When the concept of “no-self” first came across my ocular nerves I was immediately struck by the absurdity of it, the self that has rather self-servingly given itself the name “I” rising up in indignation. Certainly there could be no truth to this notion, the seeming denial of a fundamental aspect of existence. Further study fleshed out the notion to remove from it the idea of absence, replacing it with transience. That struck a nerve.
Through so many changes in life, biological and ideological, a soft chuckle was often what greeted continued realizations that I was no longer the person I used to be. From baby to child to shame-filled adolescent to determined adult. From fundamentalist to atheist to spiritual naturalist. These transitions can be strung out in a rather beautiful and intriguing narrative, but upon closer examination I cannot perceive what, simply looking at “myself,” is there to hold any of it together. Beyond a desire to do so, the experiences at the time did not consciously hold the seeds for the change to come nor in looking back could I conceive of fitting “myself” back into those molds.
Where’d the missing information come from? Where in the maelstrom of life emerged the variables to promote change? As Stephen Batchelor in Buddhism Without Beliefs notes: “All of life is in ceaseless mutation: emerging, modifying, disappearing. The relative constancy of still, contoured attention is simply a steady adjustment to the flux of what is observed. Nothing can be relied upon for security.” The contoured part caught me, the provision of a depth and wave to the power of attention. What this is seems the answer to the other questions as well.
The contours of life, the missing information or variables that ebb and flow in our consciousness, the pieces that we are so often blind to in our continual focus on the ego’s creation of a personal narrative, are relationships. From the awkward to the profound, from sexy to platonic, friend to lover, and sometimes all of those in the same person through time, relationships are the gossamer threads binding our narratives together even as we attempt to give greater weight to the “I” of ourselves.
Coming full circle then to transience, applying it not simply to the “I” but to relationships as well, there is nothing to be attached to. This is what Batchelor means by a lack of security. The loss of this security attachment is less an absence though and more a recognition of the ubiquity of change, that foundational feature of life. When looking at relationships this way, as transient and also the prehensile threads binding us all together in the “me that is we” (thank you Daniel Siegel), we flow in and out of relational forms like we do in the evolution of our narrative lives.
The stagnant relational life is one of loneliness, of rigidity and the worship of form. While there are qualities and principles to apply to each and every relationship, I am no more the exact same form with anybody I connect with than I am in every job I’ve held or educational class that I’ve taken. This can be disconcerting, but ride out the anxiety with me for a moment.
The oft-stated concern heard in so many relationships is “you’re so different with x person.” This question is indeed troubling, if in fact we are stagnant people capable of manifesting our emotional states in only one way or of having only one set of behaviors that we rigidly apply to any and all situations. When looked at from the notion of transience we can see how each and every relationship brings with it new ways of being and of relating, provides the threads to pull out new desires and behaviors. Indeed, when applied even to a single relationship, this notion of transience can give greater freedom to expression, as either individual is no longer tied to relating in only one way.
Changes come and pass by, leaving us with new information to integrate, new experiences to process. The threads of our relationships tug and pull, release and lie slack, but in no way do they ever go away. They are the means by which change flows, the paths by which energy manifests in varying behavior, and the bindings that help us create our stories. Far from needing to be stuck to one form, we are in fact awash in a sea of possibility. We need only reach out to those around us, friend and stranger alike, to find a broader awareness of what is already potential.
© David Teachout