anatta in theory and practice

Brian M, modified 11 Years ago.

anatta in theory and practice

Posts: 35 Join Date: 11/22/09 Recent Posts
I have started doing noting practice and attempting to perceive the three characteristics. However, it's not entirely clear to me how to go about perceiving not-self. In experiences with practices I have done before taking up meditation, I have been able to key in to certain ways of perceiving the world well, so I think I have a fair handle on the general process of framing perception in a certain way, looking for something without forcing it and letting it occur organically, etc. In this case I think the bottleneck for my practice is primarily my conceptual understanding of not-self. What I want to do is first share my current understanding of not-self and some experiences I've had with it, and then inquire about what seems like a limitation to the concept that I can't work around.

I understand not-self to be targeting the mental experiences of unity and identification. Usually we experience mental phenomena as if they are parts of an indivisible whole, and the process whereby those parts are experienced to be part of the whole is identification. For instance, I might experience various thoughts, desires, and intentions to be different parts and manifestations of same underlying whole, the self. The process of identification is the process of inclusion in that mental whole.

I understand the idea of not-self to be that that whole is illusory: there is really just a collection of mental phenomena that are not unified in any fundamental way. The mind is not one solid thing, but rather is more like a loosely organized ecosystem in which different phenomena take part, interacting and yet fundamentally independent. I have had one or two experiences along these lines as well: for a brief period of time, while doing noting practice, it felt precisely as if the mind was more like a backdrop on which separate processes were just doing their thing, rather than as if there was a single, coherent and indivisible whole. This was attended by a subjective feeling of incredible lightness, as if the identified whole carried some heavy mass with it that I had been temporarily relieved of, as well as some calmness and bliss.

Yet, I have a conceptual hang-up about anatta, which is this. Consider applying the same reasoning to a painting. We might say that although it is convenient to talk about a painting, in fact there is no painting, just a collection of drops of paint. We could look in each drop of paint and yet there would be no painting to be found. All well and good. However, there is something which fundamentally delineates one painting from another, and so fundamentally grounds them as coherent wholes, which is that each painting is located on its own canvas.

It seems to me like an analogous thing is going on with the mind. Yes, in one sense, we can emphasize that the mind is a construct of parts, and the wholes those parts make can be regarded as illusory. Yet, it seems that each mind is indeed a fundamentally holistic unit, in the sense that each mind is a self-contained unit of experience. It may be that the thoughts, desires, intentions, etc occurring in my mind do not necessarily constitute a phenomenological whole that is "self" in the day-to-day sense. But what does seem certainly true is that my thoughts, desires, etc occur on the same mental "canvas" which is *my* field of experience, as opposed to occurring in *your* field of experience. In that sense, it seems to make perfect sense to talk about *my* thoughts, desires, etc, and to think of them as belonging to one experiential whole. That, in turn, seems like a kind of self.

I don't want to seem too head in the clouds here-- the fundamental reason for going into this is that these conceptual issues are affecting my practice. So any clarifications of the conceptual issues would be appreciated, as would any other practical considerations about how to perceive not-self during practice.
J Adam G, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: anatta in theory and practice

Posts: 286 Join Date: 9/15/09 Recent Posts
Brian M:

I understand the idea of not-self to be that that whole is illusory: there is really just a collection of mental phenomena that are not unified in any fundamental way. The mind is not one solid thing, but rather is more like a loosely organized ecosystem in which different phenomena take part, interacting and yet fundamentally independent. I have had one or two experiences along these lines as well: for a brief period of time, while doing noting practice, it felt precisely as if the mind was more like a backdrop on which separate processes were just doing their thing, rather than as if there was a single, coherent and indivisible whole. This was attended by a subjective feeling of incredible lightness, as if the identified whole carried some heavy mass with it that I had been temporarily relieved of, as well as some calmness and bliss.
Could be Mind and Body. This is not the same as anatta. This is just the realization that the mind is not the same thing as the objects it is observing, yet it also isn't separate from them.

Yet, I have a conceptual hang-up about anatta, which is this. Consider applying the same reasoning to a painting. We might say that although it is convenient to talk about a painting, in fact there is no painting, just a collection of drops of paint. We could look in each drop of paint and yet there would be no painting to be found. All well and good. However, there is something which fundamentally delineates one painting from another, and so fundamentally grounds them as coherent wholes, which is that each painting is located on its own canvas.
This point is related to how conceptualizing objects into distinct selves is very useful, but we aren't talking about useful fictions here. To look at things in the ultimate sense, how is the canvas of the Mona Lisa completely separate from the canvas of the Virgin of the Rocks? You already see how each of these paintings is composed of particles that do not really comprise a painting as a distinct object except in the mind of a being looking at them.

But let's look at your statement that the paintings are fundamentally delineated from one another by virtue of being on separate canvasses. I argue that in a very ultimate and fundamental sense, those canvasses are not completely separate from one another. They are both da Vinci paintings located in the Louvre. The canvas of the Mona Lisa, by virtue of being hung on the wall of the Louvre, is thus molecularly bonded to the wall of the Louvre by van der waals forces. The particles of those walls are bonded to each other, and a chain could be traced from the paint of the Mona Lisa through the canvas through the walls to the canvas and paint of the Virgin of the Rocks. So physically, they are not really separate.

You might say at this point, what if we a imagine a painting existed on another planet halfway across the universe called the Whore of the Rocks? Surely this painting would be separate from the Mona Lisa because no chain of molecular bonds can be traced to it, so it is a distinct physical object. And yet again, this is not true in an ultimate sense. All of the particles that constitute the Mona Lisa interdependently influence and are influenced by the particles of the Whore of the Rocks. The force of gravity diminishes as the distance between two particles increases, but it never fades away completely. Even though other forces such as the gravity of the particles constituting the Earth have a much greater observable effect on the Mona Lisa, the truth is that the Whore of the Rocks would also have an effect. The truth is that no two objects or particles in the entire universe can be considered completely separate from each other. Distinction between objects is an artifact of the human mind that makes it easy for us to function in the world. But as Daniel put it, "All that actually exists is the universe doing its thing." There aren't individual parts or selves in a very fundamental, ultimate sense.

It seems to me like an analogous thing is going on with the mind. Yes, in one sense, we can emphasize that the mind is a construct of parts, and the wholes those parts make can be regarded as illusory. Yet, it seems that each mind is indeed a fundamentally holistic unit, in the sense that each mind is a self-contained unit of experience. It may be that the thoughts, desires, intentions, etc occurring in my mind do not necessarily constitute a phenomenological whole that is "self" in the day-to-day sense. But what does seem certainly true is that my thoughts, desires, etc occur on the same mental "canvas" which is *my* field of experience, as opposed to occurring in *your* field of experience. In that sense, it seems to make perfect sense to talk about *my* thoughts, desires, etc, and to think of them as belonging to one experiential whole. That, in turn, seems like a kind of self.

This is more interesting. I don't know enough about consciousness or the mind to give you as full of an answer as I did above for physical objects, but it can still be shown that what is happening inside your mind is not completely separate from what is happening in my mind. If you are angry at me and send me a PM telling me how you can't stand all of my shortcomings and you wish I weren't at the DhO, then that would certainly have an effect on what was going on inside my mind. It would affect my visual sense (because the pattern of light coming from my monitor that represents your PM would be different if you had never felt angry and sent it), my emotions (they would probably be negatively impacted), my thoughts, etc. If on the other hand you feel happy and make a post about your happiness on the forum here, that could also impact the landscape of your mind. Hopefully I would have mudita and I would feel good about your happiness, though maybe if you had reached stream-entry with only the amount of effort it took me to get to Three Characteristics, I would probably feel jealous. Whatever. The point is, we aren't entirely separate. If there hadn't been something on your mental landscape making you wonder about the nature of anatta, my mental landscape would be different right now.

My point in saying that is not to dismiss your claim that I am not phenomenologically experiencing your world and vice versa. I have no intention of contesting that claim. But nonduality is not the same as unity. Unity would say that we are the same, but nonduality says that we simply can't be completely separated from each other. If you say that our phenomenological experiences are completely separate from each other, then that experience could constitute a unique self. But our experiences aren't separate.

Your experiences can't truly be said to "belong" solely to you; how will you show possession of those experiences? You can't use the idea that experiences seem to be unique to one "self" to say that self exists. That's begging the question.

Is that helpful? You can actually ignore all of the nitpicks and details I point out if you want to. They aren't really that important. What's important is:
A.) Keep meditating. You won't understand anatta fully until you've actually experienced it. You can get it, I promise! If you can even see just Mind and Body, Cause and Effect, and Three Characteristics, you'll understand so much more about anatta. Even if all I've said here looks like either meaningless gobbledygook or a mass of specious, flawed points, it will all make sense with some good cushion time. The truth is, you don't even need to do perceptual shifting to get a conceptual understanding of anatta in order to experience it. If it's too much trouble, then forget it. Use all the time spent on trying to understand anatta to look at your bare sensory experiences.
B.) If looking at my post or the writings of enlightened people helps you with the framework shifting, then maybe you'll understand anatta sooner. So trying to make sense of it all intellectually isn't a waste of time.
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Florian "Monkeymind" Weps, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: anatta in theory and practice

Posts: 1028 Join Date: 4/28/09 Recent Posts
There's an ancient thread which might be of interest - that doesn't mean we shouldn't discuss it here, of course.

How to investigate no-self

Conceptual hint: not-self refers to the absence of a permanent, separate entity, someone on a couch somewhere watching my life through my eyes like a tv show, and so on.

One way to conceptually approach this is to think about whether I am the same person I was a year ago. All those changes, what do they imply?

If every single detail of "myself" were gradually changed over the course of a few years - molecules making up my body, opinions and memories making up my mind, sensations making up my experience - would I still be the "same"? If yes, what would it be that was still the same?

In your painting metaphor, it's not the painting that's not-self, but rather, the onlooker: after looking at the painting, is he still the same as before? (remember, not-self is about the absence of a permament, separate, unaffected "self", divine spark, soul, substance, and so on)

Cheers,
Florian

(edit: added a few opinions on not-self)
Brian M, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: anatta in theory and practice

Posts: 35 Join Date: 11/22/09 Recent Posts
Thanks for the helpful comments!

To clarify about experiences I have had that may have something to do with anatta. By now I have been able to pretty reliably generate an experience of seeing my thoughts, intentions, etc. as relatively more distinctly "out there" and perceived as objects that I can notice rising and falling away, rather than as the default method of knowing these things, which I would describe thusly: vehicles through which I perceive the world, which tend to have an immersive quality that sweeps me away or into which I get caught up, and whose beginnings and endings I don't carefully notice. This experience I identify as Mind and Body. But this is distinct from the experience I recounted above, which had more to it. In fact, the experience I refer to was described very well by a poster in the thread Florian linked to: "sensations start to float and the perception of centrality starts to disintegrate." The "floating" is what I identified as "lightness" and the "centrality" component is what I was trying to get at by describing the experience of a coherent internal whole, as opposed to a "loosely organized mental ecosystem."

In retrospect, I realize that I had an experience a couple of months ago that perhaps is even more profoundly an anatta kind of thing. It happened a few months ago, when I was experiencing heavy and frequent A&P kind of phenomena, doing my own flavor of contemplative practices but not doing Buddhist practice per se. During this time period, I was just sitting in my living room looking into my kitchen, when suddenly for a few seconds my experience shifted abruptly. Visually, the world looked different in a way I can't quite describe. My memory of it is as if it were a snapshot frozen in time, like a painting or a still life. It had this paradoxical quality that it felt as if there was an experience of this mental moment there, but literally no one there experiencing it. I almost don't want to phrase it that way because it sounds like a hackneyed linguistic expression of not-self, but yet it seems most appropriate to phrase it that way because it is the most literal way I can convey it. At the time I kind of just went with it as there was all sorts of other intense stuff going on at the time and so it didn't stand out as particularly of note. In retrospect perhaps it was more important than I gave it credit for. There is something unsettling about the paradoxical nature of my memory of the experience (regarding the experience-without-experiencer aspect), in the same way that there is something unsettling about staring into the apparent paradox of an Escher painting. It doesn't seem to make sense but that's how I remember experiencing it all the same.

It seems like I should be able to leverage this into a conceptual insight regarding my understanding of anatta but I just can't quite make sense of it-- it's like trying to pick up a block of ice with greasy hands. Any advice on how to make future use of this experience would be much appreciated.

The thing is, both experiences (particularly the second one) had the flavor of spontaneous happenings, as opposed to something like a concentration state that I can intentionally cultivate. I would like to get to the point where I can begin cultivating these sorts of anatta-esque experiences intentionally rather than chance into them, in order to really push my practice forward.

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Regarding my conceptual understanding of anatta. Perhaps it is useful to distinguish between different sorts of entities we might call "self".

1. "historical self" or "conceptual self". This is one's sense of personal identity-- name, personality, occupation, physical body, memories, life experiences, social affiliations, etc. This seems like the "self" Florian debunked in his last post, talking about the cells of the body being replaced and so on. Intellectually, it is straightforward to me that this "self" is a mental construct, even if I don't always experience it that way. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the proper target of anatta considerations is not the "conceptual self" per se, but the related and more mysteriously subtle...

2. "phenomenological self". This is the immediate, in-the-present moment experience of an internal mental "whole" or "center" around which and in relation to which other mental events are construed. It is the "doer" and "perceiver", the thing that claims experiential ownership and responsibility for mental events, etc. This is a tougher nut for me to crack-- I have the vague notion that it's really rather more subtle than I've laid out here, and in general blunt descriptions on the level of "the doer" or "the perceiver" seem unsatisfactory to me in some way-- but I think I am beginning to make some headway here conceptually and perhaps experientially too. But what I still can't begin to work around is...

3. "field of experience". This is the mental arena itself, the playing field on which mental events play out and by which they are unified into a coherent whole. In my imperfect metaphor, this is the "canvas" on which the mental "paint" is placed. Of course, it is true that the boundaries that delineate two physical canvases is a human construct, rather than a boundary respected by nature. But this does not seem to be the case for the mental analogue. It seems that indeed, nature itself respects the boundaries between different fields of experience. This is the boundary by means of which all of "my" experiences occur together in the same field of experience, to the complete and utter exclusion of "your" experiences. This is what makes experience private and subjective rather than public and objective. True, we can *affect* the contents of each others' field of experience by interacting. But we cannot transcend that boundary; you can never experience my experiences directly, just as I can never experience yours. This is not an arbitrary mental division, but rather a (the?) fundamental division in the nature of things themselves. In turn, it seems like the "field of experience" could be considered a kind of perfectly respectable, non-illusory "self". For instance, it would make sense to talk about "my" (as opposed to "your") experience of redness, even if I were completely free of the experience of a "conceptual" and "phenomenological" self.

In the thread Florian linked to, a poster named David described it this way:

The paradoxical part of there being no actual self I can point a finger at, for me, is that there is also a certain sense in which this field of experience is "personal" - an intuitive sense in which solipsism can't seriously be considered. There is no doubt there are other beings in the world and that these memories, for instance, relate to what might be labeled "David "and no one else. Yet there's no "David" I can shake stick at! Maybe someone else can help me understand that.


I am still somewhat nebulous on the subtler aspects of how anatta relates to (2), but what I'm not clear on at all is precisely how the teaching/idea/experience of anatta relates to (3).

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As regards practice, I have some nebulous intuition that there is something deep behind the following quotes from Florian's thread that I could leverage into a special emphasis in future practice, in order to more directly target and cultivate anatta:

Well, it's hard to anything for certain at that juncture, if that's what I think it is. But yes, these qualities ARE definitely the way forward, and they tend to have a twofold nature at first, one fleeting and one growing deeper. This second one is what leads to the answer. Specifically, some of that openness and immediacy is not an object, i.e. not a quality remembered or observed, but somehow the gestalt or context within which the process gradually becomes self-aware directly without division. As one moves further in refining this sort of awareness, one finds parts of the whole dynamic structure becoming witnessed which before where actually constituent of the very act of attention. First gross and then increasingly more subtle aspects of bare experience become obvious and yet not separate from what is essentially sheer cognizance or wakefulness. Hope this also sounds right.


Just to interject here, I know this may seem off the wall, given that the discipline I'm referencing doesn't have any orientation towards achieving higher degrees of awareness, but Neurolinguistic Programming concepts can be helpful in thinking about this stuff. The basic idea is that we tend to encode things in terms of our basic senses (visually, aurally, or kinesthetically), and also in terms of where we place these things positionally in our sensory field - this can be somewhat idiosyncratic, but tends to be consistent in the same individual. So let's say you are considering a possible future event - you might perceive an image representing the event "in front of you", another one that is in the more distant future as an image farther away and slightly higher up than the first image, and events in the past might be represented as "behind you." This is a level of representing cognitions that is not yet at the level of language in most cases, but not at the level of primary intuitions or formations. Why do we represent our own intuitions to ourselves? So that we can represent them to others in language.

The point is that by becoming aware of our own internal representation schemes, we can better understand these rather obscure impressions of "space between the perceiver, perceived, and observer" and the like and get at the fundamental nonlinguistic intuitions that underlie them. David
J Adam G, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: anatta in theory and practice

Posts: 286 Join Date: 9/15/09 Recent Posts
It sounds like you've had experiences from way farther on the path of insight than I expected. You report having a lot of A&P type stuff but you don't report fruition. So part of this confusion is that if you're in any of the stages between Dissolution and Reobservation, stuff might not make a lot of sense. I think Daniel warned against engaging in a whole lot of conceptual thought about this stuff whilst in the dark night or reobservation, because it may not be helpful at all. It could even get frustrating. I don't have a high suspicion that you're in equanimity now because everything I've heard indicates that people in equanimity just accept whatever things they don't understand or like, and just start meditating more until fruition.

(Though maybe you were in equanimity when you had the experience of your visual sense in the kitchen and that was a near-miss fruition. I can't recognize the contextual signs that point more towards A&P or Equanimity.)

From what I can gather, this will all make much more sense to you after a fruition or 10.

Brian M:

It seems like I should be able to leverage this into a conceptual insight regarding my understanding of anatta but I just can't quite make sense of it-- it's like trying to pick up a block of ice with greasy hands. Any advice on how to make future use of this experience would be much appreciated.

The thing is, both experiences (particularly the second one) had the flavor of spontaneous happenings, as opposed to something like a concentration state that I can intentionally cultivate. I would like to get to the point where I can begin cultivating these sorts of anatta-esque experiences intentionally rather than chance into them, in order to really push my practice forward.

My understanding is that once you have attained fruition of a path and you're cycling back through all of the stages in review, you can learn to use concentration to control the cycling. So whatever was happening with your insight when you had the direct experience of anatta, you can go back through and repeat that and/or extend it using concentration. All the fruitions that occur during that process aren't going to hurt your understanding either!

As for how to voluntarily repeat this experience before attaining fruition, I don't know of any way to do that.

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3. "field of experience". This is the mental arena itself, the playing field on which mental events play out and by which they are unified into a coherent whole. In my imperfect metaphor, this is the "canvas" on which the mental "paint" is placed. Of course, it is true that the boundaries that delineate two physical canvases is a human construct, rather than a boundary respected by nature. But this does not seem to be the case for the mental analogue. It seems that indeed, nature itself respects the boundaries between different fields of experience. This is the boundary by means of which all of "my" experiences occur together in the same field of experience, to the complete and utter exclusion of "your" experiences. This is what makes experience private and subjective rather than public and objective. True, we can *affect* the contents of each others' field of experience by interacting. But we cannot transcend that boundary; you can never experience my experiences directly, just as I can never experience yours. This is not an arbitrary mental division, but rather a (the?) fundamental division in the nature of things themselves. In turn, it seems like the "field of experience" could be considered a kind of perfectly respectable, non-illusory "self". For instance, it would make sense to talk about "my" (as opposed to "your") experience of redness, even if I were completely free of the experience of a "conceptual" and "phenomenological" self.


Looking through the suttas was very helpful in investigating this.

I don't think that a field of experience constitutes a self because even though fields of experience are separate from one another by nature of being linked specifically to the aggregates of one person. I don't know how to explain my reasoning about the difference between things that are separate and things that constitute selves, but it's along the lines of "I haven't yet seen a line of reasoning that explains how the division between our experiences is 'fundamental' enough to justify affirming the existence of a self." Where is the self that perceives your perceptions and feels your feelings?

Again, yes, I hold absolutely zero disagreement that our experiences arise separately and that this fact is inviolable. I don't have your experience of redness and you don't have mine even if we look at the same paint sample. But still, where's the self? That's not a self, that's a condition. It's a way of stating the condition that for a mental formation to arise with your aggregates, they have to be with your aggregates and not anybody else's. Or it's a way of saying that your aggregates are not the same thing as mine. That's trivial. The Mona Lisa and the Virgin of the Rocks are not the same thing even though they're interconnected.

Here's the point: Where's the self that is experiencing the aggregates? Where is the self that is experiencing the things that make up the field of experience? Anatta is not about saying that there is nothing that is separate between beings. We could go back and forth all day about the nature of the separation between our fields of experience, clinigng to views about self or about not-self. But anatta has nothing to do with this. The point is that nobody has been able to find a "being" or "soul" or "essence" that is experiencing the experiences.

Where is the fixed, central point or essence that defines a "you" or a "me" or a "Beyonce" or a "Sariputta" at the core of their beings? Where is the field of experience? What is it? What is it made of? Before you can say that the division of our fields of experience means that their essences are cut off from one another, you have to show what the essence is.

There's also another way of looking at this, and it's what Florian pointed out with his example about all of the molecules and constituents of his body being replaced (does he have the same self?). Just replace the elements of the physical body with the elements of the field of experience. They aren't the same even from moment to moment, much less decade to decade. Your field of experience is different each mind moment. So yes, your field of experience at this moment is different from mine. But it's also different from yours in the next mind moment! You have that one field of experience and then it's gone forever. In order for your field of experience to be a self, it would have to not only be distinct from mine, some part of it would have to be the same for you at all times. But it isn't. So the field of experience is not a solid thing that exists to be separate from mine. Sure, there is a set of fields of experience that each arise only one time with you in order and not with anyone else. But that's a categorization that is not fundamental.


Does this make any sense? My mind is fatigued from all this philosophy. I can think straight but I can't write in an easy to comprehend fashion, so I apologize if this seems disjunctive and if it doesn't present a clear line of reasoning. Ignore whatever you like from this post and meditate and anatta will start making more sense. Even if you never understand it conceptually, you will benefit from having the direct experience in your life.

One last thing: no-self may never make as much sense for you as true-self which is the same thing stated in the opposite terms. Check that part of MCTB out and maybe look into Tibetan or Zen stuff.
Chuck Kasmire, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: anatta in theory and practice

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Brian M:
So any clarifications of the conceptual issues would be appreciated, as would any other practical considerations about how to perceive not-self during practice.


Hi Brian,
My suggestion is to go back over your posts and look at references to what is happening in your body – at the sensate level. Make a list of these. Once you have that as a basis to work with, the no-self strategy will be more obvious and easier to point out.

-Chuck
Brian M, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: anatta in theory and practice

Posts: 35 Join Date: 11/22/09 Recent Posts
One thing that has been challenging for me is to follow the instruction to perceive the "no-self" characteristic of things. What does that mean exactly? If one doesn't understand the instruction, one can't follow it. With more thought and reading I've updated my understanding of no-self a bit, in such a way so as to clarify for myself the instruction to perceive the "no-self" characteristic. Maybe other people will find this useful or find some flaw in what I've said.

My current understanding, in brief: there is a mental process of identification, by means of which mental contents can be either included in or excluded from the "self" construct. This property of inclusion or exclusion from self has phenomenological correlates, some of which could be expressed roughly as follows.

When a mental content or process is self-identified, it is as if we experience the world "with" or "through" or "by means of" that content. It has a kind of transparency to it, such that it is more like an "instrument" than an "object." It is like part of the causal chain that culminates in perception rather than an aspect of perception itself. But when a mental content or process is not self-identified, it loses these properties of instrumentality and transparency, and seems more like an external object, more like a percept.

Here's a crude analogy. The "mental content" is a pair of sunglasses. If you wear the sunglasses, they become a sort of instrument through which or by means of which you experience the world. They color everything you see, but simultaneously you lose your awareness of them as a separate thing; they are more like a medium or instrument than an object. Wearing the sunglasses, then, is like self-identifying with a mental content. But we can also take off the sunglasses and consider them from a distance, as an object. Now the glasses are no longer an instrument of perception but an object to be perceived. This is what it is like to dis-identify a mental content from the self.

So when doing vipassana, I can use these phenomenological notions of self and no-self to notice when I am and am not identifying with a content. For instance, I may have a thought in the usual sense, and only subsequently notice the thought in a vipassana sort of way. I can recognize, among other things, that the initial thought had a kind of transparent quality that was barely noticed; it was as if in that moment, I was living "in" or "through" or "by means of" that thought. I can notice that that thought had the experiential aspect of "self." Other times, if I am meditating well, I may notice thoughts fully as they come and go. They seem like passing objects that I observe, rather than instruments by means of which I observe. When this happens I can then explicitly notice their experiential aspect of "no-self."
J Adam G, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: anatta in theory and practice

Posts: 286 Join Date: 9/15/09 Recent Posts
Brian M:
My current understanding, in brief: there is a mental process of identification, by means of which mental contents can be either included in or excluded from the "self" construct. This property of inclusion or exclusion from self has phenomenological correlates, some of which could be expressed roughly as follows.

This is actually content. What is the nature of the mental processes that make up you thinking about anatta? Better yet, what are the processes that underly your perception of breathing or walking or sitting or lying down? Observing your thoughts is likely to give you trouble in your vipassana practice because you're so intelligent and curious that you might easily get caught up in the thoughts.

So when doing vipassana, I can use these phenomenological notions of self and no-self to notice when I am and am not identifying with a content. For instance, I may have a thought in the usual sense, and only subsequently notice the thought in a vipassana sort of way. I can recognize, among other things, that the initial thought had a kind of transparent quality that was barely noticed; it was as if in that moment, I was living "in" or "through" or "by means of" that thought. I can notice that that thought had the experiential aspect of "self." Other times, if I am meditating well, I may notice thoughts fully as they come and go. They seem like passing objects that I observe, rather than instruments by means of which I observe. When this happens I can then explicitly notice their experiential aspect of "no-self."


In vipassana, you don't use phenomenological notions unless you're impartially, non-content-fully observing the nature of the sensations that underly such notions. I know you just said that you were wanting to use phenomenological notions of self/noself to notice when you are and aren't identifying with content. But whether or not you're identifying with content, you're not paying attention to bare sensation if you're thinking about notions. You can't truly multitask -- it's impossible to attend to notions and at the same time, attend to their sensory content. Whenever you multitask, it's actually rapid attention switching between two or more objects of conscious attention. In other words, your attention goes back and forth between all of the multitasking objects. In vipassana, only the attention to sensate experience is useful, so why not just completely drop the attention to phenomenology and attend solely to the sensate experience? It will maximize the amount of "mind moments" spent on true insight practice.

Plus, you don't have to totally understand anatta either experientially or conceptually for stream entry. You can have fruition primarily through the impermanence or suffering door. Or, you might have fruition through the no-self door and then your questions might be answered (or replaced with other questions).

Conceptual thinking is perfectly fine and valid, and it should play a part of your journey on these paths. But its only value on the vipassana cushion is if you're observing the sensations that make up conceptual thought. It requires great control over your attention to be able to let conceptual thought processes run while maintaining attention on what they're made of rather than on their content. That's why it's probably more helpful for you to practice vipassana using one of the other bases of mindfulness, like one of the 5 classical sense doors or of vedana (positive feeling, negative feeling, neutrality).
Brian M, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: anatta in theory and practice

Posts: 35 Join Date: 11/22/09 Recent Posts
Hi Adam,

I don't distinguish between "phenomenology" and "bare sensate experience"-- when I refer to "phenomenology" I mean to pick out precisely "experience itself." Just so I understand your last post better, what do you mean by "phenomenology" if not "bare sensate experience"?

So the idea I was trying to communicate isn't to sit around thinking about these thoughts while I'm practicing, but rather to use these thoughts as a framework for guiding my practice. I understand the instruction to perceive the "no-self" aspect of things to be an instruction to notice that aspect of experience that indicates "no-self". My previous post was just an attempt to clarify what exactly that experiential aspect of "no-self" is, because it's not immediately obvious in the way that e.g. the impermanent aspect of experience is. So the concepts are about clarifying the instruction rather than being an implementation of the instruction.