Posts Tagged ‘non-Self’

Watching my daughter slowly transform from a baby into a toddler has given me an opportunity to reflect on Buddhist teachings of non-Self or Anatta.  There is part of her that seems the same – some continuity – but she is also changing all the time.  Who, or what, then, is my daughter?  And who, or what, am I?

Our roles change throughout our lives and with them, our identities are continually changing.  There is nothing that can be held onto as solid and unchanging.  We perceive solidness and consistency because our minds seize onto things and create an illusion of firmness and consistency.

When I left my Buddhist tradition, I thought I was rejecting the doctrine of Anatta.  I thought I believed in a Soul and thus could not be Buddhist.  I am coming to understand that the Buddhist teaching of non-Self is subtle enough to encompass my thoughts about Soul, Spirit, and what carries on into future lives.  Buddhism teaches that there is no solid, fixed entity that takes rebirth, but merely a continuity of experience, propelled by states of mind.  How the “Self” moves from life to life is no different from how it moves from one moment to the next.  Although we perceive a continuity of experience, this perception is an illusion created by the mind.  In reality, every moment we are born anew, although in dependence upon our previous experiences and states of mind.  How tightly we hold on to our past determines how strongly we are influenced by it.

In Unity services, our minister would sometimes talk about the idea of letting one’s story fall away.  There was a mental image of a jar filled with sand which we carry around with us as a weight and a burden.  We can make a hole in the jar and allow the sand to flow out.  We do this by abstaining from continually reinforcing the stories we tell about our Self.  We reinforce the stories by the messages we give ourselves and by the stories we tell other people.  We reinforce our stories by the labels we give to our daily experiences.  When ones story is allowed to fall away, we are free to perceive the Truth of our experiences and we are free to connect with God.

The story teaching is another way of teaching about non-Self.  Although we may reinforce our identity as mother, wife, teacher, daughter, young person, old person, healthy or ill, beautiful or ugly, all of these labels are a creation of the mind.  They reinforce our sense of continuity of Self, which is also an illusion.  The illusion is stripped away through practices of Silence (future blog post planned on the Quaker virtue of Silence) and abstaining from retelling one’s Self-story, mindfulness of the present (without labeling experiences), and awe for the wonder that is the unfolding of ourselves and the people around us.

A caveat is necessary.  Dwelling in a state of non-conceptual thought or “being in the eternal present” is not the same as Enlightenment.  Many self-styled Gurus in the spiritual marketplace may try to convince you otherwise, but do not be deceived.  There is a fine line between a non-conceptual mind and a mental breakdown.  Acquiring a depersonalization disorder is likewise not the same thing as realizing non-Self or Emptiness.  Altered states of mind are just states of mind and are neither good nor bad.  Altered states of mind are subject to the same impermanence as conventional states of mind.  Tibetan Buddhism teaches that Enlightenment is a permanent state of mind that holds both conceptual and non-conceptual minds simultaneously, perceiving both Ultimate reality and Conventional reality at the same time.  That is much more than a trance state.

I am no longer looking for Enlightenment and am content to follow a gradual spiritual path (or a pathless meandering).  I am deeply suspicious of any quick paths (see future blog posts on Buddhist Tantra) or quick fixes in general.  So none of these ramblings are intended to suggest that devoting oneself entirely to acquiring esoteric wisdom or realizations is the best use of one’s time on Earth.  What I do believe is that remembering these wisdom teachings and being mindful of them, can provide enough of a crack in one’s fixed view of the world to create the breathing room to grow.  Psychology and learning theory teaches us that the most efficient pathway to real learning is through action, by trying different behaviors.  The crack in the facade of how I view my Self and Others provides the breathing room to allow for different actions, and thus learning/growth.

I learn when I pause to observe my daughter being herself (and not my ideas of who or what she is).  I learn when I pause to observe my thoughts and feelings in the moment.  Maybe I am not who or what I thought I was.  Maybe the Buddhists are right here.  I cannot cling to any of these concepts of who or what I am and who or what anyone else is.  They change.


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