The other day I discussed metaphors for the self, how the idea of a self-contained individual is misleading (see the entry called “The Self is not and Island: Finding Our Place in the Natural World.” Carl Safina offered the metaphor of a whirlpool and this is very consistent with the Buddha’s understanding of self.
When you look at a whirlpool it has a certain integrity in time and space. However, you cannot clearly define its edges and you can’t remove it from its context — it doesn’t exist outside of the larger body of water and the forces acting upon it.
The same appears to be true for human selves. You can point to us and we have a certain integrity in time and space but if you try to remove us from our surrounding context — watch out. As Safina points out in his book, View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World, we are inextricably interconnected with our context. We are the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the foods we eat. But its more than just our physical integrity.
Psychologically, we are a dynamic disturbance in the waters of experience. What we call self does not exist independent of the context of thoughts, memories, anticipations, worries, and expectations that consume our mental life. These things form a collection, a nexus, that swirls like the whirlpool. We can place it in time and space, yet it’s always moving, always changing.
We sometimes overlook this changing nature and apply a constancy to it — “me” — and act as if it could be plucked from the collection of energies and put on a display table. No such luck. This is what the Buddha meant when he said that “no self” or “not self” is one of the three marks of existence (this is called anatta in Pali and anatman in Sanskrit).
“So what’s the big deal?” you might ask. Well, try to reach into a river and pull out a whirlpool. That would be futile, obviously. Yet we try to pull ourselves out of context all of the time whenever we think about ourselves in abstract ways. That is, whenever we see ourselves as somehow existing out of time — as a solid object that acts on and is acted upon instead of a dynamic confluence of forces.
A lot of anguish arises when we leave the moment and add psychological weight to this misapprehended sense of self. Such a self requires protection from real and imagined forces; such a self requires maintenance through constant reassurance; such as self is heavy and cumbersome to carry around.
When we drop into the moment, we are that whirlpool doing our thing in the midst of the larger body of water. We are that water too if our attention is keen enough to appreciate that. When we don’t make the distinction between self and not self — when we don’t overemphasize the contours of me — then we can just enjoy being the water. Enjoying the dance in this moment until it turns into something else.