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The Art of Self-Transformation Through the path of Non-Self

Self-transformation. Makeup by Christian Cairns
Makeup by Christian Cairns. Model: Michelle Taffe

Here at Inner Alchemy the motto is: The subtle art of self-transformation.

But being a follower of the teachings of the Buddha [aside: I don’t identify as a Buddh-ist as such as I am all about non-identification], but being an ardent admirer and profoundly grateful for the teachings of the awakened one (the literal meaning of the term ‘Buddha’), I accept that the concept of a self is nothing more than that: a concept.

What is our ‘self’, when we really come to think of it? Is it our name? Is it our birth date, is it the city we were born in, our astrological sign, is it the family we come from? Or is it our personality (constantly changing), our likes and dislikes (attraction and aversion also in a constant flux), our friends (also changing), our job (less fixed these days than ever before)? When we look at what comprises the self as we like to think of ourselves, we see that none of these things, whether they are facts (our date or birth, our name etc.) or constantly changing states, actually define who we are.

So when we speak of self-transformation, what are we really referring to?

Is it the act of changing our personality? Or perhaps changing our belief systems (which will then often change our personality), changing the way we live our lives or changing how we spend our time or the focus of our days?

It is all of these things. But if we dig down to the roots of the self (which first formed as a small self seed and then grew into a self sapling before becoming a full blown self tree) and we uproot that self, then what are we left with?

Emptiness: A scary and exciting place where everything is possible and nothing is certain.

Hmmm….. sounds a bit like life.

An interesting way to play with the concept of self is through make believe and play acting. I have a friend who loves nothing more than dressing up and doing makeup. In doing so he transforms himself and others into a whole new version or iteration. Recently I was the model for an impromptu ‘someone’ from the 80’s (we were not quite sure who exactly).

Last year I was the model for his makeup final exam and he dressed me up as Marie Antoinette. I was in six inch patent plastic boots, wearing a curly blond wig that made me taller than almost any man and was dressed in a corset and bodice that stuck my chest out in a way that was far beyond my comfort zone. During the process of becoming Marie Antoinette a la Christian, I experienced a certain lightness. Heavy things (my ideas about who I was) were dropping away by the minute. By the time my friend was done, and I stood up to my full 10 feet or so tall, I felt like, well, someone else: another self.

And I realised that this must be a big part of the beauty of being a model or an actor, that you are able to try on different selves for a day or week or longer, and this frees up your ‘original’ self for transformation when you come back to him or her. Maybe you can take a little of Marie Antoinette back into your every day life (without, hopefully, running the risk of getting your head chopped off at the guillotine alongside that of your beloved). Maybe you can add a little zest or a little sass to your every day routine.

Maybe you can make and offer cakes to your friends more often and act as if you are wearing six inch heels if someone tries to make you feel small?

Anatta: Not-Self

The teaching of Non-Self by the Buddha according to Wikipedia refers to:

 the doctrine of “non-self”, that there is no unchanging, permanent self, soul or essence in living beings

Along with Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or sometimes ‘suffering’) and Anicca (impermanence), it is one of the three ‘Right Understandings’ of the Buddha’s teaching.

The word Anatta has within it the teaching.

An meaning ‘not’ or without and ‘atta’ (soul). The Buddha teaches that the belief in the concept of a self actually causes Dukkha (suffering).

The belief in a self gives rise to possessiveness, and the ideas of me and mine (attachment) which give rise to Dukkha (suffering). If I am a self which has possessions which I am attached too, then the losing of them will cause me to suffer, whether those attachments are thoughts, beliefs, feelings, people, things, experiences or situations (jobs, careers etc.).

One of the best teachings on non-self was from my first ever Vipassana retreat with Steve and Rosemary Wiseman. Steve gave the example of somebody stealing your neighbour’s car. You may hear the news and be sorry for your neighbour but it won’t really upset you too much. The thought in the mind is: ‘Oh, somebody’s car has been stolen.’ But if it is your car, and you are attached to the car – it is part of your identity and your ‘self’ then if someone steals it you will be quite upset.

What is the difference between the two situations?

What if, instead of saying ‘Oh, my car has been stolen’, you could say, ‘Oh, a car has been stolen.’ You take out the self and the idea of ‘mine’, and suddenly it’s just a fact. There is no drama or sadness. If there is no self, there can be no possessiveness.

And if there is no self, then the ideas about the personality are also not truth. The idea that your hidden beliefs in your inherent unworthiness or your not-good-enough-ness can be seen through for what they are; not core parts of your permanent and unchanging self, but just false negative self concepts that your consciousness has created.

Question them, and enquire into their truth or falsity and see what happens in the external experience (life) of the consciousness that is you :).

Everyone will have a different road into the subtle art of self transformation. For some it may be easy to go straight to the concept of Anatta and experience a profound shift in consciousness from the the small s self of the ego, to a bigger sense of who you are, but for others they will need to go through the psychological un-doing of the wounds inflicted by false beliefs. There is no right or wrong way, and all roads lead to the same place: inner freedom.