A Brief Intro To Mindfulness Meditation - Part Two (The Three Characteristics & Insight)

Hi, gang! I hope your meditation practice has been going well and that you’ve gotten familiar with your current level of concentration. You may have been sitting all week since my last post and not really noticed a big difference in how long you can maintain attention - that’s okay! I hope you’re relishing the “aha” moment of remembering your intended focal object. If you missed it, this post is a follow up to last week’s post on establishing a practice and cultivating concentration.

Today we’re going to talk about the Big Gun of meditation - vipassana. Vipassanā is Pali for “Insight,” and it’s what we work to develop if we hope to one day obtain enlightenment. This sounds like an absurdly lofty goal but it is absolutely obtainable. And truth be told, even if you don’t make it all the way, you will gain many other “mundane” insights and fruits that make sitting worthwhile.

This is a rather lengthy post despite attempting to be a “Brief Intro” because the concepts in here are such a big deal I could not condense them any more than I already have. Perhaps bookmark this post and come back to it if you don’t have the time to read it all in one sitting.

And like my post last week, I was fortunate enough to be able to share this post with my sister Ariadne Haske and not only get some very good editing notes, but she also wrote most of the section on Anicca (Impermanence). It is with her guidance that I feel confident releasing this post into the world, with the hopes that this information is as helpful to others as it is to me.

Disclaimer

This series came at the request of several people who have had the pleasure* of listening to me prattle on about how meditation has changed my life. However, you should know that I am by no means a master of this material and I can only share the absolute base understanding of these concepts. I have faith in the path and its attainability due to talking to my sister (who Sakadagami or second path), crawling all over forums (like https://www.dharmaoverground.org), and reading several books. The thing that is quite fantastic about all of this? You can test it and experience it for yourself. Ask any Theravadin Monk or practitioner and they will highly recommend that you do just that. After all, reading this, listening to dharma talks, or absorbing any other material on meditation and Insight will give you some good markers of what to do or what to look for but at the end of the day, almost everything happens on the cushion.

What Is Insight Practice?

Insight practice is the key to a permanent end to sorrow. That is the most succinct way I can possibly describe Insight and why one would want to practice it. Concentration is lovely and gives you all sorts of temporary relief from suffering but for any kind of lasting change that prevails even when we’re not meditating, we have to practice Insight. It is the wisdom which enables one to see that sensations are impermanent, unsatisfactory and impersonal. Our perception makes us believe otherwise. It is the means by which we rid ourselves of defilements, cravings and wrong views(0). It allows us to see the world as it really is and clearly perceive The Three Characteristics.

Before we can get into the nitty-gritty of how to practice Insight, we have to have an intellectual understanding of The Three Characteristics or The Three Marks of Existence.

The Three Characteristics

Depending on the origin of the text you are reading, there are a few ways this will be referred to - the three marks or three characteristics are the most common that I’ve seen. I use the term characteristics generally though I bring up “marks of existence” in case you go to read other texts about the dharma. There are lots of other relevant teachings like The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, threefold training and more but at the end of the day, the information that most directly pertains to Insight are these three characteristics.

Impermanence (Anicca)

Impermanence means that all observable things, without exception, are inconstant.

The second-to-last sentence the Buddha said before he died was, “All phenomena are impermanent! Work out your salvation with diligence!“ This brings home how important this concept is and, in my opinion, it is the easiest of the three characteristics to observe. Physical, mental, inner, outer, pleasurable, intolerable - everything is transient. Absolute transience is the actual nature of experiential reality.

When we close our eyes during meditation, our entire world becomes our sensate experience. We have exactly six doors to experience things:

  1. Touch

  2. Smell

  3. Sight

  4. Sound

  5. Taste

  6. Thoughts

Yes, thought should be considered a sense door. It’s a sensation that only we perceive but it behaves in the exact same manner and thus should be treated similarly. As Ariadne so apty put it, “we have thoughts like bowel movements, and no one tries to control their bowel movements, other then to time them with finding a toilet.”

So before we decided to sit on the cushion, we were reading a book: does that book actually exist?

During meditation:

Well, the idea of a book certainly exists (a thought) but that idea came from our mind as a mental sensation. Of course we can open our eyes to see the book {being incredibly specific, our eyes do not relay the concept "book" but colors in space to the brain which then assemble these sensations into an idea} (another sense door), but that is our eyes giving us information about a book shaped object. We can pick it up (another sense door), building more sensory evidence that the book certainly exists. But does the book really exist?

Yes and no.

For example, when we are born all we get is sensate experience. Little by little we learn to combine sensations into abstract ideas like, "this item is a book which contains words, which describe a part of the world." If you were to ask someone who had never seen a book before to describe it they might say, "It's a square shaped item with strange markings inside" ... So certainly those abstract ideas and concepts inside cease to exist (for them).

But does the book, exist? Well the sensations of the book exist, we experience them, but when we close our eyes all that is left of the book is an idea (the mental sensation). That sensation is necessarily incomplete, it won't contain the whole book, word-for-word, it's a mapping of reality, a representation.

Day-to-day we can assume the book still exists, but in meditation the goal is to remove assumptions. The heart of Anicca is understanding all that can exist is sensations via one of the sense doors, nothing more, and these sensations are temporary.

All sensations come and go in a flash. Even things that appear to linger are not constant and if you observe them closely you will see the flickering, vibrating, unsteady nature of these items. My anxiety, which once seemed so very sticky and constant, can now be broken down into moment-to-moment sensations, interspersed with other thoughts or feelings or sensations. Sure, it may pop back up during a window of time but it is inconstant and has never once lingered forever. Realizing and embracing this is what almost entirely eradicated an enormous problem I’ve had for years and years. Meditation did what medication, workbooks, therapy, drugs, and every other coping mechanism could not(1). From time to time, I will have sensations of anxiety arise (note: sensations! of anxiety - because that’s all it really is!), but once I engage them, observe them, and see their flickering nature, they are gone rather quickly. It’s my earnest hope that once I obtain stream entry, their occasional appearance will cease altogether. This is one of my biggest reasons for meditating. Remember, intentions are important.

For more on this particular topic, Prezi has an interesting visualization here.

Unsatisfactoriness (Dukkha)

Unsatisfactoriness refers to the fundamental suffering which pervades all physical and mental experiences.

Also translated as suffering, misery, pain, “dukkha” is a topic that was touched on briefly in the last post. There’s no one word translation that neatly explains dukkha but unsatisfactoriness is the English word I will use here. While our end goal is to end our experience of this very thing by accepting its existence, we will at times make ourselves a bit uncomfortable whilst observing it. Concentration meditation is generally quite blissful (and when someone makes a claim such as “well, meditation is supposed to make you feel good!” then it’s generally safe to assume they practice pure concentration meditation(2)), but vipassana is not always so. There are various texts that will point to the different facets of suffering but perhaps the most simple, and easy to observe, are these three causes of suffering: craving, aversion, and ignorance. Maybe the real reason I like Buddhism so much is because of how many things come in threes.

Craving

Even things that seem like they don’t cause suffering do - often due to craving. For myself, this is most obviously observable with food. Before beginning Insight practice, if you had asked me if ice cream caused me suffering, I would have made a noise that roughly equates to “??????” However, now that I’ve spent some time examining dukkha, I realize that all “good” things: sweets, sex, video games, music, attention, etc, cause me unsatisfactoriness due to my craving for them. If you’re highly motivated by food like me, try this easy real-life dharma experiment: observe your feelings prior to having the thing, during consuming the thing, and directly after you have finished the thing. You can apply this to really anything that brings you joy and you will likely come up with the same result every time: once it is gone, the excitement and happiness you experienced before/during is gone as well.

Not everything that you experience craving for is obvious and will take some time to uncover. However, it’s generally safe to say that if you like something, it indirectly creates suffering for you through craving.

Aversion

Aversion is a relatively easy facet of dukkha to understand - physical pain, aging, illness, and death are all universal and unavoidable sources of suffering for each and every human on earth. Like you, I have an aversion to catching a cold, hurting myself accidentally, realizing how my mental elasticity is declining as I get older, and, of course, dying. Though there are many other, less severe, things that create aversion. Going to work, getting out of bed, paying bills, doing chores - pretty much everyone can relate to not wanting to do these things. Observing this feeling of aversion in a neutral fashion and accepting its existence repeatedly is one of the ways we reach enlightenment. It might require a little “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality, repeating to ourselves over and over that this is simply the nature of life, but with time one should genuinely understand and accept this truth.

Ignorance

It is taught that “suffering begins with ignorance about the reality of our true nature.” Examining the very items that cause suffering in our lives can feel counter-intuitive. As someone who once very deeply subscribed to the thought process of happy thoughts -> happy moods -> happy life, I absolutely understand the desire to ignore the three characteristics. Do not mistake ignorance in this context to mean “uneducated” - it means to be unaware of pain and it’s cause. It’s our resistance to observing and accepting our cravings and aversions and damn is it a difficult process to unprogram. After all, ignorance attempts to make us feel like all is well, all is good, there’s no need for change. The number of defense mechanisms our brain develops to maintain this status-quo is pretty remarkable. But with practice, it can only hold out for so long.

Non-Self (Anatta)

Non-self asserts that there is no unchanging, permanent self or “soul” in living beings.

The doctrine of the no-self is a tough pill to swallow. As a result of having Borderline Personality Disorder, my sense of self was incredibly unstable for many, many years. However, I actively worked at creating a solid sense of who “I” am - to the point that I literally made a fucking brand out of my nickname. Look at the name of this website!!

This should give you an idea of why this is the characteristic that I struggle the most with. However, I will share with you the things I have read and perhaps we can contemplate it together, eventually reaching some kind of understanding through diligent practice.

As you may have noticed, impermanence seems to play a hand in suffering and it is the same with the non-self. Is my body “me”? If so, what happens when I cut my hair, slough off dead skin, lose a limb? Are those things me? We certainly look different than we did when we were a baby and this shell of cells will continue to constantly change until the day it perishes.

Are my thoughts “me”? They come and go, oftentimes without any sense of control over them. Like all other sensations, I can observe them and realize that they are utterly impermanent - no different than the sound of the dishwasher, the smell of perfume, the taste of a warm roll. Interestingly, in my current stage of practice, I have begun to have absolutely random thoughts that appear to manifest from nowhere and have nothing to do with me. A recent sit presented the thought, “My daughter would be so disappointed.” What daughter? And why on earth would she be disappointed? The origin and explanation of this thought is something I could contemplate all day but the truth of it is that this thought was not “mine”.

While “Carly” may exist conventionally, there is no aspect of myself I can describe which isn’t impermanent and superficial. This is a hugely difficult concept for many to understand and from all that I have read, an intellectual explanation is just not sufficiently capable of explaining this truth. So we must sit.

Alternatively, my sister explains non-self in this way:

For Anatta, the easiest path is "casual interdependence of all phenomenon."

A tree grows because a seed fell, the seed fell because a bird carried it, the bird carried it because it was hungry, it was hungry because it didn't eat the day before, it didn't eat the day before because it was sick, it was sick because it caught a cold from the rain, it was raining, because water evaporated from a nearby lake, the water evaporated because sunlight hit it, the sunlight hit it, because the sun is 8 million miles away, it's 8 million miles away, because of the big bang.

You are on the path because I told you about it, I told you about it because the dharma needs to be spread, it needs to be spread because it's the truth, it's the truth because its universal, it's universal because it's available to everyone.

We literally can't do anything without everything having an impact, our minds generate thoughts based on previous states, which we don't control, we are born into a world already formed, already in motion.

See also: Indra’s Net. It's literally the definition of a fractal, you can't look at one part and cut it out, it's always a part of the whole.

So to go "this is me" lol, you born into this culture, in this time, with these circumstances, with this history. You remove all of that, you cut the person out of Indra's net, they cease to exist.

Idk about y’all but as I said to her after I read that, “that shit about the casual interdependence of all things just knocked something loose in my brain.”

How To Practice Insight

By now, you might be feeling a bit apprehensive. After all, if we knew, accepted and fully understood the three characteristics, we would have completed the first path of enlightenment! It’s okay. Doubt is common in the beginning and nothing to worry about. The magic of vipassana, however, is that we can directly observe these marks of existence for ourselves in a first-person science which has been replicated over and over by people around the world for over two thousand years. C’mon, you gotta admit, that’s pretty compelling.

So how exactly does one go about practicing Insight?

There is no one perfect technique. Much like concentration, there are several different ways to get the same end result. However, you begin just as you would for concentration - comfortable posture, hands in the dhyana mudra, timer set. We keep our focus object - often times, the breath. We attend to this focus object but now it is time to introduce awareness.

Awareness

Whereas attention is about honing in on one particular item and examining it, with little to no regard to anything else, awareness is a much broader state of consciousness. We have both attention and peripheral awareness working side-by-side all day: as you make your way to the kitchen, you may be using your attention to think about how much time you have to get ready for work, planning what you’re going to wear, etc but your peripheral awareness is quietly making note of things like “walk around the dog”, “it’s cold down here”, “something smells good”. It’s what informs our reflexes and tells us to duck when we see something coming or catch something we’ve dropped.

In the context of meditation, with our eyes closed, our awareness is the subtle moment we notice the heat clicking on, the beeping of a snow plow backing up outside, the feeling of our foot falling asleep. Anything from our awareness can become the object of our attention should our brain decide it is important enough, which is exactly how we end up forgetting that we are meditating and getting caught in a daydream.

Awareness gives us context whereas attention does the analytical work. Ideally, we want to train these two processes to work together without either one dominating. It is awareness that discovers the sources of Insights and attention that guides our investigation of them. We need awareness to observe activities of the mind because attention is what controls the intentional activities of the mind.

The nonjudgmental observation of awareness is critical for Insight.

Noting

A preferred method of mine for Insight and strengthening awareness is noting. I mentioned it in my last post but Mahasi Sayadaw really crushed it in his explanation of noting practice. The following is an excerpt from his instruction:

If you imagine something, you must know that you have done so and make a mental note, imagining. If you simply think of something, mentally note, thinking. If you reflect, reflecting. If you intend to do something, intending. When the mind wanders from the object of meditation which is the rising and falling of the abdomen, mentally note, wandering.

If you envision or imagine a light or colour, be sure to note seeing. A mental vision must be noted on each occurrence of its appearance until it passes away. After its disappearance, continue with Basic Exercise I, by being fully aware of each movement of the rising and falling abdomen. Proceed carefully, without slackening. If you intend to swallow saliva while thus engaged, make a mental note intending. While in the act of swallowing, swallowing. If you spit, spitting. Then return to the exercise of noting rising and falling. Suppose you intend to bend the neck, note intending. In the act of bending, bending. When you intend to straighten the neck, intending. In the act of straightening the neck, straightening. The neck movements of bending and straightening must be done slowly. After mentally making a note of each of these actions, proceed in full awareness with noticing the movements of the rising and falling abdomen.

In the beginning, much like focusing our attention, noting can seem difficult. It suddenly makes clear how many things we do and think without conscious awareness of them. Noting “intending” is a very important key to seeing the gaps in between what we think and what we do. If you forget to note this or anything else, you can note “forgetting”. Don’t get too caught up in what name you use for everything - I have some days where I just note “thought” for every mental process that occurs, regardless of whether it’s imagining, reflecting, wandering. On a really fast noting day, notes will eventually become “blips” where everything just gets a “blip” note. Whatever word you use, it should always be one word. With time, noting will be too slow and your brain will have strengthened to the point where you clearly perceive without having to label sensations.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind with noting is to note everything without placing a value judgement on them. In a sit, for example, I may note “anxiety”, “hearing”, “pain”, “anxiety” but none of these things are good or bad. They just are. The purpose of noting is to let these sensations appear, accept them exactly as they are, and release them. Dr. Yates (from The Mind Illuminated), has a nice short phrase you may want to commit to memory: let it come, let it be, let it go.

If you ever read my post about DBT, this concept of radical acceptance is not a new one. In fact, CBT/DBT and mindfulness have a lot in common. This probably explains why my introduction to psychology teacher advocates both of these things.

Investigation

So how does all this tie in with the three characteristics? Well, noting - especially in the quickfire way described above - will reveal that all things are impermanent. Observing the exact beginning and end of your breath while keeping your awareness open is another perfect example of this. As an understanding of impermanence develops, vibrations become apparent and we realize that our sensate reality is littered with our brain trying to make things seem continuous.

As you sit, you will certainly have thoughts come about. You do not want to get too entangled in them other than to ask yourself, how does this relate to the three characteristics? To unsatisfactoriness? For example, thinking about what you’re doing to do after you’re done sitting is clearly craving/aversion, and thus related to suffering. Boredom is often aversion to suffering in disguise. Examining reality is not fun or exciting, so we’d rather engage in ignorance. Especially when we begin to observe the more heavy aspects of suffering. After you ask your question and see it’s connection to dukkha, all you need do is accept it and let it go. Repeatedly working to truly know, accept, and release the urges, impulses, tensions, and fantasies which fight against your attempts to sit will not only keep you from getting terribly distracted but provide good Insight.

As for the non-self, Daniel Ingram quoted a teacher as saying, “If you are observing it, then by definition it isn’t you.” In practice, notice how sensations arise on their own - even thoughts or intentions. Remember the six sense doors.

Whenever investigating, remember not to get too caught up in your brain’s “stuff”. While there are times that you may want to linger to get to the root of something, there is a lot to be said for being able to simply let it go. This is a skill that will directly transfer over to your life off the cushion.

Welcome to Insight

As I’ve said many times before, this 3k+ word post is really barely scratching the surface of what could be said about these topics - especially considering that understanding the three characteristics literally leads to enlightenment. However, it is certainly sufficient to get you started with Insight meditation and investigation of your reality. I encourage you to find the sutras, pick up a book or two, Google your brains out but most importantly keep sitting. It would seem a balance between gathering information and actually meditating is ideal for awakening as some folks spend years sitting without really getting anywhere versus some folks who read and read and read but never put in adequate time actually meditating. Of course, you can go through life without sitting and still chance upon many stages of the path just as someone can sit without any instruction and eventually perceive reality clearly. But neither of those journeys are “ideal” if we’re going to put a value judgment on them.

Next week, I will likely not post my next entry in this series as I’ll be traveling. Truth be told, this is a LOT of information and will likely be sufficient for your practice some time. Increase your time from five minutes to ten if you’re following along with this series, doing five minute sits on the days that you genuinely can barely spare a moment. Just like I said last time, if you miss a sit, do not beat yourself up about it. Just sit tomorrow. Keep making the effort.

As for noting, it may not come easily at first. That’s okay. Do the best you can and like any other skill, it will develop and get stronger. Although I’ll be on the road, I am always available for questions on Facebook messenger. Good luck! Note vigorously and investigate ruthlessly!!

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(0) - I intend on the next post being about Morality and these related items here as they really are quite important. However, for the sake of getting your Insight practice swimming along, I decided to zip right into vipassana from concentration.

(1) - I’ve said it many times before and I will continue to say it probably every time my words could be misconstrued to mean otherwise: medication, therapy and all forms of treatment for mental health issues are important, valid, and lifesaving. It is my observation that meditation has the potential to pretty much fix all these things in the long term with sufficient practice and determination however one should not stop taking any medicine, cease therapy or any other treatment in order to just meditate one’s problems away.

(2) I am not passing any judgment on people who practice pure concentration. That’s their choice to make. It’s not a choice that I would personally recommend as the long term goal of literally ending suffering sounds hella tight to me but I am a big fan of freewill. Plus, any kind of meditation has the potential to accidentally bump your way into Insight practice. At the end of the day, we’re all doing what we can to maximize our happiness.