If There Is No Self, Whose Arthritis Is This?

Sylvia Boorstein

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"If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?" is one of a list of a dozen questions that have been appearing regularly in my email. I think it’s the choice of arthritis, out of all the ills of the world, which makes this particular statement funny. It’s also mildly mocking, making a joke out of the understanding of selflessness. Since mocking is derisive, it occurs to me each time I read it, and chuckle, that perhaps I am being spiritually incorrect. I think, though, that it isn’t a joke about dharma: it’s a joke about jumbling vocabularies. Un-jumbled, in their own contexts, self and no-self, no ego and strong ego, are completely understandable.

Twenty-five years ago, when I began my mindfulness practice, I remember hearing my teachers describing the "three characteristics of experience" as the insights that I needed to directly encounter in order to liberate my mind from its habits of greed, hatred and delusion. The insight about impermanence seemed reasonable to me. I saw how things were always changing, that time passed, how the impact of an event changed with the passage of time. Suffering made sense to me too. I understood, at least intellectually, the pain of craving. I did not understand what no permanent self meant. "My teachers are wrong," I thought. "Who is it, in here, having this whole life happen to them, if not me? This is my body and my thoughts and my story." I remember being quite sure that I was right and my teachers were wrong, but I liked everything else about dharma so much I decided I could leave it an open question.

In addition to my own felt sense of, "There is so someone in here who owns this story," I had my training as a psychologist. I believed, and I still do, that a strong sense of differentiated ego -- "This is me. These are my skills. I use them competently in a world full of other people. I can take care of myself" -- is a vital part of healthy emotional development. "I am me, separate from you," is the awareness that is crucial to the formation of a sense of morality. "I undertake the precept to refrain from harming living beings," requires an understanding of beings other than ourselves, beings who, like ourselves, experience suffering. And being able to say, "I am his mother," or, "I will teach your class next Tuesday," or, "This is where I live," is useful. Those "I – s" are not problems. They’re the ego-equipment with which we manage our lives. They describe situations, not a separate, unchanging entity.

The "I" that is a problem is a storytelling "I" that isolates and traps itself in suffering.

Here’s an example. I said to my husband during a period when we were both studying with a teacher who emphasized non-dual awareness, "I am so angry at so-and-so. I can’t believe what she said about me." He said, "Where is the 'I' that is angry?" So I got angry at him. I said, "You and I both know that there is no 'I' here and no 'I' there. But anger exists! Suffering exists!" Had I not been upset, I might have seen that the solid, enduring 'I' I had put in place with the story—"I can’t believe she said that about me"—was causing my ongoing pain. It constructed an 'I' who had been humiliated, who now suffered. "I – s" with needs—any kind of needs—are suffering "I – s". They arise with any discomfort. They aren’t mistakes or spiritual flaws: they are clues that something needs attention. They disappear when the mind and the body are comfortable. They, like everything else, are impermanent, empty of self, arising and passing away according to conditions.

At a talk the Dalai Lama gave some years ago, a young man said, "I have a very hard time meditating. I keep thinking that I am not worthy of happiness, that I don’t deserve it." Apparently, the Dalai Lama leaned forward and responded in an uncharacteristically strong, correcting voice. "You are wrong!" he said. "Every being is a beautiful expression of nature. How much more so a being with a precious human birth, one with a capacity for wisdom and compassion."

There is no self, but there are precious lives.

Excerpted from here. Sylvia Boorstein is an American author, psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the notion of the storytelling "I" that isolates and traps itself in suffering? Can you share an experience of a time you were able to recognize and move beyond the storytelling "I"? What helps you stay aware of the storytelling "I" without losing your healthy emotional vitality? 

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15 Previous Reflections:

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    On Mar 24, 2021 Lesther Guevara wrote:
    Thank you for your experiences strength and hope! I can really relate to your story. It's crazy how we think we are the only ones having this wild experience lol. This really opened my view to life.

    Unity-Service-Recovery!

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    On Mar 7, 2021 stream wrote:
    I love the storytelling "I" that surrounds aer self in a mysterious wondrous healing adventure. Any and every moment that I find a feeling arising from unmet needs I return to gratitude and feel enfolded in the arms of love against a breast of a loving beating heart and know that all experience is a re-frameable choice. " Every little cell in my body is happy, every little cell in my body is well!"

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    On Mar 7, 2021 Carol Lynka wrote:
    One of the difficulties with the storytelling "I" arises in community. Just now, for example, my daughter wanted to engage me in her story of the flames in our fireplace, her excitement in anticipation of her birthday gifts, and the show I agreed she could watch (so she would stop interrupting my reading.)Her unexpected presence at such an early hour interfered withmy story of carving out some quiet time for study and preparing my application for grad school. My ego's response was annoyance. Then Love reminded me to honourour bond, to offer her the connection she desires. Ego responded by insisting my needs are also important and my daughter must learn to respect that. My childhood was one in which women served the needs of their husbands and children and the narrative of self-sacrifice was a badge of (sometimes grudging) honour. I vowed at a young age to live according to my own wishes and not subvert my will to those around me. Despite living a fiercely independent life... [View Full Comment] One of the difficulties with the storytelling "I" arises in community. Just now, for example, my daughter wanted to engage me in her story of the flames in our fireplace, her excitement in anticipation of her birthday gifts, and the show I agreed she could watch (so she would stop interrupting my reading.)Her unexpected presence at such an early hour interfered withmy story of carving out some quiet time for study and preparing my application for grad school. My ego's response was annoyance. Then Love reminded me to honourour bond, to offer her the connection she desires. Ego responded by insisting my needs are also important and my daughter must learn to respect that. My childhood was one in which women served the needs of their husbands and children and the narrative of self-sacrifice was a badge of (sometimes grudging) honour. I vowed at a young age to live according to my own wishes and not subvert my will to those around me. Despite living a fiercely independent life, my greatest joy has always come through communing with loved ones, teachers, and the all-encompassing Divine. I feel freest when I surrender to the cosmic dance and recall, as Ram Dass said, that we are all just walking each other home.[Hide Full Comment]

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    On Mar 5, 2021 nimish wrote:
    This also reminds me of Mahavir's concept of "Bahuchitwan"!

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    On Feb 23, 2021 Milton wrote:
    I use the word we a lot. The we is reallyme (I), which tells me that I am not just a single entity but at any given time I am different, self, father, husband, brother, son (to mother to father) friend... nota one but a many faceted being. So, nothing is is singular we are all connected. Duality of the one.

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    On Feb 23, 2021 Nilesh Thali wrote:
    this is where buddhism differs from hinduism. i do not agree with "no self". i believe in the opposite of "no self": the one self - awareness - that permeates all, and is the eternal, unchanging self.
    the question still applies: how does the eternal, unchanging self deal with the impermanence of the body, the mind, and it's impermanence and afflictions? moment by moment.

    1 reply: David | Post Your Reply
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    On Feb 23, 2021 Vhalle Hohn wrote:
    If there is no Self, whose arthritis is this? In understanding my story, I begin to understand how my ego has separated from my highest self, this is duality. But I cannot be so sure that it is from many lifetimes and endless experiences for all of humanity that has created this delusional-reality that we all live in. I am not a practicing Buddhist, but I am, as everyone on this planet, on a spiritual journey. In the search for my Truth, I have come to understand many concepts from many traditions and cultures, and there are similarities. My stories in this lifetime are made up of experiences - It is my ego who has kept me safe, an untethered sense of survival and “I can do it” that has conquered over the whispers of truth that lie within spirit and God. She takes in all of my “bad” experiences, mentally, emotionally and physically and creates a web of armor that ignores the truth, instills fear and knows better than God. And when I get hurt again and a... [View Full Comment] If there is no Self, whose arthritis is this?

    In understanding my story, I begin to understand how my ego has separated from my highest self, this is duality. But I cannot be so sure that it is from many lifetimes and endless experiences for all of humanity that has created this delusional-reality that we all live in.

    I am not a practicing Buddhist, but I am, as everyone on this planet, on a spiritual journey. In the search for my Truth, I have come to understand many concepts from many traditions and cultures, and there are similarities.

    My stories in this lifetime are made up of experiences - It is my ego who has kept me safe, an untethered sense of survival and “I can do it” that has conquered over the whispers of truth that lie within spirit and God. She takes in all of my “bad” experiences, mentally, emotionally and physically and creates a web of armor that ignores the truth, instills fear and knows better than God. And when I get hurt again and again, she tries even harder and then enters the depth of shame. To identify her (Ego) as an enemy only gives her more fuel and widens the gap of duality; and overtime she has become my Identity. And that is something I can change.

    To live in this world is to experience all of it! Embracing all of me, being in the silence to hear God, being awake and aware to live in the joys and sorrows of being human, breathing in life to its fullest - and if that includes a bit of pain, in time I embrace that too. And then I move on.

    It is the fluidity of my life that keeps me connected.

    Vhalleri Hohn
    Canada [Hide Full Comment]

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    On Feb 23, 2021 Patrick Watters wrote:
    A bit esoteric to begin with, but if we sit with it, let it embrace our hearts, we will see Truth and it will set us free. }:- a.m.

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    On Feb 23, 2021 Patricia wrote:
    I'd like to share an experience that happened to me.
    i was with a group of my husband's medic friends & aqaintances having a pre- theatre meal. The conversation was mainly around the topic of medicine & views were being exchanged. I felt left out, unable to join in & was increasingly irritated & felt trapped. Into this state popped in a question - "who is feeling alienated?" With the emphasis on WHO. The feelings just dissolved & i felt immediate release. Th nightbefore i had been reading a practice in Jack Kornfield's book- repeatedly asking oneself Who am I?.
    With appreciation for the article. Patricia 

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    On Feb 23, 2021 Sri Anastasia-Peter Maharaj wrote:
    At first blush this appears to be a very puzzling question that I would never presume to be a form of mockery. It is a fundamental question worthy of Self-enquiry. Let's begin? To answer this question we must first understand Who is the 'I' referring to. The 'I' identified with the conceptual mind and a body composed of subatomic particles? If so, how can 'I' be both the subject and the object? How can the perceiver in other words also sinultaneously claim to be the perceived without falling into the trap of duality? If we can agree that duality is an illusion because it is by it's very nature impermanent completely dependent on 'dependentarising' we have taken the first step towards Self-discovery. There is the conceptual self or small finite 'I' of consciousness always in evolution and movement (impermanent) and there is the Primordial 'I' of Pure Awareness and Emptiness that is Causeless and Changeless. We can call this Primord... [View Full Comment] At first blush this appears to be a very puzzling question that I would never presume to be a form of mockery. It is a fundamental question worthy of Self-enquiry. Let's begin? To answer this question we must first understand Who is the 'I' referring to. The 'I' identified with the conceptual mind and a body composed of subatomic particles? If so, how can 'I' be both the subject and the object? How can the perceiver in other words also sinultaneously claim to be the perceived without falling into the trap of duality? If we can agree that duality is an illusion because it is by it's very nature impermanent completely dependent on 'dependentarising' we have taken the first step towards Self-discovery. There is the conceptual self or small finite 'I' of consciousness always in evolution and movement (impermanent) and there is the Primordial 'I' of Pure Awareness and Emptiness that is Causeless and Changeless. We can call this Primordial 'I' the Buddha Mind, Source, God, or the One MIND. For simplicity let's stick to the term, One MIND. Can both the conceptual mind temporary 'I' be Real or is the Primordial 'I' of Eternity and Immortality Really REAL.
    As a Buddhist can we mutually agree that the impermanent is maya and false and the Real is Changeless and Causeless and Timeless?
    Is the storytelling self Real then by this definition? The storytelling 'I' arises in the sea of consciousness/samsara at so called birth only to dissolve back into the sea of consciousness/samsara at so called 'death'. Is this Wheel of Karma real then? On the level of the 'I Am', the seed of consciousness, indeed the body and conceptual mind that this 'I Am' is self-identified with appear very Real within this Matrix or virtual reality composed of conceptual mental constructs projected by a dualistic conceptual mind that perceives Reality from the perspective of subject and object, the bedrock of illusory duality.
    But what if I embody my 'I Am-ness' and 'I Am' consciousness and use it as bridge meant to be transcended in order to Know the Absolute Primordial Changeless Causeless 'I' beyond the 'I Am' of consciousness/samsara as my True Original 'I' PRIOR to the arising of 'I Am' consciousness? The Primordial 'I' Is the Buddha Mind or the One MIND! This IS the Immortal 'I' or the Buddha Self of Pure Awareness and Emptiness that Is Never-Changing.
    Which 'I' fits the Buddha's definition of maya versus Truth? The fleeting 'I' that appears to be born and die within this sea of maya/consciousness/samsara or the Primordial 'I' that Shines as the Clear Light of Void unblemished and untouched by the delusion of ignorance?
    Finally let us recall the words of the Heart Sutra: Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form.
    Nirvana is indivisible from samsara. The Emptiness of Pure Awareness permeates and pervades everything and nothing.
    But the formless unmanifest Emptiness Is Source or the Cosmic Womb that gives birth to the appearance of the 'I Am' and consciousness in the realm of form. But only Empty Pure Awatenessmeets the criteria of Reality or the Changeless and Immortal Primordial Buddha Mind or One MIND as the Primordial 'I'.
    To Know this Primordial 'I' as Pure Empty Awareness Is to BE a Buddha beyond the dualistic conceptual mind projection its delusion of subject ahd object as the Storytelling 'I'. In Reality there Is only the Changeless and Causeless Primordial 'I-I' and I am THAT. TAT TVAM ASI. You are THAT. We Are THAT. There Is only THAT as the Supreme Absolute, One MIND, Buddha Mind, Source, Unborn Primordial Pure Empty Awareness beyond duality of subject and object. In other words to Know the Buddha or One MIND Is the BE the Buddha and One MIND.
    IT IS So.
    So IT IS.
    So BE IT.
    So 'Ham ( I Am THAT)
    Namaste. 🙏🏽
    ~ Sri Anastasia-Peter Maharaj🕉[Hide Full Comment]

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    On Feb 22, 2021 David T. Matta wrote:
    The questions still bewilder me until today. I do not understand the claim about no-self, on a practical level, that is. Yes, one can present convincing arguments about it that may refine our view about the self. But I do not think it will have any real significance until it is fully experienced.

    In the meantime, as a person troubled by emotions, I am satisfied by not asserting a no-self view but rather working hard to decrease the negative impacts of such a view, beginning with the inflated sense of ego.The Dalai Lama in one of his videos is very clear about developing a healthy sense of self, not a denial of it. The view of reality as it is comes in time, and it is fruitless to force it by intellectual understanding.

    1 reply: Jazzy | Post Your Reply
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    On Feb 20, 2021 David Doane wrote:
    There is "I" that is a story initiated by environmental conditioning and created to a great extent by me. It's what I use to interact with the world. Storytelling I sees I as separate, even though I and all creation is one. To suffer is to bear and deal with issues in life. With storytelling I seeing self as separate, it is often fearful and competitive and easily isolates and traps itself in suffering issues that occur. Learning that the essence or real me isUltimate Existence or God has resulted in much less interest in storytelling I and at times in getting very much beyond storytelling I. Why would staying aware of the storytellingI result in losing healthy emotional vitality? My healthy emotional vitality is from the essence or soul that is real me. Real me can use my healthy emotional vitality just as it can use storytelling I and not be victim to either and without losing either. Being aware that storytelling I is not real me enhances my healthy emotional vitality.

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    On Feb 19, 2021 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    Who am I is a perennial inquiry made in all wisdom traditions. Is there oneness underlying manyness? Is there unity underlying diversity? What causes suffering? Who is suffering? Is there something everlasting? When I identify myself with suffering and dwell on the story of my suffering, I am trapping myself in suffering. Then the blame game begins. She insulted me. He abused me. The mind keeps on telling this story of suffering. This is the haunting and trapping voice of the ego continuing the story of suffering. Awareness of this ongoing mentalmelodrama and chattering is a way of going beyond the storytelling of suffering. Ii is not easy to wake up from the slumber of self-created suffering. It is hard to be free from the self-created shackles of suffering. It is journey of self-awakening. Waking up from the nightmare of suffering is not easy. It is difficult to rise up from the self-generated fall, to wake up from the sleep and remain awake. I have been learning and practicing to k... [View Full Comment] Who am I is a perennial inquiry made in all wisdom traditions. Is there oneness underlying manyness? Is there unity underlying diversity? What causes suffering? Who is suffering? Is there something everlasting? When I identify myself with suffering and dwell on the story of my suffering, I am trapping myself in suffering. Then the blame game begins. She insulted me. He abused me. The mind keeps on telling this story of suffering. This is the haunting and trapping voice of the ego continuing the story of suffering.

    Awareness of this ongoing mentalmelodrama and chattering is a way of going beyond the storytelling of suffering. Ii is not easy to wake up from the slumber of self-created suffering. It is hard to be free from the self-created shackles of suffering. It is journey of self-awakening. Waking up from the nightmare of suffering is not easy. It is difficult to rise up from the self-generated fall, to wake up from the sleep and remain awake. I have been learning and practicing to keep the lamp of awarenessshining in my transactions with others in my everyday life. Practicing mindfulness in my everyday life has been very helpful to me. Such practice helps me from draining my emotional energy and not losing my healthy emotional vitality.
    Namaste!
    Jagdsih P Dave'


    Non-judgmenat



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