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A friend asked this mind-bending question on social media:

when you’re talking to yourself in your head (or out loud) do you refer to yourself as we, I, you, or they/she/he/other pronoun?

This got me thinking that the difference between addressing myself as "I" and "you" seems trivial but really has some implications when it comes to ego, self, non-self and letting go.

So I'm wondering if anyone has any opinions on whether the Dhamma implies we should "talk to ourselves" in certain ways?

E.g. Should I tell myself

I forgive that person, I will follow the eight-fold path, I will meditate for 20 minutes

or

You forgive that person, you will follow the eight-fold path, you will meditate for 20 minutes

Alternately, do you think we should really try to use the third-person for addressing ourselves? I know that some Buddhists like to say things like "the body" rather than "your body" or "my body", but it seems like saying "Jer will meditate for 20 minutes" is too weird, but if that's the answer you think is right I'm interested in your thinking too :)


Here's an example answer that shows what I am asking with this question, but I don't know if it's very wise or not, so obviously still looking for perspectives of others.

When I address myself in the first person, I implicitly emphasize my identity, and stay wrapped up in subjectivity.

When I address myself in the second person, I confess that my consciousness is separate from my identity, I gain a more objective position in relation to my thoughts, feelings and experiences.

  • Isn't this an English language question? – Sankha Kulathantille Jan 24 '18 at 14:59
  • My question is about whether this distinction in English has meaning in the context of Buddhism. In English both versions are gramatically correct, so it's only relevant from a psychology/spirituality perspective. I'm asking: Should I say you/I more often to better emphasize anatta in my life. – jerclarke Jan 24 '18 at 15:00
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Try rather to catch urself in the process of thinking about yourself, that is thinking.

If one grouped all thoughts and ideas into one cathegory and called it all "thinking" one could see that the idea of self etc it is merely an idea, a concept that exists in the thinking faculty, just like forms and colors exist when there is seeing, so does ideas of self when there is thinking.

The Buddha was perfect in conduct, that implies verbal conduct too. He talk very well and used personal pronounce perfectly too, he would not have talked in english but for translations they put enlighs I, Me and etc. So avoiding words is probably not something useful to adapt and was never recommended by the Buddha afaik. if anything i heard a good disciple is skilled in words and their use, so probably studying linguistics and general semantics is a better practice.

  • Agreed. I think the only value in doing switching words like that would be the awareness required to catch yourself doing it. If it became habitual, it would lose all value. Other ways of being aware are more useful, and less likely to increase neurosis. I play a game where if I notice myself thinking, “I don’t like that” or “I like this”, I will then say, “Oh you do, do you?” – dgo Feb 7 '18 at 13:20
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I don't know about "they". How can you get a plurality when one of the parties is completely empty? ;-) But yes, after a certain point the small you does start to seem like another person...almost like a pet you are caring for whose master is the bigger mind.

Case 45 Hõen's "Who Is He?" 四十五 他是阿誰

東山演師祖曰、釋迦彌勒猶是他奴。

Hõen of Tõzan said, "Even Shakya and Maitreya are servants of another.

且道、他是阿誰。

I want to ask you, who is he?"

Mumon's Comment

無門曰、若也見得他分曉、譬如十字街頭撞見親爺相似、更不須問別人道是與不是。

If you can really see this "another" with perfect clarity, it is like encountering your own father at a crossroads. Why should you ask whether you recognize him or not?

Mumon's Verse 頌曰

他弓莫挽 Don't draw another's bow,

他馬莫騎 Don't ride another's horse,

他非莫辨 Don't discuss another's faults,

他事莫知 Don't explore another's affairs.

But don't use plural or third person pronouns. It'll make people want to smack you!

  • Well I do ask people to use gender neutral third-person pronouns for me, because I am non-binary, and in English the third-person neutral singular and plurals are the same: they. So maybe you want to smack me 🤷🏻‍♀️ Anyway luckily that wasn't part of the question. I'm not clear on what your actual answer is. That "I" is just as honoring of non-self as "you"? – jerclarke Jan 24 '18 at 17:29
  • LMAO! I was more referring to those who talk like Bo Jackson or, worse yet, Elmo! ;-) One of the things the koan is getting at is that the small self - the heap of impermanent aggregates who we conventionally call I - is subsidiary to something greater. When you discover who this is, then your experience of that conventional "I" changes and overtly takes on a character more akin to what you're describing. Barring anything short of realizing that in your very bones, referring to that "I" as "you", is just dabbling in semantics and giving people an excellent reason roll their eyes. – user698 Jan 24 '18 at 18:41
  • Of course, it's not a terrible idea to keep in the back of your mind. Also, please do not take that "who" to be a personality. "Who" is just a word of convenience. – user698 Jan 24 '18 at 18:41
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I don't think I'm so verbal/grammatical/linguistic when I talk to myself -- sentences (with a subject and a verb, e.g. a pronoun) are I think only when I'm talking or writing, or reading and reciting -- i.e. producing language for inter-personal communication, or replaying language.

For example:

  • "I forgive that person"

    I imagine that would be a non-verbal series of feelings etc. -- a feeling of anger, recognising the unpleasantness of the feeling, remembering the possibility of letting go of the feeling, considering that the cause of the feeling was some unskillful attachment in me.

  • "I will follow the eight-fold path"

    Perhaps that doesn't seem to me like a likely thing to try to say at all, hard to imagine saying it: because I try to avoid making promises about the future ... in order to try to avoid telling lies.

  • "I will meditate for 20 minutes"

    If I did express that verbally it might be as -- "It is time (or 'There is time') to practice now."

IOW I wouldn't usually say something like #2 at all; perhaps if I did I'd talk about the path (e.g. "The path sounds good...").

And #1 is more about feelings than words; and #3 is about "it is time", i.e. it's talking about the world not the self; and maybe picturing/anticipating (but not referring to verbally) the body/person/object moving into place (as you anticipate where the car will go when you're driving).

I agree that "I" and "you" might be bizarre when talking to yourself (perhaps I tend to think of it as "it" i.e. the world). Conversely talking in the 3rd person is unusual (in the anglosphere anyway) and eccentric, strikingly so, perhaps depending on the person or the culture (e.g. if I said to you, "Chris wants" or "He wants" or "This person wants"). Maybe if I talked more French I could say "Il faut" oslt; or talk to myself using verbs with an imperative mood and no pronoun, or who knows what.

As hinted at in Inb4dead's answer I think that some people are taught to consciously verbalise, using just the present participle: so instead of "I am sitting" or "you are sitting", just "sitting, sitting".

I read btw that some people are primarily visual (imagine things), some are more verbal (describe things), and some are more feeling. So it may be just normal if we're a bit different in how much we verbalise.

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'Self' or 'identity' is not anything real in Buddhism. For an enlightened mind, words such as "I" or "mine" are merely "conventions" thus they can be used because the enlightened mind does not regard those words as real, as follows:

[Deva:]

He who's an Arahant, his work achieved, Free from taints, in final body clad, That monk still might use such words as "I." Still perchance might say: "They call this mine." ... Would such a monk be prone to vain conceits?

[The Blessed One:]

Bonds are gone for him without conceits, All delusion's chains are cast aside: Truly wise, he's gone beyond such thoughts. That monk still might use such words as "I," Still perchance might say: "They call this mine." Well aware of common worldly speech (conventions), He would speak conforming to such use

SN 1.25


Why now do you assume 'a being'? Mara, have you grasped a view? This is a heap of sheer constructions: Here no being is found.

Just as, with an assemblage of parts, The word 'chariot' is used, So, when the aggregates are present, There's the convention 'a being.'

SN 5.10

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In the Mahayana perspective, such terms are indeed conventions. But the pronoun itself is not the culprit, the meaning and implications of it is.

Try a simple experience: repeat 'I' multiple times in your mind. Eventually, the word seems to have lost meaning, or seems strange. This suggests the word, 'I', and its meaning are separate.

I recall the Dalai Lama stating in one of his books how madhyamikas, adherents to the Middle Way School of emptiness, think with an 'I', but have self-awareness of its empty nature. Thus, the conventional aspect -- the term -- matters little. Whether I think using 'I' or my own name, it's the same despite different terms.

What one does in terms of understanding emptiness and no-self is more linked to the object. Nagarjuna selects objects, and understands how they are empty, not intrinsically real.

For example, you see an apple. You may think in this way: "The apple is made of atoms, the apple I am seeing doesn't exist aside from these atoms. More so, it exists only as a perception, its redness changes according to light and how I see it. One day, this apple will have degraded fully, it's current form is just a mere moment. Thus, considering this, how does the entity I consider 'Apple' actually exist? It has no intrinsic essence, aside from its diverse parts."

One may use analytical contemplation to arrive at a feeling or sense of a phenomenon's nonexistence, and then one might attempt to single-pointedly meditate on it.

However, I must also say that this is only one facet of Nagarjuna's approach, as truly the apple mentioned both doesn't exist and exists.

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