The limited​ language of the no-self

Why do you meditate?

Why do you meditate?

Photo by Meenakshi Madhavan

Here I take a critical look at the language used to describe meditation, particularly Buddhist meditation.

We’re stuck in a limited pattern of meditation-speak, one that centers around ideas of the self. Much meditation and the discourse surrounding it is tied up in the revelatory discovery that we don’t have a self.  There’s such a strong emphasis on this that it risks occluding other purposes; it narrows the results of meditation practice to a restricted, prescribed understanding: that of ‘no-self’.

The language of no-self includes the idea that our self is not ‘real’ in some way: we can discover through meditation that our life is an illusion.

It doesn’t take many thousands of hours of meditation to understand that we don’t have a solid, coherent, fixed self. This is already obvious to many, without ever having meditated at all. To place the emphasis in our discourse about meditation on a fairly straight-forward understanding of how things are, then to hyperbolize it as a permanently life-changing discovery is demeaning to intelligent adults with busy lives.

This approach limits the understanding of what meditation is and does. I suspect it may even prevent some from approaching meditation. They, rightfully, might ask:

“Why would I need to meditate for years and years supposedly to become enlightened to understand that I don’t have a self? I understand my idea of myself and of others is a construct. It’s an adaptive necessity. Why would I even think it was a fixed, always solid thing that determined my existence?”

For those to whom this applies, I suggest a move away from the focus on the self, along with its hyperbolic approbation of the discovery that you don’t have one. Instead, we could focus on questions like:

  • How does this change my experience in the world?
  • How does meditation impact relationship with and between emotions and thoughts?
  • How does meditation change my relationships with others?

A common question at this point is: “Who is the I that is relating? Who is the observer observing the observer? Where is the self that does this?

Forget that. I think it’s a red herring. It’s possible to step aside from the analytical, infinitely recursive, emphasis on the subject and to find, as a practitioner, your own language for how meditation is changing your experience of being.

Spouting verbatim the limited language of the no-self repeats hackneyed attitudes: it’s putting your own meditation experience into the words of a jaded linguistic framework. The language of this framework may have made sense during the last century or two when we were figuring out how to relate modernist Western ideas of identity and individualism with a fabricated narrative of historical Asian practice. Now we’re stuck with this narrow prescription of what meditation achieves.

This limited language derives from a soteriology bound to the idea of reincarnation. It’s an expression of the desire to leave this world. The whole point of the worldview that generated the language of the no-self was to separate from all relationship, to leave connections behind. The ideal is increasing detachment.

As a meditator, I think it’s worth asking “is that what I want?” If it is your purpose and intention to leave this world and not be born into it again; if that is a framework you feel comfortable working within, then maybe it is appropriate to use the field of language centering around the no-self in relation to your meditation practice. But if you want to meditate and fully experience your being in the world, if you want to live a full, emotionally textured, connected, practically-oriented life in this world, how does the language of the no-self, of finding liberation from samsara to escape reincarnation, help your intention in the long run?


Questions for readers:

What ‘default’ language do you use to describe your meditation?

Where did this come from?

In a nutshell, what few words describe your worldview?

What ideas do you have about the relationship between your meditation practice and your lifestyle?

Does the language you use to reflect on your meditation experience fit well with your worldview?

2 thoughts on “The limited​ language of the no-self”

  1. Yes, there is definitely a simplistic sense of believing in “not self”, but I actually found that “you don’t have the self you think you had and therefore there isn’t a need to have that paranoia” to be a pretty good overaching summary of decades of practice. Self and not self does seem to be right at the core of the attraction and repulsion involved with practice, at least for me.

    I’ve been thinking lately that “fixing the flawed self” is why we start… and why we stay humble is “oh that flawed self that I’m fixing isn’t becoming a perfect self but rather less of a definable self to even be able to be proud about.”

    Fun questions/exercise! A fast attempt at answering…

    What ‘default’ language do you use to describe your meditation?: “understanding the limitations caused by clinging, resisting, and ignoring experience” “understanding how contextual views tautologically determine what is salient” “making peace with the harsh truths of a lived life that necessarily includes experiences like struggle, illness, conflict, etc.” “understanding the power of friendliness, appreciation, acceptance, and caring as an overaching developmental/teaching framework”

    Where did this come from?: putting the lessons I learned from mostly buddhism/psychology into non jargony words. So 3 poisons, 6 realms/5 elements, psychological defense mechanisms/coping strategies, 4 bhramavirahas.

    In a nutshell, what few words describe your worldview? maybe “instinctual and flexible intentional use of tautologies” and somewhere in my worldview is a kind of faith that “doing the right thing benefits oneself and all other beings”

    What ideas do you have about the relationship between your meditation practice and your lifestyle? meditation practice isn’t separate or different from awake living

    Does the language you use to reflect on your meditation experience fit well with your worldview? Pretty much. But I don’t really connect with “your meditation experience” or “your worldview” as a definitive, point-at-that kind of thing.

  2. @Jamie
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’ve some posts lined up that go deeper into this same idea (relationships between lineage, language, worldview and experience). I’d be interested to hear how you relate/react as they go along.

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