Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nothingness and Richard Gere

...a reflection on confusions around 'non-self'

A few months ago I lay in bed watching Pretty Woman on my laptop. (Ok, ok...don’t laugh.  It’s a classic and besides, it has a Buddhist in the starring role so it’s practically the same as meditating). I’ve probably seen the movie five or six times, but for the first time I felt myself become teary as it drew to a close. 

You might remember the ending – a limousine driving through the grimy back streets of LA, with Richard Gere standing up through the sunroof waving a bunch of flowers.  He then conquers his fear of heights by climbing a fire-escape to fall into the arms of Julia Roberts.  Who wouldn’t cry?

But these tears were different. Reaching across to my tissues, I tried to articulate why.  I realised I was relating to Gere’s character - ‘He allowed himself to live,’ I thought. ‘He thought he was real.’ I sat on the side of my bed, crying, repeating over and over to myself - ‘He allowed himself to live.  It was about him.’

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what meditation can do to you.  It can have you blubbering at the end of a rom-com, muttering things to yourself that you only vaguely understand.  What did I mean that he allowed himself to live?  I didn’t really know, but it resounded throughout my body; ringing in my stomach and echoing down my legs.   After a while I laughed at the absurdity of having such a moment of insight – not sitting cross-legged on my cushion mindfully noting sensations in my fingernails - but watching a dated 80’s flick.

Over the next few days my meditation mantra became ‘this is real. I am real.’

Frustration. ‘Yes, this is real.’
Pain in my head. ‘Yes, this is real. I am real.’
Boredom. ‘Real...real.’

Day after day I repeated the same mantra and gradually I realised why I was doing it.  I’d fallen for what might be one of the biggest traps in Western Buddhism – confusing Anatta (non-self) with a type of self-hatred (not-self).  Just as resignation is a close evil cousin to acceptance, and numbness the same to equanimity, I saw that teachings of non-self can mesh with self-loathing and denial.

Anatta is one of the Buddha’s core teachings and is related closely to the teaching of impermanence.  All phenomena are in a constant state of flux; sensations arise and fall every second. In this sense, we don’t live for 50 or 70 years and then die, but are born, live, and die in each moment. So, what is this ‘I’ that I feel as I’m writing this?  It’s a conglomeration of thoughts, sensations, and emotions.

‘I’ is a thought about whether I’ve spelt ‘conglomeration’ correctly. ‘I’ is the feeling in my fingers as they type.  ‘I’ is a feeling of mild anxiety as I wonder who’ll read this piece and what they’ll think about ‘me’. Obviously, ‘I’ changes every second. Analysed like this, each second is empty of self – and this is anatta.

For me, anatta is a profound, head-wreck of a teaching - it makes my brain hurt just thinking about it. I can write the paragraph above, explaining the idea behind non-self, but I don’t have the experiential understanding of this concept (and maybe never will). Instead, as a beginner Buddhist, I latch onto it with my mind, interpret it through my own mental filters, and come up with a meaning that seems ‘logical’ to me.

For the first few years of practicing Buddhist meditation, anatta was interpreted through my particular filter of living with a debilitating illness, and blaming myself for having it. With no teacher to guide me, just a few books and meditation CD’s, I interpreted anatta negatively and judgementally.  It meant ‘get rid of yourself’ and ‘you don’t exist.’ It meant I should annihilate all thoughts and feelings...and then I might get well.

 I live with constant pain and fatigue, stemming from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and a related sleep disorder. Having the energy to watch a movie like Pretty Woman meant I was having a ‘good-energy’ day. Most days, it’s a struggle just to get to sundown.  When I first got sick I thought I’d will myself to wellness through sheer determination and denial.  That was 14 years ago. Sheer determination didn’t work so well (I figured that out after...oh...just a decade), so now I’m onto meditation.

Of course, I’ve brought all my ‘determination and denial’ habits into meditation.  Circling around my illness, like buzzards over a corpse, are anger, blame, and shame.  When I bring attention to my pain there’s a constant diatribe in my mind, ‘Don’t focus on it, that’s just wallowing. If you were more spiritual this wouldn’t be here.’ It’s a constant mental drip-feed of negativity– and it all seems very justified.

With my very limited understanding of Buddhism, I interpreted anatta as an emphatic confirmation of that critical voice in my mind. ‘Ah HA!’ said the voice. ‘Even the Buddha said that you weren’t really real, that the pain isn’t real, that those feelings aren’t real.’  Like perfectly fitting jig-saw pieces, my habit of denial, and the concept of non-self, clicked together and locked.  Anatta became the external justification for my internal voice - it was spiritually santified self-hatred.

Buddhism then became yet another path where I was trying to work out what I should be like, and pouring myself into that mould.  It wasn’t about ‘me’; it was about being perfect, and perfection meant being empty.  The goal in watching my breath wasn’t to watch my breath, it was to jump over this shameful, ordinary, messy self into some pure ideal of non-existence. I was never sure of exactly how this would work; just that that’s what I was meant to be doing.

Every guided meditation I did that encouraged me to focus on discomfort as a cluster of sensations rather than a solid mass called ‘pain,’ was really saying, ‘see...this pain isn’t real!  It’s just sensation. You’re so weak for feeling this.’  Every dharma talk I listened to where teachers spoke about feelings and thoughts being ‘empty’ prompted a further anxiety, ‘Why do I keep thinking this illness is really happening, when these teachers I trust tell me it’s not?  Why can’t I get it?’ Any conversation with a fellow-practitioner about how they were ‘not getting into their stories’ resulted in me blaming myself for wallowing in my ongoing ‘story’ of suffering.

The pivotal shift came when I watched Richard Gere climb that rickety fire-escape.  ‘This is about me,’ I realised. ‘I am real.’  Over the next few days my mental constructs and my lived experience clashed.  My thoughts about what I should be doing on the spiritual path remained the same; I still believed that my thoughts, feelings and physical pain were ‘wrong’ and must be transcended.  But my experience watching the end of Pretty Woman gave me the visceral insight that somehow this journey was really all about me - and that it was imperative I search for  connection with my own ordinary, mundane life.

The clash between rigid beliefs and fragile experience was jarring.  My experience felt right, but my mind kept interjecting that my new little meditation mantra - ‘this is real’- was so very, very egoistic and self-absorbed.
Becoming aware of this inner conflict, I realised I couldn’t be the only person who had fallen into the trap of equating ‘non-self’ with ‘self-loathing.’  I couldn’t be the only one who had conflagrated shame and blame with anatta. Several months later I read the following from Jack Kornfield’s ‘A Path with Heart,’ and saw that this was true:
"Misconceptions about selflessness and emptiness abound, and such confusions undermine genuine spiritual development. Some people believe that they can come to selflessness by struggling to get rid of their ego-centered self...if we have a deficient sense of self, if we perennially negate ourselves, then we may easily confuse our inner poverty with selflessness and believe it to be sanctioned as the road to enlightenment.” (p. 203)
In a section titled ‘From no self to true self’ Kornfield goes on to say that the cultivation of a healthy, sound sense of self is essential on the spiritual path, and that “the development of self then leads to a more fundamental level, the discovery of true self.” (p.207) He says this progression isn’t necessarily linear; the development of self and the discovery of what lies beyond it can happen simultaneously.

It was such a relief to read this and realise that my growing sense that ‘this journey was about me’ wasn’t spiritually wrong, but was actually an essential part of the path.  Over the past few months I’ve realised that being 'a Buddhist' can be worlds away from being 'a Buddha’ - the latter being the lived, moment-to-moment experience of the concepts and teachings involved in the former. I still don’t intellectually ‘get’ anatta, or the four noble truths, but I’m less preoccupied with gaining any ‘getting’, and a little more concerned with living.
The voice of denial in my mind is still very strong, but I have more perspective on it. When I’m listening to discussions about ‘emptiness’ or ‘clinging to the ego’ I have some awareness of the clutch of tension in my stomach as I worry whether I’m too self-absorbed and attached to my physical pain.  Allowing these emotions and thoughts to  just be, rather than trying to annihilate them, still feels wrong but I can see this ‘wrongness’ with more clarity and believe it a little less. Overall, I’m more focused on my personal experience of meditation, rather than my mental understanding of abstract concepts. 

Now I’m just waiting for a day when I have enough energy to watch the latest big rom-com on DVD – Valentine’s Day.  Sure, it’s got Julia Roberts, but without Hollywood’s most famous Buddhist, could it possibly stand up to Pretty Woman?


  1. Just confirms what I keep telling myself and others: anything can be a dharma gate towards wisdom, even a dated 80's flick. Great post!

  2. are so right. That is exactly what I thought after having this experience - you can use anything to wake up (a romantic movie) and anything to say asleep (misunderstanding Buddhist teachings). Thanks for your comment.

  3. Lots of great stuff in this post for us readers to learn from, thanks for sharing all of that! So bold and honest.

    And now, I must go and find me a little critter to put it on my lap top like Earnie. I dig it!

  4. I love this blog Emma! I've been going through a lot and this blog is therapeutic! Thank you so much =]

  5. Thankyou so much for your lovely comments! I haven't been writing this blog for a year now, because my health took a turn for the worse. But, I'm hoping to get back into it soon. I'm glad you've found my ramblings therapeutic! yours, Em


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