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Tag Archives: not self

Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living.  I’m not sure that I agree.  And, of course, it seems problematic now that we have discovered numerous developmental and cognitive disorders that would prevent one from the type of examination that he was talking about.  I couldn’t get behind a statement that suggests that those individuals do not live a life worth living.

I think I understand what Plato meant, however.  And I often ponder this question myself.  Me, I’ve spent the majority of my life in an obsessive examination of morality and ethics, intentions and consequences.  A lot of it just led me to isolation.  But now, I’ve seemed to find the middle path, where I am able to examine my life and life in general without an attachment to it, or needing it to be a certain way.

I’ve recently been exploring the Buddhist teaching of “anata,” or “not self.”  It is a rich and complex teaching that basically states that there is no fixed static self to hold on to.  There is nothing that we can claim as “Me,” or “Mine.”  And that these things that we claim as “Me,” or “Mine,” are in constant flux, always changing.  And if one did examine their life quite deeply, one can see the truth of this teaching.

When I sit and meditate, and become quite concentrated and calm, it is rather easy to see.  I sit and bring awareness to my body.  “Am I my body?” I think.  Well, let’s examine that question.  Here I sit with this body…. This skin, bones, muscles, sinews.  And when I was younger, I also had skin, bones, muscles, sinews.  But, all of our cells are constantly regenerating.  There is not a single cell in our body today that was flourishing in our body from infanthood or toddlerhood.  This body that I sit with and contemplate today is completely different than the body I grew up with.  It grows, it shrinks, it lives and dies and lives again.  It looks different almost every day.  More hair here, less hair there.  More muscle here, less muscle there.  It seems the body isn’t a reliable place to lay the claim that “This body is who I am.”  Even if one were to argue that they are their body, well, then they are claiming that they are this dynamic flow that is never static, never the same.  What you are today will be different tomorrow.  Aside from that, the very fact that I can directly observe my body, watch it, sense it, means that it can’t be me.  The very fact that an object cannot directly perceive itself proves this wrong.  So I move on.

What about my thoughts? Am I my thoughts?  Can I claim my thoughts as mine?  Well let’s see.  I sit and watch my thoughts.  An image of my father during my childhood comes to mind, and it produces a pleasant feeling in my chest.  This is quite interesting.  Without my forcing it or willfully conjuring it, an image of my father arises.  And, that image is accompanied by a feeling.  In this case, it was a lightness, a warm tingle in my chest and through my spine.  And I label that feeling as pleasant.  And then, without my help, the image disappears.  Next thought.  “My back hurts.”  This thought too was accompanied by a feeling.  It was an unpleasant feeling, a tight and sharp sting in my upper back.  And I label this as unpleasant.  It’s also accompanied by an autonomic response; namely I begin to sweat and blood rushes to my extremities.  Whatever the “I” is, it doesn’t seem to like physical discomfort.  And in fact, has automatic responses to physical discomfort that serve to get me out of that uncomfortable situation.  But I choose not to listen to it.  I choose not to get up.  I stay and watch, and listen.  I can’t be my thoughts.  I sit here and watch my thoughts, and choose, one after another, which one I will attend to.  I interact with my thoughts, I exist in this space between my thought and the subsequent reaction.  I am not my thoughts.

Am I my feelings?  Well, that would almost make sense in some way.  Ever since I can remember, I have felt things with incredible acuity and sensitivity.  If I was happy, I was elated.  If I was sad, I was heartbroken.  In my past, I could see how many occasions that I took my feelings to be “Me.”  I was heartbreak.  I was anger.  I was resentment.  I was guilt.  But I no longer identify so richly with my feelings.  As a matter of fact, I sat last night with numerous feelings.  I was upset.  I was regretful.  I was sad.  But my relationship to those feelings has changed.  And the very fact that I am in relationship to my feelings, is a clear indicator that I am not my feelings.  Just like my thoughts, or a pain in my body, I can watch my feelings arise.  I can create a space for my feelings to do their dance.  I can smile and greet them at my door with a cup of tea.  And then, when they are ready, I can let them go.  Last night I watched my sadness, my regret, turn into peaceful acceptance and equanimity.  I am not my feelings.

So what does this mean for us?  Well, I’m not quite sure yet.  My examination has really only begun.  But I feel I am on the right path for now.  I am gaining more and more understanding of my feelings, my thoughts, and my body.  I am learning to rest in the space of awareness that can observe all things but not be limited by them, like Jack Kornfield says.  But this search for “Me” has been quite disorienting.  As humans, we are constantly searching for things to cling to as “Me,” or “Mine.”  And invariably we do.  However, what happens when those things change?  What happens when they are taken away?  Our psyche subsequently feels threatened, as it loses a piece of itself.  This creates fear.  This creates suffering.  “These are MY feelings.”  “This is MY body.”  “She is MY girlfriend.”  These thoughts and this language create a static self that is deluded, that is doomed to live a life that is constantly clinging to things that are always changing.  This causes rope burn.  This causes confusion.  Learn to rest in the uncertainty.  Don’t hold so tightly to your opinions.  Don’t squeeze the life out of your lover, or your children.  When they change, let them change.

As the story goes, a boy was given a small bird for his birthday.  The boy, not knowing any better, squeezed the bird as hard as he could.  “This is MY bird.  It will be mine always.  I love this bird and it’s not going anywhere.”  Then the boy looked down in his hands and saw the bird was squirming and in pain.  The boy felt bad, and loosened his grip just a little bit.  The bird began to chirp as it had more space to move, more space to change.  Then the boy would get scared.  “But it’s going to leave!”  And he would tighten his grip again.  The bird would start suffering, and he would loosen his grip.  This is our practice.  When we are suffocating the bird, we need to learn to loosen our grip.

If I’m not careful, the idea of “not self” can be quite disorienting.  And as I walked into my internship this morning, I had a moment of existential angst.  “Who is this person walking into these doors?  Who is it that sits in this chair and holds a space for people to explore their traumas and their suffering?”  How do we reconcile this?  It can make one quite uneasy.  My response is simple.  There is freedom in that tiny space between our thoughts and our reactions, between our feelings and our response, between our body and our minds.  Whatever we are, how lucky we are to be just that!  With this amazing capacity to love, to accept, to fight.  Whatever we are, this is what we have to use to awaken, to really see things clearly.  I don’t know the answers.  But in my seeking, I’ve found that I’m not so concerned with the answers anymore.  They too, like everything else, are always changing.

Rest in that space of awareness that can observe all things, and not be limited by them.  Greet your feelings at the door with a cup of tea.  Sit them down and let them tell you their story.  Be curious about yourself.  Have a beginner’s mind.  Study your thoughts, your body, your feelings.  Study that space that can watch them.  What is that?  Where are YOU in all of this?  And then, from that place of wisdom, compassion, love, and insight, open your eyes and live.  I can think of no greater joy.