The Buddhist concept of – No self (Anatman, 空 kū)

‘To study the self is to forget the self.’

One of the more well-known ideas from Buddhism is the notion of No-self or non-self and is one of the three marks of Existence (Pali: tilakkhaṇa; Sanskrit: त्रिलक्षण, trilakṣaṇa, Japanese: 三法印 sanbōin).

The Buddhist idea of ‘No-self ‘(Sanskrit: Anatman, Japanese: 空 ) is an idea in early Buddhism that deal with how we see our existence.

The Self

To explain what No-Self means, I have to start with the Self.

At its most basic, the Self is the notion we’re a separate entity; there’s an enduring part of us that makes us who we are.

It’s the feeling, attitude, sensation, and even a belief there’s this fixed, unchanging essence resides at the core of our being – a soul, spirit.

A thinker who thinks, a person who acts, a feeler who feels, a senser that senses, the owner that possesses. 

The Vedas and Hindus taught there is a personal soul or Self, an Atman. Rene Descartes was sure of himself existing because he had thoughts – I think therefore I am.

Creation of The Self

The Self is created through our grasping and clinging.

The notion of the Self arises in how we think and talk about our existence.

We think of possessions as ours; they belong to ‘me’, or ‘I.’ ‘I have this car’, ‘this is my dog’.

Possessions like our house, body and phone are one example. But also other things, from ideas, beliefs, emotions to moods, perceptions, values and will.

Alternatively, we dispossess ourselves of the same things. We reject ideas, things, objects, emotions, denying they belong to us. It’s where our likes and dislikes, wants, and don’t want are expressed—artists, sports teams, music, cars, TV shows etc. Our list of preferences can be very long.

Grasping for possessions and making them a part of ourselves is how we make our-self; it’s a fabrication. We create the idea of a Self and the ideal Self we can aspire to become.

The idea of the ‘I’ or ‘me’ is expressed but never examined, it slips by unnoticed, and we accept it.

What we see here is that life is full of ornamentation. Objects, ideas we use to decorate our existence to give is shape and meaning. Objects like toys, cars, a home, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, wants and values.

I want a new car, a new home, to be loved, to be single, to be married, to have kids, to have a well-paid job.

We possess a body, a soul, and belief and think of it as our own.

Such possessiveness is how the fiction of the Self is written. The narrative always has the Self at the centre, self-centeredness.

Self and suffering

The Self is linked to suffering because we grasp for it.

We are led around by our expectations and wants and feel disappointed when they’re not met.

We get attached to our possessions and are upset when they are lost.

Such clinging neediness creates worry, stress, unsatisfactoriness, or Dukkha. i.e. suffering. For others, including myself, is the feeling of worthlessness and lack of meaning. Alienated from the world, we suffer in our loneliness.

The world seems scarier because we feel so alone vulnerable, so we do what we can to not feel this way. Our addictions to food, nicotine or drugs, even social media, games, is a way to escape such suffering. We seek comfort and safety, even amid lies and deception.

We grasp for possessions to mollify such stress. The drive to succeed, gathering wealth, material possessions, status, power, or control. 

Such addictive grasping doesn’t give us the security we need; this is why suffering is a cycle of Samsara.

Possessiveness comes from a place of insecurity. With the idea of the Self, we worry about finding ourselves, where to find it, recognise it, and know it.

We also worry about losing our possessions, especially the ideas we use to describe ourselves. ‘who will we be without these things!?’

Suffering comes from the belief the world has to live up to our expectations. We get upset when events don’t go our way, as if the world owes us something.

Yet no truth says the world or the cosmos is obligated to us. It doesn’t have to make sense. 

No matter how much we try to find that security and comfort in our grasping possessiveness, it will never happen. Change is inevitable; it’s part of existence.

The solution is to recognise the Self as Illusory.

Liberation of the Self

To be free of suffering, we need to see the illusion of the Self that drives it, the behaviours that cause it.

Siddhartha Gautama discovered whilst meditating that he couldn’t find the fixed and enduing Self. He did this by examining all the aggregates that make up a person (these are called Skandhas).

The failure to find anything fixed means existence has no enduring essence; the sensation of a Self, or enduring existence, must be illusory. This is the insight of enlightenment that made him the Buddha.

To elaborate further, it’s not that we don’t exist, but instead, we are mistaken about our existence. We mistake this fabricated image for a fact. The illusory Self is always seen as fixed, whereas the true Self is always in motion. In Buddhist cosmology, all of us are interconnected and in flux.

distant mirage
Mirage of the Self

Consider a mirage. The image is that of water on the surface. We know there is no water on the surface; it is an illusion. But the illusion persists despite that knowledge.

The Self is like the water on the surface. It shows that Non-Self doesn’t mean non-existence; the mirage is there, that’s real enough. But it implies reality is not quite what it appears. The Illusion of depth in 2d art is like the Self, it seems to be there but it’s not.

These illusions of the mind are why it is sometimes dubbed ‘The Mind is Maya’. Maya is the Goddess of illusion in Buddhist thought.

We don’t have any permanent feature or part that makes us who and what we are. When we see no fixed self exists, the insight hits us; there’s nothing to cling to.

Further, that understanding and we can see grasping is the cause of our suffering. A habit we have, reinforced by culture and language.

So what is the Self?

If the Self is not this fixed essence, what is the Self, because we do exist?

The Self is not something to dig down and excavate but arises with the connections to the world.

Your Self is the fluid, emerging, becoming in each moment. Our Self is this changing experience we’re having.

Think of the idea of a ‘Zeitgeist’, literally the Spirit of the moment or age’. It’s a feeling, trend or tone of an era. This is just like the Self. It neither sits still nor is is definable, but changes with the times.

So the Self, like the Zeitgeist, is not fixed. We have a zeitgeist-like Self that makes us who we are now, that makes this moment you in.  It’s the collective mood, activity, and change we sample and call a Self, a spirit of the moment.

The Self you have now is not the self of the future. It doesn’t endure unchanging, but it still exists changing.

In contrast to the western idea of the fixed Self or soul. But in Ancient Greek, the word Pneuma (πνεῦμα) is the word for “breath” and, in a religious context, for “spirit” or “soul”. It shows our ideas about Spirit or soul have become corrupted into thinking it’s fixed. Our breath is unchanging always flowing, to try and hold your breath in place is to loose it.

We misunderstand what the self is, that’s the mistake we make.

Closing thoughts

Non-self is one of the important features of the Buddhist way of looking at our existence. It’s hard to wrap our heads around the idea of Non-self Self because it undermines and reveals how we typically see the world.

We don’t ‘have thoughts’; we are our thoughts, feelings, sensations and all the rest. All bundled together with a narrative and changing moment by moment. The Self is a creation of our mind.

‘You are a verb that thinks itself a noun.’

Anatman (a later Sunyata) is not questioning what exists but how it exists. We believe in separate objects, like a game of billiards. Buddhism, and modern science, however, see the cosmos as a Web of interdependent connections.

The drive of Buddhist teaching is to get us to see the illusions of the separate objects. The self is more a kaleidoscope, not the instrument, but the patterns you see, changing and shifting. Shapes arise and disappear.

Our possessions, feelings, ideas, perceptions are the same, and even beliefs will come and go. None of these things is us.

To address our suffering we need to become less attached, less possessive of the idea there is a ‘I’ or ‘me’.. I learned that to search for the Self is to liberate from oneself. Once the illusion is seen it liberates us from clinging too much to our possessions.

Without a Self to cling to, we become less Self-absorbed, less caught up in the drama the mind creates and instead take steps to find health and happiness in our lives.