This has been inspired by a talk I heard on the notion of anatta, the Buddhist idea of the not self. It is my feeble attempt to understand from someone who knows way more than me and I urge you to go to the original talk on the website which I quote below.
Martin Aylward in his teaching on the website Worldwide Insight * invites us to put aside ideas about self; we are encouraged to not take up a fixed position and instead he talks about freeing up the self. Interestingly though, he does not negate self and goes to some lengths to underline that in ordinary experience there is self, giving us examples of when self is paramount (we shut out the world) and when it plays less of a role because we open ourselves up to the senses whilst say, watching a sunrise or looking at a mountain.
The teaching centres on how we can learn to recognise, allow and make room for the sense of self and then inhabit the feeling of the hereness of ourselves. This is not about whether or not we have a self. Instead rather we begin to investigate the ambiguities and mysteries of the self because the sense of self is undeniable.
Aylward urges us to hang out with and investigate the ambiguity.
Here’s the thing. If we fill up our space with a sense of self, he says, it will become solidified; if we think about it the ‘I, me and mine, the question of how good or bad we are or how others see us’ makes us what he called ‘self-enveloped’. Robert Wright+, in the same vein, quotes Rahula, a Buddhist monk about how a focus on the self can be harmful. It is the source of all troubles in the world, he posits.
On the other hand we could experience a radical change to the idea of the self and tempt to switch the self away from the drama, the struggle and the messy old stuff of self. It is, Aylward says, very seductive to put this aside but not something we should do. He turns though to what he sees about the importance of where we are located in body, heart, mind and organs because this ground, location, this uniqueness of place is undeniable. He asks a series of questions:
- How am I, right now, right here?
- How is the one who appears here?
- What’s it like to be here right now?
So we frame it in the following way. If we fixate in our thinking of how we are then we become insular but if we lose the uniqueness of our hereness then we negate ourselves. All the time though we have a willingness to doubt, to keep alive our ambiguity and keep on finding out more about the vastness of ourselves. He emphasises how we are available to experience instead of being trapped in the world of the binary existence / non-existence. Ambiguity, he suggests, allows us a certain creative engagement. This, for me, is perhaps the key point about how we widen the lens if we are open this way.
Aylward continues by posing the question which I love because it makes such sense: how is this collection of habits I am emerging with right now? What habitual reactions are being brought up right now? How can I engage with this moment, this situation?
He gets me to think differently and looks at the following sentence – ‘you are beautiful just the way you are’ and turns it upside down by saying ‘you are not beautiful and you are not ugly’. Instead he says, ‘You are just the way you are’. Absolutely! Saying it this way opens up possibilities when you consider the questions:
- How are you right now?
- How and where is the experience landing right now?
This helps us to avoid rigid views about the self.Aylward offers practical advice on how to proceed. Naturally, he turns to meditation as the way towards a deeper insight by saying that this is the way to sharpen our curiosity about who, what, is here. In meditation we ask ourselves – How is the experience landing right now?
This, it is suggested, is the invitation to allow any experience of the appearance of self or what I think myself to be, the myriad nature of who I am:
right, wrong, angry, happy, clear, confused
In this way we become comfortable with all our expressions of our humanity and how we are full of possibility. It provides more room and space and we are enabled and willing to include more wisdom response.
The results are a more attuned and aligned self and, in the process, we don’t need to take things so personally and we don’t have to believe that as me any more. We start to see it as an expression of the non-self and the non-fixedness of self. In making room for our non-self existence there are more possibilities as we navigate in the world, remembering we do not exist by ourselves becuase we exist in a context.
So when we consider our roles as lover, friend, employee, meditator we exist for others in our various roles. Aylward gives the example of when we show up at work which I find particularly helpful. Here, we may squash ourselves into a particular role and then experience a kind of anxiety, righteousness or defensiveness in trying to protect, sustain or feel comfortable in the role because the role becomes representative of who I am.
Certainly our various roles reflect back to ourselves our very ambiguity.
The question is asked. Is there a way we relate to the role? Is there a friction in the role? Is the friction related to how we have picked up the role and made too much of it with the result we have hardened the view of the role of who I am, of who you are? Perhaps we have used this to see how we have taken ourselves to be. And these end up to be accumulated assumptions of who we are and really does say out loud, ‘I want you to show up in a particular way’. We cannot have an idea of self without being filtered through by an other but the chance for more fluidity means we can break out of fixedness and give us space about how we see ourselves and the other.
In living in the world and dealing with stuff there is the sense that a lot of contractions happen around yourself are that you blame yourself. Or that there is a competition to be a certain way.
Flip this on its head and show up in the world with the ambiguous sense of self, remembering everything is within yourself. When we accommodate all the senses of self, we begin to have a changed relationship with feelings of anger and aggression and help us to move away from fixed positions. Wright says the same thing: with this work you begin ‘to feel a new sense of connection with your fellow creatures and a new sense of generosity towards them’.
Aylward’s teaching turns towards our place in the world. He provides several examples. ‘He is wrong’, we say, makes us feel right and better. Anger with another can be habitual and reactive and SELF making. These destructive urges mean that we are locked into being a SELF and the other into a SELF.
If we flip this on the head and are more ambiguous and open to a full kind of experience and all those senses of selves we will no doubt have a wider view: all people are trying their best. We stop making them into a SELF that is wrong and bad because we are connected to the nature of self and aware that we are standing on the same earth. This is powerful stuff.
Appearances of senses of self allows room for a greater awareness that we are all experiencing and all feeling the same things like love and fear. Then – and this is an important then – when we do this we can stand up for ourselves and stand up for all the company of beings. Even those, yes, even those who are drawn into a rigid sense of self share the same earth.
Wright argues that we should think of ourselves as having the power to establish a different relationship with our feelings on the road to understanding our not self and, in many ways, Aylward says the same thing although, to my mind, he says it differently.
Aylward talks about the heart of our being which is knowing our non-difference and knowing ourselves in the company of everyone, making room for a myriad of selves.
This is important stuff as we go deeper and understand the way in which we exist in the world and how we relate to the other. I love the way he ends by quoting something from Ram Das, who acknowledged the difficulty of loving some people: do what you need to do with people, but never put them out of your heart.
This is called liberated activism and we now it seems we are grounded to be where we are.
+ Why Buddhism is True