Anatta 101: I Do Not Exist.
I do not exist. Not in and of myself.
I first had this realization a couple of years ago as I was trying to pretend that other people didn’t exist.
You see, I live an interesting life. A life with little quiet. A life in which I often feel alone, but with few opportunities to actually be alone. In the bath. In the bathroom. In my head.
Since I experience little quiet time, it takes effort to quiet my own mind once I do get a moment of solitude. Meditation helps. Over the years, I have learned to focus and concentrate my mind in non-ideal (read: not quiet) situations, though it can still be a challenge.
As I have few moments of quiet available, I try to make every moment count. This was one of those rare moments when I took the time to stop the earth from spinning for a bit, in order to focus my intention.
My intention was to let go of my grasping to others, and in the process I stumbled hard upon the realization of anatta.
I have been meditating on emptiness for quite some time. I have had insights and inspiration of the imagination as a result. I have experienced visions of vivid character and color; visual/conceptual representations of emptiness.
Burning insights into the form of emptiness, which always simultaneous reveal the oneness of everything.
But, it’s easy to get wrapped up in me. In my own oneness. Me, one, alone. And in my shit. Wrapped up in the hard work and suffering. Wrapped up in emotion. Wrapped up in a blanket of longing. Those are the times when meditation is especially important, empowering, and rewarding.
Of course, those are usually the moments when more effort is required to calm and focus. It takes practice to make those moments, those breaths, count. But every once in awhile, in the midst of less than ideal circumstances, the insight comes. As a result of effort.
Suffice it to say that I was a little more than surprised to find that, in light of the emotional upheaval I was feeling, I managed to combine past effort with practice in order to elicit significant insight in a brief, yet opportune moment of quiet.
Of course, this insight came years ago now, when I first began to write this piece. I’ve returned to it several times, always altering the timeline in the introduction to fit the current moment.
Each time I return to it, and to the reason I started writing it, I ask myself, “Why have I stepped away and come back to this piece so many times?” And each time I answer my own question. I return because I still need to. I need to remember, re-realize, re-fine the notion that I do not exist.
Not in and of myself. Not in the ways my ego would lead me to believe.
Like I said, I originally gained this insight, I mean, really got it, while pretending that someone didn’t exist. I did this as a means to counter my intense longing for his presence. The exercise in pretending turned into one of focused meditation, which eventually turned into a direct realization.
During this exercise of the mind, undertaken initially to minimize discomforting thoughts and emotions, I realized, in fact, that the person I was imagining away actually does not exist. Not in and of himself.
Not independent of the causes, conditions and impressions which constructed and constituted him in my mind.
In that moment, and even in this moment, that person is not graspable. Not a solid, liquid or gas in front of me. No voice, no scent. Not able to be held or to hold me. Non-existent in the physical sense at that moment, in that place, in that time.
At that moment, he was solely the thoughts, perceptions and memories I had of him. In fact, for all intents and purposes, he still does not exist. Nor do I.
Once I realized that the object of my thought experiment could actually be found to be non existent, I realized that I, myself, was no different. A point I have been meditating on for years now; sometimes with success, sometimes without.
Many things can take a person out of existence. Not the least of which is meditation.
So, as I was attempting to erase pain from my thoughts for the one I longed for, I was struck by the realization that my own pain and loss were non-existent as well. I think I will write that again. Just to make the point clear to myself.
My own pain and loss do not exist. They do not inherently exist, but are merely the thought habits and delusions I have held on to.
Searching for the self is a meditation that many Buddhists have counted as a centerpiece of practice for thousands of years. Recitation of the Heart of Wisdom Sutra is a daily practice for many Buddhists, including those Tibetans practicing within the Mind Only Middle Way schools.
Funny enough, these Tibetans are themselves, a personage and lineage who, according to any world map, do not exist.
There is no Tibet. You will not find it on a current map. It does not exist. Simple fact. And a prime example of the lovely conundrum that is this exercise.
While Tibet is no longer formally recognized to exist, there are many bodies, minds and souls on this planet that would not hesitate to call themselves Tibetans. Tibet is real, but it no longer exists.
Its reality persists within the ideals, philosophies, practices, habits, impressions, perceptions, influences and effects of its people. And their resilience of identity. I cannot be formally recognized either, outside of the perceptions and constructions that I myself and others use to define me.
I do not exist. Nor do you. Each time I try to identify me, I am unable to find a solid, substantial something with which to work.
I just cannot grasp my self when I am thoroughly investigating what that self is. Where it is. Who it is.
I believe this occurs for a couple of different reasons. I believe this because I have investigated it to some degree and have actually spent a good deal of time trying to find myself. Without success. Inherent in my lack of success is the essential nature of who and what I am.
I am comprised of lovely nothingness, as are we all. Emptiness. In its widest, most expansive and magnificent natural form.
This can be shocking when first encountered. So shocking in fact, that it can lead to nihilism, defeatism, apathy, even depression, if not taken a few steps further. Or further back.
Grasping at the self is one of the roots of samsara, the endless cycle of birth and rebirth we are all experiencing, according to Buddhist philosophy.
Grasping at and holding on to the idea that each one of us is a stand alone individual who thinks, feels and experiences our lives in an original, egocentric, self oriented way is a delusion. And a trap. A cage that holds us to the cycle.
No man is an island, right? No one person exists in a vacuum, removed from their surroundings, companions, events or influences.
I believe we are comprised of and created by one another. The perceptions, constructions, and inter-related causes and effects we are creating are, in turn, creating all we see, which is all we are.
Call it atoms, particles, spirit, ether, life force, God… call it what you like, call it Love if you dare, but know that we are all a part of it. And it is a part of us, and so… I do believe we are all part of one another.
We are inextricably connected to one another.
This concept, this connection, makes it extremely hard for me to support the idea of an independently existing self.
It cannot be that any one of us would be separate from another.
What happens to me does not just happen to me.
What happens to you does not just happen to you.
We are we, intertwined, always experiencing the flux, and always changing.
Which brings me to my second piece of evidence against the existence of the Self.
I am always changing. We all are. Always changing.
This makes us impermanent. I have no choice but to acknowledge this fact, as I live it daily; there is no escaping it. I am impermanent. I was born decades ago, and have not stopped changing for one instant since that point. I will continue to change all through my days.
Malleable is my form, my perspective, my location, my appearance, my habits, my career, my family structure, my home, my basic preferences, my beliefs, my convictions. I am ever changing, and that is another reason why I just can’t pin myself down.
And that’s good. I believe that because I know it is how the world works, how nature works. Change is good because it is inevitable. It can be difficult, trying, downright awful… but it is the nature of our world. And change means we are still alive. And being alive is good. Even when it hurts.
Even when it’s filled with longing or loss. When it’s filled with laughter and lightness, it’s good, too. And it will all keep changing, just as I do.
“… there is no permanent non-changing thing inside of us, nothing can be called ‘me’ or ‘mine.’ The realization that there is nothing called a permanent self within us and a ‘me’ or a ‘mine’ should bring down barriers between ‘ourselves’ and ‘others.’
Pride, possessions, and ego should vanish out of our thoughts or at least begin to be weakened.” ~ Anthony Perera
And so I return to this piece, again and again, looking to lose my self. Trying to grasp anatta, in order to let go of grasping.
I return to it, I guess, because I feel some responsibility to share my long ago insight, and to remind my own self of the fact that it is okay. Everything is fine in this moment.
My thoughts and perceptions reinforce my ego, but like so many non-existent Tibetans around the globe, like so many meditating monks have tried to pass down over the epochs, like the wise men and women of the past, present and future… like the object of my longing, and my desire itself, my ego can really never convince me that I even exist.
Anatta wins, and there is no race.
There is no pain, there is no fear, there is no longing or loneliness. There is emptiness. And we fill it all, we comprise it all, all of us. We comprise it and create it, just as we create our selves. Just as we contemplate others into and out of existence. There is no me.
I do not exist, in and of myself, but rather as you see me, and as I create my self for you, through my words.
There is nothing now, but the aim that somehow, by sharing this small conception of my self, we may all continue to change and evolve toward the realizations that can free us from suffering and bring us closer to enlightenment.
Closer to the the realization of the free and true nature we all contain within our non-existent selves. We simply do not exist as fixed permanent entities. Which makes it much easier to just let it all go.
“Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of such a separative soul, self or ‘aatman’.
According to the teachings of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary false belief which has no corresponding reality and produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’.
Buddhism insists that the soul is not a rigid unchanging entity but a living evolving organism. The soul, as Buddhists understand it, is an ever growing, changing bundle of attributes or characteristics, forming our character and personality.
All of these manifested things, when analyzed are found to lack continuous form or unchanging substance. In reality there is nothing infinite apart from finite things.
Whatever exists is in a constant state of flux, through and through, like the flame of the lamp, and all existence is in a process which continues to constantly renew itself.” ~ William Gilbert