Meditation on No-self
by Michael W. Taft
Why do you meditate? There are lots of possible reasons. I started because I couldn’t stand my own mind, and realized that it was not only the source of most of my problems, but might actually be the source of my own salvation. That was more true than I could have realized at the time, and in more ways than I knew. Because beyond learning to relax, beyond learning to work with difficult emotions, beyond becoming more able to connect with other people, and many other useful effects, one of the deepest and most life-changing outcomes possible with meditation is the realization of no-self.
No-self is hard to talk about, but is actually extremely simple as an experience. No-self is the direct recognition that the thoughts in your head and the feelings in your body are just passing experiences. Even more, it’s the recognition that although it feels like there’s a person in there, who is having those experiences, that feeling is just another one of those passing experiences. (I told you it was hard to talk about.) You are actually having the experience of no-self many, many times a day. Most of the time, though, you don’t notice it, because it’s too simple. It’s not flashy and intense, the way most experiences of the self are. It’s possible to spend years in meditation just to get to know the experience of no-self, but actually with a little guidance you can also just notice it at any moment.
At the risk of sounding obscure, or of totally misleading you, I’ll try to describe the experience of no-self. You know all the feelings in your body? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. You know all the words in your head? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. You know all the pictures in your imagination? Just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away. Any other content of sense experiences—like smells or tastes or whatever—just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away, too.
You know how you feel like there’s a person inside you who is having all those experiences? Just let that feeling arise in spaciousness and pass away. What is left, outside of all the content of sense experience and the sense of being somebody, that is no-self. When I say “just let those arise in spaciousness and pass away,” I don’t mean make them go away. I just mean that you sort of let them be, without interacting with them. Let the flow and move and dance without interference. What’s left is a kind of spacious awareness, without the sense of there being anybody at the center of it.
Utterly confused? Having the direct experience of no-self is totally different than somebody describing it, or a conceptual understanding of it. Once you notice the experience, however, you’ll find that it’s available quite often during your normal daytime activities. That, then, can become a focus for a “meditation in motion,” something you do while working, driving, eating, or whatever else during the rest of your life. Simply notice no-self. As you sink into the experience more deeply and fully over time, no-self will become a tremendously empowering, enlivening, and enlightening (no)thing. If you see that there is no self, you’ll see that there is no one to have any problems. And that is something worth noticing.
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photo by Wonderlane