Transcribed from a talk given by Gil Fronsdal on May 16, 2005
Yesterday, I gave a talk. I was invited to give a talk and I gave it at The Unity Church in Palo Alto. I had never been to a Christian service before, so it was kind of new to me. I was invited to give a sermon, but when I got there, they called it the lesson. It was interesting to be there, and one of the interesting things they did was to sing. It is very different that what we do. When was the last time we sang? They had one song, the Unity song, about silence, and that there is a sacred meeting place in the silence. So what is it we can meet in the silence? As I was sitting here getting ready to speak, the idea of silence came up in my mind, and I felt that sometimes, one of the best containers of what is going on in life is silence. I don’t mean the silence of ignoring or turning away, or the awkward silence of not knowing what to do. But there is something very powerful, very intimate, about holding what is going on in silence. It is not turning away, but for some things in life, you can’t really know what to do, or you really can’t do anything. But it can be held in the silence and then something different happens in the silence. Sometimes it is a very respectful way of being with the impossible.
There is a quote that goes something like this: “In the silence, there is the sound of flapping bird wings.” You might have had an experience in your life where the silence was very pronounced or very strong, and you were very absorbed in the silence and engaged in it, and then suddenly there is a sound. That sound could be a very ordinary sound, like the flapping of bird winds, but it becomes much more heightened, and you can see and hear it much more clearly. I think that quote comes from Japanese Buddhism, where they have a big emphasis on impermanence, on the ephemeral nature of our experience. In many Japanese poems, they contrast the silence of stillness with the ephemeral world that gets highlighted in that stillness and silence. In some Japanese flower arrangements, they will have just one flower. They could have a whole bouquet, as for a wedding, but they have just one flower. That flower is up on an altar and the singularity of that flower stands out. Part of the idea is that in that special alcove over the altar, you can be much more aware of its uniqueness, and also much more aware of its ephemeral nature. Somehow there is a framing of the experience which highlights those qualities of it.
When we bring mindfulness to our experience, or when we sit and meditate, we are also bringing a new framework, a new orientation, to understand how our experience is, or to understand how to see our experience. That is often quite different than how we normally think about what is going on. Think about those drawings in which you can see either an old lady or a young woman. Someone tells you, “Can you see the old woman,” and all you can see is the young woman. Then you squint your eyes and turn your head. Suddenly it pops out and you say, “How could I have missed it? It’s right there. Now where did the young woman go?” It goes back and forth and you can’t quite see both at the same time. Often, the way we go about out daily life is to look at it in one frame with only one way of understanding it. But there can be another twist and you can see it in a new way. The new way can be enlightening and quite revealing. The new way can present a different world to live in. It is always there.
One of the flips that the Buddhist tradition puts a lot of emphasis on is that flip where our perception starts seeing things as always changing. This might be called the changing nature of experience or the impermanent or the inconstant level of our experience. It is one of the paradoxes of meditation practice that the stiller the mind becomes in meditation, the quieter it becomes, the more we become acutely aware of how things are always changing. The busier the mind is, the more agitated the mind is, then the more the mind tries to create the idea of permanence and stability. That is partly because when the mind is really busy and active, it tends to be living in the world of concepts and ideas, because that is what the mind is chasing. Ideas often have a kind of stability to them, or we relate to them as if they are stable. So when we start to stop the busyness and chatter of the mind and we become still, then what we see are not concepts, but rather the immediacy of our experience. The immediacy of our experience is not a concept, and that immediacy tends to be seen as something that is changeable, as something that is changing all the time.
Buddhism puts a lot of emphasis on the experience of change. You might try that in your life and in your meditation—to begin seeing that aspect in your present moment experience which is changing. You can watch new things arise in the present—something new comes, and something that was, goes away. You can watch that going through. Herman Hesse called it a stream, a river. Siddhartha sat along the river and watched the river of life going by. You can notice that things arise, things pass; suddenly things are there that were not there before, and then they are gone. It is quite interesting to see.
Sometimes the experience of impermanence can be so acute, even in normal life outside of meditation, that we are changed by it. On my way yesterday to the Unity Church in Palo Alto to give my talk, and it was early in the morning, about 8:30 or so, and I was kind of happy about going there, and curious about being in a new place with new people. Then I drove by the Safeway parking lot, and I could not believe what I saw there. In the parking lot of Safeway, there was a car. The only way my mind could conceive of it was that it had been burned by a car bomb. It was twisted and peeled open and one part of the engine was in one place and the transmission was in another place. So I felt that I had to go back to see it, not because of some morbid curiosity, but because of the contrast of being happy to go to a church to speak and seeing this tragedy of what had happened to the car. Somehow I felt that it was important to witness it or take it in, and not just pass it by quickly. I wanted that to have an impact on me because it is an important part of life. So I stopped and went back to see what had happened. It was not a car bomb, but rather a young man who had been speeding down Middlefield at some great speed. Just before Safeway there is a little bridge, and the car went airborne as they lost control of the car. They smashed into the brick wall in front of Safeway and then flipped over two cars and then landed in the lane between the parking slots. I did not know that cars could end up so twisted. One of them died and one is in critical care. It was a lesson in impermanence and also how quickly things can change. To take that in is presence and an awareness of the possibility of that kind of change. After contact with something like that, one can ask: what does that say about how you want to live your life or what is really important and valuable? What does it mean to be a human being and how do we take things in?
What I would like to do today and for the next few Mondays is to talk about what is called the three characteristics, the three primary insights that give insight meditation its name, insight. The first of the three insights is impermanence. The second is suffering, dukkha. The third is not-self. Today I will talk about impermanence. They are emphasized in the Buddhist tradition for a variety of reasons. One reason is that they are true, that these truths can characterize our experiences, that there are some very deep and important aspects of them that are impermanent, suffering, and not-self. One of the reasons why it is important in meditation is that having some insight into three characteristics is that they are a means of a vehicle to liberating the mind. So the possibility for the mind and the heart not to be shackled, not to be held back by fear, by distress, by greed, by holding and clinging, is made possible by this very deep insight into these three characteristics. We aim to open up to the world of impermanence in all of the ways that it exists. How can we see that in such a way that it helps us become freer? Can we be motivated to go in that direction partly out of compassion and care for the world around us? The world needs people who can be present in ways that are not filled with suffering.
In the Dhammapada, there is a statement about these three characteristics. It is very interesting because of what it adds. The basic formula for the three characteristics goes something like this: “All created things are impermanent. All created things are suffering. All things are not-self.” It says that all created things are impermanent, and that all created things are in some ways not satisfactory, but then it changes and says that all things are not-self. That will become important later on when we get to not-self when we look at why there is a shift there. That is the basic formula. Here is the statement from the Dhammapada: “All things are impermanent. Seeing this with insight, one becomes disenchanted with suffering. This is the path to purity. All created things are suffering. Seeing this with insight, one becomes disenchanted with suffering. This is the path to purity. All things are not-self. Seeing this with insight, one becomes disenchanted with suffering. This is the path to purity.” Seeing that all things are impermanent gives insight, not because you read it in a book and your logic tells you that the mountains are impermanent and they will fall away. You need to see impermanence as an immediate perception, just like you would see the flapping of the wings and the rising and falling sound of the wings and then the silence, or the way that you would see the fading away of a flower, or you see the arising of a cough and the ending of it. Seeing this with insight, one becomes disenchanted with suffering. That is a very interesting statement, “disenchanted with suffering.” Did you realize that you were enchanted with suffering? Most people are not. I don’t know why it says that. But somehow the insight into impermanence creates a certain kind of disenchantment. One easy way of explaining this is to say that to become disenchanted with suffering is equivalent to being motivated to get to the root of suffering, or to uproot the root of what brings about our suffering, to somehow come to terms with it and face it in a very direct way. To be disenchanted in suffering is to no longer be interested and willing go along with the fact that we are suffering—the idea that since everyone is suffering, we can just accept it and go along with it and be peaceful about it. Rather than accepting it in some way, we say, “No. I don’t want to suffer any more.” One of the noble things to do in human life is to get to the heart of human suffering, the causes of it, and somehow come to terms with it. The insight into impermanence makes us think that our life is precious and short, so for my own sake and for the sake of others, I will take in this world of impermanence and look at what is really important. It may be really important to get to the root of suffering. If you flip that over and look at the opposite side of the coin of that statement, you would say that you are interested in happiness and that you want to live a life that is happy and peaceful and somehow it has a deep, abiding sense of well-being.
This is a sense of well-being that is not so easily blown away by the causes and conditions of the world.
How is it valuable to start tuning into the impermanence? What can be seen? I like to differentiate three different ways of experiencing impermanence, or three different levels of experiencing impermanence. The first is what could be called the ordinary level, which is a level available to everybody. Impermanence, or change, is something that is happening all the time. Sometimes change is a tragedy which brings suffering, and at other times, change is a delight, as when something unpleasant is over after a long time, and you are very glad it is over. That is an inviting change. Sometimes, when there is change, we have the possibility of shaping something new, creating something new; that is, there is potential in impermanence and change. So how do we participate in the world? If things were always fixed, then we could not change anything. But because the world is a changing world and a changeable world, to some degree we have some role in creating that change. One of the places that role has the greatest importance is the responsibility we have in directing the change of our own heart, our own psychophysical being, our own spiritual life.
The experience of permanence or change is available to everyone, and sometimes we become acutely aware of it in this life. Sometimes it is slow. It may be something that comes with age. Now that I am fifty years old, somehow things are changing. It seems that things are ephemeral, that things are moving through much faster than they did when I was younger. I feel much more acutely aware of how things are always changing and becoming something new and unfolding. At some point you turn this corner at a certain age, and you can begin or imaging seeing your own end. When I was twenty, I knew there was an end, but come on. You know that Beatles’ song, “When I’m Sixty Four.” That seemed so very far away. Do people really get to be sixty four? And now it seems that it is just around the corner. Our friends come and go. People we know die. Someday, I’ll be the most senior person of my generation in my family. Then it will be my turn. There is a certain kind of depth, perhaps a serious depth, in the life that we live. The experience of impermanence gives depth to our life. So when we really take in the impermanence, in some way it gives a depth that is very satisfying, and in some ways, it is also uncomfortable. Satisfying and uncomfortable—in either way, it gives a depth to our life.
The first level of impermanence is the ordinary level. Many people become very wise through their experience with impermanence. Sometimes it is experienced painfully because of life experience. Also, I have known people who are a lot wiser than Buddhists are, because somehow they have lived through many of the changes that life puts us through, and in those changes, they have learned from that. They have become wiser and better from having learned from the experienced. This wisdom is available to anybody if we take it.
What is unique to Buddhism is not the experience of ordinary permanence, but the experience of the second and third levels of impermanence. In the second level is impermanence at the insight level. That is when we experience things without the filter of our labels and concepts. We tend to give things a semblance of permanence. It is very easy to give things a semblance of permanence. We do it to ourselves and to other people and to our life all too often. Some of you have been recipients of projections or ideas in which people have seen you and categorized you in a certain way. Something may have happened twenty years ago where you got angry. From then on, people were very cautious around you and you want to say, “I’m not always this way.” People can get an impression of us and then think that that is who you are. You want to say, “Please don’t see me that way.” Or there is the case of someone you see only through the filter of being someone’s spouse, and you want to say, “Please don’t see me that way. Just because I am someone’s spouse does not mean that’s who I am.” But people have the label and there is a kind of permanence there. Sometimes children, usually when they become an adult and have their own children, they find out that their parents are more than parents. They are not just a mother and father; they have many other roles. That is a revelation. We do that to ourselves. We see ourselves in certain ways. We limit ourselves and put ourselves in certain categories and assume a certain permanence here. There tends to be a lot less permanence in who we are than the assumptions we usually operate from tell us. To be able to drop behind the concepts or let go of the concepts is desirable. To put the conceptual mind, the ideas, to rest is a really radical thing to do. What you will find if you look at the relationship between your ideas and concepts and your inner life of happiness and suffering, is that your suffering is rooted in ideas abut how things are. If you can step out of the ideas, you will have a different perception of what is actually going on. It is not that the ideas are always wrong, but is it supposed to be always a young woman or old woman in the picture. To have that flexibility to move back and forth is to see the picture more fully for what it is intended to be. If we are always seeing things through the filter of concepts, then we are missing a really important part of what is supposed to be happening.
Today I talked to a person who has been practicing very seriously for a long time. This person is a very wise person, and the practice has been very beneficial for this person. However, it seemed to me in talking to the person that they were very deeply entrenched in a certain idea, and they were stuck in it. There is a lot of wisdom in this idea, but the person felt that this was the only idea the practice was about, the only thing to clarify through the practice. This area was the idea of interpersonal relationships with other people and with the world around. Buddhist teachings, which put a lot of emphasis on interdependence, really spoke to this person, and this person saw the practice of revealing impermanence in a very deep way. But that is the only game in town to this person, interdependence and interpenetration. That is not where freedom is found, especially ultimate freedom. There is a possibility in the human heart of finding a kind of presence, a way of being, that is at rest in itself. It does not exist in relationship to relationships. So that is a place of independent abiding where three is not a reference outside of presence. It is of way of being, a consciousness which is self-luminous. There is no reference outside of itself for itself. It is a presence that can be at rest in itself and just be itself. This person was so focused on the idea of interdependence, and interrelatedness, that they never had an experience of non-dependent happiness. This person was stuck in the world because of the concept of interdependence. If you are in that world, you can do a lot in it, but to some degree it is also like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You can adjust it and change it and arrange it in certain ways, and have a lot of understanding, but you will miss that area where you can see another possibility.
So the insight part of mindfulness is has to do with training the mind to relax enough so that we are not thinking about things any more. That means not thinking about things that are far away in time, far away in the past or future, but also not thinking about things that are in the present. That does mean that we go numb or shut off. Actually, it is the opposite. We actually became more fully perceptive of what is going on right here and now. There is a clear, heightened sense of seeing of what is happening, or this is what I am hearing or sensing or feeling. As we begin to stop thinking about things and seeing them in their immediacy—that means immediacy in our perception and in our presence—then we start entering into this world of insight impermanence, the insight of impermanence. That is the aspect of our moment to moment experience which is constantly arising and passing. It is really phenomenal to enter into the world of insight impermanence and to realize how thoroughly things are constantly changing and shifting. Even something we thought was permanent, or assumed was permanent, is not. For example, we may have physical or emotional pain. From a distance, we may think that this is the way it is. I wake up, I am depressed, and this is the way I will be for the rest of my life—I am stuck. But if you look very carefully and have this immediacy in your presence, and you are willing to let go of your thoughts and ideas, you will find that your physical pain and your emotional pain are actually something that are arising and passing. They are in flux. They are not solid; they are moving. There is a shift from seeing ice to seeing water. Ice is solid, while water is fluid. Insight gives us that shift from ice to water. We start seeing that everything is flowing and shifting and moving. That does not mean that the pain goes away, but the pain is seen very differently that if it were ice.
Some people, at this level of insight, will equate this with physics. That is, the experience of impermanence that happens in deep insight meditation is an accurate and true perception of the impermanent nature of reality. Now I see that the reality I see out there is in constant flux, arising and passing, moment by moment. Now I can read The Tao of Physics and Buddhists and physics are saying the same thing, and at its deep atomic, cellular level everything is arising and passing, and now I see it. That is very interesting. However, I think it is a mistake to go into this very deep perception and awareness and then to make metaphysical conclusions about what you are seeing. What you are seeing is not that important. What is important is the function that seeing has in freeing you. As you get down into deeper and deeper levels of insight, where you see the arising and passing of our experience, whether or not that is an accurate perception of the world outside is a metaphysical question. But our experience is constantly arising and passing in our immediacy, and the deeper you can go into that world, the ore and more that impermanence challenges the deepest held and cherished attachments that the heart has. Some of the deepest clinging that are very hard to see and touch and let go of, are not perceptible in our ordinary, everyday life. In our minds, we can’t see the depth of our clinging in the heart. But when the mind is really concentrated and insight is really deep, then it finally begins to convince your heart—not you; it is not you that it convinces. But it convinces your heart that it is OK to relax, to settle on itself and let go and not hold onto anything, not to be defended in any way, not to be contracted in any way.
This opens to the third level of insight. This can be called the liberating level of insight. That is the experience of liberation that can come in the moment when we see impermanence so acutely and deeply so that the heart says, “I might as well give up. I might as well let go,” or, “I can’t do anything else but let go.” For some people, the deep insight into impermanence is called a gate to liberation. This is the avenue by which some people relax the heart. That is what the heart wants. The heart and mind is the same. That is what the heart most wants, I believe. It wants to be so deeply trusting and settled on itself that it is not even holding on to itself. There is so much trust in the heart, that there is no need to contract or hold on no matter what is going on.
These three levels of insight apply to each of the three characteristics, whether it is impermanence, suffering, dukkha, or not-self. Any of those three characteristics provides a door into liberation. For reasons I don’t know, some people go through the door of impermanence, some go through the door of suffering, and some go through the door of not-self.
We talked about the picture of the old woman switching to a young woman, the switching of the perception. You might want to try to that this week. In particular, you might want to try that in the context of silence, especially when things are noisy. You might want to see if you can switch and tune into the silence and stillness that is here. Perhaps that stillness and silence will make you much more aware of how things are arising and passing, of how things are passing through the impermanence of it all. Perhaps that will add depth and freedom to your experience of the life you are living this week
Thank you for listening so well.