The Buddhist teachings that underly our mindfulness training - the Roots of Mindfulness - are really helpful and deep pointers. On the one hand they suggest some specific and clear things we can focus on so that we can live more gracefully and with less suffering. Maybe if we take Buddha really seriously there are ways of living with total freedom from suffering - that would be great.
On the one hand they are a list of teachings that each suggest things to focus on, and Robin and I will unpack them one by one. How to study these kinds of teachings really means how to study your own life, your internal patterns, your thoughts, your suffering and confusion, with a set of fresh eyes. I think of these kinds of teachings as more like lenses than anything else. When we take up teachings at first we have to hold them up and examine them from different angles so that we have at least an idea of what the teaching is and what it implies. But then the teaching becomes really valuable when we figure out how to point it back at ourselves, at our lives, and look through it like we look through a lens to see something more clearly. Now that I need reading glasses this metaphor has a lot of meaning to me. It's bizarre in a way if I push these up on my face you get blurry and the notes on my talk get blurry, I put them back down and there's clarity.
The thing about our usual lenses is we forget we have them on because we have them all the time. And our actual lenses are more complicated than reading glasses which just magnify the visual field a bit as amazing as that is. Our actual lenses include consciousness and they take in information from the senses, from our history, from our relationships, from our conditioning, and put it all together into vision of who we are and what the world we are operating in the middle of is. Our usual lenses are reality construction lenses, we do more than focus and magnify. Or maybe our usual lenses magnify some things and leave out other things and make guesses and assumptions about yet other things, usually without knowing we're guessing and assuming, but the deep power of our consciousness is this happens so quickly and automatically that we don't even know we're doing it. We just experience a me in the middle of world and we move around and do stuff and think our thoughts. Some things about this world we each construct we like just fine, but there are also a lot of things we don't like. Plenty to complain about or wish was difference.
So that's all true enough as a description of what we're up to this week. We're taking up a set of teachings - the core list is just three topics: easy to remember - we're taking up these teachings, trying to understand some of their implications and then seeing if we can them around and look through them at our own lives. And see what we can see. Do these teachings suggest ways we're fooling ourselves? Do they suggest ways we're suffering because of a mindset or an assumption or an understanding? And if so maybe we can shift that and suffer less - in some cases it may be possible to suffer a lot less. A whole lot less.
But what I think is really transformational about these particular teachings is they shift the frame in our endless self-improvement project. These teachings suggest the problem isn't that we aren't wise enough or good enough or anything enough. These teaching suggest the reason for our suffering is we aren't accepting the way things really are. That we're existing in a world in our minds that's different from the way the world is. That there's a gap there and that gap is a big cause of suffering. The path forward here is understanding and acceptance. It's about attunement and harmony with reality. It's about noticing the ways we resist and fight with the way things are. Stop fighting and stop suffering. And here are ways that our quest for self-improvement can be a kind of fighting with the reality of who we are. A not accepting. The teachings of the three marks invite us to set that down.
They make me think of one of my favorite Suzuki Roshi quotes which I'm constantly saying. Suzuki Roshi, the great Japanese Zen teacher who came to San Francisco in the 1950's was looking at the assortment of American hippies who's gathered around him wanting to learn about Zen and meditation and said, "I think you're perfect just the way you are," I bet everyone was quite surprised. They were working hard to straighten themselves out with Zen training. I doubt a single one of them ever had the idea, "I'm perfect just as I am". Do you ever have that idea?
But then Suzuki Roshi went on, "...and I think you could use a little improvement." Can you feel how both of those things could be true? They seem to be contradictory in the usual way of thinking but I think you can feel that they really aren't in some mysterious way. You're perfect just as you are, and you could use a little improvement.
Robin and I are going to try to say practical and helpful things about these teachings. Robin and I and Catherine, and there will be a few times that Teresa steps in to help lead too actually - just complications of different schedule conflicts - we'll try to say practical and helpful things about doing these practices.
But let's remember it all operates in a space that we can't really understand with the mind that knows how to do practical things. It all operates in a more mysterious space than that. Acceptance with a few light and open touch may be a way to open the door to this mystery. But actually you don't have to do anything to open the door to the mystery. The mystery, or whatever you want to call it, is right here whether you open the door to it or not. We are in the middle of it. We are the mystery, the world is the mystery. There's something bigger at play here than the practical. And where can we start but the practical.
So let's get down to it!
The first of this list of three is impermanence. This whole universe including each of us is never static, never permanent, never really stable even though we assume some stability at times, everything's changing. Everything without exception is in flux and change. We think we're the same as we were last night when we first met but are we really?
And it that's really true how can we say anything for certain about anything? You can see the mystery seeping in right away.
One example about the implications of a deeper engagement with impermanence:
We generally believe our stories about the future - which is a bummer in many ways because often our stories about the future are more negative than positive, but that's another story - either way we think, based on past experience and our imagination trying to take into account any changes we are aware of from last time around - we think we know what's going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month. I have a calendar with items on it years in the future and when I see those listings I think I know what will happen at that future time and I assume that the Tim I'm experiencing now will be there then to experience that.
And yet Covid has been like a giant wake up bell to help us practice not knowing about the future. In very concrete ways like here we are doing a retreat on Zoom. As I mentioned last night we're a living example of this right here: last October when many of us here gathered at Samish Island Retreat Center and were hanging out with the wonderful members of the Community of Christ who take care of that place we were talking about how this October we'd be back there. This is the 5th annual 7-day Roots of Mindfulness retreat actually! None of us in mid October 2019 could ever imagined a year later the world would be locked in a pandemic making gatherings like that not just different but completely unsafe. Maybe we could have done it and gotten lucky but if one of us brought a case of Covid there unknowlingly many of us would have gotten sick and if the stats are to be believed it's not unlikely one of us would have died as a result.
We're kind of used to this now but take your mind back a year! We never could have imagined any of this then. Impermenance, change, unknowability. Our idea about the future are just that: ideas.
The future is so completely a mystery. The way our minds are wired we're conditioned to believe that our memories of the past predict the future right? In 2015 we imagined being back at Samish in a similar fashion in 2016 and it seems like we were although we actually had quite different experiences from the previous year but it all seemed familiar and similar. And we repeated that a few more times and thus as we left to drive home on October 13th, 2019, we were saying to each other: "see you next year!" and imagined driving back up that driveway and unloading our things into those same cabins, and having tea and chatting in the dining room before dinner, having our orientation and walking down to the meditation hall as the light faded to night and the cool Fall breeze blew. Maybe some Snow Geese flying high overhead.
And yet here we are on Zoom. Unimaginable. The future is a complete mystery. Only we keep talking ourselves into believing we know what's going to happen.
And it's much the same with the second two of these three marks of existence. The second mark has to do with the nature of satisfaction and suffering.
We think we know what will make us happy, we think we know what activities and attitudes and accomplishments will give us lasting satisfaction and joy. And yet our actual experience is, well let's say, a lot more varied and less certain.
Sometimes it seems like our ideas are unobtainable and we just can't get there. This makes us suffer. Did we misunderstand what the satisfying situation would be? Is there something wrong with me because I can't see to get there?
Or you do get "there" and then you find it's not as great as you thought it was. It could be pretty great for a few minutes maybe but then you're mind's on to the next thing. The mind always wants more than it has as the poem said. Were you wrong all along about how great it would be? We end up running around trying to close all of these gaps between where we think we are and where we think we need to be to be happy and satisfied.
It doesn't totally not work just like we weren't wrong before 2019 about next year's Samish. Some of our ideas are reasonable for sure. We make choices, we make changes in our lives, we learn new things, we do our practice, I hope overall you are a bit happier than you were before. I am as far as I can tell. And yet there's something more subtle and mysterious happening around our search for satisfaction.
It doesn't always add up the way we think it will. And we are surprisingly resistant to that evidence. Maybe this time my accomplishment or acquisition or my overseas travel will lead to lasting happiness and I'll stop feeling sad or depressed or doubtful.
Satisfaction and suffering seems to be a lot more mysterious than we tend to think. The second mark of existince is trying to point that out. Laster we'll unpack some of the technical Buddhist language in it to reveal some of the layers to that teaching.
And the third mark of existence is about the self in the middle of all of this.
Is this person here really who we think she is? He is? They are? We notice that our habitual lens tends to be pointed out away from the self towards others, towards objects around us, towards the world.
In this third mark of existence we turn that lens around to look at ourselves. There are many metaphors in Buddhism and other spiritual teachings about mirrors. This last mark is a mirror. Look carefully in the mirror and what do you really see.
We tend to say, without thinking about it, oh I see me, that's what I see. Well what does that really mean? What is this "me" - is the me you've always believed yourself to be really true? Really accurate? The first two teachings should already be shaking your "me" up a bit.
If everything's impermanent and changing then is the me you perceive today really the same me of yesterday and the year before that you think it is? I actually had an old friend get in touch a few days ago whom I haven't had a real conversation with since I was 21 years old. That was a long time ago. And yet I do feel a connection to this person. But does she know the Tim who is here now? Or does her memory of the 33 years ago Tim give her a leg up in knowing the Tim of know and she'll just meet this new more readily. Very strange. And suddenly memories of our earlier friendship are rippling up and I'm reliving them in the mind. Who is the Tim in those memories? Mysterious.
And if the nature of satisfaction and suffering is more complex and mysterious do all of your preferences and ideas and values even make sense? Or perhaps you've just gotten good at ignoring evidence to the contrary - more lenses, sometimes the lenses are dark or distorted and we see what want to see, or maybe we don't really want what we see so much as we see what we expect to see even if it makes us miserable.
So to take a step back again:
On the one hand these teachings on the three marks of existence are practical and powerful.
They are saying: look carefully and think this all through again. Everything's changing, life is hard and confusing and doesn't work the way you think it does - you might be looking in the wrong places for satisfaction, and are you sure the person you think is in the middle of all of this is really who you are? Are you really sure or is that just a story you've told yourself for so long that you believe it without question at this point? Could a better story be more accurate? Or are there any stories about the self that are truly accurate? Would it be better to see if you can live without such a fixed story? Would a more flexible story be helpful? Is it possible to exist for at least some moments without any story at all?
But, again the 3 marks of existence are also pointing to something that's beyond of all this practical stuff. The complexity of life and cause and effect and the vast universe and our deep unconscious and conscious minds. It's all pretty mysterious. Beyond something we can understand and make sense of and sort out perhaps.
It's possible our mind is an emergent kind of field from our the interconnections in our electro-chemical brains right? We tend to think that's so. The brain has nearly 100 billion neurons in it and the interconnected networks those 100 billion nodes can make are many times more than 100 billion. These numbers are staggering. We can't really make sense of them. 100 billion times a lot?
I googled it of course and if you took 100 billion pieces of paper and stacked them on top of each other you'd have the equivalent of a 430,000 story building. It would take quite a while on the elevator to get to the top floor. And that's what inside every one of our heads.
It's a mystery this being human, this being in a universe. The practice does help, teachings do help, just staying alive for more years if you have any curiosity about it all does seem to help us feel a bit better about it all for the most part. But will we ever understand it? Will we ever figure it out? Will we ever find the perfect teachings so we can live a life of utter happiness and contentment?
One of the great things about the three marks of existence teaching is that they point us towards a very deep level of acceptance of ourselves and our world. Can we live in a deeper harmony with how things actually are with us, with the world. This is not a passive kind of thing, we are then all the more able to take action and strive for change and growth and improvement and healing for everyone. Actually we're on a more solid foundation this way.
Of course we want to try to improve and fix things to avoid suffering, and this works to an extent, but the three marks don't call on us to fix things but to free ourselves from some deep misunderstandings. These teachings call on us to merge with things as they are and to understand at a much deeper level how things are. These teachings call on us to stop fighting against reality.
So the three marks of reality. The short hand titles are: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self.
And we'll spend the whole week exploring this. Thank you for listening to my first musing talk on all of this. Don't worry too much about these talks. They can't straight out the mystery either. But it's good to explore these ideas, too. Just see what catches your attention and feels helpful and let the rest go. You can always catch them again on the website later. Thank you.