This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
Who are You?
If truth is relative, then the self is also relative. In Buddhism, there's the term "Annatta" or "Anatman" and this refers to the Doctrine of No Self, which is that there is no unchanging permanent soul in living beings. This is a central Buddhist doctrine and it appears in several of the old original teachings of Buddhism; you'll find it taught within every Buddhist tradition out there now. The reason this is so important to understand is that we have the tendency to relate to ourselves, this sense of self, as a permanent fixed thing and this can be the source of a lot of suffering for ourselves and for others.
Western psychology views the self as a simple function of the mind that helps us to organise our experiences. It takes all the raw data or memories and all of our cognitive functions and it puts them into a recognisable narrative. This narrative is what allows us to feel such a strong sense of self. If we didn't have it, we wouldn't really be able to make sense of anything as it's happening to us.
The Buddhist view of the self, meanwhile, is that it's very much like a river. We are a collection of many things that make us us. Our memories, where we were raised, how we were raised, the experiences that we have, the DNA that we have, etc. Every aspect of us is constantly changing and yet it's in the present moment that these things allow us to experience life through the specific lens that we're experiencing it. We're like the Mississippi River. In its present form, it has a defined shape and a defined direction and a pretty regular water level height, but all of this is changing. None of it's fixed or permanent and our sense of self is the same. Our memories are continually changing, we're continually adding new ones and we're continually forgetting old ones. Our emotions are constantly changing.
What's interesting to me is I think that there is a part of us that actually understands and grasps this concept that we're not fixed entities. But there's another part of us, the ego, that clings to the sense of self and says, "I am fixed, permanent and unchanging."
You've all heard or perhaps even experienced the idea that, "When I said that, that wasn't me. I was angry." Or: "When I did that, don't hold that against me. I was afraid." When we act because of fear or emotions like anger, we tend to look back on those moments and say, "That wasn't me". Well, the thing is that it was you. That was you in this constantly changing state of who you are. That happened to be you ten minutes ago when you were mad. Then, ten minutes later, the "me" that's here now and is no longer mad looks back and says, "That wasn't me".
Because there is no fixed, permanent you. You're a continually changing process, much like the river, the Mississippi River, that seems like a fixed thing. It's not like we have other names for it. It's constantly there and yet there's not one single aspect of it that's fixed.
With the self, it's the same. We have a sense of self that seems permanent and fixed when the reality is that there is not a single part of you or me that is fixed or permanent.
We say, "There must be a permanent, fixed me". But every aspect of you can change. All it takes is a fluctuation in hormones or a change in how your mind works because you've been in an accident. A traumatic brain injury can change you. There are so many things that can change you. What part of you is then actually permanent and fixed? Well, you're not going to find it.
In the world of psychology, this is explored a little bit by Carol Dweck. Carol is a professor of psychology at Stanford University. She did more than twenty years of research to show that our mindset is more than just a personality trait. It's not a fixed thing. There are, she writes, essentially two basic mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The fixed mindset is when we tend to believe that all the things that we are, whether it be our talents, our abilities, our personality traits, are all set in stone. Intelligence is viewed as static and that leads to the desire to want to look a certain way: "I want to look smart and I want to avoid challenges because I don't want to fail at something that's going to change the way I perceive myself to be."
People with a fixed mindset tend to give up easily. They see effort as fruitless, and they ignore useful negative feedback because it's negative. With a fixed mindset, you're continually threatened by the success of others. With a fixed mindset, you generally plateau early and you achieve less than your full potential. You tend to feel that you just are what you are.
Now the growth mindset is different. With a growth mindset, you believe that your talents and your abilities and your personality traits are all things that are continually evolving and that they can be developed. This mindset leads to the desire to continually learn and therefore a tendency to embrace challenges and to persist in the face of setbacks and to see effort as the path to success. It's easier, with this mindset, to learn from criticism and you find inspiration in the success of others.
Dweck's research has a lot of implications with regard to parenting. This is what interested me as the father of three little kids. The idea here is, with your kids, you don't want to give them the idea that things are fixed. This is the difference between saying, "Good job on your test. You're so smart" versus saying, "Hey, good job on your test. You studied really hard and you got a good grade. Good job for working hard."
One tends to create a fixed mindset that makes people think, "I am this. I am that." If you've been told your whole life that you're smart then, the first time that you fail, instead of thinking about whatever other circumstances were involved with failing, the first thing that comes to mind is, "Oh no, I'm no longer smart. This fixed part of me is not what I thought that it was."
In the last podcast episode, I talked about the Facebook meme or quote that says, "What screws us up the most in life is the picture in our heads of how it's supposed to be". Well, that same thinking applies here. I think what can really screw us up in life is to have a picture in our minds of who we are and who we're supposed to be and to completely ignore the fact that there is no fixed version of us. I've talked about conceptual and empirical truths in the past and the idea here, again, is that you can look for the fixed concept in your mind that tells you that you are "this" or "that" but that it doesn't stand up to the scrutiny of psychological evaluation or scientific or empirical research. What you are is constantly changing and constantly evolving.
While some things are hard coded in us through our genetics, not all things are hard coded or permanent. They're a lot like the Snickers commercial that says, "You're not you when you're hungry". You're not you when you're mad; you're not you when you're ecstatic; you're not you when you're afraid. There are so many versions of you that you would happily say, "Well, that's not me". But why stop with the negative ones? Apply it to everything. Every version of you under whatever set of circumstances is just who you are under that set of circumstances and the "you" that you are right now is simply the you that you are right now.
With truth, we talked about how what was true yesterday may not be true today. Well, think about the implication of that. That means that the "you" that you were yesterday may not be the "you" that you are today and that is actually very liberating. There's a tremendous amount of freedom when you understand that you're not permanent and you're not fixed.
What I hope you get out of all this is a determination to grow, to have fun, to experience the process of being. I love that "human being" implies a process that's grounded in the present moment. You're being and what you're being is always contingent on time and what your being is grounded in is the present moment. With this comes a stronger sense of self-compassion, because what you start to notice is that you can look back at a previous version of you and say, "Well, of course I acted the way that I did. Based on what I knew at the time or what I was experiencing at that specific phase of my life, I did exactly what that me would have done. That may not be what the "me" now would do, but I'm not the same person and that person is not who I am now."
That's so much more healthy than looking back and thinking, "Why did I do that? I was so dumb" or "I would never have done that". We're continually changing; continually evolving.
Practise this sense of compassion for yourself when you understand that the "you" that you are is not the same "you" that you've always been and it's not the same "you" that it will always be. Where this gets really exciting is when you extend this freedom to someone else.
If you think the guy who cut you off on the road is a jerk then that's applying a permanent, fixed attribute to someone who's not permanent and not fixed and it may be that the person who they were in that moment is who they were in that moment and they did what they did in that moment because of all the circumstances going on in that moment. Think about that a bit. What could it be? Are they hungry? Are they angry? Are they afraid of something? What part of them is causing them to do this? Understand that it's not a permanent, fixed thing.
I think this makes it a little more easy to have compassion for other beings because we're all doing the same thing: we're all being in the present moment. I think one of the bravest things you can do is to just show up and be seen as you and one of the most loving things that you can do is to allow others that same sense of freedom and let them be what they are. What they are right now is what they are right now. It may not be what they were in the past and it sure isn't going to be what they are in the future because that's the nature of continual change. I think it gives us a lot more flexibility with how we view ourselves and how we view others.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.