Identifying With the “No-Self”

How we can be free of suffering

Posted Apr 22, 2016

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Do you know one of the main reasons we suffer? The answer I give may surprise you. We suffer because we identify with ourselves.

Let’s start from the beginning to explain this. Go to a park where there are many children of all ages and watch them. The younger kids you’ll find will be playing, doing very silly goofy things, and they are completely oblivious to what other kids or even adults are thinking about them. Then observe the older children. They’re not being so silly and usually conforming to someone’s standards of proper behavior. As children get older, they begin to say, “What does Mom think about me? What do my friends think about what I’m doing right now? What do classmates think about what I’m wearing? What do others think about what I’m saying?”

And with time, they start to identify with themselves, saying, “This is who I am, and I am this way because of the way people treat me. I must be a cute person because people tell me I’m cute. I must be intelligent because people say I am smart. I must be really funny because people laugh at my jokes.”

We begin to identify with what other people think about us and what we call ourselves. Our interactions with other people influence how we see ourselves, and from them, we develop a sense of self. But this self that comes from others causes us suffering because it may not match who we really are. We may not like the identity that has developed around us; we may not like what we give to ourselves and what other people give to us; we may not like it when people disapprove of us—and it is very challenging to go through life without someone disapproving of us at some point. Even if we try hard to follow the rules and do right, someone out there is going to disapprove of us. The world might love us, but someone will still disapprove of us.

Every day the tabloids are full of examples of people who are incredibly accomplished but in rehab centers for drug or alcohol addictions. How does this happen? It’s because, even though they’ve accomplished so much, they still don’t feel happy inside; they still struggle with discontent. The world might love them, but if they don’t love themselves, it’s not going to work.

We give way too much credit to that part of us we call the self. But how real is that self? How truly permanent is the thing we call the self? We’re always changing . . .  our taste in music, in food, even in people. Our personality changes, and so does much else about us, yet we always hang onto the rigid sense of self: this is who I am. But really, it’s a case of “this is who I am right now.” We do change, so why do we hang on so tightly to that sense of self? When we do that, we suffer because we really care what other people think about us and how we have defined ourselves. If people like the self that we are identifying with today, we feel great. But tomorrow if someone disapproves of our sense of self with which we’re identifying, then we can feel horrible. We’re putting ourselves on an emotional roller coaster: it goes up and down. Up and down, we go with our emotions based on what we think about ourselves or what other people think about us.

If we no longer identify with the sense of self that isn’t that real anyway, we can just be free to be like a young child—we can be free of what other people think or feel, we can be free of what we think, and we can just live our lives. Then we’re going to find happiness because we’re not going to be so concerned about what other people think or about getting their approval. Doing things just because we want to do them generates happiness in all of us, but we do have to let go of that self.

When we were younger, our defined self had a small grip on us, but as we got older, it started to paralyze us. This can be challenging to change because we have been conditioned for years to care about what others think.

We can reverse the influence others’ opinions have on us bit by bit, and the more we reverse it, the more happiness we’re going to find. We do that by having small pockets of not looking at or listening to other people’s opinions. We begin to change with small steps. It can be as simple as wearing an outfit that we normally wouldn’t wear just because we want to. Now, we have to be a little careful here because if we’re not confident about what we’re doing, we’re going to look at other people and see if they approve or disapprove of us. If we give them our power, we are going to lose that sense of spontaneity. We have to surround ourselves with people that are kind, loving, and accepting and stop paying attention to what other people think. When people want to share their opinion with us, we have to be careful that it’s very beautiful and positive, and if it isn’t, say, “Well, that’s okay; I don’t really want to hear it.” People want to comment on a behavior, but if we work towards letting it go unless it’s beautiful and loving, we’ll do better.

So if we can live one moment at a time, we’ll free ourselves like a young child and we’ll discover life can be beautiful. The small changes add up and make a difference. Perhaps the next car that we buy will be the one that we want, not based on what other people will think; perhaps the next outfit we get will be what we want and not based on what other people think; perhaps the next home we live in will be based on what we want and not what other people think. If we live spontaneously, as we go along, we ask ourselves, “Hmm, what sounds like fun right now? If it doesn’t hurt anyone, why don’t I just do that?” Why don’t we just run in the rain? Why don’t we just go for a swim? Why don’t we just sing a song loudly in the shower? If we’re not hurting others and we’re not hurting ourselves, then perhaps we can live a more spontaneous life and let go of that self and just be.

We can be who we are without being so concerned of what others think of us and what we think of ourselves. We can see the children playing in the park, and we’ll be like them, living freely and happily without concern about others’ opinions. Instead of having attachments to who we are, we will just be.

How can awareness be the cornerstone of who we are? After all, we have families, experiences, schooling, memories . . . don’t all these together create, make, and define us as who we are?’

All of these things definitely play a role in who we think we are right now, but the key phrase to remember is “who we think we are.” The truth is that who we think we are is in constant flux, changing all the time.

For a moment, let’s close our eyes and recall who we were exactly four days, three hours, and ten minutes ago. Can any of us remember? Clearly our memories are not exact—they change, they transform, we forget things, we have new memories that replace some of the old ones, or we talk to someone else who may see the same thing differently than we do, and then we change it in our minds. We change our memories! Therefore, our memories of who we are change constantly.

For example, let’s say that when we were in elementary school, we were very shy and hesitant to make new friends. But when we got into high school, we joined the drama club, and we became more actively involved with our fellow students and even enjoyed interacting with other people. When we went on to college, we took on an entirely different persona, a different identity. Perhaps we became the party animal, or instead, we became the academic scholar. We wear many different hats throughout our lives.

When we go to family, high school, or college reunions, we may notice that, yes, there are characteristics in all of us that remain the same over the years, but there are also many things that change. Now we look different, we have more or different interests, we have new friends, we may be married and be a parent, and we act very differently than we did in high school or college or some phase of our youth. We change as we grow older. If we are constantly changing, how can we possibly say we are “that” when we are not “that” later and we weren’t “that” before?

Let me use the example of a typical teenager to illustrate this point. A typical teenager wants to stay out late to be with his friends and doesn’t care that his parents are upset and worried about him. He doesn’t give much thought to the feelings of others or even to his own safety. He just wants to have a good time. Then, later in life, when the same teenager becomes a parent, he’s now cautious and concerned, as his parents were. Like a metamorphosis, the once a wild and crazy teenager has now become an anxious and overly cautious parent.

Since we frequently change, who are we really? When we reach retirement, again we change. We may become a recluse, we may become an alcoholic, we may become a person who loves to travel in a motor home and explore the world, we may move into a monastery, et cetera. There are so many different ways we change. We may become a grandparent or a great-grandparent. Which identity are we? If we keep changing, we’re really none of them.

Then, who are we?

We are awareness, and our experience can be the proof of it. Let’s try this together. Let’s think back to one of our earliest memories of a significant event, perhaps when we started school or when we were a young child at home on our birthday. One of my earliest memories is when I was about two or three years old. I was visiting my grandparents on their farm in Iowa, and there had been a huge snowstorm. There were these absolutely massive snowdrifts that I would climb up to the top of and slide down. I was having a blast! When I think about this memory, I can see it as if it is fresh, happening again right now. I can witness it and be aware of my feelings without labeling them or without labeling myself, and they feel exactly the same way as I experience things today.

Many years later when I was in Sequoia National Park with my children for a holiday, we experienced a huge snowstorm that piled about six feet of new snow on the ground. I went sledding down the hills of snow with my children, and again, it was a blast. Though I am, of course, a very different person than I was at two or three years old, my witnessing or my awareness of what I was experiencing in the snow on that day many, many years ago was the same. I was aware of what was happening in both instances. I was awareness.

So who are we then? We are awareness. We are aware of our experiences. When we’re around two or three years old, we begin to label things. We see that we like this and we don’t like that, and between those two poles, we create our personality. We have likes and dislikes, and we take on labels, even though they change over time. What doesn’t change is our awareness of what’s happening. We are aware; that’s where we start.

Perhaps a better way to understand this concept is to say, “We are right here, right now. We are. All our memories are in the now. All of our future ideas are in the now. Everything is right now.” The only thing that is right now permanently, that always has been and always will be, is our awareness. We aren’t being us when we take on labels. They’re not really who we are because those labels can change; they are transitory. But what does stay the same is our awareness, and if we reside there, we begin to relax. We become happier.

When we don’t reside in the now, in awareness, and we instead identify with those labels, then we fear something. This causes us suffering. Even desire can cause suffering. Even if our desire is great and we have it met, it’s going to pass and it’s going to change and that change, that fear of losing something, that longing for something, can cause us suffering. Remember, all the ideas of who we are, are in our head; they’re concepts, and they keep us from just enjoying life. We enjoy the snowdrifts of life a lot more when we don’t label things and we just play in the snow, whether we’re one hundred years old or two years old.

When we identify with our awareness instead of identifying with our labels, we take a much more childlike approach to life, and this is good. To us, then, life is new, it’s fresh, and it’s exciting. When we label something, we miss out on it because we don’t truly see it anymore. But when we keep our minds quiet and we can just be, the awareness of life as it is, without all those labels, the beautiful adventure of life, can be tremendous. It can be amazing as long as we stop labeling things so much and just flow with life.

Here is one simple technique to stay in awareness, to stay in the witnessing state. Whatever we are doing, whenever our minds start thinking, we are missing out on life. So when we do that, we must remember just to get back to living. Let’s experience what’s before us: let’s look around, check in with life, and let our thoughts become quieter and quieter. Let’s allow our egos just to relax, and we can say, “Everything is going to turn out okay. I’ll just enjoy this journey of life.” By being in the present moment, life will proceed a whole lot better.