The Limited Mask of Self
Of all the words we use to disguise the hollowness of the human condition, none is more influential than ‘myself.’ It consists of a collage of still images—name, gender, nationality, profession, enthusiasms, relationships—that are renovated from time to time, but otherwise are each a relic from one particular experience or another. The defining teaching of the Buddhist tradition, that of non-self, is merely pointing out the limitations of this reflexive view we hold of ourselves. It’s not that the self does not exist, but that it is as cobbled-together and transient as everything else. — Andrew Olendzki, Self as Verb
A persistent topic among my Insight Meditation circle of friends is that of anatta — non-self.
On this theme, a quote from Tricycle’s Daily Dharma was recently shared:
I decided to write about it here because anatta is an especially useful meditation topic for me right now, as I’ve been deeply challenged by the passing of my niece earlier this year to have some clarity on whether I believe in a soul that persists across lifetimes, and how this relates to karma and rebirth.
A super-natural (ie, more than simply biological/physical) notion of a Universal Self (atman) and a personal soul (jiva) is deeply wound into Hindu philosophy, and into Tantric buddhist traditions — in which a soul enters a body at birth (or perhaps conception) and leaves a body at death, and this soul has a “self”, an identity in some sense, that is subject to karma, rebirth and liberation.
When family asked me what I thought of all this, and how it relates to my niece’s soul’s journey — I realized this is an aspect of spiritual life with which, while I have read and heard the teachings of great masters and practiced my family’s traditional faith to some degree — I really have had no direct experience per se, and I felt nothing much of substance to offer …
But it’s right and good to ask such questions, if at least to honor the departed, and perhaps even to come to good answers for oneself on the journey. I had to do this once before, when my father passed. As his eldest son, I performed the funeral rites and good works in his name in careful accordance with Vedic injunctions, which are said to aid in the freeing of his soul to depart this world peacefully, and to join the abode of our family’s ancestral souls. Doing so helped heal me, and my family, and in some sense that was his unfinished karma with us. In the process, I developed a loving, living memory of my father that is with me still. However, in the process, I did not feel I came to know in any ultimate sense whether he had a soul, and if so, whether it went to the abode of the ancestors or the abode of Vishnu, or what have you. The rites helped us, the living, make our peace; this was reason enough to do them.
I’m trying to find answers again, anew, and I see that over the years since my father passed, I’ve come to believe not in a personal soul per se, but that there are streams of karma embedded in one another, complex interleaving patterns of life and existence that repeat and evolve over time, and that these are reflected in, and in some sense, carried forward by physical reality — the complex patterns in DNA, in cells and organs, in language, in culture, in the environment — that what philosopher Ken Weber calls holons (levels of reality which are at once whole unto themselves in one sense, but also inextricably part of a larger order of existence) do exist, and that these do have some literal continuity in between their phases of arising and passing, are embedded in physical reality that assert themselves over over lifetimes and aeons, that these, in much the sense Darwin suggested for species, do evolve. And this evolution occurs at every level of reality, that it can be an interpretive frame for the entirety of nature.
So perhaps in some sense it can be meaningfully said these levels each have a ‘soul’ or a ‘self’ that is the encoding in the physical reality from which they arise, and in which they operate, of how they come to be just so … But I’ve also come to believe that it’s a somewhat arbitrary or perhaps simply an aesthetic choice to believe this, as opposed to non-self; that these are all impersonal streams, that there is no special particularity and persistent identity to any one of them….
The wikipedia entry on anatta (non-self) mentions how it’s commonly subject to the fallacy of reification — unskillfully asserting that an idea is more concrete than it is intended to be. For me, being aware of this fallacy is the key in applying the anatta teaching — not forcing it to be more concrete than is really useful or observably true. And anatta is highly abstract; it takes aim at the very subject-object frame underlying in our usual process of abstraction. Just like dukkha (suffering) and anicca (impermanence), anatta is a powerful insight to achieve liberation from the usual conditions of our thinking & existing… Pick up the tool when useful; set down when not.
It wouldn’t be useful to focus so morbidly on suffering or impermanence that one loses the ability to undertake daily activities of living. At times, I have been capable of a degree of such existential darkness. Not helpful or skillful. A bit wiser now, I carefully try to avoid this. Likewise with anatta. There is a self needed to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, pay the bills, and also grieve loss, feel joy, serve others, give care, and meditate, contemplate, etc. Refuting the existence of the self on this level in the name of anatta is not the point of the Buddha’s teaching. As the saying goes — before enlightenment, fetching water, chopping wood; after enlightenment, fetching water, chopping wood…
The point for me is to get free of my clinging to this frame of subjectivity (aka “self”), that comes with all sorts of fears and limiting beliefs about what I can do, what I need, who I should associate with, why I’m here. To see my idea of “me” as “cobbled-together and transient” is to open to the power inherent in the meditative and contemplative process — to get a glimpse of the long-suffering, impermanent, groundless being that is “me” — so I can have the choice to do something useful with it, and not be compelled by this “me” to react, to cling, to avoid, to suffer.
I can direct this “me” to serve to free all beings, in the spirit of the bodhisatva vow. Or at least, freely choose my karmic output — to react, to cling, to avoid, or whatever, if that’s what is most useful to do. Or, to choose to believe I am part of a larger Self, that is Love.
Various Buddhist teachers use the construction ‘selfing’ from time to time. “Oh there I go, selfing again.” Thinking obsessive thoughts of — What about my … (career, home, marriage, politics, ideas, friends, children) … ? Yes, well … what about them?
Insofar as they’re useful & helpful things to be ‘mine’ — I say let them be yours — use this construct, take their help… But it’s important to see they’re not inherently, actually ‘me’… They’re just what I’m identifying with as ‘mine’, for now. It’s like the Native American notion of land ownership; we’re really just temporary stewards, not holders of a permanent dominion. I’m the temporary steward of this suitcase of experiences, ideas, feelings, preferences, tendencies, atoms and cells that I call “me” and “mine”. I am free to re-arrange the contents of that suitcase at any time; to do so, it is often helpful to unpack it completely and get clarity about what is in there, and discard what will not serve for the journey ahead.
So anatta is a teaching that reminds me to not hold on so tight to all that we usually do … To chose a relationship to ‘my’ story and stuff that is useful in getting free of fearfully dwelling on ‘what about me’ — but to retain a useful sense of stewardship and prudence in all those things I’m connected with … That is a real need, of practical, spiritual life…
But then, sometimes you don’t want to get free of ‘me’, nor should you, and it doesn’t help to try; it may even feel wrong, like a shortcutting of our essential humanity. For example, when the particular ‘me’ in question is a beloved child who is no longer here in the body — it’s not much comfort to say, “Well, she had no self, no soul in the first place, so the loss we’re feeling, and the grief and the questions about where she is, what happened to her spirit, what’s happened to her karma — they’re misplaced…” No. That’s not helpful. It won’t do at all.
Love is real; to the extent that we love one another with our limited idea of “self” intact, that “self” is real. Love deserves celebrating every win and grieving each loss. It can be dangerously shortcut by detaching or dissociating through conceptual meditation or philosophizing on non-self. At such times, focusing on dukkha and anicca, suffering and impermanence can be much more healing. That said, anatta can expand the frame of belief to provide a healthier, more sustainable idea of what is a win, what is loss, and who or what even is loving and is being loved. It can help open the door to seeing a Love that is bigger than any of us, than any narrow “self”, and in which we can all abide.
In this way, I believe life can be full of great joy, that we do really love, and our love for one another is part of a bigger Universal Love that is ever-present. I can, by letting go of my past conditioning through contemplating and realizing the application of anatta, choose to consciously align myself with this Love, and to practice the courage to love completely, which comes with a price — with inevitable and sometimes unexpected and tragic loss.
Buddha’s teachings on suffering, non-self, and impermanence are profoundly useful tools — in awakening compassion, in freeing the mind, in surrendering our clinging and aversion — in cultivating detachment. So are Krishna’s teachings on dharma, the journey of the individual soul, and the Eternal. But neither are the final truth for me, just beautiful tools.
For me, the deepest truth is in how we’re consciously evolving into Love, here and now, on every level, in this moment. When my eyes are open to that, when I participate in that — I am in Truth, and it transcends any teaching or practice.