Anatta Understanding the Fluid Nature of Self

Anatta Understanding the Fluid Nature of Self - The self as anatta

Our sense of self refers to a set of characteristic and personal attributes that we feel define us.  It is made up of what we see as those set of characteristics that distinguishes us from others. Our personality traits, physical qualities and abilities, personal likes and dislikes (preferences), beliefs, and moral codes and motivations all contribute to our self-image and what we perceive as our unique identity.

What is self

What we perceive as self is a reflection of us as “person”, being the object of our own reflective consciousness.  Such that “Self” Emerges from us being subject to our own introspective abilities.  Therefore, our sense of self is something subjective.  It is “a reference by a subject to the same subject”, and it is this ability that we have of taking a third perspective on ourselves that suggests to us our potential uniqueness.  This could be said to give rise to what philosophers call our “self-hood” as a first-person perspective being perceived as unique separate, and unlike any other entity (Torchia, 2007).  

In fact, we all have a subjective sense, and we perceive ourselves as subjects, as objects, as our sense of self having a tangible, stable material existence. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), a postmodern philosopher, argues that this interpretation of a palpable sense of self as something graspable is reinforced by human language, as a tool that we use to describe ourselves to both confirm and refute it (Pradhan, 2019; Wittgenstein, 1961/2001).

Language, the world and self

Wittgenstein (1961/2001) proposed that language limits our understanding of the world and ourselves.  That language bounds our understanding of self as it bounds our understanding of the world.  If so, he argues that language and worldly objects are not of the self, and we cannot understand the self through language or the world. However, he continues that we need a self to understand language and the world and that it is only that because we have this something we sense as a self that can we understand language and the world.   

So language and the world can be understood with reference to a self.  Therefore, Wittgenstein argues that the self transcends language and the world.  He viewed the self as a presupposition of language and the world.  It is something outside of them and metaphysical in nature.  Self is a priori in nature, and therefore it cannot be understood through language and is not something tangible material of this world; it transcends it but is need to make sense of the world (Pradhan, 2019; Wittgenstein, 1961/2001).

Such that it could be said that “self” is something that is ungraspable, like the centre of the circle we know it is there, but it difficult to make sense of or define. However, although comparable to a centre of a circle and although it is a priori in nature to language and the world still it is through having this sense of self as a “separate” that we can navigate the world.  Unbecomingly because of this, unlike the centre of a circle, because we navigate the world through our sense of self and as our sense of self is also subjective as an object of our introspective ability, it could also be argued that the world influences our sense of self.

The fluid nature of self

Therefore, although we have this sense of self that is untransmutable similar to a centre of a circle, unlike the centre of a circle when examined closely, it is also fluid and in motion.  Such that our subjective perceived sense of self fluctuates and is more similar in nature to a waveform.

A waveform has peaks and troughs that, through go fluctuations, get stronger and weaker, spread and subside. These are called amplitude and frequency.  Similarly, it could be argued that our sense of self goes through such fluctuations has peaks and troughs gets stronger and weaker.  For example, you arrived at home for work, had a shower and getting ready to go to sleep.  In such a situation when you’re at home in an environment that you feel safe in and that you can unwind, maybe in bed feeling safe beneath the sheets, our sense of self somewhat diminishes. 

On the contrary, if we walk into a room full of “strangers”, were suddenly we feel as if everybody is looking at us and we have become the centre of attention.  Our sense of self grows larger.  We would feel it welling up in the form of self-referential mental talk (why does it feel as if everybody looking at me), mental images (of our appearance), or strong feelings and bodily sensation as we become more “self-aware”.   

Later, as you settle within the crowd, maybe start a conversation with some people and maybe notice some of your friends within the room, you begin to feel more at ease with the people in the building. The intensity of that initial upwelling of the “self-wave” starts to decrease significantly.

Self as impermanent

When we look closely, we start to notice that this sense of self of ours is not something that has a sense of permanence to it or is unchanging.  Hanh (2003) a prominent meditation teacher puts it this way.

When we say “self,” we mean something that is always itself, unchanging day after day. But nothing is like that. Our body is impermanent, our emotions are impermanent, and our perceptions are impermanent. Our anger, our sadness, our love, our hatred and our consciousness are also impermanent.  So what permanent thing is there that we can call a self?  The piece of paper on which these words are written does not have a separate self. It can only be present when the clouds, the forest, the sun, the earth, the people who make the paper, and the machines are present. If those things are not present, the paper cannot be present. And if we bum the paper, where is the self of paper?

Thich Nhat Hanh (2003) No Death, No Fear (p. 47)

Looking at it in this way, we realise that our sense of self is not some form of a fundamental essence, substance or some element of ourselves that never changes, but rather a flow, waves of thoughts, feelings and emotions that can increase and decrease in intensity accordingly in relation to our experience and environment and is therefore not permanent.

Self as anatta

And because it is fluctuating, not something solid, within eastern meditation practices, it is described as anatta. An– means “not,” and atta means “self as thing” (Buddhadasa, 1990).  But this does not mean that there is no self or that we don’t have a self; rather, the self we do have is not a thing. Self is impermanent and fluctuating; more akin to a process, not a thing; more of a verb, than a noun.

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Buddhadasa, B. (1990). The Buddha’s doctrine of anatta. Bangkok: Vuddhidamma Fund.

Hanh, T. N. (2003). No death, no fear. New York, NY: Riverhead books.

Pradhan, R. C. (2019). Wittgenstein on self, meaning and world. In Mind, meaning and world: A transcendental perspective (pp. 1-20). Singapore: Springer Verlag.

Torchia, J. (2007). Exploring personhood: An introduction to the philosophy of human nature. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wittgenstein, L. (1961/2001). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (2nd ed.). (D. F. Pears, & B. F. McGuinness, Trans.) London: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

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