(The Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in a certain order for a reason. If you are reading this without having followed along previous posts in this section, please begin at the beginning with Introduction to Four Foundations of Mindfulness.)
We have come to a place in the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness that has been there all along, deeply embedded in everything we have looked at so far. And yet it can still come upon us as a surprise.
We ask the simple question, a child’s question really, but also the question that forms the foundation of many philosophical discussions throughout the ages: Who am I?
Pause for a moment, close your eyes, sense into physical sensation, and ask it again, as if for the first time. ‘Who am I?’ You might say it over and over like a mantra that goes deeper and deeper.
Where is this solid, dependable sense of self that we call ‘I’ and ‘me?’
The first thing that might suggest itself is this physical body, this material form. This is me. This is who I am, or at least it is part of who I am.
Is this true? What are the edges of the self defined by this body? Is it the skin that is so porous, letting in and out moisture all day long? That very skin sheds itself constantly. Is it still ‘me’ when it’s dust being vacuumed up off the floor and carpet?
What about the breath? Is it ‘me’ when it is in my lungs, but then no longer me when it has been exhaled?
The cells in the body are totally different than the ones that were here seven years ago. This seemingly permanent body is neither solid nor separate from the rest of life.
This is an experiential exercise for each of us to investigate for ourselves. The Buddha wasn’t interested in philosophical discussions about it, only that each of us has the opportunity to explore it and make our own discoveries.
This exploration of ‘body as self’ is the first of five ‘aggregates’ that the Buddha asks us to experience in our own way and own time. We will explore the other four in subsequent weeks. But for now let’s look more closely as this sense of self as being the body.
The body is impermanent. We know this, having lived with this body this long, having seen it grow, having seen it ill, having seen it recover, having seen it scar, and having seen it age. We know this because other bodies we have loved have also changed, and some of them have disappeared. This impermanence we know so well tells the lie of the body being a solid substantial self.
The other aspect that tells the lie is the fact that we have so little control over any of this. Yes, we can gain or lose weight, we can dye our hair, have plastic surgery, we can do things to sustain our body or abuse it, but for the most part, for the most identifiable part, we have no control. Tall, short, square, round, dark, light — most characteristics of the body are simply as they are. If we accept our lack of control over them, we are less likely to suffer. Suffer? Yes, we suffer when we compare this body with others. We suffer when we get caught up in stories about who is to blame for things that are beyond our control. This is dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of existence that is caused, in part, by the believe that this body is who we are. If we can let go of the mistaken belief, then we are simply grateful for this vessel of experience, however it is shaped, colored or outfitted. It is not who we are, but it is a means to experience this fleeting gift of life.
So this body is not the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ As we explore the other four aggregates of feeling tones, cognition, volition and consciousness, we will have the opportunity to test whether any of these are who we are.
With dedicated meditation practice, we gain the naturally-arising insights that are called the three marks or characteristics. They are: annica (impermanence), dukkha (self-manufactured suffering) and anatta (no permanent separate self.)
No one else can tell us ‘this is so.’ We have to discover it for ourselves at our own pace, in our own way. A teacher can spark a line of inquiry that leads to an insight, but the insight can’t be taught. It has to be experienced. (The Zen koan practice exists for this very reason. We don’t have koans in our tradition (Theravada, Vipassana or insight meditation,) but a teacher can seed a question that leads to a rich inner exploration.)
Anatta, no-self, may sound scary, but saying there is no self does not make us disappear. It is not a magic trick. It is a way to stop grabbing at straws of who we believe ourselves to be and clinging for dear life in the hopes that that straw belief will sustain us. It won’t. It is unreliable.
The need to name and claim a separate permanent identity just cuts us off from our deep sense of being connected with all that is, whether we choose scientific terms or see it as being an expression of the infinite that is God. In this state of deep understanding we can recognize that we have no identity we need to shore up.
Thus liberated, we can recognize that we have nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to fear. We can operate from pure joy, and offer up whatever we have to give with open generosity.