Identifying with Experience

When a feeling arises, how do we relate? Personally, I find that some experiences are consuming. Anger and anxiety are often two experiences that tend to consume me. Whether it is the physical body, the pleasant or unpleasant tone of experience, our perception, our will, or our consciousness, we tend to form a sense of identity around individual experiences and patterns of experience. This tendency serves some purpose, but also causes quite a bit of suffering.

The Buddha’s Teachings on Anatta

The Buddha’s teachings on anatta are perhaps one of the most misunderstood teachings. Often translated as “no-self,” anatta is a Pali word literally meaning “without soul.” I personally prefer the translation “NOT-self.” Although anatta is a deep teaching, it can be most simply understood as the teaching that form, feeling, perception, will, and consciousness are not self. These five khandhas, or aggregates, are what makes up a human’s living experience. In the Anatta-Iakkhana Sutta1, the Buddha gives a talk to five monks about this non-self and impermanence of experience. In this sutta, the Buddha explains that none of the five aggregates are “self,” and we should reflect that:

“Any kind of feeling whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.'”

When we look closely at our experience, we can see that we often identify with the experience that is present. Whether it is an emotion, a physical experience, a thought, or a mental state, we get lost in the moment. It happens with both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. This identification with experience comes from a state of delusion. This teaching of the Buddha’s has great potential to create causes for freedom when personally understood.

The Impermanence of Experience

Another of the Buddha’s foundational teachings is that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. We can see this in our experience. Take a moment to listen to the cars going by outside, a bird chirping, or the wind blowing. Although it may seem somewhat constant, the noises are in a constant state of change. Similarly, the breath is always in a state of flux. As Noah Levine points out in his book The Heart of the Revolution, many cells in our body regenerate every 7-10 years (with recent research showing that neurons on the cerebral cortex never regenerate). This means that for the most part, your body is not even physically the same body it was when you were a child.

Of course, we can also see the impermanence with thoughts and emotions. Although a mental state or thought pattern may be pervasive or persistent, the experience is constantly changing. For example, I love my wife. It’s fairly constant in that I love her every day. However, the experience of loving her is different when I am with her than it is when we are apart. The thoughts are different, the “mood” of the mind is different, and the experience in the body is different. Although I love her, the love is constantly changing from moment to moment.

When I truly bring awareness to my experience, I am confronted by the blatant truth of impermanence. When I’m happy and clinging to an experience, I can see it changing and fading, recognizing the grasping that is present (often by tuning into the body). When I’m angry or anxious, I can tune into the experience and see that it really isn’t as simple as anger or anxiety. An emotion is generally a somatic experience coupled with a mental state or thought pattern. When I bring the awareness back to my present-time experience, I can see the rapid changes often occurring. What I call “anxiety,” is often a huge variety of experiences, sensations, thoughts, mental states, and thinking patterns.

identityTuning into the Creation of Self

It may seem like I threw in a piece on impermanence there randomly, but I find it intimately entangled with the teaching on anatta. Understanding impermanence from personal experience has helped deepen my understanding of not-self. Or more appropriately, my understanding of impermanence has helped me see how a sense of self is constantly being created in the delusion. When the experiences that I identify as anger arise, I immediately identify as anger. When I experience anger repeatedly over a period of time, I begin identifying as an angry person.

Identity Moments

In the moment of experience, we naturally cling to our experience and turn it into a sense of self. When anger is present, I may believe that I am an angry person. On the other hand, I may simply believe that anger is present. That is, just because anger is present doesn’t mean that I am an angry person. Rather, it means simply that anger is present. When we can bring a wise and caring awareness to the experience and not resist it, we begin to see it a little more clearly. The experience is changing, ebbing and flowing in nature. The anger may stay with me for a couple of hours or even days, but it’s always changing. In and out of formal meditation practice, my experience has been that deeply tuning into the impermanent nature of experience helps break it down and we no longer become so seduced by it. We can detach with some clarity, seeing the arising and passing of the experience. As this happens, the mind doesn’t identify so strongly with the experience, and we can experience anger without “being angry.”

You can look at this in your own life and practice. When you have an emotion or thought arise, just watch it closely. Does it stay, or is it moving? As you bring the mind’s awareness to experience like this over time, you may find that your relationship changes. There is great freedom in this change of relationship. We don’t need to create further suffering by clinging to our experience as “ours.” When we can watch it arise and pass (whether it is pleasant or unpleasant) with equanimity, we are no longer resting our contentment and ease on what we are experiencing. Personally, I have found this to invoke quite a sense of curiosity in my practice.

Identity Patterns

The other piece of this puzzle in my own life is that I have a tendency to repeat certain behaviors. When I am in a moment of discomfort, I tend to either get very quiet and want to retreat or I grow angry. Some people resort to judgement, joking, anxiety, or crying. Although we may respond in different ways, we all have some way in which we avert from the uncomfortable experiences. As I habitually retreat or become irritated, I begin to know this about myself. And I think it’s healthy to know what the tendencies of our minds are. But we must be careful not to cling to who we think we are.

There’s a happy medium, or middle path, between knowing the habits of the mind and clinging to the identity created. When I believe that I am just an isolater and avert by retreating from a situation, I am creating a serious identity around my experience. Again, it is something that can be helpful to know about ourselves, but we should perhaps take it as a habit and not as a rule. When I’m in a moment of discomfort, I know that my tendency is to seek quiet isolation and I tune into these desires if they should arise. But I can’t only look for what I think is going to happen or who I think I am. We must tune in to whatever is present.

Furthermore, although I do react by isolating, this is by no means who I am. It is a habit of the mind that is trying to keep me from experiencing something unpleasant. Just because it happens repeatedly doesn’t make it permanent or “me.” In the same way that we tune into our present time experience and bring wisdom to what is present, we can bring a wise awareness to our habit energies. For example, if you tend to fall into moments of anxiety, you can recognize this about yourself. However, watch for the mind’s tendency to identify as an anxious person, or get sucked into the consuming nature of some experiences.

When we look at the impermanent and not-self nature of experience, we really find some freedom. Our attachment to identity causes quite a bit of restriction and suffering. It’s okay to know that you tend to get angry; but perhaps instead you can know that anger often arises in you.

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