2021-03-24-Mindfulness of Breathing (61) Inconstancy of Experience
4:15PM Mar 24, 2021
As I've said already, with the thirteenth step of mindfulness of breathing, we enter into the territory of insight – of 'vipassanā.' Before this, meditation practice can be characterized as practicing mindfulness. After all, this is called mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out.
Mindfulness and 'vipassanā' are two different things classically, in the early tradition. In the modern English scene, people will sometimes use the words 'vipassanā' and mindfulness synonymously. Sometimes the word 'vipassanā' refers to the 'vipassanā tradition,' or 'vipassanā' meditation. It's used as a general term.
But in the teachings of the Buddha, the word 'vipassanā' doesn't refer to any kind of practice, but rather to the results of practice. It's the result of doing mindfulness, of concentration, of doing mindfulness and concentration practice together. This is one of the benefits of mindfulness of breathing. As we stay with the breath all the time, there's a concentration factor that builds, but we're also practicing mindfulness of it, staying aware of what's going on. Mindfulness is present.
When those both become sufficiently strong – mindfulness and concentration – then we start having insights. We start seeing, observing in ways that we don't usually observe in everyday life. We start observing in deeper and deeper ways, or with greater clarity, into moment to moment experience. That's when insights begin.
The insights of insight meditation practice are not always "insights with a capital I." There are lots of "insights with small i." All can be very significant. But the difference – in my vocabulary – is the "small i insights" are the big 'Aha!' moments, when we see something unique about ourselves.
For example, we understand something about the conditions that led us to become who we are today. Or we see clearly the particular beliefs we're operating under. Maybe they were deluded or not really true. We say 'Ahh' – and then we put that down. Or we see something about ourselves that we never saw before and say: "Wow! That explains why I behave this way – because there's that anxiety, fear, or memory that keeps filtering my experience." There are all kinds of very important personal insights that help us become freer and freer.
But the "insights with a capital I" – the insights that insight meditation really focuses on – are seeing things that are common denominators of all experience. They're true, whether it's a personal experience, unique to oneself, or it's true for everybody. Sometimes they're called universal characteristics of all experience.
The Buddha called these perceptions. They're qualities or aspects of how we perceive all things that we take in. They characterize our perceptions of all things. There's something universal. They're transpersonal, maybe, or they're more encompassing than anything we see personally.
While personal insights are important, going deeper down into the common denominator, the common characteristics of all experiences, puts us at the deeper foundation from which we build the cathedrals, the citadels of our conceptual world – the world of self and self in the world of others. We build this world and philosophy, and these beliefs and feelings based on things that have the foundation of these common characteristics and common ways of perceiving.
The primary one, which the Buddha emphasizes, is that all experiences are 'anicca.' It's commonly translated into English as 'impermanence.' This is probably not the best translation. And I'll get to that in a few moments.
But I want to emphasize that what we're focusing on here is what can be called experience. In philosophical terms, Buddhism is epistemological. The 'vipassanā' practice we're doing is epistemological. I think what that means is that it's the nature of how we know something or the nature of the our experience itself. This is opposed to ontological, which is having some understanding, belief, or interpretation about the nature of reality.
Many people want to assume or believe that insight practice brings us a deep insight into the nature of reality. It can be very reassuring to feel like we have that kind of deep, powerful understanding. The Buddha seemed very reluctant to make any ontological statements about the nature of reality. He was not an early physicist who understood physics in a minute way – the physics of what was really going on.
If he was a scientist, he was a scientist of perception – a scientist of how the nature of perception, of how we experience things, is an interface with – or a meeting place of – what's happening in the world out there, and our perceptions, how the mind takes it in. So, it's the nature of experience.
This can feel a little bit complicated – a little bit discouraging – because we want to have certainty about the world out there. But everything we know about the world happens through the filter, through the avenue of our experience – how we experience something.
It's kind of like with an hourglass, the broad cup of the hourglass is the expanded world outside of us. And the other end of it, the expanded cone of the hourglass, is the huge inner world that we have. The neck of the hourglass is what we see through our eyes, hear through our ears, smell through our nose, taste through our tongue, and feel through our body, and what is known about what's happening in the mind – the experience of knowing, or recognizing what's happening in the mind. One way or another, everything we know has gone through those six hourglasses of perception.
And then, with that, the inner world can make it complicated. We can invent new ideas, stories, connections, and all kinds of things. But we don't remember – or don't recognize – that it all had its genesis in that realm of hearing and seeing. For example, language, concepts – words for things – had to come through hearing someone speak those words or through reading those words. So the Buddha put tremendous emphasis on this narrow neck of the hourglass where everything comes in. Rather than seeing it as an hourglass, we can see it as the foundation upon which everything is built inside – and sometimes outside as well.
So what is it that is the common characteristic of experience? It's 'anicca' – that all experiences are coming and going. They're changing. They appear and they disappear. The details – the fingerprints of experience – appear and disappear moment by moment. Sometimes it's because what's out there is passing by really quickly – or not so quickly – but it clearly passes by.
I think some of you can hear the train whistles going by. They come and they go. They come and they go. It's pretty easy to notice that 'those' come and go. But also, as I said yesterday, the way we bring attention to something is that we very rarely fixate the attention in some solid, hard way. If we do that, it tends to be stressful. But, very gently, the mind – the awareness – can move around taking in different details.
It's fascinating to do this with physical pain. Pain can feel, from a distance, like it's solid and we're connected to it. But if we really pay careful attention – this observing way – we see that the experience of pain is a kaleidoscope of all kinds of sensations going on, arising and passing. And this arising and passing is repetitive. So some things come and they go, and they return. They come and they go.
That can lend a sense of continuity, and even a sense of permanence – "They're not stopping there. They're continuously there." But as we drop more and more deeply into the deep subtleness of meditation, and are able to observe intimately and closely everything, without the mind making the leap – constructing the idea of continuity, then we just see the arising and passing of phenomenona, the repetitive nature of it – the inconstant nature of it.
The word 'anicca' comes from the root 'nicca,' which can mean something like 'constant,' 'continuous,' and also sometimes 'permanent.' The 'a' is a negative prefix. So, "not constant," "not continuous," "not permanent." When we translate 'anicca' as impermanent, as is often done in English, many people hear that as meaning that "It's not going to last. It's going to come to an end." To be constantly reminded that everything comes to an end can be depressing – but it also misses the boat. This is because then we have to wait. Some things take awhile to end.
While it can be wise to understand and recognize that things will end – there's lot of wisdom in that, it's not the full story. It's not really what the Buddha is pointing to as an insight.
The core insight of insight meditation is to see the inconstancy of experience moment by moment – how it arises and disappears, arises and disappears. So 'anicca,' as one of the core insights, is probably better translated as 'inconstancy' – the inconstant arising and passing of phenomenona.
That might be continuous – a continuous, constant inconstancy. Constant, continuous things being inconstant – like a river is constant. It's continually flowing, but it's also never the same. There's something inconstant about it as well.
That's enough for now. We're entering into the deep world of insight now and, hopefully, you'll begin appreciating the observation of inconstancy.