The Authentic Self? No-Self by Elisabeth Schilling

IMG_0617When I was in high school, I remember being preoccupied with being my “authentic” self. I am quite sure I had little idea of what that meant because I think it was akin to knowing the content of my ego, my likes and dislikes, and simply being honest about them. For someone who avoids confrontation and tends to hide or lie about the truth far too often with the more persistent people in her life, this might not have been a bad ethics to practice; although, if that was what I was aiming for, I didn’t achieve my goal then and still have not.

I say that I was a bit misdirected also because I am helped a great deal by Don Miguel Ruiz Jr.’s description of the Authentic self in his Five Levels of Attachment. From his perspective, the true self is no-self. It is one level below “preference,” and so implies that when there is so little attachment, one can be open to experiences without evaluating experiences in terms of likes and dislikes. And I don’t have her book with me (it is in my classroom library), but Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, in Most Intimate, attributes the same idea to Zen thought when she refers to going with the flow of life, the “self” moving in and out of holes. I think of big, hollowed holes in my face, but that is just my wacky mind. Also, Ram Das, in Polishing the Mirror, a text I am currently reading, writes, “As you are pulled inward [to the truth], you begin to leave behind the kinds of clinging and attachment that keep distorting and narrowing your vision” (1).

It is a relief to let go of a notion of self (I have for a while, at least from my experience) because maintaining any sort of narrative, and even figuring it out, could feel like a tight, constricting costume that came with orange rubber balls I needed to juggle as long as I wanted to claim it. Now I can just relax, breathe, and Be. Well, when I remember and am not wrapped up in mindless thoughts.

I used to have these huge three-ring binders about my life that I would update and nostalgically review. They were colorful and introspective, with photos and journal entries I had printed out. Sort of a narcissist’s scrapbook. It began as a project in 9th grade, “Freshman Memoirs,” and I loved the idea so much that I kept making a binder for each year (really each academic year because that is how time is demarcated in my mind) right up through graduate school. But about a year and a half ago, I decided it was too much work transporting them to wherever I moved and attempting to keep them hidden from others (strange that I wanted to catalogue a “self” so flamboyantly but then hide it), and I tossed them all away. I was at my parents’ house when I did this, and my mother, watching me from the doorway, commented that it seemed like I was erasing myself. It rather felt as if I were emerging and stepping out into the world a little lighter and freer.

For me, not having a self means letting go and forgetting what I might want to be or be seen as. When I walk through the halls of my workplace, I can simply experience the light through the windows and feel the air on my flesh and listen to what my voice sounds like humming. It allows me to take each moment as a fresh, new experience with curiosity and surprise. I can just focus on enjoying myself and being kind to others, without much self-consciousness. I don’t always remember this, of course. Being present like this just means to me that I am really seeing, really looking around, and everything becomes more vividly clear.

I wonder, coming from gender studies and writing for this site, if I am in danger of minimizing how unavoidable or helpful identity can be for some people and ignoring the privilege and luxury it may imply to be able to not be aware of or have pointed out to me markers of my identity because I am white, middle class, cis-gendered, and probably seen as straight. But I don’t necessarily forget my body. I cannot, when I am cupped around the nape of my bare neck by an older man who wants to “apologize” to me for bumping into me in the grocery store, as he explains he didn’t see my “ephemeral spirit” – or something like that – as if I were his grand-daughter or intimate partner (yesterday’s experience).

On a more positive note, I am fully aware of my menstruating body as I experience heightened pain, creativity, and sensual desire (last week’s experience). I am more aware of my body when I can quiet my mind. Being present is something I first came across in Eckhart Tolle, and I’ve always wondered about the universality of what he says though. One of my students is currently writing her juxtaposition/synthesis essay on his (and Trungpa’s) potential mis-handling of mental health and neuroses, for instance. So, I suppose I will have to think upon what I am inclined to celebrate and advocate for more critically. For me, though, no-self does feel like a good self, and it makes me a softer, kinder person most of the time, and that is really what I wanted to share.


LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.

Author: Elisabeth S.

Elisabeth S. has a Ph.D. in Religion from Claremont Graduate University (2014) and teaches philosophy, literature, creative writing and composition in Colorado.

15 thoughts on “The Authentic Self? No-Self by Elisabeth Schilling”

  1. “when there is so little attachment, one can be open to experiences without evaluating experiences in terms of likes and dislikes.”

    I always stumble here because by nature I am a passionate person and attachment to the natural world is what gives my life meaning. Without it I would rather be dead. For me it’s just the opposite, attachment is what opens me to unusual experiences with other species – relationship, then is key. This is true of people too… so what I conclude from these two ways of being in the world is that both are real, both are true, but my way of being involves more ongoing suffering – a choice I make with awareness at almost 73.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I don’t feel for me that relationship and engaging intimately are opposite to non-attachment. Perhaps it is a linguistic difference and not conceptual one we disagree on. The opposite of attachment does not have to be indifference. It can be rich, sensual, intimate, and relational. But it is those things sans the ego. Often my attachments will keep certain difficult relationships from being even possible. But if I can let go, conversations can happen.


  2. Thank you for sharing your journey LaChelle. I remember the day I also disposed of my journals. Got tired of carrying them around from place to place! They were helpful at the time I wrote them but when I re-read them years later, it was like trying to figure out who this stranger is.
    Perhaps it’s a reminder that we are on a journey, moving along and discovering new things about ourselves as we mature. The strangest thing I find on this journey is that the more I forget about myself and enjoy the trip, the more I come to know myself in it. Perhaps, as the trees are about to tell us, dropping the old leaves and embracing nakedness is necessary for new life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your energy and story. “The more I forget about myself and enjoy the trip, the more I come to know myself in it”: yes, I can only hope to follow this path more consistently. What a lovely way to put it. That is very inspiring. I love your nature analogy. Lessons from the earth. I always want to learn more. Your last line is so poetic.


  3. For me, becoming unattached to events, myself, my experiences, etc. helps me to be more present in the world and more open to natural events around me. And more events seem to happen around me. I communicate with birds and fish when I sit on the end of our dock in Northern Minnesota. I move when I feel the urge, not when a clock tells me to. It’s a practice, for sure. Something I aspire to. Good luck with your book, LaChelle…and thanks for sharing about your journey into wholeness! I’d love to read more of your words when they are available.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Ann Marie, for sharing. I love everything you have said. What a lovely motivation to draw the natural happenings by your own energies. “. . .not when the clock tells me to. It’s a practice, for sure”: Yes! “journey into wholeness” – what a beautiful way of putting it. I hope it is. Be well.


  4. I love how you don’t shy away from the complexity of the no-self/identity/privilege thingamajig!

    Unfortunately, for me, I got caught in all sorts of “traps” after dwelling for a while in the experience of no-self. I found myself trying to hide from the pain and messiness of life in no-self; I found myself thinking that if I was dwelling in no-self, all of my actions would be pure (ouch, that one is hard to admit!) (becomes a problem when the no-self experience is not permanent) and other such silliness. Sigh.

    Now, I find myself “selfing” quite a bit and struggling to be present. Seasons of life, I suppose? But I certainly agree that it is pure delight to experience the sensory world around us without preferences coloring our perceptions. I wouldn’t mind spending time in no-self once again. ;-) We’ll see what is in store for me! Thanks for your honest and sensitive exploration of the topic.


    1. Thank you, dear! It is healing and cleansing to share where we falter and the ups and downs of our journeys. What make them so beautiful is the messiness, I think at least, or maybe I just hope. I’m still new at all of this, still learning, and so I wonder how it will be down the line. Honestly, I haven’t thought about it until your post, so thank you. We co-create. Yes, seasons. I thank you for your nurturing and equally honest conversation. I also like how you articulate “delight[ing]” in “the sensory world [. . .] without preferences coloring our perceptions.” What gorgeous phrasing, a new mantra for me. Be well.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. For me the equation is not self or no self, ego or no ego. I do think it is important to let go of exclusive self-focus, egotism, narcissism, the illusion of control, and the idea that “I” can and should be able to “have” or “get” and “cling” to everything I want or think I want.

    For me the alternative is not no self or no ego (if ego means self in the broad sense), but rather a flexible, open, relational self that understands that in a relational and changing world “I” do not and cannot always “get” what I want, and even if I do, I might lose it today, tomorrow, or some time in the future. This stance as you say opens one (I would not say no one) to joy in life.

    I did however delight in your post, sounds like you are in more flexible and open place, and this to me is good and lovely to behold.


  6. ‘Self’ is such a complicated thing. Too often, we (and the people around us) seek only what’s above the surface. Like an iceberg gently riding on the ocean. But there is so much diversity underneath the surface that truly makes us who we really are. In that richness below, we find a better sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. That said, our truest self can only be seen from ‘above’. But a God who loves us– and who has made us all both unique and the same. Uniquely special. But universally affirmed. Universally loved. If only we could see ourselves and others as God does, not how we or others do.


    1. Thank you for your voice. I love the floating on an iceberg metaphor. I wonder what happens if we jump of and dive right in? This idea about God seeing things clearly is one I also had, mostly influenced by C.S. Lewis who is so wonderful with explaining theology through metaphor. I appreciate your thoughts.


  7. Having come out of years of ‘finding myself’ your article is like a breath of fresh air as I see myself or I should say my no-self as having the freedom and trust to let go and become the drop of water in the ocean of others. It is the transformation of isolation as an individual, to belonging to community, and my voice can join the chorus. I too love nature, my favorite being the spring peepers. One peeper singing is beautiful…many is magnificent.


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