Timothy DeChenne, Ph.D. The Buddhist notion of “no self” (anatta) is probably the most puzzling bit of wisdom in the tradition. The idea has gotten a good deal of media play recently, but it remains opaque to many readers. This essay aims to briefly explain the notion in a straightforward way. The background to the idea is another Buddhist notion: the impermanence of all things (anicca). Now this idea is easy for just about anyone to grasp, because we see the process all around us in daily life. All things come and go. All things are made up of parts, and the parts are in constant change, arising and passing away. It seems no matter how thin we slice the moment, there is always some kind of change going on in every split second. Eventually all things we recognize dissolve completely: you, me, the thought or feeling you had a moment ago, the tree outside, the stars, and the chair you’re sitting on. Of course, sometimes we don’t notice impermanence. Change can sometimes be, for a time at least, invisible to the naked eye. In the case of the chair, for example, we would need special equipment to detect electrons flowing off the surface. But of course if we just waited long enough, eventually changes to the chair would be easy to see. The notion that nothing has a separate, permanent essence may be easy to accept for things. But not so when we’re talking about the self. When that subject comes up things get complicated. Yes, we all understand that we grow old, get sick, and die. Our physical impermanence is obvious. But that’s not what anatta refers to. It refers to a mental or psychological matter—the proposed absence of a separate, permanent self. At first glance this seems absurd—just Eastern mumbo jumbo. What do you mean “no self”? I’m right here! I’ve been here all these years. I have detailed memories. If you don’t believe me, ask my friends and family. Are you trying to suggest I don’t exist as a person? Absolutely not. The existence of a psychological pattern I know as “me”, recognizable not only to myself but to others, is not in dispute. What is in question is whether or not this self-pattern really exists as a permanent thing, separate from everything else. Buddhism suggests that what we call “self” is actually impermanent, that it changes continuously over time. Evidence for this is not too hard to find. After all, psychologically we are not the same at fifty as we were at fifteen; most of us would agree with that. There might be broad similarities across the two ages—we might have been outgoing then and still outgoing now—but clearly considerable change has occurred. There is a metaphor drawn from nature that describes well this impermanence of self. Consider an eddy, a small whirlpool that forms at the edge of a stream. Looking down on it, it has a recognizable pattern. If you look away and then look back down again, you will recognize it as the same eddy. But if you continue to look at it for a while, you will see that it stays the “same” only in a general, abstract way. The swirls are actually changing their shapes in little ways all the time. And then, before you know it, the eddy breaks up completely. “Yes”, you might say, “I’m changing in little ways all the time. But I still feel like the same self across the years. That’s the point.” The Buddhist response is that this feeling is a kind of illusion. Let’s explain with a modern example. Say you’re driving at night and you see a warning light. It seems to be one light moving from left to right. When you get closer, however, you see that there are many lights, rapidly blinking in succession from left to right, creating the illusion of only one light moving. So too, the argument goes, for the sense of a historically continuous self. In this case the “rapidly blinking in succession” is accomplished with the help of memory and imagination. Rapid shifting between memories, perceptions of the present, and imagined future scenes is itself enough to create the illusion: that tenacious sense of an unchanged self moving through time. “OK”, you might say, “I understand that changes occur in some parts of what we call the self. But what I’m really talking about is me the thinker, the presence I feel behind my eyes as the center of thought. This is myself and it is a separate thing.” The Buddhist response is that there is no thinker separate from thoughts. We no more “think our thoughts” than we beat our hearts; rather, our hearts just beat, and our thoughts just come. There are actually several lines of neuroscience evidence consistent with this perspective, but of course Buddhists did not arrive at the conclusion through research. For them it sprung from meditation. In a type of meditation some call “choiceless awareness”, the meditator is a calm and accepting observer of all experience, including thoughts. In this practice—when done skillfully—one does not think; rather, one just passively observes thoughts, letting them come and go as they will. And what happens? Well, thoughts still occur, over and over, about all sorts of things. You are not thinking, you are not calling thoughts up or pushing them around, you are just awareness. But still thoughts arise. Who is thinking them? Experienced meditators tend to have the same answer to this question. They tend to stop identifying so much with their thoughts. The meditator is simply awareness; thoughts are something else, and they arise and pass away on their own. The meditator is simply awareness; “self” is something else, and it also comes and goes. Whether or not you agree with this perspective, I hope this explanation will help you navigate the flood of popular press currently surrounding the idea.