The Disturbing Implications of “Non-Self”

Someone forwarded me a link to an interesting article entitled, “The Problem of Mindfulness.” 

I expected this to be yet another piece about how people were freaking out after signing up for a course that was supposed to teach them how not to freak out. I’ve written about that myself. Or else I thought maybe it would be about how mindfulness was actually Buddhism in disguise — Christians beware! I’ve seen those before too.

But this one was different. Its author, Sahanika Ratnayake, was raised as a Buddhist in New Zealand and Sri Lanka. So she wasn’t scared of being pulled into a foreign religion. Although she was raised a Buddhist, she says, “I was crushingly bored whenever my parents dragged me to the temple as a child.” She wasn’t scared of Buddhism, but she wasn’t a serious student of Buddhism either. Nor was this yet another article about someone who found herself stressed out after taking classes intended to relieve stress. 

What concerns the author of this article about what’s wrong with the mindfulness movement is the Buddhist teachings about “no-self.” These teachings, she rightly notes, are very much part of the secular mindfulness movement — even when mindfulness teachers try to distance themselves as much as possible from Buddhism.

An unspecified number of years ago, Ms. Ratnayake says she did a mindfulness course that had her experiencing, “a cluster of feelings that I couldn’t quite identify. It was as if I could no longer make sense of my emotions and thoughts.” She experienced feelings of inadequacy and depression. She felt, she says, “increasingly estranged from myself and my life.”

In the years following that course, she studied up on Buddhism and says, “What I’ve uncovered has disturbing implications for how mindfulness encourages us to relate to our thoughts, emotions, and very sense of self.”

Cue chilling horror movie-type music here.

The culprit, she says, is the Buddhist idea of anatta, “no-self” or, more correctly, “non-self.”

She tells us that, “Anatta (non-self)  is a metaphysical denial of the self, defending the idea that there is nothing like a soul, spirit or any ongoing individual basis for identity. This view denies that each of us is an underlying subject of our own experience. By contrast, Western metaphysics typically holds that – in addition to the existence of any thoughts, emotions and physical sensations – there is some entity to whom all these experiences are happening, and that it makes sense to refer to this entity as ‘I’ or ‘me’. However, according to Buddhist philosophy, there is no ‘self’ or ‘me’ to which such phenomena belong.”

That sounds about right to me. Close enough, anyway.

However, when we accept this idea, she says, “we make it harder to understand why we think and feel the way we do, and to tell a broader story about ourselves and our lives.” She explains this by saying, “Without some ownership of one’s feelings and thoughts, it is difficult to take responsibility for them. The relationship between individuals and their mental phenomena is a weighty one, encompassing questions of personal responsibility and history. These matters shouldn’t be shunted so easily to one side.” She says, “The focus tends to be solely on the contents of an individual’s mind and the alleviation of their distress, rather than on interrogating the deeper socioeconomic and political conditions that give rise to the distress in the first place.”

She concludes that, “Its roots in the Buddhist doctrine of anatta mean that it (mindfulness) sidelines a certain kind of deep, deliberative reflection that’s required for unpicking which of our thoughts and emotions are reflective of ourselves, which are responses to the environment, and – the most difficult question of all – what we should be doing about it.”

What Ms. Ratnayake is saying here points out some of the serious problems with the mindfulness movement. But they’re not the problems she thinks.

The teaching of “non-self” is difficult to understand. But it’s even more difficult if you try to understand it by listening to people who have no idea what the teaching of “non-self” actually is.

We don’t get much information from this article about what Ms. Ratnayake learned about “non-self” from her mindfulness course. It seems that the concept was probably not addressed at all. Nor does she cite her sources for what she later discovered about the Buddhist idea of “non-self.”

The bio that accompanies the article says that Ms. Ratnayake is a graduate student of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. So I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she learned about the concept of “non-self” by reading what academics have written about it and/or by listening to what philosophy professors in Cambridge have to say. 

These really are not the best sources.

One of the things that struck me about every single one of the Zen teachers I have known is this. For people who don’t believe in the concept of a personal self, they sure have strong personalities!

If I’d only learned about “non-self” from books I might have imagined it meant not taking ownership of one’s feelings, or not accepting personal responsibility, or never interrogating the deeper socioeconomic and political conditions that give rise to distress. I might have imagined Zen teachers would all be blank people, with no character and no individuality, who sat around all day gazing at their navels and making their minds a total void.

But I didn’t learn about “non-self” from books. I learned about “non-self” from real human beings who had dedicated themselves to Buddhist practice. Nothing about these people suggested that they had sidelined deep deliberative reflection on their thoughts and emotions. Rather it was quite the opposite. These were people who were intensely in touch with that side of themselves — much more so than anyone I knew who believed in the concept of an individual, personal self. Far from being blank people, all of the Zen teachers I have known are (or were) eccentrics, oddballs, and some of the most extraordinary personalities I’ve ever encountered.

“Non-self” doesn’t mean the negation of self. It doesn’t mean turning off our personalities, or turning away from examining what we, as individuals, are in this world. Rather, it’s the understanding that “self,” as most of us conceive it, is far too limiting a concept to encompass the totality of what we truly are. 

Ms. Ratnayake is correct in saying that the core practices of mindfulness are deeply connected to the Buddhist idea of “non-self.” But, in trying to distance itself from what they feel are the “religious” aspects of Buddhism, the mindfulness folks also deliberately neglect to study the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism. What’s more, students of mindfulness aren’t engaging with actual human beings who have lived with the teaching of “non-self” and its related practices. 

It’s no wonder that they have no real clue what those teachings actually are.

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TOMORROW (Aug. 3, 2019) AT 10am, JOIN ME AT THE ANGEL CITY ZEN CENTER FOR A READING OF A CHAPTER FROM MY FORTHCOMING BOOK LETTERS TO A DEAD FRIEND ABOUT ZEN!

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