What is my essence?

Following a suggestion by @daverupa and a start by @Mat I would like to ask the following as a spin-off from the anatta-topic…

For a while now I hold that in order to understand an-atta one should know what ‘atta’ actually meant in the suttas. Focusing on a contemporary discussion on identity and leaving aside historical notions of self-construction it might prove beneficial to spell out where we are actually stuck in our spiritual practice of dis-identification today.

I would like to ask contributors to avoid Pali jargon and use everyday language to locate the discussion in the present…

To start with myself, I can’t help but being essentially concerned with the body, be it for food, sexuality or comfort. I don’t particularly enjoy the ‘satisfaction’ (or rather ‘neutralization’) of these desires, but it feels like the dissatisfaction in them touches an essential layer that defines me.

Then there is a social desire, to interact with ‘others’, to experience them and get acknowledged by them. Meaning, sometimes I just want to go out to talk to people. Even though I am quite a standard hetero model the male identity is not important to me.

So there is a ‘me’ in intentional motion, in wanting to get rid of a lack - or more commonly, in ‘desire’. But there is also a quiet de-facto ‘me’ where I don’t consciously see a desire at work: in the thinking process and in experiencing in general. I can’t shake off the impression that ‘I’ experience, as if there is a sensitive membrane that is inaccessible to practice and that reigns over it all from the background.

So if I was pressed to define what my essence is, it would be this: bodily desire, social desire, and conceptual conscious experience. None of those btw I think in any way to be permanent or blissful, so it’s not open to the standard sutta-refutation-strategy, but nonetheless, this is where as a contemporary seeker my ‘I’ is located.

I’d be very interested in the way you guys put it, be it seemingly similar or very different…


@Gabriel, is the bodily desire and social desire correctly deconstructed in the following manner:
I [the body] desires [thought] certain experience [material/lessening of desire, etc]

I find that I never identified with the body much. It for me was a recycling of atoms in and out of the body, that was never totally permanent. Even the shape wasn’t permanent, if one got into the atomic detail of the matter.

I was stuck on the mind, but after seeing how constituents of the mind arise and pass, I do not consider that self either. Feelings and emotions are transient- so there was no identification with them, at least for me.

I see intentions arising out of chains of cause and effect- so I cannot claim ‘I’ made decided. It happened ‘automatically’. I am not aware of most of ‘my’ (see how the language has been devised around a self existing) decisions (moving which arm or leg where…) so I cannot really see a self in causally arisen intentions.

Memories, I read was fabricated anew, and don’t really contain the details of the actual event, (though mirroring it to some degree I suppose) so my past has been ‘re-created’ in a sense. The sense of a ‘me’ continuing in time (autobiographical memory) is present. So is the sense being located in the space that I am in. I see both these things are illusions though as I can see they can be displaced.

with metta


Nice thread.
I’m going to break the ground rules a bit and use a Pāli word :wink: Bhava tanha.

My will or desire to become. Creating my self in my emotional and thought world. Someone says something or does something or I do/say something and it creates my world. If I like it I spin a me of ‘awesomeness’ if I don’t like it I spin a me anger/frustration/not-good-enough.

Oh to be unshakable!


Reminds me of the ability to go past silabbataparamasa!

To be ‘unshakable’- at least part of the solution seems in knowing that no one really knows who we are, not even ourselves. We have only begun to scratch the surface. Whatever anyone says about us, blame or praise, is going to be very inaccurate, even assuming they know us a great deal; or it wont be the whole picture. Creating a picture out of inaccurate comments is like us fooling ‘ourselves’. Also who we are is never static- it not possible to take a snapshot of personality as it is always subtly changing as we encounter new experiences and of course, grow old.


with metta


I remember when I was a kid, I had this epiphany with the inner voice; I remember thinking “Wow, this is me, I am this” referring to the inner voice / monologue of the mind. I was amazed at how I was the inner voice speaking, flexing that mental capacity for thought was like a proof that I existed.

This is related to my main blockage in meditation as well, which is not so much discursive thinking, but the feeling that I have to be there to understand and make sense of what’s going on, to judge whether it’s bad or good, to make sure the process doesn’t get out of hand.

And when I think about it, this is really about wanting to feel in control of things. Losing the feeling of being in control is profoundly scary, but I think also an unavoidable part of the process of letting go in meditation.

Thanks for making this thread! :anjal:


The whole thing is quite mysterious to me actually, probably because of the (wholesome) Buddhist brainwash (washing = cleaning :wink:) over the years. The desire (the head of it) is at the same time alien and (at its tail) irresistible or convincing.

Could you please put it in other words as well? Bhava-tanha has been mostly abstract to me so I’m curious about how it operates in someone who thinks/experiences in those lines.

This is interesting- are you taking the teachings ‘on faith’, when you call it brain-washing?

with metta

This is an EBT forum, but to define EBT (pali) terms, we need to know what we are talking about, in the first instance! Therefore I think this makes good sense. At some point a connection of the English terms to the Pali terms will become important though, to give it some context, though probably not just now. :slight_smile:

with metta

I am (made) “to be felt” (experienced) - SN 12.37
Aham asmi vedaniya.

Explained here

And I have the possibility to get out of that.
First to get out of this world of senses & fine-material world (matter & energy). Then out of the immaterial world.

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I don’t think I take the words on faith at all. I take the realization behind it on faith and then chew on this bark of language to make it somehow digestible for my information processing. Which brings me to a good point to add: my understanding of the dhamma certainly also became a part of identity. A reference point, touchstone, point of departure, lens through which I evaluate etc…

How would you say did the conceptual aspect of the dhamma morph your reasoning over the years?

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In gross terms, my knowledge of myself usually involves an audience. It’s just common vanity that arises because of attachment to a wide variety of external things and a grab-bag of internal thoughts and fabrications (mostly imaginary). Pascal described this well in Pensées :

Most of the time, this surface-level conceit is pretty much what passes for my ‘essence’. But, if somehow these superficial attachments are left behind, then there is still some awareness that seems to convey: I am. I can only observe it lurking in the background. Sometimes I call it as awareness of awareness. If I go by the suttas, then that self-identification is also the result of some form of clinging. Maybe it’s the desire to exist, to be.


Hello there, greetings .

To my observation , when we look at a tree ,( e.g. )before the process of naming start , there is a sense of beingness , is there anything that says that it’s a tree out there or that sense of beingness is “me” ? Is that your essence ?


Experientially, I identify primarily with my active thinking and with meta-cognition, as opposed to passive thinking and primary-cognition devoid of self-awareness and self-regulation. Accompanying my active thinking and meta-cognition is a certain type of affective quality that feels like “me” that is not necessarily present when my experience is devoid of my controlling, meta-cognitive, active self.

As to what the term myself would most properly refer to, I think simply this whole psycho-physical organism, but perhaps more primarily my nervous system and attendant experiences, as embedded in and changing along with the environment around me.


My view of self was quite solid to begin with. Then I read Buddhism as a child and teenager and came across the teaching of anatta. However I only understood it in terms of biology. It happened one day when I was riding a bus as I recall. I could see that biology could account for everything that happens in terms of a self, and what happens in cells, chemical reactions in the body etc are pretty much automatic and had nothing to do with ‘me’ and there was no sense of control over them, or a need to. ‘I’ wasn’t aware of the millions or billions of reactions that was happening inside my body to keep me alive and functioning, in fact ‘me’ trying to do all that would end in disaster!

I looked at intelligence (and consciousness) from an evolutionary perspective as well. Both those things are helpful in getting a competitive ‘edge’ (though not absolutely necessary, as many plants and animals like bacteria have done extremely well without them). So if we look at them as a additions to the body, by the body, to help the body survive better than others we see them as subservient- more like another organ. That helps them take them down a peg.

I never had an idea that consciousness was part of divinity in some way, so it was easy to ‘de-Self’ consciousness. If we see consciousness as ‘special’ or part of an eternal soul, then it becomes much harder to ‘de-self’ it. Its easier if we see that most animals have consciousness and intelligence is widespread.

Back in the bus, I was feeling like robot, if not at AI. There was no special or specific essence to ‘me’. I was my constituent parts. There was nothing there which was greater than the sum of my parts. Contemplate my parts (as in meditation on the organs asubha bhavna and bodily elements meditation dhatu manasikara for the body, and others for my mind as well ) and that was ‘me’.

with metta


No, it is quite simple.
Your extreme longing for a luxury car is a good example.
Remember it is Tanha what matters. Not the mere desire.
If you desire (Chanda) to have a car to commute to work is not Tanha.
Then I expect you to ask the question how Atta related to this example.

Do you think it is related to self-preservation or “survival instinct”?

Thanks for these articles, it was just a question of time until the mindfulness hype backfired. Could you just specify how it relates to the topic?

Some of the articles deal with the questions raised about the incorporation if mindfulness into managerial science.

Oh sorry! Looks like I accidentally posted them on the wrong thread!

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Thanks @Gabriel for the thread, it was good to think about this and I actually noticed, that what is self for me is quite unlike what seems to be meant by atta in the suttas.

At first I had no idea how I could respond here, but this is a great starting point. I would see “me” similarly, althoug maybe not so much in the inner voice, as in more bare awareness or experiencing. I can turn off the voice overs, and that actualy makes me feel better, more rested, it saves energy - so I wouldn’t exactly call this to be me, more like a manifestation of self. Thinking and making decisions without inner talk is definetely possible, e.g. when I play billiards I non-verbally scan the table, and decide on the next shot - I would identify my self more with such non-verbal experience and decision process.

And here is the main difference with the atta - this thing (correct me if I’m wrong) is always described as permanent, eternal. If I remember correctly, in the suttas Buddha questions bhikkhus more or less in this manner: “if this <thing_being_discussed> is impermanent, can you call it atta?”. They always answer no. Which brings me to conclusion: my self is not atta (as defined in the suttas). I don’t think it’s permanent, actually I’m quite sure it’s not. I don’t see why it should be permanent.

The simple example of self (as defined by me) not being permanent is the everyday experience (or maybe lack of it? :wink: ) of deep sleep. I don’t experience myself between falling asleep and REM phase with dreams. From the point of view of self / experience of self it doesn’t seem much different than what death might be - the main (and maybe only?) difference being, that you wake up from sleep.