Not-self, Not No Self
January 21, 2024


January 21, 2024

When you meditate, you’re taking responsibility for your mind: the thoughts that you’re going to act on, the thoughts that you’re going to focus on, how you focus on them, with what purpose. You’re being responsible because you realize that your actions will have an important impact now and on into the future. You want to make sure that the impact is good so that you’ll experience happiness now and into the future.

So you keep watch. And give the mind something good to do—one good thing to do, so that it can stick with that one thing and not get too complicated. You focus on the breath and then you try to breathe in a way that feels good. That makes it easier to stay focused. If the breath is uncomfortable, you’re going to find a lot of other things to do pretty quickly.

Think of the breath as the whole body of energy. When you breathe, the whole body’s breathing in, the whole body’s breathing out. You can breathe in a way that’s tight and restricted, or you can breathe in a way that’s open and more comfortable. You have the choice. So try to find what rhythm of breathing feels good now.

You may have noticed that I say, “You’re doing this, and you’re hoping for your own happiness as a result. And you’re watching over your actions.” So you play a big role here.

The problem is that sometimes, when you read in the Buddha’s teachings, you come across a teaching on not-self, anattā. Some people interpret that as meaning, “There is no self.”

That, of course, that raises the question, “If that’s the case, then who’s meditating? Who’s going to benefit? Who’s watching?” But it’s important to understand, from the very beginning, that the question the Buddha was answering was not whether or not there is a self; it’s whether the things that you’re holding on to are worth holding on to, whether the things you’re identifying with are worth identifying with. The word anattā actually doesn’t mean no-self. It means not-self.

So when the mind is settled down, and you find that you’re still holding on to certain ideas that are getting in the way, you can tell yourself, “These are not me and not mine.” Even though they appear in your mind, you don’t have to identify with them; you don’t have to take responsibility for them. You can take responsibility for the things that are more skillful.

So you’re being selective. Then you have to reflect and think in this way as you go through life. Actually, you’re already selective in this way anyhow. You’ve been this way all along.

Suppose that, back when you were a child, you had a little sister, and somebody down the street was beating up on your little sister. You had to go and defend her because she was your sister. In that case, your sense of you and yours is large enough to extend to include your sister as well. But then you get her back home, she starts playing with your toys and won’t let you play with them. Then your sense of you doesn’t extend to include her anymore.

In this way, as we go through life, we’re defining ourselves willy-nilly by what we want and what we feel we can bring under our control. Anything that lies beyond our control, or things that we don’t want to lay claim to: Those are not-self.

So the concept of not-self is nothing foreign. It’s part of the way in which we negotiate the world, so that we can focus on the well-being of what we identify as really being our well-being and whatever’s going to lead to that well-being. We put aside anything that’s not going to be conducive to our well-being.

Of course, there are a lot of things in the world that are beyond your control that will affect your well-being. And you’ve got to realize that they’re beyond your control. You’d do better to focus on the things that are under your control. Make that your sense of self.

In this way, you can use this sense of self in a skillful way as you’re meditating.

The practice is all about learning to have a more skillful way, a more systematic way, of defining who you are, what you are, what’s your responsibility and what’s not. You’ll find that that changes as the practice progresses.

This is what the Buddha’s getting at when he says not-self. There are a lot of things that we lay claim to that are actually causing us suffering. They’re not total suffering. There’s some pleasure there, which is why we lay claim to them, but sometimes the pleasure is simply the pleasure of habit. The things you’ve laid claim to in the past, you just keep laying claim to them now. The Buddha wants you to stop and think about what really is worth laying claim to—and when you think about your happiness, what really would be your happiness. Those are the kinds of questions he has you ask: “What when I do it will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness? What when I do it will lead to my long-term harm and suffering?”

That’s where wisdom begins, as he says. You realize that you have to take responsibility for your happiness or suffering. And then if you’re wise, it’ll lead to happiness for you.

In fact, there’s even one passage where the Buddha talks about people laying claim to things that are beyond their control, and when they let go of those things, when they realize they’re not-self, then they will discover true happiness for themselves.

So even in a case like that, the concept of self plays a role in the path. You’re the self who decides what you want, and you hope will benefit from what you do. Then you’re the self who actually does the actions. And then there’s the you who watches over the actions to see if they really do get the results you want—and if they don’t, to make suggestions. This is the inner voice, the inner commentator.

All these types of self have to be trained. The self that wants happiness has to learn how to raise its standards. The self who’s going to act to gain that happiness has to be taught how to put forth more skillful effort in the right areas. And the self who’s the commentator has to learn how to be a skillful critic.

A lot of people complain that their inner critic is very destructive. That’s because it hasn’t been trained. When it is trained, it’s actually helpful. It realizes that its judgments are not final judgments. You don’t want to come to the conclusion that “Well, you’re a miserable person, you’ll never get anywhere.” That kind of judgment doesn’t help. But the kind of judgment that says, “You did this, but you could do that, and it’d be better.” That’s the kind of inner judge you want.

You’re judging your practice as a work in progress, like a carpenter working on a chair. If you make a mistake with your saw or your plane, you learn how to correct. One, you notice that it was a mistake, and then, two, you learn how to correct for it. You don’t just give up on the chair. You figure out how to work with it so that you can come out with something that approximates what you wanted to begin with. Sometimes you find, as you’re doing the work, that you can come up with even better ideas.

That’s the kind of inner critic you want. As for anything that doesn’t help in this direction, you can critique the inner critic: “That comment is not going to be my responsibility. I’m not going to take that on as my thought.”

After all, thoughts will appear in the mind. Sometimes it seems like the mind is a random thought-generator. It comes up with all kinds of things, some of which are relevant, some of which are not. You have to realize, you have the choice: You can identify with some of the thoughts and not with others.

So how do you judge? You look at where the thoughts are coming from. If they come from greed, aversion, and delusion, you can tell yourself, “If I act on these thoughts, if I follow through with them, it’s going to cause trouble. I don’t want that.” So it can say No to those thoughts. As for thoughts that’ll lead to true happiness, you want to identify with them for the time being.

So when you find a struggle inside as to what to do, ask yourself: Which voice is coming from where, and where is it going to lead? If you’re wise, you’ll identify with the wiser voice, and let the other ones go.

This way, you get used to seeing things as not-self: realizing that you’ve chosen to lay claim to things that weren’t worth laying claim to. That’s basically what the concept of not-self comes down to: It’s a value judgment. “Is this worth it? If I lay claim to this—saying, ‘This is me,’ ‘This is mine’—where is it going to take me? Are the efforts that go into maintaining this going to be worth it, or not?”

Sometimes the answer is, “Yes, they are worth it.” As you’re working on the path, there are times when it requires a lot of effort, but you see that it’s going to lead to good results down the end of the road, so you stick with it. You put up with whatever difficulties are there because you see they’re going to be more than repaid.

But there are a lot of other things in life that you lay claim to, but they don’t really repay you. Yet you go back over them again and again and again, like a dog worrying a bone. There’s no meat there, but something about that bone has this dog obsessed, thinking that “Maybe the next time I chew on it, I’ll get some flavor.” But it doesn’t have any real nourishment for you at all.

When you can see that happening, and that you’ve got something better inside, then you can let go. This is why we develop concentration: to give you something better to hold on to.

So right now, while you’re here meditating, any thoughts that relate to the breath, any thoughts that relate to the mind staying with the breath, are going to be useful. You can lay claim to those. As for thoughts that would pull you away, for the time being you can say, “That’s not me. I’m not going to go there. I’m not going to take on that identity.” When you think in these ways, then you can use the concept of self in a skillful way, and you can use the concept of not-self in a skillful way, because they’re both meant to be strategies—for the sake of true happiness.

Over time, as you get further and further on the path, you find that the things you used to hold on to that were worth holding on to at the beginning of the path may not be worth holding on to anymore. You may not need them anymore. So you “not-self” them: You let them go, let them go.

Finally, you deliver the mind to a place where it doesn’t need those strategies anymore, because you’ve arrived at the ultimate happiness. Because both the concept of self and the concept of not-self are strategies for the sake of happiness, when you’ve arrived at the ultimate happiness, you don’t need those strategies, so you can let them both go.

So when you understand the concept of self and the concept of not-self and how they can best be used, that clears up a lot of confusion.

If you take a class in Buddhism, they’ll teach you about the four noble truths, about the teaching on not-self, and about karma and rebirth. And usually these concepts are explained beginning with, “There is no self. That’s the nature of reality.” But then the question is, “If there is no self, who’s doing the karma, who’s going to reap the results, what’s going to get reborn?” That way of teaching these topics can get you tied up in knots trying to answer those questions.

But the Buddha put it another order. He started with karma, or action. Your intentions shape your experience of the world, which means that everything starts with intention. Then the question there is: “With what intention are you using the concept of self, and with what intention are you using the concept of not-self?”

In other words, instead of making not-self the context, and karma the problem to be fit in to that context, it’s the other way around. You start with karma as the context. Then you try to see: What kind of actions are your concepts of self? What kind of actions are your concepts of not-self? How can you train them so that they form the fourth noble truth and actually are conducive to true happiness?

When you get the context straight, then the questions get straight as well. And the answers get useful.

So remember this: Your ideas of who you are and who you aren’t are strategies, so learn how to use them well until you don’t need them anymore. Then you can put them aside.