This is the sixth of twelve posts in the Exploring Mindfulness blog series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. This post addresses Chapter Ten. Participants are encouraged to practice mindful meditation daily throughout the twelve weeks, even if for five minutes at a time. (7 min read)
In Chapter Ten, Pema Chödrön introduces the traditional Buddhist instruction of The Three Marks of Existence. These three truths are impermanence, suffering, and egolessness.
1.Impermanence. This is the nature of things. She writes, “Impermanence is the goodness of reality.”It is good not because something else is bad but because it is merely the way things are. Its goodness is experienced when we experiment with fully accepting it. The cold of winter is no better or worse than the heat of summer or the cool of fall that it follows; the birth of spring is no better or worse than the dying of autumn or winter’s death. Decades before I knew anything about mindfulness, I expressed my experience of the dilemma of preferring one moment over the other. I wrote a song in the autumn when I was 19. The song was about a moment on a crisp evening near sunset. I was walking and looking at the western sky, which was dark and foreboding, accept where a beam of light escaped. I turned around to see where the light struck, and there was a tree with amber leaves that looked as if it was on fire. I immediately had that feeling of “I want to stay in this moment forever.” But, the song explains my dilemma:
It was much too cold to stay too long ~ And the sun would soon be gone.
I had to run to find a pen ~ Before I lost this song.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like ~ If I had nowhere else to go,
But to stand outside while the seasons changed ~ The gold leaves into snow.
In one sense, I was mindful. I was awake enough to see the fleeting beauty of light on a tree. But I grasped at it. My very desire to write this song was an attempt to capture a moment that could not be sustained. But I wondered, “what it would be like if I had nowhere else to go.” What if being inside where it was warm was no better than standing in the cold; if being with my girlfriend in her nearby dorm room was no better than being alone; if I accepted that the autumn that I loved was no better than the winter that I feared?
We are each inclined to miss the fullness of the present moment. So our entire life is at risk of being an endless series of anticipating the next thing; whether it is with dread or enthusiasm makes no difference. We miss the present moment because of future-directed desire. Or conversely, when we feel joy, we dread the moment being over. The first taste of chocolate cake is so exquisite, or that first shot of whiskey is so warm and full of well-being that we chase after it. But it has already passed. All we get by chasing is being overstuffed or intoxicated. What if instead we took delight in the taste and let it go rather than despair the passing. Pema observes, “Somehow, in the process of trying to deny that things are always changing, we lose our sense of the sacredness of life.”
2. Suffering. It seems to me that Pema is telling us that in and of itself, in its pure form, suffering is okay. Suffering and joy pass from one into the other of their own accord. Fear of the loss of joy or of the continuation of suffering is more painful than suffering itself—fear magnifies suffering. If we can accept suffering, knowing that it will pass, and if we can participate in joy without clinging, we see that it will return even as it passes.
Pema offers out a nugget of wisdom, on which she did not elaborate. She wrote, “Pain is not a punishment; Pleasure is not a reward.” If we can break our association between pain and punishment, and if we can stop thinking about pleasure as a reward, we could simply experience these emotions without judging ourselves. Reward and punishment are so embedded in our western psyche because they are emphasized in our culture. Using incentives to elicit certain behaviors, or punishment to extinguish undesirable behaviors are attempts to control ourselves or others. The way we control ourselves is through internalized rewards and punishment, which we call accomplishments and consequences. It becomes about us (ego)—OUR accomplishments or OUR consequences—instead of merely being a moment of accomplishment such as an established exercise routine or a moment of consequences such as feeling tired and anxious when we haven’t exercised in a while. Natural suffering is the feeling of being tired and anxious.Unnecessary and magnified suffering is feeling guilty and inadequate for not exercising. This is why maître (loving-kindness) toward oneself is so essential. The freedom inherent in the practice of mindfulness is an alternative to the control inherent in the practice of rewards and punishments, whether external or internal. It is experimenting with a different way of perceiving and responding to the world. It is a fostering of curiosity about existence, fostering the freedom to see the world as it really is, unhinged from preconceived ideas, for example, that idea that accomplishments mean I am good and consequences mean I am bad. In short, when one experiences suffering as punishment, one is being controlled; when one experiences suffering as just one aspect of existence, one is free. We are free to experience suffering and joy as a union. Joy lends itself to the experience of expansiveness, while suffering lends itself to being humble. Joy, without suffering, can lead to grandiosity and arrogance. Suffering without joy can lead to despair. If you are in a couch potato phase, breathe in the pain of others who are also stuck on the couch and breathe out the wish for their well-being (This is the practice of tonglen taught in Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen).
3.Egolessness. In everyday use, the word ego is a pejorative. It means, for example, self-importance. In Western psychology, there is the concept of a healthy ego. Our ego is the fruit of the maturing of our personality and is what roots us in reality. In Freudian psychology, the ego is the integration of our socialization of our parents (Superego) and the playfully creative, but selfish child within (Id). But there is also the concept of an inflated-ego (narcissism), where the Id is too dominant. As such, the inflated-ego is similar to the common usage of the ego. Ego, as Pema Chödrön uses it, is about our false sense of separateness. In Buddhism and much of Eastern psychology and religion, there is no separate self. In Hinduism, there is only the one Self, of which we are all part. To be egoless, then, is to awaken to the realization that everything belongs just as it is. It is to be free of narcissism and self-centeredness. Sometimes we naively think that self-centered people who look out for themselves have an unfair advantage. But if we think about it carefully, self-centeredness fosters the grasping of pleasure and pushing away of suffering, only to create more suffering.
Most of us cannot sustain a state of egolessness very long—perhaps only minutes at a time. Mindful living makes it more likely that these moments will arise and linger.
If I think I am only a distinct and separate self, this is a lonely place to be. And if I see myself at the center of life when I am at the end of my life, the whole world is coming to an end—so it is a great calamity. If I am egoless, the world continues to exist, and death is not really such a big deal. Death, though, is but a single moment in our life. Egolessness is practiced daily with the mundane pleasure and suffering of everyday life. We can begin to realize the flimsiness of ego through curiosity.
When we are free to be curious, we explore the world as it is with pleasure and pain; we experiment with it intelligently and cheerfully like an infant experimenting with a toy, poking it, and tasting it. “This,” Pema tells us, “is called mindfulness, awareness, curiosity, inquisitiveness, paying attention.”
4.The Fourth Mark of Existence: Peace. This is the fourth of three marks! (Things are always in flux.) Peace might be seen as the fruit of the Three Marks. Pema describes peace as
the well-being that comes when we can see the infinite pairs of opposites as complementary. If there is beauty, there must be ugliness…Wisdom and ignorance cannot be separated. This is an old truth—one that men and women like ourselves have been discovering for a long time. Cultivating moment-to-moment curiosity, we just might find that day by day, this kind of peace dawns on us…
Peace may be understood in the context of equanimity, as described in the last blog post.
Equanimity is the state of acceptance between the pull of what we desire and the pushing away of what we dislike. Peace is the fruit that is produced by equanimity.
Before the exercise, go through the Three Marks of Existence plus the Fourth. Write down a few keywords and sparse notes; no more than can fit on one side of an index card. I recommend that you do this at a separate time from your meditation.
When you sit to meditate. Settle yourself in for your seated practice. Spend a few moments as you typically practice—have light focus on your breath. When your mind wanders, note it and simply begin again.
Eventually, glance at your notes for impermanence. Speak (aloud or internally) your desire to let down your defenses so that you can accept the reality of the impermanence of things, and to let go of your desire for permanence. Spend a few moments sitting with this.
Now glance at your notes for suffering. Speak (aloud or internally) your desire to let down your defenses so that you can accept the reality of suffering and that it is not something to push away. Spend a few moments sitting with this.
Next, glance at your notes for egolessness. Speak (aloud or internally) your desire to let down your defenses so that you can let go of your ego. Spend a few moments sitting with this.
Finally, sit a few moments in peace, in the unity of opposites, pretending as if you have already fully accepted this.
Thanks for participating!
ॐ I bow to you,
Next Post is 6/14/20 and will focus on Chapters 11 & 12
To find out more about the series or to participate in the discussion, go to Welcome to the Exploring Mindfulness Series.