Non-self – contingency – anatta


The Buddha identifies three primary characteristics of existence (Three Marks of Existence): ANICCA – impermanence, change, growth & decay, process; ANATTA – ‘non-self’; and DUKKHA – ‘suffering’, dissatisfaction, insatiable desire.

It may be useful to return to the second of these characteristics and to explore what anatta means and how it impacts on our lives.

Although it is often translated into English as, ‘non-self’, anatta refers to a number of interrelated qualities and ideas. First, that nothing in the universe has self-existence, that is, that no entity can exist separate from, or independent of, everything else in the universe. In other words, all things only exist in a context, dependent upon all the things that exist around them. ‘Contingency’, is a useful term to convey the meaning of anatta. When we say things are contingent on other things or conditions, we are saying they are dependent on context, situation and circumstances. We also say, ‘prepare for any contingency’ – that is, be prepared for whatever may arise – be mindful and alert.

The quality of anatta, in a sense, is an extension of anicca, impermanence. If all things are subject to change and transience, then nothing can have a fixed essence or ‘self’. Everything is in process, fluid, temporary and impermanent. All ‘things’ are really ‘events. If we examine any entity within the perceived world, we realise that it changes, however slow or fast, and therefore it has no fixed identity. Also, every entity is affected by other entities and by their surroundings. This is what we mean by karma, causality – the way in which actions have consequences.

The fact that all identities are subject to change and evolution, subject to the causal impact of everything that happens, applies as much to us, as it does to a mountain, a fly, an idea or an emotion. When the Buddha examined himself, or as we examine ourselves in mindful meditation, he, and we, find that there is no fixed essence to our being or identity. Our thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs and behaviour are constantly evolving, revised and modified in the light of everything that we experience. These changes may be small or great, fast or slow, but they are always occurring.

However, we can find ourselves, for many reasons, unable to recognise or accept this changeful contingency at the heart of our identity. We construct, instead, an image of ourselves that is fixed and rigid and we carry this image around as a flag or marker of what we are and what we stand for. This image of a fixed identity gives us a false sense of security and immediately rubs up against the changeful world in which we exist. So, we cling more and more tightly to our image, identity opinions and beliefs. This often leads us into conflict, both within ourselves (as we try to hang on to our fixed identity) and with others and the world (which are always changing and challenging our fixed opinions). What happens to individuals can also happen to communities or societies: rigid self-identity can become rigid national or racial identity – and it is obvious how this rigidity or fixed identity can lead to conflict.

Such conflict arises from the mismatch between the delusion that identity, essence or ‘self’ is fixed and independent, and the actuality that there are no fixed, independent, essences or identities. To be out of step, or resistant, or against, how the universe is, is to be in conflict with how things are (dharma). This lack of harmony between our fluid contingent nature and the rigid image we construct for ourselves can be a cause of unnecessary suffering, in the form of tension, anxiety and exhaustion. Mindful meditation is a valuable method for seeing into the contingent temporary nature of things and a way of learning how to live in harmony with how things are.