated kindly. I think we need to start with ourselves, though. Say there’s an experience of suffering. Instead of being aware “suffering is present” we think “I am suffering.” We take it personally, and get into thoughts about whether we should be suffering, why we’re suffering, what we’ve done wrong, whether we deserve it, etc. Once we drop all that and there’s just “suffering is present” then we don’t take the suffering personally and we feel liberated.
Once we’ve seen that, it’s easier to have another person behave toward us (skillfully or unskillfully) and instead of taking that personally and assuming that there’s a person “in there” who is “nice to us” or “not nice to us” there’s simply the experience of being treated kindly or unkindly. This leads to a similar liberation as above, because we’re no longer doing the same kind of thoughts (“He/she is bad for treating me this way; he/she shouldn’t behave this way; I have to show that I’m angry to prevent them doing this again” etc.)
I think the insight into personal non-self has to come first.
As for what it is that’s flowing through us, I think it’s consciousness. But that doesn’t really say anything since we don’t know what consciousness is! I wrote an article about this a while back. You might find it interesting.
Yeah, but who cares? I’m not trying to bash *you* for posting this, but I always want to put that question to a Buddhist teacher: at what point are we finally enjoying ourselves? There’s always this work, work, work, work, efforrrrrt, business in Buddhist teachings, always this talk about how we need to see through the illusory nature of things and uproot the defilements and so on. It’s like you have to work all day and then come home to your second job of working in meditation. It shouldn’t be like that.
I just want to play tetris. =D In some way, stoners know more about really not giving a s*** more than someone who spends all this time and energy meditating. Just turn on the Pink Floyd, and who cares.
It’s like this terse comment a kid made to me as an offhand remark once years ago in a karate class we took – “Yeah, years ago you didn’t have anything else to do but sit in a cave, get enlightened, but now, we can play videogames.” :D
Your friend didn’t know much about meditation, did he?
It’s entirely up to you, Mike. Spiritual practice involves a certain amount of work, but then so, I imagine, do video games. Presumably you’re not sitting in front of a screen watching the computer do everything for you, but are actually engaged and challenging yourself. And presumably you find this challenge satisfying.
It’s exactly the same with meditating and with spiritual practice generally. In a way it’s work, but it’s satisfying. It also brings benefits that I doubt that Tetris can bring, such as improving our relationships with others, changing the functioning of the brain so that we experience long-term increases in our levels of happiness and well-being, improving physical health, boosting our immune response, reducing inflammation, and improving memory retention.
I’m sure that video games have all kinds of benefits as well, but I’d very much doubt if they compare to the benefits of meditating.
Well written article that provides a lot of insight – thank you.
Question – can “enlightenment” be thought of as the death of the plagiarist?
Yes, the death of the plagiarist is Stream Entry, which is the first stage of enlightenment. It’s only the beginning though.
[…] The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist […]
1- Who is this that recognize and see the boys and the basement?
2- who is this that writes about boys and basement?
The one in the 1 question is the same in the question 2?
The boys in the basement recognize and see each other. They also collaborate to write. The question “who” seems to presuppose some kind of inner boss who is the real or essential self. But there is no such thing, any more than there is one player in a football team who is the “real” team — the essence of the whole thing.
All the best,
I use your words and ask;
Who is the writer behind this post? One of the boys in the basment? Which one? How can be sure he is right?
Hi again, Siya.
I already answered the first two questions here. Generally none of us (and no part of us) can be absolutely sure of being right about anything, but once you’ve seen through the delusion of self, it’s like (and please excuse my western-oriented example) a child realizing that it’s his parents who bring him Christmas presents, and not Santa Claus. Once the deluded belief has gone, it’s not likely to come back. The truth just has better explanatory power, makes more sense, and matches with the observed reality, than the myth.
All the best,
Lots of problems with citing the Libet experiment to support your conclusions. For one, Libet didn’t agree with the conclusions that you attribute to him (also, look at the criticisms from Daniel Dennett, etc.):
Thanks for this. I’ll take a look in the morning.
That was an interesting article, but the main thrust is to present Libet’s conclusion that free will exists, and I’m not making the claim that free will doesn’t exist.
The only thing I disagree with Libet on is that when he says that it’s possible to consciously inhibit an impulse, I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think that we become consciously aware of one impulse (which was formed unconsciously) and then we become consciously aware of the impulse to repress the first impulse, with the repressive impulse also originating outside of conscious awareness.
Great text. Similar to what some neuroscientists call “the committee” of different hidden decision makers (see Robert Burton, Culadasa, etc.) that struggle with opposing influences before a final vote makes it through. But again, there is no single doer or decision maker per se.
Though there are many videos on this subject today (TED talks, to name but one forum), this is one of the best I have found. A different approach but compelling none the same:
Forgot this video by Metzinger as well:
Hi again Bodhipaksa,
I understand all of this intellectually. I guess my only question would be if you could describe how an intellectual understanding — which comes and goes — differs from an experiential one.
It’s the same as the difference between any intellectual knowledge and direct experience. Once you see that there’s no self (of the kind that we assume does exist) it’s a major breakthrough. It’s like getting a joke, or walking through a door that you’d always thought was locked. And you’re never the same again.
After reading all of this i dont understand how an idea of free will survived in this article. Arguments you have used to defend that idea make no sense after all stuff you wrote before. With all respect it looks like there is attachment to concept of free will. Cause and effect rule leave no room for magic wand of free will . Free will is an illusion. The same as self or flat earth .
You’ve simply made a number of assertions here without backing them up with arguments, Gregster, and so there’s really nothing to respond to. Presumably you would argue that you had no choice, however :)
Yes :). But….. free choice without subject? Make no sense.
There is a subject. There’s just no unitary subject.
Thank you for this Article which is very helpful.
I have been aware of the “boy on the elephant ” analogy but this explains more and better.
Do you have a view about hypnotism and coaching which could be related to this model?
I see hypnotism and sometimes coaching as a way to quieten the plagiarist and talk without stress to some of the boys so that in future the vote may go another way.
Sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t know much about hypnotism.
No self and buddhist readings made me depersonalized. You guys said this was to end to suffering. What happened to that?
I’m sorry to hear that that happened to you, Efe. You might want to make contact with Willoughby Britton, who has been studying the unwanted side-effects of Buddhist meditation practice for many years. (Although I don’t know whether your depersonalization was the result of meditation or not because you didn’t say.)
It’s evident that meditation can have unpleasant side-effects for some people. However, so do other things. People injure themselves running, or even die while cycling. I wouldn’t blame a website promoting those activities unless they were offering patently bad advice.
As far as the side-effects of meditation go, I suspect they’re rare-to-nonexistent when people practice in a balanced way: with an equal emphasis on lovingkindness/compassion meditation as well as mindfulness practice; on samatha more than vipassana; on practicing with a sangha (where possible) rather than entirely in solitude; on spiritual friendship and communication; on living ethically rather than merely emphasizing meditation. Those are all things I stress here.
I hope you’ve been in communication with whoever taught you meditation to communicate what went wrong with your practice. Perhaps there is something they need to learn about how they teach.
Wow! What a treat to read such an enlightening, honestly and earnestly inquiring discussion thread, couched in respect and compassion. Not what I’ve come to expect to find in the comments section beneath an article!
This discussion is far too much to take in at once (I’m going to keep coming back to it), so I apologise if this has been said elsewhere, but I think everyone can relate to Gerry’s comments: particularly the western idea of self is an incredibly stubborn delusion, sometimes I think that this constantly reinforced and almost worshipped idea of our own agency and individualism has become the sole basis of our culture. It is therefore absolutely terrifying to even attempt to dismantle this monolith of so many layers, surrounded as we are by the very opposite inclination.
Also I think this idea of modularity pops up in so many convergent spheres these days: nodes that act independently but contribute to an emergent something (consciousness?) that is more that the sum it’s parts. That’s not to say that this ‘something’ is the self, because I think even using the word is just short cutting us back to that deeply entrenched idea we struggle to dislodge.
Just a couple of thoughts that occur having read (some of) this excellent article and comments thread.
I want to thank you also Bodhipaksa for the Bodhimind app, which is helping immeasurably with my meditation practice. A small price to pay for a wonderful resource.
I have one favour to ask: on the topic of no-self, what Buddhist readings would you recommend? In fact, although I’ve been interested in Buddhism itself for a long time, I have the uncomfortable feeling that my investigation has been scattered and sporadic, and therefore ineffective. Do you know of a reading list that collects most of the important concepts? I’m familiar with and think I understand some/several of the key truths, but I want to begin a more rigorous study, and I’d love to have your recommendation as to a great place to start.
Hi again, Jaylan.
I can’t offer a very long reading list, I’m afraid. There’s my “Living as a River.” There’s Alva Noë’s “Out of Our Heads” (which is not officially about non-self but is one of the best books on the topic), and there are Thanissaro’s essays, “No-self or Not-self?” and “The Not-self Strategy.” I’m sure there are others out there, but I just haven’t read them.
Thanks very much, I’ll have a look at those.
I feel like you must have read Antonio Damasio at some point. :) In any case, excellent piece.
The only Damasio I’ve read was him being quoted in Goleman’s “Negative Emotions,” which is an account of a conference with the Dalai Lama. Is there anything in particular he’s written that’s similar to this?
Re: Damasio, I would recommend “Self Comes to Mind”. His theory of how “self” arises when an organism has a mind that is capable of creating a model of “itself” and things that are “not itself” and every interaction between the two creates a momentary feeling of “Me!” struck me as profoundly dharmic. Basically “self” arises the moment we experience non-dual consciousness. The difference, I thought, was that Damasio sees self as a feature, where the Buddha saw it as a bug. ?
Thanks. I do recall hearing of that title before and I’ll be adding it to my reading list.
I agree with Damasio that the self is a story that arises from creating internal models. In evolutionary terms, the self-story is very useful. Any being that needs to imagine future scenarios has to create an image or idea of themselves. If that being can also think verbally, then it will inevitably come up with a description of that imagined self. And so the self can come to be seen as essentially faulty or bad, and becomes a burden. Even if the self is seen as essentially good, that creates problems. So the self-story is also a bug. The experience of ceasing to believe in it is for most people very liberating and joyful.
One time at sangha we were talking about “not self” and what people thought when they encountered it. Several people admitted they found it disorienting, even frightening. I said I found it to be a huge relief! This oppressive, elaborate, never-ending internal monologue wasn’t necessary or real. You could just let go of it and the world wouldn’t come crashing down. :)
But yeah, one of the great lessons I’ve come across in my reading over the years is that evolution simply does not care about our happiness or lack thereof. Just keep those genes replicating by any means necessary.