Our Impermanent Selves

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Feelings come and go

like clouds in a windy sky.
Conscious breathing is my anchor.

—  Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Still Water Friends,

The Buddhist concept of no self can feel like an intimidating idea to grapple with. Even as I venture to explore it now, my mind taunts me with thoughts like: “Oh, you’re not going pretend to really get this!” and “Like you know anything about the experience of no self.” But I will persist here in my exploration because there are moments when the idea of not identifying so strongly with this self, or believing it’s taunts, makes a lot of sense to me. There are even moments when I’ve experienced a glimmer of freedom from my attachment to the concept of a separate, permanent self.

In No Death, No Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that no self can be understood as an extension of impermanence, which is much more accessible idea to me.

Impermanence is looking at reality from the point of view of time. No self is looking at reality from the point of view of space. They are two sides of reality. No self is a manifestation of impermanence and impermanence is a manifestation of no self.

So as I think about myself as ever-changing, like the world around me, I already feel my sense of self losing some of it’s solidity. Maybe the self can be compared to idea of the “now,” which is something we all experience, but is impossible to pin down or definitively describe because it’s always moving.  This leads me think that self-examination may still be a useful task, but it should be done with the appreciation that we’re no longer the self we’re examining, and the examination itself will lead to yet a different self.

Perhaps more than anything, I can get very identified with my thoughts and feelings at any moment. But when I slow down, I notice that neither do I really invite difficult thoughts or feelings, nor can I make them go away. Thich Nhat Hahn often reminds us that we have the seeds of all feelings inside of us, and we don’t get to choose what might manifest in any given moment. The more I become aware that my unappealing feelings like anger, anxiety, and shame are not a unique feature of this self, the more skillfully I can tend to them.

I try to remind myself that “I am experiencing anger right now,” not “I am angry.” It helps me to get some space from the anger and to understand it better. There have even been moments when I can see my anger so clearly, I can see how it hurts both me and my loved ones. In those moments I feel like much more than this self. I experience a great sense of space to see beyond the cloud of anger and hold the hurts with tenderness.

You are invited to join us this Thursday evening.

After our meditation period we will begin our Dharma Sharing with these questions:

  • What practices have you used that assist you moving beyond a sense of a separate, permanent self?
  • What do you notice when you identify strongly as a separate self?
  • What supports you in feeling more connected, or interconnected?
  • Has mindfulness practice helped?

A reading on No Self from No Death, No Fear  by Thich Nhat Hanh is below.

Please consider joining me, Eliza, and other Still Water practitioners for our annual Lotus viewing on Sunday. This event is a wonderful opportunity to connect with nature and each other.

Warm wishes,

Rachel Phillips-Anderson

No Self
From No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life by Thich Nhat Hanh

Impermanence is looking at reality from the point of view of time. No self is looking at reality from the point of view of space. They are two sides of reality. No self is a manifestation of impermanence and impermanence is a manifestation of no self. If things are impermanent they are without a separate self. If things are without a separate self, it means that they are impermanent. Impermanence means being transformed at every moment. This is reality. And since there is nothing unchanging, how can there be a permanent self, a separate self? When we say “self” we mean something that is always itself, unchanging day after day. But nothing is like that. Our body is impermanent, our emotions are impermanent, and our perceptions are impermanent. Our anger, our sadness, our love, our hatred and our consciousness are also impermanent.

So what permanent thing is there which we can call a self? The piece of paper these words are written on does not have a separate self. It can only be present when the clouds, the forest, the sun, the earth, the people who make the paper, and the machines are present. If those things are not present the paper cannot be present. And if we burn the paper, where is the self of paper?

Nothing can exist by itself alone. It has to depend on every other thing. That is called inter-being. To be means to inter-be. The paper inter-is with the sunshine and with the forest. The flower cannot exist by itself alone; it has to inter-be with soil, rain, weeds and insects. There is no being; there is only inter-being.

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