One of the teaching of Buddhism that I've struggled with from the very first time I ever heard of it is that of anatta, or “no self”. That is, the perception we have of the existence of a permanent self is an illusion. Nothing about us at all is permanent, not even the “soul” or whatever it is you want to call what survives of us into the afterlife. I really have a tough time wrapping my head around the concept that something of us reincarnates according to our karma (meaning our actions), but it isn't anything permanent. (I'm not sure I believe in reincarnation anyway, but that's an entirely different blog post.) The classic explanation is that we are like a candle flame that lights another candle – the flame is the same, yet different. Yeah, I don't understand it, either – a lot of Buddhism is like that. You aren't really supposed to understand it logically; real understanding transcends logic.
Even though we think of ourselves as being a permanent thing, our impermanence is pretty easy to demonstrate. First of all, our bodies are continually changing. I think most of us are familiar with the old saying that every cell in our body will be different once seven years has past. I don't know if that's true, but I know my body is very different than it was ten years ago – more weight, more aches and pains, fewer teeth, more gray hair, different lenses in my glasses, more medication I have to take. It's not all bad – I have less pain from TMJ, less trouble with allergies, fewer hot flashes, better muscle tone. Ten years is easy, but if we look at ourselves our bodies change even from moment to moment. We're hungry, we eat, and then we're not hungry. Our body tightens with tension over something, then relaxes. Our organs silently perform functions as needed, changing without our even being aware of it, We think of our bodies as being part of “ourselves”, but it certainly is not a fixed entity at any point in our lives.
Our minds change even faster than our bodies do. For one thing, the mind is influenced by how our body feels; it's not really a separate thing at all. Thoughts flow in and out. New impressions and memories are constantly put into the brain. Memory, especially, contributes to the illusion that we have a permanent existence, but memory itself is not a concrete thing. Everyone is familiar with the “Roshomon” scenario, where several people describe the same event very differently. Sometimes we completely forget events that someone else who was present remembers vividly. Our past is not static; memory changes as we change, and events look differently as we grow and learn. And if memory is erased because of injury or illness, who are we then?
Sometimes you'll hear people say about an earlier time “I wasn't the same person then as I am now.” In fact, if we're honest, we are different, even in the present, with different people. Don't most of us lose a few years (or a few decades) when we visit our parents? We are different when we are with coworkers than we are with family members. The local Baha'i community knew an entirely different Karen than the online Baha'i community did. I know I'm a different person with Jeff than I was with my ex-husband. My children would probably describe me in yet a different way than my students. Which one of these is the “real” Karen? Truth is, none of them. The real Karen is the person who is thinking and typing right now in the present moment, but when the circumstances change, so will I.
Now, there are certain patterns to our lives that tend to repeat themselves. Some tendencies we are born with – even tiny infants will have distinct personalities, with some being fussy and needy, others fairly placid. That's just a matter of heredity and is probably the most permanent thing about us in this lifetime. I don't think anything will change my natural inclination to be introverted, for example. Then, on top of that basic heredity, we have the psychology, which is emotional behavior learned in our earliest years – defenses against pain, ways we seek love and attention, the things which provoke fear or anger. Those things that Buddhism calls “mental formations” that are really tough to change unless and until we become consciously aware of them. But I don't think any of us thinks “I am my behavior patterns” – these are just characteristics of the person we think we are.
So, what does all this mean? Well, it can be sort of depressing, at least I thought so when I first heard the idea years ago. So,we aren't who we think we are and our existence is an illusion? Bummer. I wouldn't blame you if you chucked this notion entirely. But trying to prove the existence of a permanent self is pretty difficult, and the evidence for our impermanence is right there in our very nature.
However, there's a positive side to it, too. We can lay down the need to defend who we think we are, because there's really nothing to defend. We can realize that even if this moment is horrible, the bad feelings won't last forever. We can stop beating ourselves up over past mistakes, because every moment in our lives is an opportunity to be something different. You can't pin a label on a moving target. The classic philosophical question of “Who am I?” should more rightly be asked as “Who am I at this moment?” So, who do you think you are now?