Busy Life, No Self
By Joseph Goldstein
I was recently thinking about some close friends who are younger than I am, raising families, with busy lives in the world. I could appreciate that it might be quite some time before they would be able to sit a long retreat, where it’s easier to access meditative depths. When we’re otherwise intensely engaged, this can be quite a challenge. So I started wondering if there was a way for people with busy lives to integrate some kind of meditation technique into their daily activities that would still touch the transformative power of the practice.
The basic understanding of anatta, or ‘no-self’ – the absence of an inherently existing self – is one of the most difficult concepts to work with. A mistaken view of self is said to be more harmful than greed or even hatred, because even those states are rooted in this basic illusion. Our experience of self is central to how we go about in the world, and all kinds of unskillful actions come out of an incorrect understanding of it.
So the question arose, how can we address this issue as lay people caught up in our day-to-day activities? Quite spontaneously a nine-minute-a-day plan came to me: three short meditations a day, each three minutes long, targeting three aspects of experience that tend to give rise to a mistaken sense of self.
Session 1: Who is Hearing?
During the first three-minute session we simply sit and listen to sounds, in whatever surroundings we find ourselves. It makes no difference whether we’re on a noisy street or in a quiet room. As we open and relax into the awareness of the various sounds, we ask ourselves a question, “Can I find what’s perceiving these sounds?” Clearly, there’s an awareness of them. But can we find what is aware them? When we investigate, we see there’s nothing to find. There’s no perceiver. All that’s going on is hearing. There’s no ‘I’ behind it.
So that’s the first three-minute exercise: listen to sounds, see if you can find what’s perceiving them, and then explore the experience of not being able to find an ‘I’ behind the perception of sound.
Session 2: Breaking Identification With the Body
The second three minutes helps break through the very deep identification with the body. For this there are two exercises that could be alternated, or the time could be divided between them.
The friends I had in mind for this program had both lost one of their parents recently, so the focus of one session is to reflect on anyone we know who has died. If we were with them during that process, what was happening as they were dying, during their last days? Or if we don’t have this personal experience, we can reflect on the great sweep of generations over time, that birth inevitably ends in death.
The aim of this exercise is to reflect on dying in as vivid a way as possible, and to apply it to our partner, to our children, to our friends – seeing that this is what naturally happens to all of us. It isn’t morbid, but rather a way of keeping the truth that we all die front and center. It can serve as a powerful reminder that our body is not ‘self.’ The body is simply going through its own process. One day, it’s going to decay and die – that’s nature. That’s just how it is.
The other exercise for loosening identification with the body is carried out in motion. When I walk somewhere, for example, I can notice that I’m simply experiencing sensations in space – pressure, motion, lightness. That’s all that’s happening. There isn’t the sense of a solid body, and certainly not the sense of an ‘I’ that’s doing the walking.
When sensations in space are being known, through the act of walking or any other movement, we begin to get a sense of the body as a fluid energy field. This can be illuminating – it can free the mind from being caught in the notion of the solidity of the body.
Session 3: As the Thought Arises…
We often get caught in an experience of self when we are identified with our thoughts. We have thousands of thoughts a day, most of which are mundane. Often, we’re not even aware of them. And almost all have to do with self – our activities, future projects, memories, and imagined events.
For the third three minutes, then, we simply watch for thoughts arising and passing, as we often do in meditation, but with a special focus: we pay more careful attention so that we’re right there, precisely as the thought arises. If the awareness is sharp, we’ll observe a thought arise and vanish in the moment. That experience repeatedly weakens the identification with thought. We discover that there’s hardly anything there – just a wisp. In our normal lives, with our usual level of attention, we’re not conscious of this. But for three minutes we can bring enough focus so that we actually see it.
This is what I call ‘the nine-minute-a-day path to enlightenment!’ It’s important to add, though, that nine minutes a day by itself isn’t enough – it needs to be built on the foundation of a daily meditation practice. If this program is combined with other aspects of a daily practice, then I believe it can really enliven our understanding of mindfulness teachings in the midst of a very busy life.
Joseph Goldstein is a co-founder and guiding teacher of Insight Meditation Society’s Retreat Center and Forest Refuge programs. He has been teaching vipassana and metta retreats worldwide since 1974, and in 1989 he helped establish the Barre Center For Buddhist Studies (BCBS). He is the author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, A Heart Full of Peace, Insight Meditation, One Dharma and several other publications.