What “No Self” Really Means

The journey of awakening, says Buddhist teacher Gaylon Ferguson, begins by examining our usual beliefs about who we are. Because maybe we’ve got it wrong.

Gaylon Ferguson14 April 2024

The earliest teachings of the Buddha offer us a mindful path of spiritual awakening through expanding our awareness of change. This user-friendly invitation accords with our experience of everyday life. All around us, wherever we are, wherever we go, the seasons change, our environments are changing, cultures gradually shift and transform. In our families and communities, loved ones are dying and babies are being born. Over time, we experience small and large changes in our bodies and minds, constantly flowing currents of different physical sensations, emotions, thoughts.

These ceaseless changes are the experiential basis of the Buddha’s quiet proclamation of the truth of “no solid self.” Let’s pause for a moment to consider this, as the Buddha’s primary teaching of selflessness might not seem to agree with our experience. “No self?” we may ask. “If that’s true, then who is reading (or writing) these words?”

The unexamined self feels like an isolated, self-sufficient, permanent individual, essentially separate from others and all that surrounds it.

Before we closely examine our experience, many of us assume we are essentially the same person throughout our lives. We are born, grow up, develop, and mature. All of that is my experience; all of that happens to me. We feel certain that there is a constant “I” somewhere near the center of all our experiences, though we are somewhat unclear about the precise nature of this assumed-to-be enduring essence.

So the great path of awakening begins with asking ourselves a tiny question: “What is the experience of being me?”

Even though I’ve heard the basic Buddhist teachings of impermanence and no self for many years, I often proceed through my day on automatic pilot, acting as though I’m an autonomous, sovereign self. I feel and act as though I’m a completely independent, permanent person. Right here in the midst of the swirling tempests of everyday events rapidly arising and falling away, I continue to act as though I have an infinite stretch of time before me. My actions and inaction suggest I feel I will live forever, even though, rationally, I understand the truth of impermanence. Yes, of course I can admit that things are always changing, but still I wonder: isn’t there a rock-solid unchanging “me” hidden somewhere underneath it all?

This unexamined self feels like an isolated, self-sufficient, permanent individual, essentially separate from others and all that surrounds it. Yet even a few moments of self-reflection suggests otherwise. My body is not the same as when I was eight or eighteen years old. If all humans are mortal, then my life will also end, exact time of departure unknown. Similarly, all my feelings of happiness and sadness come and go, arise and cease, changing gradually or suddenly, but always, inevitably, changing.

Looking closely, I also see that I’m not a self-contained, entirely independent individual. I need food, water, and air to survive. I speak and write a language generously passed on to me by others from long ago. I engage in everyday activities that were all part of my cultural training from childhood onward: brushing my teeth, exchanging greetings of “good morning” and saying “good night,” attending ceremonies, weddings, funerals.

Even at the most basic level of existence, I did not arise as a spontaneous, self-created human being. I was born and nurtured through the union and love of my parents, and they are also descendants of many ancestors before them. We are all “dependently related” beings, developing and aging in rapidly changing societies.

So what? Why does all this matter? Because when we ignore these basic truths, we suffer. When we conduct our lives as though, all evidence to the contrary, we are separate, permanent, unitary selves, we find ourselves constantly living in fear of the large, looming shadow of change. Actions based on a mistaken sense of self, or “ego,” as an unchanging, isolated essence are filled with anxious struggle. We fight many futile battles against the way things actually are. How are they really? They are changing, connected, fluid. It’s as though we are standing waist-deep in the middle of a rushing river, our arms outstretched wide, straining to stop the flow.

This mistaken sense of self arises as a solidified set of beliefs about who we are and how the world is. When we proceed on that basis, all our life experiences are filtered through a rigorous, simplistic, for-and-against screening process: “Will this person or event enhance my permanent sense of self? Will this encounter threaten the ideas I’ve already accumulated?” Believing the inner voice of deception, we grasp and defend and ignore in service to an illusion, causing suffering for ourselves and others.

Letting go of the false sense of self feels liberating, like being released from a claustrophobic prison of mistaken view. What a relief to discover that we don’t have to pretend to be something we’re not! The initially surprising and challenging news of “no solid self” turns out to be a gentle invitation into a more spacious approach to living and being with others. Releasing fixation on permanence goes hand in hand with taking brave steps toward more communication and harmony in our lives, our actions, our relationships, and our work.

We might call this fluid inter-being an “open self,” one that is more sensitive to other living beings and nature. This open sense of self allows us to proceed from empathy and compassion for ourselves and for those suffering around us and elsewhere. With the dissolving of the seemingly solid walls of ego’s fragile tower, our experience is porous and permeable, less cut off and isolated. As we gradually release the old commitment to conquering the unconquerable, to denying the undeniable, we explore the many genuine and fresh possibilities in our ever-changing situation.

Gaylon Ferguson

Gaylon Ferguson, PhD, was core faculty in Religious and Interdisciplinary Studies for fifteen years at Naropa University. He has led mindfulness retreats since 1976 and is the author of Welcoming Beginner’s Mind (2024), Natural Wakefulness, and Natural Bravery.