Suffering, Impermanence & Not-self

Buddhist thought and practice has much to teach us about suffering, impermanence, and not-self as aspects of reality. These three are called the three marks of existence. 

We will all be subject to various forms of suffering. How we experience them, will depend on many things.  Not least, how old we are when we first encounter moments beyond our understanding.    

My first memory of death came when I was six years old.  I was standing on the side of small boat.  My hands holding on to the rails above me. My face looking out between the rails looking towards the quay.  It was a hot day, and I was excited to be with my father.  We were going to visit some of the small islands near the island of Penang, Malaysia, and meet some friends for a picnic on one of them.  I remember the throb of the engine starting up, and feeling the vibration through my feet. I remember I had on my favorite shoes, white trainers. And I remember the smell of the water and the people around me.

As we slipped away from the busy quay, I saw a man stab a young boy.  I saw the boy double up, a red stain appeared on his shirt and he fell into the water.  The man who stabbed him, turned, and was gone. I remember not moving.  Everything was in slow motion.  There was no sound.  Then, I heard the cries of people pointing to the boy in the water.  I was released and turned to my father, appealing to him, and telling him what I had seen.

I remember my father kneeling in front of me, his warm hands on my shoulders.  I was crying, begging him to save the boy in the water. I don’t remember what my father said to me.  I do remember sitting in his lap and being enfolded in his arms.  The boat kept going. 

Death is a part of our inheritance of suffering and impermanence.  Incomprehensible to a small child; a terrible shock and an awakening. 

As a teenager, I hiked a lot.  I joined a British organization, The Ramblers Association. One of its missions then, and maybe still, was to keep open the old paths, called rights of way.  If someone documented they had walked on one of these paths once in a year, then they would be kept open for other travelers.  They could not be closed.  

There was one path I returned to again and again.  I liked the sameness of it, it’s familiarity.  There was a tree at the top of a hill, where I could look out and see the valley outstretched beyond me.  I liked to think of the people who had come before me, who had walked this path; for it was one of the old bridle paths used by farmers to take their animals and produce to market.

In my later teenage years, this same path became an avenue of escape and comfort – a way to drop into my body, and give my mind and emotions a rest. 

Several years ago, I tried to find the path that had meant so much to me as a teenager.  It was hard to find.  Homes had appeared on either side of the path.  It was still there, but the open fields had disappeared, and the tree was a stump.  Cut down.  I mourned the loss and the lack of permanence.

As a child, I imagined myself in different realities.  I was a princess, a wild animal, I lived in a magical and make believe world, and I had a different family. I wrote stories of adventure and made up plays with puppets to act out the parts.  I was the main character and able to control what happened.

We grow up, and find that the stories change.  We notice that contrary to what we wish, it is not always about us.  The stories in our heads do not match up with what is appearing in our environments, in our relationships. There is no fairy tale.  Life is a still an adventure, but … we are not the main character and our lives do not always have happy endings.   

Suppose we thought of stories as never ending?  That stories are like paths that go on and on?  That we have a part to play, but it is not about desiring more and more. It is not about us hating each other and we can wake up and out of a deluded sense of self.  Somehow or other, our job is to stay true to our essential nature of love and compassion. What can help to steady us?  

Mindfulness meditation provides a path of calm that allows us to access what is already alive inside us – compassion and insight.  We need both. 

Compassion allows us to not be afraid of bearing witness to suffering, our own and that of the world.  Compassion helps us to understand the nature of impermanence, and of letting go.  Compassion unlocks the stories we tell ourselves and reveals we are so much more than any story. 

But compassion without insight can be a path to tiredness and hopelessness; to compassion fatigue and burnout.  

Insight acknowledges the presence of suffering, the challenges of impermanence and the hold of stories. Insight steadiness us, discerning what may be needed at any given moment.  Insight offers us the capacity to see things from diverse perspectives, and as a result providing choice to act less reactively and therefore differently.

But insight without compassion lacks the warmth of love and kind-heartedness.  We need both. 

 Sweet Darkness – David Whyte
 When your eyes are tired
 the world is tired also. 
 When your vision has gone 
 no part of the world can find you. 
 Time to go into the dark
 where the night has eyes
 to recognize its own.
 There you can be sure 
 you are not beyond love. 
 The dark will be your womb 
 The night will give you a horizon 
 further than you can see. 
 You must learn one thing. 
 The world was made to be free in.
 Give up all the other worlds
 except the one to which you belong. 
 Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
 confinement of your aloneness
 to learn
 anything or anyone
 that does not bring you alive
 is too small for you.