The self is like Los Angeles

“Who am I?”

Everyone wonders about this question at some point. For Buddhists, one angle on an answer is in the Pali word “anatta,” usually translated to mean there’s really no such thing as a fixed or permanent personal self or identity. Sometimes it’s understood to mean that people don’t have a soul, a unique identity that transcends visible changes, even life and death. Does this mean that Buddhism’s answer to the “Who am I?” question is “Nobody?” Not exactly.

The idea of no self is definitely challenging, partly because it feels out of synch with a sense we all have of being not only somebody, but somebody in particular. I’m Peter, not Sam or Frances. I was born as Peter, was Peter as a kid, and now I’m Peter as an adult. I remember things about my life, the life of this particular self, and I’m expecting that this particular me, this Peter, the self who’s had this life, is going to die some day. There’s a self with a beginning, a middle, and an end. So what’s with this idea of no self?

This idea of anatta is tricky even for Buddhist teachers. For example, if you subscribe to the Buddhist idea of rebirth but there’s no self, then who’s reborn? What’s more, according to early records of the Buddha’s teaching, when asked directly about the question of self or no self, he didn’t give an answer. Still, the idea of no self is intriguing intellectually and I’ve found it helpful personally as a perspective on experiences I’ve had in meditation. It also helps me stay flexible in how I meet the world, day to day.

It’s not that there’s no Peter, or that Peter is blended into the whole universe. Rather, it’s that the identity I think of as Peter is something rather like the identity of a city. The self is like Los Angeles. It’s a big, complex, richly textured enterprise with countless moving parts that are changing all the time. And at the same time, to function in this world, I need to understand that Los Angeles is Los Angeles. It’s not Kansas City and it’s not Leningrad. If I’m in San Francisco and I want to go to Los Angeles, I drive south, not north. And at some point I can reasonably say, “I’m in Los Angeles.”

But when I am in Los Angeles, I can’t really see Los Angeles. Because it’s not exactly a thing. It’s too big, too complicated, too fluid. In short, too alive. Is Los Angeles Hollywood? Is Los Angeles Santa Monica? The answer is yes and no, because there’s no one part or a particular assemblage of parts that fully and finally define Los Angeles. The bits and pieces that contribute to the idea of Los Angeles are fluid and fleeting. You could say Los Angeles exists and it doesn’t exist.

And it’s just the same for me, for this self, and for every person. That’s the nature of self and of no self. In a way, both are true. Peter exists as a self, as this self, but not in a static way, because there’s no unchanging core or set of attributes that’s the essence of Peter in the same way that Los Angeles has no fixed, unchanging essence. This is how I understand the idea of anatta.

As an idea anatta may be abstract, but it’s also useful, because when I remember to see myself from this perspective, it helps me relax and release rigid ideas about who I am and how the world and other people are supposed to relate to me. And releasing such rigid ideas even a little bit gives me ease and freedom that are lost when I’m out of touch with the fluid, changing nature of self and stick to ideas about who I am and how things are supposed to work. When I stick, it’s very hard to harmonize with the fluid reality of the dynamic world. When I stick, when I’m self-centered in a literal sense, life is harder.