Insight Meditation and the Illusion of Self

by Charles Day

Meditator Cody Gough from Perth, Australia, writes: “I've been practicing the basic breath meditation for a while now and find it very rewarding. I recently encountered the idea that the self is an illusion constructed by our minds. However, I've found it hard to come to a real understanding of this. While mulling over the notion, I often have 'flashes' of clarity in which I think I understand, but these are only momentary. Do you have any advice on how I can use meditation to deepen my understanding in this area.”

My response: It sounds like you're really benefiting from your meditation practice and study of Buddhist philosophy. I've found doing both to be quite valuable, though meditating is the most important part. Buddha's unique contribution to philosophy, metaphysics, and religion was his emphasis on "anatta" or no-self or selflessness. He taught that our sense of a personal, autonomous, and enduring self-entity or ego is an illusion because all mental and physical phenomena are interconnected, interdependent, impermanent, and continuously changing.

Do not try to come to any "real" understanding of this, Cody, because the intellect, thought, and language categorize, separate, and divide phenomena into dualistic forms of this and that, I and other. The intellect can only come up with "pointers to the moon," to that non-dualistic unity, out of which the ever-changing, interconnected whole arises, and which, according to the mystics of all religions, is inexpressible, beyond thought, beyond language. You appear to be experiencing exactly this in your “flashes of clarity,” a good way of describing what I also call "glimpses of enlightenment," or as Buddha, might say, "seeing things as they are" without an overlay of conceptual reactivity.

It can be very useful to study, mull over, and think about self as an illusion or any other idea for that matter. But remember that any idea, concept, or belief, while useful as a pointer to the moon, can be detrimental if one becomes too attached to it, especially if it is elevated to an absolute truth. This includes the idea of no-self, if believed in intellectually without being experienced intuitively and transcendentally. Just trust your "flashes of clarity" when they occur, and avoid trying to understand them intellectually, make them happen, or being disappointed when they don't. The latter would only reflect the illusory self or ego, which we all do experience, trying to assert itself by claiming credit for the flash and thinking it can make it happen at will.

To deepen your understanding through meditation of the illusory self, I suggest you intentionally practice insight meditation. Basic Buddhist meditation is often classified into two types: samatha (concentration and tranquility/relaxation) meditation and vipassana (insight) meditation. The same breath practice can be used for both purposes. By insight is meant experiencing what Buddha called the three characteristics of all reality, namely, unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and selflessness. Your "flash of clarity" appears to be an insight into "selflessness." That the "flashes" are momentary reflects the impermanent nature of thoughts and insights prior to increased enlightenment.

Most meditators most of the time are probably doing tranquility meditation. The instruction is to focus on the breath, using it as an anchor for the attention, and to return to it when you become aware the attention has shifted to sounds, smells, body sensations other than the breath, or thoughts, feelings, images or other objects that arise in consciousness. Practicing in this manner constitutes samatha (concentration or tranquility) meditation, although it can also lead to insights. To practice insight meditation, you intentionally note and experience awareness of the unsatisfactory, impermanent, and selfless nature of both the process of breathing and the objects to which the attention shifts. When you become aware/mindful that the attention is on an object other than the breath, you experience awareness of that object's unsatisfactory, impermanent, and selfless nature as you let it go of it and return the attention to the breath. Don't think about, dwell upon, analyze, or look for these characteristics, just simply note their presence in the breath itself and in the other objects of consciousness when you let go of them

Outside of meditation, Cody, you can also occasionally experience that everything - whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, whether physical or mental - varies along the dimensions of unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and selflessness. You can read books about Buddhism and become increasingly familiar with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, an exquisite guide to spiritual development. On the website under Handouts is a list of my favorite books and websites. Finally, a lot can be learned by associating with a meditation center, a teacher, and other meditators in your community. Let me end by echoing the Buddha’s advice: Please ignore anything I've said that may not benefit you, experiment with the rest, and use what works to end suffering for yourself and others and to increase the happiness that is not dependent upon internal or external conditions. Peace, Charlie (, 515-255-8398)