One of the most fascinating teachings of the Buddha is the one on anatta, non-self. Not surprisingly, it is enormously misunderstood.
The Buddha was focused on one thing, and that is teaching us how to escape from dukkha (suffering/stress/unsatisfactoriness) and to attain the liberation of nirvana. He was relentless in his single-minded devotion to that objective.
What he did not do was to describe the ultimate nature of reality. Rather, he said that if you follow his course of training, you will see it for yourself. He also seems to have been skeptical that if you tried to understand the ultimate nature of reality without seeing it for yourself, that you would not understand it anyway. Nirvana, he said, is “the unconditioned.” It lies beyond time and space. It defies conventional notions.
This is very important to remember when undertaking the Buddha’s system of training. His teaching is designed to help us to become free from dukkha. This is true of the teaching on non-self as well. The Buddha actually abstained from saying whether the self actually exists. In Buddhism the ultimate nature of the self is called one of the “ten indeterminate questions.” (Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, MN 72). He even went on to say that pondering these questions is a hindrance to awakening:
Therefore, oh monks, do not brood over [any of these views] Such brooding, Oh monks, is senseless, has nothing to do with genuine pure conduct, does not lead to aversion, detachment, extinction, nor to peace, to full comprehension, enlightenment and Nibbāna, etc.– [SN 56]
So the Buddha’s teaching on non-self is not a statement about ultimate reality. It is, as Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says, a strategy.
This is one reason why the practice of jhāna – meditative absorption – is so important. At some point, when your concentration is very good, you will feel a sense of freedom. It is temporary and conditioned, of course, but it gives you a taste of the possibilities of freedom when you fully awaken.
And when you are very concentrated, you can turn your attention to the feeling of “me.” The deeper your concentration is, the more likely you are to feel the sense of “me” weakening. As Ayya Khema says, the less “me” there is, the more free you feel. There is significantly less stress. And when you attain stream-entry, the sense of “me” disappears completely.
Something else you can see – and this is clearest in the fourth jhāna – is how much energy we put into protecting this sense of “me.” Our discursive thinking – our internal dialog – is all designed to protect that sense of “me.” This is why when the mind starts to quiet down, it will rebel. There may even be a sense of panic. This is because the perception of “me” is dying, and it will fight to survive. This is where patience and persistence are critical. You must gently ease the mind back into quiet, serenity, and stillness.
It can be useful at that stage to tap into the feeling of joy, happiness, and freedom that come with the still mind. In other words, rather than paying attention to the stress and fear of the still mind, turn your attention to the peace of stillness. In that way we focus on the positive aspect of the stillness rather than the negative.
You will hear it said – because it is true – that when you awaken, the issue of whether the self exists or not is irrelevant. What is left is only the sense of ease, peace, tranquility, and freedom. You are simply happy. The mind is clear. Concepts and opinions fall away. There is just this.