Sacred geometry

Contemplating the Three Characteristics (Part 2) - Anattā (Not Self)

Date16th November 2005
Retreat/SeriesNovember Solitary 2005


So on last Saturday, I spoke about the three characteristics that the Buddha talked about: (1) impermanence, (2) dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, and (3) this teaching of anattā. And I focused primarily on the two characteristics of impermanence and unsatisfactoriness. So tonight I'd like to explore in a little bit more depth this teaching of anattā that the Buddha gave, and see if we can begin to understand it a little bit more. And more importantly, we can begin to practise with it, make it something real for us, something practical.

So the word anattā -- attā means 'self' in Pali, and the an- is like a negation, a negative, so usually translated as 'no-self' or 'not-self' or 'selflessness' or something like that, emptiness of self. This is something that -- it's quite common that we come across this teaching, either reading or in talks. But usually it's quite a hard idea to grasp. There may be quite a lot of confusion around it. So hopefully just to bring a little light. And we may have heard about it, and we may be wondering, "Hmm, what's this all about?"

And it may be that we've come to practice, and may have heard about this anattā or whatever, and actually, "Well, you know, I really just want to get calm, and I just want to relax and be a bit more peaceful." Or there are certain issues that we want to see through. And that's quite normal, to want to just be free of certain issues. But as valuable as that is, it's actually the case that sooner or later, we're going to have to look at this question of self and the emptiness of self. We're going to have to understand anattā because suffering depends on self. Basically, suffering depends on this notion of self that we have, and this notion of a solid, fixed sense of self. So if we want to see through suffering, if we want to have some relief from suffering in a deep way, we actually have to really go into this question.

The typical human condition is actually -- without any notion of any sense of judgment to it -- we're actually typically quite self-centred. That's how we live life, and that's how we relate to life. We see life through the eyes and through the lens of 'me' and 'my' self-interest. And sometimes we don't actually realize how much that's going on, how deeply implanted it is, and what its effects are, what its impact is on our lives.

So I was talking the other day with someone somewhere else, and she is slowly moving into a new role that involves a lot of public speaking and a lot of presentation and leading groups and that kind of thing. And she was just telling me about it, and we were having a conversation, and it struck me at some point how much self-referencing there was going on, without even there being that much consciousness of it. So she was looking -- and this is a very normal and typical sort of human way of looking -- that she was looking at other people in the same role and how they do it. There was implicit comparison going on, without it actually being an obvious comparison. But the whole situation, the whole work and everyone involved in that work, and everything that was around it was actually looked at, without her knowing it, through this almost continual self-referencing, continual sense of comparing.

And even situations where she wasn't actually directly involved in, there was still this sense of comparing going on. Out of that, as she's doing the work, there comes, when there's a certain perceived success, there's a limited amount of happiness. You know, things reflect well on me, things seem, "That went well," or whatever, and there's a certain amount of limited happiness that comes out of that. But then when things don't go well, when it reflects badly on me, there's a lot of pain that comes out of this because the self is very wrapped up. The sense of self is very wrapped up, wrapped up in the whole situation.

Whether there's success or failure, there's a sense of constriction around. The whole way of relating and being in that situation is a constricted one. And the Buddha used this beautiful word, 'unbinding.' This path is one of unbinding. We're unbinding the heart, unbinding the consciousness. So instead of this constriction around ourselves, around others, around the world, there's actually an unbinding that goes on. And it might take some time, some maturity really, to actually realize that this issue of understanding self is worthy of investigation. We tend to think, "Oh, the problems ... If I just fix this, or if I just change this pattern of mine" -- but underneath it all, it's like the thing on which all this stands is a misunderstanding of what the self is. Actually to come to that point where we understand, "Ah, there's a key figure in this, a key culprit" -- that's quite some maturity already.

And we may come to the point in our life, in our practice, when we just, in a way, get a little fed up, and just a little tired of this constant self-referencing. And just, one may begin to ask oneself, "What would it be to live a life, to live my life, where the self is not the centre of the drama, the self is not centre stage?" What would that even be? How would that work? Could we even imagine that?

[8:06] And the Buddha says that this notion of self that we have is not actually ultimately true. And so we might begin to get another deep sense of spiritual dissatisfaction, say, "I don't want to go through my life, from birth, and then as I get older, and then death, and the whole thing really have been related to out of this sense of something that wasn't really true. I don't want to have lived in reality what might turn out to be an illusion." Can that be something that's a fire in our hearts? "I don't want to live a lie. I want to understand, what is it about this self? Is it really the real thing that it seems to be? Will I be content with feeling like, 'Hmm, I've lived but I'm not sure how real that all was'?"

We can, if we begin to look at the workings of the self, we actually can see that we form all kinds of self-views in life, basically, views about our self. And if we look carefully -- and sometimes we don't even have to look very carefully at all -- actually, any self-view leads to pain, and also leads to fear. When the sense of self is strong, it has to lead to fear: "I'm here, and you're there. This is me, that's the world. The world is a lot bigger than me. There are a lot of people competing with me, potentially threatening me." Fear has to come out of that small sense of self. It has to be a natural consequence of that. And similarly pain. So if we're interested in a life to be free of fear and pain, we have to understand this movement.

Sometimes the pain that comes from self-view is very obvious. And it's quite common for people, [for] there to be a deep-seated sense of unworthiness, or a sense that somewhere deep inside one is actually bad in some way, or even evil, or a failure, or something like that. And these can be thoughts, but they can be thoughts that are so woven in, almost, to the body that they actually feel visceral. That person is carrying that self-view around through their life, and at an enormous cost, an enormous pain to themselves.

But equally, we may say, "Well, I'll replace that with a positive self-view, with a good self-view." The answer, unfortunately, isn't that simple, because we may affirm to ourselves, or inflate our sense of self: "I'm wonderful because of this, this, this." And maybe some of that has its place. But actually sooner or later we're just going to run into someone who unfortunately doesn't agree with us. [laughs] And you can then maybe start questioning your self-views, or have to have that conflict with that person. So actually, inherent in having any self-view, in having any clinging to any self-view, is pain. Sooner or later it will cause pain.

[11:49] And we can see, similarly, there may be areas that we just don't accept of ourselves. So what's actually going on here? What's going on with all this pain around self and this sense of self-worth and needing constantly to prove our sense of self-worth to ourselves and to others? And it goes through the life, and it might change where it's getting its food. So you know, when I was a kid, my sense of self-worth was wrapped up in playing football. And it would go up and down depending on how well I played, and then something else. And then, you know, I was sent to a very academic high school, and so it was tied up with all that academia stuff, and then forgot about that, and then it was some other area. What's going on here? And how are we going to move towards freedom, so we're not dependent all the time in that way?

Sometimes we can think, or we hear it said, "Actually, a person needs a sense of self before they let go of it." That's quite common to be heard, but in a way, it's actually rare, or almost, one never actually meets a person without a sense of self. What's actually going on is, there's quite a fixed sense of negative self. There's actually a lot of self-sense going on. It's very solid, very contracted, and there's a lot of negativity in it. It's not that there isn't a self-sense there. It's just very attached to a negative view of self. So perhaps it would be better, more accurate to say, a person might need a healthy sense of self before they really look deeply into the emptiness of self. But even that, maybe, I would question.

'More healthy sense of self' means not a rigid attachment to extreme views about myself: "I am fantastic," or "I am a failure," or no grandiosity and no inferiority. So when we undertake, when we embark on the spiritual journey, it's important to understand what we're actually doing with self. So it's quite -- it can be quite common to hear teachings that we're trying to eradicate the self, or destroy it, or dissolve it, or explode it, or absorb it into something else. In the Buddha's understanding, that's not what we're trying to do, and that's actually an impossibility. It may be that for people meditating, or just spontaneously, that there are experiences when it really seems like the self just kind of either totally disappears for a short time, or just, it loses its sense of solidity, in a way, and it just becomes a very light or very refined sense of self. It doesn't seem to be present in the same solid or even problematic way that it usually does.

But all that is in the realm of experience, if it happens. It's something that comes, and then it's something that goes in time. It's an experience in time. And the question, in terms of Dharma practice, in terms of liberation is, then what? You've had this lovely experience, and usually that experience is lovely, or sometimes it's frightening. But then what? The self comes back. So where's the freedom? Where's the freedom? That's the fundamental question.

If it comes and goes, are we attaching to that sense of when it was refined or light or dissolved or expanded? They're coming and going. Where's the freedom in that? In Dharma understanding, what we're actually doing is not eliminating the self. We want to understand something about the self, and understand it in a way that it frees our relationship with things, and frees our relationship with life. So that's what understanding means. What we want in terms of the self is an understanding that frees. It's not a question of eliminating or anything like that.

So as I said, for some people, this whole question of self, and if there are experiences of less self or whatever, non-self, there's actually, it just spontaneously brings a lot of joy. There's a lightness, there's a freedom, there's a sense of release there. And that's quite lovely. And full steam ahead.

For many people, actually, there's a real fear of annihilation, or it's like a death fear. Even just talking about this self not being so solid actually brings up a lot of something very similar to a fear of death or fear of annihilation. And this is often people who have quite healthy egos. It's not anything neurotic or anything like that. It's just, for some people, part of just being human. So in that case, if there is fear around this whole area, then we need to respect that, in a way. We need to respect that there's fear, and move quite slowly in this area. There's no pushing or forcing. So just respect that, and move slowly in this inquiry into what self is. Move slowly, and also appreciate the times, when and if they're there, when the self is a bit more light and a bit more expanded and not so constricted.

This doesn't have to be some completely mystical meditation experience. When it's just less of a sense of self, one actually -- there may be fear there, but at the same time, there may also be appreciation. And if we can, without pushing away the fear, just gently guide the mind into the sense of appreciation that might be there, the sense of, "This is quite lovely. There's a sense of release here. There's a sense of unity here." Even if it's just a little bit. So instead of getting caught up in the fear, without pushing it away, just take the time to appreciate. That appreciation, just generally speaking in Dharma, is a very important factor in the process of things being absorbed and learnt by the heart, that there's actually some joy, even in the quietest ways, some appreciation. And that really helps us to learn, helps our heart to learn. It's not just about fear and coming up against what's difficult all the time.

And anyway, if there is fear, as I said, the self always comes back. So it's extremely, extremely, extremely rare for anyone to completely lose the sense of self and stay in that sense that there's no self. I mean, it's highly, highly unlikely. The self comes back, so we can actually trust that it's on its way back, and it will come back. [laughs] It will find us again. [laughter] Not a problem. We just, you know, stay still. Don't panic. [laughter] It's on its way back. So we can trust that. Again, it's the movement of impermanence. It's an experience in time: it comes and it goes, and it comes, and it goes, it gets less, it gets more. It's okay. And further still, anyhow, the truth is, the self is already empty. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it's already empty, so whatever our experience is, we're standing on nothing. We feel like we're standing in something solid, but actually we're not. And that's the truth. So there's nothing we can fall off and not re-find.

[20:50] When the Buddha talked about this, he was very clear. As I think I said the other day, he wasn't interested in making metaphysical statements or philosophical statements, or summing up life in some big intellectual system or pithy statement or something like that. In fact, when one day, someone came to him and said, "There is a self, right? There is a self." And the Buddha, he just sat there and actually didn't respond to the person. He just sat there and was silent. And the guy kept badgering him. He didn't respond, and the third time, and he still didn't respond. And the guy just said, "Pff," and went away.

Five minutes later, another guy came, and said, "There's no self, right? There's no self." And again the Buddha didn't respond, and second time and a third time, didn't respond, and the guy got frustrated and went away. And Ānanda, his cousin and attendant, was standing there, and said, "What's going on?" And the Buddha said -- to paraphrase -- "I'm not interested in these kind of statements. If I said one thing, that person would take up that view and cling to that view that there is a self. If I agreed with the other person, he would take up that view and cling to that view. That's not the Middle Way."[1]

So the Buddha was interested in -- in this, he was pointing to practical ways that we can move towards [freedom from] suffering, not statements about reality. He's saying, as with the other characteristics, if we look, if we learn how to look this way at our lives, at things, we can become, we can actually have faith that we are moving towards freedom. It's not a statement. It's a way -- he's encouraging us to look in a certain way, and that way is going to lead us to freedom. So it's something practical, something that we need to do, need to start incorporating.

So what does that mean? Briefly, it means to look at things as not-self, not me, not mine. Anything internal, external, we just regard it as not-self, not me, and not mine. So we're practising anattā. We're not believing it. We're not making a formula out of it. We're practising it. It's a path of practice.

These three characteristics -- impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and this not-self -- they are not ultimate truths, but they are ways of looking that lead to freedom. They're tools. So how to go about it?

We can actually go about it via the door of impermanence, which is maybe the most obvious way to come about it. If I look at my experience, if I look at my life, if I look at my inner world, all I see is impermanence. All I see is flux. I don't see anything that lasts. Everything I look at is changing. The sense of self is something that actually seems to be fixed and solid and lasting: "I was the same person yesterday and twenty years ago, and I will be tomorrow, and if I'm alive in twenty years, I would be ... I'll feel like I'm the same person." But if I can't find anything that's actually permanent, how can it -- what is this sense of a fixed and stable sense of self actually resting on? So one way is actually through the door of impermanence: just to see that there's actually nothing in our experience we can find that's permanent. Just to let that really register deeply.

So the gateway of impermanence. And there's also the gateway of the other characteristic of unsatisfactoriness. And so to see -- and this is more subtle -- but to see that whenever I take something as me or mine, even if there's an aspect of feeling good to it, there's actually suffering involved. In doing this, to say "me" or "mine" is actually a clenching. And that clenching is suffering. And we can actually feel that clenching when we identify with something, say it's "me" or "mine." And when we stop identifying, when we let that go, we can actually feel it release, and feel the relief of that. And just to notice, "Oh. I don't actually have to hold." It's possible to let go, and there's relief in letting go. And this can be whatever it is: to body sensations, to emotions, to feelings, to thoughts and mind states, any aspect of our experience, the body itself.

Similar to the other characteristics, we may think, "Well, you know, I need to wait until I've got rid of some of this junk that's just spinning around my mind, or until I'm more mindful or more calm," or whatever. But actually this way of looking, this anattā way of looking will lend itself to calmness, will allow and encourage a calmness in the being. So it's not that we have to wait until everything's cleared out before we start reflecting in this way.

[27:12] And similarly, if we are taking this up as a practice, to use either one object (so the body sensations or the feelings in the heart area, whatever it is) or a steady sense of global awareness -- it's just, there's just awareness, there's the body, and there are the things appearing and disappearing in that sense of awareness. So the attention isn't flickering around all over the place. Nothing wrong with that -- it's just more helpful to practise that way.

To go into a bit more detail about this. This sounds quite technical, but usually we think of the self as one: "I am one, and you are lots of ones," and there's a sense that I am a unity in myself. One of the ways the Buddha actually went against that, to try and break that way of seeing down, was to split what we take as one and split it into five. This is called the five aggregates. So what he's saying is, a human being and a human being's experience is just (1) the body, (2) this feeling-tone or vedanā that we've talked about, (3) perception, (4) what's called 'mental formations,' which is thoughts and emotions and intentions and moods and mind states -- it's quite a big collection there -- and then (5) consciousness. So body, feeling-tone, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.

There's actually nothing that's outside of that. There's nothing that we can refer to as 'my self' that's outside of that. So the way to practise is actually to maybe take one of these aggregates -- for instance, take the body sensations, or take the feeling-tone, and actually just quietly reflect to oneself, maybe in the back of the awareness, there's a little quiet mental note, just: 'not me, not mine.' There's this feeling going on: 'not me, not mine.' Can we just see, "This is just happening"? It's just happening in the universe, so to speak. We're deliberately inclining the seeing in a certain way. And one does this in a very gentle way. It's a practice. Something begins, can begin to shift a little bit, or a lot.

[30:07] Now, it may be that we can just be mindful, and somehow in just the continuity of mindfulness, there comes this disidentification with the elements of our experience. It may be that that's what happens. And if that does happen, then it's all the more easy to actually encourage that a little bit, just by saying, "Not me, not mine, this is just happening."

Sometimes if we suggest a deliberate contemplation, like to actually contemplate this as not-self, sometimes people can feel a little bit uneasy: "I thought vipassanā was not to add anything to experience. I'm just being with what is. I thought that's what vipassanā is about." But what actually happens in typical consciousness is that something happens: there's a sensation in the body, there's a feeling in the heart. Right there with it is something we're actually adding unconsciously. I'm adding, "It's me, my body, or it's my feeling." We don't actually realize that unconsciously we are already adding something. So to contemplate anattā is actually to stop adding, to stop putting unreal things on experience, beginning to break that unconscious habit.

We are more interested in the freedom that comes from the way of looking than we are attachment to a certain way of practising. Interested in the freedom -- how the freedom comes is not important. If it comes from just being with what is and just being mindful, great. If it comes from saying, "Not me, not mine," and encouraging that movement, great. It's the freedom that's important, not the method, not the technique.

If we do begin to practise this way, there are inherent 'dangers' -- strong word, but one is that we're actually orienting to try and get a certain experience: "Right, I'm going to do this so I can get this big, mystical sense of no self," or whatever. And that's setting ourselves up for suffering. If we're just trying to go for some experience, it's going to be a problem.

Again, what we want to do is to understand, want to understand that there is suffering involved for us when we identify. The more we identify, "This is me, this is mine," the more suffering there is. The less we identify, the less suffering there is. We want to understand that deeply in the heart, in the cells, not as an intellectual idea. So it's not about getting a certain experience. It's about -- can we actually have that understanding, something very real, running deep in our lives?

When I first heard that five aggregates business and this sort of breakdown of a human being into all these five things, I was furious. I was totally disgusted by ... [laughs] Really turned off. I thought, "How ridiculous, how cold, how reductionistic, how materialistic! Awful! Where's the love? Where's the appreciation of what a human being is?" And shortly after that, I actually stopped practising for about four years. It wasn't just because of that, but ... [laughter] For a lot of different reasons -- I won't go into it now, but I was quite turned off by the whole sort of teaching. And that can be a quite a common approach: "And there's five of this and four of ... And what hell are you ...?" You know.

It's important, actually. If that's the reaction, it's important. Acknowledge that. It's important, but just, all I can say is that when I came back to practising and actually began to look in this way, I began to get a very real sense, and more and more and more and more: "Oh, this really is freedom. This really is a lovely, lovely release and relief that's here." It's a sense of openness that comes with looking this way, a real sense of beauty. And a sense of love, very much a sense of love.

So my former qualms and anxieties were unfounded. And in fact, the other day, we had the closing session for the people who left after two weeks, and one of the retreatants was very beautifully saying -- just opening to this for, I think, the first time, and saying, beginning to get a sense, she said, "My heart is not me, and it's not mine, and," her words, she said, "I feel empty and full at the same time. And it's wonderful, and it's liberating."

What happens is not that we become emotionally dead, cut off, cold -- at all. There may (and I think there will) be a real reduction, begin to be a real reduction in the kind of negative emotions, the kind of problematic emotions, and that whole kind of building up of what's negative. That will come through this way of looking. But the lovely emotions -- the love, connection, concern, sense of oneness, joy, peace, freedom -- they stay there, and they begin to fill the heart. So it's not at all that this is some kind of movement towards being a vipassanā robot or something.

We can contemplate ourselves this way, with these five aggregates. We can also actually contemplate other beings this way. So that's actually quite important when there's a sense of alienation from others, or disconnection, or judging others. And this judgmental mind comes up quite often for many of us.

And actually, how to work with that judgment -- it's not an easy thing to work with. One of the ways is to contemplate the five aggregates of another person. You can sit opposite this person you're judging, or think about them, and actually, "There's body there -- same as my body. There's feeling there, vedanā -- same as my feeling. Perception -- same as mine, coming and going. Mental formations, coming and going -- same as mine. Consciousness -- same as mine." And that begins, again, rather than reducing the person, actually begins to cement a sense of commonality there.

When there's a sense of commonality, it's hard for that judgmentalism to actually stand. It's one very skilful thing to do in the face of strong feelings of judgment. When we see the five aggregates of ourselves and others, it leads to love, because as I was saying, we're seeing the commonality. And the mind actually can get into ruts where it's just seeing the differences. And it's just seeing the differences. And then in that seeing the differences, when aversion comes in there, then all the war and all the strife and all the difficulties that we have as human beings -- that's where that comes in, festering in that gap of difference.

If we look in terms of the five aggregates, we see a lot of this is not very different. If I had some highly technologically advanced button here, and I could press it and swap the sensations in my backside right now for the sensations in one of your backsides ... [laughs] If there was a machine that did that, would any of you even notice when I pressed the button? [laughter] How different ...? Same sensations, body sensations, same. We're more similar than we sometimes realize. And actually to begin to reflect on this, how undifferent we are in many respects.

And similarly, in terms of thought, a lot of the way we think nowadays, is actually -- I mean, not to deny our uniqueness at all -- but a lot of the way we think is actually quite conditioned by what we've read, what we see, what's come to us through the media. And a lot of that, we have very -- we share that in common. You know, we've probably all seen, I don't know, Star Wars, maybe, the movie? [laughter] Or something. We could all sing certain songs. We have a lot culturally in common. And a lot of the thoughts, and with Dharma as well, we share a lot of that in common. So it's not so much about self. A lot of this is just conditioned. And to begin to see that. And it's not taking away our humanity to see that.

So when we see in this way, in terms of the five aggregates, we can actually begin to see -- with some practice, we begin to see, identification with the five aggregates is actually not necessary. It's quite possible to live and function and go and have my dinner and talk and whatnot without identifying with this. It's not something that's necessary. It's not that we'll become a zombie and dysfunctional. It's something added to our experience. It's not necessary.

It's not necessary; it's also not true. As I said, if everything is changing, and I can't find anything that is not changing to be myself, how can it be true? It's not necessary. It's not true. And it's also, as I said, it's dukkha, it's suffering. When we hold on as 'me' or 'mine,' we see that it's suffering. When we identify, we see it's suffering. Not necessary, it's not true, and it's dukkha. And to see that, and to be very clear about that. And that takes time. It takes time to be really clear about that.

So I would like to explore a little bit the ways we might practise. The first way is this five aggregates way. It's the most common. It's a very powerful way of practising. We might also just, in a much more informal way, you know, sometimes if you -- when you get home after the retreat, I used to sometimes just sit in my apartment that I had (I was renting, but it doesn't matter whether you own it or you rent it), and actually just sit there. Not fancy meditation or no meditation posture -- just sit on the sofa, and just look at your stuff. And if you just look at it, after a while ... "Is it mine? Is it really mine?" Just the question. There's the notion that it's mine, but actually, is it? And then to let that feeling, in a way, just come naturally out of -- if we just look at something.

And similarly, if you just sit and look at your hand for long enough, or another part of your body, just somehow in the looking, at some point, it begins to not really feel like it's mine or me. It just comes out of a steadiness of attention.

And again, to let these things settle deep in the being, we need then to allow ourselves to feel the freedom of that. If you're sitting in your apartment, and none of the stuff is mine, that's great. [laughs] It's a real relief. There's a sense of freedom in that, and to actually feel that freedom and let oneself feel the freedom. This feeling of freedom, more and more, then it's like, then we're learning, we're recognizing, this is where freedom lies: it lies in non-identification. If we don't allow ourselves to tune into that freedom, we won't learn where freedom is -- the freedom of not fully believing, not fully buying into "This is mine," or "I have this."

Okay, so there are the five aggregates. There's this sort of very informal way of just looking at stuff. There's another way -- in a way, it's getting simpler now. We could say that instead of dividing things into five, you could divide things into two. So the world, inner and outer, you can divide into, let's say, objects of awareness, things that we are aware of -- so physical things that I call 'mine' or that I call 'not mine,' internal things, thoughts and feelings and emotions and states of mind -- so there are objects that we can be aware of. And then there's awareness. There are objects, and there's awareness. We can, either just through the continuity of attention, or again, by this deliberately, just quietly saying, "not me, not mine," just reminding ourselves of that, begin to let go of the identification with objects. So there are sensations going on in the body -- they are not me, not mine. They're just sensations happening.

But what may happen at that point -- a person may be practising in that way, and practising diligently, and there's actually a sense of release with that, a sense of openness and loveliness. We've stopped identifying with objects. But at that point, it may be -- it probably will be, actually, almost certainly -- that identification remains. It remains identified with awareness. We're identified with awareness. So "I'm not the object, but I am the Watcher. I am the Witness. I am Consciousness. I am Awareness."

Sometimes, we know that this is going on, and we may have heard this as a teaching: "You are Consciousness. You are the Witness," all with capital letters to make it sound really important. That's not the Buddha's teaching, and it's still a level of holding there. Sometimes, more often than not, it's actually going on at a level that we're not conscious of. We don't know that this is going on. We've let go of identification with objects, but still, subtly, there's this sense of 'me' being aware, 'me' sitting here, watching the world go by, and everything is not 'me' except this awareness. We don't even know that we're identified with that awareness. So a much more subtle level of clinging. We need to let go of that identification, too, and that's a more subtle letting go.

[47:20] But again, we can actually just reflect, "Awareness is just happening. There's just awareness. There's just awareness in the universe, not me, not mine." It's not identified with any thing, any object, and it's not identified with awareness. It's not clinging anywhere. That is a very powerful place. Sense of self is not grasping anywhere. And the potential there for all kinds of liberating insights is actually enormous. Again, not to grasp at any of this, but just to say that when the sense of self has actually let go of that subtle identification with awareness -- very, very powerful.

Sometimes, a person might have been practising this way, and actually, there's a sense of -- there's just this impersonal flow of things going on. None of it's me or mine. It's just arising and passing, and it's just the endless flux and flow of life. And it may feel like, "Well, that's it. That's sort of what we need to see." But that's actually not the final resting point. We need to go beyond that.

And how are we going to go beyond that? The sense of -- another way of contemplating emptiness of self -- the sense of self is actually, it needs some thing to get wrapped up in and get either agitated or excited about. Its self needs to stand on some thing. So that means it cannot stand independently. We have a sense of a self that is independent of things: "Whatever happens, I am this self. Doesn't matter -- if nothing's happening, I'm still this self." But actually, if we see closely, the sense of self -- something has to be a big deal for a sense of self to be very strong. So either there's pain going on in the body, and that's a big deal, and the sense of self grows around that. Or my role or some event is a big deal, and the sense of self gets stronger around that.

If we begin to go into this whole anattā way of looking, we can actually see: the sense of self depends on a thing. But equally, a thing depends on the sense of self. So when we begin to experience less of a sense of self, or a loosening or a lightening of the sense of self, actually the world begins to appear differently. The world begins to appear differently. Things begin to appear differently. The causality works both ways. If we understand that mutuality, if we understand that very deeply, this is the deepest seeing.

So all of this freedom around self -- it's not that it will make us all kind of the same, all neutral factory products of Gaia House. [laughs] It actually frees self-expression. If we begin to reflect in our life, begin to pay attention: "When are the times when I wanted to express something, or I was in an opportunity to express something creatively or artistically or in relationship, and I felt inhibited?" It's when the sense of self gets constricted around that.

So all this seeing is actually freeing our self-expression, freeing us to express in completely unique ways. It's not a contradiction to say that we're all completely unique. We're all absolutely unique expressions in the universe. And yet, the self-expression is not coming from this fixed and tied sense of self.

And that similarly might relate to our expression of love. How often have we wanted to express love to someone close, or a stranger, and there's just the inhibition or the fear of how it would be received, or some kind of constriction around self, what self you are? "I don't really -- you know, I'm not really that kind of person. Or maybe they'll think of me in a certain way."

So this seeing through the solidity of self frees the self-expression, frees the creativity, frees the movement of love. And it's also seeing through our sense of separation. When we see through the sense of separation, there has to be love there. And actually, we begin to treat others equally, because we're not always number one. What would it be not to always be number one? There's a genuine sense of really deep sort of lived ethics, lived sīla, because we really do care about other people equally.

Finally, when we begin to let go of the way of looking, the habitual way of looking that we have that's -- without us really realizing it, we approach situations, we'll wake up in the morning, or we come to enter a room, or whatever it is. And without realizing it, so often, what's guiding our looking, what's guiding our looking at the world and our seeing of things is usually a silent question: "What's in it for me? How's this going to affect me? Is it threatening? Is it something I need to keep away? Is it something that I can maybe get for me?" Sometimes it's very obvious, and sometimes it's very, very subtle. But that's our orientation in looking: "What's in it for me?" And there's a kind of agenda there. We're pushing certain things away and pulling other things toward us.

When we let go of that, begin to let go of that agenda, and let go of that pushing and pulling, there comes, gradually -- or sometimes not gradually -- there's a different way. The world looks different. There's a radiance in the world when we let go of that pushing and pulling. There's a sense of mystery there.

Usually, most of our sense of fulfilment and excitement in life is bound up with this pushing and pulling and getting, and "What do I need to keep away?" We can't imagine that the kind of equanimity that might come out of letting some of that go is actually lovely and beautiful. If we begin to let go of the self-agenda, then a whole different dimension is available in life.

I think I'll stop there. Shall we have a few quiet moments together?

  1. SN 44:10. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry