Words are concepts, and we use them to indicate or point toward a direct experience. We need to be careful not to mistake words or concepts for experience itself.
We use the words “I,” “me,” “mine,” and “self” very often. Let us ask the question: What is the direct experience to which these words are pointing?
In our practice, we have been examining everything that makes up our body and mind: sensation, feeling-tone, thought, emotion, intention, and the consciousness that "knows" each of these. Is there anything else that we can find "behind" or "within" these various elements that is separate from them?
If we take a car apart completely, then it would be meaningless to call it a car any longer.
The word "car" is simply a convenient label for a lot of parts that are put together and that function in a certain way. It's not that some object "car" actually existed and somehow disappeared when we took "it" apart. "Car" never really existed in the first place, in the same way that the parts did. It was always just a designation that we used for the sake of convenience.
It's exactly the same for our use of the words "I," "me," “mine,” and “self.” These words refer to the felt sense that our experience somehow "belongs" to someone. This felt sense of self is connected to a deeply rooted belief that there really must be someone continuously "behind" it all, to whom everything happens or to which everything refers. Our own experience challenges this belief and reveals it to be just that: a belief.
The sense of self does not exist anywhere within or separate from the changing play of sights, sounds, sensations, and thoughts that make up our experience. For example, if we ask the question, "Who is thinking this thought?" we do not find anyone separate from the thought itself who is actually doing the thinking. The thought thinks itself, so to speak. Our experience reveals that there is no "essence" within any of the elements of the body and mind that actually corresponds to this word "self," just as there is no essence of car hidden within the parts that we call “car.”
People often glibly conclude that there's no self, period. But it is undeniable that the felt sense of self is part of our experience at times. The sense of self, which seems real enough, is arising and passing because of conditions, like anything else in this world of change.
Experience shows us that the sense of self is typically stronger when there is identification with a correspondingly strong experience in the body or mind. Thus, we naturally say, "I am angry," rather than, "There is anger arising".
At other times, when one is fully engaged in an activity and the sense of separation from the world diminishes, the sense of self is not so strong.
And when we are in deep sleep, the sense of self is entirely gone.
Thus, moments of "selflessness," like moments of freedom, are not as unusual as we think they are. We often let them go unnoticed.
If we pay attention to our direct experience with a calm mind, we become more familiar with moments of selflessness, so that we cease being disturbed or enchanted by them.
By becoming accustomed to this fact of existence, which has been called the "crown jewel" of the Buddha's teaching, we gain tremendous ease and freedom.