Tag Archives: impermanence

The problem with preferences

 

 

One of the core insights we come to through the regular practice of meditation is recognizing the nature of impermanence. This insight is valuable because it helps to free us from the suffering caused by grasping and clinging and wanting things to stay the same.

One of the easiest ways to have such an insight is to observe how a tree loses its leaves. But for many of us, seeing a tree lose its leaves sets off an inner complaint: Oh, winter is coming and I don’t like winter. Why can’t it stay warm and light always?

Whatever our personal preferences are, they get in the way of simple observation, and the gift of insight into the nature of being.

We don’t need to make an enemy of preferences — in fact, doing so would be just another barrier to awakening — but it is helpful to recognize preferences when they show up and see their nature. We can see how they can take any moment or situation and find fault with it. It would have been a perfect vacation but it was too…(fill in the blank). One small preference unmet can sabotage the whole experience. It gnaws at us so we become blind to all the beauty and wonder that is there for us in every moment.

We all have lots of preferences; so many, in fact, that we don’t take the time to see if they are true. Sometimes our preferences go so long unrecognized that when we do take the time to notice, we might discover we no longer ‘love’ or ‘hate’ the food or condition or whatever we have been claiming to feel so strongly about.

Let’s take the example of some treat we claim to love. Perhaps we describe ourselves as a chocoholic or addicted to ice cream. Because our thoughts are so full of attachment to this idea of ourselves, with all judgments we may have about this long-accepted preference, we are often so mentally embroiled in anticipation, anxiety, guilt, etc. as we approach the food itself, that we can’t taste it. We devour it to be done with it and past this complicated set of thoughts and emotions.

Can we slow down really taste the treat we claim to love. Is it really delicious? Great! Or when mindfully attended, without the urgency and all the entangled thoughts and emotions, is it not quite so delicious as we assumed? Perhaps there are even some aspects of the flavor or texture that are actually unpleasant. If the food is not the best choice for a meal, then this may feel like a wonderful discovery to recognize that we are addicted to the mental and emotional patterns of anticipation and the nostalgia of foods and experiences often more than the food or experience itself.

When we pay attention, we see how preferences, like everything else, change. That may feel discomforting if we believe that our accumulated combination of preferences define us. And we feel unloved if someone forgets our preferences. Is that true? Well, let’s check. Are your feelings hurt if someone who professes to love you forgets that you don’t like, let’s say, mushrooms? If so, then you are entrenched in the idea that your preferences are intrinsically you.
They are not! The Buddha put together a whole list called the Five Aggregates that gently but firmly walks us through all the things that we are not, and our preferences are second on the list. [READ MORE]

We don’t have to get rid of our preferences, but it really helps to notice and question them. Preferences are often rooted in fear. If we have a preference for a certain temperature or kind of weather, we may have positive associations, sweet memories, nostalgia super-charges our preferences. We can be closed off from many experiences because they are unfamiliar, so there may be something to fear, something to make us uncomfortable, something to make us feel insecure.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do anything new to have insights. We just come to our senses: to see, hear, taste, smell, touch as if every moment is new. Because it is! It may seem the same, but because of the nature of impermanence, the world presents itself fresh to us in each moment, never to be replicated! The Symphony of Now.

Since this is the way of things, and nothing we do can make it stay exactly the same, why not acknowledge and even celebrate impermanence.

Certainly when we have a great loss, impermanence seems cruel. But that same impermanence helps us to survive the loss, and over time to ease our grief and heal from the wound of what may feel like an amputation.

Impermanence delights us when it brings on something we enjoy: blossoms in the garden, a beautiful sunrise, etc. But if we are not open to all of impermanence, even those moments are tinged with sadness because we can’t keep it like this forever.

Our extreme preference for certain aspects of impermanence and our loathing of others is something to notice. Can we be compassionate with ourselves when we feel the dread of changes we don’t like? Can we be tender without being indulgent? Can we practice being present with whatever arises just as it is, and greet it as the wonder it is?

Think about your own preferences. See if you can notice them when they arise. See whether they are as true as you thought. See if you cling to them as an intrinsic part of what makes you you. See if your preferences cause you to suffer in any way. And then see if you can hold your preferences more lightly.

Cultivating with the core insights

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In exploring the question What am I cultivating here? we have been working with a gardening analogy. In this analogy we haven’t yet looked at what is represented by the soil, the rain and the sunshine. This seems a pretty big oversight! So let’s look at these most important aspects now:
The Buddha identified three characteristics of existence that, if understood, transform our whole way of being in the world. They are the underlying wisdom upon which all the rest of the teachings rest, and to which all the rest of the teachings point. On the graphic chart of the Buddha’s teachings, these three ‘marks’, as they are also called, are at the very center. They are the core of the teachings. Every insight that you will have in your meditation and your life will lead you to one or more of these three core understandings of the way of things. I know that’s a major claim, but try it for yourself, as the Buddha says, and see if it is true.
So what are these three characteristics of existence? In Pali, they are anicca, anatta and dukkha. Unless you plan to be a Buddhist scholar, or you just like to know terms, it’s not really necessary to remember those Pali names. But it is helpful to understand the concepts, which are:
Anicca: Understanding the nature of impermanence and our inability to maintain anything to our satisfaction. Things change and we don’t like it. Things don’t change enough and we don’t like it. Things change, we like it and assume now we will be happy forever, but we change in relationship to the thing that doesn’t seem to be changing, and we’re not happy. You get the picture. Impermanence is a fact of life, and how we are in relationship to it, to a great extent, determines our ability to be happy.
Anatta: Understanding that there is no separate self that needs constant shoring up and defending. The separate seeming nature of being is useful for practical purposes in this life, taking responsibility for this particular body, family, finances, commitments, etc. But taken to be complete reality, believing ourselves to be isolated individuals separate from the rest of being, causes suffering.
Dukkha: Understanding that, while there is pain that comes with birth, illness, aging and death; the greatest suffering we experience is created by grasping at, clinging to and pushing away all that arises in our field of experience.
For the purposes of our garden analogy, we could say that dukkha is the soil. The quality of suffering is very earthy. We can get caught up in it, ‘dirtied’ by it and buried in it. Yet when we understand dukkha, we can plant roots and draw nourishment in our deep understanding of its nature.
One student in class had a problem with planting her roots in suffering. Another student pointed out that we are planting our roots in the insight about dukkha. Since class, I have gone around in my mind whether this is an apt metaphor or not. What I’m thinking now is that earthly life, full as it is of suffering, is where we are planted. It’s not always an easy place, but as we put down roots, we become better able to sustain ourselves in it. The Buddha taught that birth, illness, aging and death are the four messengers. So there is something in the soil of dukkha that we need. When we are experiencing pain in our lives, can we be fully present for it, rooted in the experience — not grasping and clinging or pushing it away, but simply here to receive its nourishing message? I will never forget one time when I was younger and my back went out, and suddenly I understood that old people walk slowly because they are in pain! My pain nourished me, didn’t it? It cultivated an insight and compassion that has been of benefit to me in all my relationships.
This extended metaphor is a work in progress, so I’m open to ideas to make it better. Comments?

Anicca, impermanence, we could see as water. Rain comes and goes. There are droughts and floods. There are clouds and clear sky. Water is constantly transforming: Now it’s ocean, now mist, fog, cloud; now rain, snow, sleet or hail; now puddles, rivulets, streams, lakes, rivers, seas and back to the ocean. It’s also present in all life, including our bodies.

Anatta (no separate self) could be represented by water too — I often think of this fleeting life as a droplet of water flying over a waterfall, soon to rejoin with the flow of the river to the ocean. I also love the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river’ which repeated over and over again is such a comforting message of self-acceptance. But since we’ve claimed water to represent the nature of impermanence, we will let sunlight represent that sense of no separate self: We are all energy, inseparable, radiant light.
One student asked, since we are applying the elements to aspects of the teachings, what of air? Ah, air! Well let’s let air be air: The breath at the center of our practice that is both a focus and a way to shift energy (releasing excess on the out-breath, bringing in enlivening energy on the in-breath). With breath we cultivate spaciousness, putting ‘air’ around our thoughts and emotions as they arise in our awareness so that they don’t overwhelm us. Every plant in the garden needs sufficient air to thrive.
Through our meditation practice (sitting in our garden enjoying simply being alive?), the support of the teachings (all that wise gardening advice?) and our community of practitioners (fellow gardeners who support us?), we create the conditions for the qualities we explored in the two previous posts (generosity, lovingkindness, resolve, etc.) to grow and flourish.

The Finite Balcony vs. the Infinite Garden
Without being rooted in the infinite wisdom of the core understandings of
anicca, anatta and dukkha, you can still cultivate these qualities, but it’s as if they are planted in little pots on a balcony, finite and contained rather than rooted in the infinite, and you need to attend them constantly. They will not spread and propagate, and they are not connected to the vast web of interconnecting gardens full of birds, butterflies, etc. that help keep the garden healthy. (If you are an apartment dweller and like your potted plants just fine, or if you have no interest in gardening whatsoever, remember this is just an analogy!)
As we practice and have naturally arising insights in our lives, we recognize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. We don’t adopt them or accept them because the Buddha was an enlightened being and who are we to question what he taught. He asked us to see for ourselves the truth. That’s the heart of our practice. Being at ease in the practice, we create fertile ground for insights to arise. As arising insights do indeed confirm the Buddha’s teachings, we release any self-sabotaging doubt we may have had about the value of our practice and our path. Our practice itself becomes a celebration of gratitude where we can delight in the garden just as it is, ‘weeds’ and all.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But don’t let it become a distant ideal. If you feel stuck on the balcony tending little pots, hey, you are still creating more beauty in life! But every day in your practice notice your inner ‘balcony’ expanding until it becomes an inner garden.