Can’t move on? Here’s what the Buddhist idea of anattā teaches about letting go

Since you woke up this morning, you’ll have changed. Physically, billions of cells will have been replaced in a Sisyphean cycle of death and rebirth. Mentally, you’ll have more memories, more experiences, and more knowledge about the world (however narrow or insignificant it might seem). Time is measured by change — it’s the transfer of energy into different forms. When we talk about time, we’re really just documenting the ways in which the world has changed.

Daoists like to compare life to that of a river flowing: We are moving ever on, eddying and weaving our way to whatever estuary we end up at. And like a river, we cannot stop a human life to judge it in its entirety. You cannot pause existence to say, “Right, this is what this person is and this is how we must value them.” Like some sentient Heisenberg principle, we can never measure a life, because it’s always in motion.

It’s a fact and wisdom that’s very old indeed.

The breath of life

Buddhism took form within the culture and theology of Hinduism. Many key aspects of Buddhism overlap or resemble those of Hinduism. For example, both believe in karma (where actions have far-reaching, reactionary consequences), as well as dharma (cosmic laws to the universe). Both agree that the end goal of all existence is moksha — a liberation from the earthly cycle of rebirth.

One of the key differences, though, is about the nature of a human. In Hinduism, we have ātman — often translated as “the soul.” People reading this may have biases regarding Judeo-Christian ideas of “the soul.” But in Vedic traditions, ātman means something subtly different.

Ātman is not some ghostlike essence of our nature, but more like an animating, vital force: the thing which turns material flesh and blood into a person. As the Vedic scholar Karel Werner puts it, “The ātman [of the Vedas] does not mean the inmost core of beings, rather it means a universal force of life whose presence in living beings is manifested in breathing and is as such comparable to other universal forces of which beings are composed.”

In this way, ātman is more like the ancient Greek idea of pneuma than a Judeo-Christian “soul.” Pneuma means the “spirit of life” or creative force. It was imagined to be the breath of the divine that gives humans our unique humanity. It’s about a force that invigorates and gives intelligent purpose to all that you do.

Anattā

Buddhists, though, do not believe in ātman. For Buddhists, there is no “self” at all: a concept called anattā. The idea that we have some unified identity is more the result of illusion and conditioning than fact. That thing we call “me” is in such a state of flux that it cannot be grasped at all. You are, today, a very different person than who you were last year. Things in life are in a near constant swirl. Your beliefs, values, relationships, wealth, and health will come and they will go. The self is ultimately a construct.

But the ideas behind anattā are a little more complex than there is “no self” or “no soul.” If you convert to Theravada Buddism, it’s not as if you suddenly stop thinking, feeling, and behaving as you do now. You still have a vibrant, dynamic mental life — a mental life that I am not a part of.

We are each different subjects of our being, encountering the world in our own unique way. What anattā suggests, though, is that there doesn’t need to be some essence or filament to our experiences. Of course, we have experiences (phenomenological content), but it’s just that there is no substance underpinning it (ontological entity).

In a challenge to Descartes: We have thoughts, but not an I. Descartes assumed it to be a self-evident truth that having thoughts must imply the existence of a self. Buddhism says that not only is this not self-evident, it’s also wrong.

Moving on

The wisdom found in anattā is the benefit of learning to let things go. It’s to forgive both yourself and other people. Life is about change. It’s about learning and new experiences. If life is a journey, then we will all make mistakes along the way. Like the flow of a river, our currents are bound to hit dead ends or crash into the bank. But obsessing about those mistakes or getting upset over our past is silly: The past is spent, and the person who made those mistakes is no longer here. Today, you are a new, wiser, different person — not the same person who make those mistakes.

Likewise, if you criticize other people for the wrongs they have done, then remember anattā. There is no core or soul to their being. There are no good or bad people, but simply a person who once did a bad thing. We judge people as if they are a finished job — some completed piece of work that sets itself up as perfect.

The truth, though, is that everyone is muddling through life, doing their best to keep the wolf from the door, and to have a few laughs along the way. We’re imperfect, incomplete, and incompetent. Forgiving others for what they’ve done is easy if you imagine their misdeeds as simply the idiotic mistake of a child who’s trying to simply get by.

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Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

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