I’m taking this course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology and I had to write a paper on the Buddhist concept of the “Not-Self”. I thought it would be fun to post it and see if it sparked conversation. For what it’s worth, here it is:
The Buddha suggests that the self is not made up of consciousness, form (body), feelings, perceptions and mental formations because that is all impermanent “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” The principal argument here is that this will lead to disenchantment which then leads to dispassion and thus to liberation. As I was taking notes I noticed that I drew the diagram with the 5 aggregates and then put in large letters off to the side: “This is not-self”. That got me thinking. Perhaps the 5 aggregates are the not-self when we cease to cling to them as lifelines for survival and instead see them as a vehicle to use on the path to enlightenment. In other words, they are not the permanent, solid, tangible things we tend to perceive them as but instead they are the impermanent, mist-like veil that we can lift to discover the true essence of self which is not self.
Perhaps consciousness is what is being liberated. Perhaps there is a self and it becomes transformed by releasing that which is impermanent. Maybe the big ah ha moment here is realizing that you don’t HAVE to own the aggregates. Maybe it’s possible to identify in another way. My thought is that the aspiration for liberation is not clinging to the mental and physical parts of our being as self. Deeds without a do-er. Thoughts without a thinker. Taoism suggests “We do without doing and everything gets done.”
“Knowing the nature of things and direct[ing] your efforts accordingly is like flowing along with the current and it will make achieving something effortless.”
Therefore, doing nothing is still doing something. Which supports the idea that this not-self concept is reached through meditative practice and is revealed. I put a lot of emphasis on doing. I go to the gym to workout my body and stay healthy. I ride my bike to different places to spend time with my friends. I read books to stimulate my mind. All of this is doing and isn’t it interesting that being is even in the name we call ourselves - human being. Am I a human being? Am I a human doing? It is the being that needs to be taking place in order to find the not self - the liberation from the 5 aggregates. In my opinion there is a self and a not-self because I don’t think you can have one without the other - as if it’s a coin with 2 sides and the journey is finding the other side.
What I’m positing is that because we know that those things are not-self we can use them to find the path to self - that true self that lies somewhere beyond consciousness, form, feelings, perceptions and mental formations. Which would then put the idea of this as a pursuit (as in the doing of something) as opposed to a practice (as in the being of something) into play. Meaning that talking about it is something you can do but it won’t get the job done. The true path lies in the not doing and instead the practice of being. The Buddha says that the source of suffering is clinging to that which is impermanent and it’s all impermanent - including the 5 aggregates and yet if we don’t cling to those things (erroneously believing them to be tangible and solid things on which to build a secure and enjoyable life) then who exactly are we and how are we defined? Is the not self a way of being that is a place where we are no longer filling in our own stories? I talk a lot about “filling in your/my own story”. What I mean by that is I think there is a way to be that doesn’t make assumptions of situations. In other words, I see something that I perceive is similar to something that I’ve seen before but I don’t fill in my own story or my own understanding of the situation or the person or the relationship, etc. Instead, I approach it without any preconceived mental content - tabula rasa - in order to see it more clearly. Perhaps that’s a way of practicing the not self - not relying on my past experience or my feelings or my perceptions and instead allowing the fullness of my experience to wash over and around me as I enjoy my passions, my understandings, my desires but only as if they are something unattached from my being but still within the flow of this time/space reality. And then, in the practice, discovering the not-self.