Experience the Truth of No Self

When we see ourselves as separate, we’re limited, says Rebecca Bradshaw. In experiencing the truth of nonself, we free our hearts and minds.

Rebecca Bradshaw
23 June 2023
Woman on surfboard with arms outstretched and sun in background.
Photo © Olga Sinenko / Stocksy United

What is our visceral, embodied experience of nonself? Rather than using conceptual analysis, how do we feel nonself? How does it feel different from our usual experience of self?

When we focus on our felt experience, we discover that self is claustrophobic, like a dark dungeon or a caged bird. The experience of nonself is like taking off a tight shoe, a breath of fresh air, the shrrrr of the wind in the pine trees, the wide-open ocean. Going beyond intellect and philosophy, we can know these experiences for ourselves, in heart, body, and mind.

The teaching of anatta, or nonself, is considered the most liberating tenet of the Buddhist teachings. Describing how we’re bound, fettered, and limited by the sense of ourselves as separate and self-existing, this teaching offers the possibility of unbinding and freeing the heart and mind.

While many practitioners find anatta difficult to understand, it’s even harder to imagine how we could believe ourselves to be separate, independent beings when we’re so intimately connected with our environment. With every breath, every sound, every bite of food, every step, we’re here, immersed, embedded, inextricably linked. That’s so clear it’s hard to believe we actually have the illusion we’re separate from life and truly independent! As humans, we create this separation as a survival strategy, but while it may help us survive, it doesn’t make us happy.

To be clear, nonself teachings do not suggest we wipe out any of the programming that helps us get through the day. We’re not declaring that I don’t exist, you don’t exist, and everything is an illusion. We don’t get rid of our functioning, everyday self.

We do, instead, explore different ways of experiencing how we exist, and note that our usual way of seeing ourselves limits the freedom of the mind/heart. With the anatta teachings, we expand our options. We discover the freedom of nonself, the dissolving of the contraction of the mind/heart caught in separation.

The openness of nonself is natural, nothing special. It’s a relief, like coming out of a dark tunnel into bright daylight.

Nonself teachings in the sutras are often conceptually based, emphasizing deconstruction and analysis of the conventional view of self. The Buddha offered a number of conceptual paradigms related to the constructed nature of the self, and these give us useful frameworks for our experiential exploration.

For example, the Buddha explained nonself through exploring the composite nature of the self through contemplating the six senses. Is there anything beyond seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling the body, and the experience of mind?

The same sense experiences, arranged in a different format, are included in the teachings on the five aggregates (skandhas) of clinging: the body, and four experiences of the mind, including feeling tone, perception, karmic formations, and consciousness. The Buddha asks, “Are these experiences permanent? Are they controllable?” (Spoiler alert: They’re not.) “Is it proper to take what is impermanent and uncontrollable as my self?” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.) These questions can loosen our conviction that we only exist in the way that we conventionally think that we do, as permanent and self-existing.

Another teaching on nonself, called dependent co-origination, describes twelve steps that lead to the creation of self, and consequently, suffering. The Cliff Notes version of this teaching starts with basic ignorance about the way the world is. Influenced by our accumulated conditioning, experiences of the body and mind and consciousness arise along with an affective quality. Out of ignorance and habitual conditioning we react to this affective tone in increasingly contracted and confining ways, leading to the birth of the sense of ourselves as separate. Therefore, we suffer. Our human life (and lives) is this endless round of creation of self and suffering, until we find a way to break the chain with mindfulness and wisdom.

These conceptual frameworks are useful, yet understanding them intellectually only carries us so far. Though conceptual understanding doesn’t unbind the mind/heart, these frameworks can point us to our direct feeling experience. Then, from a nonconceptual paradigm, we feel our way into nonself. This is not a theoretical or abstract exploration; it’s visceral and embodied. We experience the creation of self up close and feel into its release.

How do we experience self when it feels strong? We feel contraction, clinging, binding, tension, stress, self-preoccupation, limitation, tightness, and inflexibility. What happens when awareness directly contacts this experience of self in the mind, heart, and body? As we get intimate with the clenching, the willingness to open and relax the tight fist grows. How, then, do we experience nonself? As we familiarize ourselves with the openness of the unbound mind/heart of nonself, it manifests as ease, spaciousness, flexibility, softening, allowing, relief, freedom, and the healing of estrangement.

With the background of the conceptual frameworks, we delve, from the perspective of the heart, into our felt experience of self and nonself, suffering and freedom. We soften our way into melting, or dissolving, the barriers created by these contractions of self. This melting uncovers the radiant heart, the unbound heart, the heart that is not contracted around me and mine, but is open and able to touch life and be touched by life. This unbound, unmuddled heart responds to life with more clarity and compassion.

In our meditation practice, we feel the self-protective nature of our contraction and clinging and grow willing to feel the vulnerable nature of letting go. We see that the self is composed of control strategies! These strategies limit us, confining our hearts in a narrow cage in order to feel safe. What do we do with this dilemma? Our evolutionary and biological imperative calls for us to create safety and security for ourselves, and yet these very strategies cause suffering. The heart yearns for more space, for more freedom.

The Buddha taught that the second noble truth, the cause of suffering, is this very experience of contraction and control. The third noble truth, freedom from suffering, is the relaxing of the grip, the opening of the clenched fist. The heart and mind unbind from the patterning of hanging on, holding on, and contracting.

In the meditative process, awareness meets contraction, whether on gross levels such as fear or anger, or subtle levels such as the slightest tightening in the mind/heart. Recognizing the stressful nature of holding on, awareness considers letting go on all levels—the physical body, energy body, mind, heart, subtle body, even the cells. With continued application of soft, kind-hearted awareness, these rigid protections dissolve and allow contraction to unbind itself. We feel our way to freedom through intimacy with both the binding and the release.

Nonself, then, refers to letting go, to not hanging onto experience. It’s not something that we do, but rather something that we don’t do. We don’t hang on. We don’t contract around experience. We don’t imprison our hearts and minds in a cage of separation. We still have a functioning relative self that can respond to arising experiences in skillful ways, but not a rigid inflexible self that shuts down, contracts, owns, and tries to micromanage what arises.

As we let go of contraction and grasping, the heart opens, widens, and disentangles. The openness of nonself is natural, nothing special. It’s a relief, like coming out of a dark tunnel into bright daylight. The unbound heart, strong in wisdom, equanimity, love, and compassion, can engage with this wild, crazy world with wisdom and compassion.

Trust and confidence are the path and the fruit of this exploration. Our heart is flexible enough to accommodate what comes our way and respond skillfully and heartfully. We settle into the freed mind/heart, down-to-earth, unfettered, and engaged.

Rebecca Bradshaw

Rebecca Bradshaw

Rebecca Bradshaw is a guiding teacher emeritus at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She lives with her husband and two cats.