Once I was walking into town when I was hit by what felt like a crushing tidal wave of embarrassment. I’d just had an interview for a podcast that would be heard by tens of thousands of people. And I’d done the interview after about four hours of sleep, because both my wife and daughter had been ill and very restless all night long. So I’d done a pretty lousy interview. My replies were shallow and rather incoherent at times. And walking down Elm Street later that day, out of nowhere came this tsunami of shame, knowing that my incoherence would be broadcast to thousands.
Then an interesting thing happened. I was in the middle of writing my book on the Buddhist Six Element meditation at the time, and a phrase that’s important in that meditation practice — “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this” — sprung spontaneously into my mind. This shame was not me, not mine. I was not my shame. I was not my performance. A conversation does not define me. I was not my incompetence; my incompetence was just an impermanent phenomenon temporarily manifesting in my being.
And the embarrassment vanished. Instantly. And never came back. Even now, thinking about that incident, I can remember feeling shame but can’t re-experience it.
(Oh, and luckily the interviewer called me back and asked if we could record the conversation again!)
This phrase, “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this,” is an important tool in learning to recognize the truth of anatta, or not-self.
The Buddha did not teach, incidentally, that there was no self. The word “anatta,” which is often translated as “no self” is invariably used in the Buddhist scriptures in the context of saying “This is not myself. That is not myself.” It’s never used, as far as I’m aware, to say “there is no self.” And in fact when the Buddha was asked flat out if he taught that there was no self he refused to answer, and he also said that there was no view of self that would not lead to suffering: including the view that there is no self. I do sometimes say there is “no self” but what I mean by that is that there is no self that exists as we think it exists: separate and permanent. That kind of self doesn’t exist.
The Buddha’s teaching of not-self was intended to free us from attachment to the view that there was anything that could be taken as the self, or that could define ourselves. Self-definitions are chains that limit and bind us. So…
Your body is not yourself.
Your emotions are not yourself.
Your thoughts are not yourself.
Your awareness is not yourself.
What’s left? Well, nothing. But that doesn’t mean there’s no self, or that there is something else you should take to be your self. Rather, the Buddha’s approach was for us to cease identifying anything as our selves so that we can simply stop obsessing about the whole issue! We come simply to live without reference to a self. We live spontaneously and effortlessly, just allowing life to happen. (There’s a lot of hard work and discipline needed to get to that point, by the way!)
So this is another way into experiencing the liberation of bodhi — that freedom from the burden of self that I wrote about yesterday. This is another way into experiencing the peace of awakening.
And upekkha — our current theme — is wishing for all beings this freedom and peace that comes from insight. We wish this for ourselves; and more than simply wish for these we actively cultivate insight so that they may manifest in our lives. And we wish them for others; but more than simply wish for them we live our lives in such a way that we help others to realize insight, peace, and freedom.
So this is what we wish in the upekkha bhavana practice:
- May all beings let go deeply.
- May all beings find awakening.
- May all beings dwell in peace.
The exact words do not matter; but this is the spirit of upekkha. The upekkhaful mind is the midwife of enlightened qualities. The upekkhaful mind recognizes the innate potential for bodhi in all beings, and helps that potential to come to fruition. The upekkhaful mind compassionately does what it can to help others attain the profound freedom and peace of awakening.
PS You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.
I’m glad that I read this post. My friend is pretty down in the dumps and feels like he’s gonna be a loser forever. I was trying to explain why he should meditate (and trying to remind myself why I should meditate too).
I shared this with him. I hope it helps.
Thanks so much. This is my new centering phrase.
I needed this reminder today. Thank you for putting it out there. I’ve been using the phrase, which I overhead somewhere, when I am being pulled towards other peoples’ “madness.” Now I realize it applies more so to my own thoughts and obsessions. Bless you.
My question is this.
How does this relate to Physical pain?. For instance, yesterday – and as I write now, I have a nasty headache.
It seems perfectly natural to say “I have a headache”, and somehow kind of wrong to say “There is a headache”
I know (at least I think I do) that the body is not myself (whatever myself is) – but by doing this it seems to partition the body from the mind, in some way alienating it into a separate entity. And in doing so causing more mental conflict, because the body is then the “other” bothersome system which does what it wants, without asking anyone for permission.
Am i barking up the wrong Bodhi Tree?
Interested in your thoughts, and anyone else who wants to comment.
I like the “barking up the wrong Bodhi tree” thing. Very witty! And yes, as it happens, you are. But then we all are until we’re awakened.
Whether you say “I have a headache” or “there is a headache” isn’t really the point. It’s not about language, but about what we identify with. It’s about what we experience as being “conjoined with ourselves” as the Buddha said. If you identify with a headache you probably will say “I have a headache” but you might experience a headache as “not self” and still describe it that way if you’re talking to another person.
But how do you talk about it to yourself? A lot of the time when we’re saying things to ourself like “I have a headache” we’re rehearsing a “poor me” act. We’re creating a story about our victimhood at the hands of the headache and this makes us feel miserable. We don’t actually need to tell ourselves we have a headache if we just experience it. You can just experience it without attaching a story, without clinging to it, without having aversion to it. Just experiencing it.
You’re recognizing that the body is not yourself, but you believe that this “seems to partition the body from the mind.” Why? Are you identifying the mind as being yourself? The Buddha’s teaching is not to do that — not to identify anything as being oneself, or being part of oneself, or being owned by oneself. As you’ve observed, identifying who you are with the mind just causes conflict.
I am exploring the statement “I am not my body.” When I was at a 10-day vipassana retreat I spent 8 days in reaction and 2 days in total bliss once I stopped reacting and resisting . My body was the constant. It was the same body all 10 days but my response was different. So how can I say “I am not my body.” It must “mean” something else. But what?
ALSO is there another way of expressing what this really means … in a few words.
It wasn’t quite the same body for all ten days. After all, matter was entering your body and leaving it in every moment of the retreat. Over a period of 7 years or so, virtually all of the matter in your body has changed. You literally don’t have the same body you had as a baby. If your body is constantly changing, then your body can’t define who you are or be the repository of a permanent self. You might want to check out my book, Living as a River for more perspectives on the impermanence and non-self of the body.