By Tanya Shaffer
For much of my adult life, I longed to be one of those people who procrastinate by cleaning, rather than snacking, clipping toenails or surfing the web.
If I were a procrastinate-by-cleaning type, I reasoned, then whether or not I got any writing done on a given day, at least I’d have a clean house to beat myself up in. Then recently, more than half a century into my tenure on Earth, a strange thing happened: I became one of those people.
If ever there were proof of the Buddhist theory that there is no solid unchangeable self at the core of our beings, my becoming a neat person is it. If you don’t believe me, ask one of my former roommates.
Of all the Buddha’s ideas, the one about not having a self is the hardest for me and most of my compatriots to wrap our heads around. After all, self-actualization was our national obsession long before social media gave rise to the age of selfies. Plus, we feel like we have selves. And if we aren’t selves, what are we? Who looks out through our eyes? Who holds our memories?
According to the Buddha, each of us is a collection of five constantly changing aggregates: form, sensation, perception, mental formation and consciousness.
This means, roughly, that we’re each a mutable physical being that encounters and processes its surroundings through a series of sensations, emotions and thoughts, which encode themselves in our consciousness as memories. Each new experience alters that consciousness.
In other words, our entire being is in constant flux. Therefore, no self.
I used to reject this part of Buddhist philosophy, believing that there was an essential Me who’d been there all my life, an intangible core of Tanya-ness that persisted even as my thoughts, feelings and body changed. While a part of me still clings to that idea, another part has begun to question it more and more as I enter each successive phase of life.
My personal metamorphosis from a wildly messy person who barely noticed the chaos in her wake into someone who trails behind her children picking up and stowing their detritus is one noticeable manifestation of the changes the decades have wrought on me. But there are other, more profound changes that lead me to question the existence of a core self.
When I was young, I was a grab-life-by-the-horns-and-ride-till-it-throws-you-off, then-climb-right-back-on kind of person. I wanted the full range of emotion and experience—the highest highs and the lowest lows—and I wanted them all the time. Even during my most painful moments, a part of me would think: Good, I’m alive.
These days, though I still relish adventure, I’ve come to value something else that was not on my radar when I was young: peace.
I still crave excitement at times, but I also crave serenity. I’ve come to value…not exactly security (as a long-term student of Buddhism I know there’s no such thing), but a kind of inner balance. When I was young I didn’t mind being tossed around by the waves. Now I want to be the ocean, holding the waves. Not rejecting them, but able to sit with and experience them without being thrown off center. It’s a subtle difference, but a significant one.
So why does it matter, this idea of whether or not we have a self?
Another core tenet of Buddhist philosophy is that attachment—or clinging—causes suffering. The ideas we hold about ourselves, usually developed in childhood, are one of the things we cling to most vociferously. We see ourselves in a certain way, and as life inevitably changes us, holding on to our old self-images can cause us a lot of distress.
You only have to look to the booming plastic surgery industry to see this principle painfully embodied. Many humans voluntarily get the skin of their faces literally sliced and stretched in an effort to maintain the self-image they developed when they were younger. From a broader perspective, just think of all the conflicts caused by our species’ relentless attachment to the idea of self and other; the global struggles and boundless suffering brought about by people’s refusal, as individuals and societies, to relinquish old ideas of who they are and how they define themselves.
I was raised by a father who believed I was the most beautiful, brilliant, talented being on the planet.
He was a beaming force of unconditional love in my life, and though he died 10 years ago, I feel the warmth of his affection to this day. I also feel the curious tension and weight of his hopes and expectations for me.
I started performing in the theatre when I was eight years old, and my father was my biggest fan. For many years, both he and I believed that I was destined for stardom. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I studied dance, voice and acting, taking every opportunity to develop myself as a “triple threat.” Looking back, I think my divergence from that course began when I chose to pursue a BA at Oberlin College instead of a BFA in a professionally focused program like NYU or Carnegie Mellon.
It diverged further when I changed my major during my junior year from theatre to creative writing, and still further when, after graduation, I decided to locate myself in the San Francisco Bay Area rather than New York or Los Angeles. Even so, for many years, as I continued to pursue a varied career as an actor, writer, and solo performer, I struggled to define my priorities in relation to those of my father and my own younger self.
Although I stopped acting and shifted my focus to writing 15 plus years ago when I became a mom, in some ways I continue, to this day, to wrestle with the fixed notion of myself that I developed in childhood. This notion makes it hard, sometimes, to accept the choices I have made. And yet I believe that, as Roethke states in his brilliant poem, The Waking, “I learn by going where I have to go.”
We do what our deepest impulses call us to do and come up with reasons for it afterwards.
And so I find myself sitting in a café in Ann Arbor, Michigan, mom to two boys and three dogs, wondering how this person, who cherishes leading others in writing circles and takes a bizarre pleasure in sweeping the kitchen floor, relates to that fiercely determined girl who sweated in front of a mirror at the Lawrence School of Ballet six days a week before grabbing food on the fly and snagging a ride to rehearsal.
One of the hardest things for me, even 10 years after my dad’s death, is the feeling that my career path has not lived up to his expectations. And yet, paradoxically, I know that all he ever really wanted for me was my happiness.
Which brings me to another thing I like about Buddhism: it doesn’t shy away from paradox.
The answer is yes. We both have a self and don’t. Obviously I’m trundling this body, with its particular collection of characteristics and memories, through this human life. When I talk about myself, that’s who I’m talking about.
And for the purposes of the happiness of this self—the one perched on this hard wooden chair at this scarred community table in her favorite local café—the more I can release any fixed expectations of what my life should be, the more I can open to the life I have.
Tanya Shaffer is a writer, a writing workshop leader, a mom, a wanderer, a nature photographer, and a long-time meditator in the Vipassana tradition. Her plays have been produced by theatres large and small in the U.S., Canada and Taiwan, and she’s the author of the travel memoir Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa. She leads joyful, liberating workshops in a practice she calls Off-Leash Writing, hosts the podcast Off-Leash Arts: Conversations on Creativity, and writes Tanya’s Off-Leash Blog. The Off-Leash name has nothing in particular to do with dogs—though she has three of them!—but seeks to evoke the freedom that comes when the tether is cut and you find yourself completely in the present, alive to your senses, following your intuition whichever way it leads. Learn more about her antics at tanyashaffer.com.
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Editor: Dana Gornall
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