In yesterday’s post, I discussed a concept called Right Effort, the process by which a meditator will abandon harmful thoughts, speech and action and cultivate positive ones. I used the example of seeing the habit of being harsh on yourself after a bout of impatience. Continuing with this example, in this post I’ll wrap up my series on sitting intensive meditation retreats by discussing what I see the core of this practice as being all about.
So in the described situation, there’s a certain sort of “seeing”, or noticing, involved. You’re standing in line, your foot starts tapping impatiently, you notice the impatience, you start the judgment process wherein self directed aversion rears its ugly head, and finally there is a recognition, a seeing, of the pattern and a subsequent abandonment of it, at least in that moment. This kind of seeing is one that spots macro patterns of mind, what are colloquially referred to as mental habits. While very important, this kind of seeing is not the sine qua non of insight practice. The fundamental seeing that insight practice refers to is far more granular.
A metaphor here might be useful. Imagine you’re in the passenger seat of a car, and you’re looking out the window at about a 45 degree angle, watching an approaching tree on the side of the highway come closer and closer, and before it goes by refocusing the eyes on another tree that’s further away. (Anyone who’s been in the passenger seat has probably done this!) Due to mind solidifying and tracking it, that original tree’s qualities may have become fairly clear even though it was moving, enough to know whether you like that tree or not. This is like seeing the mental pattern of judging oneself negatively and deciding it’s not very useful. This is the macro seeing.
At its refined stages though, insight practice is much more akin to looking directly out of the window at 90 degrees, so that the sightline is perpendicular to the road and the eyes are not tracking any one tree (You know you’ve done this too!). Instead of following individual trees, one is seeing the flow of the forest as it goes by, perhaps noticing streaks of green and brown and the experience of the speed of movement, not judging any one tree as being more or less desirable than another (the pattern “tree” can even disappear entirely sometimes). As it relates to insight meditation, this represents a kind of noticing that allows much more micro patterns of mind to become clear, getting down to a more fundamental and direct aspect of experience. Like the metaphor, when doing this kind of practice things tend to feel like they’re going quite quickly, as contrasted with some of the concentrated practices described earlier, which tend to be more characterized by stability.
When practicing in this way. it’s possible to directly see the comings and goings of sensory phenomena with clarity, precision and inclusiveness in a way that’s very hard to do in the context of daily life, which is why many people go on retreat. Things that go by mostly unnoticed, like the intention to take a step, or have a thought even, with this kind of practice can often be clearly seen. And so the experience of retreat itself is to create a container in which this kind of seeing can happen.
The seeing is the point, not the cultivation of any given experience over another. That’s part of why there’s no one experience or mind state that characterizes retreats, such as relaxation. Sometimes an entire weeklong retreat might be dominated by the experience of sleepiness, and another entirely characterized by lightness and clarity. More often though, retreats have a roller coaster quality to them, there are points of great relaxation and times of total despair. Sometimes you’re bored, sometimes you’re excited, sometimes you want to get a burger. But the practice is always the same: see clearly and precisely the sensations that make up the perceptual world moment by moment, without grasping at these sensations or pushing them away.
When a person starts to encounter this sort of seeing, something strange happens: rather than it seeming weird and artificial to be in such an intense and sequestered environment as a retreat, it seems weird that we ever live with the lack of clarity that usually characterizes life “out in the world”. It’s normal life that looks extreme and odd, rather than not talking for weeks on end. And so to have this sort of clear seeing is an amazing thing, it sets a high bar for how we might live in the world and is a laudable goal in and of itself. But while it is a major goal of being on retreat, the heart of whole practice comes not just with the clear seeing, but with the knowledge and insight that comes from it about the nature of experience.
This is where things start to get somewhat controversial, but I figure you’ve read this far so you’ve earned my full thoughts on the subject. The “Insight” part of Insight Meditation is about seeing not just experience itself, but the nature and attributes of experience overall. Experience here can also be referred to as reality, as from the perspective of the Buddha, there was no important difference between the two in terms of the questions he was concerned with. That’s not to say that there’s no reality outside of what we experience through the senses (ei – there’s still a table even though it disappears when we close our eyes), but just that for the purposes of the Buddha, this objective reality isn’t the key, but rather the subjective, or perceptual, one is. You might be wondering why I’m splitting hairs like this, but bear with me.
With clear seeing of sensory reality, the Buddha found that we can notice something rather surprising about it. Or, rather, three things, each building off the previous.
First, he found that experience is characterized by impermanence, or Anicca. Pretty uncontroversial actually, most people would agree that nothing is permanent in this world. Things start, and they end. Relationships come, and go. Jobs too. Ice cream frustratingly has the same quality. But in this case we’re more referring to things on a micro scale, that no given sensation has a lasting quality, that the whole process of experience is a constant arising and passing away of the entirety of sensory reality. Normally, we have a sense of continuity and stability, but in deep insight practice, as mentioned, the kind of inconstancy that characterizes a more fundamental level of reality becomes more evident.
On initial reading some people will immediately agree that this idea of impermanence is true on a micro-level as well as the macro, though some might argue that there are actually constants in experience. I could into a lot of explanations about why I personally don’t think this is true from a logical standpoint, but really I’d just say to check it out for yourself in a more experiential fashion. I’m not dogmatic about these things at all, but up to this point I haven’t found any sensation that’s stuck around.
The second point, called Anatta in Pali, builds off of the first, and it’s that there’s no sensation in experience that is characterized as housing a separate, static, persistent self. This “mark of existence“, as these attributes are called, is often given the shorthand of “no self” or “not self”, a somewhat misleading rhetorical reification of a deeper concept that’s caused no end of confusion for both practitioners as well as readers of Buddhist philosophy. The basics of it are this: from a logical standpoint, if the impermanence of all sensations is given, then the idea that one of those sensations persists from moment to moment, one that is the “self” sensation, would not hold. But for these ideas the logic is less important than the experiential understanding.
The most simple way I’ve found to relay this concept is this: self, when we look closely at it, is a verb rather than a noun. There’s no “thing” that’s static and underlying, but rather there exists a process that’s constantly unfolding, shaped by past and current experience from factors that are both internal and external that we colloquially refer to as “self” as it’s much more convenient than saying “this constantly unfolding process of interactions just went to the store”. See, not so bad after all. This is an idea I think most people get at least in some qualified way from an experiential standpoint when they consider their own identity development over time.
Building off of that, the final mark of reality the practice points to is Dukkha, whose common translation, suffering, causes about as many problems as the translations of Anatta do. Suffering is certainly the most common one, but I prefer unsatisfactoriness or, better yet, unreliability. The basic concept here is that sensory experience, being characterized by impermanence, cannot provide a stable source of satisfaction, and is thus “unreliable” from the perspective of happiness. That ice cream cone might be wonderful and delicious, but its transitory nature means that it won’t provide a happiness that persists.
Dukkha directly builds off of the concept of not self in that dissatisfaction occurs because of a false belief that there is a persistent self that needs satisfaction. When we attempt to grab a hold of and own something, make something ours, and then it disappears, “we” experience suffering or pain. That’s not to say that “life is suffering”, as an simplistic misinterpretation would have us believe, but rather that putting stock in some experience, idea, object or person as the source of solid and lasting happiness will eventually disappoint, hence the platitude “happiness comes from within”. The key insight is that if the mark of not-self is realized, the process of trying to satisfy some separate self goes away, and along with it the whole idea of there being something problematic in experience that needs “fixing” or changing.
Through watching our minds closely, and coming to know these attributes not intellectually but experientially, something amazing can happen. We let go. We stop struggling with experience, trying to grasp something that will disappear, to push away from something that was never separate from us in the first place. We just let it be. And this is what the practice is about. This is what retreat is about. Happiness, of the most profound variety. Not the happiness of satisfying some solid self’s spiritual quest, or of ending pain as we conventionally understand it, but the happiness of some evolving and changing bit of the interdependent universe coming to continually know and understand itself, and thus interacting with the rest of reality in a more compassionate, clear and understanding way. This is why I put in the time, this is why I sit.
I give you my thanks for reading, it’s my hope that something useful was found in these posts. I want to dedicate this writing to all the people that have supported me in my practice over the years, especially my family and friends, my fellow practitioners on the path, and the teachers I have who come in many forms. May all beings know freedom and live with ease.