Making sense of the Buddhist idea that the self doesn’t exist

By Robert Wright, Jan 18 2020
Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Joseph Goldstein, author of The Experience of Insight, One Dharma, and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening.
Robert Wright: Impermanence is ... a huge theme of the Buddhist worldvieweverything is impermanent, you have to accept that. Does that become vivid in the course of meditation? … 

Joseph Goldstein: Yeah. It very much becomes extremely vivid in meditation practice, because we're practicing being undistracted. As we're undistracted and just connected more to the flow of our changing experience, we see, over and over again, that things are arising and passing away.I'll just give you a couple of very simple examples.

At the end of a formal meditation sitting we might ring the bell. If you just ask somebody what just happened, [they’d say]: "Oh, I heard the sound of the bell”—as if the sound of the bell at the end of the sitting is one thing.

But if we're really being mindful as we are hearing the bell, we see that for however long the sound lasts—maybe 15 seconds, or 20 seconds, or 30 seconds—within that time, there is constant change going on. It's nuances of sound: vibration, intensity, pitch. So many different things are happening within what we would call “the sound of a bell.” So we're really seeing the changing nature on a much more refined level.

And the same thing happens with the familiar meditation object...the breath. Normally we go, "Oh, take an in-breath, take an out-breath”—as if each of them is a single unit. But when we're really being mindful, we see that even within an in-breath, there are hundreds of sensations that are happening. And the quieter we get, we tune in, we refine our perception.

It's something I call NPMs, Noticings Per Minute. In the beginning, our NPMs are pretty low, maybe 10 or 20. But as we cultivate awareness and mindfulness, the NPMs go way up and we see within a breath, or within a step, so many different changing sensations happening.

And we also see the changing nature in our minds, the rapidity of thoughts arising and passing.

And does that actually help? To take an extreme case of having to come to grips with something in life, and maybe being helped by a Buddhist perspective, let's say you lose a loved one. Does acceptance of impermanence actually help in a case like that? It seems a long way from listening to a bell and realizing that it's infinitely divisible and there's no one essence of a bell that endures forever, and grieving over—or not grieving over—the loss of a relative.

I think that for most people, the sadness and the grief are a natural part of the process. And so, I think, for most people, those are the emotions that are going to come because there's a loss involved.

However, the degree to which we understand that this impermanence, the changing nature is nature … —and the Buddha expressed it very often and clearly said, "Everything which has the nature to arise, to be born, will also pass away" — … the more we have internalized this understanding, [the more] we’re able to put the loss into a more natural context.

And so I think it gives us more balance with the emotions we may be feeling. We're not so totally caught up or identified with them.

And then there is, I guess, the somewhat separate fact that sadness itself is something you can meditate on and change your relationship too.

Absolutely. We can be aware of sadness, we can be mindful of the grief itself. And so, the meditator’s discipline, we might say, is learning how to open to these emotions without being totally identified with them. It creates a space in the heart and space in the mind for the emotions to arise and pass through. ...

Not-self: theory...
Another big theme, and one that people have more trouble wrapping their minds around, is the idea of not self, anatta or anatman. What can you say—well, first, by way of describing what that is supposed to mean—but I'm also curious as to how meditative practice in your view can help that make sense to you. ... To say that there's a sense in which the self doesn't exist, it just doesn't naturally normally make sense to people.

That's right. So many parts of the Buddhist teaching do resonate with our common sense. This particular aspect of the teaching doesn’t. It really requires a further exploration. 

I'll give you an example, which might help explicate what it means. We take the example of a rainbow. 

After a summer storm, the sunlight comes out and we see a rainbow in the sky. And generally, we feel happy at seeing a rainbow. It's a beautiful object of sight. But the question is, is there a thing in itself which is the rainbow? When we look more carefully, we see that what we're calling a rainbow is the coming together of certain conditions of light and moisture and air. And when these conditions come together in a certain way, there's an appearance of a rainbow, but there's no thing in itself which is the rainbow other than the appearance arising out of these conditions.

Self is like a rainbow. There is an appearance of Bob, of Joseph, of each one of us. There's an appearance which comes together, which appears because of the conditions of all our mental, physical phenomena coming together in a certain pattern. And we recognize the pattern. We call it Bob, Joseph, rainbow. And on a relative level, we are experiencing it. When we see a rainbow, we are responding to something. On a relative level, we can say rainbow exists, but on a more ultimate level, we see that there's no essential substratum which is rainbow.

There's no essence.

Right. And one Vipassana teacher really expressed this beautifully. Somebody asked him, "Is the self real?" And he said, "Yes, the self is real. But not really real." That captures these two levels. It is real on the relative level, and we interact on this level, it's the level of our conventional reality. We're not dismissing that. But we just see that on a deeper level, there's another whole way of perceiving things. Let me give you one more example.


I'm going to hold... I don't know if you can see me holding up a cup here.


On one level, the cup, it feels like it's something solid, and we use it, and we take water out of it, and we can describe it.

If we looked at this cup through a high-power microscope, or if we could perceive the cup on the subatomic particle level, there would be no cup. The reality of a cup would be completely gone, and we'd be experiencing things on a completely different level. 

And yet at the same time, the cup is here. It's not that this relative level of cup and the more ultimate level of we could say “insubstantiality” or “selflessness” are two different things. It's the same thing perceived on different levels. The value of this is the more we perceive the more ultimate level, then we live on the relative conventional level of our lives with less attachment and with more ease, because we understand that there's no ultimate existence to it, even though on a relative level there is. I hope that made some sense.

...and practice

Well, as you know, I've thought about this—and, by way of full disclosure, I've gone to meditation retreats at the Insight Meditation Society, which you founded—I've certainly tried to grapple with some of this stuff. But let me still give you some of the pushback I would think you might get.


So, rainbow. It's true: you look at a rainbow from the outside and it looks like a rainbow; on closer inspection, it's a little more complicated, it's not a thing per se, in a fundamental sense. 

But with a self, there's a difference. It's true that I look at Joseph from the outside and, on closer inspection, maybe the bounds of his being are permeable, there's energy coming in and energy coming out, and all that. But there's also that with the self, with a human being, unlike with the rainbow, from the inside, a given person—unlike a given rainbow, presumably—has this sense of self, ordinarily. 

So how, in meditation, is the internal perception different?

Yes, that's a great question. That really goes to the heart of the matter. Because we can talk about it theoretically, but the question is how do we experience this, and what's the transformation that happens when we experience it?


In meditation, the way we begin to actually experience, or get a sense, or a taste of the selfless nature of things very often is through the doorway of impermanence. That is, we see things with greater and greater refinement as arising and passing in each moment. Even consciousness. There are certain levels of meditation where we can experience consciousness itself arising and passing each moment. 

This is a powerful opening because then we're seeing that even when we may know thoughts are changing, and emotions are changing, the body is changing, we still may have the sense, "Well I'm the one who's knowing it all." And so the self then resides in consciousness. But at that point in practice where we see consciousness itself arising and passing away, that's like pulling the rug out from the sense of self. 

And it's a useful designation, I'm not suggesting that we get rid of it, because on the relative level it's really helpful—but as we see this arising and passing of consciousness itself, then we just surrender to the process.

But if we see it, don't we have to be conscious at that moment?

But that consciousness itself is arising and passing. And it's experienced as arising and passing. At that particular place in meditation practice, there's no hideout corner. The very observing mind is itself arising and passing in each moment.

Do you mean you have a sense of distance from your consciousness itself?

I wouldn't so much use the term “distance” as “non-identification with.” There's the experience of consciousness and every object of it—thoughts, emotions, sensations—there's the experience without being identified with them. And that's when we begin to get a sense of the selfless nature.

Thoughts without a thinker

You refer in your book to the idea of thoughts without a thinker, and the observing of that. Now, I think a lot of people are going to ask, "Wait a second. What's that like? When I have a thought, I think I'm the one thinking it." 

Tell us, what does it feel like, Joseph, to have a different vantage point on your own thoughts?

This is terrific discussion because it really is getting right to the heart of what meditation practice is about. Just a few examples. 

Both when we're sitting in meditation, but [also] in our lives, we're generally unaware when thoughts arise in the mind. 

So the thoughts come in, they slide in—they're very slippery—they slide in, and it’s as if we hop on these trains of association… And we don't know we're on the train, we don't know we've hopped on, we don't even know where the train is going. And then somewhere down the tracks, we realize, "Oh, I've been thinking." It's as if we wake up from being lost in a thought. 

In that whole process, there is a very strong sense of self thinking, "Okay, I'm the one.”

What happens as the mindfulness gets stronger and we begin to be aware of thoughts as they arise rather than after they're already over, ... it becomes much more obvious and accessible to be experiencing the thought in a way no different than hearing the sound. It's just another object appearing and disappearing in the mind. And so the thought comes and goes, and we begin to get a sense of the impersonality of thoughts. 

One little exercise to do—it's a fun exercise, especially if you're sitting in a group, just to play a little bit—is to imagine that every thought that's arising in your mind is coming from the person next to you. Just notice if that would make a difference in how you're relating to the thought. It can give you a sense that the identification with thought is extra. The thought itself is appearing, disappearing like a sound, but being identified with it is something we're adding.

Then, in meditation, there can be the sense that thoughts are just coming out of nowhere, so to speak—almost like voices, although it's not like you're hearing things literally...

Correct. It's just an appearance in the mind. 

And then there are causes behind it—it could be old memories that are coming up, it could be fragments of conversation—but none of the causes belong to us either. It's all causes and conditions creating what's arising. 

And it's very interesting, and very freeing, to be able to see thought in this way, not to be imprisoned by our thoughts. 

One of the most interesting exercises to do in meditation with respect to thoughts is, when the mind is thinking, to ask the question “what is a thought?” Not the content [of the thought], just [thought] as a phenomenon. ... In that moment, we can see so clearly how insubstantial they are. They’re like little energy bubbles. It's very ephemeral. 

And what's interesting to notice is that, when we're unaware of thoughts, they have tremendous power in our lives. They're like dictators in the mind. Our thoughts are saying, "Go here, go there. Do this, do that." Our whole life, we're just following the dictates.

And we normally think that that's okay because we're the ones doing the thinking, and we have our interests at heart, and so on.

That's true. But very often, as we know, a lot of thoughts are giving pretty poor advice.

We learn in retrospect, yes.

But the difference between the power that thoughts have when we're unaware of them, and how little power they have when we're aware that we're thinking—that contrast is quite striking.

Then let me see if I have this right. 

During meditation, you can begin to see (or come to believe) that, whereas you might have thought all your life [that] you're thinking thoughts—the thing you think of as you  is thinking the thoughts—it's closer to being the case that the thoughts try to capture the thing you think of as you. 

They come from somewhere in your body, somewhere in your brain, but whatever part of your body or brain you're thinking of as you is more like the captive of the thoughts. The thoughts reach out and try to grab it and carry it with them.

Well, I think that's an interesting way to describe it, and it certainly feels like that, but I would phrase it a little differently. 

It's just that the thoughts are arising, and there's a strong habit of mind to be identified with them. It's not so much that I think they have the intent to reach out and capture us, but rather there's just this very strongly conditioned habitual identification. This is how we've lived our lives. And it takes a practice to break that conditioning, to be mindful of the thought rather than to be lost in it. 

But let me just put it this way: thoughts become to seem much more like active things than passive things. In other words, they're actors in your consciousness that you've got to deal with and you're in the habit of going along with them, but that's not necessary.

Correct. And they become a lot less active when we see them for what they are, when we're not pulled into the drama of them. 

It's sort of like going to the movies. We go to the movies, and there's a very absorbing story, and we're pulled into the story, and we feel so many emotions: we're excited, or afraid, or in love, whatever. And then maybe, in a moment, we sit back and say, "Oh, these are just pixels of light projected on the screen." Everything that we thought was happening is not really happening. It's the same way with our thoughts. We get caught up in the story, forgetting their essentially insubstantial nature. 

When we have that basis of wisdom about the nature of thought, then we have more power to choose: Okay, which thoughts are helpful, which are going to serve me, serve others? Then we act on them. Which thoughts are not so helpful? Those we can more easily let go.

We've said, you don't really have to identify with your thoughts, even if you're in the habit of it. We earlier said you don't really have to identify with your emotions, even if you're in the habit of it... You can see how, if you start looking at all aspects of subjective experience like this, you could be led to doubt the very existence of self. And this is the logic, to some extent, of the Buddhist argument for the non-existence of self, as framed in a context of what are called the five aggregates.

Yes, yes.

The way Buddhists thought divides your experience into these five aggregates, some of which we've talked about.


That's the logic of the argument. There's nothing in your experience that you are really intrinsically identified with.

Exactly. Let me give you one more example, beside the rainbow and what we've just been talking about. This is an example I've been giving 40 years now.

Must be good.

It's one of my favorites. 

You go out at night and, if it's a clear night and the stars are out, most people can recognize the constellation of the Big Dipper. The question then is, is there really a Big Dipper up there? …

Big Dipper is a concept which we're overlaying on a certain pattern of stars, but there's no Big Dipper. 

So, self is like Big Dipper. The notion of self is a concept, just like Big Dipper is a concept, and we're overlaying that concept of self onto this pattern of mental, physical, emotional content. We're putting a name, we're giving a designation of Joseph, Bob, Big Dipper.

But what's interesting is that, even though we know Big Dipper is a concept and there's no Big Dipper in the sky, to go out at night, look up at the sky and see if it's possible not to see the Big Dipper—it’s very difficult, because we've been so conditioned to see in a certain way. 

It's helpful to realize that the concept of Big Dipper can be useful, just like the concept of self can be useful. One of the stars of Big Dipper actually points to the North star. If you're out in the middle of the ocean and you want to navigate, you need to find the north, the concept can be helpful.

We're not suggesting—either with Big Dipper or self—to get rid of the concept, but to understand that that's what it is. ... 

When we see that Big Dipper is a concept, even though we use it, what happens is when we look up at the sky, we see the sky undivided. It's possible to see all the stars as part of a unity. Imagine what it would be like if we could experience the whole world not bound or limited by the concept of the self. We need to use it to operate on the relative level, but if we have a deeper wisdom that it is just a concept, then so many aspects of our separateness falls away.

Right. And this is a different side of not-self that we've been talking about. We've been talking about not-self as doubting, in a sense, internal cohesion of what you normally think of as the self. But there's this other side of it, which you're now alluding to, which is doubting the firmness of the walls you see dividing your self from other selves.

Yes, yes. And this plays out on so many different levels—both on some grand cosmic level of non-separation, but also on very ordinary ways we separate. 

For example, there was the 16th century Zen master named Bankei. There's a book of his teachings called The Unborn, which is a wonderful book. There's one line in that book which just jumped out at me as having tremendous practical significance. He said, "Don't side with yourself." And I was thinking of how many interactions and conversations and relationships, in which we're engaged in and we have that attitude or perspective of siding with ourselves, and how freeing it can be not to side with ourselves, and actually to see things from another person's point of view. It just opens up the nature of relationship, and dialogue, and conversation.

And do you sometimes have the experience in meditation of the bounds dissolving or being more permeable and if so, what's that like? How do you get there?

There are many experiences in meditation—and no single one of them is the goal, because the goal is really freeing the mind from grasping—but in the process we have many, many unusual experiences. 

One of them is, as the concentration in mindfulness gets stronger, we begin to experience the body not as something solid, but rather as a fluid energy field. The experience at those times [is that] the boundaries are very dissolved, but it can be in a very peaceful way.

And can that entail, say, hearing a bird song or something and thinking, "Well that's no less a part of me than the signals I'm getting from within what is normally called my body”?

Yeah, that's exactly right. … There are times in meditation where we don't make the distinction of inside and outside. It's just a sound being known. And so that boundary very much can dissolve at times. But people don't need to be afraid that somehow they're not going to be able to navigate in the world, because, as soon as we get up from the sitting, we come back to our ordinary perception. There's no problem in this. It's actually quite freeing.

Selflessness as an ethical ideal

We're getting, I think, at the intersection of not self as a metaphysical doctrine and selflessness as an ethical ideal.

Yeah. And it's the latter which is most important. The metaphysics is all interesting from a philosophic point of view, but the Buddhist teaching is really about the pragmatism of freeing the mind and the heart from conditions which cause suffering. … It’s about, are we clinging, are we attached in a way that's causing us suffering? And can we let go?

Here's the question. Does the idea of selflessness in the metaphysical sense—beginning to doubt the solidness of the bounds between you and other beings—naturally translate into a more generous disposition toward the other beings who now seem less separate?

Yeah, it definitely does. As one teacher expressed it, "No self, no problem." If we're not holding on so tightly to a notion of self, then the natural consequence of that is more open-heartedness, more generosity, more compassion. 

[Another] teacher expressed it as "Compassion is the activity of emptiness." And “emptiness” here means “emptiness of self.” In that openness, the natural activity of that state is compassion and response. It's a beautiful opening.

You mentioned emptiness. When you apply the doctrine of not-self to everything in your field of perception—the rainbow and everything—and say to yourself, … “None of these things have an essence,” that sometimes is referred to as the idea of emptiness, as a perception about the world: "Wait a second, everything's empty." 

I don't know if you've had a strong perception of that through meditation. If so, and you want to describe it and also talk about the potential danger of carrying that in the wrong direction, feel free. Because you do get into this a little in the book.

Yeah. Now we're really getting to some—

Some deep stuff.

Yeah, some deep stuff.

You don't have to go there if...

I'll give it a shot. But keep in mind that this is very brief comments on a big subject. 

The reason the word “emptiness” is, in a way, problematic is that in English the word doesn't suggest something so healing.


It's empty, and vacuous, and blank. People aren't automatically drawn to this notion of emptiness as being something desirable. 

It's helpful to understand, first, that it's the English translation of a Pali and Sanskrit word “shunyata.” In Buddhism, it has a very specific meaning, and it means “emptiness of intrinsic existences” or “emptiness of self.” For example, when we understand that that constellation of stars is empty of Big Dipper. It doesn't mean that the stars disappear. It just means we're no longer creating a concept which solidifies them. And so the emptiness is really letting go of the concepts, which cover just how things actually are.

When we understand Big Dipper as a concept, nothing changes in the sky. Everything is as it always was. We’re just understanding it in a new way. And so it's the same thing when we talk of emptiness of selves. Nothing changes in our mind and body. It's the same sensation, same thoughts and emotions, same processes going on, but they're understood from a totally different perspective. And it's a perspective which gives greater ease.

Now, the danger you've asked about is that sometimes people either think about emptiness or get just a little glimpse of it, and then get attached to the notion, "Oh, everything's empty". And then it becomes very dismissive of the relative conventional reality, "Oh, this isn't important. It's empty. I don't have to do this. It's empty." With that kind of attachment, there's no spiritual development because everything is uplevels, but it's intellectual. [It] upleves to, "Oh, it's all empty. It doesn't matter. It's not important." 

One of the great Buddhists adepts Nagarjuna was talking about the difficulty of being attached to the solidity and relative truth of things. But he said, far worse than that is attachment to the notion of emptiness, because if people get attached to that notion, to the concept, then they have no place from which to progress.

Right. And that leads to nihilism.

Exactly. And so it's a very deep understanding that we have to actualize and experience. ...

I would like to ask you one more question in closing. How are you different? How is your life different as a result of the fact that you have done regular meditative practice?

Yeah, I've been practicing for quite a long time now. I got first interested when I was in the Peace Corps in Thailand, and that's more than 40 years ago. ... And when I look back over all these years, I see there's been a tremendous increase in easefulness of being because of greater acceptance of just whatever's arising. I don't get so upset by the different things that are arising in my mind. 

By investigating some of the unwholesome patterns that have been there, I've been able over time to really let a lot of them go. For example—and this is a common one for many people—just the judging mind, the critical mind, a mind that has a comment about everyone and everything. People report this a lot in their practice. And I've seen this a lot in my own mind.

At a certain point, one sees how ridiculous that is, what a waste of mental energy it is, and leans to really let them come and go in the moment, until they start coming a lot less. The mind becomes much less judgmental, both of others and, even more importantly, of oneself. There's a much greater sense of openness, of ease, of connectedness, and of just insight into impermanence, insight into selflessness. It really is a path of greater happiness as we practice.

Natural, quick followup—and I'm sure you've heard this—does that render you incapable of making moral judgements?

Oh, not at all. Because the very essence of the Buddhist teachings is wise discernment of seeing what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. Actions motivated by greed, hatred, delusion—we just say these are unwholesome motivations. Those motivated by generosity, by love, by wisdom, these are wholesome, and there's a lot of emphasis on discerning the difference and seeing in one's own mind the difference. That's a critical dimension.

Well thank you so much for taking the time. … Thanks so much, and I hope you come back and talk again sometime.

Thanks Bob. 

Illustrations by Nikita Petrov.

Support us on Patreon.

This site features only a fraction of the writing I publish in my newsletter.

Please, consider subscribing.