What exactly is Non-Self and how do I live it?
What is Non Self?
The theory of Non-Self explains that within our own unique human experience, there is, in fact, no permanent, underlying entity we can truly identify as Me or I. This idea is easier to grasp once we have understood the nature of cause and effect and impermanence. When we perceive all phenomena as conditioned, we realize that everything is the way it is because of something else. Concerning our body and mind, we can break it down at every level to penetrate this truth.
Mentally, what we label as I and Me, are a combination of concepts, memories, thoughts, and ideas that are conditioned by our past experiences, feelings, emotions, sensations, and perceptions. Because they are conditioned, they are susceptible to change. What makes You and Me depends on a big part, our upbringing, education, social environment, family values, national cultures, and many more factors. As our environment changes throughout our lives, we open up to different cultures, different social groups, and different hobbies and past times; we are inevitably shaped by them into something slightly or drastically different. If we reflect on our past, can we really say we are the same person? Maybe some aspects have remained unchanged, but change is a natural part of growth and development. Without change, growth would not be possible.
On a physical level, we associate heavily with our bodies. We label our body as Me and I, and when somebody calls us fat, ugly, or our of shape, we take offense to it. But if we were to scrutinize this on a deeper level, no part of the body remains unchanging too. The cells in our bodies are continually being renewed and replaced. Our skin regenerates itself every 27 days. Our red blood cells every four months. Even our skeletal structure experiences a 10% change every year and eventually regenerates into a completely new set every ten years.
Not only that, but on further inspection, we realize that our bodies are also made up of the food and drink we ingest, the air we breathe, and the sunlight we absorb. What we initially label as ‘separate from me’, like the apple on the table, then becomes part of us after we eat it. The same is said about all the food we eat, the liquids we drink, the air we breathe, and the sunlight we absorb. We don’t acknowledge them as Me until they become part of us, but then when we eventually excrete them our from our system, they are once again no longer us.
Non-Self is a theory that was made popular by the Buddha, who observed that because our mind and body are undergoing constant change, there is no unchanging constant we can identify with. The danger in identifying with an everchanging entity is that we become attached to a mere illusion, and then label it as Me and I. By doing so, we fixate on the past and place too much weight on our memories, past experiences, outdated thoughts, and concepts, and then fail to move on when things change. This discrepancy between what was and what now is creates for us immeasurable stress, anxiety, and disappointment.
Observing Non-Self in our human experience
The best way to develop faith in Non-Self is through mindfulness and observation of our Human Experience. From moment to moment, try to remain as present and aware as possible and simply observe the thoughts going on, the sensations of the body, the feelings and emotions we experience. If we are present enough, we will be able to pinpoint the very moment they arise, and then contemplate on their source. Where do these thoughts come from? What happens when I experience an itchy sensation on my body? How do I want to react when I experience a feeling of joy or disappointment? By remaining as the observer and simply witness the movements of the mind and reactions of the body, we will develop insight into how our human experience is conditioned.
This insight helps us disassociate with our body and mind because we realize the frailty of the Ego, the empty nature of the illusory self. Maybe through insight we discover that our entire attachment to a certain concept is because of that one positive memory from when we were 3 years old. Or through contemplation, we realize the reason we believe we are shy or introverted is really because we actually lack confidence in a particular field. If we were to develop more knowledge in that area, we wouldn’t feel as shy or reserved about it. When these moments of insight arises, they instantly help us transcend our attachments and liberate our fears.
Through meditation on ourselves, we not only learn how we are conditioned, but better yet, we learn how to recondition and rewire ourselves to achieve what we want. This is only possible because nothing is fixed, and everything has the potential for change.
How Non-Self leads to Peace and Liberation
The process of disassociation from our mind and body will come naturally when we bring the light of awareness into our human experience. The more aware we become, the more present we are, and the more wisdom and insight we enlighten to about the reality of ourselves. It is difficult to immediately enlighten to the truth of Non-Self because we have many deep underlying layers of concepts, thoughts, and ideas we are unconscious of, which we must slowly uncover. Those layers make up the Ego we know, our sense of self, and it is because of this attachment that we experience all our sufferings and anxieties every day. However, just like peeling an onion, we can also peel back the layers of our Ego until we reveal the truth of Non-Self at the deepest core.
The good news is we don’t need to wait until the end to realize peace and joy. We will experience liberation bit by bit as we begin uncovering the layers. This is because these layers are concepts and ideas about the self which we hold on to so firmly that if anything happens that threatens it, we feel anxiety and suffering. By peeling off the metaphoric onion, we slowly regain our sense of freedom, flexibility, and peace.
If reading this, you think to yourself, “I have no conceptual layers to uncover” or “There is no ego within my human experience,” that thought is the layer I am referring to. When we observe these layers, we simply need to be mindful of them, watch them with a gentle and patient mind, and be careful not to add another conceptual layer to it by judging it, criticizing it. Simply through observing, we bring the light of awareness into our unconscious mind, and the layers peel back on its own, revealing insight in its way. We don’t need to do anything. Anything we do will only create more layers.
Practicing mindfulness in such a way is very tricky because we are so habitually inclined to believe our thoughts to be real, and label them as good or bad, right or wrong. When a thought arises that we are fat, ugly, useless, stupid, we believe it and then feel sad and depressed. Or a feeling will arise that we are smart, successful, the best, talented, lucky, and we believe it and feel arrogant and overconfident. What we should do instead is treat every thought equally, whether we perceive them as positive or negative, and simply observe them arise and pass away. Then we are not fooled by them, and over time, thoughts will no longer control our emotional states, and we can instead use the mind rather than being used by it.
Peace and liberation are realized when we are no longer under the spell of the habitual mind. It’s not to say that we no longer experience thoughts because thoughts can be constructive and useful in its own right. But we are not led by the mind, not overwhelmed by it. We reach this stage when we stop identifying with our thoughts. We can simply observe it without associating it as mine or Me. This is the reality of Non-Self. We return to our observing nature, our pure awareness, and allow the current of life to flow naturally without resisting, fighting, or identifying with it.
How contemplating Non-Self has transformed my life
Coming from a Buddhist background and having lived in a Taiwan Monastery for two years as a Buddhist Monk, I have learned a lot about Non-Self from fellow monastics, practitioners, teachers, and sutras and texts. It was initially very difficult to grasp the concept of Non-Self because I kept questioning, “if I’m not my body, my mind, or my thoughts, then who am I?”
It took a few years of constant contemplation before I eventually realized that any thought I had about myself was merely another layer of the metaphoric onion. When the thoughts arise, just observe it like any other thought without creating more links to the chain of thought, and that’s all. I always felt desperate for answers, like I needed another concept or idea to replace my current set, which was flawed. However, I eventually realized that any set of concepts or ideas would only add layers or, at best, replace the old layers of the unconscious mind with new ones. The teaching of Non-Self is regarded by many practitioners to be the ultimate teaching, likened to a raft we use to get to the other shore. Once we board the other shore, we can let go of the raft. Similarly, we use the teaching of Non-Self to transcend the thinking mind, but once we’ve transcended it, even the teaching must be let go. The teaching is just a means and not the end itself we cling on to.
In my personal and professional life, I try to remain as present as I can throughout the day, every day. Some days seem to flow, and not many obstacles or resistance come in the way. On other days, especially on days where I am sick, tired, or overwhelmed by work, those are the challenges that truly test my resolve and highlight just how far I still have to go. It is easy to begin feeling confident and assured when everything is easy, but once the going gets tough, then our cultivation is tested. During the difficult times, the thinking mind seems much louder, and the thoughts are a little more overwhelming. I also have less energy of awareness to maintain my mindfulness, and so the weight of the thoughts overcome me. However, one thing I can always count on is to tell myself, “This too shall pass” and “Hardship builds character and resilience.” Changing my attitude of the situation, at its worst times, is extremely challenging, but it helps transform my perception and turns a problem into a learning experience, a tool for spiritual growth.
I am also learning why it is important to be a good person and develop a wholesome and virtuous mind. If ultimately the mind and body is not our True Self, then it shouldn’t matter the state of mind we have. Although that may be true to an enlightened being, for those of us who have not peeled back all the layers of ignorance and attachment, it is easier to cultivate while experiencing joy and comfort than having to do so while under constant stress and fear. This is why we must live a wholesome and virtuous life, so that until our final breath as an unenlightened being, we can still enjoy the pleasures of the world and traverse the spiritual path in comfort and joy.
In my day to day life, there are times when I am so absorbed on a task, I reach great productivity levels, time seems to stop, and all that matters is job at hand. I could be writing, teaching, exercising, public speaking and everything just seems to happen effortlessly. These are referred to ‘flow states’ and I would describe my mental state here as highly present and focused, yet relaxed and euphoric. In these flow states there are no thoughts of I, how I feel, what I want, what I like – the object of focus is the only thing that exists. When we contemplate Non-Self and experience the entirety of life without the Ego getting in the way, we find that we are much more productive, efficient and everything seems to happen effortlessly. Then we just sit back and let life happen through us while we remain on the level of pure awareness.
One final tip I keep telling myself throughout my journey, that may also serve you in some way, is always to maintain a balanced mind and walk the middle path, free from extremities. This means, to not attach to the world, but also to not detach from it. Not to be consumed by the thinking mind, but also not to resist it. A balanced mind is one that is experiencing life as the observer. The observer does not discriminate good and bad, right and wrong. It is aware of such discriminations, but it does not fixate on it. The observer does not act one way or the other, it observes action, but it doesn’t identify with the actions. Such a mind is pure, eternal, unchanging, empty, and all-encompassing. To develop such a mind is to return to our deathless nature, our original home, our True Self.
Thanks for reading 😊