Anatta and Knowing Who You Are Amidst Political Turmoil
by Benjamin Leto
The doctrine of anatta – correctly translated as “non-self” or “not-self” – is perhaps the most misunderstood teaching of the Buddha and yet is arguably the foundation of his entire message. Indeed, when we realize that we are not the objects of our experience – including our mind and body – we accordingly realize that our existence is not subject to the survival of whatever it is with which we beforehand identified. Freed therefore from the need to preserve that which we are not, we no longer feel threatened by the decay and death that await our mind, body, and, well, everything. Being freed from any and all threats to our existence, we stop suffering. This liberation from our many false selves and the freedom from suffering that follows are that which the Buddha calls nibbana, or enlightenment.
From a western perspective, anatta is the answer to the age-old search for who we really are, affirming the wisdom of the oracle at Delphi made famous by Socrates that to “know thyself” is indeed the path to ultimate truth and happiness.
As the Buddha teaches, truth and happiness are available to all of us at any time if we but do what is necessary to realize them, and in a time when America is undergoing such political strife, the message of non-self – that is, that we are not our objects of experience, including our ideologies – offers wisdom and solace foreign to our Western culture which I believe are essential to our healing as individual Americans and unification as a nation. In order to demonstrate how the doctrine of anatta can benefit us in these trying political times, I will firstly explain anatta in greater detail, secondly how it relates to our traditional and day-to-day experience of the self, and finally how it can enable us to more effectively know what it is true, to begin productive political discourse, and to create genuine connection with each other.
As the Buddha reminds us repeatedly throughout the Pali Cannon – the basic scriptures of Theravadan Buddhism – it is our nature to identify with the objects of our experience, especially those we experience often. The more often we experience something, the more we feel we are this object; indeed, we conceive ourselves “as this object and in this object, and we conceive this object to be ‘mine’” (MN 1.3). Since we experience our mind and body literally always and everywhere, our mind and body tend to be that with which we mostly strongly identify. This is especially the case with our mind. In fact, our mind tends to occupy so much of our experience that the possibility that we are not our mind never even occurs to most of us. In fact, if we look closely at our Western intellectual and religious traditions, then, while we will undoubtedly come across the idea that we are not our body, we will likely never find the idea that we are not our mind either. We may see hints of this idea with some Christian mystics and a few other individuals, but generally speaking, it seems as though this rather basic belief in Buddhism and other Eastern religions never even crossed anyone’s mind in the West for most of its history.
The proposition that we are not our mind need not be some abstract idea or mere belief in which we have faith. In fact, if a mere belief is all anatta ever is for us, then we will have missed out on its true benefits entirely, as it is only through directly experiencing anatta that we can find the alleviation of suffering it offers us in the first place. The Buddha teaches that meditation is an effective way to discover the truth of anatta for ourselves, as meditation allows us to get more in touch with our experience – as opposed to our typical incessant and dissociative thinking that takes us out of touch with our experience – and therefore realize that, simply put, what we experience is not who or what we are. Indeed, in order to be mindful of something, this object of our experience must be separate from us in virtue of the fact that we are experiencing it. The experiencer cannot be the experienced any more than, say, the eye can be what it sees. The eye doesn’t suddenly become a tree when it sees a tree, for instance. If the eye had a mind, then it may likely begin to mistake itself for what it so often sees, but quick reflection would bring it back to the realization that if it is seeing something, then the eye must be a separate entity from what it sees in order to see it in the first place. Even the eye’s reflection in the mirror is just its reflection; the eye is not that reflection any more than the eye is anything else that enters its field of vision.
Just like the eye sees all sorts of things come and go, so too do we experience things coming and going. In fact, if we look closely enough, we realize that everything comes and goes. Nothing lasts. Nothing stays securely in existence. While this insecurity in the world may feel threatening at first, we can actually use this very impermanence to find solace if we allow ourselves to truly experience it, for in so doing, we can realize one of the most profound truths of ourselves: our self is not these things that come and go. Be they people, moods, thoughts, or even changes in our body, these things do not nor have they ever enhanced or diminished the fact of our existence: that is to say, we weren’t nonexistent before any certain phenomenon arose, neither have we ever died when, say, we exchanged an old thought pattern for a new one or when a romantic relationship ended. Instead, we’ve always lived through these changes, and this truth helps us see that who (or what) we really are is not inherently subject to impermanence. Having this realization – that is, freeing ourselves from that which “moth and dust doth corrupt,” as Jesus says – is possible, and it need not be something for which we must wait until the afterlife to experience. Indeed, we can experience this freedom from impermanence here and now, in this very life and in this very body, if we allow ourselves to experience our life – fully. “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” says Jesus, as well as, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand;” it is here and now, amidst impermanence and death!
However, if we shy away at impermanence and dissociate away from here and now to what I call “there” and “then,” this indicates (a) our identification with something and (b) our consequential unwillingness to admit that it is impermanent. In so doing, we inevitably perpetuate a false sense of self and subject ourselves to all the suffering thereof. So, in an effort to escape one form of suffering – coming to terms with the impermanence of the object(s) of our identity – we create for ourselves another form of suffering: the suffering of not knowing who we are, of having a false identity, of living in the world inauthentically. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say. This false identity hijacks our natural sense of self-preservation and uses it for its own ends.
Thus, when the existence of whatever it is with which we are identified is threatened, we feel threatened, and the threat to our existence is naturally the greatest threat we can feel. In an effort to avoid or overcome this threat, we devote ourselves to the preservation of whatever it is we believe we are.
Such was, for instance, the motivation in past centuries to find the Holy Grail, as it offered the possibility of preserving the body forever, which was of particular interest to those who identified with their bodies.
Now, it should be noted that having a sense of preservation for, say, our mind and body, is actually perfectly fine if we seek to preserve them simply because we value them. It is only when we try to preserve them because we believe we are them when we have a problem: namely, we suffer. It’s one thing to preserve something simply because we value it, but it’s another to preserve it because we quite literally believe our life depends on it. Indeed, in striving to preserve our false self – whatever it may be – we not only devote ourselves to the preservation of that which is not only not who we are but is also doomed to decay and death no matter how hard we try to preserve it, as impermanence is the nature of everything. Our only escape from this suffering  – which fortunately happens to be the most profound peace we can experience – is therefore to stop identifying with the impermanent: that is, to stop identifying with everything.
This liberation from suffering includes learning to view our beliefs as non-self. In not identifying with our beliefs, we free ourselves from the self-preserving emotions inherent in personalizing our beliefs, namely feeling threatened when our beliefs are threatened and feeling secure or even superior to others when our beliefs seem correct. The former is obviously problematic, but the latter seems less so, so we are far less inclined to do anything about our beliefs when we think we’re right. After all, it feels good to have all the answers! In either case, self-preserving emotions influence our evaluation of our beliefs, and, indeed, of all propositions. For example, if someone suggests an idea that opposes our belief, then, if we are identified with our belief, we will feel personally threatened at the possibility of our belief being wrong. This may make us aggressive towards the other person or simply bring us to discount their evidence no matter how good or bad it is.
We fear feeling shame, self-criticism, worthlessness, and every other feeling that will likely arise if we admit our belief is wrong. People, tribes, and nations literally wage war over disagreements about and criticism of beliefs, so great is the degree to which they feel threatened by those who believe differently. Millions – and dare I say throughout history, billions – of people have died as a result. Clearly, identification with our beliefs is not to be taken lightly.
We must take upon ourselves this same seriousness when we evaluate our own beliefs and the beliefs of others, or else we will be inclined to affirm our beliefs regardless of the evidence and to deny opposing beliefs, again regardless of the evidence. In other words, when we identify ourselves with our beliefs, we invite inescapable bias into our evaluation of beliefs and therefore rob ourselves of any possibility of finding the truth. Even if it is the case that our beliefs are, in fact, all true, we will not be able to truly know that they are all correct because our evaluation of them will be subject to the self-preserving bias that naturally arises when are identified with them. Again, when we identify with our beliefs, what is most important to us is preserving them at all costs, not our beliefs’ actual truth value. Since this priority of self-preservation over truth is based on the self-preserving emotions which arise from identifying with our beliefs, the antidote is therefore to impersonalize our beliefs. It is only then when we free ourselves from the fear of being wrong, and is therefore only then when we are free to judge beliefs and propositions without emotional biases. In other words, it is only through impersonalizing our search for truth that we are enabled to find the truth in the first place; any other search cannot but be influenced by the emotions inherent in the preservation of some false self. Indeed, we can only know the truth if we live and practice anatta.
In the Sallekha Sutta, the Buddha compares skillful orientation to beliefs to unskillful orientation as follows: “Others will adhere to their own views, hold on to them tenaciously, and relinquish them with difficulty; we shall not adhere to our own views or hold on to them tenaciously, but shall relinquish them easily” (MN 8.12.44). This is an especially striking statement given the Buddha’s repeated adamancy and assurance that his teachings are, in fact, true, and that they lead to enlightenment. Thus, he tells us that even if our views and beliefs are correct, clinging to them is unwise and unconducive to the alleviation of suffering. Since the Buddha – a presumed enlightened and historical person – teaches nonattachment to even his own teaching, then how much more should we consider nonattachment to our own beliefs so as to become less identified with them! Perhaps in so doing, we will become better able to consider the possibility that we may not, in fact, have all the right answers, and that some of those who disagree with us may not only have good reason for believing what they do but may, in fact, be right. Regarding politics, perhaps we can become aware and even skeptical of the quite frankly arrogant perspective in both political parties that those who disagree with us must be inherently flawed themselves simply because they disagree: that is, that they “must,” say, be prejudiced or that they “must” be anti-American.
Perhaps in reviewing much of what we’ve taken to be true, we can ask ourselves if we have contributed to the state of affairs we see today. The advice of both Buddha and Jesus comes to mind when Jesus says to “first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (emphasis added). Seeing this clearly can only come after we’ve made the sufficient effort to not be identified with our beliefs so as to free ourselves of bias and the according self-preservation which, as mentioned, has often proved destructive. Indeed, instead of blaming others or letting fear or anger get the best of us in this highly emotional time, let us first look inward and ask ourselves if the changes we are so sure need to be implemented are even the right changes at all, or if those who disagree with us are actually as wrong as we believe. An example in recent history of Western philosophy demonstrates this point well. Karl Marx, the co-author of The Communist Manifesto, writes: “The philosopher has hitherto interpreted the world. The point is to change it.” He believed that philosophers had done enough sitting around and thinking about the world and that all their philosophizing needed to be put into action. (Monty Python does a great skit about this in which he portrays a soccer game with some famous philosophers who do nothing but stand around for the whole game.) Of course, Marx most certainly has a point. Nevertheless, philosopher Martin Heidegger responds to Marx’s criticism of philosophers, saying: “By citation of this sentence and by following this sentence, one overlooks the fact that a world change presupposes a change in the world’s conception, and that a conception of the world can be won only by the fact that one interprets the world sufficiently.” In other words, Heidegger points out that our conception about the world determines the changes we make in it, and, especially given the disastrous effects of the implementation of Marx’s ideas, it is wisest to first make sure our conception of the world is accurate before insisting on its implementation. Naturally, this task requires serious reflection and elimination of personal bias as we reflect.
Now, I am not suggesting that we question ourselves to a point that is not healthy. Self-doubt offers little value beyond helping us to realize that we can, in fact, be wrong sometimes, and that we therefore should not have absolute confidence in our every belief. But again, this does not mean that we should doubt ourselves incessantly. Instead, in the spirit of anatta, I am suggesting that we impersonalize our beliefs so that we are not biased in our investigation of the truth and are therefore able to discover what is right and accordingly discuss political subjects rationally. Imagine the kind of peace we could bring to a political discussion if we knew that we are not our beliefs and that therefore nothing in this discussion could threaten us in the even slightest. We wouldn’t be afraid of being wrong, wouldn’t need our beliefs validated, wouldn’t be inclined to base our beliefs on bad evidence or disregard on point the evidence of those with opposing views, and wouldn’t feel the need to personally attack anyone for their beliefs – and were they to do so to us, we wouldn’t feel threatened because we wouldn’t be identified with whatever they attacked in the first place. We’d simply recognize their “personal” attack as irrelevant to the discussion and point the discussion into a more skillful direction, namely, a discussion about actual political ideas. Indeed, if we were true to anatta, our only interest in this discussion would be the truth. We would feel safe enough to open ourselves to the truth – whatever it may be – due to our knowledge that we are not our beliefs and so are not under threat if they are wrong. We would feel free from fear so as to simply let reality be what it is, and all the better that we have a discussion with other people to help us better understand reality together.
Maintaining such composure and clarity in political discussion, as well as simply in our personal studies, is essential to the existence of any healthy-functioning society. The Founding Fathers knew that democracy could only work in a society that was both moral and educated, but if we identify with our beliefs and thereby blind ourselves to our self-preserving emotions resulting from identification with our beliefs, then we rob ourselves of both genuine morality and education. This is because in falsely identifying ourselves, we subject ourselves to the self-preserving emotions which motivate us to think and act violently and unintelligently. Thus, in identifying with our beliefs, we effectively turn ourselves into the very people for whom democracy cannot work, and, given the amount of people today who are as identified with their beliefs as one can be, it should come as no surprise that our political climate has become as negative as it has.
But breaking out of the destructive pattern of false identity is no easy task. Indeed, we are taught almost always, nearly everywhere, and from most everyone that we are our beliefs, and the strength of this conditioning is a true challenge for even the strongest person.
In fact, this omnipresent pressure to identify with beliefs was so strong even in the Buddha’s time that he considered not sharing his message to the world after he became enlightened, well knowing that his message was “difficult and hard to see” by a society so strongly identified with everything it was not – which, in the spirit of anatta was and is, well, everything. Over two thousand years later, things haven’t changed much, for when it comes to “being on the watch,”  as Jesus says, so that we don’t mistake our belief systems for who we really are – or anything else, for that matter – we human beings fail colossally. Identifying with this and that religion, political party, and culture, we quite literally identify ourselves with the very things that distinguish us from one another – namely, our differences – but then wonder in bewilderment why we have such difficulty finding common ground and relating to each other. Indeed, if we find our identity wholly in that which differentiates us from others, then there is no possibility for establishing any kind of common ground between us whatsoever. Thus, in order to create a space conducive to genuine connection with each other, we must first recognize our objects of identity – be they political or religious ideologies – as not-self. My view on immigration, your view on abortion, her view on Donald Trump, his view on racial relations – we must realize that these beliefs are inescapably marked by “non-self” precisely because they are only beliefs, and we must resist the urge to justify our attachment to and identity with our beliefs simply because we “know” our beliefs are right. Even the idea of non-self is itself a belief, which means that it too is not who we are, and thus, we should not be attached to it. In Buddhism, there is a saying that to truly be a Buddhist, one must give up Buddhism. In other words, Buddhism is about the truth of who we are, not about grounding our identity in a belief system, even if it is a true belief system. Thus, to mistake Buddhist ideology for who we are – “I am a Buddhist,” we might believe – is to miss the teaching’s message entirely. Again, as the Buddha tells us in the Sallekha Sutta, attachment to views is never conducive to real truth or happiness even if our views are correct.
In a political climate of so much hate and misunderstanding, it is essential that we recognize the depth within ourselves that can never be limited to mere belief systems – or anything else – for it is in this depth where we find not only peace but also the clarity necessary to attain and maintain true beliefs in the first place. If we lose ourselves to hate and if we identify with the ever-changing political ideologies of the world, we rob ourselves of the ability to find healing and truth, and we cannot therefore offer them to others. “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” asks Jesus. The answer to his rhetorical question is, of course, a resounding “nothing,” for in so doing, we lose our souls – our true sense of identity – to the false selves of whatever ideology with which we identify and therefore to all the forms of suffering that arise when we try to preserve the impermanent. We become as the cowering rats for whom ancient sages grieved in the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, and as cowering rats, we can hardly help anyone else. Truly, if we are to enable others to find within themselves that which transcends even their strongest convictions, we must first find it in ourselves. After all, we can only ever give what we have. As the Buddha says: “That one who is sinking in the mud should pull out another who is sinking in the mud is impossible; that one who is not himself sinking in the mud should pull out another who is sinking is possible. That one who is himself untamed, undisciplined, with defilements unextinguished, should tame another, discipline him, and help extinguish his defilements is impossible; that one who is himself tamed, disciplined, with defilements extinguished, should tame another, discipline him, and help extinguish his defilements is possible” (MN 8.16, emphasis added).
We live in a time in the world’s history in which all of the world’s wisdom is available to us at our mere fingertips. Let us use the unique wisdom of anatta to change ourselves so that our mere presence in the world gives it the truth, wisdom, and compassion it so desperately needs. One candle can light a thousand. Let us be that one candle, answering our human call to self-discovery by realizing that we are not who or what we think we are, including even our greatest convictions.
 It is worth noting that I am not subtly advocating for or against any political figure or ideology here, neither will I do so anywhere else in this article. The reality of the recent political climate is that people on both sides have endured suffering from this past election, and until the lack of respect for those who disagree with us diminishes, anger, hatred, and extremism will follow, and healing will continue to be necessary.
 I hesitate to use this word since it connotes identification with consciousness. In the true spirit of the Buddha, he teaches against any and all kinds of identification. So, I do not mean to suggest that there is a self to be found in the “experiencer.” However, in writing that, I do also wish to specify that I do not mean to imply that there is therefore no self either, as this is a demonstrably false understanding of anatta given several occasions when the Buddha teaches against the belief that there is no self. Again though, I only wish to specify that in regard to anatta, all forms of identification are rooted in delusion, so I use the term “experiencer” here loosely to argue my point that we cannot be that which we experience.
 So too is our self-image a mere reflection and not who we really are, and it’s especially important to remember that some mirrors are dirtier and/or blurrier than others: that is to say, some of our self-images are quite wrong, so we need not take so seriously the compulsion to, say, believe we are a loser or that we are better than other people.
 We often say – or hear others say – that we are trying to “find” ourselves, but if we think about this phrase in light of anatta, we will quickly realize its absurdity. Indeed, whatever “self” is found couldn’t possibly be our true self, for we are the ones who have done the looking and the finding for this “self” in the first place! If something can be found at all, it is not the self. Anatta therefore gives us an entirely different framework in which to operate as we struggle to “find ourselves.” I suppose that what we truly mean when we use this phrase is that we’re searching for our truest feelings, our true passion, or perhaps our calling in the world, and as objects of experience, these things can surely be found. But that there’s a self to be found . . . this is impossible.
 Naturally, this includes allowing ourselves to fully experience our often-terrifying “inner worlds:” in other words, our psyche. This can be a difficult task given our predisposition to block out painful beliefs and psychological states, but we must nevertheless do the necessary inner work to allow into our awareness everything inside ourselves which we strive so hard to keep buried. Everything must come to light, for it is only in light – that is, in awareness – where we can see things for what they are, realizing that no matter what it is that we experience inside ourselves, it is always just an object of experience. Therefore, it is inevitably marked by non-self and is not the real truth of who we are. But, this comfort comes only after we face whatever darkness we fear, and thus it said that we must have faith, or that we must first jump in order for the net to appear. We might need to, say, face a certain anxiety and allow for the possibility that our worst fear might come true in order for solutions in our mind to present themselves or in order for us to realize that our anxiety is based on a delusion altogether.
 It is also worth noting that even if it were somehow the case that that with which we identify were not impermanent, there is still the simple reality that we suffer simply in the act of identifying with that which we are not. It is as though our mind says to us, “Hey, that’s not you!” when we identify with this emotion, with that self-image, or with some personality specific to a certain stage in our development. Our inner child, for instance, rebels when we identify with our introjected parents, but our introjected parents tend to get stricter with us when we identify with our inner child. Whenever we identify with something in our mind, there is always something else in our mind to fight back. Again, our mind doesn’t let us get away with believing we are someone or something we are not. Thus, when we stop identifying with any and all parts of our psyche – which in turn enables us to give our full awareness to all of the voices in our psyche without preference to one or another – we find peace.
 John 8:32, a famous verse from the Bible, reads: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (emphasis added). It is not the truth which sets us free, but the knowing of it. The awareness of truth is what we need, not just the truth. Indeed, most spiritual traditions teach us that the truth is already here; we just can’t see it, and that’s why we’re suffering. The truth doesn’t suddenly appear when we discover it. Indeed, in order to discover it, it had to have already been there in the first place or else there would have been nothing to discover. Thus, even if our beliefs are true, we can’t reap their benefit until we know they are true. Living the doctrine of anatta is an effective way to become aware of the truth, as it enables us to find ontological separation from our beliefs and therefore the freedom to evaluate them without bias.
 This is an important truth for our happiness and simply our sanity. A psychological fact of being human is that we are not truly able to open ourselves up to life and to the truth if we do not feel safe to do so. Recognizing our need for safety and working skillfully with it are skills which we must develop on our path to awakening and simply in our day-to-day happiness. While we must certainly leave our comfort zones to, say, find the truth, we must balance our adventuring with safety and security as well.
 It being the case that is our tendency to identify with our objects of experience, we must always be on the watch so that we do not mistake any “graven image” – or a thought – for our experience itself. Some Abrahamic faiths hold idol worship to be so evil that they have a history of executing those who are guilty of it, and while this response to idol worship is seriously misguided (to say the least), the seriousness about this sin is not without good cause if we interpret the teaching as a symbol for mistaking an image for the thing itself. Indeed, when we make this mistake regarding our own identity, we create the very condition which is quite literally responsible for all of the suffering in this world, namely believing we are some “thing.” When we identify ourselves with objects of our experience – be they thoughts, emotions, our body, or even our own self-image, which is itself just a thought with a series of emotional reactions attached – we degrade ourselves to the anxiety, depression, and hatred inherent in the struggle to preserve that which is not only doomed to die but is not even who we are in the first place. And there is perhaps no greater tragedy than forgetting who we are, as again, it is the cause of arguably all clinging, all delusion, and therefore all suffering.
Benjamin Leto formally studied philosophy following a personal crisis as a young man and found himself meditating for hours per day a few years later. He spent a period in a Zen Buddhist monastery and has studied with Theravadan monks as well. He runs his own business called "BodyMind Fitness," in which he teaches personal training, physical therapy, proper dieting, meditation, and the benefits of mindfulness on the body.
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