Last week our Sangha worked with the mindfulness task of watching our hands as if they belonged to a stranger. This reminded me of the Buddhist teaching of not-self.
As I did this task, I noticed that it was very easy to imagine my hands belonged to a stranger. They seemed to move on their own, or at least they were usually one step ahead of me. They performed their complicated maneuvers with amazing grace and precision, before I had even consciously formed any intention to complete the task they were undertaking.
When I say that my hands seemed to perform their tasks without “me,” I am describing an experience of not-self. As I observe them, my hands do not seem to be part of my self-identity. For most of us this begs the question, “Where or what is my true self, if it doesn’t (for example) include my hands?” Or, “Who directs the hands?” Or, “What is the nature of the self if so much of it is unconscious?” We might turn toward those actions of body, speech and mind that feel unambiguously self-generated and try to trace the intention back to locate our self.
This is a natural response when we endeavor to understand our true self-nature. It is probably impossible not to try and locate a self within us, just as it is nearly impossible not to flinch if something is headed for our face. Over the course of spiritual practice we will search for our self again and again, even when we try not to.
The tricky thing is that our self cannot be located. Our true self-nature is no-nature, to quote the Zen masters. Our life is a flow of dependently co-arisen phenomena that features a certain continuity due to the law of cause and effect. This continuity can be mistaken for an inherently-existing, independent, substantial self, and that mistake is the source of suffering. As long as there is a substantial “me,” that “me” needs to be protected and maintained against a universe that frequently seems to be against me.
To be liberated from the delusion of an inherently-existing self, we do not find our “true self,” because there isn’t one. Rather, we recognize in phenomena over and over again, “Not-self, not-self, not-self.” We turn the light of awareness on our experiences and recognize that none of them qualify as being part of the inherently-existing, independent, substantial self we so dearly hope exists.
Eventually, having failed to find a single thing that confirms the existence our inherently-existing self, the thought occurs to us, “What if there isn’t one? What if I made the whole thing up?” For a moment we dare to drop the paradigm of self, and the world appears to make a whole lot more sense. Many of the questions and issues that plague us when we are caught up in self-identity view simply drop away. Our attention turns toward the miraculous unfolding of this experience we call a human life.
It takes countless instances of recognizing not-self before we can loosen our grip on our conviction that the self inherently exists. A moment of noticing the fact that our hands seem to move without “us” becomes a moment of teaching.
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