The Magic of No Self

We don't like to suffer, and we take personally when we do. We have definite ideas about how things should be, and we don't like that they aren't. The Buddha's genius was his simple recognition and articulation of the obvious reality that people experience life as unsatisfactory and impermanent. Everyone understands this, and everyone resists.

He also said that there is no self. Dissatisfaction and impermanence are tough to deal with. Desires are infinite and we live in a culture devoted to the fulfillment of desires or, failing that, distractions. We experience ourselves as so very real, so individually distinct, and we are so consumed by desire that the notion that it is all empty is just confusing.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains the idea of no self through the simple analogy of a cloud, an ephemeral event made entirely from non-cloud elements. The sun drives the cycling of water from the atmosphere to the ground. When conditions are right dust and water vapor come together to form a cloud which quickly fades away. Clouds are simple but the basic process is the same for life processes. Flowers are composed of non-flower elements. Oxygen and carbon dioxide, water, seeds and decaying matter effortlessly create a beautiful flower that blooms, reproduces and quietly disappears. Form is emptiness and emptiness form.

We're not so different. The human body is made up of continuously recycling non-self elements that come together in the miracle that creates seemingly distinct and remarkably complex beings who are, amazingly, self aware. It is the factor of awareness which makes us truly unique. We are the one life form imaginative enough to believe itself somehow independent of the flow of nature and even capable of denying that a flow of the natural world exists. We can believe the universe was made just for us.

Every self has its own sad story that is made up from non-self elements. Here's mine: When I was 16 years old, my father disappeared to suicide. I've known enough suicide now to know that it is a distressingly common manner of death. I didn't know that at all then, and my mother and brother didn't either. The immense grief that we felt was compounded by intense feelings of guilt and shame. I felt that I'd been a bad son who had driven his father to his death.

Impermanence is actually a wonderful thing. The loss of someone close changes your life forever but you get used to it and limp on into the future. For decades my father lived in the recesses of my imagination, a figure of mystery, guilt, anger and grief. I had no idea who he really was. He'd been in the military during WWII and he spent two and half years in North Africa and the European theater as a glider pilot. Like most guys who saw a lot of action, he didn't talk about it much and when he did, he didn't reveal much. He called it "The Great Hate," and told me that he flew paratroops behind enemy lines in gliders and that the only reason any of them ever jumped out was because they were afraid to stay in it. The stories he told my mom were funny, concealing more than revealing. My mother kept collections of WWII journalist Ernie Pyle's articles on the war about the house. She told me how important they were to her, but they read like a John Wayne movie looks. Pyle too concealed more than he revealed. It helped everyone survive.

There's a tradition in the Buddhist monastic system of monks spending nights in charnel grounds to help them come to terms with the reality of life's end. The closest we come to anything like that is in our arts. I'm thinking of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."

Spielberg taught us what WWII was like. He covered all the bases, the staggering scale of the slaughter and the deadly variety of horrors that would haunt the survivors. There are the people men see die, the people they kill and the failures of nerve that get people killed. There is no political point and, really, no bad guys in the film. There are just a bunch of ordinary, normally good guys who are honorably and heroically trying to their dying breaths to kill one another.

The film opens with the now old Private Ryan enjoying a stroll through a military cemetery with his family in Normandy. All seems fine until he comes upon the grave of a friend. He falls to his knees in a flashback through which the story is told. When it ends we come back Ryan coming back to himself, pitifully begging his dumbfounded wife and family for assurance that he has been a good man.

The first time I saw this scene I burst into tears with the shock of recognition. Ryan was my father. Spielberg captured the universal nature of war. It is my father's story and the story of a million other guys just like him. They lived with wounded hearts, hiding the shame and terror of the experience and feeling horrible about it. This is tragic because they were blameless. Fate had thrown these guys in into a raging inferno that devoured all human intention. Survivors couldn't talk about it much but they could pass the feeling on to their loved ones, kind of like and infection.

The wounds I inherited from my father became my personal story. I was mad about it as long as I believed it to be unique. When I finally understood that my hurt is a universal hurt, the hurt remained but the anger left.

The universal wound is inescapable. Allowing yourself to feel the pain of it without creating a story is the experience of no self. Feeling life just as it feels, going to the heart without trying to escape is transcendence. The only way I know to approach this is through mindful awareness, anchoring attention to the breath and shifting awareness from the scheming brain into the aching body.

Human history is a story of mutual antagonism based on an imaginary sense of self. The religious challenge, that we've so far resisted, is that we widen our circle of compassion. We will survive only if we can learn to stop hurting one another and stop hurting the earth. Thich Nhat Hanh has been an important teacher for me. Exiled from Vietnam for decades because he preached reconciliation, he never speaks a harsh word. Practicing in the way that he taught, I've come to understand that he is a great teacher because he's had a lot of practice with difficult emotion. He writes little practice verses to keep us mindful. I leave you with one:

I know that anger makes me ugly

I do not want to be controlled by anger

I know I need to take care of myself

Loving kindness is the answer