Blog Introduction

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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 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, 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
[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.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment Anna - and your appreciative words. It's so fun to hear how these thoughts land with people. And you are right, we are not naturally happy - we have a negativity bias that would prefer us to err on the side of caution (fear).

    And don't worry, I'm not blogging at 5.30am. There is definitely a recurring pattern for this 'person' which is to be a night owl, not a morning lark. This Blogger is set on some version of US time.

  3. hi Lenore

    what i read sounded very good

    "selfing" is an excellent term

    the exposition at the link may add to your understanding


  4. Hi,

    "Selfing" is an expression which has been around for quite some time in Buddhist interactions and is used by Ajahn Thanissaro in at least one article that comes to mind.