Without fail, probably the most commonly misunderstood concept in all of Buddhism is the teaching on Non-Self, or Anatta. This teaching asserts that there is no permanent, stable, abiding entity at the center of our existense.
Clever students often quip, “Yeah, but if there’s no self, then what’s sitting here right now? Isn’t that a self?”
Well… yes and no. To understand the teaching on Non-Self, we need to acknowledge two aspects of reality: the relative and the absolute.
On the relative side of the scale, there is definitely a felt ‘sense-of-me’, a psychological sense of being. It’s the human that your parents gave your name to, that has a familiar narrative, that has likes and dislikes, that has a remembered past and an anticipated future.
BUT… on the absolute side of the equation, when we examine the very building blocks of the ‘sense-of-self’, we see that it is composed of materials that are themselves changing, unstable and impermanent. These compositional elements are i) physical sensations, ii) feeling tones, iii) perceptions, iv) thoughts and emotions, and v) moments of consciousness.
The Buddha called these five objects the clinging aggregates. They are the objects of experience that we normally cling to as we attempt to construct a sense of stability and I-am-ness. And as we’ve been discussing, clinging to anything that has the nature to arise and pass away is a recipe for suffering! So we let go, not to get rid of the relative ‘sense-of-self’, but to no longer identify with that sense, if that makes sense 😉
Points for Practice
- At a certain point, meditation reveals the limitations of the ‘self strategy’ and the practice opens us to the emptiness or space within which the sense-of-self arises.
- So in your practice, after stabilizing with the breath and body, after opening the attention to all ‘objects’ arising in the present moment, try simply resting into pure awareness, itself. “Lean” back into the very knowing. Notice the mind’s tendency to get born into various objects (sensations, sounds, thoughts) and feel back into the Witness of those objects.
- Many tradtions call it by different names, but this pure awareness, this limitless space, this unconditioned context… this very suchness is said to be our true home. Feel the release that comes when we unburden ourselves from a constricted image or idea of who we think we are….
- In class I recommended Rodney Smith’s new book, Stepping Out of Self-Deception. Here’s a talk by Rodney: The Story and the Story Teller.
Originally published on September 28, 2010