Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

To chant or not to chant?

I feel very fortunate that I happened upon modern secular insight meditation at the time of life that I did. The four words that typified my experience of the dharma were wisdom, practicality earthiness and humour. It meant that I could access this amazing body of insights that the Buddha had without having to wade through, and possibly be turned off by, a body of religious ritual. I was also lucky to be exposed to some excellent dharma teachers early on in my exploration, who were incredibly knowledgeable, wise, intelligent, down to earth and generous[1]

This happen-stance also led me to participate in a sangha [2] for the first time – the Blue Gum Sangha on the lower north shore of Sydney. There I encountered more of these interesting people on a similar path, embodying variations of similar qualities. Between the teachers, the teachings and the sangha, I had a sense that anything could be questioned and that was attractive to me too.

That was until one Tuesday evening someone decided it was a good idea to do some chanting at the beginning of the meeting. I can’t quite remember how it all happened but the upshot was a fairly emotional diversity of opinion about whether it was appropriate to chant at such a meeting. There was a good portion of the group who felt very strongly that it was appropriate and who seemed to have an emotional, dare I say it, attachment, to doing so and a belief that it was a good thing. It felt like I’d just found the limit of topics that were up for questioning.

There was also a good portion of the group who felt uncomfortable with it – who had aversions of varying intensity. I was one of those and the aversion came from two things. First, it reminded me of the Catholic church that I had left behind – not a negative memory but my habitual pattern was to tune out. Secondly, it seemed to me that any exotic ritual was a slippery slope that could easily tempt people into identifying themselves with an exotic image. While I wouldn’t say the group was overjoyed about having this practice questioned, I’m glad to say it tolerated it and weathered it.

A number of these knowledgeable teachers I’ve referred to have stated in one way or another, that the concept of ‘dependent arising’ is the core of the dharma; that if we see dependent arising, we see the dharma. Dependent arising is simply the observation the Buddha had that nothing happens on its own; everything is brought about by conditions being a certain way. His core teaching is that with awareness, we can see the conditions of our own experience and how they play out and this ‘in-sight’ allows us to let go of the faulty beliefs we have about things and the pain and discomfort that go along with them.

If the principle of dependent arising is correct, and certainly all the knowledge and experience I have to date concurs with it, then there are very few stimuli that can be labeled universally as good or bad, helpful or unhelpful. Whether they are helpful or unhelpful depends on the patterns of association we have with them.

Let me give an example. A couple of years ago I had lunch with an old client of mine Andrew, whom I’d worked for as a consultant and whose company I’d enjoyed. He had retired and we live not too far from each other so we caught up, had lunch and went for a walk on the beach while we chatted. On the way back to the car park I was chatting away when he said sharply “look!”. I looked and what had caught his eye was a small snake that was hurrying across our path from one bit of bush to the other. I love nature, including most critters, and I responded with delight: ‘oh wow, isn’t it beautiful!’. I remember Andrew’s surprise at my reaction. He too thought snakes were amazing creatures and he was expecting me to scream or scramble away in fright. He was surprised and pleased that I had responded differently.

This is an example of the fact that between a stimulus and a response, there is a gap, and that gap is where our six senses (sight, sound, touch[3], taste, smell and thought – the Buddha considered the mind for some purposes as a sense organ) form patterns of association that drive our reactions [4]. It’s important to point out that emotions are part of this equation – they are physical sensations. So the stimulus itself is not good or bad (in this case the snake), it’s our body/mind’s relationship to the stimulus that determines our reactions. As Rick Hanson [5] says, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’, so whether something is pleasant or unpleasant depends on what we’ve associated it with. For me and Andrew, to see a snake in the wild was a privilege and we felt lucky and uplifted. For many, it’s a fearful experience.

So back to chanting. Whether or not chanting is helpful depends on two things. First, what we are trying to achieve and secondly, what associations we have with it. With regard to the first point, most who come to the dharma do so out of a wish for more happiness of some kind whether that’s peace, kindness, calm, love etc. Ultimately, the dharma is concerned with the real deal on happiness – the type that’s not dependent on certain worldly factors being ‘just so’ (e.g. living in the suburb I want in the house I want, driving the car I want, having others behave the way I want etc.). It tells us that we need to understand how experience works and let go of the craving for things to be ‘just so’ and the faulty belief that ‘just so’ would make us happy.

With regard to the second point (the associations we have with chanting), it depends on what similar experiences we’ve had before – on what neurons have previously fired together with chanting-like stimuli and how strongly they’ve wired together. In other words, whether chanting is helpful depends on what emotional memories we hold in our body/mind involving similar stimuli.

So let’s put chanting to the ‘how does it help’ test. How does chanting help us let go of clinging to things, people and experiences in the mistaken belief that they will make us happy; that they will satisfy our ‘hungers’. Let me first answer for myself, and then share with you the answer I received from one of these excellent teachers whom I respect.

For me, chanting specifically does not help at all. In a general sense, it helps in the same way any other experience does – it’s grist to the mill; a stimulus that produces a response that offers some learning about my own patterns of association if I’m interested in looking at them. I have found it very interesting to look at these patterns and I did so recently at a meditation retreat with Jason Siff[6].

Jason is an excellent dharma teacher and a real frontier pusher as far as meditation goes. He’s an ex-monk and scarily knowledgeable person who has questioned many of the commonly taught ‘shoulds’ about meditation. (Interestingly, the Buddha himself gave very little meditation instruction – all of the ‘one right way’ techniques around today have been developed by others.)

Jason teaches an approach called ‘recollective awareness’ that uses diarised recollections of meditation sits to help develop insight. It’s a very allowing approach that, unlike most other meditation ‘techniques’, doesn’t try to banish thought but rather, encourages curiosity about it as a source of insight. Curiosity and gentleness are two key attitudes as well as a trust in one’s own process to bring up what needs to be brought up and a respect and valuing of that. It has the concept of dependent arising very much at its heart and encourages you to look at your own individual version of it.

So I was on a retreat just last month and was somewhat surprised when Jason announced that one of his co-teachers John, would be chanting at the start of the evening meditation. John began to play a harmonium (a small Indian hand pumped organ) and to chant, mostly in Pali. My experience of this went as follows:

  • Pleasure at the lovely warm sounds of the harmonium and of John’s voice
  • Feelings of gratitude for John’s generosity in sharing this with us (these two experiences were both in the first minute or so)
  • Awareness that the sound stimulus was dominating my experience and overriding/ suppressing my own process
  • Frustration at hearing some Pali terms that I knew but couldn’t remember
  • Annoyance at the tones of the chanting – they sounded pious to me and reminded me of hymns from my days of forced attendance at Catholic masses
  • Mild panic[7] as I realized that Jason, the frontier pusher, someone I trusted to always question things, had possibly not questioned the helpfulness of this
  • Mild anger as I thought of the attitudes I’ve encountered before that one ‘should’ value chanting
  • A whole big blank spot where I tuned out
  • Realisation that I’d tuned out for an unknown period of time and a feeling of familiarity about that – it’s what I used to do in church.

At the end of that evening there was an opportunity to ask questions, so I asked Jason why he’d included chanting. My perception was he wasn’t expecting that question and wasn’t all that prepared for it. He gave a bit of a vague answer (which is not like him) – something about these traditional practices being good things to do – and then hand-balled the question to John to tell us what he gets out of chanting. John’s answer too was pretty vague.

Over the next 36 hours or so I found my meditations were dominated with this experience and the annoyance I felt about it grew. At one of the group reporting sessions I shared this and having done that, decided I needed to talk to Jason about it privately, so I arranged a private interview with him. (Interestingly, after I’d shared my experience, it no longer dominated my meditations.)

So I asked Jason why he’d included chanting in the retreat. It turns out having been a monk chanting was, for him, associated with some positive memories and emotions. He also said when it’s done fully, it can lead to some quite refined mind states. I asked whether he was aware of the fact that it could also conjure up some negative experiences for people given how many ‘recovering Christians'[8] there are in Australia and the fact that this is one of the most agnostic countries in the world and I shared with him my experience of it.

I was pleased to find that Jason considered my input and on the two remaining evenings, he scheduled the chant to be after the last meditation so that those who didn’t want to be there could leave. Interestingly, the first time he offered this, about a quarter of the group left. On the second night around half left. I clearly wasn’t alone in finding chanting of dubious value.

I can imagine that ‘full’ chanting could indeed bring about certain calm or joyful mind states. This is partly because it’s such a focused activity that prevents the mind from wandering too far, and partly because music is an emotional stimulant. Anyone who’s studied music knows this – even to the extent that certain keys produce certain types of mood and feeling.

Most of us have experienced this first hand. There were times in church where the songs produced positive feelings, I’ve sung in choirs that produce terrific positive emotions, and I’ve heard some Zen practitioners chant quite beautifully which gave me goose bumps. I also read some research recently that showed that people who’d just sung were happier than those who hadn’t – I suspect due to the emotional stimulation but also maybe the fact that you have long out-breaths when singing – an action associated with relaxation as it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.

I’ve encountered three common objections to this kind of analytic thinking being applied to experiences like chanting. The first goes something like this: ‘you can’t reduce spiritual experiences down to scientific processes’. I disagree with this and would argue that not only CAN you do so but the Buddha would have done so himself if that research was available to him.

I think it was Stephen Batchelor who called the Buddha ‘a scientist of the real’. In his talks with people the Buddha de-frocked the ambient religion of his time (Brahmanism)[9] and the importance of metaphysical phenomena to awakening [10] in favour of knowing our experience directly and honestly without frills or hype. For people who have this objection I think the challenge that is available for them is to look closely and honestly at why they don’t want to look closely and honestly at this process. I suspect the answer is related to some kind of clinging to pleasure.

The second objection centres around the positive body/mind states that can come from such a practice. This raises an important point to clarify which is this: by questioning the use of chanting I’m not asserting that it is bad. I’m suggesting that it is simply a stimulus and that we need to be mindful of the responses that can arise from it. For some of us it will have positive associations and may lead to positive and maybe even helpful experiences. But for others, especially those in the west and especially those who have had similar experiences in religions we’ve discarded, the associations and experiences may not be positive or helpful.

The third objection relates to one very important and very positive function that chanting has served in the past. The Buddha lived in a pre-literate society where information was transmitted orally. Indeed for several hundred years, the Buddha’s teachings were remembered and shared using chanting as the mnemonic (memorising) strategy (this is also why the Buddha’s teachings contain so many lists). I am genuinely in awe of these people, mostly nuns and monks, and feel an incredible sense of gratitude to them.

However, Asian nuns and monks using chants to memorise and transmit the teachings before the year had four numerals in it, has no logical link to us doing it now. Some people feel that they are part of a long history of Buddhists by joining in the practice. This is an idea that leads to certain pleasant feelings (or a ‘mental formation’ as the Buddha talked about it). There’s nothing wrong with it as long as we’re not clinging to it or identifying ourselves with it in some fixed way, but it’s certainly not necessary for practice.  I’d even like to question whether chanting as a way of imagining a connection with dead people’s experiences IS practice.

At this point, I’d like to distinguish between the usefulness of chanting in particular and ritual more generally. I suspect that ritual can be a helpful thing in creating a sense of belonging and commitment to a group (e.g. a sangha). Indeed the secular sanghas I’ve participated in do tend to have fairly non-committal cultures and I wonder whether creating more of a sense of belonging and ritual might generate a greater energy to participate more regularly and generously (with time, volunteering to help etc.). However I’d like to find some rituals that are both meaningful and culturally relevant - a topic for a separate post perhaps.

I suspect that people who practice more devotional or religious forms of Buddhism may find chanting very helpful. However this blog is concerned with the adaptation of the dharma to modern western secular society, and in general, I think that the deifying and worshipping of another doesn’t go down so well in this context. (I use the word Buddhism here rather than dharma as the former is, in my mind, associated with religious Buddhist practices.)

For those who do have positive associations with chanting I think there are a few cautions – some questions to ask and honestly answer. They are:

1)      Does the positive benefit of this practice extend beyond the practice itself? Be clear on what the benefit is and how enduring and far-reaching it is.
2)      Is there any element of joy gained from identifying with this exotic practice – a feeling of having a group identity or differentiation from others that comes from participating in it? A way of testing this might be to ask whether listening to some uplifting secular western music would produce the same feelings.
3)      When engaging in it, have we given people the opportunity to opt out if it’s not going to be a helpful stimulus for their body/mind? Or have we considered other more culturally aligned alternatives so that we can practice together?

At the end of the day, we can’t guarantee that any practice that involves a stimulus, ancient or modern, Asian or western, religious or secular, will have a helpful effect for everyone. I personally gain a great deal from good dharma talks but who’s to say someone in the group hasn’t got some painful memory of sitting in a circle listening to a person with a particular look or timbre of voice talk.

What this means is that no practice that involves a stimulus of some kind[11], including chanting, can be considered universally helpful. In my view the implication of this for chanting is that it’s not helpful to impose it upon groups of people as something that ‘should’ be done, is ‘good’ to do, or that is ‘supposed’ to deliver some benefit. In addition, where it is used as part of group ‘practice’, people need to be given the option to be present or not. We need to respect the many and varied experiences that can arise dependently from such a stimulus.



[1] Notably, Gregory Kramer, Winton Higgins, Jason Siff, Stephen Batchelor and Patrick Kearney.
[2] Sangha is the Pali word for ‘community’ – another post is brewing about the use of Pali words.
[3] ‘Touch’ is actually too narrow a definition of this sense as we tend to think of contact with the skin. This sense includes all bodily felt stimulation, so it includes body sensations such as stomach rumblings and emotions.
[4] It’s also in this gap that awareness and values-based choices can come into play.
[5] Hanson refers to this saying which is based on the work of psychologist Donald Hebb. See The Practical Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain: Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius.
[7] This panic will form the basis of another post about the ‘stuff’ we create around ‘teachers’.
[8] This is said somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I personally did not find Christianity harmful and I believe it can lead to many positive benefits for people. However many also leave it disaffected, sometimes even damaged.
[9] See Trevijja Sutta: Dighanikaya 13
[10] See Culamalukya Sutta: Majjhimanikaya 63.
[11] As opposed to a practice like silent meditation which does not use external stimuli.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bloody 'not-self'

A slippery concept

One of the important concepts in the teachings of the Buddha is that of ‘not self’[1], sometimes called ‘no self’. This is one of the three characteristics of the human experience that the Buddha claimed causes our suffering. For the first couple of years of my dharma exploration, I just plain didn’t get it and was more than a bit frustrated that this bloody ‘not-self’ came up so often, seemed so important, and yet no-one seemed to explain it clearly.

Then one of our local teachers, Winton Higgins, explained it as ‘not-identity’ and this seemed to function pretty well as a working definition. (Identity as in self concept and the identity we try to build for ourselves socially, not as in your driver’s licence.) As I’ve encountered various respected teachers on the retreats I’ve done over the past few years, I’ve tested this working definition with them and it seems to hold up.

I recently tested it again with Rick Hanson, whose work will pop up in these blogs, and he clarified it even further. For the first time I’m starting to feel that maybe I understand it well enough to try and share an explanation that might be helpful for others, so here goes….

The term ‘self’ in the western world is used to cover a variety of things. In summary, there seem to be three main ones:

1.       the person (physical self)
2.       the mentally constructed self whom we consider to be the owner of our experience and the agent of our actions (the identity we craft for ourselves and present as ‘me’, some might also include the idea of a 'soul' here); and
3.       awareness (the placing of our attention).
The Buddha’s teaching on ‘not self’ refers specifically to the second type – the characteristics we select from our experience to describe ‘who I am’. The first important point to be made clear is that the idea of ‘not self’ does not deny the existence of the 6 billion bodies wandering around the planet. What it does assert is that this constructed self is an illusion and research on brain functioning supports this [2].


The spinning of a self to belong

Essentially, the self referred to in the term ‘not self’ is our personal ‘spin’ on our identity. ‘Spin’, as we know is what public relations professionals do, notably for businesses and politicians, to preserve or enhance their reputation in the relevant commercial market, employment market, or electorate. They select bits of truth based on what will go down well with the target audience, leave out other vast swathes of it and sometimes even use language to mislead. They want the target audience to think well of their client so that people will continue to buy their shares for a good price (one of the central KPIs [3] for CEOs of most publicly listed corporates), apply to work for them, or vote for them at the next election. In a simple sense, it’s an image they promote in order to be popular.

In many ways, this PR spin parallels our creation of an identity for our sense of ‘me’. We often have rules about what’s ok and not ok, what’s acceptable and not acceptable, what’s desirable and undesirable based on our experience with our family of origin, our friends and peers and the media – we have beliefs about what others think and what they find desirable. So we build up an image of ourselves that usually corresponds with what we think is desirable so that we feel good about ourselves and so that others like us (want to be our friend, romantic partner, etc.).

We are social beings - that’s part of our genetic heritage, and on a subconscious level we often relate to exclusion as a harbinger of death. Up until fairly recently (in evolutionary terms) to be alone meant a higher risk of death, both physically and genetically. Where the ‘law of the jungle’ prevails (he who is strongest wins), belonging to a group meant a greater likelihood of protection from predators, rival tribes and threatening individuals. Belonging with a mate meant a greater likelihood of procreation (representation in the gene pool in Darwinian terms) and also greater likelihood that your offspring would survive as you had a mate to help cater for and protect them. So we feel this need to belong very strongly and we have an intuited sense that being held in good esteem is vital for belonging.

In modern western societies exclusion is no longer a harbinger of death, yet our genetic make-up is much slower to evolve than our cultural make-up, so our body/mind still relates to it as if it were. In order to deal with this fear, we engage in our own version of spin. We pick and choose some aspects of our experience that we think make us look good in some way, and we exclude or deny the vast array of other experiences, tendencies and characteristics we have. Fundamentally, we pretend that this spun-identity is a unified, independent and fixed persona that is the core of ‘me’ and that has only the characteristics we choose to include in the brochure. We do this in the belief that it will make others more likely to want us to belong with them.

In reality we are an ever-changing process made up of many disparate flows that don’t all weave a coherent story, we are impacted by many forces, and our behaviour and feelings change dependent on circumstances. When we receive feedback from our target audiences that they don’t buy our spin, or maybe don’t notice it, we get very upset – to the point of suicide or homicide in extreme cases. Indeed the notion of ‘losing face’ that is so prevalent in Asian societies is a palpable case of the pain and retribution that can be prompted when an individual is not seen as they wish to be. I remember as a teenager being acutely aware of how different ‘I’ was depending on who I was with. This created angst for me at the time – because in that phase of life being accepted, liked and desired by my peers was the very meaning of life and it seemed to me that having a clear identity was necessary for this.

However when you think it through to the end, this felt link between belonging and survival simply doesn’t stack up in modern western societies. Belonging with a group or even another person is no longer necessary for protection (physical survival – as we have free hospitals and ambulance services) or for procreation (genetic survival – we have sperm banks and night clubs). While there are still some material disadvantages of being ‘alone’ these days, they are not strongly linked to survival.

For example if you live on your own and have little social belonging you might have less access to help for daily logistics. This includes things like having to do all the chores myself, not having anyone to look after the dog when I want to go away, having no-one to clean out my gutters if I can’t do it for myself and can’t afford to pay someone to do it, and no-one to go down to the pharmacy when I’m sick and get some medicine for me. It also means less psychological support, for example having someone to ‘download to’ when I’m upset. Of course having these things makes life easier and more comfortable but we can survive and procreate perfectly well without them.

While of course there’s also the disadvantage of less social pleasure if we are on our own, this in itself is not a survival issue either. We are capable of making it and any of these disadvantages a survival issue through the psychological and emotional meaning we attach to them, but in and of themselves, they are not survival issues. While it’s programmed into our DNA to want to belong (and much of our ‘higher brain functioning developed to serve this end), realising that it’s not an issue of life and death any more, and that the fear about it comes from our body/mind’s outdated view that it is, might help take some of the desperation out of this felt need and therefore the compulsion to spin an identity to make ourselves popular.


Selfing (as a verb) and belief in a self (as a noun)

So the reality is that:
1.       we are many different things (that are not all unified or consistent)
2.       many of those things are not in our PR brochure of self (the spun identity is not the ‘core’ of our identity – we are much more than that)
3.       the things that we are change over time [5](the self is not static or enduring)
4.       and they arise and drop away due to the presence of certain conditions [6](none of our characteristics, whether in the brochure or not, arise irrespective of conditions).
One of the most helpful perspectives I’ve found on this is that the word ‘self’ in this context can actually be used as a verb. If I don’t do anything, if I don’t create spin but simply look honestly at my experience, the reality is that ‘I’ am a dynamic and multifarious process that includes all sorts of things and that changes depending on the stimuli present at the time. But due to my desire to control my image for fear of exclusion, I feel that I have to spin a self, an identity that is desirable or at least respectable or acceptable in some way and to always be seen that way. In that sense, I am ‘selfing’. In the same way that I can run or jump or problem solve, I can self. In this sense, to ‘self’ is to spin an identity in order to make myself and others feel certain positive things towards me. As Rick Hanson put it, we put energy into ‘working other people to see us in a certain way’.

Like other verbs, it can also function as a noun. I can run (verb) or I can go for a run (noun). I can self (spin an identity for ‘me’) or I can relate to and talk about a self (fixed, independent, homogenous set of characteristics that are the core me). The idea of this ‘self’ as a noun referring to a fixed, independent entity of some kind has no basis in our body. In Rick Hanson’s book [7] he describes how unlike other functions of our being such as seeing and hearing, there is no part of the brain that is dedicated to ‘selfing’. It’s an activity that occurs across a number of brain structures that are used for many other things. Also the representations and activations of ‘self’ in brain functioning are transient, they depend on certain conditions, and they are just a very small part of the neural network that constitutes our whole psychological being. The notion of this kind of self (with the four characteristics above) existing somewhere in some kind of material way, is simply not supported by science. As Rick puts it, it’s a unicorn – an imagined creature (fixed, enduring, independent identity) based on but not the same as, our real experience of a similar one (i.e. a changing, interdependent, multifarious process).

An important point is that not-self doesn’t deny the existence of personal agency or responsibility. Just because there’s no fixed unified identity or soul, no part of the brain that selfs, doesn’t mean our ‘person’ is not charged with responsibility for its actions. There are parts of the brain responsible for ‘executive functioning’, so setting goals and choosing paths towards them is a core characteristic of being human, and all choices have consequences. It may even be true that we have patterns of choice that seem to recur for us – however even those patterns will be dependent on certain conditions and they will probably change over time. Even notions of personality, including the ‘big five’ personality factors (which tend to be stable over time) are tendencies that may or may not manifest in a given situation. So there’s no denial of choice or of patterns of choice, just a warning not to get too fixed about turning those choices or patterns into some notion of permanence, independence, or pervasiveness.

A common example from my life: part of my ‘self’ concept is that I’m insightful as I’ve had quite a bit of experience and feedback to suggest this. However numerous times as I’ve been sitting in dharma talks over the past few years, I’ve asked a question or responded to a question in a way that shows I didn’t understand something, or didn’t understand it in context. While I’ve not let that stop me from asking it (as I’m aware that it’s my ego or self trying to gag me out of a sense of vanity), I do feel a bit of a pang each time it happens. The pang is a feeling like I’ve just been seen as ‘not quite as insightful as we thought she was’. There is a sense of suffering in that – the pain of disappointment – of not living up to a characteristic of ‘me’ that I perceive to be desirable and the possible reduction of esteem in the eyes of others that might go along with that.


Self organises around threat

One of the phrases Rick Hanson uses that I find helpful is: ‘self tends to organise around threat’. So when we find ourselves being defensive about something, it can help to have a look more closely and ask ourselves: ‘what cherished descriptor of myself do I think is at stake here?’. In the situation above, it was ‘insightful’, but there are many others we can have such as important, funny, nice, considerate, tough, smart, in control, independent, powerful, always right, carefree, loving, easygoing, wise, responsible, hard nosed, trustworthy, stylish, popular, beautiful...the list goes on. Perhaps try listing on a piece of paper the adjectives you’d use to describe your’self’ and for each one, imagine having an experience where others see you not being that way and observe your reaction in the body.

The very good question came up on the recent retreat I went to with Rick about the usefulness of this self, this spun-identity. If ‘self’ organises around threat, then perhaps there are some threatening circumstances where it helps. I remember one experience in my twenties where it did. I had the misfortune to go out with a guy who turned out to be extremely possessive. After a year and a half of this relationship and several attempts to break up with him that were foiled by his persuasiveness and promises of change, I found myself losing my sense of self and taking on the guilt he tried to generate in me.

For example I came home one night from touch football practice and he criticised me for wearing bike pants to training (very common sporting attire) accusing me of being flirtatious. While on one level I knew his insecurity was the problem, on another I became aware that significant ill-founded self doubt had started to creep in. In that situation, reminding myself of certain adjectives about ‘who I am’ and ‘what I’m like’ (honest, strong, independent, no pushover) actually helped me prize myself from his clutches. While in reality I can be the opposite of these things sometimes too, this ‘self’ really helped me remove my ‘person’ from an unhealthy relationship when I felt my emotional resources were low. So perhaps the spun self is helpful as an emergency resource for situations where we are feeling we don’t have the resources to cope...at least until we build up more skilful methods.

Having said that, ‘self’ can also sneak in when we’re involved with apparently positive matters. For example, when we move around our world commenting (internally or out loud) on our interpretations of how good or nice things are, we are selfing. ‘Good’ and ‘nice’ are judgments from a particular point of view (remember the snake?) and that point of view is our self’s.

I used the word ‘interpretations’ there because I think there are numerous things that don’t require interpretation as good, that are universally considered and experienced as good by the human being (e.g. kindness) [8] and I can’t think of any reason that naming them as such is unhelpful. However even with kindness, observing the experience of kindness as simply ‘kindness’ rather than ‘isn’t that good?’ is probably at least as powerful and less based on judgments from our self’s point of view. To be clear, I’m not suggesting we ignore positive things, indeed quite the opposite, it’s helpful to put more energy into absorbing the positive into our body/mind [9] due to the fact that neurologically we have a bias towards noticing and remembering the negative. Rather I’m suggesting we notice and feel the experiences with as little judgment as possible.


Practical suggestions

There are some practical suggestions I’d like to make for reducing selfing and the unpleasantness that comes from it. The first is a baby step of working with our self concept to make it more accurate. So for example, if my self concept was that I’m insightful often and at other times I’m not, probably closer to the truth, then there’d be no pang. A moment of non-insight would fit the identity. Can I be stylish and be a dag? Can I be credible and also be silly? Can I be competent and also be able to mess things up sometimes? While this is still pinning ourselves down with descriptors (which will always be inadequate), at least it might start to move us towards the more accurate view of being a human which is that we are multi-dimensional, diverse, dynamic, and dependent on conditions.

The second suggestion however is the giant leap forward for humankind, which is to stop spinning an identity, to stop thinking and talking about ourselves in absolute, concrete, and enduring ways. Here are some practical suggestions for this:

1.       An easy tactic is to stop saying things like ‘that’s just me’, that wouldn’t be me to do that, you know me,...as if this ‘me’ is a thoroughly predictable entity regardless of the situation.
2.       Again using language, use the words ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘my/mine’ as seldom as necessary. It’s impractical to try and banish these words all together as they do refer to our ‘person’ in many instances, and sometimes possessions that belong to our person. However when we are talking (often to ourselves) about likings, dislikings, thoughts, feelings, body sensations, views, try and talk about them using words like ‘there is...’. So instead of ‘I’m so pissed off about this’, try ‘there’s annoyance….there’s frustration arising…there’s disappointment….there’s hurt etc. . It might sound funny at first, but try it, it’s amazing what a difference it can make if you form this habit.
3.       Catch yourself ‘proliferating’ and stop it. The Buddha’s parable of the second dart is a great one here. So you get hit with a dart and there is a certain amount of pain involved in that – let’s say I call my husband at work and he sounds annoyed and intolerant on the phone. There’s a certain amount of hurt that will come from that for me in the instant that I recognise his tone as annoyed at my call and a bit of sadness that he’s not having a good day. I can just notice that there’s a bit of hurt and sadness there – the first dart. If I leave it at that, the pain will fade reasonably quickly and I’ll get on with my day.

However another option, frequently taken, is that I get a narrative or storyline going in my head about him having no right to be angry at me (2nd dart), how he really should learn to manage his moods (3rd dart), how I’m patient with him when he interrupts me and I really deserve the same courtesy (4th dart) etc. etc. A practical way to stop selfing is to catch ourselves stabbing 2nd, 3rd, 4th darts and instead to simply notice what’s there for us in our senses (including the emotions in our bodies). That’s not to say I shouldn’t later speak to my husband about how I feel when he uses that tone and see if I can’t stop the first dart from coming my way in future, but this practical tip is for how we respond in the moment.
4.       As often as possible, be purposely mindful of your whole body. This kind of activity stimulates and strengthens the lateral (side) areas of your brain that are associated with the receptive way of relating to the world (as opposed to the narrative way).
5.       As often as possible, take a ‘panoramic view’ of things, both physically and mentally as this strengthens neural circuits in the ventral (lower) regions of the brain used for the ‘allocentric’ (versus egocentric) processing. Look up at the sky, imagine yourself as a small speck moving about the much larger landscape, take in a panorama, take the big picture perspective on things.
An example of tips two and three together is from my experience of a retreat centre I’ve been to a few times. It’s run by nuns who seem to think that vegetarian cuisine is the same 1950s menu they live on, only you take the meat out. Our local insight meditation association had even sent them a vegetarian cook book for Christmas one year but they never seemed to put it to use. I remember rocking up to dinner one night and seeing that we had what I not-so-affectionately call ‘vegetable slop’ for the third time that week. Of course a narrative immediately started in my mind.... ‘For God’s sake, I’m sick to death of the crap they serve us, I bet they wouldn’t eat this stuff so why would they serve it to us, so much for being kind and generous, how can they think of themselves as caring...etc. If that were to happen again I could notice to myself ‘there’s disappointment, there’s annoyance, hmm, there’s even a bit of anger arising, there are storylines emerging and criticisms’. My experience would have been much less painful.


The benefits

I won’t go into the neuroscience of this – Rick does a much better job of that in his book than I will do paraphrasing it, but essentially, if we build up the circuitry in our brain that simply perceives our sensory data [10] without judging or narrating storylines (essential for the spun-identity), we’ll experience far less suffering. This suffering is due to the unwillingness of the world to swallow or recognise my spun identity or sense of ‘me’, and due to the fact that I too, experience myself as inconsistent with my spin and that creates angst [11]. 

A lesser sense of spun identity can also help with learning because we can feel that we don’t have to behave in a way that’s consistent with the spin. When we can see other views or want to try other things we can do that rather than stop ourselves from doing so for fear of being seen as incongruent. We are also more willing to attempt new things because we aren't so afraid of looking and feeling silly.

Letting go of the spun-identity will also allow us to inhabit our experience more fully, as our attentional resources are not taken up with planning, plotting, narrating and crafting the ‘me’. We can also love better as we don’t get so cranky when our friends and loved ones don’t reflect back to us the ‘spun-identity’.


Achievable but no mean feat

Not-selfing is a core part of the Buddha’s teaching as it’s one of the 3 characteristics of our existence that create our optional suffering and the Buddha was clear that it is possible to let go of it. However we need to give ourselves a break here, be compassionate and kind with ourselves and respect the challenge of the task. Apparently it’s not until the last stages of awakening that the last vestiges of self disappear which is not surprising given how our body/minds have developed through evolution. It also makes sense to me that you can‘t let go of your identity until you’ve felt secure in it and core to this is ensuring you’ve had your needed dose of ‘healthy narcissistic supplies’.

The provision of these supplies in childhood is important and they amount to the sense of being wanted, sought, cherished, enjoyed, allied with etc.. This suggests to me that we need to have achieved a reasonably confident sense of identity and of worth before we can let go of self (see Rick’s book for more on this).

I hope this rendition of not-self helps.


[1] In Pali, ‘annata’
[2] See chapter 13 (Not Self in the Brain) of the book by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius – The Practical Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain: Happiness, Love and Wisdom.
[3] Key performance indicators
[4] This footnote has been deliberately deleted.
[5] The Pali term is ‘annicha’ – unreliability, instability, impermanence
[6] Dependent arising – a core dharmic term referring to the fact that nothing exists in isolation; that everything is brought into being by conditions.
[7] See footnote 2
[8] See Martin Seligman’s work on virtues at http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu
[9] See chapter 4: Taking in the Good in Rick Hanson’s book – see footnote 2.
[10] The Buddha referred to 6 senses: the normal five plus the mind and thought as the sixth.
[11] What psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’ – when my idea of me and the reality of me don’t match.