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. 

Many Paths

As I sit down to write what is current for me this morning, I find myself thinking about the stories of our lives. The ones that lie in the past, the ones we are living right now, and the ones yet to reveal themselves. Stories give name to what is apparent, and have the power to name deep patterns and threads that lie under the surface.  These stories are ones we have taken alone.  They are ones we have taken with others and they are part of our cultural inheritance.

The stories are how we know who we are, they are part of our identity. Stories unfold all the time.  They tell us about our humanity.  They encourage us to listen.  Stories talk about fear, hate, suffering, and acts of kindness and love, even of sacrifice. They present choices, and equally, sometimes, no choice.  The stories ask, what’s here to speak to?  Where am I in this?  What does this say about me?  What does it say about us?

Stories are journeys that reveal paths of darkness and of light.  They speak to horrors, travesties of justice, hatred.  They speak to acts of courage, of honesty, a willingness to challenge systems of denial, powerful acts that illuminate an integrity of purpose, and the power of love.  They capture a moment in time, or reveal the passage of years. Stories change us.  Bring us closer to our own vulnerabilities.  They help us to listen.  To process and metabolize new horizons.  Envisage who we might be, adapting.   

Stories are journeys taken with many paths. They are multifaceted and capture the intricacy of lives. 

Mindfulness meditation can support us in revealing and uncovering the complexity of our stories.  Where we see that our story is not what defines us. We are so much more. 

As I understand it, our practice is an invitation to move into our essential nature, one of kindness, love, and compassion.  Is it easy to walk this path of heart?  Sometimes effortless, as we touch into our gentleness.  At other times, we meet obstacles, challenges, and dark moments.  We catch ourselves running away or struggling in some way with what is appearing.  Then we learn to be patient, and kind towards ourselves. We rest a while. We breath and relax, to steady ourselves, before going on.  We learn to appreciate the jewels of pausing and patience.

As by now you have realized, poems have long been constant, wonderful companions and supports in my life.  You may have poems, authors, paintings, people that have been supportive to you in some way.  Each time you visit them, I would bet you find something different to reflect on.  I know I do.   

Here is a poem that may be familiar –

 Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye 
 Before you know what kindness really is 
 you must lose things, 
 feel the future dissolve in a moment 
 like salt in a weakened broth. 
 What you held in your hand, 
 what you counted and carefully saved,
 all this must go so you know
 how desolate the landscape can be 
 between the regions of kindness. 
 How you ride and ride
 thinking the bus will never stop,
 the passengers eating maize and chicken
 will stare out the window forever. 
 Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
 you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
 lies dead beside by the side of the road. 
 You must see how this could be you, 
 how he too was someone
 who journeyed through the night with plans
 and the simple breath that kept him alive. 
 Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
 You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
 You must wake up with sorrow.
 You must speak to it till your voice
 catches the thread of all sorrows
 and you see the size of the cloth. 
 Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, 
 only kindness that ties your shoes
 and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
 only kindness that raises its head 
 from the crowd of the world to say
 It is I you have been looking for,
 and then goes with you everywhere
 like a shadow or friend.

Our lives, our stories will have moments of joy, struggle, and grief.  Can we stay as close as is possible to the voice of our hearts? Clearing the path, so that over time, it is kindness that guides us. 


For April, I thought I would explore and reflect on the paths we take; some by choice, others less intentionally.    

The reality is we are all on a journey – the journeys represented by our behaviors and actions in the world and  – an inner journey of self-awareness.  What is going on in the outer world, is reflected in our inner world and vice versa.  We leave a place, a relationship, we change our job, we grow older and take on numerous responsibilities.  As this is happening, there is a call to understand ourselves at a deeper level. We have questions about our choices, our friendships, our interests.

These kinds of questions can be unsettling and equally if we allow for this, exciting.  No matter that we think we know how to get somewhere and can see the endpoint, we don’t. No matter how much we think we know, we don’t.  No matter how secure we may feel in a moment, the next moment will change all of that.

In my early 20’s I took some time to travel.  I left England, travelled through Europe, into Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia and then home to England.  The trip lasted six months.  In my travels, I met the warmth of strangers, was immersed in landscapes of beauty and harshness, saw cruelty firsthand, and at times found myself in situations of danger.  As a result, my understanding of the world expanded, as did witnessing reality. 

On my return, I found myself unsettled, even to the point of not being able to sleep in a bed, preferring the floor for a while.

I found all of those things that had anchored me previously – a serious relationship, family, old friends, places, work, seemed out of focus.  I had lost my compass, my bearings.  I would like to say that at this point, my life changed in some way.  It didn’t.  Very soon, the reality of looking after myself and earning an income became a necessary focus.    

But, unknowingly, under the surface, a path was opening.  Replicated by my travels, I was searching.  A tug, a desire to explore and understand myself not tethered by custom, race, or gender, nor indeed by the external environment.

One of the paths that opened, was the practice of mindfulness meditation.  A solo journey undertaken, without a defined ending. 

This became a practice of intimacy, of familiarity, and a desire to be a part of something, that initially I could only catch glimmers of.  A turning towards myself and into openness.  

This path is now many years long.  It is a path of joy and contentment and one that touches woundedness and vulnerability.  It is a walk into the many acts of betrayal.  To know them and to feel a heart that has experienced the deep wound of brokenness.  It is to hold this wounded heart with compassion and to understand the need we all have to be accepted, to be loved, to be seen and heard, to be connected, and to be forgiven. It is to feel the softness of imperfection. 

It is to wonder how did I get here? And in that acknowledgement, to breathe into the next step along the path, moving with the moment.  

An excerpt from a poem by David Whyte - Santiago
The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
 hiding then revealing the way you should take,
 the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
 to walk in thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
 when you thought you would fall,
 and the way forward always in the end 
 the way that you followed, the way that carried you
 into your future, that brought you to this place, 
 no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,
 no matter that it had to break your heart along the way: 

What path is calling you?  

The valley, river and mountains

Remembering Change

All this month of March I have been reflecting on change; the wonder and mystery of it, and also how it can reveal our vulnerabilities.    

Today, the sun is shining, the air is warm, my window, closed tight against the cold of winter, is open. Outside the ice on the surface of the pond is retreating.  And yet, as I sit down to reflect on what is a current for me in this moment, I am reminded of those people in my life who are no longer here.  The loss and vacuum that creates.

Lying on a cold steel table.  The body stiff, rigid – no life. Your features still and your face changed.  No breath here, you had gone.  Whatever essence we call life had left.  There was no chance to meet here in the basement of the hospital – this unimaginative room of four walls. A sheet draped over your body; a tag on your big toe, identifying who you were.  But you, this essential being, was gone.  And yet, as I stood beside your body, words arose, feelings surfaced, memories appeared.  I reached out to touch you, and to wish you peace and comfort. 

I wrote those lines many years ago, after the death of my mother.  I wonder how many of us, have lost a parent(s), loved ones in this past year.  

The process of remembering is not static, it changes over time.  Memories and their stories can act as reminders, as prompts – beckoning us, pointing toward deeper reflections, as we acknowledge the currents from our past, and their arising in the present moment.

Sometimes, this is not easy.  For many of us, relationships with those near to us can be complicated. For those memories and the trauma that have caused deep wounds, seeking professional help and the support of others is so very important.

Remembering is a call to clear a space.  To make room for the memories, the stories, to watch them come and go.  Some reminiscences will be happy and joyful, others less so.  Remembering is a call to your deepest self.  To step into your heartbreak, your joys, and into your longings.  Ultimately, it is a call to the place in your heart where you are a loving friend to yourself. 

There are many ways we can start this process, as we take steps into a loving presence that provides an environment of support. It means finding the time to slow down, to be patient, so that you can explore all that you are, trusting in yourself so that the memories and stories arrive safely.    

What is helpful is to take time to be with yourself and to be in compassionate situations that speak to you – in nature, in parks, with friends you trust, in therapy, in writing, in painting, in reading, in walking, in hiking, in singing, in dancing, in meditation. 

Mary Oliver in her poem reminds us to go easy and to remember how precious we are, as is the world around us.

 When I am among the trees 
 Mary Oliver
 When I am among the trees,
 especially the willows and the honey locust,
 equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
 they give off such hints of gladness.
 I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
 I am so distant from the hope of myself,
 in which I have goodness, and discernment,
 and never hurry through the world
 but walk slowly, and bow often.
 Around me the trees stir in their leaves
 and call out, “Stay awhile.”
 The light flows from their branches.
 And they call again, “It's simple,” they say,
 “and you too have come
 into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
 with light, and to shine.” 

The Wound of Vulnerability

In one of my morning hikes this week, I came across this tree  –

Blown down – upended – uprooted. I wonder if this isn’t what we have all felt at times?  I know I have.

None of us over this past year, can have escaped feeling vulnerable. COVID19 has seen to that. 

But if we look deeper, this sense of vulnerability has many well-trodden paths.  The vulnerability of being seen less than; systemic racism, ageism, sexism, oppression, homophobia, xenophobia.

A path is open, even though the way is uncertain, to look at all the ways we overtly and covertly, intentionally, and unintentionally, add to this suffering and vulnerability. 

“All is uncertain.  If you look for certainty in that which is uncertain, you are bound to suffer.”  Ajahn Chah.  Kittisaro & Thanissara. Listening to the Heart (2014) p. 131.

Vulnerability lives with uncertainty.  The two challenge the status quo, that nothing lasts forever. 

It is difficult to acknowledge the truthfulness of uncertainty in our lives.  Uncertainty is not a comfortable feeling, largely because we seek comfort. There is nothing wrong with wanting ease and relaxation.  But if we look to the external world for this, it is unsustainable. The winds of change see to that.

When we face up to, stand still, and look into the winds of change, it is possible to sense moments of illumination, to stand at the edge of something, that reveals a vast and open landscape – one of possibility. This landscape beckons us forward, the paths revealing themselves.    

Walking into these landscapes, sometimes alone, sometimes collectively, we will encounter challenges and difficulties, crises.  We meet loss, grief, a sense of being uprooted, as well as the possibility of letting go what is no longer useful, be released.

When we divest ourselves of behaviors no longer ethical, we change the landscape.  New friends can then be met on the way with different ideas and different experiences. We are richer for it.

The work of change is not always easy and begins with each one of us. 

To learn this we must seek aloneness.  Meditation practice can help here.  We sit with ourselves, seeking this solitary place.  This place is one where we can watch the winds and storms of the mind and heart. We experience this, many times.  We are uprooted, upended, blown down. We learn this is no personal drama, it is one that those who have gone before us and sit beside us now, have trodden. In that we understand our inter-connectedness to life and how we might move towards another who seems not the same as us, answering – what can I do?      

 legacy – rupi kaur 
 i stand 
 on the sacrifices 
 of a million women before me 
 what can i do
 to make this mountain taller
 so that women after me
 can see further