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Developing the Mind Supports Insight

In Buddhist practice, acquiring liberating insight goes hand-in-hand with mental cultivation. We cannot have deep insight without developing the mind, any more than a nearsighted person can see clearly without glasses. And we cannot benefit from insight without inner strength, any more than a hiker can climb a mountain without physical strength.

The three core insights of mindfulness practice are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. Because of their importance, these “three characteristics” are often taught enthusiastically without reference to the mental development necessary to support them. Sometimes this leads to an excessively intellectual understanding where the “insights” become merely learned concepts rather than something directly understood or seen.

Overemphasizing the three characteristics can make Buddhist practice dreary, even discouraging. For someone whose life is falling apart because of radical social or personal change, being told that everything is impermanent can be disheartening or worse. For someone whose life is filled with unrelenting suffering, learning that all is unsatisfactory takes away all hope. And for someone whose confidence and self-identity has been stripped away or was never developed, the not-self teaching can put salt in a deep wound.

The insights are best supported by a variety of inner strengths. If we don’t already have these, it is useful to cultivate them. Paradoxically, the three strengths most needed are opposite in character from the three insights. The power of mental stability enables greater insight into impermanence; the potency of well-being provides the healthy context for insight into unsatisfactoriness; and the strength of confidence keeps us balanced when we are faced with the insight into not-self.

Stability, well-being, and confidence are cultivated through Buddhist practice. For example, meditation practice stabilizes the mind; practices such as generosity, ethics, and concentration are ways of cultivating well-being; and walking the path of practice is a way to develop confidence in our personal abilities.

Mental stability is related to calm, constancy, continuity, and commitment in practice. Deep, direct insight into impermanence cannot arise in an agitated, restless mind where a preoccupation with ideas, imaginings, or memories interferes with seeing clearly. In order to perceive change it helps for the mind to be still; inner stability allows peace in the midst of change. It keeps us from being easily buffeted in times of great social and personal instability.

The term “well-being” encompasses a host of positive emotions cultivated along the Buddhist path. They include the delight, contentment, joy, happiness, and rapture that arise as we practice the path. Many practices cultivate well-being. It can arise from practicing ethical integrity and by delighting in our own goodness and good actions. Even if we have acted unethically in the past, if we learn from this and resolve to do better, our resolve can be a reason to feel good about our self. Moreover, when we know we have nothing to hide, we experience what the Buddha calls the “bliss of blamelessness,” which allows for a deep relaxation.

Acting wisely on our generous impulses also promotes our own happiness. Giving to others weakens selfishness while helping develop a positive self-regard.

One of the important functions of meditation practice is to develop joy. While it certainly should not be expected all the time, sooner or later meditation should include joy. If it doesn’t, then this can be useful to discuss with a meditation teacher.

With well-being as a support, insight into the pervasive suffering and unsatisfactoriness of much of human life doesn’t have to be depressing or frightening. Rather, it can help us direct our attention and efforts to what is truly satisfying: spiritual freedom and compassion.

Not-self can be the most difficult insight because it can be destabilizing, even frightening. However, it can be a bit like learning to ride a bicycle. At first, one may be afraid and unsteady trying to keep one’s balance. Once one has become a strong, confident rider, the fear and uncertainty disappear.

Likewise, without confidence and personal strength, the insight into not-self can be quite disorienting and uncomfortable. When we feel confident and strong, we can experience this insight with equanimity.

Sometimes the teachings on not-self are interpreted to mean one should become self-effacing and humble. While it is certainly useful to overcome conceit, Buddhist practice also involves cultivating courageous strength. The personal strengths one cultivates on the Buddhist path include integrity, honesty, patience, kindness, resolve, wisdom, and confidence. With these as a foundation, the insight into not-self has the support needed to become a catalyst for releasing all self-attachments. The obvious benefits of such letting go of self-clinging can be seen most clearly when the mind is most still and happy. Letting go of clinging to self is then seen as a step further into peace and well-being rather than anything to be feared.

The path of insight and liberation does not leave us with nothing; it leaves us with the well-developed inner treasures of a steady, happy, and confident mind. When we see that this mind is, like everything else, impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self, it only adds to our peace and happiness.

—Gil Fronsdal