One of the terms that I have found can be the most misleading for people in Buddhism, is the concept of no self.
I wanted to clarify this and offer some tools for connecting with your true self.
It is true that we do not have a separate, fixed self. We are always changing and we co-arise with our environment. Our skin is only soft because most things around us in our environment are hard. We are only intelligent because most animals are dumb. We only feel happiness because the environment and conditions we are in evokes it in us. As soon as we change our environment our self changes too.
Our sense of a fixed, permanent self comes from the mind. We hold on to fixed perceptions and ideas about things because the changing nature of reality feels scary and unstable to us. As we meditate on impermanence, we notice more and more the changing nature of things. We notice how our emotions and thoughts don’t really belong to us or say anything about us, they just arise in our experience and pass away. We also notice that our ideas about things are also empty; nothing is really better or worse, right or wrong when looked at through the lens of the mind. You can create a rational reason for anything being better than anything else and ultimately, if you meditate enough, this just falls over before it even starts.
This meditation practice, when done correctly, opens our mind to the point where we realise all of perception, awareness and consciousness is impermanent, changing and empty, in the sense that any ideas about right or wrong, better or worse, this or that, just come from our resistance and fear of certain concepts. If we remove all this resistance, everything dissolves into total blandness.
If people open their minds to this degree, without opening their hearts, they can get stuck in this emptiness, which is not a very satisfying or meaningful experience to be having.
However, if you open your heart either before or at the same time as opening your mind, your sense of a self shifts from the mind’s idea of being a fixed, separate self into the heart’s felt-sense of the preferences that make you, you, and the values that guide you in each given moment. This is what I mean by a true self.
When we experience the world with an open heart, we have no fixed ideas about what is right or wrong, but we have natural preferences for things. I love warm weather, sunshine, grapefruit, surfing, butterflies, people that make me laugh – I don’t think that these things are inherently better than other things, I just prefer them. This preference arises by letting our experience into our hearts. Hearts will naturally filter and prioritise what feels most important in our experience and we will be drawn to these things. This shapes how we experience our environments and ourselves.
When I was out on a walk with a fellow nature loving friend, who also has a very open mind and heart, he noticed how I was very drawn to the flowers and he was very drawn to the trees. Walking through the same terrain we probably had very different experiences of what that looked like and how it felt, because the information that felt most important to each of our hearts was different. Our attention would have been naturally drawn to different things.
This is different to the mind’s preference, or craving and aversion, in that it’s not based on wanting something that isn’t there or trying to make something go away. It is accepting our environment as it is, including our heart’s natural preferences for things.
This is also true of our response to the world – if we open our hearts, our natural intentions will flow out of us in each moment. I’m a creative and adventurous person at heart, so my natural response to the world is always kicking out creative ideas and finding some new boundary to push. Other people will have different guiding values, which will take them in different directions and evoke different responses to the same environment.
Again, this doesn’t come from trying to deny or change the experiences we are having, which would come from the mind. It’s embracing our heart’s natural desire to engage with and contribute to experience.
These two things combined – our heart’s preferences and our heart’s guiding values or intentions – combine to make up the essence of who we are.
I have a certain Rosa-ness, which shapes my entire experience. This is based on how my heart filters and prioritises all the information it is receiving and naturally responds to that information. When people are relaxed, I find it really nice to notice their essence. What is the felt-sense of their presence. How are they different to other people. What does that evoke in me.
There is still some truth in the words of no-self. Hearts don’t hoard things to themselves – it is the place where we feel naturally connected to the people and environment around us. I like people who make me laugh, but I don’t want to hang out with people who just do whatever they can to make me laugh all the time. It’s more like I appreciate it when I have a connection with someone that facilitates laughter – my heart wants that experience to be shared.
This is why money stops making us happier, after a certain point (around £50,000 per year). If I was mega rich I could hire a full-time live-in comedian, but that’s not actually what I want. I want to feel the connection between my true self, my environment and other people’s true selves.
I noticed during the process of my awakening that one of the things I was resisting in my experience was this Rosa-ness that permeated everything. It was like there was a desire to escape my sense of the world. I’m not sure if this was rooted in personal issues around self-esteem or if it is a more Universal experience, but accepting my unique experience of the world was one of the best things that could have come out of the awakening for me. It has allowed me to relax into my experience.
It is my belief that this is what the Universe wants us to do. We are here to experience it, take pleasure in our preferences in any given moment, enjoy engaging with life and give a shit about contributing to the world. Our hearts are the purest way to do all these things. They are where our true selves exist, everything else is mostly just shit we think we should be doing.
Knowing Your True Self
One of things that I have found that helps people to relax into their true self is to clearly identify some of their preferences and values. It is easier to be in our hearts if we know them and if we validate their desires.
Just making a free-flow list of lots of things you like – people, places, things, foods, activities, nature or animals, music or art, colours, emotions, smells, sensations – will help you start to identify your heart’s preferences.
Intentions can be a little more complex to get a clear understanding of, but essentially we are trying to boil down these three questions into single words:
- What do you find most fulfilling?
- What makes a process or experience enjoyable for you?
- In what way do you want to change the world?
The best way to do this is to expand first – think of some very detailed real-life examples of the answers to these questions – and then boil the examples down to a single word or two that you feel captures the most important thing about what you are saying. This is how the heart functions – simple, clear intentions that can be manifested in reality and in the present moment.
I have done this exercise with loads of people and I have never found a single person who has selfish intentions. Everyone wants to be contributing to society in one way or another. The more we can focus on creating a world in which we are clearly manifesting our heart’s desires, the more fun and satisfying everyone’s experience will be.
I have included my value cards at the bottom of this post to give you an example of the kinds of words that values can be boiled down to. I also wrote a blog post around doing this exercise for our spiritual practice, with more in-depth questions, here.
I believe that embracing our true selves and the preferences and desires that come naturally from our heart is fundamental to the path. The purpose of life and practice is to identify these things and clear everything that isn’t these things out of our experience. This will probably cause a lot of upheaval and change in your life – it is not easy to live life as your true self and there will be resistance from other people and our own fixed ideas of what we think is good and bad.
But the question I have to ask you is: if you’re not being a true expression of yourself in the world, then what is the point? I hope that this post inspires people to engage with and accept their true self.