This post starts with nihilism and ends with chickens. Please bear with me.
Anatta – a pali word for non-self—can sound totally bizarre, or threatening, or simply undesirable to a Western ear. It’s easy to collude references to emptiness (of a solid permanent identity or essence) with nothingness, and then the whole thing seems, albeit mistakenly, rather nihilistic. But my practice community in Myanmar – all Asian, from various countries—lived anatta in a way I’d never felt before, and it totally inspired me. It’s anatta as “not-just-me.”
Culturally, I experienced it as a perpetual focus on group wellbeing rather than individual wellbeing. Anatta as not-just-me meant that when we gathered to wash a gigantic pile of heavy curtains at the end of the retreat, people focused on how effectively and fluidly the group as a whole could complete the task, rather than worrying over their individual role and contribution. Sounds nice, right? But it’s not easy – it means that the bossy person gives directions, the cheery people shout encouragement, and everyone else puts their head down and scrubs and rinses and wrings those curtains with joy – and the anatta here is in not believing there is something better about bossing or being bossed as long as it comes together as a whole. Or, if there aren’t enough seats in the taxi van to accommodate everyone who needs to go into town, people start vying for the privilege of staying behind, thus enabling the group to proceed. Not having is a form of giving. For a Western mind this is radical.
Applied to my own life, Anatta as ‘not-just-me’ changes the way I conceptualize and approach work, relationships, money, everything. What if we didn’t try to ‘get somewhere’ in a job, but rather focused on how to help the group or project as a whole? What if we didn’t spend any energy wondering if so-and-so thinks poorly of us, or strategizing on how to be accepted by one community or another – what if we instead focused on supporting the wellbeing of whoever is around us, all the time, even if they don’t seem to like us? What if I thought of my dharma center (or dance community, or regional parks, or…) as my second home, and contributed time and resources accordingly? Maybe I wouldn’t end up with a big title, or a ton of friends, or a big yard. But imagine genuinely living in that state of mind—everyone is your friend, everywhere is home, and you don’t need to be a Somebody to be content. It would be nice. But okay, enough with the idealism, let’s break it down.
I have to be careful here; if this ‘not-just-me’ perspective is limited just to the group I identify with, then it is still the same self, just substituting group for self and applying all the same habits and neurosis. Similarly, if I make ‘myself’ unimportant and the group important, the unimportance of self is the same as its previous importance; believing that I am nothing, a nobody, is just as full of ego (and the related suffering!) as believing that I am more important than you. My mind loves to do this bait-and-switch and then feel pride about some kind of insight or progress, but it’s totally a red herring.
So listen, I don’t have any answers, but I promised to end with chickens, so I’ll tell you a couple tricks I’ve been using to strike a balance between discipline and levity in exploring this. Don’t worry, I am not going to tell you to be grateful or think positive. When I notice a sort of heaviness of mind, a weariness or general dissatisfaction, that’s my flag to check my thoughts. My question is, “In my thoughts, how big am I and my problems and plans, compared with [this neighborhood] [India] [the world] [the universe]?” When I’m feeling that weary dissatisfaction, ‘I’ am always WAY out of proportion with even my basic surroundings. This simple recognition doesn’t require fixing anything. Just the recognition seems to change, at the very least, how I’m relating to all these thoughts about what I will do/eat/see/become–it keeps the thinking in more realistic proportion. The sense of isolation and importance drops and with it, sometimes, the weary-heavy-dissatisfied mind.
For particularly stubborn times, when the train of thoughts seems SO compellingly real and persistent, it’s time to play the chicken game. Meditation teachers often instruct a student suffering from endless thinking mind to imagine that their thoughts are coming from the person in front of them. Sometimes this just isn’t ridiculous enough to cut through for me, so I imagine a chicken, or a rooster strutting around squaking and crowing all my thoughts. Try it. It’s exhausting, this effort. So I let the rooster just summarize the essence of the thoughts. It usually comes out as either “I’m SO great and Important. I’m a great Meditator. My thoughts are so Profound,” or else it’s a chicken clucking “I’m terrible, I’m nothing, I’m just this chicken wandering around, it’s such a pity, wasting my life, I’m such a terrible chicken, all the other chickens are better than me…” and so on. Try it. Please let yourself laugh. It’s really hard to take such messages seriously from a chicken. Putting the ego on display like that lets me see it in full ridiculosity, in its full hilarious ego-ness. I can laugh, lightly, and say hello – hello to ‘me’ and hello to everyone’s ‘me’ – it’s not just me, after all.