The limited​ language of the no-self

People laughing together
“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 is such a strong emphasis on this point 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 description of the effects of meditation on a fairly straightforward understanding of how things are, then to hyperbolize it as a permanently life-changing discovery, is demeaning to intelligent adults.

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 already understand that my idea of myself and of others is a construct. That is an adaptive necessity. Why would I even think it was a fixed, solid object that determins my existence?”

It is possible to meditate without concern for matters of the self, or hyperbolic approbation of the discovery that we don’t have one. Instead, we could focus on questions like:

Common questions are: “Who is the I that is relating? Who is the observer observing the observer? Where is the self that does this?

I think those questions are obvious, uninteresting, and sometimes misleading. It’s possible to step aside from the analytical, infinitely recursive, emphasis on the subject and to find, as a practitioner, a different language for how meditation changes the experience of being.

Spouting verbatim the limited language of the no-self as a generalization of meditation iterates a hackneyed attitude. It is constraining a variety of meditation experiences into the words of a specific, over-used framework. The language of this framework may have made sense during the last century or two when modernist Western ideas of identity and individualism encountered fabricated narratives of invented Asian traditions. Now we are stuck with a narrow prescription of what meditation achieves.

This limited language of the no-self derives from a soteriology bound to the concept of reincarnation. It is 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. Its ideal is to perfect detachment from desires and aversions.

As a meditator, I think it’s worth asking yourself whether that is what you 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 vocabulary of the no-self to describe 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, and pragmatically-oriented life, how would the language of the no-self, of finding liberation from samsara to escape reincarnation, help your intention?

Questions for readers:

What is the language you use to describe your meditation? Is it habitual?

Where did it come from?

How would you describe your worldview in just a few words?

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?