anatta (non-self)

Albert Einstein: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space”

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

In the Buddhist meditation called the Six Element Practice, we reflect in turn on each of the six elements—the four physical elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—plus Space and Consciousness.

In each case we reflect on the presence of the element within our being: for example, with Earth we note the presence of bone, tissue, teeth, hair, etc.

We then reflect on the element outside of ourselves; in this case we consider rocks, stones, earth, buildings, plants, the bodies of other beings, etc.

Then we note how everything that is in us that pertains to the element under consideration came from the element outside.

Originally our body started as the fusion of one cell from our mother and another from our father—neither of whom was us. Then our body grew as our mother passed on nutrients that she’d ingested from the outside world. Again, those nutrients weren’t us. Later, we ate on our own, but still everything that went into building up the body was and is merely borrowed from the outside world.

Finally, for each element we recollect that everything in us that is that element is constantly returning to the outside world. Our muscles and other tissues, and even our bones, are constantly dissolving and being rebuilt (which is why your muscles and bones waste away through inactivity). We lose hairs, shed skin cells, and have to make regular trips to the bathroom to rid ourselves of waste. All of this returns to the world outside us and to the wider element. And when we die, we stop even trying to hold on. Everything that was “us” returns to the wider element.

This practice is completely liberating. It frees us from the “prison,” as Einstein called it, of the delusion that we are separate from the universe. We come to realize instead that we are nothing but interrelatedness, that we exist only in relation to the world, including other people, and that we have no separate existence in any real sense. We are completely and inseparably connected on a physical, mental, and emotional level with other beings.

The six element practice gives us a realization of this truth—a realization that goes far beyond the intellectual—and other Buddhist practices such as the Brahmaviharas help to ignite the emotions of relationship that follow from this insight into interconnectedness, widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.

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Scare the Heck Out of Your “Self” (

Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman explains the value in ‘realizing your selflessness.’

People often ask me, “Why did Buddha have to be such a downer? Obviously nirvana is a happy, cheerful state. So why didn’t he just call it ‘bliss’ or something? Why did he have to label the reality he discovered with negative words like ‘voidness,’ ’emptiness,’ and ‘selflessness’?” When people respond negatively to these terms, it’s often because they’re worried that the words imply they are going to die, disappear, or go crazy in their attempts to seek enlightenment. And that’s exactly why the Buddha called reality by those names. He did it on purpose, to liberate you! Why? Because the only thing that’s frightened by the word “selflessness” is the artificially constructed, unreal, pretend self. It doesn’t really exist. That pseudo-self seems to quiver and quake because the habit that makes it seem real wants to keep its hold on you. So if you’re seeking happiness and freedom, then you should want to scare the heck out of your “self” — you want to scare it right out of your head!

Actually, it is constantly scaring the heck out of you. Your “self” is always busy terrorizing you. You have a terrorist in your own brain, coming out of your own instincts and culture, who is pestering you all the time. “Don’t relax too much,” it is saying, “you’ll get stepped on. A bug will bite you. Someone will be nasty to you. You’ll get passed by, abused, sick. Don’t be honest. Pretend. Because if you’re honest, they’ll hurt you.” And it’s ordering you, “Be my slave. Do what I tell you to do. Keep me installed up here at this very superficial level of the brain where I sit in my weird Woody Allen-type cockpit. Because I’m in control.” Your falsely perceived, fixated, domineering self is precisely what’s getting between you and a fulfilling life.

. . .

“Realizing your selflessness” does not mean that you become a nobody, it means that you become the type of somebody who is a viable, useful somebody, not a rigid, fixated, I’m-the-center-of-the-universe, isolated-from-others somebody. You become the type of somebody who is over the idea of a conceptually fixated and self-created “self,” a pseudo-self. You become the type of somebody who is content never to be quite that sure of who you are – always free to be someone new, somebody more.

That’s the whole point of selflessness. If you don’t know exactly who you are all the time, you’re not sick, you’re actually in luck, because you’re more realistic, more free, and more awake! You’re being too intelligent to be stuck inside some frozen mask of personality! You’ve opened up your wisdom, and you’ve realized that “knowing who you are” is the trap – an impossible self-objectification. None of us knows who we really are. Facing that and then becoming all that we can be – astonishing, surprising, amazing – always fresh and new, always free to be more, brave enough to become a work in progress, choosing happiness, open-mindedness, and love over certitude, rigidity, and fear – this is realizing selflessness!

Reprinted with permission from “Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well” published by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam.

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