Category Archives: no self

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Apparently 3000 years ago Greeks would think you were delusional if you claimed the thoughts in your head were your own. Thoughts were the voices of the gods. Today if you claim the thoughts in your head are the voice of God, you would be deemed delusional. That’s just one of many examples of how thoughts, individually and collectively, change all the time.
In today’s western culture most people believe their thoughts are their own AND that they reflect who they are. This belief goes pretty much unquestioned, but if we pause our assumptions for a moment and take a look, we can see where this kind of thinking could lead to trouble: I have a bad thought; therefore, I am a bad person. My bad thoughts make me unworthy of happiness. I deserve to suffer.
Laid out so plainly, we might balk at that line of thinking, but when we notice the pattern of our own thinking, we might discover thoughts seasoned with just such unhelpful reasoning in one form or another.
In coming to Wise View (the first of the eight aspects of the Eightfold Path that the Buddha prescribed to end suffering), it helps to unload the erroneous belief that we are what we think. Taking our thoughts to be who we are traps us in a hoarder’s house, constantly tripping over the clutter. No wonder we get depressed.

What are thoughts anyway? 
Thoughts are electro-chemical reactions from neurons interconnected by synapses, a cognitive process of receiving input from all the senses, assessing, categorizing, then retrieving similar experiences from the inner data bank for review and evaluation. Very cool tool, right? But can we claim the process or the output of them to be uniquely ‘me’?

As we observe thoughts arising and falling away — painful or pleasurable, creative or destructive, organized or chaotic, insightful or deceitful. We can see how they recur and how they can get entangled like twigs and leaves in a stream, stuck in a swirling vortex, sucked down and then spring up later or decay and get flushed downstream. Thoughts (and emotions) are the results of biological activity reacting to past and present causes and conditions.

Whose thought is this thought?
Someone else could have the very thoughts you are having right now, given the same causes and conditions. This is especially true if there’s something going on that activates pleasure or fear — watching a movie together, the members of the audience will experience very much the same thoughts and emotions. In general people thrive on that collective experience, but then walk out of the theater and reclaim individual ownership of their reactions.

Even without being part of an audience or other collective experience, thoughts are pretty predictable. If you were visiting briefly in a neighbors brain, how surprised would you really be to find they have dreams, fears, anxiety and curiosity just as you do?

While you may feel blessed or victimized by the causes and conditions of your life, and they do tend to shape your view, they are not the stuff to make a solid object called ‘I’ or ‘me’. This may come as a great relief, because thoughts are often contradictory, stubbornly opinionated, flighty, gullible, infatuated with infallibility, sometimes cruel, sometimes incurably romantic. Who would really want to lay claim to all that?

Contemporary literature often focuses on personal identity and self-discovery, exploring ancestry, misunderstandings and family secrets. But — spoiler alert!! — the resolution comes when the characters are liberated from the captivity of the very chains of belief they are exploring. They discover that what they were looking for was there all along. Think of Dorothy on her search for answers from the Wizard of Oz when it turns out she only needed to click her heels three times to come home to herself. This is not to negate the enjoyment of a grand adventure and the riches there are to savor in the process. It just lets us hold it all more lightly, appreciating each moment as it arises, appreciating the rainbow itself rather than seeking the illusory pot of gold hinted to be at the end of it.

The Buddha taught: You are not your thoughts or emotions, and if you spend a little time paying attention you will undoubtedly find that is true. Thoughts and emotions are impermanent, insubstantial, transitory, unreliable and uncontrollable. You might remind yourself of that the next time you notice you are entangled in them.

Thoughts are useful, of course. Thinking is a part of the human experience. All the categorizing and filing is efficient but it is not infallible. We need time out from active thinking for the brain activity to catch up with itself. Without that we can expect malfunctions and hampered judgment. Sleep, relaxation and meditation are all important ways to help the brain function optimally.

“You don’t know me”
In class students commented on how limiting it feels when people tell them who they are from their observations. I’m sure you’ve had that experience: Someone sees you do something and forevermore labels you a something-doer. It’s just the way the human brain functions – categorizing, labeling, filing away for future use. Registering how it feels to be labeled is a good reminder to notice when we are using that kind of shorthand labeling on others. It takes skillful effort to countermand the autopilot nature of that process and leave room for people to remain unlabeled. When we resist categorizing people, we keep our relationships more vibrant, loving and unlimited.

We can offer ourselves that same generosity of un-labeling. If we are not defined by our body, our preferences or our thoughts, how free we are to be alive in this moment just as it is! 

“But I like my labels”
If you feel threatened by the idea of becoming untethered from the labels you believe define you, that’s useful noticing and an invitation for more inner exploration. 

Liberating ourselves from the belief that we are our thoughts comes naturally when we give ourselves the gift of a regular practice of meditation — a little time out from the busy thinking-thinking, but also the ability to be more present in all moments of our lives. We begin to see the patterns of thoughts arising and falling away, and we understand that they are not unique. The person next to us could easily be having that same thought, given similar causes and conditions. When we experience a trauma we are drawn to others who have experienced it as well, feeling the bond of shared experience and a sense of being understood. There is real value in that. But there is also the potential to define ourselves solely by that experience, labeling ourselves, clinging to an identity that is no longer offering a complete sense of who we are. Staying present in this moment allows us the fullness of being alive however that presents itself right now.

All of us can notice that the thoughts we have today are often very different from the thoughts we had when we were young. Those thoughts don’t define us. To the degree that we allow them to define us, they confine us. Can we let them go?

What thoughts did you used to have that you don’t have anymore? If you are your thoughts, then changing your mind on anything would be threatening. I am the kind of person who believes ‘x’. Without that thought, who would I be? But if you are not your thoughts, then you are free to explore the wondrous world of thought. Often we adopt the thoughts of others whom we want to befriend or model ourselves after. When thoughts change, we may resist their natural flow for fear of losing connection with others. But if there is no room for inner growth and change, then that’s not a true friendship. And while role models might give us ideas of valuable qualities we might aspire to, no one is infallible. The Buddha himself said, “Don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.”

“I can’t afford to be wrong”
One of the most rewarding discoveries is the freedom from needing to be right. This one insight really helped me in my relationships. Making room for human fallibility in ourselves frees us from the drudgery of constantly having to shore up the miserable and isolating fortress of ‘self’ that we have built. Suddenly we can see how that fortress was just causing suffering. Without needing to build a fortress, we are free to be a natural expression of life loving itself into being. The ‘I don’t know’ mind is a wondrous way to live.

“Nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove”
When you go on retreat at a meditation center, insights naturally arise as you sit and walk in silence. Each insight is valuable with potentially lifelong lasting benefits if we can keep them alive. On one retreat I suddenly realized I had nothing to fear, nothing to hide and nothing to prove — but I did have something to give.

The beauty of insights is that they are universal, so I can confidently share with you that you can bloom right where you are planted knowing you have nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove, and something to give.

What is that gift you quite naturally share when you’re not afraid, not hiding and not trying to prove anything? It helps to discover that it is not something that defines you but something that makes you happy to wake up in the morning, ready to engage for the benefit of all beings. This sounds like a big thing, but skillful things we do just for ourselves or for one other person are for the benefit of all beings. Don’t think quantitatively. Remember how things ripple out from each thought, each word and each act from each of us.

Can we let go of our clinging to a solid and certain-seeming identity, and in the process awaken to awe, discovering this moment just as it is?

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Who are you?

“As I look more deeply, I can see that in a former life I was a cloud. And I was a rock. This is not poetry: It is science. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation. This is the history of life on earth.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

As we explore the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, we will take it at a leisurely pace, giving ourselves the opportunity to understand each aspect. Within each aspect, there may be a need to review and reflect on other teachings of the Buddha that help us become skillful in that aspect. We might not do this with every aspect, but certainly in this first one, Skillful View, we will. Because how can we become skillful in how we look at things if we haven’t had the opportunity to really look at things? That’s exactly what the Buddha challenges us to do.

We begin by looking at the very heart of his teachings, the Three Marks or Characteristics of Existence to see where we cling to unfounded habituated patterns of thought, causing us to have skewed views of the world we inhabit and ourselves.

THREE MARKS or CHARACTERISTICS

  • All things are impermanent.
  • There is no separate self.
  • Not understanding those two causes suffering.

Okay, let’s take them one at a time:
Impermanence: We may be in the habit of railing against it yet it’s not all that difficult to see that it is the nature of things. Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s autumn: leaves fall off the trees, there’s a chill in the air. Further evidence of impermanence: On my calendar is a memorial service for an old friend, and in my inbox is an email of the latest school photo of our nine-year-old granddaughter that gives a strong indication of her teenage face. It seems just yesterday I was holding her in my arms, whispering welcome to the world. How easy it would be to rail at the passage of time and the impermanence of life. But it doesn’t make my life easier, does it? And it doesn’t make time stop. In fact, it makes my life much more difficult when I either cling to the past or wish away a challenging present in the rush toward a possibly more promising future. Noting and accepting impermanence can lead to appreciating it, finding the wonder of this moment just as it is. Over and over again.

Where in your life might you be wrestling with the nature of impermanence? Can you be compassionate with yourself as you explore the veracity of any untenable position? After all, if no one died, no one would be born. The amazing cyclical natural system would be broken. If nothing changed, there would be no cause for awe and wonder. And without the nature of impermanence and the cycles of nature, we would all starve. You get the idea. It’s not an alien concept.

The third Mark, how we suffer, is not all that hard to see in our lives and the lives of others if we pause to pay attention. Since I wrote about it recently, I won’t go into in-depth here but you are welcome to review.

No Separate Self can be more challenging to understand. But it’s also the one with the greatest sense of reward. Pure joy arises from that deep understanding. So hang in there.

Our habit of mind is to view this body-mind, this thinking-feeling-skin-sac we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ as a singular being. But is it? For practical purposes of managing our lives and our responsibilities in modern life, this way of thinking has its uses. No one is suggesting you toss out your passport, drivers’ license, etc. and erase this identity built up around your name, date of birth, etc. The system’s all set up to support it. It’s a convenience. But that doesn’t mean we have to vest our identity into it hook, line and sinker. It’s much better if we don’t! If we can hold it all more lightly, with appreciation for its benefits, we can access a deeper understanding of the true nature of being.

A couple of posts ago, I offered this scientific explanation of ‘no separate self’:

“All matter, whether it’s solid, liquid or gas, is made up of atoms. We might imagine matter as made up of microscopic versions of children’s plastic building blocks, because, thanks to electrons, atoms bond together into molecules, just the way the little holes and plugs of the blocks allow them to connect. So I’m made up of atoms, as is the air I breathe, the solid, liquid and gas all around me, and every being of every species. All atoms all the time, all interconnected, all coming together and falling apart, in an ever-changing state of being. So there are no edges to being. There is fundamentally no separate self.”

Understanding the science doesn’t automatically make us feel that it is true. Our habit of mind is strongly in favor of the separate-self version of being. But how is that working for us? Look around! We humans are incessantly ‘other-making’ in our relationships with each other, the earth and all life. We get stuck in an alienated mode of misery that doesn’t serve us, angry and hurting.

To help us understand ‘no separate self’ on a deeper level, we practice quieting down and being fully present, softening our habitual need to fortify our identity as ‘me’ and ‘I’. The Buddha knew this part is challenging, but he also knew that these teachings lead to the end of suffering, so he persevered. And we will too, as we look at the Five Aggregates that help us understand the idea of ‘no separate self’, and thus, in incremental doses, help us cultivate Wise View. 

The first of the Five Aggregates: Body

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 you 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.

The Buddha said, “This body is not mine or anyone else’s. It has arisen from past causes and conditions…” This body we see as so separate and so intrinsic to our identity is an intrinsic part of the pattern of life ever-changing and evolving. So getting caught up in labeling it and claiming it, feeling pride or shame in it is just another habituated pattern that entangles us. How liberating it can be to recognize that this body in whatever shape or shade it is, is simply the fleeting opportunity to experience life in human form. Can we appreciate the benefits of being embodied — mobility, sensations, etc. — without attachment? Can we take good care of this wondrous temporal vessel of being without wishing it to be other than it is?

Spend some time noticing your own experience of being embodied. After meditating, do some self-inquiry around the body and the way you think of it. Pay attention throughout the day for clues in your thoughts, words and deeds that reveal your perceptions. Ask “Is this true?” Let the automatic answers arise and be acknowledged, but leave room for the quiet wisdom with nothing to fear and nothing to prove also have a say.

Artwork by Gordon Onslow Ford, Lunar Wind, 1962, Parles paint on canvas (Gordon was a friend of my parents and I sure wish I still had the beautiful piece they had of his!)



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.