The last and perhaps most misunderstood of the Three Characteristics is no-self, also rendered as egolessness or emptiness. Emptiness, for all its mysterious sounding connotations, just means that reality is empty of a permanent, separate self. The emphasis here absolutely must be on the words “permanent” and “separate.” It doesn't mean that reality is not there, or that all of this is illusion! Solidity is an illusion, permanence is an illusion, that the watcher is a separate thing is an illusion, but all of this isn't an illusion. Sure, all experience is utterly transient and ephemeral, but that is not quite the same as everything being an illusion. There is a habit of reading just a bit too much into things and coming out with the false conclusion that all of this means that there is some separate, permanent us. Reality is actually fine just as it is and always has been, but there is a deeper understanding of it that is called for.
Let's talk a little bit about this concept and how the illusion of a self is created in the first place before we talk about how to use this powerful and profound concept of no-self in simple ways in practice. Some theory really can be useful to the practice, as all of it can be understood directly once one has some stability of mind and a bit of insight into what is mind and what is body, and when each is and isn't there.
We have this notion that there is really a permanent “I.” We might say, “Hello, I am...” and be quite convinced that we are talking about a permanent, separate thing that can be found. However, if we are just a bit more sophisticated we might ask, “What is this 'I' which we are sure is us?” We have grown so accustomed to the fact of the definition changing all the time that we hardly notice it, but the point of insight practice is to notice it, and to see just what it is that we are calling “I” in each moment.
We may begin with the obvious assumption: we are our body. This sounds nice until we say something like “my body.” Well, if it is “my body,” that seems to imply that, at that moment, whatever it is that owns the body wasn't the body. Suppose someone points to our toenails. They surely seem to be “me,” until we clip them, and then they are “not me.” Is this really the same body as when we were born? It isn't even made of the same cells, and yet it seems to be a permanent thing. Look more closely, at the sensate level, and you will see that moment to moment it isn't. At the level of actual experience, all that is found is flickering stuff. So impermanence is closely related to no-self, but there is more to no-self than that.
Perhaps thoughts are the “I.” They may seem more like the “true I” than the body does. But they come and go too, don't they? Can we really control these thoughts? Are they something solid enough to assume that they are an “I”? Look closely and you will see that they are not. But again, no-self is more profound than this.
There also seems to be something that is frequently called “the watcher,” that which seems to be observing all this, and perhaps this is really the “I” in question. Strangely, the watcher cannot be found, can it? It seems to sometimes be our eyes, but sometimes not; sometimes it seems to be images in our head; and sometimes something that is separate from them and yet watching the images in our head. Sometimes it seems to be our body, but sometimes it seems to be watching our body. Isn’t it strange how we are so used to this constant redefinition of ourselves that we never stop to question it? Question it! This odd sense of an unfindable watcher to which all of this is happening yet which is seemingly separate from all that is happening, which sometimes seems in control of “us” and yet which sometimes seems at the mercy of reality: what is it really? What is going on here?
One of my teachers once wisely said, “If you are observing it, then it isn't you by definition!” Notice that the whole of reality seems to be observed. The hints don't get any better than this. Here are three more points of theory that are very useful for insight practices and one’s attempts to understand what is meant by no-self: 1.There are absolutely no sensations that can observe other sensations! (Notice that reality is made entirely of sensations.) 2.There are no special sensations that are uniquely in control of other sensations. 3.There are no sensations that are fundamentally split off from other sensations occurring at that moment.
To begin to unravel this mystery is to begin to awaken. Simply put, reality with a sense of a separate watcher is delusion, and unconditioned reality, reality just as it is, is awakening.
Quick point here: people can use the truth of no-self to rationalize all sorts of strange behaviors because they misunderstand it as nihilism. “It's all illusion anyway,” they might say. It absolutely isn't. All of this can only be understood at the level that makes the difference by simple, clear, precise practice, so just keep at it.
One more related thing here that is very important: ego is a process of identification, not a thing in and of itself. It is like a bad habit, but it doesn't exist as something that can be found. This is important, as this bad habit can quickly co-opt the language of egolessness and come up with phrases as absurd as: “I will destroy my ego!” But, not being a thing, it cannot be destroyed, but by understanding our bare experience, our minds, the process of identification can stop. Any thoughts with “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine” in them should be understood to be just thoughts which come and go. This is not something you can talk yourself out of. You have to perceive things as they are to stop this process.
A commonly heard one is, “I am always identifying with things, I am always attached to things,” with the implication that there is actually someone who is “bad” for “doing” this. Try to avoid this sort of story making, this sort of unmindful mental spinning, but be kind to yourself if it happens. The sensations that make up these thoughts are just empty in the best of ways.
So who is it that awakens? It is all of this transience which awakens, though for a more mystical, thorough and seemingly ridiculous answer take a look at “No-self vs. True Self” in Part III.
We don't have to sort this all out at once. We can begin with simple steps and the rest will fall into place if we are diligent and skillful.
So, now that I have made the possible seem mystical and abstruse, hopefully I will make it seem very attainable. The big, practical trick to understanding egolessness is to tune into the fact that sensations arise on their own in a natural causal fashion, even the intentions to do things. This is a formal practice instruction.
This may sound hard until you think about it and then perhaps it may become so obvious it may seem trite. But it isn't, and understanding it again and again, moment to moment, can bang the truth into us, and if we fully get it we will be free. So, start and perhaps remain with obvious things like physical sensations. They just show up and check out over there, don't they? Tune into this. Allow this quality of things arising and passing on their own to show itself. Notice that whatever is observed isn't “us.” Do this again and again and again at a rate of one to ten times per second as before. That is all there is to it. See, that wasn't so hard!
Thoughts, the breath, and all of our experience don't quite seem to be in our control, do they? That's it! Know this moment to moment. Don't struggle too much with reality, except to break the bad habits of being lost in stories, poor concentration, and a lack of understanding of the Three Characteristics. Allow vibrations to show themselves and tune into the sense that you don't have to struggle for them to arise. Reality just continues to change on its own. That's really it. Investigate this again and again until you get it. Notice that this applies to each and every sensation that you experience.
So, while we can direct the mind to penetrate into phenomena with great precision and energy, we can also sit quietly and allow reality to just show itself as it is. Both perspectives are important and valuable, and being able to draw on each along the way can be very helpful. Said another way, we can realize that reality is already showing itself, settle quietly into this moment, and be clear and precise about it.
Obviously there is a bit of a paradox here relating to effort and surrender. In many ways it is at the heart of the spiritual life. There is a lot of advice available on this point, but in terms of insight meditation practice I would say this: If when meditating you can perceive the arising and passing of phenomena clearly and consistently, that is enough effort, so allow this to show itself naturally and surrender to it. If not, or if you are lost in stories, then there are some teachings coming up in the other lists that may help.
For day-to-day reality, the specifics of our experience are certainly important, but for insight into the truth of things in meditation they largely aren't. Said another way, it is neither the object of meditation, the causes of the object of meditation, nor the significance of the object of meditation, but the truth of the sensations that make up that “object” which must be understood. Once you can tell what is mind and what is body, that's for the most part enough. So don't make stories, but know this: things come and go, they don't satisfy, and they ain't you. That is the truth. It is just that simple. If you can just not get to caught up in the content and know these simple, basic and obvious truths moment to moment, some other wordless and profound understanding may arise on its own.
A useful teaching is conceptualizing reality as six sense doors: touch, taste, seeing, hearing, smelling, and thought. It may seem odd to consider thought as a sense door, but this is actually much more reasonable than the assumption that thoughts are an “us” or “ours” or in complete control. Just treat thoughts as more sensations coming in which must be understood to be impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self. In this strangely useful framework, there are not even ears, eyes, skin, a nose, a tongue, or a mind. There are just sensations with various qualities, some of which may imply these things for an instant.
Bare experience is just dancing, flickering color, form, energy and space, basically, and the knowledge of these (which is not as fundamentally different from them as you might suspect). Try to stay close to that level when you practice, the level of the simple, direct, obvious, literal. But whenever you are lost in interpretation much beyond this, that ain't insight meditation, as much as people would like it to be. Have I said this enough? Okay, then.
I realize that most people go into meditation looking for stability, happiness, and comfort in the face of their own existence. I have just said that I have spent many years cultivating extreme experiential instability, careful awareness of the minutiae of my suffering and the clear perception that I don’t even exist as a separate entity. Why this would be a good idea is a very complex topic that I will try to deal with later, but I can honestly say that these practices are without doubt the sanest thing I have ever done in my life.
One more little carrot: it is rightly said that to deeply understand any two of the characteristics simultaneously is to understand the third, and this understanding is sufficient to cause immediate first awakening.