When we refer to the ‘self’, ‘myself’ or ‘yourself’, we reify a process – we turn an ever-changing flowing phenomenon, into an object – we turn a verb into a noun. This is a misrepresentation of the actual self as we experience it – the constant river of sensations, thoughts, feelings and intentions that constitute who we consider ourselves to be. The self, considered as a thing, is a linguistic fiction.
The analogy with a river is an apt one. The river is made up of intertwined currents of experience and causality that give rise to the shape, colour and distinctiveness of ‘the river’ at each moment. But, of course, the river is not an object, it is a process. It is constantly changing – dependent on the streams and tributaries that feed it, that are, themselves, dependent on the rainfall that falls in the catchment area around it. Similarly, we change in response to the catchment area around us – the context and circumstances within which we move from moment-to-moment. In a sense, the river is always ‘rivering’, as we are always ‘selfing’ – changing, revising, modifying in response to the ever-changing causal conditions.
Just as there is no fixed essence or centre to the river out there in the landscape, there is no fixed essence or centre to the self. If we try to find a fixed centre to the self, the ‘I’ that asks a question, or thinks a thought, there is always another ‘I’ behind the one that asks and thinks. We never reach the ‘I’ behind all the other ‘I’s. The Buddha refers to this absence of an essential self, as anatta, or non-self. The self is always in process – evolving in the light of causality (karma) and context – the circumstances upon which it is dependent. There is no ‘true self’ – if we mean by that’ an essential self’.
The contributing currents that constitute the self are often referred to in Buddhism as the ‘skandhas’ – traditionally listed as: rūpa – the physical world of form/matter; vedanā – the sensations and feelings we experience in response to physical stimuli – which may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral; samjñā – the process of sorting, classifying and recognising, by which we perceive an apple as an apple or a table as a table or a person as a person; samskāra – the mental formations and forces – desires, impulses and will; and, vijñāna – the process of being conscious and having awareness. This is just one way of describing and categorising different aspects of the self.
Apparently, the late American Zen teacher, Bernie Glassman*, described the skandhas in a different way: 1. Sensation – direct experience, mediated by the senses; 2. Feeling – our simplest response to any sensation – like, dislike or neutral; 3. Reaction – the reactions that then follow our immediate response – irritation, pleasure, anger, fear, envy, etc; 4. Recognition – the mind catching up with an experience and the reaction we have to it; 5. Consciousness – the collecting place of experiences and the narratives we weave around those experiences. Glassman emphasises the distinction between an immediate experience – the sound of a seagull – and the reactions to, and commentary on, that sound. The former just happens, often outside our control; the latter is the complex succession of reactions, that, through mindful meditation, we can become aware of, modify and let go of.
The currents of causality, or conditions (karma), that contribute to our reactions include: our ‘education’ – formal and informal; memories of previous experiences; habits accumulated over a lifetime; predispositions from birth; the cultural forces surrounding us; our history and our projected future – our assumptions and our hopes and intentions. Through mindful meditation we can begin to attend to these conditions and become less dominated by them. In this way we can free ourselves from reactive habits, (that may be destructive and harmful), and act in ways that are wiser, more compassionate and life-enhancing.
* Glassman’s views described by Sean Murphy, in Tricycle magazine, Spring 2019, pp. 32-35.