Anatta, which means not-self, is one of the most important concepts in Buddhism, the definitive one even perhaps. To understand it opens the doors to growth in your practice, and yet to understand it fully requires one of the hardest of things to do – not thinking about it.
Descartes famously said “I think therefore I am”, so you might conclude that when it comes to not-self we should be able to say “I think I am not-self, therefore I am (not-self)”. And yet if you have ever said to yourself, “it’s all not-self” you likely found that you didn’t feel any less self than you did to begin with.
This predicament is illustrated in the sutta where Vacchagotta asks the Buddha a string of questions about whether the self exists, or does not exist, or both does and doesn’t exist, or neither exists or not exists and so on; the Buddha famously gave him no answer. After Vacchagotta leaves, one of Buddha’s monks asks him why he gave no answer. He explained the reasons why he couldn’t answer the questions and finished up by saying:
“And if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self, were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self that I used to have now not exist?'”
— SN 44.10
Aside from the technical reasons the Buddha had for not answering the questions he also recognised that Vacchagotta could only engage with the answers intellectually, so to give him an answer that he couldn’t understand would only lead to confusion, “I had a self before I started talking to you, so where did it go?”
This conversation was one that happened over 2500 years ago but our modern minds have the same limitation. The problem of understanding this issue lies really with the thinking mind, not with the concept of not-self. The thinking mind just cannot imagine not-self, in the same way that it cannot imagine being dead, it just isn’t capable of it. When we try to think about not-self we very quickly find ourselves confused, bewildered, and confuddled. This isn’t just a minor inconvenience but it is in fact a very unsettling and, can ultimately be, a very destructive experience. This kind of experience of confusion can cause us to doubt everything in our world, from who we are, to what we do, to our relationships. This kind of existential crisis can lead to spiritual crisis too, causing us to give up on our practices and move away from our teachings; and sadly can be so unsettling as to cause some people to have a mental breakdown.
This is one reason that the Buddha insisted that we need all three elements of the Triple Gem – the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha – to be present to allow us to build our practice successfully. The Sangha, i.e. the community of experienced practitioners, is indispensable for helping to guide us away from ways of thinking that will lead us to confusion, and to support us when we are going through a difficult patch in our practice. Practice should lead to calm and peace, so if we find that our thinking is leading us to feel unsettled and confused then quite simply we should stop doing it. By all means find an experienced practitioner or monastic to ask for advice, but put the thinking about it to one side for the time being.
You might have the opinion that if you never think about something then you can’t ever come to fully understand it, but through practice you can come to see that this is not the case at all. In the modern world we put so much emphasis on thoughts and thinking that we can get to the point where we just can’t imagine that there is any other way to learn or understand the world. Buddhist practice though requires us to see beyond the thinking mind and open ourselves up to the possibility that there is more to life than we think there is. In fact after practicing for a while you will come to learn that some things can only be understood fully by not thinking about them, and one of these things is not-self.
Not-self is conceptually very confusing and yet can be experienced directly very easily, and without it being upsetting. The simple act of watching the thoughts as they pop into our minds without attaching to them or interacting with them is an example of experiencing not-self. We see the thoughts, we know they aren’t ours, we know we are not those thoughts: those thoughts are not-self. When we are doing this our experience is actually a very calm one, a sense of relief comes over us when we realise those thoughts are not who we are, the body relaxes and the mind is cool and clear.
This kind of experience underpins to us that not-self isn’t something that is confusing or scary, and that the way to understand not-self is through direct experience. We need to use our mindfulness to watch out for all the instances of not-self when they happen, and the more we do this the more our understanding of anatta will develop.
The Anatta Lakkhanna sutta was the Buddha’s first detailed teaching on not-self and is an important sutta that is worth becoming familiar with. In this sutta the Buddha gives us examples of experiences that are not self: form, feeling, perception, mental formations (thoughts), and consciousness.
“Form, monks, is not self. If form were the self, this form would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’ But precisely because form is not self, form lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.”
We can use this statement as a point of investigation, for example we could investigate whether we can actually say ‘let this form be thus, let this form not be thus’ and have control over physical form. This could be anything from the colour of your hair to the size of your feet. Yes you can dye your hair, but you can’t wake up in the morning and have it change to the colour you fancy today just by saying ‘blonde today’. From this you can conclude that by the Buddha’s measure your hair is not-self because you can’t control it by your whim. And because you can’t control it, it lends itself to dis – ease; it will cause you disquiet because you are not happy with your hair (because it’s the wrong colour) and you need to dye it, and not only that but you need to keep dying it because it keeps growing! Dukkha.
We can also notice what happens when we recognise an experience that we normally take personally from the perspective of not-self. Like the thoughts we can watch in our mind, if we feel a pain when we are meditating then we can just observe it as a phenomenon. When we attach a sense of self to the pain, perhaps thinking “I’m in pain, my knee hurts” then we can observe how uncomfortable that makes us feel. The urge to do something about the pain, to get away from it can become overwhelming. But if we observe an experience where our knee hurts but instead we are just thinking to ourselves “there’s pain in the knee”, we notice that our relationship to the pain is completely different, it doesn’t bother us so much, and it doesn’t disrupt our mental calm. This is because we have recognised that the pain is not-self, it’s not me, I am not a person in pain, instead it’s just a condition, just something that happens when you fold human legs up in a sitting position and leave them there for a while.
To learn not-self through experience is fundamental because it shows us the benefit of fully understanding not-self: it frees us from suffering. When you only think about not-self all you get is ideas and confusion, but when you experience not-self directly you see that attaching self to the wrong things creates suffering, and that recognising these things as not-self relieves the suffering. This is the kind of feedback that will reinforce your desire to practice and to delve ever more deeply into the nature of the world, you will struggle to go further without it.
I’m not saying that not-self is something you can learn in a day, it is a deep teaching and the more you practice the more of its depth will be revealed to you, but to experience it isn’t complicated at all. It just requires us to be mindful and open, to recognise when the mind is attaching a sense of self to something, and to remember how much better it feels when we don’t attach a sense of self to something. This willingness to practice, to keep trying and keep observing is all we need, the rest of the pieces will just fall into place on their own.