I have begun to explore the idea of the ‘not self’ and, as I have discovered, and as has been reported by those who know better than me, it is a difficult concept to understand all at once. I strongly suspect any depth of knowing what it means will happen incrementally for me.
I may well forget everything that I have learned about the concept in the next week or so!
I have to declare at once that the way into an understanding of the ‘not self’ is through meditation and getting up close to stuff we do not like and feel uncomfortable with:
It’s that space where we allow our minds to observe the scary feelings we are experiencing such as anxiety, anger, sadness and grief – things that we want to run away from in an instant. Working on the ‘not self’ through meditation, I believe, ironically enables us to feel a detachment from it. (So I have been told.)
But we have to practice often.
There is immense practical value in not taking our thoughts, feelings and emotions personally.
The debate about whether the self exists is too complex at this moment for me to even begin to fathom. It is sufficient, at this stage, to get the idea of not identifying with the feelings around self and to gain a bit of clarity around the fact that the various parts of yourself that you are feeling are not part of you actually. Just writing this paragraph was difficult enough.
Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True? in a podcast with Dan Harris (10% Happier) says that we should start with problematic things about ourself.
Mediate on them so you don’t have to identify with them. Ultimately, you do not have to accept the discomfort that they have been causing you.
So if you sit with the feeling of being a ‘failure’ because you were told you were one by your father or mother or brother or whoever, you will find if you get close up to the feeling and scrutinise it you may well discover that this is not you, but someone else’s voice that you have come to believe is ‘you’.
Unpack it as you sit quietly and meditate upon it and, over the course of several sessions of working with this, you may well find that the feeling dissolves. At any rate it will lessen as you no longer identify with it.
Remember – you do not have to accept the discomfort that the feeling causes you.
I am obsessive and, as anyone with this condition knows, it is freighted with awful feelings.
Being obsessive can be positive however. It can mean that if I latch onto an idea such as the attempt to explain the ‘not self’, then it’s a good thing in many ways. I won’t rest until I get it as far as my intellect enables me to.
But, of course, being obsessive has its massive downsides. (Hello, understatement.) It is not fun really as you begin to believe the voice telling you to check things to see whether or not they are true. And you do this over and over … Well, they are only feelings that give rise to thoughts that are not to be believed. To buy into them causes untold suffering as I well know.
This work through reading and meditation (in a chair at the moment and not yet on a cushion) has been enormously helpful to me and has started to give me greater clarity. As Wright suggests – the lack of clarity about our thoughts, feelings and emotions can often cause deep suffering. Ah, yes, it is the lack of clarity. Metation clears the mind.
In the same podcast in which Harris and Wright are conversing, Harris says that there is immense practical value in not taking our thoughts, feelings and emotions personally. He argues that if you follow this guidance, “Then they will not yank you around as much.”
Being obsessed is being yanked around by illusions and delusions. Feeling a failure does the same thing and so is the idea of not being good enough and feelings of anxiety. Yank, yank, yank.
Of course, some feelings are correct but, often as not, they lead you up the garden path.
Meditation allows you to accept their guidance or let go of them, says Robert Wright.
And, slowly, we gain clarity about ourselves and our ‘not selves’ and begin to reduce our suffering.