Not Self is Where It’s At

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The Buddha

Not Self is a very important, difficult, subtle point of Buddhist teaching. Before you start meditating, and before you learn anything about Buddhism, you likely have never had the thought that your self is anything but who you really are.

To start, remember that we have posited a fundamentally bifurcated mind. We have our daily mind, what I have called “monkey mind,” and Buddha mind, or what I have called “consciousness,” what other teachers call “nirvana,” or “the deathless,” or other names. It ultimately defies all description since it is the unknowable source and seat of all knowledge.

If you meditate enough, you begin to perceive this consciousness directly. It is unknowable in the sense that knowledge is always an abstraction, reductive. Awakening is an experience. We can try to describe it in the hope of pointing more people to it. That has worked well for me. Again, I can’t think my way to awakening, but I can think about what to do to get there, and stop to reflect as I advance on the path to describe where I have been.

The first Noble Truth is that life is full of disappointments. The Buddha used the word, “dukkha,” which some people translate as “suffering,” but suffering seems too strong for most people living in the modern United States, although if it applies to you, feel free to use it. Etymologically, it comes from words denoting an axle that fits badly into a wheel, such that the wagon rolls very roughly, if at all.

So life is a bumpy ride, according to the Buddha.

But it turns out that you really can control how you react to the bumps in the ride, if you meditate enough.

As you begin to realize the ways in which your self, your ego, is an accessory, not necessary as it tries to convince you it is, you begin to see how you choose your suffering by holding fast to the hope and belief that your life should be better and will suddenly get better if only you can find or buy or otherwise acquire the right thing, whatever your thing is, the right job, the right house, the right partner, the right church, the right preacher, whatever you think is going to make you happy.

Happiness, real, lasting happiness, is inside your head and ultimately under your control, which you learn if you meditate enough. It depends on no external conditions.

You can also learn to detach your self as ego from your consciousness and look with dispassion at the various bumps in your personal road, from the past and in the present

Getting to not self requires you to notice your self as a distinct set of thoughts, which can be hard to do. It’s sort of like trying to start a roll of transparent tape.

One way is to remember times when you made choices you now regret or took actions you now think you should not have. Before no self, they are just yours as much as any other choices or actions. By thinking of them as choices and actions that you can disassociate your consciousness from, you can start to see the self who made them as separate from that consciousness.

But the best thing to do is to continue to meditate and work on developing your awareness of your consciousness as a distinct part of your subjectivity that you can bring to mind at will. That consciousness, again, becomes the platform from which you can observer all of your thoughts and listen to your intuition. You will consistently start to notice a sharp division between thoughts and consciousness, such that you can then attribute the thoughts to the self that is not self.

It’s a paradox, but one that works if you keep meditating on it

Not self is a source of joy, and realizing it is critical to awakening. It is well worth meditating on.

So keep meditating.

Please help spread the word.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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