Saturday, September 25, 2010

What Self?

I have been listening with great interest to Gil Fronsdal's three part series of talks on the self. Here are my notes, and personal reactions to his first talk, on Anatta (Not-Self).

I appreciated Gil's clarification on the whole notion of self versus no self, according to the Buddha's teachings. It is not that there is no self, but that the self is inherently not a fixed thing.  

If you can see arising self as it occurs, you cannot make claim it does not exist. If you can see self disappear, you can't say that it really exists. The self arises and passes away based on constantly changing conditions. It is a fluid, contingent dependent phenomena. Our sense of self changes over a life time. 

Next is the question of how do we get in trouble with the self? 

If we cling tight to something that only exists dependent on causes and conditions, then our clinging has to contend with changing nature of these conditions. If we are grasping to some idea of self that changes and fluxes, then we will be psychologically challenged. Let say we leave our meditation cushion to go to the bathroom, and when we return, we find a latecomer has taken our seat. We may get upset that the person has taken 'my cushion'. The next time, we will have forgotten even where we were sitting. This is an example of an idea of self that arose dependent on condition. We call that activity of the mind 'selfing'. Other examples of unhealthy selfing occurs when  I need to be somebody and I hold on tight to  identities, definitions. We can hold on to self identities for a long time or in particular situations, or very briefly. Selfing can occur around roles, being a father, a teacher, am I good?, do people like me?, . . . 

How do we keep a healthy relationship to selfing?

We need for the mind to not be defined, not caught, not fixated by identity. The definition we live by can come from the outside or inside. We need to not be stuck in that kind of idea, or let other people limit us that way, only seeing us a certain way. We need to break fixedness of particular role we are playing. And when we pick up these kinds of self-concerns, we need to see that they are not fixed, nor absolute. Social games are about building ourselves up. It is possible to put these activities to rest. It is also important to realize we have a choice about which ones to engage in, and which ones to not engage in.

What is the role of meditation relative to selfing?

The function of meditation meditation is to give us clear, calm vantage point to help us see with real clarity how this activity of selfing begins and occurs - and also to watch how it goes away. Insight meditation is using calm we have to see how selfing arises in the mind, and how it goes away. It is quite something to get very peaceful and have mind being so empty without selfing taking place. There is no self-consciousness occurring. Happiness and peace are not dependent on self-definition. This is quite different from chasing, building up self-identity, which is what most people do much of their daily life, which is exhausting. Some of self-ideas people are hanging to are incredibly painful. I am a sinner, I am a bad person, I am a loser, etc. There are no fixed ideas in the world of self. It is an activity we are doing, and sometimes it gets frozen. Meditation is to thaw the freeze. 

In summary:

There are no fixed way that we have to be. We don't have to be a self  for anybody. We don' t have to be stuck in identities. I am this, I am that, I am better, I am worse than others.

Zen koan "If you can't speak, who are you?" Answer: you offer them a cup of tea. An example of responding to what's needed at that moment, instead of carrying out fixed idea of what we need to be.

The self is an activity, not a thing. It is ok to have self-definition. And it is important to be able to see it arise and put it down when needed.

This is not unlike Charlotte Selver's point about 'every moment, a new moment'. It is also very much what gets highlighted during interactions with a person with dementia. The unpredictability of the other person's sense of self, from moment to moment, requires that we constantly let go of our ideas about self, our role, our identity, our relationship to that person. In that sense, mindfully relating to a person with dementia is one of the best ways, besides meditation, to thaw any fixed ideas we may have about ourselves. 


  1. You say "In that sense, mindfully relating to a person with dementia is one of the best ways, besides meditation, to thaw any fixed ideas we may have about ourselves. "
    I had been practicing Buddhist mindfulness for 20 years when a good friend i saw once a week began to exhibit dementia. She was/is getting on in years and had a couple of surgeries that really started the process rolling. I watched as she went from being "normal" to being "very hard to relate to". You are so right on about it challenging your own mindfulness. At first it made me a little angry, and upset that she was not responding like I wanted her to. I even tried to make her "normal". It bothered me quite a bit. It showed how attached I was to my self, not her. I began to realize this, and then began to go with the flow of the dementia she was displaying. At times she would weep because she seemed to since the slipping away of "real" things, and yet i was sharing them with her.
    There is no permanent personal self, so we have a lot of room to adapt to our environment. :)

  2. Oh! Chana thank you so much for sharing your experience. This is very helpful in validating the reality of those who can no longer advocate for themselves.

    Viewed under the lens of mindfulness, dementia ceases to be the problem of the one with the illness. Rather it becomes a huge opportunity for us to acknowledge OUR problem with grasping to idea of self that is no longer there.

    With metta.


  3. "The self is inherently not a fixed thing" I have enjoyed the process of realizing this in my life ... though there have been enough frustrating moments that might seem to say otherwise. I remember when I started realizing it about outside things. For example, I would think: "if this house would just stay clean (fixed point) and I could get into shape (fixed point) I could relax and be happy" But if the cleanliness of a house, or lack thereof, has its own flow of life; how much more so do I?
    Great post!

  4. Oh! yes. Not self, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, are all linked . . .