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.