Anatta does not think. Only the conditioned self thinks, only the ‘me’ thinks. The ‘me’ has to think! The conditioned self has to think because that is how it maintains itself, because that is how it keeps itself going. The conditioned self is actually incapable of not thinking – this is a flat impossibility for it. Only the not-self, only Anatta can not think.
Anatta has no need to think, no interest in thinking. Everything is already there – what need is there to think? “To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders’, says Lao Tzu. Everything is already there and the whole point of thinking is to bring about some situation that was NOT already there. Thinking doesn’t happen for the sake of appreciating what already is there! Although thinking exists for the sake of supposedly bringing about situation that was not there to start off with, we never actually gain anything through thinking. As Krishnamurti says, thought never does anything new! Thought never takes us anywhere new. Thinking actually only ever does one thing and that is to degrade reality into unreality.
It’s not just that for anatta everything is already there – anatta is everything. Anatta is everything and everything is anatta. Thinking breaks the perfect symmetry of everything into the polarity of ‘the observer’ and ‘the observed’, ‘the controller’ and ‘the controlled’, ‘the self’ and ‘the other’. And the point about saying this is that there isn’t any observer, that there isn’t any self. The duality is a fiction – there are not these two things of ‘observer and observed’, ‘controller and controlled’. That’s an artificial separation. There is no ‘self versus other’ but rather there is only just ‘the one thing’ and so by breaking symmetry in this way we have been plunged into unreality without knowing it.
It is – as we have been saying – impossible for the conditioned self to do anything other than continue thinking. It is impossible for the conditioned self to do anything other than ‘continue perpetuating its skewed perspective without knowing that what it perpetuating is a skewed perspective’. It is impossible therefore for the conditioned self to do anything other than keep on making more and more unreality for itself! It can’t help thinking all the time and by thinking it is ‘degrading reality into unreality without knowing that it is doing this’. Everything the self does it does on the basis of itself (necessarily so, otherwise we would not say that ‘it’ is doing it!) and since ‘itself’ is unreal (there being no real difference between self and other), everything it does is merely extending this unreality. What can ever come out of unreality other than more unreality, after all?
No matter what we do on the basis of this conditioned self, nothing that happens is ever going to make us real again. There is nothing that the self can do that will ever ‘reach backwards’ and undo the break in symmetry that gave rise to itself. There is no ‘special thing’, no special excellence or proficiency in how it behaves or performs that can ever reverse that original symmetry break. We might (unconsciously) think that there is but of course there isn’t! We might be constantly searching for the missing Wholeness (that we don’t even know that we are lacking in) but this search is always going to be fruitless. If we are coming out of the position of a ‘deficiency that doesn’t know itself to be a deficiency’ then – as we have said – nothing can come out of this (unreal) situation other than ‘more of the same’, endlessly perpetuated, endlessly recycled…
The reason that there is nothing that the conditioned self can ever do to reverse the break in Cosmic Symmetry that divided everything up into ‘self’ and ‘other’ is simply because it never happened. The break in symmetry never occurred. Cosmic symmetry was never broken and never could be broken! The event by which the conditioned self was created is unreal just as the conditioned self is unreal, in other words. There never was a conditioned self and it was never created! From the basis that this original symmetry break did occur and that the conditioned self really was created nothing can be done – from this basis nothing can be done other than to ‘indefinitely perpetuate the illusion’, as we have just said!
The conditioned self is in a very peculiar position. On a deep-down level it knows that it is missing something vitally important – it feels the pain of the lack of Wholeness that underlies its (illusory) existence but it cannot admit the true nature of this lack to itself. To admit to itself what it is lacking would be functionally identical to admitting its own non-existence. For the conditioned self to see the undistorted truth of things would be for it to see its own non-existence and this is the one thing it never ever wants to do. It is of course inherent in the very nature of the self to fear perceiving its own unreality. That’s what drives it. This ‘unwillingness to see the truth of its situation’ is in fact the very motivation, the very mechanism that keeps the self constantly striving, constantly seeking, constantly thinking. We are constantly driven onwards by an unacknowledged insecurity, the insecurity that comes about as a result of our conditioned fear of non-being.
So when we are identified with the conditioned self we are in the very peculiar position of being constantly restless, constantly hungry, constantly desirous of some missing ingredient the true nature of which we cannot admit to ourselves. We cannot rest until we find it, we cannot feel good in ourselves unless we imagine in some (unrealistic) way that we are going to find it, that we stand at least a chance of finding it. The problem is however (as we keep saying) that we cannot ever let ourselves know what it is that we are missing, what it is that we are constantly searching for. If we actually found it, if we actually got to see what the missing ingredient was, then we would discover our own unreality and this would be exactly what we are not searching for. Whatever else we’re looking for, it’s not the truth! Being driven by a great unspoken insecurity, what we’re searching for is of course something to make that insecurity go away. We’re hungry for something that will make everything feel right, something that will put the repressed fear in our bellies to bed once and for all. We’re searching for the magic answer that will make the insecurity that is gnawing relentlessly at our entrails go away and leave us in peace. We’re looking for the remedy for what ails us and yet if we actually found it then this would be the worst of all possible disasters – what we would have discovered would be the confirmation of our worst fear!
In our search for the remedy for our deep-down insecurity about not really existing we are running further and further from the truth – we are running deeper and deeper into unreality because the answer we so desperately want doesn’t exist. We have to turn our face away from the truth because the truth doesn’t contain what we’re looking for. When we’re being driven from behind by insecurity, by a fear that we dare not face, then turning our face away from the truth is our only option. We are now in the situation of having to spend all our time and all our energy looking for an answer that doesn’t exist whilst pinning all our hopes on a satisfactory outcome to this doomed search! We are therefore going to have to spend the whole of our lives engrossed in futile tasks, futile projects, futile endeavours whilst all the while stubbornly refusing to see that these tasks, these projects, these endeavours, are futile…
This brings us back to our original assertion that whilst Anatta does not think (because it does not need to) all the conditioned self ever does is think! ‘Thinking’ is the conditioned self’s futile task – thinking and trying to obtain helpful goals or outcomes are one and the same thing. Thinking and ‘grasping for advantage’ are one and the same thing. Why else would we be thinking if it were not to benefit ourselves, if it were not to try to ‘gain the advantage’ in some way? And the thing about this – which we might not straightaway see – is that all benefits, all advantages, are really just preludes to the main event, little foretastes of the ‘Great Advantage’ (or ‘Supreme Benefit’) which is where we have finally solved the fundamental insecurity which we’re not even going to admit to being there. All the ‘mini-advantages’ we strive for are every bit as unreal as the big one, therefore!
So when we think – as we do all the time – what we’re really doing is that we’re grasping for the being that we don’t have. We’re trying to make ourselves ‘right’ because we know deep-down that we’re not. We’re scratching an itch in other words and the thing about this itch is that it only gets worse the more we scratch it! The more we think the more we fritter away our ‘presence’; the more we think the more we fritter away our actual ‘being there’. The more we think the more we degrade reality into unreality; the more we think the more we create a deficit in being that we are constitutionally unable to perceive directly and it is this ‘deficit’ that we are wanting to scratch (or ‘solve’) the whole time! We scratch away at the deficit in being with our ceaseless thinking and with this thinking all we are doing is digging and deeper and deeper hole for ourselves. We’re digging our own grave, and we’re doing so with gusto. We’re doing so with truly zealous enthusiasm!
What we’re grasping for with our thinking is being therefore. We’re hankering to be real. The everyday self (which is when it comes down to it the same thing as ‘our thinking’ since it is our thinking that creates it) is yearning for being and yet this everyday self is in its actual nature a deficit in being, a deficit in reality. If the self made good its search therefore, it would no longer be there (in the mistaken way that it imagines itself to be) and this – as we have said – is the one thing the conditioned self most assuredly DOESN’T want! So everything is necessarily conducted on a false basis; everything that takes place in the conditioned realm is necessarily insincere. Thinking is how the everyday self extends its illusory existence by means of a grasping at something that doesn’t exist, along with a stubborn refusal to see that what it is grasping for doesn’t exist. The unreality of the everyday self (or everyday mind) is indefinitely extended by ‘a grasping at something which doesn’t exist’ by ‘a self that doesn’t exist’. That’s what the ‘self’ is – the self is ‘grasping’. The everyday self in its very nature equals ‘futile grasping’ and there is no more to it than this. This is why we say that the everyday self cannot NOT grasp – its grasping is its non-acknowledgement of its own lack of inherent being and that’s the only way it can believe that it does have being! The self’s grasping is its denial of its own non-existence, or as we could also say – the self’s incessant futile thinking is its ‘running away’ from its own inherent lack of being.
What we are essentially trying to do with our thinking is ‘fix the problem’ and the problem in question is one of those particularly thorny problems that are just never going to go away! The problem is
 that we just don’t exist (in the way that we think we do)
 that we absolutely can’t bear to see this!
Actually, the thinking process is creating the problem that it is seeking to solve, and this contradiction is definitely something that we aren’t willing to confront! Trying very hard and very persistently to solve a problem that doesn’t exist is creating a problem where before there was none (although strictly speaking we can’t say that the problem has been ‘created’ because at no point does the problem in question actually become real). Nobody can create something that doesn’t exist; nobody can create something that isn’t real. It would be better therefore to say that the persistent ‘fixing behaviour’ creates the impression of a ‘fixer’ who is trying to solve the apparent problem. This mistaken impression is an ongoing sort of a thing – its spins on and on forever. It is supremely good at spinning on and on forever. That is actually ALL it is good at so we could say that it needs to be supremely good at this ‘self-perpetuation’ business in order to compensate for its all-encompassing deficits in every other area!
The false impression of a problem that needs fixing and a fixer whose responsibility is to fix the problem spins on and on forever but it never gets anywhere. There’s nowhere it can go because there never was ‘a problem’ or ‘a fixer’ in the first place! The only ‘effectiveness’ we can point to here in all of this is therefore the effectiveness of the pattern in question at extending itself. The only effectiveness here is the effectiveness of the game in perpetuating itself – the game in question being the game that there is a fixer and that there is a problem that needs fixing. The price we pay for playing this game, extending this game, perpetuating this game, is however very steep indeed – we become separated from everything real. The more we play the game the more we ensure both our lack of essential being and our lack of awareness regarding this lack of essential being and – as we have indicated – this unacknowledged lack of being gives rise to the absolute compulsivity that means we have no choice but to go on playing the game. Our ‘core-level’ stubbornness (i.e. fear) with respect to seeing that the game is unreal, that the game-player is unreal, is what keeps us thinking all the time in the way that we do. We are compelled to think by the nature of the game we are playing…
This then is the situation of the conditioned self. The conditioned self thinks all the time – it has to think all the time because that’s the only way it can seem (to itself) to be there, and it is terrified on a very fundamental level not to be there (or to see that it is not there). Anatta on the other hand does not think. Anatta does not need to think – it does not need to prove or validate itself because it is already everything…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.