Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Inner Work


For the week of November 10, 2014

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The Levels of No-Self

Introduction

Who am I? We may wonder about that at times, but mostly we feel that we know who we are. Yet if we look carefully at ourselves, who we are becomes a little murky, even confusing. If we look at the whole range of all we do, all we think, and all we feel, our goals and hopes, our likes and dislikes, and if we notice our assumption that “I” am the source, the author of the entire collection, the agent at the core of my life, then we may begin to doubt that assumption of identity, of agency, of a unified self that is who we are. Why? Because there is just too much randomness and too many contradictions in our inner world of thoughts, emotions, urges, hopes and dreams for it all to come from or refer to a single, unified me.

Psychologists today speak of our executive function, the part of our mental makeup that comprises a system of cognitive control, organizing and directing other processes in our mind. For a creative mind and for certain types of meditation, we need to let our executive function temporarily recede into the background; we need to get out of the way. But for a healthy mind, a thriving life, and certain other types of inner work, we need a robust executive function. So perhaps our executive function is who we are, or who we feel ourselves to be, while the rest of our mind, which the executive function may or may not control at any given moment, is not who we are.

Researchers ascribe various aspects of the executive function to particular parts of the brain. But while there may be valid psychological and neurocognitive approaches to the question of who I am, the answers they offer are not ultimately satisfying, because they are striving for objectivity, whereas our experience of who we are is totally subjective, inward. Knowing a label like executive function or knowing that a certain part of our brain has a certain purpose do not really help our personal search for ourselves, much less our search for the Sacred.

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta, of no-self, can help illumine the subjective mystery. While the teaching of no-self contains layer upon layer of subtlety, the actual experience is direct and simple and liberating. When we first seriously encounter the notion that we do not have a self, we think about it, we apply labels and categories and logic, we consider it from the outside, not from the actual experience. Thinking about not having a self can be frightening, as if what is nearest and dearest to us were going to be taken away by the spiritual work we might embark on. But the reality is not at all like that. What we stand to lose is our illusion about ourselves, about who we are. In exchange, we are relieved of a heavy, lifelong burden that has kept us unnecessarily shackled to the promotion and defense of that illusion. And even further than that, seeing the reality of no-self opens a gateway to the spiritual depths within us.

Many of our problems derive from the illusion of self. It constrains our happiness and satisfaction. It constrains our relationships. And it constrains our effectiveness in life. There is a telling analogy about this. Consider a substantial rock flying toward a solid object. The impact will do permanent damage. Pieces will fly. If that rock were flying instead toward a body of water, the impact would only create a splash. Then the water would settle down and no trace would be left. If the rock were flying toward air, it would just pass by with nary a whiff. If we go through life like a solid, the stones of life hurt. If we go through life like a liquid, the stones of life ruffle us but we soon settle down. If we go through life like air, the stones of life pass right through and we keep moving. The density of our illusion of self can change from solid to liquid and finally to air, as we deepen our experience of no-self. In the end, we are free.

In the coming weeks we will look at three levels of seeing and understanding the teaching of no-self, three levels of liberation from our mistaken and misguided sense of self. For this week, ask yourself “who am I?” Look at how you view yourself. Look at how your attitude about yourself shapes your approach to life and to other people. Just keep this question before you: who am I?

    1. Not Personality
    2. True Self or No-Self
    3. Non-Doing in the Great Self


        

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