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​First Rule of Selfistry: There is No Self

Abstract painting of a self.

The Buddhist teachings on self, relatively new to the west, have successfully challenged most of our views on personhood. At first blush the differing perspectives appear to be opposites. However, opposites do not solely oppose, they complement, even complete. Let’s take a closer look at these two poles of self and no-self, so you can see how Selfistry resolves their intersection.

When I first met Sam, my fellow monk for ten years, he was in his late thirties and had already spent time exploring western views of the self. He’d studied various theories of psychology and experimented with communal living and gestalt therapy. He was a keen people observer. He was solidly in touch with the natural world. He was sexually uninhibited. Still, all these adjustments to his personal self hadn’t satisfied his longing for true self knowledge.

It was as if his drive for self discovery and happiness revealed—by default—a consciousness that his efforts had not touched.

Inner contentment, a state that would not change with his feelings or circumstances, still eluded him. He knew this consciousness was there, as if he were tracking the scent.

So he continued his search.

My relationship with Sam began when he was done with the great American drive for success, wealth, personal fulfillment, and more stuff. Like the Buddha himself, Sam had realized the inability of any of these to bring true and lasting happiness.

He had walked away from his privileged life and sought refuge in the wilderness, where he spent most of his time silent and meditating.

In addition to our rigorous practice schedule, Sam and I studied a lot during our years together. We also argued a lot, hashing out the differences in our personal beliefs and our maturing understanding. We constantly tested our hypotheses and suppositions by pushing ourselves even further in our practice. We knew for certain it wasn’t enough to believe the Buddhists teachings, we needed to experience the truth of their perspective first hand. So we upped our daily dose of meditation in stillness, logged thousands of hours of silence, and focused our attention inward, sustaining a profound curiosity and willingness to be shown the truth.

I remember when it all came tumbling down on me—the moment when I collapsed in a heap under the realization that I was not real. I had already suspected this was true, but knowledge can’t touch the inherent truth of what is. I felt completely obliterated.

And finally liberated.

Zen Buddhist and Vipassana meditation, Hindu Advaita Vedanta philosophy, and the practice of Yoga asana and austerities had brought Sam and I to finally realize the root cause of our chronic dissatisfaction with our human existence. It was no wonder that all our earlier efforts to mold a contented personal self through psychological methods and material gain were thwarted. In the end, there was no solid self to mold. We’d been chasing a phantom. Our suffering was the direct result of believing we were fundamentally real.

Where Sam was content to persevere in our monk lifestyle, spending more and more time as his no-self, patiently—and sometimes not so patiently— awaiting his physical death, I experienced a very different phenomenon occurring internally. I was honestly a bit confused why, upon achieving this significant embodied realization, I didn’t simply drop dead. It would have been the perfect death.

Welcome to the crossroads—where east meets west, or the egg meets the chicken.

Realization of the no-self is only half the story. At least, this is how it unfolded for me. I became aware that the self who embarks on the seeking of happiness or purpose or fulfillment or contentment is not completely a phantom. We could say that it is characterized by its own sort of reality, and that it certainly remains once the no-self is revealed, albeit changed in some very profound ways.

Once the realization of no-self established itself as the fundamental ground of my personhood, I was inspired to live and express myself.  The experience of suffering that was present when I started my journey was gone.

But new challenges emerged.

Welcome to redefining being SELF-ish.

Negotiating the terms of life as a self and a no-self simultaneously is a curious one.

I experienced no less longing for a quality life, but my terms changed for what that life would look like. Following my realization of no-self I didn’t experience any miraculous loss of my personal neuroses or genetic dispositions. Nor did my life circumstances change. However, what did change was my relationship to the details of my life and my psyche. No matter how hard my self tried to convince me that a certain person or experience or thing would really make me happy, I couldn’t take the bait. And this changed everything.

It’s been nearly twelve years since I’ve seen Sam. Once my personhood took flight on the wings of the realization of no-self, Sam and I parted ways. He remained to die while I set out to live.

The importance of this blog is to summarize, as succinctly as I can, the value of embracing no-selfness. Selfistry is a way for anyone to experience no-self — without spending ten years in retreat doing extreme ascetic practices like I did.

In the beginning days of eastern gurus coming to the west there was a tendency toward severity — to completely deny the personhood in order to realize the no-self. Many fierce teachers advocated for the complete annihilation of self. This is the orientation Sam and I took. We didn’t know any better.

The phrase spiritual bypass has been coined to describe the tendency to override the personhood in the name of spiritual practice, only to later have to face the psychological implications of forcing non-existence on something that exists, even if only as a phantom.

In a subtly different vein, what I notice today with many westerners intoxicated with bastardized forms of yoga, tantra, and new age philosophy is a cognitive understanding of the no-self doctrine being viewed as a valid substitution for the realization of no-self.

I call this phenomenon a new form of spiritual bypassing. Rather than the drive for no-self trampling over the self, now the self is dismissing and minimizing the no-self, even pretending that she her self is the no self. It’s as if knowledge that your cousin Jane lives in Alaska is equivalent to going to Alaska and spending time with her.

More than fifty years after yoga and new age philosophies have taken root in the west, we are in danger of making a big mistake spiritually. And the consequences are dire, given the present existential crisis of our human family as we face population overload, environmental degradation, climate change, and political and social upheavals worldwide. Instead of bypassing our psychology for the no-self realization, the personhood is now bypassing the no-self realization in order to sustain its firm identity.

But if we are to be true artists of our life, engaged in meeting the complex challenges of our times as individuals and as a collective, I suggest we consider the value of the no-self pole. Why? Because every action of the self ungrounded in the no-self is potentially rooted in its domestication and belief that stuff will make it happy or content, that power, prestige, wealth, fame, fortune—even of the most “spiritual” kind—are the way to happiness.

If we look carefully at our behavior, we will see that it is these unexamined beliefs and drives that are at the root of most conflicts and problems on this planet today.

If we are too weighted in the “I am somebody” camp (which is where everybody starts!), then we will only receive benefits from spending time in the “I am nobody” camp and letting the no-self truth inform our somebodyness. Similarly, as in my case, if we spend too much time in the “I am nobody” camp, then the world loses out on our authentic expression and contribution as a somebody.

Inhabiting both of these poles is a dance. Living at the crossroads of the self/no self is artistry. The journey is not a destination-oriented endeavor—unless, of course, your destination is sanity, self knowledge, and peace.

The new enlightenment is a radical embodiment. Simultaneous engagement with life as a self and a no-self just might be our evolutionary edge — to recognize we are both the chicken and the egg.

At one point in time humans believed that a God on high existed to keep us in order and prevent us from doing crazy shit to the planet and one another. This view no longer sustains or guides our human family. However, if we take the time to deeply inquire what is at the root of our personal existence, to selfishly engage in an inward arc with a sincere focus on self-discovery, we just might find that God located inside of us. This is the way of the slow spirituality movement.

Some tips to carry with you on your way …

The no-self territory is not empty.

It is full of majesty.

Godlike majesty.

When it comes to the artistry of the self as Selfistry teaches it, one of the most important keys is this:

The first rule of Selfistry: There is no self.

Go ahead and be selfish enough to validate this declaration.

I invite you to convince me that I’m mistaken if you uncover another truth.

I will always gratefully and gracefully accept the opportunity to change and grow beyond my own limits. I suspect that only radical inner investigation will get us through these times. Anything less and we’re simply hobbling—or hightailing—through life as a confused chicken or a terribly lost egg.

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