Grappling with a sense of no-self

This was a submission for an exercise in which we were required to choose one thing in life and using what we have learnt so far, analyse why it is empty, why it is dependent arising. And also, illustrate its emptiness and dependent arising nature.

A simple exercise turned into a mass of over 1,000 words as I attempted the exercise. As I am but a beginner, my apologies in advance if you find that there is anything factually wrong or inaccurate in this article. Do let me know in the comments and I will amend it.


For the longest time, I thought I had an empty Self. Literally empty (at this time, I have not come across the explanation of Emptiness). I could feel. I could laugh, cry and tear. I could feel sadness and happiness. But my sense of self could not last for some reason.

Compared to other people, I would drift from one clique of friends to another. I thought: “There is no one like myself, who belongs to no clique, who belongs to no group permanently.”

There is this clique that I used to hang out with in secondary school. I have drifted away from them for more than a decade now, I think. But this clique still hangs out together to play football, celebrate birthdays and what-nots. Some of them are already married and have kids. So they have progressed together as a clique.

I was envious (and still am) when I see this. Because I am not like them. I have drifted from one clique to another, unable to settle down. Maybe it’s because my interests change so much (and their interests remain the same). That clique I know plays football regularly. But I’ve stopped since a long time ago. I only played because I wanted to fit into that clique, I think.

I used to go to the gym regularly. But I’ve stopped that too.

I would drift from one interest to another. From one friend to another. Meeting everyone and knowing no one. I felt empty. When everyone around me seemed to have a stable sense of identity, how could I exist in such a state of flux?


To compound this sense of identity-issue, I thought I was the least original person out there during my university days. Throughout my Literature classes, I would meet brilliant people who, when they open their mouths during classes, would offer excellent insights on whatever we happen to be studying at the moment. I was a laggard. I could only hide behind the words of dead people, repeating their philosophies and theories.

In me, I conjured up Lacan and Freud, two of the philosophers that I quoted quite often. I couldn’t complete my essays without heavy research. I had no original thought. To start on my essay, I needed someone else’s beginning. And gradually, I felt that there were other people’s opinions in me, rumbling about and waiting for me to give them voice.

At this point in time, I came across this quote. And it resonated like a bell that rang in the deepest recesses of the mountain ranges, the highest point of a mountain monastery.

“I am a part of all that I have met; [18]
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move…”
–Lord Alfred Tennyson, Ulyssess

It would help me reconcile some part of myself – the part that was always changing, moving and unable to be pinned down by myself.


AFTER I came across Buddhist philosophy and the teachings on Emptiness, I realised that it was OK to feel this way. That nothing has an inherent self and what I am feeling and experiencing is just that: the playing out of a lack of an inherent self. Nothing is permanent. It is OK if my interests change all the time and if my friends change all the time.


Going further, I realised that Emptiness meant relativity. Everything is dependent on one another. There is no standalone self, according to what I have understood from my readings of Buddhist philosophy.

I remember this. This is this. Because that is that. Therefore I am who I am. Because you are who you are.

I am the sum of all the experiences that I have. I am the sum of all the people whom I have met, regardless of whether these experiences are happy or sad, positive or negative, whether these people are good or bad.

There is no me. Because I am everybody. I am here because my parents brought me up. I am here because my colleague introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh. I am here because someone in KMSPKS decided to go online and put up on the materials on their upcoming course. [Redacted]. My self thus arises because of all these causes and conditions. Is this correct? I don’t really know.

It doesn’t seem to end. I don’t know whether I am pushing it too far and I don’t know whether it is right or wrong but at this point, I am filled with gratitude towards everyone. I can’t find myself in myself anymore.

I am reminded of the phrase describing the stages of practice. I hope I am moving along them. To see the mountains for the mountains, the rivers for the rivers. Then to see the rivers in the mountains. And then to see the mountains for the mountains, the rivers for the rivers again.

Recently, another clique that I have gotten close to seemed to be drifting apart as well. It is not surprising anymore. We have our own lives and dreams to pursue. Compared to years ago, there is hardly any time to meet one another now. The different thing now is that I am able to take it as it is and not despair over it.

With metta.

Updated on March 31: Letter has been amended. The contents and purpose remain the same. 


2 thoughts on “Grappling with a sense of no-self

  1. One of my resolutions next month is to hang out with you alone because I’ve never done that before. Shall we meet soon?

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