The following discussion of practice is excerpted from a Question–Answer session with Joseph Goldstein at a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
Question: Is there a contradiction between “selflessness” (anatta) and the “self” we are encouraged to accept and love? What are we to love? Anatta?
Answer: This question points to two very important principles or levels of understanding in the practice. One level has to do with self-acceptance, and self-acceptance is an aspect of what mindfulness means. Mindfulness is an openness of mind to every part of ourselves, to the pleasure and the pain—to “the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows”—a willingness to experience all the different kinds of emotions and thoughts and sensations.
What we find as we practice is that the places of struggle for us are exactly those places where we have not yet opened, which we have not yet accepted. Why is it that we struggle? We struggle because something is going on that we cannot open to, whether it is in the body or emotions or mind or thoughts. There’s a whole range of emotions that we don’t like. They may be emotions of anger or unworthiness or depression or despair or loneliness or boredom or fear—the shadow side that we find it difficult to accept in ourselves. And so when these emotions come up we find ourselves in a struggle, not because of what they are, but because of our unwillingness at that time to be mindful of them, to be mindful in that sense of openness and acceptance.
This becomes obvious in practice when we experience certain physical sensations. When a sensation gets very painful, we close off, we resist, we pull back. So, in a very real way, the development of mindfulness is precisely the growth of self-acceptance in the broadest possible range. We learn to accept the fullness of our experience, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.
So how does this relate to anatta, to the essential selflessness of the process? How can we be both selfless and self-accepting at the same time?
We are using the words slightly differently in those two cases, so although there is an apparent contradiction there is not a real one. “Self-acceptance” means openness to every aspect of our experience. “Selflessness” in the sense of anatta, this very essense of the Buddha’s teachings, has to do with the understanding that what we are is a process of changing phenomena. In each moment there is knowing or consciousness and an object—a sight, a sound, a smell, a touch, a taste, a thought, a feeling. Every moment is a new moment of experience arising and passing, arising and passing, arising and passing.
What we are is this changing process. It’s not that there is a self behind the process to whom it’s happening. There is no owner, there is no holder of this process of change. It is selfless in that sense.
The Buddha gave one very short discourse which expresses this succinctly. He said, “In the seen”—the seen with the eyes—”there is just what is seen. In the heard, there is just what is heard. And in the sensed”—that is, smell and taste and touch—”there is just what is sensed. And in the thought, there is just what is thought.”
What does that mean? It means that in each moment there is just what there is, and that all sense of “I” or “self” or “me” or “mine” is something which we are adding to the experience. When we say, “My thought” or “I’m thinking”, the “my” or “I” is extra. It’s not in the thought itself. The thought is a phenomenon, arising and passing. It does not belong to anybody. In the thought, there is just what is thought. In the sound, there is no one who is hearing; there is just hearing.
This is the meaning of anatta, of selflessness—that there is no one behind the process to whom it is happening. That is a transformative understanding. It is radically different from how we go through our lives based on a strong sense of “I” and “me” and “my” and self”.
I hope you can see the complementarity of self-acceptance, in the sense of openness to every part of our changing process, and the selflessness of that process.