Not Self and No Self

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We all have a sense of self. And to be clear, I mean that you and I see ourselves as separate individuals. I’m going to assert that you and I are not separate, anymore than your toes are separate, which means that although they seem to be separate, and each has a different name, they are all part of your foot, each toe being inseparable from the foot it is a part of. And it is the same with you and I, and everyone and everything else. Yet we are beyond assemblages. We are not parts of something bigger than ourselves, we are necessarily inseparable from the whole of reality because we have no independent selves.

These distinctions we make, breaking things down into parts and separating one from another, is useful in a practical way, but misleading because we convince ourselves over time that the distinctions are true rather than just useful. But they are not true because they lack a basis upon which they can be truly made. And yet, we have a visceral feeling that leads us—universally—to believe that we are independent beings. Why is that?

Wisdom traditions say it is because of ignorance. But they are focused on the belief, and skip over the visceral feeling. Perhaps that is because, even after having seen through the erroneous belief of our being separate beings with a true self, both intellectually and experientially, that visceral feeling, unattached to any belief, still arises—universally—and that makes it doubtful that it is just ignorance. Yet how useful a support for contemplative practice that feeling can be! What an astounding leap-over one can experience when suddenly realizing what that visceral feeling truly arises from—what conditions within experience so completely impose such a feeling universally, but which we misunderstand because of our belief in our own separateness!

The purpose of this essay is to talk about the Buddhist doctrine of Anattā, although not strictly from a Buddhist perspective. I want to discuss this from the view of the meditative and contemplative insights that I have gained that relate to this doctrine, but I don’t want you to think that I am misrepresenting Buddhist thought as my own, nor do I want to claim that what I am about to say is authentic Buddhist doctrine. You’ll have to decide if what I have to say has any merit at all.

What I am going to essentially say is this: as the Buddha seems to have said, there is “no self” anywhere, and I see this as having much more far-reaching consequences than is commonly comprehended. And as the Buddha seems also to have said, anything that you identify with as a self isn’t, and I have come to understand that this, in a very important way, applies even to the visceral feeling that we all have that we are separate individuals, because all that we experience is “not self.” But let me stress the intended meaning of that last sentence: even the visceral feeling that we are separate individuals is incorrectly understood because we are misunderstanding the source of that visceral feeling—we believe it arises from within us, since we assume we are independent beings, and yet, since we truly are not independent beings it cannot be arising from within us, thus it is not evidence of our having an independent self, it is evidence of something else entirely.

What will be important to understand from all of this is: we are not mistaken about having this visceral feeling of being an enduring individual, we are mistaken in our belief that it is evidence of being an enduring individual. That visceral feeling of an enduring existence throughout our lives, like anything else you think is “self,” is similarly “not self,” being, instead, other than self, something that needs further explanation. So it’s not an illusory feeling that we each feel. Instead, our thoughts about it are misguided, leading us to an illusory belief. This feeling arises naturally from the structural presence of reality showing through in all of our daily experiences. It is this structural presence that we viscerally feel and misguidedly interpret as the self-existence of our selves.

You see, we’re not idiots to think we are enduring individuals, we are simply misguided in our efforts to define that which is enduring because we start from the belief that we are individuals, and that colors our entire thought process. The truth, that we might be confounding this visceral feeling with a mere belief, doesn’t occur to us because an independent self is the actuality we have always assumed to be true, and it is so engrained in our thought processes and language that we continue from that perspective even after we know that it isn’t the truth. This is how our ignorance leads us to a false conclusion.

The Causes of Suffering

So to begin, there seem to be many parts to you and I, and like our toes, each part has a name and we can describe them sufficiently clearly that you and I will have a close idea of what the other means. But we are not just body parts, nor a body alone. We viscerally feel something that is truly us, something that endures throughout our life, even if we cannot name it or place where it is amongst all the parts and pieces that make us up. You and I, taken together, are related like that too. There is something that endures between us, even if we have never met, though it is less sure than that visceral feeling of self. Identify it as you like, calling it family, tribe, community, country, species, home world, political party, language spoken, one’s culture, or school attended… it’s a history of relations that we accrue through our lives that contribute also to defining us.

And each of those parts of us, as well as each relationship we have or have had, are a source of suffering. We can break a toe and that is suffering. We can lose a family member and that is suffering. We can fight a war with another culture and that is suffering. We can harm our home world and that is suffering. The loss of anything that we have identified ourselves with is a source of suffering for us. The fear of loss is also suffering for us. When something good happens, we are happy, and, counting on the continuation of that happiness while knowing that nothing lasts forever, we are moved to fear the loss of our happiness, so we suffer.

Today we also see more and more clearly that our ideas about being separate individuals leads us to suffer: we see other races and nationalities as different from ourselves and fear them or push them away or ridicule their oddities (from us), and this leads to endless strife and suffering. We see ourselves separate from our home world and call everything other than ourselves “the environment,” and concerned about our own safety and self-continuation, we inflict damage uncaringly upon the environment and ultimately damage ourselves. This is all suffering too.

So all the ways we try to identify what is us and who we are so that we know distinctly what is ourselves and what is other, causes us suffering.

A Way Out of Suffering

A great insight into curing that suffering was to see that the things we think are a part of us, or an aspect of us, or what makes us unique and separate from everyone and everything else, are not that enduring aspect of ourselves that we so viscerally feel. In fact, none of those qualities and relations endure, so how could they be that enduring self we viscerally know ourselves to be? And in the same way, that whole web of relationships between us and others, between us and things, even between us and ideas we have, such as our political point of view at any moment, do not endure, so how can they be that enduring self we viscerally know ourselves to be? This great insight probably came to many people over the course of humanity’s existence, some of whom we know, like the Buddha, others who are lost to us. The Buddha understood this as “not self,” or “no self.” Like everything that anyone says, there is a wide variety of interpretations about what was meant, and even those who hold to one or the other senses disagree with others who use the same interpretation, but take it in a slightly different way.

For example, some who hold to the “no self” interpretation understand it as referring only to themselves and others like themselves, and perhaps to non-humans, but certainly not to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. For example, there is an innate belief that many hold onto, that something must be the cause of any change. It’s called agency, and agency requires an agent to effectuate the change. So for there to be change there must be something that causes the change, either in itself or in something else.

The trouble with this is, even inanimate objects, and abstract ideas, are differentiated from other inanimate objects and abstract ideas, and in order to distinguish them, they need to have qualities (“that black rock”) or relations (“the rock in front of you”) that can be used to differentiate them. And in order to have qualities or relations, they must have a kind of self. Philosophers call this “substance,” or “identity” (a kind of self-sameness) and the philosophical difference between matter and substance is that substance has a particular form and identity, while matter is just the possibility of having form and identity. Thus, to clarify, we live in a substantial world, not a material world, under the standard view, because substance is actual and matter is potential, at least philosophically. And identity is equivalent roughly to a self, and like our own search for what makes us an enduring and unique individual, philosophers have never been able to put their fingers on what it is that makes up an identity that distinguishes anything over the long term.

The issue here is, if there is no self anywhere, that should hold universally, and not just for some artificial distinction that we make. Why? Because if there is no self anywhere, there can be no separation, and if there is no separation, there can be no true distinctions made. Thus any attempt to limit the reach of the “no self” insight arises out of ignorance of its full meaning. So when we are trying to explain things, we cannot rely upon agents to cause anything to happen, nor to base any distinction upon.

The ultimate essence of all of our experience is that all of it is empty of any intrinsic self-nature. Even speaking of “self-nature” is erroneous because there is nothing that corresponds to either “self” or “nature.” This doesn’t mean there is nothing at all. How could that be since we are experiencing our lives? It means that our existing language, and our cognitive processes, being infused with this understanding of separate existence, are faulty. And necessarily so, because ultimately, what is there to base a description upon? Even saying that “the ultimate essence of all of our experience is that all of it is empty of any intrinsic self-nature” is wrong because it is attempting to describe the ineffable.

And for those that hold to the “no self” interpretation, there is also the troubling tendency to understand the negation of self as the total absence of anything at all because there seems to be an implied affirmation of absence—“no self” taken as “is nothing,” rather than as “is no thing.” Thus, someone with this understanding will ask questions like “who is suffering?” or will say things like “there is no one to understand nothing,” as if “no self” means complete absence of individual experience (i.e. it’s all a complete illusion, including that it is happening). But “no self” doesn’t mean “nothing” anymore than “not self” means that what is being pointed to is a complete illusion.

Thus for the “not self” interpretation, the danger is in equating the application of the doctrine to all of that which one tries to identify as one’s self to mean that all of that, including that most central visceral feeling of being an enduring individual, is illusory, or nothing at all. I’ll illustrate this a different way. One day you and I are out walking through town, and I point to a fellow sitting alone at a café table. “Look, that’s John. He’s not happy.” I say. “Oh,” you respond, “So he feels nothing at all!” Wrong. There are many things he may be feeling… he’s just not feeling happy at the moment.

Note well, however, that if “not self” means “this is not your self” then it will conflict with “no self” in a subtle way because while denying it is your self, you are affirming it is some thing, just not your self. This is why grasping onto these things is such a cause of suffering. But this can’t be! There is no self anywhere, so “not self” needfully must mean “no this is not something separate and enduring thus it is not my self, nor a self at all!” Only in this way will the truth be uncovered. (It) Is not a thing, not nothing, not self, otherwise than self.

The goal here is to see that “no self” must apply universally, and “not self” means “otherwise than a self.” This way we can clearly note the subtle perspective that is always present in experience, which is always localized, and which would be an error not to notice, and more importantly, the structural presence of reality in all experience that spontaneously arises, which lays the conditions for this visceral feeling of being an enduring individual to arise in us. Understanding it this way, saves the appearances of experience from the extinction of the extreme views of eternalism and nihilism.

But, Trouble in Paradise

The trouble with the insight of the Buddha, as usually taught, is that it is so contradictory to what we viscerally feel that we have real difficulty integrating this truth into our understanding. It is well-known in wisdom traditions that if you perform a self-inquiry and go through the process of examining everything that you think you are, you will find that none of them endure, and even worse, not only don’t they endure, they are not even really essential to you being you! And if it wasn’t for that visceral certainty that is always with us, this kind of self-inquiry would probably do us much long-term good.

This is something that you can perform for yourself if you sincerely try, and doing so often leads to a blissful state once you find yourself suddenly free of everything that has caused you to worry, or to fear the loss of, or even found the need to criticize or admire about yourself or others. All that suffering suddenly dissipates and you float in a sea of bliss… until that visceral sense of an enduring existence reasserts itself and you start questioning once again what it is that endures, that is always present in your life. And often, as it seems to be, this can be the onset of a very dark period for most people, during which they can lose hope of ever working it out, of ever knowing the truth, of there even being a truth. It has been called “the Dark Night.”

A Path to Clarity

I want to explain how both understandings of Anattā come together naturally, and to do that I need to explain why the negation in that word needfully means something different than the way it is commonly understood when used to say “no self” than when it is used to say “not self.”

You see, there are different types of negation. Sometimes negation affirms an absence, as “no self” does, sometimes it implies the opposite, as “not sighted” implies “blind,” and sometimes it just denies without affirming anything else, other than that it is not nothing, as my John example pointed out.

Using that last type of negation to understand Anattā implies that anything that you believe to be essentially a self is something other than an entity that has an intrinsic and enduring self-nature, but it is not nothing.

This is important because it means that we are confused about the fundamental character of that visceral feeling of having an enduring self, not because the visceral feeling is caused by our “ignorance” in trying to find the source of that feeling, but because the visceral feeling arises from something other than our having an intrinsic self. In other words, we are confused, and for a good reason, not idiots. I find that comforting, as you might also, because it means that while all my early attempts to identify what was essentially me had been misdirected, the effort wasn’t worthless. That visceral feeling does arise—strongly—in each of us at every moment of our lives, so more importantly, it means that it is ok to attend to it without being forced to deny that which is so real to us, labeling it “ignorance” while trying to smile and make-believe we don’t feel it anymore.

What the change in our understanding of the effect of the negation of self doesn’t do though is to explain why that feeling does arise. It just points out that it is not a self lurking somewhere in the hidden depths of our being, nor anywhere else, that gives rise to the feeling. There is some reason other than this, other than a self somewhere, that gives rise to this feeling. But let’s go a little deeper into the specifics first, before moving on to that.

Continuing Reverberations

If there is no self anywhere, to what could qualities be attributed, and relations attached to? For me to say “myself” is a reflexive relation that cannot have any meaning if I have no self, but since there is no self anywhere, it also means referring to myself can’t have any meaning at all because there is no “thing” anywhere to have the relation or to be related to. That latter point might seem obvious given the lack of self anywhere, but I’m saying it because we have that visceral feeling of being a self to clarify, and this is important to the process.

If there is no self anywhere then that means (if you examine what was just said) that there is no thing that can have any qualities at all, and no relations to anything at all. Yet we assign qualities all the time to things and people. Look, we even distinguish “things” from “people,” giving them different fundamental, or essential, qualities! Doing so is practical and helpful. But how is it done?

If there is no self anywhere and no things exist to which qualities can be attributed or relations attached, and thus all that we experience is impossible, perhaps the problem is that we are holding onto the idea that without a self there is nothing at all. That what we experience is just a mirage. Thus “not self” would not be true, only “no self” in a nihilistic sense. “Not self” means “otherwise than a self, but not nothing.” You might say that there is an illusory self and illusory qualities and relations that are illusorily attached or attributed to the illusory self, but that is just mental gymnastics with no useful value. We’re looking for the truth here, not mental gymnastics. Even a mirage is a “thing.”

But if there is no self anywhere, then there can be no separation anywhere, thus a relation is really just a possibly useful meta connection from one set of highlighted qualities to another set of highlighted qualities of the wholeness of reality. It’s not true, it’s just useful. But, you should then ask, what is a quality? A quality is a name we give to a distinction. Without a separate self, we might be just a set of qualities. They aren’t essential to who we are, because there is no self to have essential qualities, but maybe that’s all we really are—a set of inessential qualities that change over time.

This alternative definition of Anattā from “no self,” to “not self,” presents a different possibility. Basically, it says that anything we can come up with to describe ourselves, or justify our identity, or even evidence our relations to others and other things do not exist on their own, but they do exist—not in a real sense, but as manifested experience. That there is nothing independent and self-existent in experience, but the content of experience is formal, meaning has qualities, and because there are these distinctions, even though there is no separation anywhere in reality, we can distinguish between qualities.

But if that was all that “not self” meant, it wouldn’t similarly hold the sense of “no self,” and that is a very important part of the understanding, and by “understanding” I mean understanding why we universally feel we are a self. So this alternative sense of “not” means that anything that shows up is something other than a self existent entity. Remember what I said though! If there are no self-existent entities (selves) than nothing can have a quality or aspect, and nothing could have any relation either to “its self” or to anything else, and our entire living experience collapses. This is why some people say this is all just an illusion, or a dream—but they are working from an incomplete understanding. Even dreams and illusions have parts and qualities.

The goal is not to fall into an extreme view that cuts off parts of our experience, invalidating them, or just jettisoning them without a proper resolution. So we need to find a way for Anattā to not mean either the extreme of non-existence of self, nor the extreme of real existence of self. We need to find an ”other than” self-existence for our visceral experience of self, while at the same time understanding that nothing has a self. Or to put it more gently, we need to find why we go so wrong as to have this idea of selfhood at all!

In another essay I will delve deeper into what has been uncovered in my meditative practice regarding both a subtle perspective that is always at play in experience and the structural presence within experience, both of which together condition the universal arousal of that visceral feeling of self-existence.

7 Responses to “Not Self and No Self”

  1. Margaret Loyon says:

    Thanks for unpacking the problem of our feeling like individual separate selves. You cleared up numerous sources of error we make when we thing about our “selves” and offered some helpful definitions.

    I especially like your calling the not-self “a set of inessential qualities that change over time”. What do you think causes those changes to occur?

    • James says:

      Hi Margaret, I will be publishing another piece that deals directly with your question. I had started that before this piece, but realized I needed to share this one first.

      Thanks for reading the post and reacting positively to it.

  2. Jan Wick says:

    Very much looking forward to the next essay!

  3. Kim Terrell says:

    Interesting ! Thank you, James.

    My understanding is that the self is the result of dependent arising, hence no “independent” self, only dependent situations that evolve as a result of causes and conditions.

    A quote that I also found interesting and, I think, pertinent to your essay:

    “The Buddha has said the flame in an oil lamp burns dependent upon the oil and the wick. When the oil and the wick are present, the flame in an oil lamp burns. If either of these is absent, the flame will cease to burn. This example illustrates the principle of dependent origination with respect to a flame in an oil lamp. Let us take the example of the sprout. Dependent upon the seed, earth, water, air and sunlight the sprout arises. There are in fact innumerable examples of dependent origination because there is no existing phenomenon that is not the effect of dependent origination. All these phenomena arise dependent upon a number of causal factors. Very simply, this is the principle of dependent origination.

    Now in the context of dependent origination, the Middle Way has another meaning which is related to the earlier meaning but deeper. In this context the Middle Way means avoiding the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. How is this so? The flame in the oil lamp exists dependent upon the oil and the wick. When either of these are absent, the flame will be extinguished. Therefore, the flame is neither permanent nor independent. Similarly, this personality of ours depends upon a combination of conditions – defilements and actions. It is neither permanent nor independent. Recognizing the conditioned nature of our personality, we avoid the extreme of eternalism, of affirming the existence of an independent, permanent self. Alternatively, recognizing that this personality, this life does not arise through accident, or mere chance, but is instead conditioned by corresponding causes, we avoid the extreme of nihilism, the extreme of denying the relation between action and consequence.”

    • James says:

      Yes. This example is focused on the “personality” and an oil lamp and seed, all of which are manifested phenomena to be sure, but not mechanical in the sense of “if this, then that,” unless the “if this” encompasses the current context of the entire universe. The examples are simplified, and don’t show the spontaneity of the naturing of all manifestation.

      That’s something we tend to forget. So, for the lamp, when oil, without too many adulterants, wick, oxygen, not too strong a wind, an ignition source, etc., then, if all goes well, the lamp burns. The seed will sprout in the presence of those things listed, as long as a bird doesn’t come along first and eat it, or a mildew destroy it, or the seed not being viable, or the water and earth being polluted, etc., and even then, only if all goes well.

      That “all goes well” accounts for the spontaneity of reality that can be seen at any and all levels of manifested phenomena. It’s why Buddhist lamas suggest that practicing today is better than putting it off until tomorrow. Tomorrow doesn’t necessarily come for us. Only if all goes well, will we see the next day. The events in Nice being a sad reminder today.

  4. Kim Terrell says:

    Yes, the events in Nice are a sad reminder, and an example of complicated, dependent arisings !

  5. Flávio says:

    Hi James,
    Your article made me remember this other article, almost the same title.

    ‘No-self or Not-self?’ by Thanissaro Bhikkhu :


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