2021-03-29 Mindfulness of Breathing (64) The Lesson of Inconstancy
2:52PM Mar 29, 2021
We're still lingering in the 13th step of mindfulness of breathing – that of observing inconstancy. There's something about inconstancy and observing it that leads to the 14th step, which is usually translated as dispassion. We'll get to the meanings of it, maybe tomorrow or soon. There's something about seeing impermanence that is onward leading. Seeing inconstancy opens something up – allows something to unfold, deepen or move along.
A common term in the Buddhist scriptures is the idea of the Dharma as "onward leading." It's onward onward leading to greater and greater freedom. One of the things that's very much a part of this onward leading nature is this settling back, resting in awareness, and becoming more and more aware of the transiency of experience – the inconstancy of experience.
Sometimes it's called impermanence. But as I've said, for some people that implies only that sooner or later, something will no longer exist. It will die or be gone forever. There's wisdom to that understanding, for sure, and it could be freeing in a certain way. But the core insight of the Buddha has more to do with the momentary inconstancy of things. He didn't say this, but it's like the inconstant waves or ripples on a river that flows by. Little wavelets come and go. They exist and don't exist. They're inconstant. They're constantly being reborn, constantly passing away.
Many of our sensations are coming and going, coming and going. Sometimes they stay longer than we wish. But sooner or later, they pass and maybe come back again. To settle in and start seeing more precisely – intimately, closely – how much of our experience is a flowing experience – changing sensations. Things are appearing and disappearing, sometimes in rapid succession.
Sometimes, it can feel like everything is flowing sand. The reason for flowing sand rather than water is that some people say that sand is more particulate. It's a bit more that particular sensations have some clarity – whereas water flows, but there's no sense of particularity in each molecule of water. Whereas sand there's a particularity. For some people it feels like snow – or raindrops. Settling back and getting very still, and then appreciating how everything is arising and passing.
This very significant insight for the Buddha. In the ways it's described in some texts, this was his big "Aha!" moment. In seeing this, he realized: "This is the path to liberation." With seeing this arising and passing – the inconstancy – there was light, wisdom and clarity. The path opened for the Buddha.
In particular, seeing arising was important for him, but seeing the passing was very important as well. It seems like the passing and the ceasing of things was even more important than seeing their arising. I'm not sure, but one reason may be that, when we know that things pass – even if they're inconstant and they come back – we know that they're not permanent. We know that it's not always that way. That frees us from the mind that unconsciously or subconsciously relates to things as if they're always going to be there. As opposed to relating to them thinking: "Oh, this is just part of the flavor of the moment. This is what's coming here now. In due time, it will pass. In fact, if I pay careful attention to the particularity of the moment, it's already passing and then arising, passing and arising."
Knowing that it's not constant is very helpful with things like suffering. If we think that suffering is durable, stuck, solid, unchanging, then it's very hard to get in there. It's like concrete – very hard to get in there and try to do anything with it. If we see it more as flowing sand or flowing water, and try to reach into the water and hold on to it – grab a fistful of it – it quickly disappears through our fingers. We realize suffering doesn't have the solidity we thought before.
Self – all the things we could think of as "my self," or identify strongly as being. "This is who I am" – to see that it also has a certain inconstancy. It comes and goes – the sensations, the experience, the thing, the role, the ideas, the feelings, the intuitions. Whatever it might be that we think, "This is my self" – we start seeing this too, as part of the flow and current of a river, and we can't quite hold on to it.
There are gaps in the arising and passing. There are moments of freedom. The passing begins to teach us not to cling, not to grasp. And we start seeing that it's simply not worth grasping. This is a powerful insight that comes many times in life, in all kinds of ways.
In deeper meditation, there's a sense of well-being, freedom, openness – a lack of clinging that's so palpable that we begin feeling that any movement to contract, resist, hold on tight, linger, or be involved with something that's going on – is a loss of some of the peace. We're actually better off in the freedom. We're better off in this deep settled, quiet peacefulness. And we can learn it's not worth clinging. We lose something in the contracting. We lose something in the resisting.
It isn't that we are told, "A a good Buddhist, you should let go of clinging." There's no admonition like that. It's more like, "Pay careful attention. Become quiet. And when you notice for yourself that you're worse off clinging, then don't cling." One of the lessons that helps is when we realize, in certain deep states of meditation, that clinging doesn't work at all. Because whatever it is we're clinging to, is also constantly passing away.
You don't have to be in that constantly passing away place in meditation to begin appreciating how much does pass away. In the passing away, it is possible to tune into peacefulness, freedom, spaciousness, and openness, which that allows, makes room for, or permits. If we don't cling to the next thing that comes up and allow it to pass – in the space that leaves behind, we can just be open, relaxed, and take it in. Something else will arise, but rather than being preoccupied or caught by it, or analyzing, reflecting on, or doing things with it – allow the next thing to arise in that space – in that openness, that field of awareness where it just comes and goes. In the process of doing that we learn more and more about letting go. We learn more and more about not holding on to anything.
This teaching on not-self, which is often perplexing for people, is a teaching that makes more and more sense, when we understand that nothing qualifies as an enduring self. There's nothing that we can find inside of ourselves or in direct experience – when we're really intimate and close to direct experience – nothing that qualifies as, "Oh, that's my self," because it passes as well. The idea being that anything that passes cannot be an enduring self.
From the Buddha's point of view, any doctrine of self, any theory about what the self is, lends itself to reification, solidification on what is self, which is not possible when things are constantly changing. It's like there's no place to hang your hat. There's no place to tack it with a thumbtack – no place to tack any philosophy, idea, concept, or theory about what the self is. It's like taking a thumbtack and trying to stick it into a river – it doesn't stick anywhere. Any theory about self doesn't quite stick, doesn't quite work, when this constantly flowing, inconstant nature of experience, begins to open up in deep vipassanā practice.
The core, deepest, most important insight of insight meditation is this inconstancy of phenomena – the changing nature of the current of phenomena as it flows through, arises, and passes here in the present moment. To settle back and observe that on this 13th step is what's talked about.
As we do this, we begin feeling that the things that we cling to – have passionate lust for, passionate hatred for, all the ways in which we're driven about things, passionate around our attachments – do not make any sense. They start losing their allure. They start losing their enchantment. We stop falling under their spell. We begin observing that we're less and less interested in clinging, less and less interested in lust, hatred, or this driven, attached kind of passion that can happen – like the passion for money or the passion for power – the negative understandings of passion. Then the 14th step is observing dispassion.
So then we'll end, and this will pass as well. We'll make room for the next thing to happen. Chances are that it's simply inconstant and we'll meet again here tomorrow, the same time. Thank you.