I am me, you are you and we are both part of something else. We live in a world that is built around each of us being individuals. We have names, birth certificates, belongings, opinions, all of which contribute to our sense of self. Self makes complete sense to us. No-self makes no sense. However, the idea of anatta, the underlying truth of no-self, compels us to wonder if it is true or not.
I don’t know how my computer works, how it manages to send information through the air so that it makes sense to your computer, but other people understand that very well. They understand truths about electrical engineering that are complete mysteries to me.
No-self is something you can learn, like electrical engineering. You learn to see the world from a different perspective. No separate self is much easier to grasp. We can’t exist without our parents, without food, water, or sunlight. All of these things are conditions of our existence. We are intertwined with everything. There is nothing about us that is completely us and not also part of something else.
When you don’t think about it, you have a solid, concrete sense of self. When you think about it a lot, that idea breaks up. There is also an experience of no-self where you may get a sense that you are not breathing, but that something is breathing you, or that there are just thoughts and nobody thinking them. These are some ways people have talked about the no-self experience. If you have such an experience the idea of no-self then makes intuitive sense.
Loving yourself is like a stepping stone to no-self. As long as you believe in a self and experience a self you should treat yourself lovingly. Don’t judge yourself too harshly. Don’t create situations for yourself to suffer. Do things to help yourself feel better. Even if you experience a strong sense of no-self you still have to inhabit yourself and interact with the world, which is built around a sense of self. At an even more basic level, you can’t not eat because you think you don’t have a self.
Understanding no-self is understanding interrelatedness. The reality that we are all in this together. Loving yourself is recognizing that you suffer and would rather not and then finding life affirming, sustainable ways to suffer less. That opens the gates to loving others, noticing that others suffer and finding ways to help them suffer less. That creates opportunities to experience no-self. Loving yourself is a way to explore no-self.
Much of our suffering comes from our ideas about how things are. The idea of self is one of those big ideas that leads to a lot of suffering. The idea that you should love yourself is one of those ideas that can reduce suffering. So, as long as you experience a self, try to love that self. When you experience no-self there is only love.