It’s wonderful to realise the truth of insecurity
The impermanence, the first thing one can really watch, is the uncertainty of everything. Because one of the meanings of nicca, the opposite to anicca, is something which is certain, which is regular, something you can rely upon.
So the opposite means that things which are there will suddenly disappear, unreliable, irregular. And it’s interesting contemplating that word, anicca – unreliable, because how often do we seek for something to rely upon in this world. Some little place of security, something we think is always going to be there for us to come home to, either physically or mentally. Some sort of refuge, inside the mind or inside the world, a place of safety or a thing of security. What anicca is doing is saying that all of “that” is insecure, is insubstantial, is irregular, and you cannot rely upon it.
The tendency of the human being is may be to admit that a lot of the world is unreliable but to seek some sort of secure place, or secure person or secure mind state, which you think is secure and is always going to be there. That’s why some people look for partners in the world, someone you can rely upon, someone who’s always going to be there for you, a soul-mate. But all soul-mates eventually disappear, they go, they too are unreliable, as you find out when you marry one!
But not only that, but people also rely on places and things, the little hide-aways, the nice little houses, the little nests. And even those are unreliable. Eventually they will disappear as well. But we also have the little nests inside of our minds, some little place that we rely upon. But even that, anicca, when it gets in there, reveals that even that is insecure. That’s why anicca, when you see it clearly, is quite frightening. It brings up the feeling of complete insecurity.
There’s no place where you can stand. No place where you can sit down. Everything is always changing. And because of the fear which arises when one starts to look at anicca, it means that unless you’ve got the powerful mind-states of jhanas or post-jhanas, you’ll never be able to pass through that fear and see through to reality. There’ll always be some part of existence you’ll think is secure, reliable, permanent. And that’s why we aren’t enlightened.
Sometimes we think it’s not very nice to realise insecurity, but it’s wonderful to realise the truth of insecurity for two reasons. One, because when you know you haven’t got a home (in all senses of that word), then you can be like a bird, you can fly everywhere. Every place is a tree where you can rest for a while. You’ll never think that you own that particular tree, that “that’s mine and the other birds should keep out”. You can share. Two, it also means that when you realise that all these things are completely changing, then when they do change, when they do disappear, when things alter, you’re never surprised. You realise that this is actually the truth of things, that their insecurity is actually a freedom. Security is like being in prison, being bonded to something. So after a while, one gets quite a sense of release with insecurity, a sense of being able to fly and being able to go where one wishes rather than being bound down.
Insubstantiality of everything
And so this is what happens when we look at anicca, it gives us a sense that all this is coming and going, that there’s nothing which is stable, no place that we can rest on. But in particular, the anicca which is going to discover the third aspect of the three characteristics of existence, anatta, that is the anicca which is very difficult to apply. That’s anicca which applies to the one who sees anicca. Sometimes to see the one who’s seeing is just so difficult – it’s like trying to catch an eel, it’s so slithery and slippery. As soon as you catch it it’s slipped away again. Or it’s like a dog trying to catch its tail.
The self trying to see the self. And this is why seeing anicca in the doer and the seer is just so hard to do. This is, again, one of the reasons why we can’t do this because we don’t want to do it, we don’t like to do it, we’d rather not see the insubstantiality of everything. It’s just too frightening, it’s just too challenging, it’s just cutting too deep. So the only way that can actually happen is if after a good meditation, which is just so peaceful, and we’re so happy and joyful, that that happiness and joy overcomes any fear and we can go so deep into insight.
In the same way, and you’ve heard me tell you this before, the only way you can be open to hearing things you don’t want to hear, to criticism for example, is when you’re in a good mood.
If you’re in a really good mood and you’re really high, then I can tell you anything which is wrong with you, even personal things, and you don’t mind. That’s why I tell people who are in relationships with husbands and wives, if there’s something very difficult you have to tell your partner, some criticism which you think they might not really take very well, then take them out to dinner, dress up really nicely, take them out to a really nice dinner, give them the very best food, what they really like, and then, when they’re on the last course, when they’re really nice and happy, all soft and smiley, you can tell them anything and they’ll accept it.
You can give all sorts of criticism, which is personal or otherwise, and because they’re happy and relaxed, they can listen, they don’t feel challenged. But if you tell them when they’ve just come home from work after a hard day, then “that’s it, I’m calling the lawyers, this is divorce!” This is what happens because when you’re feeling happy and when you’re feeling relaxed, you’re more open to seeing or hearing what you don’t want to hear or see.
In the same way, when you’ve had a good meditation, everything’s nice and peaceful, you’ve got so much happiness, then you’re much more open to seeing those insights which you would normally never allow yourself to contemplate. There’s no-one here. Life is suffering. Everything is impermanent. Those are challenging. Take the suffering of life. This goes completely against the grain. “Life is beautiful. Life is a bowl of cherries. Life is out there for you to enjoy. Go out and experience. If you can’t actually go there, then get a video on it.”
There’s so many ways to enjoy yourself in this world – they’ve even got virtual reality now. Soon, you’ll be able to get virtual jhanas! Just put on this little mask, push a button, and all these beautiful nimittas will come up and lead you into virtual jhanas! So you don’t have to sit on the floor and waste all these nine or ten days, just do it in half an hour at a virtual reality store. I’m sure that someone will try that one of these days. But that’s not the way it works. We’d like to have it the easy way, but sometimes it takes a lot of giving up and letting go. But actually to see suffering is to see something that, by its very nature, we don’t want to see.
I was talking about perceptions the other day, actually right throughout the retreat. There was a very fascinating experiment done, I think it was at Harvard, to examine the way the mind perceives things, where they flashed images up on the screen. They got a few volunteer students to sit and see what was going on, with a notepad by their side. First of all they flashed these images up so fast that there wasn’t really time to understand them – they were just a flash on the screen. And they asked these students to write down what they perceived. And all they could see was, like, a flash of light – that’s all. Then they increased the exposure on the screen, from one-hundredth of a second to, say, two-hundredths of a second.
They still only saw a flash. And they kept on increasing the time of exposure on the screen incrementally until there was a flash there and they could catch something, they could perceive something, then they could write down what it was. And they kept on increasing it until they could see it more clearly and write down what it was. Some very interesting things happened when they kept on increasing the exposure more and more and more. At a very early exposure length, when they thought they understood what was there, they continued writing the same thing, kept on seeing it in exactly the same way. One example was when the actual photograph was a bicycle on the stairs going up to one of the lecture halls. One of the students perceived it as a ship. It’s quite easy to do this because it was only shown very quickly, and perception just grasps something and they said it was a ship.
The interesting thing was that as the exposure time was increased, incrementally, he still said it was a ship. And at times, when every person who was exposed at that particular length would say it’s a bicycle on the stairs, they would still see it as a ship. The old perceptions had imprinted themselves on the mind they actually saw that image according to their old views. And it took them a really long exposure on the screen to change their old ideas and say “it’s not really a ship, it’s a bicycle on the steps going to a lecture hall”.
What was interesting there was how, through the perceptions that we have, we form these really strong views, which make us see the whole world to conform to those views, even though they’re completely wrong. That’s why it’s so difficult to catch the illusions of self, the illusions of suffering, the illusions of anicca. We need to have that strong exposure, not just for a second but for long periods of time, to see that we’ve been seeing it in the wrong way. It’s not a ship after all, it’s just a bicycle on the steps. It’s not a self after all, it’s just a process. Life is not such a bowl of cherries, life is a bowl of rotten eggs!
And the other interesting thing about this experiment, is that they found that images which were repulsive, which were abhorrent, took people much longer exposures to see them as they really are. One of the images they showed on the screen was of two copulating dogs. And that took the longest of all the images for them to figure out what it really was. The reason was because they didn’t want to see that – that was repulsive.
If it had been an image of, like, a beautiful model, they would have seen that in a few seconds. But they didn’t want to see it and therefore they didn’t want to see it. And that was really fascinating because that was reinforcing what the Buddha’s been saying for, like, twenty five centuries. That with the hindrances operating, we only see what we want to see. We don’t see what’s real. And sometimes the exposure need to be so long and right in front of our face before we truly admit what’s going on in the world.
But with suffering, this is the problem – we don’t want to see suffering, therefore we don’t see it. We live in a fantasy world, that life is happy, that you get married and you’re happy ever after. You get the perfect relationship. I remember one lady kept on telling me, no matter what I said to her about Buddhism, she said “I know he’s out there somewhere – the perfect man for me. It’s just that I have not met him yet.
I don’t know where he is, but I know he’s out there somewhere”. And she was in her late forties and she still said stupid things! People live in fantasy land most of the time – not real at all. Or the people that think that if you get the right medicines then you never need to die, and that aging is something that is healable, curable, something which is not necessary. All these ideas, the fantasies which people have, are just not being real.
So when we start looking at the truth of dukkha, we have to be very courageous to see that. Not just courageous, but we have to be very sneaky as well. And again, this is why we do something like the jhana meditations, because we feel so happy, so peaceful (like the husband or wife who’s been taken out by their partner to a beautiful dinner), and the feeling’s so rested, so at peace, that we’re actually open to seeing or hearing what we don’t want to hear, what we didn’t want to see. That’s how you sneak up on dukkha, and you can finally accept it. There’s one particular area of dukkha which we don’t want to see – at least we think that we’re happy.
That’s why when you go home from this retreat, doesn’t matter how much suffering you have on a retreat, when you go home again you say it was really worthwhile, it was really good. Because you’d look like such a fool if you said it was really terrible, full of suffering, that you spent all this money on this. Even on retreats where you have to go through a lot of physical pain, you get conned into saying that it was a lot of pain but that you discovered something wonderful. If you didn’t say that you’d be really embarrassed that you’d been wasting this time.
It’s the same as when you go on holiday. Everyone who goes on holiday, when they come back afterwards and their friends ask “how was it?”, they say they had a wonderful time. Even though you’re lying through your teeth. Even though you had a terrible time. Because it makes you sound so foolish if you say you had a terrible time going through customs, the hotel was rotten, it rained all the time, that you had arguments with the person you went with… you’d feel such a fool! And also it’s just not done, it’s not our custom. Everyone knows that when you come back from a holiday you say you had a really wonderful time. Everyone knows that you write a postcard to your friends saying “having a wonderful time, wish you were here”. No-one says “having a rotten time, wish I was back home!” So sometimes just be careful of the ways that we lie.
We don’t face reality because of our social conditioning. It’s the same as if you go to a funeral. I’ve been giving funeral services for a long time. Even for me, it took many years to get up the courage to tell a joke at a funeral service. You know that I like telling jokes. Because it’s not done to tell jokes at funeral services. You can do it at some other time, any other time, but the one time you’re not meant to tell a joke is when there’s a stiff in the coffin! It’s being disrespectful, isn’t it? But actually when I did get the courage to do it, all the people said “Thank you so much. It made us feel good and the person who died was always telling jokes and they would have really appreciated that one.” I’m sure I could hear the coffin rattling as they were laughing!
But we have these taboos which are incredibly difficult to break. One of those taboos is facing up to that life is suffering. That’s a taboo that people don’t want to recognise. And that’s why you have to creep up on it and find that all this world is all suffering. You know the taboo of looking at a sunset or beautiful flower and, it’s really challenging to say that all flowers, even the most beautiful flower, is suffering. People think you’re just crazy or you’re weird, or you’ve been a monk too long, and you should come back into the real world! It’s a taboo – flowers are beautiful, everyone knows that. The sunset is so wonderful, the mountains, the forests…
To challenge that is very difficult to do. So this is where you do need to have that ability to go against preconceived notions which go so deep inside of you, you wouldn’t believe just how deeply they are embedded in you. And the most deeply embedded notion is not the idea that “life is happiness”, but that “you are”. That’s the deepest notion which is the hardest one to eradicate, the anatta, that “I am”. And that view is just so tricky, so slippery, it’s just like trying to shoot a bird a million miles away through the eye with an arrow. It’s just so tricky to see this self, this “me”. And this is why the Buddha gave, not just the jhanas to give the mind power, and to be able to see what it doesn’t want to see, but he also gave the four satipatthanas, as a way of not wasting time, to be able to focus on the four areas where the illusion of self really hangs out.
Because there’s many places where you might try to look for the illusion of self, but the four main areas are the rupa, your body, vedana, the feelings, citta, the mind which knows, and the mental objects, dhamma, especially the doer, will. Those are the four areas. And so, having heard a teaching like the satipatthana, having practiced the Eightfold Path, when the mind is in jhanas and it comes out afterwards see if you can remember to employ the satipatthana, especially for one purpose and one purpose only: not to see anicca, but to see anatta, not-self. That is the deepest, most fundamental block which is stopping you from being enlightened, which stops you being free.
One of the ways which I practice myself, and teach other people to practice, is to ask yourself a question. Not “is there a self?”, that’s just too philosophical. But to ask yourself: -”What do I take to be myself? Who do I think I am? Who do I perceive I am? What is this “me” I assume to exist?” When you ask that question, whatever comes up as an answer, challenge it. Am I this body? I look in the mirror each morning and smile “there I am again”. Is that me, this body? Sometimes we’re very sophisticated intellectually and we think “of course I’m not my body”. On the thought level we might say that, but when we get sick or we’re dying we realise that that’s just superficial wisdom. It hasn’t gone deep enough. We are still attached to our body. We still think it’s ours.
The Buddha gave a test to see if you really are attached to these things, whether you think they’re “mine”. This is a story of when he was walking with some monks in the Jeta Grove and he pointed out some twigs and leaves on the ground and he said “Monks, what would happen, how would you feel if some people came along and collected all these twigs and leaves and put them into a big heap, and then set fire to them all? And then once the fire had died down, they took all the ashes and threw them to the four winds until they were completely dispersed. What would your reaction be if they did that?” And the monks said “Nothing, because these things aren’t ours, they don’t belong to us.
They’re just sticks and leaves, that’s all”. “Very good”, said the Buddha, “Now monks, what would happen if the lay people took all of you and put you in a heap and set you on fire, until you’re just ashes, and then threw those ashes to the four winds, would you be upset? Would you be really worried?” And according to the texts, I don’t know if they really meant this but they certainly knew the right answer, the monks replied “No, no, we wouldn’t be at all worried!” And the Buddha asked “Why is that monks?” And they said “Because this body isn’t ours, it’s nothing to do with us, it’s not me or mine.”
– Extracted from one of the dhamma talks given by Ajahn Brahmavamso during a 9-day meditation retreat in North Perth, April 1999