In meditation, we must always be on guard against losing our way. There are so many different experiences that may arise during meditation, it is easy to think of certain experiences as “special” or “advanced”, and give up the practice in favour of pursuing these states. At the same time, a newcomer to the practice will be unable to recognize the right path, since they have not yet followed it to the end. Like a person lost in the forest, they will be unable to find their way without proper guidance.
Experiences are not in and of themselves meditation, but meditation is to be performed on all experience. In insight meditation our intention is to see and understand reality for what it is. We try to understand our experience of the world objectively; to do away with the misconceptions and misunderstandings that are the cause for all suffering. So, it is important to be objective about all experience that occurs during meditation, to see each experience for what it is, as simply a physical or mental state of feeling, emotion, knowledge or experience that comes and goes. We must see for ourselves that there is nothing exceptional about any one experience; only then will we be able to understand reality as it is, let things come and go as they will, and be free from all craving, clinging, and suffering.
Proper meditation practice has to be truly objective. This is the most difficult aspect of meditation to understand. A beginner meditator’s mind inclines naturally towards pleasant, exciting, stimulating experiences and, when these are absent, will tend to feel that their practice is not progressing. Indeed, when one’s practice begins to truly progress, the mind will generally react by rejecting the experience, even rejecting the meditation practice entirely, under the belief that these realizations are harmful to oneself. Those experiences that are actually signs of progress are often misinterpreted in the beginning as being negative in this way.
To overcome this problem, it is important to first understand what we mean by meditation, specifically insight meditation. The Buddha taught that inside of all of us we have three things that we would be better off without; three defilements that exist in our minds and are the cause for all of our suffering. In English, these are translated as greed, anger, and delusion, as sort of approximate names for them. Greed means any sort of partiality in favour of something, anger is a name for any partiality against something, and delusion is the misunderstanding that leads us to be partial towards or against something.
These three mind states are the problem the Buddha’s teaching attempts to address. They are a problem because, as the Buddha pointed out, the nature of reality is that nothing in the world can possibly satisfy us; clinging to anything will only lead to suffering. Aversion towards anything will likewise only result in stress, despair, and suffering. There is nothing in the universe we could strive for or against that would bring us peace, happiness and freedom from suffering once it was obtained. Our beliefs to the contrary are only due to delusion or misunderstanding.
The reason why no object of our experience can bring us true happiness and peace is because there exists another set of three realities that are present in every experience and render all experience incapable of bringing satisfaction. These three realities are impermanence, suffering and non-self. Impermanence means instability, being subject to change; suffering means being unable to satisfy; non-self means being not subject to one’s control. These three things are called the three universal characteristics and can be verified through the correct practice of insight meditation.
Our partiality towards certain experiences is invariably due to the belief that they carry the three opposite characteristics: that they are stable, satisfying, and subject to our control. We expect, hope, and strive to make our experience conform to these expectations: stable, satisfying and controllable. The reason why nothing in our experience could ever bring us peace, happiness, and freedom from suffering is that there is nothing in the universe that possesses any of these three characteristics. This is where all of our misunderstanding lies. When we talk about delusion, the misunderstanding that leads to partiality, we mean the erroneous belief that there is something stable, satisfying, or controllable somewhere in the universe.
Under the influence of this misunderstanding, we conceive of certain experiences as being a source of stability, permanence, and reliability. We conceive of them to be therefore satisfying and pleasant and a cause of true happiness and peace. We conceive of them to be under our control, predictable, obeying our wishes and desires: that when we want them to be so, they will be so; when we want them to be otherwise, that they will be otherwise; when we want them to be, that they will be; when we want them to not be, that they will not be.
It is this misunderstanding that leads to greed and desire. We become partial towards and chase after certain experiences because we conceive them to be a source of permanence, satisfaction, and control. We experience certain states of pleasure or calm and, not seeing them clearly, we think that they are stable, permanent, and thus satisfying. As a result, we work and strive and hope and pray and eventually are dissatisfied when the truth prevails and such experiences change, disappear, or are unobtainable. When our hopes and wishes are denied, there arises the opposite emotion to greed, anger.
When we are confronted with the truth – something we would expect to be a source of wisdom and understanding – if we are not prepared to accept it as truth, it will give rise to aversion, anger, hatred, and many other negative emotions. The nature of reality is everything that arises, changes, falls apart, and disappears; everything that brings pleasure is unsatisfying, a cause for stress and discomfort, suffering and pain; everything that we hold as ours is uncontrollable, not subject to our wishes or the wishes of anyone at all. Seeing this for the first time can lead to such great disappointment as to make us reject what we see and prefer preconceived beliefs in the permanent, satisfying and controllable, even though we have observed such beliefs as going contrary to reality. When we cling to such beliefs, we will be unable to accept reality when it is otherwise, and will become angry and upset even to the point of destroying ourselves in anguish at the inability to gratify our expectations.
Both greed and anger are caused by expectation, which in turn is based on delusion or misunderstanding. This is how the three defilements of mind work. Since delusion is the cause of both types of partiality, if we can only remove the misunderstanding, understanding the truth that all of reality is impermanent, unsatisfying, and uncontrollable, then there will be no problem. It is actually possible to find complete peace, happiness and freedom from suffering; all that need be done is to let go of the misunderstanding that leads one to expect things to be other than what they are.
This is what we’re trying to achieve in insight meditation. We’re simply trying to see reality for what it is, developing clarity of mind, creating understanding and wisdom that will allow us to anticipate and expect change as a fact of life, so that when change does occur, we will be undisturbed by it. Once we’ve seen and experienced change and come to realize that it is an inherent part of reality – that everything that arises ceases, everything that comes goes, all experience is constantly changing; that nothing in the universe can truly satisfy us; and that nothing can truly be said to belong to us, or be under our control – then we will finally give up our attachment to everything and find true peace and happiness in letting go. It is this peace born of understanding that we try to attain through the practice of meditation.
The problem is that we bring to the meditation practice all of these expectations and misunderstandings with us. So we will still unconsciously expect to find what is stable and unchanging, pleasant and satisfying, compliant and controllable. When we focus on the experience of breathing, for example, we tend to expect that, with some work and practice, it will become stable, our stomach rising and falling constantly and smoothly at each breath; we expect that therefore it will be pleasant, it will be satisfying and the meditation will bring us pleasure and happiness; and we expect that we’ll be able to control it, to make it so whenever we wish. Eventually, we think, all of our pain, stress, and dissatisfaction will leave and we will be able to sit perfectly still and silent all of the time. This is what we tend to expect from the meditation practice.
It is essential, therefore, to understand that it is not the purpose of meditation to render the objects of experience as stable, pleasant, or controllable. Only our conditioned misunderstanding makes us think such a task is possible to accomplish. What we are actually trying to accomplish in meditation is to eradicate the belief that any arisen phenomenon can possibly be made stable, satisfying, or controllable. We are striving for the ability to experience and interact with reality free from any expectation whatsoever. It is only this state of non-clinging that will allow for true peace and happiness that is truly permanent, satisfying and dependable.
Our work, then, is to do away with expectations; to come to see that reality is not as we expect. For example, by just watching the stomach, noting “rising, falling”, we will begin to see the true nature of reality. We will see impermanence – sometimes the breath will be deep, sometimes it will be shallow, sometimes it will be one smooth motion, sometimes it will be broken up in segments; basically, we will see that it changes from one breath to another. We will also see that it is uncomfortable – from time to time there will be physical discomfort as a natural part of the bodily experience, but there will also be incessant mental discomfort due to unfulfilled expectations; in either case, we will begin to see it as something totally unsatisfying. Finally, we will see that it’s not under our control – when the meditator learns to let the breath be as it is, the rising and falling will be seen to proceed without one’s intervention; in the beginning, however, uncontrollability is more often experienced as the feeling of trying to control the breath.
The beginner meditator will at first think that they are able to control the breath, until finally the power of their concentration is overwhelmed and the breath returns to its natural pattern. They may even think that the noting itself is a form of control, and want to give up the meditation practice when they see that it is impossible to attain a state of perfect control over the breath. Actually, this realization is the beginning of insight into the nature of reality. The reason for the suffering is not the meditation itself, but rather the preconceived notions of permanence, satisfaction, and controllability that we attribute incorrectly to all objects of experience. Once we are able to see that it is not possible to control experience, giving up our mistaken beliefs otherwise, we will no longer be bothered by change, stress or chaos in experience, as we will no longer cling to things that cannot possibly satisfy us. Therefore, a person who sees this truth should actually consider oneself very lucky.
The problem is that when one begins to realize the truth, most meditators will not feel so lucky at all. Most meditators when seeing impermanence, suffering, and non-self, will feel that something is terribly wrong. They will feel that either a) there is something wrong with the meditation practice, or b) there is something wrong with how they are practising. In truth, a person who sees the changing, discomfort, and uncontrollability of experience is a person who sees things as they really are. Only by seeing these three characteristics of all experience can we change our misconceptions about reality. Only by giving up our misconceptions of reality can we free ourselves from our dependence on specific experiences and aversion towards other experiences. This profound state can be attained simply by watching one’s own breath. Once we are able to simply observe the stomach as it is, bearing with all of its changes and variations without becoming frustrated or angry or falling into suffering, letting it carry on unimpeded by expectation or control, our minds will become accustomed to such simple observation and we will be able to likewise let go of our attachments to everything in the universe. Simply by watching our own stomach rise and fall, we learn how to deal with all problems in our lives without difficulty, finding peace, happiness and freedom from suffering no matter what suffering arises or what problems we encounter, because we will be free from attachment to anything at all.
The main benefit of understanding the impermanence, suffering, and uncontrollability of all arisen things is that one will then let go of the idea of entities. Instead of seeing people as people, for example, one will experience them as a set of momentary experiences, a set of phenomena that arise. The mindful meditator will hear others’ voices and understand them as “hearing” – as momentary sounds, arising and ceasing. When seeing others, one will understand it just as “seeing”, and so on. The idea of a constant, unchangeable entity will fall away and one will be able to take people as they truly are at any given moment. Instead of holding grudges or having expectations of others’ behaviour, one will take people moment by moment. However other people may be at any given moment, one will respond appropriately to that moment based on the understanding of reality as it is, rather than as one expects it to be. One will be able to confront all aspects of life in a wise and impartial manner, free from the baggage that ordinary people carry around with them: feelings of vengeance, jealousy, fear, worry, and so on. All problems we have with others will disappear. Eventually, all problems we have with everything will disappear. When you experience something that before would make you afraid or stressed or worried, you’ll find that you don’t judge it to be so anymore. You will take everything simply for what it is.
The reason we stress and worry about the experiences in our lives is because we conceive them to be more than they are. Once we start to see things just as they are, we give up any attachment to them. We see that they’re impermanent, unsatisfying and uncontrollable, and therefore see no reason to cling to them or expect them to bring us true and lasting happiness. Because we don’t cling to them, wishing, “oh, may this make me happy!” or worrying, “how can I fix this to make it better?”, we will see everything as a series of experiences – seeing, hearing, and so on.
A good example of how this works is in regards to the fear of flying in an airplane. In truth, far fewer deaths are caused by airplanes than by more ordinary forms of transportation like automobiles or motorcycles, and yet very many people are still deathly afraid of the experience of flying in an airplane. Once they are able to become comfortable with moment-to-moment experience, the fear will vanish entirely as though it never existed.
I once had an opportunity to teach meditation to a woman sitting beside me on a flight in Canada. She was very much afraid of flying, and when the airplane took off she clung desperately to her seat as a result of the deeply ingrained fear. During the flight she relaxed somewhat, and I explained to her the method of observing the fear for what it was as “afraid, afraid”, as well as noting whatever experiences arose apart from the fear in a similar manner. Despite my explanations, she was sceptical, and remained so until the airplane was ready to land. So, I suggested that, rather than believe or disbelieve what I said, she should just try it for herself and see the result. During the landing, she practised as I had instructed and when the plane landed she turned to me and said, “in 35 years, I have never been able to land in an airplane without fear. Now, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t afraid at all!”
So, when we are mindful, something like sitting in an airplane will be exactly what it is, with no baggage attached to it, no extrapolating of the experience into being something that it is not. Another good example of how this works is with arguments; when you are in a position of being yelled at and you say to yourself “hearing, hearing”, becoming aware of it as simply a sound, you won’t process the sound as good or bad. You will simply know what’s being said and remain aware of the conversation, taking it for what it is. As a result, you will process it based on the meaning of the words instead of your reactions to them, and will be able to respond impartially, as though you were a third person giving advice to the participants in the argument. Instead of looking at the argument from your own point of view, full of desires, aversions, expectations, etc., you will see it without any desire to defeat the other person or fight to defend yourself. When “bad” things occur, you will just take them as they are. You won’t have any conception of “bad”, “good”, “me”, “mine”, etc.; you will simply see reality as it is and be at peace in every situation, at all times.
New meditators often have to wrestle with themselves when they are confronted with these truths; they think that what they are seeing is wrong because it goes against everything they have come to believe in without investigation. One of our meditators recently brought up a question that points to this dilemma; they said that after meditating, they would look in the mirror and not recognize themselves, something that surprised them very much. Actually, this is an indicator that this person was actually practising correctly, according to the Buddha’s teaching in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta:
“idha bhikkhu cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā na nimittaggāhī hoti nānubyañjanaggāhī.”
“Here, a bhikkhu, having seen a form with the eye, is neither one who takes hold of the characteristics nor one who takes hold of the details.”
Still, for someone who is used to grasping at characteristics and details – those very things that give rise to likes and dislikes, identification and possessiveness – it can be a disturbing realization that reality admits of no such particulars, that our attachments to these things are based on that which does not even exist.
Truly, what one sees in the mirror is just light. It is only after the light touches the eye that the mind processes the image and discerns, “this is me,” or even, “this is a person.” For a meditator, because of their ability to concentrate on the seeing just as it is, such recognition may not occur at all. Whereas for an ordinary person much extrapolation will occur based on the experience of seeing – first they recognize it, then they like it or dislike it, judging one’s image as beautiful, ugly, good or bad. The ordinary mind moves very quickly and without training will tend to move at random like a person in a dark room, bumping into the various objects that it meets with, and suffering accordingly. Once one practices meditation and focuses the mind on the reality of each experience, seeing becomes simply light touching the eye, a reality that arises and ceases. The idea that there is an external object, a person inside the mirror for example, vanishes. When one looks in a mirror, one projects the idea of a person inside the mirror, even though one is clearly aware that there is no such person inside the glass.
There is thus no reason to feel concern towards this sort of experience. When some meditators return home to their families after meditation courses, their families become quite upset when they see that their children are no longer attached to them, no longer cling to them, and they will become quite upset as a result. As a result, even the meditator, if their practice has not progressed far enough, may be convinced that the meditation has caused suffering for themselves and others. Actually, it is simply misunderstanding that is at the root of all suffering; if everyone were honest with themselves, they would have to admit that all attachment and clinging even in family life has never brought much happiness or peace at all; on the contrary, the more one clings to others, the more one suffers when they change, as this example shows.
The pleasure that goes along with desire is what leads to expectations of permanence, satisfaction, and controllability. When those expectations are not met, the result will be such unwholesome states as anger, frustration, sadness and despair, etc. It is therefore natural that there should be suffering when a person tries to give up clinging, especially towards other people who are accustomed to a mutual clinging relationship with that person. The successful meditator will not make a conscious decision to stop clinging to others, they will simply realize for themselves that no good comes from attachment to that which is impermanent, unsatisfying and uncontrollable, seeing for themselves that objectively experiencing reality as it is leads to far more peace and happiness for those who are do so. Their change in outlook is a natural outcome of seeing reality as it truly is, and the change in how they relate to the world around them is only the natural outcome.
It is thus important to remember to be open to all experiences that arise in meditation, whether pleasing or displeasing. If something arises in our experience, we must admit them to be a part of reality and adjust our understanding accordingly, rather than trying to alter the experience itself or even reject it outright in order to fit with our preconceived notions of what reality should be. If we are intent upon realizing the truth, we should be willing to open up to even unpleasant situations. This doesn’t mean that our meditation will always be unpleasant – meditation can also bring states of great happiness or calm – but when we are objective in our observation, we will see that even these experiences are impermanent, unsatisfying, and, in the end, uncontrollable. Once we note them as “happy, happy”, “calm, calm”, we will lose any clinging towards them that might lead us to expect them to stay or arise when they do not.
We should never cling to positive experiences, and we should never cling to negative experiences. We should be willing to experience both pleasant and unpleasant experiences as they are, not expecting one or fearing the other. We should train ourselves to see that there is no benefit in clinging to any experience. As the Buddha said, “sabbe dhammā nālaṃ abhinivesāya – All realities are indeed not worth clinging to.” We must understand that no experience can make one happy if one is not already happy; if you’re not already at peace within yourself, there is nothing that you will experience that will bring it to you. It is only the freedom of mind that comes from not seeking out permanence in things that change, comfort in what is unsatisfying, or control in what is uncontrollable, that leads to true benefit for ourselves and others. Once you see all objects of experience as impermanent, unsatisfying, and uncontrollable and accept that this is the nature of reality, then you will find true peace, happiness, and freedom from suffering.
So, when unpleasant experiences come up in your meditation you should not become discouraged or frustrated; you should appreciate such events as learning experiences to help us understand the nature of reality. When pain arises, for example, one should recognize it as simply “pain, pain, pain…”, and not be concerned whether it will stay or go, diminish or become even stronger. When we practice in this way, we will see that the outcome is uncertain; sometimes the pain comes, sometimes it goes; sometimes it gets stronger, sometimes it gets weaker. This is the nature of pain. Through observation of the nature of the pain, we will come to see that it is really nothing in it to be bothered about – it isn’t amenable to our wishes, and there is no reason for us to be concerned by its appearance. When discomfort arises in the stomach, one should recognize it as, “uncomfortable” or “discomfort”, or recognize the mind’s reaction as “disliking”, “angry”, or “upset”. When the experience in meditation is not as you would like – when it gives rise to frustration, worry, fear, etc. – just be aware of the situation as it is.
If one practices continuously in this way, eventually the mind will let go of all arisen phenomena. This is the experience of true freedom – to see that all things that arise must cease. Once we see this truth, all greed and anger will disappear because there will be no delusion to support them. The mind will be forced to give up its misunderstandings. By seeing the nature of reality over and over again, the mind will gradually let go of all beliefs contrary to the truth of reality. The mind will incline away from clinging and find true freedom within itself, outside of all arisen phenomena. Whereas in the beginning, the mind would seek to find permanence, satisfaction, and control, eventually it will give up this impossible quest and accept that such is not possible, given the nature of experiential reality. One will realize that, truly, clinging only leads to suffering, and cease to look for happiness in external objects that have no ability to bring true happiness.
This is the path that leads us to become free from all suffering. I wish all of you the best of fortune on your path. I hope that you are able to find true insight into the nature of reality and thereby true peace, happiness and freedom from suffering.