Rilke and No-Self


You are the future, the immense morning sky
turning red over the prairies of eternity.
You are the rooster-crow after the night of time,
the dew, the early devotions, and the Daughter,
the Guest, the Ancient Mother, and Death.

You are the shape that changes its own shape,
that climbs out of fate, towering,
that which is never shouted for, and never mourned for,
and no more explored than a savage wood.

You are the meaning deepest inside things,
that never reveals the secret of its owner.
And how you look depends on where we are:
from a boat you are shore, from the shore a boat.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

I was deeply moved by this poem. My understanding is that it was written as a love letter. I haven’t read up on Rilke’s spiritual experience, but what the poem seems to be pointing to is something much deeper than romantic love. It is an expression of the Buddhist insight of no-self, or anatta.

Conventionally speaking, we take ourselves to be continuous, permanent (ish), humans who occupy physical space and time, have names, jobs, feelings, etc. For day-to-day functioning in the world, this continuous sense of self is useful.

That said, mindfulness takes a very different perspective, which illuminates a very different sense of self. The irreverent Daniel Ingram puts it well:

There are many gold standards for reality. However, when doing insight practices, the only useful gold standard for reality is your own sensate experience. From the conventional point of view, things are usually thought to be there even when you can no longer experience them, and are thus assumed with only circumstantial evidence to be somewhat stable entities. Predictability is used to assume continuity of existence. For our day-to-day lives, this assumption is adequate and often very useful.

For example, you could close your eyes, put down this book, and then pick it up again where you left it without opening your eyes. From a pragmatic point of view, this book was where you left it even when you were not experiencing it in any way. However, when doing insight practices, it just happens to be much more useful to assume that things are only there when you experience them and not there when you don’t. Thus, the gold standard for reality when doing insight practices is the sensations that make up your reality in that instant. Sensations not there at that time do not exist, and thus only the sensations arising in that instant do exist. In short, the vast majority of what you usually think of as making up your universe doesn’t exist the vast majority of the time, from a pure sensate point of view. This is exactly, precisely and specifically the point. Knowing this directly leads to freedom.

From the perspective of our sensory experience in this moment, the self-identity is not the continuous thing it seems to be. Rather, it’s constantly shifting. Just like your eye goes to one object after another in your visual field, the sense of self, the “me” that seems to be observing things is a continuously changing sequence of sense experiences.

This insight is subtle enough that it’s easy to miss, but it is clarified through meditation, especially when we observe parts of our “internal” experience (emotions, thoughts, etc.). For example, while focusing on emotions, we might notice that we are subtly identified with a sense of our physical body, taking that to be “me”. In another moment, focusing on the body we might be identified with our emotions. Observing sensations, we might be identified with narrative thoughts. A moment later, observing narrative thoughts, we might be identified with sensations. From a boat you are shore, from the shore a boat.

If you practice for a while, with enough concentration, you will likely start to notice this phenomenon–the sense of self getting passed around like a hot potato, many times a second. You will see that the sense of self is just the subjective half of a process of ever-changing subjects and objects, arising moment after moment.

Umm…how exactly?
The mind takes in a wash of sense data in each moment and decides which aspects of it are self (generally one more of the following: physical body sensations, emotional sensations, internal talk thoughts, internal images) and which aspects of it are not self (the world around us, usually one or more of the following: external sounds, external sights, external sensations). Even as I call them “internal” and “external” I’m implying some of the work the mind does, which, while convenient for us to function, is effectively arbitrary. There is no essential difference between the sense data that makes up the self and the sense data that makes up the world.

If there’s any way to say who you really are, it’s this very process—the meaning deepest inside things—this shifting, undulating flow of subjects and objects that arises and passes moment by moment. The shape that changes its own shape. The person you seem to be is merely a matter of perspective.

Why is this helpful?
We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy defending, protecting, and upholding notions of “me” which, in reality, are arising and passing away all on their own (e.g. smart me, capable me, me that is good at my job, my role as a father/mother/son/daughter/spouse, attractive me, infallible me, etc.). To see the impermanence and not-self-nature of all these apparent selves means that we don’t need to defend them. We can be wrong without suffering about it. We can make mistakes without suffering about them. We can grow old and lose our beauty without suffering. We can step out of our work-role when we are off the clock. We can step out of our parental role when our kids grow up. We can die and be reborn into each new moment, free of residue, free of resentments, without suffering.

It’s a long training, and for the record, I am decidedly a novice. But believing me about any of this wouldn’t do you much good anyway. In spirituality, the freedom comes from direct experience, not book knowledge or faith, so I’m writing this to motivate and energize you to practice! Take a close look at your direct experience of “you”. If you want specific instructions, feel free to email me and I’ll be happy to send you on your way with everything you need, no questions asked! My fingers are crossed that at the very least, this sparks some suspicion about the way things are. A crack in the armor. A glitch in the matrix. There’s freedom on the other side.

Posted in Heart, Poetry, Pointers/Koans, Quotes.


  1. Great essay on no-self. I like this topic more than any other bc it is at the core of what we are seeking. It’s funny, this topic is often dismissed as remote or esoteric by even seasoned guides and practitioners bc it’s not considered to not have much realistic value or it doesn’t relieve suffering, etc. But I would argue that all suffering stems from falsely identifying with something, and when one’s own identity is seen to be phenomenal and fleeting, well then any real identification disappears.

    But this can not be the end of the story, that there is just no permanent self. So one thing that I think Buddhist teachers miss is the explanation of the true Self. In order to even be aware of the arising and passing of a self, there has to be something deeper, more subtle that is unchanging. If all was coming and going, then one wudnt know it was coming and going. So there must be something deep and unchanging that is able to be aware of the changing. This presence, which can have no real identity bc nothing can attach to it, this is the true Self.

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