The Buddhist idea of Non-Self or Anatman seems far too foreign to bother much with, a fancy term for an idea we are too busy to have.
Whilst Non-Self can be a profound experience discovered through meditation, what’s important is all of us can experience a little of what it’s like in our daily lives.
Think of a moment in your past when you stopped what you were doing to look at the sunrise or sunset. For a few brief moments, you thought no thoughts, your life was put aside, and you just experienced. That’s existence without the needy ego-driven mind in the driving seat.
Such a state of consciousness without thoughts is the meditative state: no mental formations or thoughts, just awareness, the mind quiets down. It’s not a state our mind goes to easily because we’re concerned with the problems of our lives; here, the thinking mind of reason and analysis does the work.
Another place where we enter this mental state is Flow, as psychology calls it. Here sports focus the mind; thinking would impair performance. Think of martial artists; thought would impair the ability to win a fight. For surfers, it might cause them to fall the wave; such activity needs a depth of concentration where the Self disappears.
For me, practising art can do this; I can become so immersed in the work that the mind quiets down because art is not an analytical approach but a sensory, aesthetic one.
It reminds me of the Centpiedes Dilemma, hyper-reflection or Humphrey’s law. It’s a poem that gives name to a psychological effect. “No man skilled at a trade needs to put his constant attention on the routine work”, he wrote. “If he does, the job is apt to be spoiled” If you try to think about an automatic skill, such thoughts impair the performance of that skill.
Behaviour, when mastered, becomes subconscious muscle memory. It’s what in Japanese is called ‘Mushin‘ or No Mind, a mind free of obstacles. In Chinese, it is called Wu Wei or Effortless Action. Buddhists will sometimes say this is having a mind like a mirror.
It’s not a new understanding; the word Ecstasy comes from the Greek ἔκστασις ekstasis, which means ‘To be beside our outside yourself.’ We usually think of Ecstasy today as a pleasurable sensation or experience. But in flow states, there is no such sensation.
We can find this altered state of consciousness in work, religious practices and rituals, sex, music, dance, exercise, and psychoactive drugs. We sometimes call these ‘religious experiences, but it’s nothing supernatural. It is part of what our minds can do.
Confusion arises when we try to wrap our minds around these experiences. But the lesson the Buddhists teach is that you can’t. In that flow state, you’re connected in a way your discerning mind can’t fathom. All of this is hard to explain because I’m trying to convey reality and experience that can’t be squeezed into words, but I’m trying to use words to explain that.
Reality is grasped as it is without conceptual thought getting in the way, a ‘naked reality’, a reality shorn of concepts, is met, and the Self falls away. We get to experience that feeling of connection to the work to each other, nature, and the world. We come to see our relationship to the world; we’re an interconnected web that’s part of a more extensive web.
The Self is an idea a narrative we tell, words are about a self and essence. Words will never be enough to capture that experience of Non-Self.
In Buddhism, Non-Self can seem like a very esoteric idea and a special place for special people, but the Buddha was sure everyone could achieve what he achieved and experience Non-Self in their lives.
Image Credit: Maurício Mascaro