Earlier, we discussed Anicca/Impermanence and its bearing on our life experience as a whole. Now we’ll to the next thing that can make life suck, Anatta.
Anatta is usually translated as selflessness, or no-self. Yes, you read that correctly—no-self, Anatta. Insert Oprah quote, “You don’t have a self, and you don’t have a self, and you don’t have a self.” That is not to say you don’t exist but that core of this topic is there is no core to what we take to be ourselves.
We humans—just like all other things or phenomenon, being impermanent—are also devoid of a core.
If we simply examine ourselves, this becomes more and more apparent. We take ourselves to be a self or to have a self when in reality we aren’t and don’t. If you were to think of self, you’d have two real, solid choices, identity or difference with the body. Meaning you’d either have to identify this “self’” with the body or without the body. Identifying the self without the body would raise weird questions of: Where does it hang out? How does it get there and how does my “self” manage to come back here from moment to moment?
Identifying self with the body makes slightly more sense until we really ponder that one. If self is in this rig, where does it live? Is it in one place or dispersed throughout? If self were dispersed throughout, then tying your pinky finger would equate to tying the whole person. If it lived in one localized spot, that would make more sense but when we consider how the body continues endures.
We eat different foods, breathe in different particles of oxygen and expel various wastes. This whole process is a flux. How can something based on an ever changing pile of causes and conditions create a singular unchanging self? The answer—it can’t.
We are the result of a succession of moments adding on to the moments before it, like a chain going back into beginning-less time with no real first point. What we call ourselves is really a process.
We are a process more like a flame (this is my favorite analogy to explain the individuation process). Imagine lighting a candle and walking away (don’t actually do that… it’s a terrible fire hazard), and then you come back and look at the candle. Is it the same? Not really—it is a process requiring air, wick, wax etc. All the ingredients are different from moment to moment. How can their product be the same continuous result? It can’t; a math problem with changing variables cannot continuously result in the same answer.
Now let’s take this analogy a little further. Let’s say at the end of this particular candle’s life, with the last wisps of flame, you catch the flame to another candle. The process of this flame now has a completely new basis air, wick, wax, all different. The only thing that is constant is the process which only appears as constant, and is actually ever changing. This is my favorite analogy for the process of selfhood because it also explains rebirth. There is no core, no nucleus, soul, atman, or however you wish to phrase it, as is not essential to the process of individuation. The Buddha spoke a lot about this topic , and one of the most comprehensive theories of “self” is that of The Five Aggregates.
The Five Aggregates could be their own in depth dissertation worthy of a masters in philosophy. To quickly name the list:
- Mental Formations
The Buddha said that everything you could conceive your “self” to be is in one or more of these categories. All of these things exist—you guessed it—with no self or core behind them.
Editor: Dana Gornall
J. Martin is a a 32 year old father of three and has been married for 13 years. He was a mechanic for 15 years, then his true calling found him and he became a firefighter. He has been a practicing Buddhist for nine years, including two years of meditation class at the Theravada temple near his home. His teacher moved on and before he did he told him, “Remember, I don’t teach students, I teach teachers. So do something with what you’ve learned.” So J. went to do what he could to further the meditative arts. Check out his blog, The Unusual Buddha.
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