Sacred geometry

Contemplating the Three Characteristics (Part 1) - Impermanence And Dukkha

Date12th November 2005
Retreat/SeriesNovember Solitary 2005


I'd like to talk a little bit this morning about what the Buddha called the three characteristics. In the understanding of the Dharma, suffering -- unnecessary suffering -- arises because of clinging, because we cling. And ultimately, we cling because we, at a very fundamental level, misunderstand the world, misunderstand ourselves. We believe our perceptions to be something real, in a way that they're actually not. This is very deeply, actually, woven into our consciousness. So we actually, the path of practice, what we need to do is, we need to retrain our way of looking at the world, retrain our way of looking so that it doesn't lead to suffering, to problems, to difficulties for our self, retrain it so that it leads to freedom.

Theoretically, if you read some of the texts, if mindfulness -- the practice of attention and awareness that we're engaged in -- if that gains some steadiness and continuity over time, gains some power, theoretically, what's supposed to happen is, these three characteristics of existence become very evident to us. They stand out. So at least, that's the theory. What they are -- the three characteristics are:

(1) The quality of impermanence, that everything in the world, outer or inner, has this quality of not lasting. Eventually it will fade. It will die. It will move out of existence. Changing nature of things. So there's impermanence.

(2) There's what's called dukkha, which in this context means really that everything, again, outer or inner, really has the quality of not being capable of providing us with a lasting satisfaction, so somehow inherently not really able to do it for us. So impermanence, dukkha, this quality of unsatisfactoriness.

(3) And the last one, anattā in Pali, which means that everything that arises is not-self. It's not me or mine, doesn't belong to me, nor is it me. So I'll talk a bit more in detail about these as we go through. So impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and this quality of not being me or mine, not belonging to me.

Now, what's quite important to realize is, this isn't just a sort of intellectual idea -- "Oh, yeah, it's just another Buddhist list, and I understand that" -- and we sort of put it on the shelf and go back to our practice. The Buddha was actually not that concerned with making these statements about reality, and then just saying, "This is how it is, folks." What he was concerned about is something very practical: it's like, actually, you should look this way. You should engage in this way of looking at the world if you want to move towards freedom. If you want your heart to open and move towards freedom, this is the way that you need to actually deliberately look at the world. So what he's saying is not a statement about reality. It's an encouragement for a way of practising, for a way of seeing the world and seeing ourselves. It's very pragmatic. There's a real difference there.

And as I said, we need to look this way if the heart is going to move towards freedom. It's a way of looking that helps us to enter into a stream that moves towards freedom, towards love, towards that kind of peace in the world. And we need to do it in a very deliberate way, actually, perhaps.

Sometimes, in practice, we can get the impression that "I'll just be mindful. I'll just be with what is. I'll just be." And there is a real beauty in that. It's very much a lovely way to practise. But I would say, for most of us, it's actually not going to be enough. Or I would question whether it would be enough. Just that simply 'being with what is' -- it may not have enough power in it to actually break through some of the constrictions of the heart.

Most often, the Buddha, when he taught, he would basically explain: "Get some concentration together. Get some calmness of the mind together." Then he would say, "And then take up your theme." So again, there's not so much 'just being' with whatever, but actually deliberately saying, "I'm going to reflect on this or that element of my world, of my experience, in a particular way." It's quite deliberate. And Ajahn Chah, probably one of the most famous Thai Forest meditation masters from the twentieth century, he would say, "Just keep filing everything away into one of these three characteristics. Just keep doing that."[1] It's a very deliberate thing that we're adding to our mindfulness.

It's interesting to me, sometimes, why ... I mean, sometimes people hear this, and they take to the idea right away. But oftentimes, people don't. I'm sure when I first heard it, it probably just went in one ear and out the other. It's quite a question, actually, for me: why don't we do that? Why is there oftentimes some resistance to doing this? And I've talked to a few people, and sometimes there is this bit of a reluctance to engage the mind and heart this way. It can seem like, "Well, I've just got so much stuff going on. There's just, you know, there are difficult emotions going on. There are memories coming up. There's this grief coming up, fear, my mind is like a crazy monkey, whatever. And when that clears, or when I've dealt with that, then I'll get to this other stuff."

But maybe we could be a bit more willing to actually experiment. And maybe it doesn't have to be so linear that way, that when we've cleared out all our stuff, then we can begin to work in this other way. And just to check in our practice, is there a willingness to experiment?

Or we may wonder, "Well, if I sit and I notice the changing nature of the feeling-tone of my body sensations, what on earth does that have to do with my problems?" It can seem so removed and abstract when we're dealing with something difficult. But see what it has to do with our problems. It may have something very, very real, very intimately connected with problems that seem to have nothing to do with that. So actually begin to look at impermanence, to begin to look at these qualities of unsatisfactoriness and not-self.

Or we may think, "When my mind has settled down, when I'm more calm, when I've established mindfulness more ..." But actually, as I'll hopefully explain, looking in terms of these three characteristics actually should lead to a kind of calming of the mind. There's a real letting go involved in that. There's actually some peace that comes from that. It's not that we necessarily have to wait until we feel really calm.

Now, it's true that when we do contemplate the changing nature of things, the dying nature of things, their unsatisfactoriness, that can bring up some real sadness for us. When the heart begins to open to that reality, it can bring up sadness. It can bring up fear. It can bring up a real sense of disillusionment with the world, disappointment. That's very true. The Buddha, in one of the great Mahāyāna texts, the Diamond Sūtra, right at the end, he says:

Thus should you think of all this fleeting world: like a drop of dew, or a star at dawn, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a bubble in a stream, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.[2]

It's actually very strong wording, beautiful poetic images. But it can be that we hear something like that -- it's actually kind of jarring or unsettling in a way, especially (and for most of us this is the case) when there's actually nothing else to replace the things in the world, the things that are impermanent. We just get a sense that the world is kind of pulled away, like a rug from underneath us. What have we got to hold on to, what have we got to stand on?

So there can ... [11:17, audio cuts out] ... a fear and unsettledness when we begin, when the heart begins to open to impermanence. If there's no sense of something other, it can lead almost to a sense of nihilism: "Well, pff. What is the world? It's nothing. It's nothing, no point." If we talk about impermanence a little bit, sometimes it absolutely is necessary for the heart to have to open to the difficult side of impermanence. So, to the losses that we encounter as we move through life, in ourselves and around us, when people die -- whether it's parents or friends or family, loved ones -- a certain unique expression of a person has gone from the world. The particular way they laughed, or their particular humour, their particular way of expressing love, whatever it was, or their particular things that annoyed us -- it's just gone. It's passed from the world. It exists only in memory now. And that too will fade. Or we've been in a relationship with someone we love, and that ends. And those things that we used to share, the activities that we used to do, the places we used to go -- that's all gone. It's all gone, not to be repeated.

It even can be just something like moving house. I was born in a house in London, where my mother still lives, forty years ago. They lived there before that. I was born there. My father died there. And my mother was going to move. And there was just this feeling of grief that came up, like a loss of the house. And it wasn't particularly that I had great, happy memories of childhood there. [laughs] And it's not even a very nice house, particularly. But it's just, we form these attachments to things, and then things change. And it will be -- she changed her mind, but it will be the end of that whole sense of connection with a place. And there can be grief when we open to impermanence in this way. There can be a sadness.

And if we're to move towards the truth and move towards open-heartedness in life, we need, in a way, to look that right in the face and open our hearts to it. This impermanence, when the heart does open, I can actually see it all around us, in every level, moving through nature, all around and through us. And whatever age we are, I'm sure we've all had the experience that it just seems like our childhood was yesterday, literally, playing in the street or whatever. Time just goes. And similarly, whatever age we are, it's not a very long time until we die. Death is not very far.

There's a poem by Mary Oliver. It's called "Morning Walk," and it's about the sense of impermanence.[3]

[15:32 -- 16:44, poem]

So there's a real part of the -- it's not the whole of the spiritual path, but a real part of it is to really have that willingness to open to this ending of things, this dying, that ... It's impossible to move through life without being touched by it. And can the heart be willing to open to that, to soften around it and really take it in?

Now, actually, impermanence isn't always difficult. When we are experiencing difficulty, when we're experiencing difficulty in the body, or difficulty with the mind or with the emotions, actually impermanence is something that we're glad about, because we can rest assured that what arises is on its way out. It's only passing through, and impermanence -- we're quite glad of it then. And as I said when I was talking about the mind states, sometimes when things are difficult, almost all we can do is just remind ourselves, "This too will pass." We just put that reminder in there as a way of just generating a little ease and faith in the situation. And when things seem very solid -- a mind state or a condition of the body, or thought streams or whatever -- just to really hone the attention a little finer. Begin to see, what seems so solid is actually not so solid. There are gaps in it. And if we just hold the attention there, we will see the gaps. And the myth of its solidity will be dissolved somewhat.

[18:53] So, whether something is positive or negative or just kind of neither, in between, we still need to contemplate the impermanence, contemplate the changing nature. It's not just for certain situations. It's for everything. So really, as I said, make that a way of looking. When we take it on as a practice, this contemplation of impermanence, we can actually think of it in terms of levels. So oftentimes in this tradition, there's a real encouragement to look at a very micro level of impermanence. So I see the changing nature of things, really like within one second, just honing the attention, honing the concentration down, really looking at the flickering nature of phenomena within a second, within a moment, even. And that can be very powerful for some people, that can be quite transforming. However, my experience talking to people is that it's actually not always that transforming. You can just keep getting more and more concentrated, and nothing much is happening. Just seeing this very, very fast impermanence, and there's not much freedom coming out of it. So just not to have that assumption, that the more concentrated equals the better. It doesn't always work that way. But there is that level, certainly, to explore, the sort of micro level of our world.

And then there's the everyday level. In the course of a day, how much will our mind state change? Wake up grumpy, and we know it changes. How much will our body state change -- you know, from tiredness, from low energy, to high energy, to a little pain somewhere, to the relief of that pain? So just to track through the day, maybe in each of the foundations of mindfulness, just watch the waves in the course of the day. And let that impermanence imprint on the mind.

Or in terms of the six senses -- so, I mean, amazing amount of change that goes on just in terms of visual sense throughout the day. I mean, indescribable amount of change. Or the hearing sense, or the physical, the touch sense, or the taste. It can be quite interesting just to take a day and just to track that. And let that changing nature of things really impress itself on consciousness.

For me, for myself, I find one of the most powerful ways of contemplating impermanence is actually on a much larger scale -- in a way, to look at everything that's going on from, you could say, a perspective of vastness. So the universe is fourteen billion years old -- very, very long time. And it's going to last, apparently, at least that long again. Our lives are fifty, seventy, ninety, a hundred -- if we're really, really lucky -- years. It's a tiny amount in that vastness. So what happens? Our every sight that we see, this talk now, this building -- everything is kind of set in a context of absolute vastness, this incredible vastness. It comes and it goes. It arises for a very brief time, and then it's gone.

To give our perception of things, of ourselves, and our lives, and of moments, that context of vastness -- and that context, in a way, of death, too, because it will all fade in death. And we don't know what happens before, and we don't know what happens afterwards. This isn't morbid. This isn't like some depressing ... It's actually quite liberating. The Buddha said, every breath, to think of death -- which sounds awful, but actually to have the courage to be willing to explore that practice a little bit, and the way it can actually give a real sacredness to life, and a real sense of wonder and preciousness to our life.[4]

So if we take on the practice of contemplating impermanence when we're in formal meditation, what can sometimes happen is the attention just keeps flickering around too quickly. So the chainsaw, and then this voice, and then body sensations, and this and this and this. What will happen is that we'll just make ourselves dizzy. [laughs] And it may feel quite intense, and because of the intensity we may feel like, "Oh, I'm really getting somewhere." But it's probably not that helpful. So what's more helpful in formal practice is actually to, perhaps, just take one object -- so, for instance, the body sensations, or the body sensations in one area, if you have some pain, for instance -- and just really stay there, and say, "The main thing I'm going to notice here is the impermanence." So it's not the clarity of it; it's not how it exactly feels. The impermanence is my number one priority, just noticing impermanence over and over.

[24:59] It could be that we sit down, and we place the attention in the heart area. And we say, "I'm just going to notice what moves through the heart, what emotions, what even hints of emotion move, and just watch their changing, just watch their impermanence, and notice their impermanence." To really be quite focused in that way can be really helpful, so that the attention is quite steady.

Or there can be a sense that awareness is quite broad, quite global. In a way, it's taking everything in. There's a space of awareness. We're sitting in that space. And within that space, there are sounds, there are body sensations, there's a flicker of feeling, of thought. Just within the steady space of awareness, the global sense of awareness, just noticing the changing. Just really focusing on the fact that things are changing. And watching objects in consciousness fade into that space. They just disappear, disappear, disappear ... endless disappearing into the space. Actually, this brings a real calmness. This brings a real settling. It's a very worthwhile thing to practise.

The Pali word for impermanence is anicca, and another translation of that is actually 'uncertain.' So it's impermanent, changing. It's also uncertain, which means that sometimes we know things are going to change, we know things are going to pass, or we know things will come to us, but we don't know when. And we can't really control that. And how much in life is timed to suit us? When is it convenient for me to get ill? Or a separation from someone we love? Or death -- when will that be timed right and convenient? So there's this attention to the first characteristic, impermanence.

The second characteristic, dukkha, which in this context means the unsatisfactory nature of things, their inability to really give us any kind of lasting happiness. So we can notice on a gross scale, what am I actually believing is going to kind of 'do it' for me, make me happy? If I get this relationship, if I get that car or object, or that meal or whatever, and just to notice, what am I actually thinking of in that way. And then see: does it? I mean, invariably the answer is no.

It may also be in terms of absence. So it's not that I want anything. I just want this cold that I have to go away. Or I just want this personality thing to go away. Or I just want that person to go away. And we tend to think their absence or the absence of something is going to do it for us. But again, just to see where we're investing in that way, and does it do it for us?

Something too about, in a way, the finiteness of things, because things are finite, and perhaps just we recognize their finiteness, and we know they can't do it for us. Maybe something deep in us knows that, or longs for the infinite, knows that the finite will be limited. We have that maybe as just a dim, intuitive knowing. So things are dukkha, things are unsatisfactory. But not in a very real way -- only when we look at them in a certain way, only when we have a certain relationship to them. So it's not really an absolute statement about things. It's when we have a certain relationship to them.

At a slightly deeper level, a way to work with this characteristic of dukkha at a meditative level is to notice the suffering when we cling to something. So just to notice, actually, that when we cling, when we hold on, when we push away, there's actually suffering there. It might be very subtle, but there's suffering there. And to make that connection quite clear. And to feel that when we let go of that clinging, there's a release there, and to feel that release, and feel the relief of it. Then in this way, through our body sense of suffering, body sense of release, we actually know, we understand, there's a real insight going very deep there.

To work in this way, we have to look at the vedanā link, the link of feeling-tone that we explained in the opening instructions. So something's either pleasant or unpleasant or in between. When it's pleasant, we grasp. When it's unpleasant, we push away. We tend to do that. And we can notice that tendency and actually feel it. You feel it in the body, sometimes in quite a subtle way, feel a sense of contraction. Somehow just the mind, the body are contracting. Sometimes it's very quiet, because we're pushing or pulling. We tune into that. And actually see, can we just relax that pushing and pulling? And feel the suffering go. Feel the ease. And then that sense of ease will be cramped again when the next little grasping comes along, and we relax again. It's actually a very useful and powerful way to deepen practice. It's quite a subtle way of working.

Contemplating the three characteristics moves towards a sense of freedom, moves towards a sense of peace and loveliness, actually. So we have to be careful not to let aversion creep in the back door and say, "Yes, I'm noticing the three characteristics," and actually what we're doing is pushing everything away out of aversion, out of a kind of rejection.

[32:36] Sometimes this happens in quite obvious ways. I have a friend who was practising in the States (or was it in Burma? I can't remember) quite intensely for several months. And she got into a period where she said -- and it lasted for a few weeks -- her body was really revolting her. She was washing and taking care of it, but she said it stank, and she found it disgusting. And she thought that she was contemplating the unsatisfactory nature of things -- in this case, her body. Actually, what had happened, in quite a gross way, was her own aversion and whatever conditioning had just really come very strongly in the back door. And it was using this sort of nice Dharma-speak to cover itself up. So to be really careful about that kind of stuff. And it can happen in a very subtle way. It's just wanting to shut everything off, push everything away.

Unfortunately, if we look in some of the texts, you can find things like, "The world is loathsome and disgusting, and your body is loathsome," and all this kind of stuff.[5] And it's there in the texts. And all I can say is, I think it's -- some kind of corruption has happened over time through some misunderstanding. If there's rejection, that's aversion. That's not the Middle Way. So to really, actually, be quite vigilant about that.

It's not that we're pushing things away. It's rather that we're letting go of certain views of things and certain relationships with things that come out of those views. When we let go, it actually leads to life. It leads to a real sense of beauty in life, a sense of brightness, a sense of loveliness. This is a path that moves towards that. It's not to grey dullness, depression.

[34:52] So there's impermanence, and there's dukkha. Anattā, this 'not me, not mine' -- it's a little bit more subtle to understand. It's a little bit harder to understand. Actually, what I'm going to do is leave that for now, for this talk. And perhaps I or another teacher will devote a whole talk to that, because it's a bit more involved to understand what that means.

There are these three characteristics, and usually what happens is people have their favourites, or they have a favourite for a long stretch of time, and that's actually completely okay. So it might be your favourite to work with the sense of clinging and the contraction and the release of that. Or it might be your favourite to work with anattā or impermanence. That's completely fine, and actually to go with what you feel is working for you, what you feel is interesting, is opening things for you. Perhaps the most obvious one to work with is impermanence, the sense of of impermanence, because it's quite clear. It's just a matter of maybe noticing it more keenly. So oftentimes people start there. And then one can include the other characteristics from the point of view of one's favourite. So if your favourite is impermanence, then you can see: well, how can things be satisfactory if they're just disappearing all the time? How can they give me that lasting happiness? And how can they be self? How can anything I see be self if it just keeps disappearing? Because the sense of self is something lasting.

So if we begin and really give some time and practice to looking, as I say, looking in this way, looking for and at, noticing deliberately the three characteristics, it can very much, over time, with practice, lead to a real sense of peace, of equanimity, that just settles in the being, a real sense of spaciousness to the awareness, a sense of silence. And that can happen to lesser or greater degrees. But when that happens, or if that happens, to really let oneself feel that, and feel the beauty of that. Feel the silence, rest in it, really let that touch the heart.

[37:20] So there's a sense of silence, there's a sense of space, and there's a sense of things coming and going in that space, not being me, not being mine, not lasting. But the space somehow is holding all of that. The awareness somehow is holding all of that. So it's not only that we're paying attention to obvious phenomena -- a sensation, a thought, a feeling. It's actually a sense of this space of awareness that contains it, and a sense of its peace and its loveliness.

Sometimes that sense can be so deep, for some people at some times, that there's a sense that it's something ultimate, that we've come across ... "Well, this must be it," you know? "This must be the Unconditioned," or whatever other words that we've heard about. It's not ultimate. But there's a potential to find there a sense of very deep peace, and a sense of real love there, somehow, paradoxically. Love, because actually, if we contemplate with the three characteristics, we're kind of giving an equality to all things. Whether we like them or not, whether we're for them or against them, all things are impermanent. All things are not able to satisfy us forever. And all things are not me or mine. That's a way of kind of evening things out, giving this equality to things. In that equality is the deeper nature of love: no push, no pull, no rejection, no favourites. There's a boundless, unconditional love that imbues that. So to look in this way with practice is transforming. It has the capacity to transform us. And it's not life-denying.

I was talking to a yogi -- not here, but somewhere else, a week or so ago -- and she was saying how actually, there's a real fear of expansiveness, somehow, in practice, that she notices. Every time there's a sense of things opening out, there's a fear that comes, and she wants to close it down. Or it's like a fear of annihilation. This is quite common. So what she noticed that she does is, she keeps holding on to looking at objects. So instead of letting an expansiveness come, a sense of awareness, a sense of space and silence, she keeps looking at objects. If there's something, particularly if there's something troubling, well, that's something to keep the attention occupied. There are objects in awareness, and just keeping the attention grabbing on to them. But we actually don't need to do that. If there is some fear around, it can be something we open to in a very gradual way, this sense of expansiveness, in the same way that, you know, you put a toe to test the water in a hot bath: just a little bit, and then maybe put a bit more in, and we get used to it, and we see, actually it's okay. It's really okay. We can let go slowly into the sense of opening.

[41:38] Some people don't feel that fear, but it is quite common. We can actually -- we need to get familiar with it. And that usually happens in a very gradual way. So we don't need all the time to be obsessed with things, objects, phenomena. We can actually broaden out and get a sense of the space and what's holding it. Again, sometimes in the texts, it almost reads like the contemplation of the three characteristics is something that, you know, brings this huge onset of hysteria and panic, and sort of pulling your hair out, and throwing up, and whatnot. It shouldn't be that way. It should be actually something that ... I mean, there are obviously difficulties when the heart opens that way, but it is something that moves towards calmness, moves towards peace, towards a sense of freedom, towards a sense of beauty.

So actually, we can contemplate -- I mean, to go a little bit beyond, even -- we can contemplate impermanence and all this, and we will get a real sense, hopefully, we will get a real sense of very much an okayness with all the changing nature of things. It's just coming and going, changing, dying. And there can be a real sense, with practice, that we're just okay with change. We've practised with change, and we can really feel, in our lives, okay with it. And there's a relative sense of peace, and sometimes quite deep peace with that.

But until, in the Buddha's words, we've 'gone beyond,' gone beyond what is impermanent, then we're always going have a sense, in the Christian tradition, of what they call 'holy discontent.' No matter how okay we are with change, there's just something ... "Hmm." Something not quite right yet, not quite fully fulfilling yet. And this is something very deep in us, spiritually.

As T. S. Eliot in The Four Quartets -- he's a poet -- he says, "Where is there an end to it?"[6] Where is there an end to it, all this change? We just see change, over and over and over. Where is there an end to it?

One of the great Christian mystics, St John of the Cross -- I think it was the fourteenth century, and lived in Spain, was a Carmelite monk, and really a great mystic, and he coined two phrases, one of which has come very much into current usage: 'dark night of the sense' and 'dark night of the soul.' Especially 'dark night of the soul' is something that's sort of in a lot of spiritual circles, in psychological circles. But he meant it in a little bit of a different way. And he meant it in exactly this way: that somehow through practice, the being, the soul, has seen all this change, and has lost its immature infatuation with things. And it knows that the things of this world can't really give a complete fulfilment. And it wants to know God. The soul wants to know God -- and yet doesn't, cannot somehow make that leap. So the things of the world aren't doing it. But also notices that the occasional or even common spiritual kind of openings, spiritual experiences, are also not God. They're experiences that come and go, and they can't, in themselves, give us a lasting fulfilment. The world of the senses and the world of the spiritual experiences, and the soul enters a dark night. It doesn't know -- it has lost its reference point in experiences. That's the meaning of the dark night. And we can feel that in practice, when we really go far in this contemplation of the three characteristics, everything is that. How are we going to "go beyond," as the Buddha said?

Sometimes people backtrack and they say, "Well, actually, the three characteristics are ultimate truth. And that is the ultimate truth of things. They're impermanent, they're unsatisfactory, and they're not-self." But actually the Buddha never said that. They're not ultimate. So we're kind of stuck. What's the way forward? What's the way through?

[47:16] Actually, at that point, we have to look even deeper still and see: if everything is impermanent, we have to understand something about things. For a thing to be impermanent, it takes it to be a thing, and it takes there to be time. Something so fundamental about our way of looking, that there are things, and then there is time, is actually maybe not true. We need to actually dissolve that too.

So that's one way. The other way is actually -- and this is the way that St John of the Cross forwarded -- is actually, he says, "The soul just waits in darkness." The soul just waits in silence. So we sense just this, in a way, loss of infatuation with things, and then there's just a waiting in the silence, in the space.

T. S. Eliot talks about that too. He says:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.[7]

So, to finish, there are many ways that we, as human beings, can actually look at the world. It's quite extraordinary. It's something unique to human beings. There are so many ways that we can look at the world and interpret the world. Very, very few of them lead to ultimate freedom. Very, very few of the ways we look at the world lead to ultimate freedom. There are many ways of looking at the world, and there are many ways, too, that lead to a sense of relative freedom. So the other day, I was teaching somewhere else, and the person was asking about astrology and all that. And I personally don't have a problem with that as a way of looking at certain issues in one's life, and a way of really moving towards a degree of freedom in one's life. And certainly, the different kind of psychotherapies that are around can be really helpful to find a relative sense of relative freedom in life.

But our fulfilment as human beings cannot be on that level. Something in us hungers for something deeper. And we won't have that fulfilment until the freedom goes beyond that relative level, we get a taste of that. And it's not the case -- we often hear it, but it's not the case that we kind of have to finish with all our psychological work and our work on the relative level and on our personality issues and all that before we begin to move towards a more complete freedom. It's not the case.

And sometimes I think we actually, you know, we have to admit to ourselves that we do -- in a way, we like and we are actually a little bit addicted to our self-story and the drama that that brings. And we are not too keen to let go of that. But maybe, to be willing to actually try both, to explore our self and our story and our history and our past and what that means, and the ways we -- the patterns we have. But also to explore this other, this moving beyond all that, through all of that. And we try both, and experience both, and then see.

And it's not the case that ... We don't have to worry that self will go away completely, and we'll be left without a sense of self and just a sort of blank zombie shuffling around Gaia House for the rest of our lives. [laughter] Self never actually completely goes away. Sometimes you may be wondering. [laughs] Self never actually completely goes away. But the problem of self can go away. The problem of it can go away.

Shall we have a moment of silence?

  1. Cf. Ajahn Chah, The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah (Belsay: Aruna Publications, 2011),, accessed 22 Aug. 2021: "Generally, if mindfulness and clear comprehension are a foundation of mind, then wisdom will be there to assist. However, we must constantly develop this wisdom through the practice of insight meditation. This means that whatever arises in the mind can be the object of mindfulness and clear comprehension. But we must see according to anicca, dukkha, anattā." ↩︎

  2. The translation here is a composite of two translations: one in A. F. Price and Wong Mou-lam, tr., The Diamond Sūtra and The Sūtra of Hui-Neng (Boston: Shambhala, 2005), 53; and another in Edward Conze, tr., Perfect Wisdom: The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts (Totnes: Buddhist Publishing Group, 1973), 138. ↩︎

  3. Mary Oliver, "Morning Walk," West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 29--30. Archived at, accessed 22 Aug. 2021. ↩︎

  4. AN 6:19. ↩︎

  5. AN 10:60 includes instructions to contemplate the unattractiveness of the body, the drawbacks of the body, distaste for every world, and the undesirability of all fabrications. ↩︎

  6. T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, archived at, accessed 22 Aug. 2021. ↩︎

  7. Eliot, Four Quartets. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry