[One of my first meditation teachers,] Joseph Goldstein, studied seven years in India [with] a Bengali man named Anagarika Munindra. Munindra had an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist psychology that filtered directly into Joseph's understanding. At the heart of Munindra's understanding was the peculiar notion of anatta, or no-self, the central psychological idiom of Buddhism.
This seemed like the ultimate trick to me, a psychology without a self behind it. In the teachings, the self was like those schmattas [Indian shawls] that Joseph's friends draped over themselves. It might give comfort sometimes, but we could just as well take it off. Like a snake's worn-out skin, or the food in the monkey's closed fist, this self was insubstantial and could simply be dropped.
I was intrigued, puzzled, curious, and determined to know more. I peppered Joseph with questions that began to have a familiar ring. My biggest and most recurring question in those years ran something like this: "If there is no self, then who is meditating right now? If there is no self, then who is watching this process? If there is no self, then whose knees are hurting?" This was not only my recurring question but everyone else's as well.
In a Buddhist text known as "The Questions of King Milinda," the sage Nagasena attempts to address this problem by asking the king how he traveled.
"Did you come on foot, or in a carriage?"
"I did not come on foot, reverend sir, I came in a chariot."
"If your majesty came in a chariot, explain to me what a chariot is," Nagasena replied, zeroing in on what has become a traditional Buddhist symbol of the self. "Can the chariot-pole be the chariot, O king? Is the axle the chariot? Are the wheels, or the frame, or the banner-staff, or the yoke, or the reins, or the goad, the chariot?" To each of these questions the king responded in the negative. "Then, O king, is the chariot all these parts? Well, O king, is the chariot anything else than these?" Again the king said no. "O king, I ask and ask you, and do not perceive a chariot. Is 'chariot' anything but a mere word? What is chariot in this matter?"
By pointing to something so concrete and obvious as the chariot, Nagasena was making a difficult point. The chariot obviously exists. It is more than a mere word, but it exists only in relationship to its parts. In Buddhist terms, we would say it exists as the designation of its parts. In the Buddhist psychology known as Abhidharma, the self that we take to be real, like the chariot of King Milinda, is a similar kind of vehicle. It has a reality but not the intrinsic one we assume through the process of identification. We can see form (the five sense organs and their objects), feelings, perceptions, mental factors, and consciousness, but we would have a hard time putting our finder on "self."
This inference, which lies at the heart of the Buddha's teachings, seemed to me at first fairly unimpressive. "So what," I said to myself. "What difference does it make anyway?" I wanted Joseph, in my meeting with him, to explain to me once and for all, but he just referred me back to my meditation cushion. "Insight grows out of mindfulness," he told me. Although I was feeling a bit suspicious, I decided to give it a try.
This led to one of my first surprises in meditation. As I learned to watch my own mind, I began to see how I was continuously creating my sense of self through my thoughts. It was not some elaborate construction, but a simple and reflexive habit. Over and over again, I was repeating the words "I" or "me" to myself. "I don't like that," I would think. "Not for me," I might add. I was always telling myself what I thought.
People talked about an inner dialogue, but I seemed to have more of an inner monologue. "What would it be like if I were to stop buying into all this?" I wondered. This was where Joseph was helpful. He did not encourage me to try to drop the word "I" from my thoughts, for example, as I might have naively attempted. He talked instead of the mind's tendency to identify with its experience, and he was clear that this identification was separate from the experience itself. As I studied Buddhism throughout the years, I found that this approach of Joseph's was replicated in all of the different schools of Buddhism.
The trick in Buddhist meditation is to focus in on the feeling of self as it appears, as absence of presence. In the Tibetan tradition, the best time to find this sense of self is said to be in moments of "injured innocence," when we feel hurt or outraged at the way someone is talking to us or treating us. This is when the self is thought to be most visible to our observing consciousness. It feels so real that we can almost put out finger on it. But the key word here is "almost." Even under these circumstances the self remains elusive. It just cannot be grasped. But the feeling of identification can be perceived as something extra.
This was not something I could have thought of on my own. Yet it seemed to be true. I could identify with my body, my feelings, my perceptions, my thoughts, my consciousness. But it was possible to observe identification as it happened, or to feel it happening and then let go of it. I experimented with this in my meditations. It was not so hard to locate the sense of identification, nor was it particularly difficult to release it. Trivial events triggered minor realizations.
At one of my first meditation retreats, for example, the woman sitting next to me, a friend of Joseph's named Kishorri who was wrapped in an Indian schmatta, leaned over to request that I breathe a little more quietly. Momentarily insulted, I nevertheless tuned in to how I was straining in my efforts to pay attention to my breath. I realized then that if I could just let the breath breathe me, I did not have to be in charge. Everything carried on fine without me.
This was a little unnerving, like dreams I have had where I could suddenly breathe under water. My identification was like food coloring in water. It did not change the substance of things but completely altered its appearance. "Wait a minute," I would think after suddenly glimpsing how my process continued without me. "How it this possible?" It is a strange feeling not to be needed. But this was unexpectedly liberating: it led me to a lighter touch. Bitten by the Buddha bug, I began to open myself to this in an ongoing way.
Rather than struggle against my experience by feeling sorry for myself or fearing my insecurities, I now had a stance or posture, an approach to life that guided me. Relieved of some impinging sense of responsibility for everything, I became much more able to allow experiences to unfold as they did. Less judgmental toward my own emotional responses and less invested in always maintaining control, my interior life became more textured and nuanced as I relaxed my grip and began to feel more at home in my body.
I saw that my feelings arose together with my awareness, but that it was possible to take the me-ness out of those feelings, to make light of them. I sensed this lightness both literally and figuratively, in the buoyant quality of some of my mediations but also in my growing capacity for humor. I did not need to, nor could I, stop my most disturbing feelings from arising, but I could use my observing awareness, my mindfulness, to create a sense of space even around them.
Deepening my experience of myself, I felt, at the same time, relieved of a heavy burden. I became more interested in investigation than in control, less sure of myself in some ways but more willing to explore whatever I was experiencing. If fear was only a feeling that I did not have to identify with, what did I have to be frightened of? A cliché, perhaps, but life suddenly seemed much more liveable. I did not think of Buddhism as a religion, but I had discovered faith.