Barbara Sher: “We are like violins. We can be used for doorstops, or we can make music.”


Guitar lying on grass. A posy of small blue flowers has been stuck into the sound hole.

We all want to be happy, but often we’re not. Bodhipaksa argues that this is because of the way we treat ourselves as a thing that lacks happiness, and happiness as a thing to be grasped.

In a parable in the Buddhist teachings, a king hears the sound of a lute for the first time and asks to see what produced such sweet music. A lute is produced, but the king is not satisfied. He wants to know where the music is. His ministers say,

“This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It’s through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.”

Similarly, the Buddha points out, an accomplished practitioner investigates the body and mind and finds that “thoughts of ‘me’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I am’ do not occur.” There’s no suggestion in the Buddha’s metaphor that there is no self to be found. Instead, we simply let go of any identification with the body or mind as being the self. We stop clinging to any sense of the self being static, separate, or definable in any way. We cease thinking about “me” or “mine” or “I am,” and this thinking has ceased because we have ceased emotionally clinging to any idea of ourselves.

The self is an activity. It’s a process. It’s a verb.

In this analogy, the “self” is the functioning of the body and mind, and is therefore not a “thing.” The self is a process arising out of the functioning of both body and mind. Of course we can’t locate the self in any component of the body. Nor is the self identified with the mind or any component of the mind. The self cannot be reduced to any component or collection of components, any more than the sound of the lute can be found in any one component of the lute or in the entire, assembled lute.

The self is an activity. It’s a process. It’s a verb. As such, it’s not a noun or a “thing.” A process by definition cannot be a thing that we can grasp onto. A self that is a process is not the kind of self that can be static and unchanging. A self that is a process is not the kind of self that exists separately. Be definition, this kind of self arises from a myriad of things that are not the self.

See also:

Also, one of the components that makes the sound of the lute possible is “appropriate human effort.” The lute in itself is not an instrument unless it’s in human hands. Without interaction with a human being it simply is a collection of glue, catgut, and various pieces of wood. Without interaction the lute is close to being an assemblage of nouns. The lute has to be in relation to something else before the sound can happen. Thus the idea of a separate self is challenged.

If the self, in the analogy, is the sound of the lute, then the self can only exist in relation to something else. In this case the self only exists in interaction with the world and with other selves. There is no such thing as a self in isolation. The self is therefore something inherently dynamic, interactive, and relational.

The secret of happiness is to think less in terms of getting and having, and more in terms of noticing and appreciating.

What does this mean for us in our daily lives? A lot of the time we’re caught up in thoughts about ourselves. We think constantly about whether people like us, whether we’re happy, what we can do to get more recognition. This constant self-reference is meant to ease our suffering, but actually it’s the cause of our suffering. When we let go of this kind of self-referential thinking we discover that it was the act of craving happiness that was making us suffer.

There’s nothing wrong of course with wanting to be happy. The whole Buddhist path, after all, is an attempt to get away from suffering and to reach a state of peace. It’s the way that we relate to happiness that’s the problem. We treat ourselves as a object. We see ourselves, moreover, as an object lacking happiness, as defective. We see happiness as something external that we have to “get,” and so happiness is treated as an object too. Happiness is seen as being like a “component” that we can add to our defective selves. But happiness isn’t something to be grasped. It’s not in fact a thing at all.

In the parable the king thinks of the sound of the lute as being a thing, and he expects to be able to find it by dissecting the instrument. He wants to grasp the music. He’s in a state of craving. What he doesn’t appreciate is that the music arises from the quality of the relationships between the various parts of the lute, the musician, and the listener.

Happiness arises from the quality of our relationships. Happiness isn’t a “thing” to be grasped, but the quality of experience that arises when we cease grasping. As selves that exist only in relationship, it’s the quality of our relationships — the way we relate — that determines the quality of our being, and thus our happiness. The more we grasp (even after happiness) the less happy we’ll be. The more attention to the present moment, ease, acceptance, and love that we bring into our experience, the happier we’ll be.

The secret of happiness is to think less in terms of getting and having, and more in terms of noticing and appreciating.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Nicely written sir. I think I am just starting to get an inkling of how liberating it would be to stop operating from the point of view of trying to satisfy this tyrannical concept of self that is so needy and tightly strung.

  • […] “We are like violins.”  (Barbara Sher) […]

  • Hi Bodhipaksa (I finally got your name spelled right!)

    Would you have any practical advice to give to someone who was trying to apply this to their lives and change from self-referential or self-conscious thoughts (That they’re weird, they don’t belong, that they don’t like this or that about themselves) to something different…? I’m a bit lost as to how we’d apply this insight, and as to how we can lessen craving and grasping tendencies when we so want to crave and grasp because we won’t feel safe without it. I know the usual tendency is to remind yourself of things that are “good” but I somehow don’t feel that’s a very complete approach – if anything it just seems to enforce the need to be something other or more than what we are.

  • Hi, Alison.

    Most of our thoughts are self-referential, even if they’re about other people, because they’re about our judgements and whether we like or don’t like various experiences we’re having.

    Ultimately all spiritual practice, from living ethically to deep experiences of meditation are to do with letting go of our self-referential tendencies.

    More and more I think the core of practice is simply to be with (be mindful of) our sensations and the immediate feelings of pleasure, displeasure, and neutrality that are associated with those sensations. The difference between this and how we are normally is that we let go of the patterns of thinking and emoting that are our usual responses to those gut feelings we have. There’s just sensation and feeling surrounded by mindfulness, and in the mindful space we create arise wise and kind actions.

    And this doesn’t involve being anything other than we are. It means we stick with the core of our experience and stop struggling against life.


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