Getting in Touch with Our Nonself Elements

Timelapse photo of white bougainvillea taken by FindingSR

Getting in Touch with Our Nonself Elements

Discussion date: Thu, Oct 05, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

About a month ago, I facilitated a Thursday evening on the topic of impermanence, which in Buddhism is called the first Dharma Seal. I’d now like to look at the second Dharma Seal, nonself. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) gives a succinct description of nonself: “Nothing has a separate existence or a separate self. Everything has to inter-be with everything else.”

Impermanence and nonself are intimately related – Thay says that they are basically the same thing:

From the point of view of time, we say “impermanence,” and from the point of view of space, we say “nonself.” Things cannot remain themselves for two consecutive moments, therefore, there is nothing that can be called a permanent “self.” Before you entered this room, you were different physically and mentally. Looking deeply at impermanence, you see nonself. Looking deeply at nonself, you see impermanence. We cannot say, “I can accept impermanence, but nonself is too difficult.”

But in fact that’s exactly what I want to say – I “get” impermanence but nonself is too hard! Why is it harder than impermanence? I think it’s because impermanence is happening all around us all the time, and we can be in touch with it through our senses. We can see the trees changing color in the autumn; we can feel the cooler air on our skin. Here in Oregon, I sniff the air every morning and sometimes it’s full of wildfire smoke and other times deliciously clean and fresh. If we just pay attention, we can be in touch with impermanence and nourish it until it becomes an insight into reality.

Nonself seems much harder to be aware of and to work with. Thay says that we usually operate using “discriminative perception.” We cut up reality into discrete pieces and we label them: this is a table, this is a chair, this is a flower, a mountain, another person. This is me, here inside my skin, separate from my surroundings. Thay teaches that perceiving like this is misperception:

We all have the capacity of living with nondiscriminating wisdom, but we have to train ourselves to see in that way, to see that the flower is us, the mountain is us, our parents and our children are all us. When we see that everyone and everything belongs to the same stream of life, our suffering will vanish.

When we recite the second of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we say “the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering.” I recite these words with sincerity, but how long do I remember them? On the evening newscasts, I often see films of people suffering in different places in the world. In Somalia there is famine, and mothers and children are living in tents, without food and medicines. I watch these films, and my heart aches for the mothers who are hungry themselves and cannot feed their children. There are times when I see my own children suffering and cannot help them. We are not separate, the mothers in Somalia and me; we belong to the same stream of life. I decide that right after the newscast, I’ll send a donation to Doctors Without Borders or Unicef to help in the small way that I can, but then the news moves on to the next story and the Somalian mothers are not present to me anymore! I have moments, like this one, of really feeling my nonself, interbeing nature in my body, but if I’m not mindful I quickly move on from them. I need the practice of deep looking and concentration to sustain my awareness.

Thay asks, in Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, “What is a ‘true self?’ A true self is a self that is made of non-self elements.” Thay often evokes a flower to help us understand, as in this passage from Breathe, You Are Alive!

 A flower is always receiving non-flower elements like water, air, and sunshine, and it is always giving something to the universe. A flower is a stream of change, and a person is also a stream of change. At every instant, there is input and output.

If you remove the sunshine, the water, or the air from the flower, the flower cannot be. I try to see the nonself elements that make me up. I start with the genetic material I’ve received from my ancestors, as well as the ethos and possibly trauma I’ve inherited from them. Then I think about the food I eat: the farmers who grow the food, the people who harvest the crops, the truck drivers who bring the food to market, the employees of the grocery store, the cleaning crew who work nights so the store can open the next day. I rely on all these people. If you remove any of them, I cannot buy food and I cannot be. Thay suggests that before eating, we might recite this gatha: “In this food I see clearly / the presence of the entire universe / supporting my existence.” And there are so many other things – in fact, a whole universe of things — that support my life: the trees and plants that provide oxygen, the rivers and aquifers that provide water. Without them, I could not be.

As I’ve been thinking about nonself, I remembered a wonderful lesson from Dharma Teacher Joanne Friday. In 2013, in an interview in The Mindfulness Bell, she described her reaction to a letter from Plum Village inviting her to become a Dharma Teacher: she immediately felt unworthy and thought it was a mistake. But then she had the realization, “This has nothing to do with you.” She reflected on all she had learned and received from Thay and other teachers over the years, and from family members and friends who had nourished and guided her. She realized that to feel not good enough was an insult to all of them. Because of her years of practice, she was able to quickly connect with her nonself elements, drop any anxiety about her worthiness, and tap into freedom and joy. She said:

To prepare for the ceremony, my normal habit energy would have been to try to come up with the perfect Dharma talk, and have everybody think I knew everything about the Dharma. Instead, I could not even think about it and I had not one ounce of anxiety in those three months before the Lamp Transmission. At that time, as part of the ceremony, each new Dharma teacher gave a short talk after their ordination. Walking to take my seat, I still had no idea what I would talk about, and yet I felt nothing but pure joy, and I thought, “I wonder what I’m going to say.”

To find out what she said in her talk, see the excerpt below.

Thay writes about how the insight of nonself can help relieve our suffering. In Awakening of the Heart,

he observes that many of us judge and criticize ourselves. We focus on our weaknesses and shortcomings, and we suffer. Thay reminds us that we are not completely responsible for our physical and psychological traits because many of them have come to us from our ancestors and environment. Realizing this, we could lighten up on ourselves. He writes:

If we can’t accept ourselves, how can we accept others? How can we change the world around us? We have to learn to accept ourselves first. The Buddha said that we will learn to accept ourselves by looking deeply at ourselves. We are made of elements that are not us. When we look deeply, we see the many elements that brought us into being. There are the many genetic elements we received from our parents, grandparents, and ancestors. There’s our society, our traditions, the nation we live in, the people around us, our economic situation, and our educational background. When we see all these things, we see the many non-us elements in us. So we feel less judgmental and won’t tend to criticize ourselves so much.

On Thursday evening, during our Dharma Sharing, we’ll explore our experiences with nonself. We might like to consider these questions:

  • How do you practice with your nonself elements?
  • When you have an awareness of your nonself nature, what does it feel like in your body?
  • How has the notion of nonself changed how you see yourself and your life?

We hope you can join us.

With gratitude and appreciation,

Connie Anderson


An excerpt from an interview with Joanne Friday

(from The Mindfulness Bell, Winter/Spring 2013, issue # 62. Joanne is describing the brief speech she gave at the Lamp Transmission Ceremony at which she was ordained as a Dharma Teacher.)

I said, “Thay gives a beautiful teaching on no-birth, no-death, using a sheet of paper. I received another deep teaching on non-self from a sheet of paper. I got this letter asking me to be here and this was my experience—I realized it is all about my non-self elements; it has nothing to do with me. It’s been so much fun; it feels so free. This is really amazing. I have almost no self-confidence, but I have total confidence in my non-self elements; clearly I do because I haven’t been the least bit anxious, and so I think I am experiencing non-self confidence.” And Thay was laughing and everyone was laughing.

And that has been the truth ever since. If I get invited to share the Dharma, I do my best to stay out of it. My goal in sharing the Dharma is to transmit what was transmitted to me and leave my little self out of it. And I don’t get tired. If my ego starts getting involved, I get tired, and so it is a good indicator that I need to go do some walking meditation and get out of the way.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Oct 05, 2023


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