Who are you? Who you were yesterday, may not be who you are today. Our true nature is that we are continually changing, evolving, and growing. There is no fixed permanent you. In this episode, I will discuss the Buddhist concept of “no-self”.
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Transcript of the podcast episode:
You are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 17. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about our sense of self.
Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. Before we start, I want to mention something that I mention every single time I record on of these podcasts and that is a quote from the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.”
Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode and if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating.
Let’s jump into this week’s topic. This week I’m excited to continue along the lines of what we discussed in last week’s podcast episode. The last podcast episode, I talked about the concept of truth being relative in space and time and the implications of that understanding. If reality or truth is relative in space and time, what does that mean for us individually. This is where the concept, the Buddhist Doctrine of No Self, comes in.
I’ve talked about this before in one of the earlier podcasts, but I would like to discuss this in a little bit more detail here mostly because it’s coming right off of the heels of the understanding that truth is relative and if truth is relative, then the self is also relative. I want to discuss that a little bit and hopefully this makes sense.
In Buddhism, there’s the term “Annatta” or “Anatman” and this refers to the Doctrine of No Self. That is that there is no unchanging permanent soul in living beings and this is a central Buddhist Doctrine and it appears in several of the old original teachings of Buddhism and you’ll find this concept taught within every Buddhist tradition out there now.
The reason this is so important to understand is because we have the tendency to relate to ourselves, this sense of self as a permanent fixed thing, and that can be the source of a lot of suffering for ourselves and for others and I wanted to get into that a little bit and see how does this actually apply in our day to day living.
In the West, Western psychology views the function of the mind that helps us to, or that creates the sense of self, as it’s just a simple function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences and it takes all the raw data or memories and all of our cognitive functions and it puts them into this recognizable narrative.
This narrative is what allows us to feel such a strong sense of self. If we didn’t have this strong sense of self, we wouldn’t really be able to make sense of anything as it’s happening to us. That’s the way psychology in the West treats the concept of why we have this sense of self.
In Buddhism, the sense of self, the answer to “There is no self” isn’t that you don’t exist. I mean, that’s obvious that we do because here you are experiencing life through the lens of your own collection group of memories and experiences and emotions and it’s all unique to you, but that doesn’t mean that there is a you that’s permanent inside that is a fixed thing.
One way to view this, there are two analogies that I like to use. One of them is fire. We’re all familiar with fire and if you have the right elements in place to create fire, fuel, oxygen, and then the process of actually lighting the fire, whether it be flint or however you start it, the moment you have fire, fire remains as long as the elements, or the causes and conditions, required for fire to exist remain. As long as you’ve got that fuel to burn, like wood for example, and oxygen to combine with that, then the fire keeps going.
At the same time, fire is not a fixed, permanent thing. You can’t freeze it and then look at it and say, “There it is. That’s fire.” Fire is the constant process of the causes and conditions that are enabling fire to exist. The flickering of the flame, it’s a constant change.
Another analogy here is when you think of a river and I like this one because a river’s a fixed thing in our mind. Think of the Mississippi River or the Nile River and it’s this fixed entity, but when you look closely, there is really no aspect of it that’s entirely fixed. The water that flows to create a river is continually changing. The water that was flowing in the river 10 years ago is not the same water that’s flowing there today.
Even the banks of the river, or what you would say are the edges, what defines the shape of the river changes and evolves over time. The sand on the banks of the river is continually being washed away and then there’s new sand that forms the edge of the river.
Sometimes even the direction can change. If you have a big storm and the water rises in the river, it may carve an entirely new path and then as the waters recede, the old path of the river was replaced and now there’s a new path on that specific leg of the river. Almost every aspect of the river is continually changing and yet when we think of a river, we think of it as this fixed thing. It’s always the Mississippi, but there’s no aspect of it that is fixed or permanent.
The Buddhist view of the self is very much like that river. We are a collection of many things that make us us. Our memories, where we raised, how we raised, the experiences that we have, the DNA that we have is inherited from our parents and from our ancestors. Every aspect of us is constantly changing and yet it’s in the present moment that the culmination of all these things allow us to be experiencing life through the specific lens that we’re experiencing it.
We’re like the Mississippi River right now. In its present form, it has a defined shape and it has a defined direction and a pretty regular water level height, but all of this is changing. None of it’s fixed or permanent and our sense of self is the same. Our memories are continually changing, we’re continually adding new ones, we’re continually forgetting old memories. Our emotions are constantly changing.
What’s interesting to me is I think that there is a part of us that actually understands and grasps this concept that we’re not fixed entities. We’re constantly changing and evolving and at the same time, there’s another part of us, the ego, that clings to the sense of self and says, “I am fixed, permanent, and unchanging.”
The example of the part of us that does understand that we’re constantly changing, you see it everywhere, right? You’ve all heard or perhaps even experienced it yourself the idea that, “When I said that, that wasn’t me. I was angry,” or, “When I did that, don’t hold that against me. I was afraid.” When we act under fear or under emotions like anger, we tend to look back on those moments and say, “That wasn’t me.”
Well, the thing is that was you. That was you in this constantly changing state of who you are. That happened to be you ten minutes ago when you were mad, that’s you, and then you get that ten minutes later, the “me” that’s here now and is no longer mad looks back and says, “That wasn’t me.”
That’s right, but that’s how everything is. It’s not just when we’re mad or when we’re angry. I think Snickers has done a really good job teaching this concept and the way they’ve done it in their commercials, if you’ve seen them, you’ll recall they show somebody acting in a certain way and then it says, “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” and then another character will feed them a Snickers bar and then it goes back to being someone else.
It’s like an entirely different person and the whole concept that they’re trying to insinuate is you’re not you when you’re hungry and that’s true, but the thing is it goes beyond that. It’s not that you’re not you when you’re hungry, it’s that there is no you that’s the permanent fixed you.
The way you are when you’re hungry may be different than how you are when you’re satisfied. It may be different than how you are when you’re completely overstuffed and full. It’s a different you when you’re angry. You’re a different you when you’re happy. You’re a different you if you just found out you won the lottery and you’re a different you if you just found out you lost your job.
Because there is no fixed, permanent you. That’s the idea is that you’re continually ongoing changing process much like the river, the Mississippi River, that seems like a fixed thing. I mean, we call it the Mississippi River. It’s not like we have other names for it. It’s constantly there and yet there’s not one single aspect of it that’s fixed.
With the self, it’s the same. We have a sense of self that seems permanent and fixed when the reality is that there not a single part of you or me that is fixed or permanent. We seem to notice this when we look … If you look back in time, I think it’s pretty clear to say, “The ‘me’ that was me ten years ago is not the same ‘me’ that is me today.”
It doesn’t have to be ten years. It could be if you’re going through a drastic change in your life, “The ‘me’ that was me a year ago when I was in that marriage is not the same ‘me’ now that I’m divorced and single,” or, “The ‘me’ in college that was very active and partying is not the same ‘me’ five years later that has two little kids or three little kids.”
Think about almost any example of yourself extending into the past and you’ll understand that that you is not the same you that you are now. There may be aspects of you that haven’t changed. Certain forms in your personality and that only aggravates this illusion that there must be a permanent, fixed you.
“The permanent, fixed me is this or that.” When the reality is just because a certain part of you hasn’t changed doesn’t mean that it can’t change and I talked about this the first time that I talked this topic because some of the things that we tend to cling to in terms of the fixed sense of identity.
An example of that would be our personality and how we are. Somebody who tends to always be a certain way only feeds that idea of, “Well, then there must be a permanent, fixed me,” but every aspect of you can change. All it takes is a fluctuation in hormones or a change in how your mind works because you’ve been in an accident. A traumatic brain injury can change you.
There are so many things that can change you. What part of you is then actually permanent and fixed? Well, you’re not going to find it because there is no part of you that’s permanent and fixed. You are a continually changing thing very much like a river is a continually changing thing and I think it’s awesome when we think about that.
Now in the world of psychology, this is explored a little bit by Carol Dweck. Carol is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and she’s done a lot of work on the idea of fixed mindset versus growth mindset and I really like what she’s done in her work and I want to talk about this a little bit. The concept of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset is essentially that everything that we do has to do with our mindset much more than it has to do with specific skills and talent.
She did more than 20 years of research to show that our mindset is more than just a personality trait. It’s not a fixed thing and our mindset determines if we become optimistic or pessimistic and it influences our goals, our attitudes, our relationships, how we are, how we raise our kids, and ultimately whether or not we live up to our full potential of how we can be.
Her research has found that we essentially have two basic mindsets, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The fixed mindset is when we tend to believe that all the things that we are, whether it be your talents, your abilities, personality traits, these are all set in stone. Intelligence is viewed as static and that leads to the desire to want to look a certain way. “I want to look smart and then I have the tendency to avoid challenges because I don’t want to fail at something that’s going to change the way I already have my perception of how I’m supposed to be.”
People with a fixed mindset tend to give up easily, they see efforts as fruitless, and they ignore useful negative feedback because it’s negative. With a fixed mindset, you’re continually threatened by the success of others. With a fixed mindset, you generally plateau early and you achieve less than your full potential. You tend to feel that you just are what you are.
This fixed mindset would be … An example of this is, “I am,” and then fill in the blank. Think about yourself here. Think about in what way do you view yourself with a fixed mindset. “I am smart,” or, “I am dumb,” or “I am,” whatever it is.
Now the growth mindset is different. The growth mindset, you view the world and believe that your talents and your abilities and your personality traits, these are all things that are continually evolving and they can be developed. Intelligence is something that’s developed. This mindset leads to the desire to continually learn and therefore a tendency to embrace challenges and to persist in the face of setbacks and to see effort as the path to success and it’s easier to learn from criticism.
With a growth mindset, you find lessons and inspiration in the success of others and it’s with a growth mindset that you can achieve high levels of achievement.
Dweck’s research with the fixed mindset versus growth mindset has a lot of implications in parenting. This is what interested me as the father of three little kids. The idea here is with your kids, you don’t want to give them the idea that things are fixed. This is the difference of saying, “Good job on your test. You’re so smart,” versus saying, “Hey, good job on your test. You studied really hard and you got a good grade. Good job for working hard.”
One tends to create a fixed mindset that makes people think, “I am this. I am that,” and if you’ve been told your whole life, “I’m smart, I’m smart, I’m smart,” and that’s what’s happening in school, the first time that you fail, instead of thinking whatever other circumstances were involved with failing, the first thing that comes to mind is, “Oh no, I’m no longer smart. This fixed part of me is not what I thought that it was and therefore now I have problems.”
In the last podcast episode, I talked about how there was that Facebook meme or quote going around that says, “What screws us up the most in life is the picture in our heads of how it’s supposed to be.” Well, that same thinking applies here. I think what can really screw us up in life is to have a picture in our minds of who we are and who we’re supposed to be and completely ignoring the fact that there is no fixed version of you. It’s like this growth mindset versus the fixed mindset.
In the growth mindset, or in the Secular Buddhist paradigm of understanding the world, all things are continually changing and evolving, including and especially you, your sense of self. This creates a very, very big difference.
If you were to look at yourself with a growth mindset, a mindset that’s not fixed, nothing’s permanent, and look at how you view your own successes and your own failures. These are fixed, permanent things. The way that we view ourselves can change drastically simply by the understanding that either we are fixed or we’re not fixed, permanent things.
If you spend the time looking for what part of you is a fixed, permanent, unchanging thing, you’re not going to find it and I would hope that you do spend time trying to explore that. If you do find that there is something, you’ll find it’s conceptual. I’ve talked about conceptual and empirical truths in the past and the idea here, again, is you can look for it and you might have an idea or a concept in your mind that, “I am this or I am that,” but it doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of psychological evaluation or scientific or empirical research. What you are constantly changing and constantly evolving.
Instead of this being a sad thinking, “Oh no, there’s no self,” it’s actually very empowering to realize, “Wow, what I am is just what I am.” If someone were to ask me, “Who are you,” traditionally I’d say, “Well, I’m my name,” and I’d give them my name, but so what. That’s just what I’m called and in my case, this one’s always been interesting to me because I’m an identical twin and growing up, I’ve always been confused with my brother and we were always called Nik and Noah. Almost like it was one name.
I’ve always had this sense of, “Well, there’s me, but then there’s us,” my brother and I and to this day, if I’m out in public and someone says, “Nik,” I always turn because I think they might be trying to get ahold of me. They just don’t know if I’m Nik or Noah, so I’m both. I’m Nik and I’m Noah. At least when you’re calling that name, I’m going to look at both.
For me, that’s always been a fascinating form of introspection in thinking, “Well, I’m Noah,” and I’ve also thought, “What if we were switched at birth? What if I’m actually Nik? What if I’ve always been Nik and he’s always been Noah and nobody knew because when we were born, somebody got confused and didn’t realize which was which and then they just started calling us the other name? What if I was always meant to be Nick and he was always meant to be Noah?”
I don’t know. Maybe those are just some of the things that twins think about, but it’s something I’ve always thought about. It happened later in life with my last name. Only about a year ago, I was doing a lot of family history and research and I’d always known that my last name is Serbian and I felt this strong sense of identity with my last name and what it means and where it came from and all the implications of my last name.
About a year ago, doing ancestry DNA tests and 23 and Me DNA tests and coupling that with everything I knew about my family history, there were aspects that did not add up and eventually what that led to was the discovery that my dad’s mom was not the daughter of who she thought her dad was. She had a different dad and the DNA is what proved all this when I was doing the DNA testing for myself and then for my parents.
It was fascinating to discover this whole sense of identity that I have to a name isn’t even my name. I’m not even supposed to be Rasheta. I’m supposed to be … Moody should be my last name, but it didn’t work that way and I still have a sense of attachment to my last name because that’s the last name that my grandfather gave to my dad when he adopted him, but it’s just a name.
This happens with one name. Three or four generations back, there’s this twist in the story that changes it all. Imagine in your case it’s very similar. If you could go back … We tend to carry one last name with us. It’s always the parental name, at least in our society, and it goes back generation to generation and it’s always one line, but if you were just to go back two generations, you actually have four last names. All four of them are equal parts.
One is the one that you’re going to carry with you, but you are just as much the other three in terms of DNA as you are the one that you happen to use and that’s only two generations back that you’re four. Keep going ten generations back, you’ve got over a thousand people who contributed to your genetic makeup, to your DNA, and out of those one thousand people, perhaps up to one thousand different last names, only one is the one that you carry today and you feel this strong sense of identity to that last name. Like that’s who you are, completing forgetting that you are also all those thousand other ones, but we don’t really think like that. That’s just part of our societal conditioning, I think.
It’s interesting to think about that. Our sense of self tends to want to attach and feel permanent and feel like it’s unchanging and there’s no part of it that is permanent or that doesn’t change.
Think about the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset applied to how you view yourself and there should be a sense of feeling liberated or free to be a continually changing version of you. I can’t think of a more exciting thing than to know, “Wow, what I am is just what I am, but it’s not permanent and it’s not fixed. That gives me freedom to work with it and change and evolve. If I have the tendency to always be in a bad mood, I’m going to work towards trying to change that.” There’s a lot of freedom in the understanding that we’re flexible.
While some things are hard coded in us through our genetics, not all things are hard coded or permanent and a lot like the Snickers commercial, “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” think about that. You’re not you when you’re mad, you’re not you when you’re ecstatic, you’re not you when you’re afraid. There’s so many versions of you that you would happily say, “Well, that’s not me,” but why stop it with the negative ones. Apply that to everything.
Every version of you under whatever set of circumstances you are, that’s just who you are under that set of circumstances and the “you” that you are right now is the you that you are right now.
With truth, we talked about how what was true yesterday may not be true today. Well, think about the implication of that. That means that the “you” that you were yesterday may not be the “you” that you are today and that is actually very liberating. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom when you understand that you’re not permanent and you’re not fixed.
What I hope you get out of all this is a sense of determination to grow, to have fun, to experience the process of being. I love that human being implies it’s this process that’s grounded in the present moment. You’re being and what you’re being is always contingent on time and what your being is grounded in the present moment.
Play with that and be. Go be and see how you’re being and compare it to different stages in life and compare those stages and different emotions that you’re experiencing and see how those change you and how you can work with those and what part of you evolves and changes over time. It’s a fascinating process and when you can completely allow yourself to just be with the understanding that you’re continually changing, there’s a stronger sense of compassion, self-compassion, because what you start to notice is that I can look back at a previous version of me and I can have compassion for that because I’ll say, “Well, of course I acted the way that I did. Based on what I knew at the time or what I was experiencing at that specific phase of my life, I did exactly what that me would have done. That may not be what the “me” now would do, but I’m not that same person and that person is not who I am now.”
That’s so much more healthy than to look back and think, “Why did I do this? I was so dumb,” or, “I would have never done that.” Well, of course you wouldn’t because that you isn’t the same you that you are now. We’re continually changing, continually evolving.
Practice this sense of compassion for yourself when you understand that the “you” that you are is not the same “you” that you’ve always been and it’s not the same “you” that it will always be. Where this gets really exciting is when you extend this freedom to someone else.
The person who cut you off on the road and you think, “That guy’s a jerk,” that’s applying a permanent, fixed attribute to someone who’s not permanent and not fixed and it may be that the person who they were in that moment is who they were in that moment and they did what they did in that moment because of all the circumstances going on in that moment.
Think of the Snickers commercial. This may be the easiest way to picture it, but just think, “Oh, they must be hungry. That’s not the real them,” and next time somebody does something, think about that a bit and think, “What could it be? Are they hungry? Are they angry? Are they afraid of something? What part of them is causing them to do this,” and understand that it’s not a permanent, fixed thing. That person that’s doing what they’re doing is not permanent and they’re not fixed just like you are not permanent and you’re not fixed.
I think this makes it a little more easy to have compassion for other beings because we’re all doing the same thing. We’re all being. In the present moment, based on the set of circumstances that are completely unique to each of us, our memories, our experiences, they’re all unique and I think one of the bravest you can do is to just show up and be seen as you and one of the most loving things that you can do is to allow others that same sense of freedom and let them be what they are.
What they are right now is what they are right now. It may not be what they were in the past and it sure isn’t going to be what they are in the future because that’s the nature of continual change. I think it gives us a lot more flexibility with how we view ourselves and how we view others.
That’s what I wanted to discuss this week in the podcast, the concept of the ever-changing self. The sense of self that’s not fixed and it’s not permanent and I think that’s what makes us so beautiful. We’re continually changing, continually evolving.
Hopefully this makes sense to you. I’d love to discuss this further. Those of you who are in the Facebook Secular Buddhism study group, be a fun place to discuss it there or on our Facebook page or on the blog in the comments. Wherever you want to, but I look forward to hearing from you guys and to discussing another topic in the next podcast episode.
Thanks again. If you enjoyed this, please remember to share, give it a rating, a review. I take all of your feedback very seriously and then I’m trying my best to improve these podcasts everyday.