The Buddha taught that all of our experiences have three basic characteristics, the first of which is anicca, or impermanence, the second dukkha, suffering, and the third anatta, not-self (also translated as no-self). We are most familiar with impermanence from the changes that occur over the days and years, with children being born, growing up, and leaving home, or our bodies showing signs of aging. We may resist these changes, grieving the loss of our children or of our youthful appearance, or we may welcome them, but either way, nothing stays the same forever. Moving to another house, town, or country; changing jobs or careers; losing loved ones to accidents, illness, or old age—all present challenges to our sense of security and self.
My father worked for a single bank in our hometown for two decades before retirement, then left it all behind and moved with my mother to the other end of the state. Soon after his retirement, the bank was consolidated with several others in the region, and most of my father’s contribution became a thing of the past. The new president was the manager of the conglomerate, with the bank my father had managed only a relatively minor part of the new entity. As he and my mother began a new life elsewhere, the network of friends and neighbors they left behind thinned out. In his prime, my father had been a major figure in that community. In no time at all, he was barely remembered. I watched this happening during my own prime working years, when I was leaving my mark on the world, or so I thought. It was a soboring lesson in impermanence.
There is another, more refined level of impermanence which most of us never see, that being the instant-by-instant rhythm of life itself. We order our lives temporally as past-present-future, remembering the first, experiencing the second, and imagining the third. In truth, however, each of these is a construction of our minds, and the present, in which we believe we live, is gone as soon as it arrives. In a famous commentary on the Buddhist scriptures, the 5th-century teacher Buddhaghosa describes a series of stages meditators will traverse as they practice insight meditation. The fourth of these, Insight into the Arising and Passing Away, is the point at which we will have direct experience of the instantaneous arising and passing of sensations from our minds. The experience itself can be rapturous, with the rapidly passing sensations overloading our senses’ ability to recognize them. Soon after the meditator enters into a new series of stages that are known as the dukkha nyanas, which some call the Dark Night. Their very names are indicative of what they are like: Dissolution, Terror, Misery, Disgust, Desire for Deliverance, and worst of all, Reobservation, in which the meditator goes back over the series again and again until they have absorbed all of its lessons.
Insight meditation, also referred to as mindfulness, is the means by which we learn to observe our minds and bodies more and more closely, until the Three Characteristics become clear to us in all of our sensations. There are numerous techniques for doing this, not to mention differences of opinion about the appropriate level of preparation for insight practices. Some teachers endorse a gradual approach, with significant work to quiet the mind prior to undertaking insight, while others recommend beginning insight work much sooner and pressing onwards. In addition, not all Buddhists recognize the Progress of Insight map as represented in the commentary, or even if they do, there are some teachers who believe it is not helpful to share information about the different stages with students. There are several reasons for taking this stance, chief among them the concern that our impressionable minds could easily lead us to imagine ourselves at one or another of the stages when we are in fact nowhere near.
Observing the mind at close range is inseparable from observing the body. Many westerners have only a vague idea of what is present in the body because we spend so much of our lives in our heads, preoccupied with our thoughts. In practicing mindfulness of the body, meditators learn to recognize and describe the physical manifestations of our emotions, especially those we tend to ignore or repress in day-to-day life. As a result, insight practices can be hard on the meditator because they bring painful emotions to the surface. I can remember one retreat where my mind-chatter was much worse than usual. I had taken on a practice of choiceless awareness, which involves letting thoughts and sensations pass in and out of awareness without interference, but in the process I was flooded by so many thoughts that I might as well have been daydreaming. I finally turned to a more structured approach called noting, which entails attaching a brief label to sensations as they are recognized. I was immediately plunged into the most excruciating feelings of loneliness, abandonment, and grief, so intense that I could hardly figure out how to work with them. I recognized that my mind had been using the chatter to prevent these feelings from arising, but then my noting technique had dislodged the thoughts. The work of this particular retreat was to allow these emotions to arise and then pass, as all things eventually do, by virtue of their impermanence.