Category Archives: no self

Annata — No Separate Self

Last week we came to the fifth of the Five Aggregates and what did we find? That not one of these aggregates is us. Each is impermanent and insubstantial. None of them is governable. We looked straight into the jaws of the scary beast: ‘No Self’, Annata.

But just as we were about to succumb to a hollow sense of loss, we clarified our understanding of this concept by adding the word ‘separate’. There is no separate self, and the addition of that word ‘separate’ changes everything, doesnt it? Suddenly instead of a being the lone subject of a disappearing act we are invited to celebratory reunion!


The Buddha taught that there is no separate self that we need to defend or prove worthy of praise. We begin to see how we build up this separate self —  the way male birds frigatebirds inflate their pouches or the way male turkeys fan their wings. All very fine for an avian mating dance, but for humans hoping to be seen, respected, loved or appreciated, self-inflation is a very unskillful and ineffectual ploy. Instead of drawing people in, we put people off. No deep connection can be made when we are focused on the impression we make.

What is it we really want and what’s a skillful way to get it?

At the core of our being we want connection, We want to feel we are a part of something larger than we are. We want acceptance, We want communion. We want safety so we can fall apart when we have to and not be kicked while we are down. We want to hear someone say things like, ‘I’m with you. I am here for you. We’re in this together. We’re a team. We’re soul-mates.’

Do you recognize that core hunger? It’s at the heart of each of us. Our tendency is to put this core hunger down and despise what we see as pathetic neediness. We might not even acknowledge that such a hunger exists because we have masked it with other goals and purposes. But if we can see the hunger as simply a human condition using unskillful means to get basic needs met, we might find that we can be kind, not just to ourselves but to others we deem as pathetic. Our intolerance is just a projection of our own internal discomfort with who we believe ourselves to be.

Mindfulness practice teaches us is to see clearly, to stay present with it and to not turn away. With compassion we acknowledge the hunger and befriend it. Not to make any resulting unskillful behaviors okay — ‘That’s just the way I am — deal with it!’ Not at all. This is a practice of investigation, kindness and discernment. When we get into the Noble Eightfold Path we will have more opportunity to explore what constitute skillful means to have our needs met while playing well with others and maintaining high standards of integrity. But for now we are learning to see the causes and conditions of the unskillfulness of our words and actions.

By seeing clearly and responding with compassion, our behavior is more skillful. It comes from an understanding our deep interconnection, not from a reactionary chain of ‘should’ commands that are inauthentic, short-lived and ineffective.

The Banquet Table
Through mindfulness practice, we see more clearly how our hunger is the hunger of a blind person starving in front of a banquet table.

A banquet table? Yes! Because we already are intrinsically connected to all that is and the only thing that keeps us from recognizing it is the very activity of pumping ourselves up into something separate to be admired, instead of allowing ourselves our full humanity and ease of connection.

When we can see our efforts to shore up a separate identity for what they are, we can let them go. When they arise, we can acknowledge them, own up to them, and see them as leftover from a habituated pattern we are consciously releasing.

These habituated patterns are not ours alone. We often can see them in others more easily than we see them in ourselves. Typically, the very things that irritate us most about others are projections of the things we ourselves do.

Striving to be seen, to be hailed as special and unique takes us away from connection. The achievement of such goals can leave us feeling even more separate and alone than we already felt.

Once we recognize the striving for what it is, we can release that hunger, that driving desire, and allow our natural expression of connection serve us and our community. We can bloom into full expressions of the qualities, skills, and talents we are given and develop.

We can stop operating from the idea we have something to prove, or something to hide, or something to fear, and recognize that we have something to give, something to share.

If you cling to the idea of being unique and special, then be unique and special as a snowflake. Snowflakes have more in common than what minor variations set them apart, and ultimately they land on the ground and become one field of snow. Then the snow melts — ah can you feel the joy of the thaw! The warming of the ground! — and what was snow becomes a flow of water returning to the sea. That’s us too. In this experience of being alive, we have taken this form of human. The conditions vary, just as do snowstorms. But we are alive in this moment to experience whatever it is, and we are not alone.

The Uniquely Unworthy Self
Sometimes we hold ourselves apart not to prove how special we are, but because we believe our ‘separate’ self to be unworthy. We attribute our being with a set of what we believe to be uniquely damning and shameful qualities.

Again, this is not the true nature of our existence. If this resonates, there is a lovely phrase that’s worth repeating to yourself like a mantra: The ocean refuses no river. In the Dances of Universal Peace it is a song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ggA-G0wOtg
We sang this together in class and it created a spacious way to hold all that we were experiencing with a gentle compassionate kindness that is so important if we are to ever discover the deep connection to this and every moment, to each other, to all beings, to all the elements, to all that is.

The Danger of Longing to Belong
When we feel this hunger to be special and to belong to something greater than ourselves, and don’t recognize it for what it is, we may feel honored, maybe even thrilled, to be welcomed into groups that accept us but don’t accept others. How effectively this feeds our dual desires to be both special and connected! In creating this club-y quality, we turn that hunger into a weapon for dividing all that is into ‘us against them.’ Throughout human history and in the current headlines there is that drive to divide and conquer. That is what we see played out again and again.

But our true hunger is not to be part of something contrived and divisive, but to be able to feel our connection with all that is. To sense our being as an expression of the great isness, called by many names, including God. When people claim the name of God for their club alone, they cripple the very God they worship by such limitation.

Personifying God is also limiting. How? We have just established that the Five Aggregates that make up body and personality are impermanent, so why would we ever attribute such traits to that that we hold to be an all-encompassing and infinite power?

It’s always a fine place and time to awaken
Our meditation practice is developing the muscle of consciousness with the intention of mindfulness, and sometimes we are gifted with resulting bare awareness of the infinite nature of being, of life in the moment as illuminated expression of isness. It doesn’t matter where we are. There are no perfect settings for awakening. Why do we think we need to go somewhere else or wait for some other time to find it? It’s right here in every moment, if only we are here, anchored in physical sensation and nurturing kindness and compassion.

In that illuminated moment, fleeting as it might be, insight pierces the illusion of linear time and an infinite unity of being is felt and seen. Ah! Once we have been infused with even the briefest experience of the infinite, it informs our being forever.

I encourage you to be available for those insights, but not to aggressively seek them out. There’s a quality of relaxing into the oneness that cannot be achieved or accomplished. It is a receptive quality. We are simply present, easeful and open, noticing the arising and falling away of experience, without expectation of what will arise or what will fall away. We sit with a relaxed alertness that creates a spacious stillness, and let that be enough.

If you can’t fathom how to do this, think about how you get a baby to settle down to sleep. Do you chase the baby around the house? Or do you quiet down in your own being, and share that sense of quiet with the baby. Reading Goodnight Moon and singing lullabies. You hold the baby, using a soothing voice, rocking gently, walking back and forth as we do in walking meditation. Just so we prepare our mind to quiet down — not to sleep, but to awaken!

The Core of the Teachings
Annata, no separate self, is at the very core of the Buddha’s teachings. It sits with the two other Marks or Characteristics: Dukkha and Anicca. Anicca we have been exploring continuously as we look at the nature of impermanence. Dukkha we will become more familiar with when we come to the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha is the sense of unsatisfactoriness that permeates life, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, caused by how we relate to the nature of impermanence.

Our exploration continues! Please allow these words to sift through your awareness. Take in whatever resonates and let the rest go. There is no test! Instead there is the ongoing opportunity to contemplate the way we relate to our experience of life.

This is an experiential practice. Give yourself periods of silence when there is nothing but this moment to notice. If you think there is no time for such non-action, you are thinking way too much.

May we hold whatever we notice with awareness and compassion.

Consciousness, The Fifth Aggregate

As we look at each of the Five Aggregates that constitute the ways we experience being and what we hold to be ‘self’, we discover if we slow down and see each aggregate as it arises and falls away, we can hold it in a spacious way.

The fifth of the Five Aggregates is consciousness. With this aggregate we see the four others. We’re conscious of this body and all material form. We are conscious of feeling tones, whether something in our current experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We are conscious of cognition, how we interpret the experience based on acquired knowledge and past experience. And we are conscious of volition, the urges, impulses and intentions to change or extend the experience.


In class there were questions about semantics: What is the difference between consciousness, awareness and mindfulness?


  1. Because English is a conglomeration of other languages, we often have several words that mean the same thing, and to some degree these three words are used interchangeably. But I’ll try to make some distinction between them.
  2. There have been multiple translations from Pali and Sanskrit to English, so word usage varies.
  3. The Buddhist teachings, recorded in the Pali Canon after being handed down as an oral tradition kept alive by generations of monks, also use the same word to mean multiple things, depending on the context. For example in Pali the dhammas (The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness we are currently studying) is different from The Dhamma, the overall term for the teachings of the Buddha, aka natural laws. In this same way ‘consciousness’ is used in a more general way throughout the teachings, but is assigned a specific role here in the Five Aggregates.

For our purposes here, let’s say that:

Consciousness is what we and all beings experience when we are awake. “The patient has regained consciousness.” This doesn’t mean we are in top form and ready to focus necessarily. Perhaps we could think of it as the weak muscle we are working when we take on the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a practice with intention: To be fully present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation; and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. We are studying The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, so it is a skill we develop through practice and study. With mindfulness practice, we exercise consciousness, turning it into a stronger ‘muscle.’

Awareness, as in ‘bare awareness’ is a spacious, alert but relaxed mind-state arrived at through meditation practice.

To continue, the role of consciousness is to provide a perceived continuum by weaving together a pattern out of a huge but intricate network of micro-impulse events, thus creating this experience we call reality. Think of the way a piece of film travels through a projector so that small individual image come to life on a huge screen. The Buddha called consciousness the magician, working in illusion. Consciousness creates patterns that help us to navigate in the world, assembling them into the collective agreement of a solid world that we experience. This is a big job and a useful one.

Because consciousness sees all of the other aggregates, we might feel that it is who we are. At every aggregate we grasp at the straw of identity, only to discover it won’t support that assumption. And here we are again. For something to be a solid separate self it needs to be consistent, permanent and governable. Does consciousness meet any of these criteria?

Consciousness sees erratically, doesn’t it? Sometimes we realize we have been on autopilot, going about doing habituated things, lost in thoughts and daydreams. Are we conscious when we fall asleep? Are we conscious when we are under anesthesia while having surgery? No. So consciousness is impermanent, and unreliable.

Even when consciousness is on the job, it is no more in charge than any other aggregate. It sees what’s going on, but it doesn’t oversee it in the sense of directing the others. It is pretty typical for us to think of consciousness as sitting inside the brain like the driver up in the cab of a monster earthmover truck, pushing the buttons and pulling the levers to make things happen. But consciousness is in the role of bystander to our experience, just a witness, not the driver at all. And anyway part of the time it’s asleep at the wheel!

At this point one student pointed out that we have now gone through all five aggregates, and not one of them is permanent, governable or in control. ‘So is there no self?’ she asked weakly, fearful of hearing the answer.

“There is no separate self.’ That is different from saying there is no self, isn’t it? No separate self means we are not isolated and alone, but intrinsically connected to all that is. This is great news!

This great news is called Annata. Coming to a place of understanding Annata, even if only briefly, can transform the way we experience life completely. Instead of grasping and clinging to a false sense of separate self with all the suffering that activity entails, we can instead rejoice in the moment-to-moment experience of being awakened to life.

What to do when we feel helpless

I attended a dharma talk by Rick Hanson this week about the Three Marks or Characteristics: impermanence (anicca), the universal sense of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and no-self (anatta).

Then Thursday our traditional brief reading of an excerpt from ‘Pocket Pema (Chodron)’ also happened to talk about them. So I shared with the class a little of what Rick had said because I felt the way he explained the relationship between the three, rather than just listing them, was very useful.


He said that impermanence is a given. (This is exactly what we have been learning week after week in our exploration of the Five Aggregates.) But we have the choice of whether to react to it with the grasping, clinging and aversive reactions that cause suffering –dukkha, or respond to it with anatta, no-separate-self, and hold the impermanence of experience with ease and even joy.


So, thanks to Rick for that nugget of wisdom.


As we have looked at each of the Aggregates over the past weeks, we first recognize the quality of impermanence. All arises. All falls away. Sometimes immediately, sometimes eventually, but if you attend it closely you’ll see the process is always in cycles of motion.


Every moment is a pivotal moment of change. (If we stay present in the moment we can have a conscious effect on the nature of that change! If we are living in the past or future, whatever change we cause by our actions or words is unconscious, and therefore often unskillful.)


Wanting things to be permanent or imagining things to be permanent and reacting negatively to that belief causes us to suffer. (And when we suffer, we never suffer alone. We always cause suffering to others with our resulting unskillful words and actions.)


What a relief to discover that we do not have to shore up or cling to a sense of separate self in order to be happy.


So if you have been asking the perennial student question How will this help me in real life? here’s your answer!


Everything we learn as we explore the Buddha’s teachings, and as we create through meditation practice the opportunity to have our own insights, is for one purpose, and one purpose only: To create spacious ease and happiness in you, that you may be in the world as a conduit of loving kindness, compassion, joy and balance.


We all have created suffering through unskillfulness, and we have all witnessed how suffering in one person can activate sometimes extreme suffering in others. What can we do as witnesses? So much depends on the situation, of course, and one hopes that our practice gives us the presence of mind to respond skillfully. But even when we are thousands of miles away watching on television a horrific event unfolding before our eyes, as many of us did this past week, there is still something we can do.


We can send metta.


Metta is universal loving-kindness that is a powerful practice we can do at any time. It is especially useful when we feel overwhelmed and things seem to be spinning completely out of our control. Send metta to the victims, to their families, the first-hand witnesses, the responders, and yes, to the perpetrators of this act.


Whoa! What? Why would we send loving-kindness to them?


Think about it. Their incredibly unskillful violent means of making whatever statement comes from such an unstable delusional place. So we send metta to them.
‘May you be well.’ Yes, may you be well enough in you mind to understand that this is not the way to make your concerns known.
‘May you be happy.’ Yes, if you were happy in your own being, you would never have thought up this violent scheme in the first place.
‘May you be at ease.’ Yes, it is the dukkha-driven restlessness and dis-ease that brought this thought to painful action.
‘May you be at peace.’ Yes, if there were peace in your heart, you would never have thought up this action in the first place.


Although we don’t send metta with the hopes that people will be different from who they are, still metta does have transformative power. But it is only powerful if it is as generous as the sun, shining on all life, not just sent out selectively to the ‘deserving’.


We challenge ourselves to recognize that sense of no separate self. We cannot send metta only to sweet-faced children or baby animals. We make no distinction while sending metta between those who we think deserve a good life and those whom we might instinctively wish hell on earth for the suffering they have caused.


Metta is not a reward. It is a universal well-wishing that actively creates a peaceful world. Those who are kind and generous do so because it flows through them as a natural response to the goodness they know to be the world they live in, even as they see unskillful painful behavior erupting sometimes.


Those who do violence do so because that is the world they know, the people they hang out with, the path of least resistance. This is not to justify their actions. It is to settle the reactivity that forces more actions and reactions within the rest of us until the violence feels entrenched and permanent. It is not permanent. When we allow the violence of others to activate the same violence of spirit within ourselves, then we are seduced by Mara, the tempter*, into mindlessness and unskillfulness. So we say, as the Buddha said again and again, ‘Ah Mara, I know you.’ Because we do recognize that quality, we are tempted by it from time to time. But knowing it for what it is, we see through it. We are spacious in our minds and spacious in our hearts, radiating loving kindness to all beings. May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be at peace.


* An interesting note for those of us who are Christians: A quote from Catholiceducation.org: ‘The word Satan comes from the Hebrew verb satan meaning to oppose, to harass someone; so Satan would be the tempter, the one to make us trip and fall, the one to turn us from God.’
The tempter, just like Mara, who tempted Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. And just as Jesus preached wholesome living, kindness and compassion, so did the Buddha.

‘Who Am I?’

(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.

Who is this ‘I’?

Scientific research is finding that our consciousness, the ’I’ and the ‘me’ that we refer to, is not a physical (or ethereal) form in our body but the relationship, the interactivity, the conversation between different parts of the brain. When researchers anaesthetize someone and study their brain activity, comparing it to the waking or dreaming brain, the difference is clear: The anaesthetized unconscious brain activity is very limited and centralized, while the conscious brain looks like lightning in different parts of the sky, call and response; like birds in the forest calling from one tree to the other.

This discovery is not all that surprising really. As we meditate and become more aware of the nature of our being in the world and in our own thoughts, we see that it is all about relationship. There is no solidity, there is only interaction. We know that even our bodies are not truly solid, but a series of processes that renew, repair and replicate cells. Nothing about us is the same as it was seven years ago, except the processes that organize matter to keep our bodies looking pretty much the same over the years (or doing the best that they can given external causes and conditions such as gravity, inadequate self-care and exposure to sun rays!)

Ever since the discovery of the atom, science has told us there is no solidity anywhere. What we perceive as solid – the furniture in the room, for example – is just an arrangement of molecules not totally unlike our own, and within each molecule, within each atom is mostly space. It’s convenient for functioning in the world to organize and perceive all this separation. Different creatures organize and perceive differently, based on what works best for getting their basic needs met. We would not recognize the world the bee sees as it buzzes towards flowers. We may not even exist in that world, so unimportant are we to the scheme of things from their point of view!

This idea that perceiving solidity in our surroundings and in our being is a kind of choice we’ve made as a species is unnerving. And it’s totally optional whether we are curious about exploring beyond this convenient way of perceiving the world and ourselves. We crave solid ground to stand on, to be sure of and to trust. But if we are curious and do sense that there is another way of seeing then we can begin to explore the possibility of trusting in this fine network of inter-relational activity.

You don’t have to hang out in a science lab to do your research, but can come to it within your own experience. Buddhism and other world religions support this exploration, this direct experience of some difficult-to-define way of being in the world. (At some point we will explore the concept of the Net of Indra, an ancient Buddhist model that supports the current scientific findings. But it deserves more time than I can give it now.)

But why would we want to explore this non-traditional way of thinking? Perceiving the world as solid works very well for us, does it not? Yes, but to over-rely on just this way of seeing, this way of being in the world, comes at a high price. When we resist opening to a more relational way of perceiving, we give up our sense of connection with nature and with each other. Instead we cling to the idea that being solid we are somehow protected and impervious to change.

As we age, most of us begin to see the false supposition of this presumed imperviousness. We may not be comfortable with it, but we see that this solidity we imagined isn’t true. Our bodies change as they age. Our parents and other loved ones die. If we stay with this view of solidity, we feel isolated and lonely. We feel we are going through a whole set of causes and conditions, and that we each have to face these difficult challenges alone.

So what good news when science shows us that indeed we are not solid, not separate, not alone! What a relief that the ‘I’ is a lively intricate set of patterns in a constant state of interaction. We are released from isolation and can dance in interconnection.

But what does this really mean to us in our day to day activities? It means that if we shift our focus from the solid to the interactive network we will find more vitality, creativity and joy.

If we sense our connection to each other, for example, rather than get stuck in defending the solid person we believed ourselves to be or judging the solid person we thought someone else to be, we can relax and release our fear. There is no ‘other’ to defend our separate self from. There is only this ongoing pattern of dancing molecules, of interactivity of thoughts, emotions and sensation.

In practical application, we focus not on another person but on the natural connection with them. Instead of seeing them as solid, isolated and locked in, we accept that they are fluid, connected and fascinating ever-changing expressions of life. This flushes out our harsh judgments about them, held over many years. It allows them to be in the space of our open embrace and to dance in the light of our awareness. What a difference this makes in our relationship!

We know from our own experience how it is to be with someone who thinks they know us, who thinks they have our number. We feel pre-judged without any room to fully be ourselves, that ever-changing fluid self that cannot be contained. So how much richer would our relationships be if we allowed for the ever-changing fluidity of others?

How often do we find ourselves bored in relationships because we think we are dealing with known quantities? We are not known quantities! Each of us is fluid. But when we are in the company of someone who sees us a certain way, we may fill that pre-defined shape just as water fills a glass.

So in this practice we notice when we are holding relationships in containers of pre-judgment, and if we can notice we are doing so, perhaps we can gently shift our focus to the fluid nature of being itself. This shift is enhanced through the use of metta – sending loving kindness and well wishing, staying with that outpouring of love without agenda.

Opening to hold the person in an open embrace, sensing in to the lightness, the spaciousness, we can be surprised by the interconnected quality of life responding to our openness.

This subtle shift into a more fluid way of perceiving life can happen in any moment, so we can relax and allow for it, rather than setting it as a goal and trying to achieve it. And even if it happens for only one brief moment, even if we only get a whiff of it, so to speak, it’s important to know that because it is timeless, that one whiff, that brief glimpse, can permeate our whole being. Just like a tea bag dipped in water, once introduced, however briefly, it can flavor our whole life.

Through our awareness practice we bring a quality of noticing. We can notice when some fear-based emotion knocks us into seeing ‘other.’ We can sense in our bodies the constriction, the rigidity, the tension that indicates how solid and separate we hold ourselves to be. And with time, this noticing will enable us to infuse breath, metta and spaciousness into any constriction, bringing wisdom, compassion and balance to the fear we feel.

In this way, we shift back and forth from seeing separated solidity and the fluidity of interconnection. But because the former has an increasingly false ring and supports us less and less (and in fact seems to get us into pickles more often than not!), it becomes easier to shift to this richer more joyous perception, this net of interactivity that is the true self, within our brains and between all beings. We resonate with it, because it rings true.

The Pot Hole of Pigeon-holing

My new granddaughter is barely a week old and already she has been pigeon-holed and typecast. Her gender, weight and height have been duly noted and these facts have refined the perception of her parents, extended family and friends. Her physical features have been matched to known patterns. She has her father’s brow, her mother’s ankles, and her great-grandmother’s cheeks.

Like any other mammal, the human is biologically driven to devote itself to its offspring, and the initial ritual of sniffing and checking out to make sure that this offspring is in fact its own, is a natural part of the process of claiming, making the novel and extraordinary understood and ordinary.

The ‘I don’t know mind’ has been tossed aside in the process. Nature abhors a vacuum, and humans abhor a vacuum of solid facts, strong opinions and pigeon holes in which to store them.

But, biological imperative aside, doesn’t that still leave room for this new life to be a wondrous mysterious unknown? Will everything she does in her first week of life have to go on her permanent record? Will all her efforts to come to terms with her environment, skillful or not, be brought up again and again to haunt her?

This is just the beginning after all. She will have a well-documented existence, with photographs, achievements noted in the baby book – whether she is early or late with the various stages of learning to hold her head up, roll over, creep, crawl, walk and talk. Each erupting tooth will be noted, each word learned will be remembered for how endearingly she mispronounces it.

I remember that Josh called a piano a plano and Katie called it a pinano. Josh got his first teeth at four months, Katie at fourteen months – both extremes noted and incorporated into the body of knowledge that attempts to describe their nature. His early teeth got him weaned off the breast earlier than was healthy, thus causing his allergies perhaps? Her late teeth had her used to swallowing food whole without chewing, and she is still a fast eater with indigestion. This is all part of the family lore that weaves a cozy family nest around those who passed that initial sniff test of acceptance into the fold.

But is this who we are? Are we the sum total of our report cards, our teachers’ and fellow students opinions? Are we, as studies often show, a product of our sibling placement, whether we’re the oldest, a middle child or the baby? Are we our grade point averages, our diplomas, our credentials or lack thereof? Are we all living under the weight of our accomplishments, our failures, our faux pas that did not go unnoticed, our favorite music, color, gem stone, animal, genre of book or movie, or our preferred style of dress or home décor?

Will this new life I have been holding in my arms as she sleeps, her dear little mouth and hands in constant movement, be plastered with so many labels she forgets who she is? Will she read the labels as directives of who she should be? Will she struggle to win the affections of her first grade teacher by conforming to the ideal of a good student? Will she struggle to win the admiration of her playmates by being funny or daring? Will she struggle to win the love of a young man by being sexy and willing? Will she struggle to win the approval of her employer by becoming her job title or by foregoing her own moral bearings for the company’s bottom line?

How will she know she is not all the labels put upon her? That she is more than her gender, her ethnicity, her nationality, her preferences, her foibles, her perceived strengths and weaknesses? If she is like most of us, she will come to believe that it is the labels themselves that those around her love. If she is like most of us, it is these very labels that she will love or hate about herself. She will be ready to name her favorite and most hated body parts for the degree to which they conform with those she sees in the media or the most popular girl in class.

Will she feel, as we often do, somehow lost in this naming process?

This is how life is. This is what we do for each other, whether we are parents, siblings, classmates, teachers, coworkers or friends. We mirror each other. Because it’s hard to see ourselves, we rely on the mirroring of everyone around us who, in their response to us show us if we are brave or cowardly, smart or dumb, interesting or dull, beautiful or plain, big or small, fat or thin, old or young, agile or clumsy. We do this in ways overt and subtle, through our words, our expressions and our choice of whom we spend time with and whom we avoid.

When we think about the Buddha’s call to practice Right or Wise Speech in our relationships, we understand the power of our words. In this mirroring process, where we in a word or phrase sketch the whole character of a person, we fall off the Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering. Not just the person we are describing’s suffering, but our own. We can feel this, the heartburn that follows a meal of labeling a person, claiming to know them, or to know how they must be feeling in any given moment based on causes and conditions. If a person is in mourning, we assume that in every moment they are in misery. When in fact every moment, every second, has a vast array of fleeting emotions and thoughts. When a person has a new grandchild, we assume that in every moment they are thrilled, euphoric, over the top deliriously happy. And even though these assumptions are not totally incorrect in both cases, they are not allowing for the person to be fully present with the actual feelings that arise.

Perhaps the person in mourning just enjoyed a lovely conversation with an old friend or just took a walk in nature, and in fact was not in that moment caught up in a sense of loss. Perhaps the grandmother had just received news that a friend’s husband had died, had just discovered that her credit card had been used on a spending spree in a foreign country, or was worried about another family member’s health. So even though she is totally over the top thrilled beyond belief at the gift of this new life, it is not for any one else to name or claim to know how she is feeling right now.

We have all experienced this sense of disconnect when someone says, “You must be so…fill in the blank: thrilled, devastated, heartbroken.” And yet our need to label and pigeon hole is very strong, so we find ourselves doing this as well.

When we thrust this pre-determined appropriate emotional response to a situation on those around us, we give the other person the clear message that that is how they should be feeling, leaving them no room to say how they really are feeling. Then they may have a sense of failure or shame of somehow not living up to expectations of others because the named emotion is not the predominate one in this moment.

This is just something we say. It’s the accepted expression of love and concern in our culture. So when we recognize it we don’t have to make ourselves wrong. We can just acknowledge that it’s a product of this need to label, to known, to make connections, to organize the untidiness of life into some semblance of order.

But if we truly want to end suffering for ourselves and others, we can look at it from the standpoint of Right Speech. And what are the three guidelines to determining right speech? The first is “Is it true?” How does this assumption of a particular emotion or this assignment of a particular trait hold up under the light of the truth test? Not very well, we have to admit. Because the truth is that we don’t know. We can’t know how a person is feeling about any given situation. Bringing our assumption into it is not truth, it’s just assumption. Often the truth is that we don’t know. But how often do we believe that? Not often enough!

The second guideline is “Is it useful?” Not really! If it makes the person get caught up in comparing mind instead of being able to stay present with their own experience, that’s not useful at all. In fact, it’s obstructive, veering them off their present course into a quagmire of confusion and emotional discord.

Is it timely? No. Since in every second a person has a panoply of emotions, hitting the mark on naming just one is more chancy than roulette.

So must we always be watching what we say? While awareness of what we say is useful, watching it as if on a fault-finding mission will simply create suffering. Instead, we give ourselves the gift of slowing down, being as much in this moment as possible, and allowing our natural curiosity, compassion and love to guide us. The words that arise out of that state are less likely to be habitual, more likely to be in tune with whatever is going on.

In this state we have less urgency to label and file our experience, feel less rushed to get on to the next exciting thing. Unrushed, we settle down and sink into the experience itself, without the need to label or draw conclusions. We can relax into not knowing, and not needing to know. We can simply be present.

This is just one example of how this labeling process goes on way beyond the realm of report cards and early defining of characteristics. We are constantly providing each other with feedback. But is this feedback accurate? Each of our perceptions are distorted by our own associations and interpretations, our own misperceptions based on feedback we have received from a whole league of equally unreliable sources. What is received may have some truth in it but is not a clear reflection.

This labeling process is like being trapped in a fun house with hundreds of wavy mirrors giving us faulty information about who we are. So the question is not which mirror is correct, or what is the cumulative adjusted equation of all this provided information. The question is: which way out of the funhouse?

Meditation provides a door out of the fun house. By coming into awareness of physical sensation, we access this present moment. In full awareness of this present moment, things can get very simple. Very clear. A spaciousness arises that makes room for the tangle of distortions to be seen, known, examined and perhaps eventually released.

When we talk about No Self, (a concept that this class came upon in studying the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson while I was away and has asked for clarification) we are talking about letting go of our attachments to the labels we have been given in our lives. Last year I read to you something I wrote in 1995 called The Dance of the Seven Veils. Since you have been meditating for so much longer now, I will read it again, to see if it answers any questions about this concept of No Self.
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The Dance of the Seven Veils
An exercise in letting go

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements, your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. The title you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the guilt you bear, the pain you have suffered. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationships with others. Your roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, employee, employer, citizen. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs. Your religion, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you. Let them go.

The fifth veil is the you that is defined by your physical, emotional and psychological traits. These are what you were born with: your gender, your race, the fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your body’s very existence. It is your perception of your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.
Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind. It is the you that maintains resistance, through fear, in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are One. One with all that is, a manifest expression of the joy of oneness, undefined thus unconfined, free, expansive, beyond the beyond. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment.

Now as you dress in your veils, lovingly drape yourself with these manifest expressions of self, full of richness, full of clues. But never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic you, merged with the all that is, with God beyond personification, you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.
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You’ll notice that we remove the veils and then we don them again. After seeing the truth that we are not the veils, we can wear them more lightly. Instead of a constricting straight jacket, these labels weave together to make a filmy gown that gives us freedom to dance playfully. We can don the labels with which the world defines us and know that this is just part of the experience of living this existence, but it is not the be all end all of who we are. Who we are is both much more complex and more simple than all these labels would have us believe. Who we are is not how we measure up in possessions or accomplishments or strengths or interests. Who we are is not attached to our stuff, our relationships, our beliefs or our preferences, but our moment by moment experiencing of this gift of consciousness and the spaciousness of not knowing. We can relax and dance in the mystery.

We don’t know much of anything and, as we discussed last week, that is a very liberating acknowledgment. Our brains are busy trying to assess and assimilate information from current conditions and past experience, trying to find a match, so we can plaster a label on it and file it away, because without an efficient filing system, we get easily overwhelmed.

But maybe not all information has to be assimilated and assigned a file drawer. Maybe we can just let ourselves float a bit in the moment and allow our curiosity to run free and our file clerk to take a much needed vacation on a white beach with balmy breezes.

This is the gift of meditation: A step back from the fray of needing to get caught up in the thick of the sniffing, checking and labeling. To just be open to what is.

Through meditation we relax into the mystery a little more, and become more fluent in the language of the I Don’t Know mind. It is the most beautiful language of all, for allowing what is to retain its mystery is a great gift. Allowing ourselves and others to simply exist without labels or expectation grants a certain gracious gratitude for life as it is, however it is – a mysterious gift we are continuously unwrapping in no hurry to end the experience.