Can’t continue? This is what the Buddhist idea of ​​anattā teaches about letting go

You’ve changed since you woke up this morning. Physically, billions of cells will have been replaced in a Sisyphus cycle of death and rebirth. Mentally, you have more memories, more experiences, and more knowledge about the world (no matter how narrow or unimportant it may seem). Time is measured by change – it is the transfer of energy in different forms. When we talk about time, we’re really just documenting the ways the world has changed.

Daoists like to compare life to that of a flowing river: we go on and on, whirling and weaving our way to the mouth wherever we emerge. And like a river, we cannot stop a human life from judging it in its entirety. You can’t pause existence to say, “Okay, this is what this person is and this is how we should value them.” Like a conscious Heisenberg Principle, we can never measure a life, because it is always in motion.

It is a fact and a wisdom that is very old indeed.

The breath of life

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

However, one of the main differences is about the nature of a human being. In Hinduism we have atman – often translated as ‘the soul’. People reading this may have prejudices about Judeo-Christian ideas about “the soul.” But in Vedic traditions, atman means something subtly different.

tman is not some ghostly essence of our nature, but rather an animating, vital force: the thing that transforms material flesh and blood into a person. As the Vedic scholar Karel Werner puts it: “The atman [of the Vedas] does not mean the innermost core of beings, rather it means a universal life force whose presence in living beings is manifested in the breath and as such is comparable to other universal forces of which beings are composed.”

In this way, atman 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 that it was the breath of the divine that gives man our unique humanity. It is about a force that stimulates and gives intelligent purpose to everything you do.


However, Buddhists do not believe in it atman. For Buddhists there is no ‘self’ at all: called a concept anatta. The idea that we have a unified identity is more the result of illusion and conditioning than of fact. That thing we call “I” is in such a state of change that it is beyond comprehension. You are a completely different person today than you were last year. Things in life are in an almost constant whirl. Your beliefs, values, relationships, wealth and health will come and go. The self is ultimately a construct.

But the ideas behind it anatta are a bit more complex than there is ‘no self’ or ‘no soul’. When you convert to Theravada Buddhism, you don’t suddenly stop thinking, feeling, and acting the way you do now. You still have a vibrant, dynamic mental life – a mental life of which I am not a part.

We are all different subjects of our being and encounter the world in our own unique way. What anatta suggests, however, that there need not be an essence or filament in our experiences. Of course we have experiences (phenomenological content), but it’s just that there is no substance to them (ontological entity).

In a challenge to Descartes: We have thoughts, but no I. Descartes took it for granted that having thoughts implies the existence of a self. Buddhism says that this is not only not obvious, but also wrong.

To proceed

The wisdom found in anatta is the benefit of learning to let things go. It is forgiving both yourself and other people. Life is about change. It’s about learning and new experiences. If life is a journey, we all make mistakes along the way. Like the flow of a river, our currents will inevitably come to a dead end or crash into the bank. But obsessing over those mistakes or getting angry about our past is foolish: the past is over and the person who made those mistakes is no more. Today you are a new, wiser, different person – not the same person who makes these mistakes.

Likewise, if you criticize other people for the wrongs they have done, remember that anatta. There is no core or soul in their being. There are no good or bad people, just a person who has done something bad at some point. We judge people as if they were a job done – a completed piece of work that considers itself perfect.

However, the truth is that everyone muddles through life, doing their best to keep the wolf at the door and having a few laughs along the way. We are imperfect, incomplete and incompetent. Forgiving others for what they’ve done is easy if you imagine their misdeeds as the idiotic mistake of a child trying to make ends meet.

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Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy at Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini philosophy: a small book with big ideas.

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