It’s Halloween today, so many of us may be watching scary movies or donning costumes and running door to door in pursuit of candy. What better day is there to explore a concept that I have generally been too afraid to discuss on the blog: the concept of not-self. If this phrase sounds awkward and weird to you, that’s because it is. It is the best attempt at an English translation from the Pali word “anatta” and the Sanskrit “anatman”, which in Buddhist philosophy refer to the idea that there is no stable, static, or lasting self.
Why Not-Self Is Both Scary and Exciting
Why does this concept make me afraid? The big reason is that it is hard to define. Not-self is a concept that most forms of secular Buddhism avoid. You may hear teachers mention the “ego” every now and then, but there is often little prompting for us to explore the foundations of our identity. As such, it’s not a concept that lends itself well to the blog format.
In addition, I’ll be honest that many lawyers (a large portion of my reading audience) may struggle with the idea of not-self. If I had to state the importance of identity and reputation for lawyers in a single word, I would spread my arms out wide like a little kid trying to demonstrate a really big thing and simply say “huge!”
As a lawyer, I feel the pull of identity and duty and values and firm and groups all the time. Sometimes it feels amazing and sometimes it feels confining and burdensome. Even with this double-edged sword, experience has shown me that seeing the tenuous binds of identity offers liberation and fear in equal measure.
My experience with it has felt (I can only imagine) like sky-diving. There is a surge of adrenaline when you see you are not stuck in the same old identity. All too soon, though, this is followed by a horrific pang wondering if the parachute will open and the new identity you hope to create will take.
Given all of this, maybe it’s best to consider the concept of not-self with fun and a sense of humor. This makes Halloween, with its costumes and candy almost poking fun at the human realities of change, decay, and death, an ideal framework to consider the concept. To that end, here are 3 reasons why exploring the concept of not-self can help you and 3 simple ways to get started.
3 Ways Exploring Not-Self Can Help
Why would you want to dig in with a weird concept that makes you question who you are and how your identity was created? To put it simply, it can help undo some suffering. Here’s how.
1. Less Judgment
One of the hallmark principles of mindfulness practice is becoming aware of judgments. When you start to do this, you will learn that judgments are at the heart of a lot of our suffering. Of course, this isn’t to say that all difficulty in life is self-inflicted. When you pay attention, though, you realize that many life difficulties emanate from our reactions to life.
If you want to get clear about judgments, you almost have to explore identity. Think about it. When you judge, who is doing the judging? There is some identity deep down that is designating an experience, a situation, a person, or a choice as “good” or “bad.” But lawyers who play devil’s advocate and consider things from all angles know that the goodness or badness of a situation, person, or experience may depend on the perspective.
The thing is that perspective can be hard to see when we are so locked into our own. This is one big lesson from exploring not-self. We can remember that our perspective is the product of our experience and all the forces that shaped us in our lives. We can also remember times when we have felt certain in our perspective and identity, only to see it pass and change with time. When we loosen the grip of identity by considering these things, we can get some freedom from our judgments.
2. Activates Agency
I’ve written about habits on the blog a lot and I expect that I will write about them a lot in the future too. As I discussed when I reviewed Atomic Habits by James Clear, identity is a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to habit formation. Why? Because willpower is like a muscle. It gets tired and takes energy to employ.
But when we shift identity, suddenly this new habit isn’t an exercise of pure will. It’s just us being ourselves. The problem is, of course, is that the pull of identity is strong. Eerie as it can sometimes be, not-self offers a way out of this trap. It helps us remember that, just like our identities are formed by our experiences, we can shift those identities (at least to some degree) with new conduct.
This does not mean that building new habits or making change is easy. I’m not sure anything can make that easy. In my experience, though, it has made the discomfort of doing these things more bearable. Even when a new activity is truly wholesome, it can feel awkward and churn up lots of doubt and anxiety. The concept of not-self has helped to normalize this experience for me.
Though I may long for the security of my familiar sameness, I know that the security is illusory at best. This helps me be brave because it reminds me that there isn’t a haven where I can avoid feeling insecure about my identity. Faced with this choice of insecurity caused by inertia or insecurity caused by living life on my terms, it’s a lot easier to move towards what I want.
3. More Connection
What happens when you judge less? In general, you open up more. That’s one reason the concept of not-self can help you open up to connection with others.
And when I say “judge less” I mean that for yourself and others. Exploring the concept of not-self can help you notice all the ways you strive to rise to other people’s expectations and fulfill a role in society. It may help short circuit this process and go directly for what you want – most commonly love, connection, and belonging. With a clearer idea of what you care about, you may find it easier to find it.
Likewise, judging others less may open up opportunities for connection you never expected. Look, I know it is exceedingly easy to judge other people right now. Our brains want to categorize and sort humanity into in and out groups. Our social media feeds are designed to accelerate this process. Even advertising contributes to rigid identities by forever constructing brand allegiance.
It’s not kind to yourself or wise to pretend that you can simply stop judging the people around you and those who differ from you in meaningful ways. But when you explore how your identity is created and perpetuated, you start to ask those same questions for other people. At a minimum, this can make you less harsh and stark in your view. Over time, you may find barriers coming down and new possibilities for connection emerging.
3 Easy Ways to Explore Not-Self
This sounds good and all, you may be saying to yourself, but how on earth do I start to “explore the concept of not-self”? It’s a good question and one that is not easily answered. Plumbing the depths of identity and watching it shift and change over time is something we could do our whole lives. To keep you from getting overwhelmed with this, here are a few small and less scary ways to start.
1. Get to Know Yourself
Getting to know who you are is a good step for understanding the instability of identity. Like many concepts from Buddhism, not-self is one that is best understood from experience. Learning about who you are is a one way to get that experience.
Personality tests or psychological assessments may give you some insights into your patterns. I have taken a few of the personality tests used in business, including Meyers-Briggs, Predictive Index, and the Enneagram. Things like Strengths Finder or even Gretchen Rubin’s 4 categories may offer some insights. You can’t take these tests to reveal truth with a capital T but you can see some patterns.
If you aren’t into tests, coaching, therapy, or talks with good friends can help too. Anyone who will help you see yourself clearly and nonjudgmentally can help you get a better understanding of your identity and how it was formed.
2. Consider Conditions
There is one caveat if you start looking at personality patterns: it could without balance lead to the idea that you “are who you are.” We’ve all said this line. Sometimes we say to mean we aren’t going to kill ourselves trying to live up to someone else’s standards. Sometimes we say it to defend an unpopular opinion when we aren’t interested in rational argument. Whatever the reason, it conveys the idea that are personalities are set in stone.
For times in our lives, this might be true. We may be stable for a while and feel secure. Inevitably, though, most of would admit that conditions change. As you are exploring your identity, therefore, don’t just focus on what you are like. It may help to consider the conditions, including the people, who got you there.
I find that this really helps me employ self-compassion when reviewing my past mistakes and also avoiding self-righteousness when recalling my triumphs. Sure, I struggled mightily with networking early in my law practice but my inherited introversion and anxiety didn’t do me any favors. And yes I wrote some books, but my introversion made all that alone time pleasant and I had support from family and friends.
These reckonings may also help with employing compassion and understanding for those with whom we disagree. Just like loving-kindness practice, I don’t recommend forcing this analysis with your worst enemies right away. But, you can start small by thinking of the conditions that led someone to take the action you dislike. It may not mean forgiveness, but it may allow you a chance to let go of the hurt.
3. Look for Stories and Scripts
But where is meditation in all of this? I wrote this whole post and have hardly talked about meditation at all. Not-self is something that you may only get glimpses of in life, so it is a hard thing to practice in meditation. It’s not impossible, however.
One way to explore this concept in meditation is keep asking “who” is there. Who is doing all of this thinking? Who is hearing that sound? Who is feeling that emotion? Of course, it is you but try to find the conscious choice behind all of those things. If you find it, I’ll be surprised because I’m still looking. There isn’t really a “who” but just awareness. That’s where not-self gets a bit spooky.
Over time, though, you can get comfortable just chilling in awareness and you can start to see things play out with more space. This is where you can see stories and scripts and patterns play out. They might be your tendency to doubt yourself or turn yourself into a victim or your savior complex. With time, you can watch in life how following these stories and scripts plays out for you. That’s when you can harness some of the agency mentioned above and think about creating a new story you actually want to live.
This is my run down on the good, the bad, and the slightly creepy about not-self. I hope it helped you see that Halloween may not be all that different from our lives everyday. We put masks on a lot and play roles all of the time. It’s not bad to do. It’s part of being human. But ultimately, part of being human is learning when to stop playing the role, take off the mask, and just be us. Exploring not-self is weird and a bit scary but it may offer you a chance at freedom too.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.
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