When I’m talking with people about the Buddhist teaching of non-self (anatta) they often say things like, “But how can you function in daily life without a self?” I usually answer, “Well, how do you function in daily life without a self?” Because Buddhism doesn’t say that we have to lose our selves — it says that we have no selves to lose. The reason we assume we have to lose our selves is because we walk around with the delusion that we do actually have a self in the first place.
So we all go about our daily lives without selves; it’s just that most of us drag around with us a sense that we have this “thing” called a self. I use the word “drag” because our sense of self is a burden. Once you have the belief that you have a self, then you have to wonder what kind of self you have. Is it a likeable self or an unlikeable self? Is this self good enough or not good enough? Is it good or bad?
This last question was something that confused my children a lot when they were younger. We never said to them things like “You’re bad” or even “You’re good.” We might say that a particular action they’d taken was good or bad (although we’d be more likely to point out the consequences of their actions than to use those labels). But we’d go to visit relatives, who would ask the kids, “Have you been good?” And this really puzzled the children. They found themselves perplexed about whether they were “good” or not. And how would they know, anyway? How can the entirety of a rapidly developing human life be packaged into crude containers like the words “good” or “bad”?
There’s a huge amount to be said about the teaching of non-self, but I’d like just to focus on one thing, which is the simple observation that we don’t know what we’re going to think before we think it. If we don’t have selves, then this should be evident in some way. And actually, one of the things you find when you lose this sense of having a sense of having a self is that the evidence is everywhere. And it always has been everywhere. It’s just that you’ve been ignoring it.
And one of those pieces of evidence that is omnipresent and yet almost universally ignored is the nature of our thoughts. Thoreau’s observation, “Nothing was ever so unfamiliar and startling to me as my own thoughts,” points at this. Probably it’s rare that you’re surprised by your own thought. But one thing that’s useful is to see that our thoughts really are surprising. The mind, though, can be a bit like a blasé teenager who yawns at miracles: “Whatever.”
Here’s a way you can learn to be surprised by your own thoughts. Try, right now, asking yourself, “I wonder what my next thought is going to be.” Now notice that you don’t know! In fact you’ve no idea what you’re going to say to yourself until you hear the thought in your mind. You’ve simply received the thought, so in what sense is it your thought? You didn’t make the thought happen. It just arrived. And then what usually happens is immediately, you claim ownership of the thought.
Now the mind has become a plagiarist. It’s like two students standing by their teacher’s desk, handing in their homework. One of the students hands over an essay, and the other one says “I wrote that.” The similarity is that when you were thinking, “I wonder what my next thought will be,” and then a thought appeared, you jumped one moment from having no clue to what the thought was going to be, straight into claiming the thought as “yours” the next moment. One part of the mind creates the thought. Another part of the mind claims ownership of the thought. That’s plagiarism.
Now, try the exercise again, but knowing that you are receiving the thought rather than creating it, see if you can let yourself be surprised. Realize that thoughts just appear. You can’t stop them appearing! If you could, meditation would be a lot easier. Allowing ourselves to be surprised by our own experience only happens when we let go of claiming our experience as ours. As the Buddha put it, “This is not me; this is not mine; I am not this.” This is a practice of recognizing anatta — not self. And it’s a question of seeing what has always been there, unseen: the un-owned nature of our experience.
Once you’ve realized that you can’t even predict your own thoughts, you can enjoy more of a sense of openness. You can start to let go of your sense of “owning” your experience, and even of “owning” a self. And this can be applied not just to the experience of thoughts, but to all sense impressions, to feelings, emotions, speech, physical sensations, and physical actions. Experience arises, and yet there is no experiencer. Actions happen, and yet there is no agent.
There is no self, and there never has been.
I do understand the concept of thoughts just arising, but I do not understand “no self”. IF there is no self, why do people have different personalities – some are funny, some are clever, some are gentle, some are serious…I don’t get that concept at all!
There’s no contradiction at all. Think about various ecosystems: a deciduous woodland in Europe, the Amazon rainforest, a pond. In each case activity arises, and it’s different in each case. And yet in none of these cases does the ecosystem have a “self” — that is there’s no central organizer. There’s also no delusion of a self. No part of the ecosystem has the false view that it’s in charge of the whole show.
It’s like that among human beings as well. Within us there are a variety of thoughts, feelings, etc., coming into being. The balance of those is different for each person. And yet within each person there is no central organizer. There’s no one who thinks the thoughts; you don’t make your thoughts happen (although you think you do). Nor is there anyone who is aware of the thoughts arising, although there is an awareness of the thoughts.
That analogy helps me a lot with the concept of no self. The difference with an ecosystem and a human being, it seem to me, is that a human being has a choice regarding what thoughts to act on – so who is making the choice?
That’s the thing. Choice happens, but there is no one who chooses.
That’s a tough one for me to understand!
It’s good to do things like observe that your thoughts arise without “you” doing anything to make those thoughts happen.
Then you can notice while you’re talking to someone that you don’t know what you’re going to say before you say it. Yes, you sometimes think “I’m going to say x,” but that’s just us going back a stage; you didn’t know what that thought was going to be before it arose in the mind. And most of the time in conversation, our thoughts flow straight into words. If you step back and listen to yourself talking, you’ll realize that you don’t know what you’re going to say any earlier than the person you’re talking to.
And then you can notice all the times that your body is doing things without “you” having any conscious involvement. Right now you’re breathing. Your heart is beating. Your intestines are moving. You’re blinking. Various parts of your body — hands, feet — are making small movements. “You” aren’t doing any of those things. Try and catch yourself in mid-movement, while you’re cooking or typing or walking down the street, and realize that your body has been doing all of this without your input. It’s really quite fascinating.
It is fascinating. How do you define “self?” Maybe that’s where my confusion lies. It just seems like we are all similar but also different with different personalities and talents, etc – and even though my thoughts are automatic, they are different than your thoughts – what is that? Thanks for all the feedback.
To me the word “self” here is being used to mean an imagined entity that owns or is responsible for or stands behind your experiences and actions.
It’s important though not to take the anatta doctrine too literally and rigidly, as that is similar to the condition of borderline personality disorder where a coherent self doesn’t form. In that case, what needs to be done to cure the disorder is to build a strong, stable self-sense (that can later be transcended in meditation but needs to be built first).
Also, later Mahayana/Vajrayana teaching superseded the literal anatta notion with sunyata, in which “no-self” AND “self” are equally empty – neither is prior to the other. Thoughts depend on a thinker and can’t exist without them, a thinker depends on thoughts and can’t exist without them. So even when denying a self, statements like “observe that your thoughts arise” are made. That requires a “you” of a kind to have the thoughts, even though that “you” does not exist separately from the thoughts. This is mutual dependence.
A very good analysis of this point is here (though it’s formatted badly as it’s an online version of a book): https://integrallife.com/member/federico-parra/blog/final-word-no-self-confusion
“Nagarjuna explicitly says that there can be no act without an agent or vice versa; he calls them ignorant of the true meaning of the Buddha’s teaching who take the reality of the atman only or of the states as separate from it; if there is no atman apart from the states, there are no states too apart from the atman. In fact, the entire Madhyamika position is developed by a trenchant criticism of the one-sided modal view [selfless flux] of the Abhidharmika system, by being alive to the other side of the picture equally exhibited in the empirical sphere”
“[In borderline disorder a] cohesive self fails to emerge and consolidate, and thus the mind stream remains a series of often fragmented “no-coherent-self” states, which is not Buddhist heaven but psychological hell.And thus, when orthodox psychological researchers hear that the mind is “really without cohesive self,” they are simply flabbergasted. You mean, people want to be borderline? They honestly cannot imagine what these “Buddhists” mean, because the self is being denied reality precisely on the plane that it is indeed real—and the loss of this cohesive self is not Enlightenment but some of the most painful psychological disturbances known”
Actually, the Buddha never taught anatta as a “doctrine” but as an observation to be practiced. I can only recall him ever using the term in the context of observations that this is not oneself and that is not oneself. That doesn’t constitute a doctrine. The idea of an “anatta doctrine” seems to have been invented in the West in the early 20th century (or at least I haven’t found any references to that term in Google Books prior to about 1910). I suspect it was an invention of Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya (né Charles Bennett).
The Buddha also taught shunyata, incidentally, and there are many references to “suññata” scattered throughout the Pali canon. Here’s one example:
The Mahayana expanded on this teaching a great deal, sometimes in useful ways and sometimes in ways that, it seems to me, spiraled off into intellectual distraction, but they didn’t invent it.
Anyway, the important thing is to take anything that you might identify as being your self, and to observe — directly, in your experience — that it is anatta: not me, not mine, not my self. Just keep doing that over and over and eventually the penny will drop.
Emptiness or anatta understood wrongly could certainly be harmful, but that’s a whole other topic…
But, then, what is responsible for my actions?
What is responsible for one action may not be responsible for another action. So there can be many “whats” involved. The idea of a self is that it is a big “what” that is, cumulatively, responsible for all your actions. Except for when we’re “not ourselves” :)
So we’re many whats, not one what.
Okay – I got that!
That’s great. It’s worth looking into split-brain studies, which is something I wrote about in my book, Living as a River. The two halves of the brain can be surgically separated so that they can’t directly communicate with each other, and yet there’s still a sense — an obviously false sense — of there being a unified self. It’s a good example of a person having more than one “what,” with the delusion of selfhood remaining intact.
wow – I’d just as soon not have a self – seems like it would be so much more relaxing!
Well, you’re in luck. You actually don’t have a self, so that part’s easy. It’s the belief in a self that we need to drop :)
yes, not so simple. I guess just to be present as much as possible and to forget yourself – not to overthink
That’s a good way to put it, Debbi. “Be present as much as possible and forget yourself…”
One of the things you can start to notice is how self-clinging waxes and wanes. The more present we are, the less self-clinging there is. And the more we’re caught up in grasping or aversion, the more self-clinging there is. When you’re very present you don’t think about yourself at all. You just be and do. When you’re in a situation where there’s grasping or aversion, you’re full of thoughts about what this means for me, and what I want, and what she said to me, and what’s mine, etc. If you start to observe that and realize that the times you’re happiest are when you’ve most forgotten about having a self, then you encourage yourself to appreciate that this idea of a self you’re trying to defend is actually a burden to be let go of.
Yes, that has been my experience. Thank you for all of the insightful feedback.
Thanks for this article and the explanations. The exercise about not being able to predict my next thought made me laugh – it’s funny that I never noticed something so obvious. When the sense of self falls away spontaneously, it’s very liberating, not pathological or painful at all. That experience is what helped me to understand the teaching of anatta. The sense of self does feel like a burden – that’s what feels painful. I do want to be free of it.
Love how clearly this makes sense.
A funny phrase, “I am just beside myself with…, grief, anger, etc”
Thank you for such a clear explanation of no-self, the best I have come across so far! I will translate it into Polish so that it help more readers to see things as they are…
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