See disclaimer below.
The concept of “no self” or “non self” is one of the three or four (depending on who you listen to) seals of dharma or streams of basic concepts arrived at in Buddhism. One aspect can’t really be separated from the others, but I decided to attempt to articulate how I experience this and how it is helping me to work with my own little life (which, as luck would have it, is connected to all life forever).
When I was young, I had an experience that trained me to want to leave my body in the dust. Over the years, I have learned this phenomenon can happen to anyone who has experienced significant trauma, people who take on society’s view of their bodies as inadequate objects needing to be constantly changed and improved (poll any room of ‘gorgeous by consensus’ models should you have an opportunity, and you’ll see this to an extreme), or people in various states of physical illness, disability or even spiritual awareness.
My experience with a temporary, several-year disability taught my mind that my body wasn’t a safe place to be. “Just look how horrible and not trustworthy you are for doing this to us,” it seemed to be saying. I’ve spent decades trying to reestablish some mind-to-body kindness and peace. Revisiting the younger me through awareness of no-self is the best healing I’ve arrived at, because then I understand my body to be simply a body, not me and never will be, no matter what happens to it or what form it takes.
In fact, none of us alive can escape all that comes along with having a body. We all reside in our vehicles, so the best we can do is accept it and learn to care for the vehicle we have.
After recognizing my greatest sense of freedom and joy comes from connection to the natural world, I started to wonder, what is the difference I experience in those moments compared to the moments when I am not surrounded by what I consider “nature”? The answer is an all-encompassing experience of “no self” or, as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh so beautifully describes it, “inter-being.”
What happens to me on a walk through the woods or outside any ceiling and four walls is a profound shift in awareness of interconnection with all, complete acceptance and equality with every aspect of life and element outside of me. Whatever sense of “self” I have disappears and I am free. The particles of my body and what I perceive as “me” are deeply connected to the other particles all contributing to the beauty and the party of existence.
Maybe it is no coincidence that the Buddha spent a lot of time sitting under trees.
Recently I have been working on bringing my awareness of the experience I have amid “nature” indoors. In reality, there should be no line drawn. All matter that makes up our “indoors,” even plastics and electric wires are harvested from the natural world and intimately connected.
Even parenting when viewed from awareness of no-self leads me to a deeper appreciation that I have been entrusted to support and care for another human being in this lifetime. This can be a fabulous way to experience continuity beyond self.
Disclaimer: I hesitate to identify myself as Buddhist. I know only a few words of Sanskrit and am not a member of an “official” sangha or Buddhist community. Buddhist-leaning comes closest to describe whatever I understand about the nature of life through “trickle down dharma” gleaned from many books, people, and lived experience, and I do daily practices (meditation and mindfulness) that are central to Buddhism. I don’t know what I am, beyond a human being as confused as the next one, attempting to alleviate some confusion.