Imagining No Self

Woman: imagining no-selfIf you weren’t real  –

What if you weren’t a real person? What if you were just a bunch of stuff—electrons and protons and such—stuck together resembling a person?

I know, you are probably pretty used to thinking of yourself as real—a single human person with a mind that is yours and yours alone, with a permanent essence or soul. You are not animal or vegetable or mineral. You are you!

Besides, many religions tell us each one of us is made by God and will last forever. Of course you are real!

So it’s hard to imagine not being real…being just stuff. But—just for fun—let’s imagine it anyway.

Before you say, “Oh, get out of here!” –

None of these ideas about “no self” is original to me of course. Annata is the ancient Buddhist teaching that we should neither assume that there is or is not a true self. Instead, one should look at what causes us to assume we have a self.
Buddha said a person should examine five “categories” of movement that give rise to a sense of self: material form, sensations, perception, volition, and consciousness. If we observe how the five categories of experience arise and cease in our present moment experience, we wil see that nothing in these is really “I” or “mine.”
In this essay I am only sharing my reflections on the idea of “no-self,” and intend no clear parallel to the five categories.
Not being real might have some “real” benefits. For one thing, you wouldn’t have to fret about what people think of you. If you spilled food on your shirt or your top you wouldn’t need to be embarrassed if you didn’t even exist! More importantly, if you had tried all your life to do something really significant—and failed—you could just say, “So what?” And as a bonus, you wouldn’t have to worry whether you would spend eternity in Heaven or in Hell (if you ever did worry about it)!

You are probably saying (and if you aren’t, I am saying it for you!), “So, if I weren’t a real person with a permanent essence, what would I be?”

For one thing, you would be a lot of fascinating stuff

Let’s see.… If you had no fixed essence, you would still be made of a lot of fascinating stuff. We are often dismissive of mere “material” existence, but think of the material that makes up “you”:

Your body is made of around 37 trillion cells. Any one of these cells that has a nucleus contains the blueprint for your entire body, including your brain. Your brain contains over 100 billion neurons and is more intelligent and creative than the world’s most powerful computer. That is some very smart “stuff”!

And that very smart part of you is connected to 640 muscles and 206 bones so that you can carry out the most intricate maneuvers of any being on earth.  (Granted, if you are missing any of these parts, you may need some human or technological assistance.)

You are change

We would also be constant change. We know from Einstein that matter (stuff) and energy are different versions of the same thing. Without stuff, energy wouldn’t exist, and without energy, stuff wouldn’t exist.

If energy means anything, it means change. Nothing stands still, and nothing remains the same. That means you are never the same “person” from one day to the next, or even from moment to moment.

For example, let’s look at just one aspect of “you”—emotions.  If you are like me, your emotions are a big deal. You think of your emotions as expressions of your deepest self. When you feel angry, you think you should do something drastic to resolve your anger. When you feel peaceful, you judge your whole life as being good. Sometimes our emotions bounce all over the place. This usually convinces us that our lives are one big mess.

We seem to assume all these emotions are messages from our essential innermost self. But, what if we think of emotions as just a normal part of the energy of life. Then we might not freak out about our lives being a mess. We might see our changing emotions not as some major alteration of our inner essence, but as…well…just change!

You have billions of close relatives

And not having an existence separate from everything else doesn’t need to mean we are less. Maybe it even means we are more!

Where ever you are right now, look around. Are you indoors where you see windows, chairs, a TV set, a potted plant? Are you outdoors where you see trees, cars, the sun, clouds? Maybe you see lots of people?

If you are stuff, all of these—and everything else you see—are your relatives.

How is that? We usually think of relatives as people who are descendants of the same ancestors—uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins. And if we push our thinking, we can imagine how all humans are relatives because, if we go back far enough in time, we can see that we originated from the same small group of people.

But, what if we include stuff from outside the race of human beings? We descended from animals, didn’t we? And, much earlier, animals descended from simpler forms of life. Earlier yet, those simple forms of life descended from inanimate material—atoms and molecules. If we go back far enough, we find that atoms and molecules had even tinier “ancestors” that lived in the hot soup formed after the big bang.

Amazingly, we and everything else have the same family tree. You and I are related to every bit of material and energy in the universe—we are one cosmic family!

No Need to Believe, But Do Imagine — “No Self”

Maybe this is all too much. Well, you don’t have to believe you don’t exist. (I am not sure I believe it!) But maybe we shouldn’t be so insistent that we do exist either! Maybe, if we can imagine the uncertainty of our individual existence, we will feel a sense of freedom from our own egos. And maybe we will feel more connected to everything around us.

If we weren’t afraid of not existing, we might actually feel and be more real! What do you think?

If you liked this article, you might also like:
Saint Augustine on Wonder,” some thoughts on a beautiful quote
“Person,” a poem
I’m Really Not Myself – a Poem to Annata

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