This is the final post of my very heady series on Buddhism’s “Three Marks of Existence” (unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, non-self). Now, I’m going to consider anatta: the absence of a substantial self. If there’s no self, then who is writing this article…? And who is reading…? And who is dreaming…? Well, I’m going to plunge right into my own non-existence, and see what I can dream.
Dream of Being Dead: Seven children have died (in a fire, or of an illness), and the only remaining family member is their grandmother, who sits in her living room, surrounded by their toys, grieving. I am one—or all—of the children. I understand that I am dead, but still, for now, have a sense of my body, though I am invisible to the living. We gather around our grandmother, surround her with love; she can feel that we are there. We try to play with our toys, but can only make them move very slowly. With great effort, I roll a toy train along its track. Our grandmother can see the toys moving; she is comforted by our presence. Then, we go out in the rain, and I feel the rain fall through me. I can sense my substance dissipating, but know I will lose nothing significant of myself. I am curious about what will come next.
In the course of our lives, each of us dies many times. We leave childhood behind, lose people we love, change jobs, change in our physical bodies, change in our sense of ourselves. There is a continuity to this process, yet no central, substantial self holding it all together.
In the “Dream of Being Dead,” the dream-ego (the “I” within the dream) reflects the continuity of an unfolding life process, but is not, strictly speaking, a “self.” She is one child and seven children; she is not visible yet has awareness and even a sense of physicality. In her empathy, or the dream’s empathy, for the grandmother, she knows the grandmother’s experience as if it were her own. As she “dissipates,” she loses the distinction between herself and the rain: the rain falls through her. And yet, she is also continuously present and aware, narrating the story of the dream, wondering what will come next. What will come next?
Next, the dreamer will wake up, and a whole new self will seem to come out of nowhere, usurping the identity of the dream-ego and the dream. The dreamer makes the dream into a thought, a memory, rather than an unfolding experience. Now, I think that I am me, and that I just had a dream in which I imagined I was someone or something other than myself. But, from the perspective of the principle of anatta (non-self), the dream was actually much closer to an accurate experience of what the self really is—or isn’t.
When I remember and retell a dream, I tend to imagine a protagonist, an “I,” that is sort of the same person as my waking self. Yet, in even the most ordinary dream, this “I” has characteristics with which I wouldn’t ordinarily identify. The dream-ego may not be my present age; she may have different physical features. She might make choices that I would not make, and behave in ways that I would not behave. So in what sense is she “me”?
Sometimes, she is male rather than female, or has no specific gender. Sometimes, she becomes one or more of the “other” characters in the dream, and experiences the events of the dream from their perspectives. Sometimes, she is not a character in the dream at all, but an omniscient observer of dream events. Or, as in the “Dream of Being Dead,” she is a transitional awareness that seems to emerge from, and merge into, her circumstances and environment. Often, she doesn’t resemble “me” in any sense at all. And yet I recognize her as myself, and speak of her as if she were myself, as if she existed. Does she exist? Do I?
In dreams, the breakdown of the very concept of a solid self can be seen and experienced in all of its elegant emptiness. And yet, we tend not to examine our dreams, or deconstruct the idea of a dream-self, in this way. Instead, we use the placeholder convention “I,” because language requires some sort of self to “have” the experience (at least most modern languages require this, some older languages do not). Ultimately, anatta means that this same selfless experiencing applies to waking life as well.
Every night, whether we remember it or not, we go into another world— a world where we may experience the “Three Marks of Existence” more directly than is possible when our conscious minds are busy constructing an illusion of control. In dreams, we may experience the unsatisfactoriness of our struggles (dukkha), and the alternative to that unsatisfactoriness. We may experience impermanence (anicca) immediately, beyond time. And we may be aware and present, with no self (anatta) to stand on.
Without the narration by which I continually establish myself in my own story, there are no necessary distinctions between self and other—no actual identity at all. Nothing of the baby that was me is present in my body now. My memories have no substance, and my thoughts are ephemeral. My personality has changed quite a bit over the years. I am a different person depending upon the people I’m with and the context I’m in. When did I come into being, since I wasn’t really aware of myself until months or years after I was born? In fact, it’s not clear when I was born, and it will not be clear exactly when I die. Can I actually die at all? So who is asking? The rain falls through . . . what?
Sometimes, Buddhists include a fourth “Mark of Existence” that perhaps seems friendlier than the first three. The fourth mark is peace (nirvana). Not the kind of peace that makes everything comfy, but the peace that comes with freedom from the need to wrestle with the other three marks. In our waking lives, we glimpse this peace when we are fully present in the moment—not trying to make that moment perfect, not attached to past or future, not concerned with how we define ourselves.
Dreams can give us more than just a glimpse of this peace, because the process of dreaming itself shows us what it means to be free. Each night when we go to sleep we surrender our need for certainty and turn ourselves over to the immediate dream experience of uncomfortable situations, changeable circumstances, incongruous identities. While we’re immersed in those dreams, we may get caught up in resisting as usual, but then we wake up and let the dreams go—again turning ourselves over to another range of experiences in the waking world.
If we’re paying attention, we may discover that the holding on and the letting go are happening continuously as the pulse of life—grasp, release, grasp, release; struggle, peace, struggle, peace. Some dreams allow us to transcend our sense of self, transcend our expectations and our disappointments, and experience freedom and peace. But, really, all dreams, like all waking moments, contain all four “Marks of Existence.” The question is, how do we relate to the experiences, and the opportunities, that make up our lives and our dreams?