If we meditate regularly, our practice naturally deepens. Some sittings will be more satisfying than others. Comparing them or expecting them to steadily improve is a form of self-sabotage. It is more beneficial to trust that the steady application of Wise Intention, Wise Effort, and Wise Concentration to cultivate Wise Mindfulness and Wise View, is of deep and lasting value, even if right now the mind has a mind of its own.
This week in our online class, after leading students in releasing tension and focusing on the senses, I found my guided meditation deepening into an expanded awareness of the nature of no separate self.
No separate self, anatta, is probably the most challenging Buddhist concept for most of us because our lives are centered around seeing ourselves as being solid, separate, and labeled. But our attachment to the idea of being separate causes us suffering. Feeling isolated, we react to the world around us in fear, defending ourselves against what we perceive as ‘other’. At a time when so many of us around the world are physically isolated to protect ourselves and others from the pandemic, understanding the nature of anatta is especially valuable. And for that let me offer some visual aids.
Look at the two photographs above.
The small painting by my husband Will Noble, is easily identified as a stream with a reflection of the tree that sits on its far bank.
To the right is a close up of the same painting.
From afar all objects are separate, but on closer inspection, they become a pattern of similar-shaped circles. Which is the truth?
Here’s a quote from fellow artist and meditator, Mary Wagstaff:
“I’ve always loved Will’s work but could never quite understand all of those tiny circles. Was it an abstraction? A technique? Whatever it was I liked the way it looked.
“Then one day while on a hike, I paused on a footbridge to watch the water flowing below. As I focused my attention on the surface of the water, studying the flow, the light, the color, and constant change, I started seeing…circles!
“At once I understood that Will’s interest and commitment to seeing deeply is reflected in those tiny circles. Now I can’t watch a stream without seeing his beautiful paintings. And, of course, circles.“
The “commitment to seeing deeply” is also what we do in our practice. Beyond meditation, we bring awareness to every moment of our day, investigating with our senses. The lessons we learn in this way abound with the dharma, the truth of the nature of reality.
The lesson in anatta can be illusive, but if you are steady in your efforts and open to awakening, an insight into understanding might arrive one day when you least expect it. Here are some more ways to think about it that may help to loosen up the sticky fear of seeing clearly:
Look at a mosaic from a distance, noting how it creates a scene, then step closer to see the tiles.
And if you are familiar with Photoshop, you know that a digital photo is made up of a lot of tiny pixels.
Now think about your own body and what it is composed of. Think of all the pores releasing moisture, the skin sloughing off, the lungs taking in air and then releasing it back out transformed, how the whole digestive system works, taking in food made from plants and perhaps animals, transforming it into energy, and releasing whatever isn’t used in the form of urine and feces. The Buddha encouraged his followers to think about these things, to acknowledge all the aspects of this body, and come to a clearer understanding. Part of that understanding is to see the challenge of clinging to the idea of a separate self when there don’t seem to be any true edges of this body that is in constant interaction with the air and other substances. That clinging becomes even more difficult if we consider how the body keeps changing over time from the union of sperm and ovary, to fetus, newborn, toddler, and on and on into the form of your body right now, which is an expression of generations of commingling DNA.
But is the body how we define ourselves, or is there much more that we think of as “I” and “me”? There are memories, ideas, preferences, affinities, recognition of people and places, learned skills and natural talents, the ability to interact with all kinds of machinery as if they are extensions of self. Most of us don’t bother to question that sense of self. Why stir up problems? And isn’t it all just philosophical anyway?
All of us in the ‘modern world’ can recognize that there are uses for the separate seeming self for the purposes of living in a society with complex transactions. For convenience, we acknowledge and participate in that system. But do we believe that we are the number or the name on the cards in our wallets? Even the photos on our drivers’ licenses are not us. (In my case, I certainly hope not!) We simply accept these identifiers as social and economic conveniences.
And yet, there has to be more to us than that, right? We’re not just cogs in a machine. But in our efforts to be more, out of fear of disappearing we do everything in our power to further isolate ourselves, to be a more separate self. We get caught up in manifesting a self that will be powerful, loved, admired. We spend effort and energy on imagining how others see us. We polish ourselves up and put ourselves out there, only to feel more lost and alone.
But we are not only not alone, we are not separate. If we turn to science we find that all matter, including our bodies, is made up of atoms, like Lego blocks that come together and fall apart in ongoing cycles of life reinventing itself. The impermanence of matter reinforces our understanding of there being no separate self. We are intrinsic, inseparable and ever-changing. Our fleeting sense of self is part of the infinite and intricate network of thoughts and ideas.
If this makes you feel concerned, disoriented, even dizzy, consider the possibility that such awareness can also make you feel more alive, more free to live fully from the naturally arising life force of all that DNA and complexity of patterns of thought and emotion that are dancing within you! What you believe to be isolated and separate is an intrinsic part of the ongoing celebration of life loving itself. And when you can feel that, you respond to the causes and conditions within and around you with infinite compassion and gratitude.
But it all begins with Wise Intention and Wise Effort to meditate regularly. Meditate for the practice itself without expectation. Let it be your refuge. Insight will come.