Self & non-self – anatta

Although it is often translated into English as, ‘non-self’, the term anatta, or anatman, refers to the insight 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 – they are 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.

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 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 conditions in which we find ourselves. The contributing currents that constitute the self are often referred to in Buddhism as the ‘skandhas’.

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. This absence of a fixed essential self is another meaning of anatta, or non-self.

The currents of causality (karma), that contribute to our ‘rivering’ self, 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.

However, we can find ourselves, for many reasons, unable to recognise or accept the 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 separateness, and immediately rubs up against the changeful interconnected 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 (that 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.

Mindful meditation enables those who practice it regularly to experience the self as a process that extends out into the world, to realise how open and porous we are and how interconnected we are with other beings and with our surroundings. We feel less divided from the world about us and less alienated from ourselves and other creatures. We observe the interplay of countless causal networks and interconnections that make up our being – ever-changing streams of causality and intention that, like evolution, are constantly flowing through us, forming and re-forming who we are and how we are in the world. Mindful meditation is a method of observing impermanence and interconnection in action – as a process.