What part of you is really you?

In Buddhism, we talk about the concept of “no self”, the idea that things have no intrinsic existence of their own. Take a moment and look down at your hands right now, they’re probably holding your phone or holding the mouse, ready to click away from this article (don’t do it!). But look at them and ask yourself: [mks_highlight color=”#eeee22″]”are these hands really me?”[/mks_highlight] What if you lost your hands in an accident…would you still be you? Of course right? Now look at your legs and ask the same question: “If I didn’t have these legs, would I still be me?” What part of you is really you? I mean, what part of you, if removed, would make it so that you are no longer you? Take a minute to think about that. Is there any part of your body that if it was gone, you would know with certainty that you are no longer you? Maybe you’re thinking, it’s my brain, my brain is what makes me who I am. Well, what specifically in your brain makes you, you? Is it your personality? Your memories? Your abilities/skills?

Look at your personality: Does personality change over time? Can a traumatic brain injury change your personality? It sure can (there are countless stories just like this one). If your personality were to change due to a traumatic brain injury, would you still be you? Absolutely! Albeit a you with a different personality than the you from before. It doesn’t even have to be that drastic. Think back to the you from 10-15 years ago and ask yourself if you’re the same person. Compare the you from middle school vs the you from high school vs the college you, the married you, the parent you, etc… If you’re like me, you’ll notice that those are all different people, yet they’re all me. I think of it like this: “that’s who I was back then, this is who I am now.” So if your personality isn’t you, then what is you?

What about memories? What if you lost all your memories? Would you still be you? My grandma suffered from dementia in her final years of life and when I would go visit her, I had to remind her of who I was, and often I had to remind her of her own name and where she was. Even without her memories, she was still my grandma. Your memories are a precious part of you but they’re not you.

We often believe that our abilities/skills are what make us who we are. I consider myself a “techie” or “computer nerd” and yet if I was stranded on an island for the rest of my life without any technology, I would still be me. Consider a singer who loses their voice, an artist who loses the hand with which they paint, a dancer or an athlete who becomes paralyzed. Do you see where this is going? [mks_highlight color=”#eeee22″]The things that you think make you who you are end up being only parts of who you are but none of these things alone are you![/mks_highlight] It’s like a car, you can take the engine out of a car and ask, “is this the car”? The answer would be no, because now you have two things: the engine of a car, and a car without an engine. For it to simply be a car, it would need an engine. The same applies to the tires, or the steering wheel, or the windows. All the parts of the car make the car a car and yet none of the parts alone are the car. You are who you are because of everything that makes you who you are and yet none of those things alone can be called “you”.

So how does the Buddhist concept of “no self” apply to your everyday life? Why is this concept useful? Consider this: next time you’re offended by something that someone says or does to you, ask yourself “what part of me has really been offended?” analyze it like we did above and you may soon discover that the concept of “no self” can be an incredible tool for letting go of the “ego” because your ego isn’t you!