If you’ve studied Buddhism, you may be perplexed about its stance on the self, for two reasons. First, it starts off talking about happiness, then seems to take a tangent about how the self doesn’t exist. Second, it claims the self doesn’t exist, which some people may find perplexing in and of itself.
Indeed, this has been such a confusing point that much ink has been spilled on trying to clarify just what this does and doesn’t mean.
Fortunately, there’s a way out of the bottle. The issue here isn’t the self; the issue is identifying with things. For it’s in this identification that causes us to suffer. When I think of something as me or mine, then I tend to have strong desires towards it, and with desires come pain and worry.
So replace “self” with identification. Once that’s done, everything falls into place.
First, since the issue is identification, then Buddhism becomes the practice of not identifying with anything. This includes people, places, things, thoughts, etc… How do you not identify with anything? By simply experiencing it, accepting it, and letting it go. When you do that, you are watching the thing as if you were watching a movie. That’s mindfulness, and when we sit down to really focus on doing it, then that’s meditation.
Second, there is no second! Yes, you needn’t have any commitments to the existence or lack thereof of a self. Your entire practice consists simply of not identifying. That’s it.
So is all the other stuff that Buddhism teaches useless? Not necessarily; it can be useful if you need additional inspiration to base your practice on. But it is — strictly speaking — not necessary. You can pare things down to this essence.