Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

The Perennial Question: Who Am I?

Not being stuck in a fixed identity is liberating.

In my book, How to Be Sick, I talk about how the concept of anatta or no-fixed-self represents the Buddha's radical departure from the spiritual tradition of his birth—Hinduism. I also say that some people may find this teaching disconcerting but that I hope, like me, you find it liberating.

Where did the Buddha get this notion of anatta? It stems from his interpretation of the universal law of impermanence. We all know that phenomena are in constant flux. The Buddha drew this fact out to its logical conclusion by applying it to what we think of as our "self." This means that this person I think of as a fixed entity, "Toni Bernhard," is, instead, a constantly changing constellation of arising and passing thoughts and emotions.

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Where then, do I get this idea of "Toni Bernhard"? Due to my past experiences and the current conditions in my life, sometimes this constellation of thoughts and emotions takes the form of repeated patterns. I then abstract from these patterns and assume that they have formed an intrinsic self with fixed characteristics who is called Toni Bernhard. And so I think that, cosmically, that's who I am.

For example, for many years I thought "law professor" was a fixed part of my identity. After all, I went to the same place every day where people called me "Professor Bernhard" and where those words were on everything from the door to my office to every piece of paper I distributed. When I unexpectedly had to stop working due to chronic illness, the identity "law professor" followed me from the classroom to the bedroom. I would lie in bed and anxiously think, "If I'm not a law professor, who am I?" That notion of an intrinsic fixed-self—"law professor"—turned out to be an illusion. It was just a story in my mind—an abstraction based based on repeated patterns in my experience at that time. 

Of course, some "identities" are necessary abstractions at times. I can't get a driver's license unless I'm willing to say, "I am Toni Bernhard." And, I'm using self-referential terms, such as "I" and "me" throughout this piece in order to communicate effectively. But I can hold lightly the identity "Toni Bernhard" without clinging to it as a fixed, non-changing essence.

I find the notion of no-fixed-self to be liberating. Here's why.

Opening possibilities

Identities are limiting. Not being stuck in a permanent fixed-self opens possibilities in my life.Thinking in terms of process as opposed to an intrinsic self gives my life a feeling of fluidness. I need not engage in abstractions that appear to fix me in an identity: sick person, pain-filled person, irritated person. From the point of view of no-fixed-self, I can see those words that purport to give me an identity as abstract concepts that just arise and pass in the mind.

When I do that, possibilities open up that I may not have even imagined. For example, it was only when I let go of the identity "law professor" that I was able to begin writing How to Be Sick. This was partly because, when law professors write, they don't illustrate the points they're making by using examples from their personal lives. And so, when I was stuck in the identity, law professor, it never occurred to me that I could write a book in which I could use experiences from my own life to illustrate the points I was making. Imagine my surprise when the book won an award as a memoir!

Perhaps you think of yourself as an angry or impatient or judgmental person. The lesson of no-fixed-self is that you need not feel stuck in these identities. Yes, right now you may be prone to being angry, for example, but that's due to repeating emotional patterns in your life—patterns that can change. Through practices such as mindfulness, you can change that inclination to be angry. Anger, like all phenomena arises and passes. It is not a fixed intrinsic part of who you are. The Buddha said that the mind is soft and pliant. This means that we need not feel stuck in identities that increase our suffering and that of those around us.

Letting go of views and opinions

The notion of a fixed-self leads me to cling tightly to what I perceive of as the views and opinions of this person, Toni Bernhard. Clinging to views is a major cause of suffering in all of our lives: "I'm right. You're wrong."

When I shake loose from this fixed identity, I'm better able to keep what the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn called a Don't-Know Mind. This allows me to see other people and the world with new eyes. When I let go of grasping to views and opinions, I feel a great sense of freedom, as if I've put down a heavy burden. It even allows me to let go of my stress-filled opinions about the future course of humankind and the planet. After all, do I know what the future holds? No!

Not taking other people's "bait"

From the perspective of no-fixed-self, it's easier not to engage other people when they're directing anger or other hostile emotions at me. This is particularly helpful when there's nothing to be gained by arguing with someone! I love the way the Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah expressed this:

If someone curses us and we have no feelings of self the incident ends with the spoken words, and we do not suffer...If we do not stand up in the line of fire, we do not get shot; if there is no one to receive it, the letter is send back.

With no feelings of self on my end, other people's hostility is not received. I can either not respond, or I can respond with compassion, but always from the point of view of not defending myself.

A taste of freedom

I like to consciously think of myself as a constellation of causes and conditions that have come together at this very moment in the universe. Indeed, many scholars think that this was what the Buddha was referring to when he talked about rebirth: rebirth moment to moment into ever-shifting identities based on abstractions we make from particular patterns of thoughts and emotions passing through our minds.

When I experience life from the place of understanding that clinging to an identity is just an attempt to freeze in time what is, in reality, part of the flow of the universe, I feel light and free. My favorite expression of this notion of no-fixed-self comes from the eco-philosopher, Joanna Macy: "I am a flow-through of matter, energy, and information."

The Buddha's view of no-fixed-self is not a kind of reductionism. He was not claiming that the complexities of existence can be explained away by simply saying nothing abides. In the Buddha's cosmology, the ultimate workings of the universe are a mystery, leaving room for the full range of beliefs about beginnings and endings—a subject the Buddha was not much interested in.

Speaking personally, I'm inspired by the mystery and am content to be in awe of what I do not know.

Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in Chapter 2 ("Self as Ever-Shifting Flow") of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow and includes an exercise to help pinpoint the many ways in which you've created what you've come to believe are fixed identities...and how you can begin to free yourself from them. 

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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