[One of my first meditation teachers,] Joseph Goldstein, studied seven years in India [with] a Bengali man named Anagarika Munindra. Munindra had an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist psychology that filtered directly into Joseph's understanding. At the heart of Munindra's understanding was the peculiar notion of anatta, or no-self, the central psychological idiom of Buddhism.
This seemed like the ultimate trick to me, a psychology without a self behind it. In the teachings, the self was like those schmattas [Indian shawls] that Joseph's friends draped over themselves. It might give comfort sometimes, but we could just as well take it off. Like a snake's worn-out skin, or the food in the monkey's closed fist, this self was insubstantial and could simply be dropped.
I was intrigued, puzzled, curious, and determined to know more. I peppered Joseph with questions that began to have a familiar ring. My biggest and most recurring question in those years ran something like this: "If there is no self, then who is meditating right now? If there is no self, then who is watching this process? If there is no self, then whose knees are hurting?" This was not only my recurring question but everyone else's as well.
In a Buddhist text known as "The Questions of King Milinda," the sage Nagasena attempts to address this problem by asking the king how he traveled.
"Did you come on foot, or in a carriage?"
"I did not come on foot, reverend sir, I came in a chariot."
"If your majesty came in a chariot, explain to me what a chariot is," Nagasena replied, zeroing in on what has become a traditional Buddhist symbol of the self. "Can the chariot-pole be the chariot, O king? Is the axle the chariot? Are the wheels, or the frame, or the banner-staff, or the yoke, or the reins, or the goad, the chariot?" To each of these questions the king responded in the negative. "Then, O king, is the chariot all these parts? Well, O king, is the chariot anything else than these?" Again the king said no. "O king, I ask and ask you, and do not perceive a chariot. Is 'chariot' anything but a mere word? What is chariot in this matter?"
This inference, which lies at the heart of the Buddha's teachings, seemed to me at first fairly unimpressive. "So what," I said to myself. "What difference does it make anyway?" I wanted Joseph, in my meeting with him, to explain to me once and for all, but he just referred me back to my meditation cushion. "Insight grows out of mindfulness," he told me. Although I was feeling a bit suspicious, I decided to give it a try.
This led to one of my first surprises in meditation. As I learned to watch my own mind, I began to see how I was continuously creating my sense of self through my thoughts. It was not some elaborate construction, but a simple and reflexive habit. Over and over again, I was repeating the words "I" or "me" to myself. "I don't like that," I would think. "Not for me," I might add. I was always telling myself what I thought.
People talked about an inner dialogue, but I seemed to have more of an inner monologue. "What would it be like if I were to stop buying into all this?" I wondered. This was where Joseph was helpful. He did not encourage me to try to drop the word "I" from my thoughts, for example, as I might have naively attempted. He talked instead of the mind's tendency to identify with its experience, and he was clear that this identification was separate from the experience itself. As I studied Buddhism throughout the years, I found that this approach of Joseph's was replicated in all of the different schools of Buddhism.
The trick in Buddhist meditation is to focus in on the feeling of self as it appears, as absence of presence. In the Tibetan tradition, the best time to find this sense of self is said to be in moments of "injured innocence," when we feel hurt or outraged at the way someone is talking to us or treating us. This is when the self is thought to be most visible to our observing consciousness. It feels so real that we can almost put out finger on it. But the key word here is "almost." Even under these circumstances the self remains elusive. It just cannot be grasped. But the feeling of identification can be perceived as something extra.