Change and Impermanence

From: Monsters Under the Bed 2 (retreat)

Full transcript
Ken: This morning, we talked about basic meditation, and as Claudia said, “Basic in the sense that it’s fundamental.” Because any kind of internal work requires a certain ability or capacity for clear, stable attention. And in some respects you can regard resting meditation like scales in music: You never actually play scales in a concert, but the more you practice scales, the better your musicianship becomes. And it’s very, very much about building capacity.

This afternoon, we now begin the content topic of the retreat, Monsters Under the Bed. And we’re going to use a certain framework for this which actually comes from the four noble truths: what’s the problem, what’s the genesis of the problem, what’s the solution, and how do you do it? So, this afternoon we’re going to be focusing on the problem, and George is going to start off with that.

George: Yeah, I was going to say it’s amazing how we think alike, but maybe it has more to do with the fact that you trained me. I was going to start with the four noble truths too since that’s where the Buddha started. Why not?

What is it that causes the confusion and struggle in our lives? It’s separating ourselves from experience and then reacting against it or reacting to it. So the second noble truth is that the cause of suffering, of struggle is thirst, tanha, craving. That thirst that can’t be satisfied. I think that’s really short-hand for thirst or pushing. It’s either grasping or pushing something away or ignoring, you know. Those are the three ways of reacting. There’s infinite varieties in those three ways. But going back to the body again, it starts with sensations.

We’re sitting here. We’re sitting in our bodies. We can feel the weight of our body on our cushion. We can feel the movements and sensations of breathing. We feel warmth or cold. We feel hungry or full. We feel tired or jumpy. Whatever it is. There’s a cluster of sensations, movements of energy in the body.

One or more of those sensations, we suddenly decide, we don’t like. We feel it’s happening to us. Or, we like it and we want to keep it going. So the first sign of the struggle is an impulse to grasp something or to push something away. Or if it’s not one of those, it’s, “Ah, it doesn’t matter.” Or, "I didn’t even notice it in the first place, cause I’ve just got tunnel vision." So, the emotional drama, the stories, the beliefs, the character stuff that we kind of cement down comes afterwards.

At first there’s an impulse. There’s a physical impulse coming out of the body or moving in the body, a movement of energy. And you can call it attachment and aversion and delusion. Or you can call it craving and ill-will and ignoring. But I like to get even underneath those words. What does it feel like to see something, to feel something that you like? And there’s just that impulse to reach out and grab it, to keep it, to bring it, control it. Or something arises you don’t like. Before you even think about it, way before there’s stories and thoughts or emotional dramas about it, there’s a impulse to push it away or to back up, to get away.

Ignoring, the impulse to ignore, is a little harder to notice, but it too has a physical sensation to it. It has a energetic movement to it. It’s the movement of collapsing in. Losing the sense of space in the room or the sense of space and movement--the vastness of my body, the fact that the kink in my neck can hurt over here. And yet my legs are pretty relaxed today 'cause there’s a lot going on. There’s a vastness. When we ignore something, we close down to something, and everything else disappears.

So one way of working with this, rather than wrestling with the emotional dramas and the thoughts and the beliefs and all the stuff that gets built on those impulses, is to notice the impulse itself when it arises. In a sense, you’re not doing it. It’s certainly nothing you decide to do. It’s something that arises inside. It’s something that happens, a movement of energy. Again, it’s reaching out to grasping something you like, pushing something away you don’t like, or ignoring.

And then the reaction builds on that. It cascades. There’s additional reactions. Like, something you don’t like--impulse to push it away. A belief that you ought to get used to it or you ought to learn to like it, so then you start reacting against the impulse to push it away. And then you’re kind of simultaneously feeling guilty and resentful that the whole thing’s happening. And then you've got to deal with it and that’s where we get lost in it.

But if you can go back to that original impulse to grasp or push away, it’s kind of the counterpart in action to returning to the body. Feeling the sensations and movements of breathing rather than arguing with yourself or worrying about emotions and drama and thoughts. Just going back to the body. Going back to the sensations and movements that are driving those thoughts and emotions.

So, confusion, struggle is caused by the impulse to react to what we experience. What is it that we’re trying to do? What is it we’re trying to get by reacting? Something happens we don’t like, we want to get rid of it. Something happens we do like, we want to hang onto it. We try to hang onto something, we’re ignoring the fact that everything changes. Some things change faster than others, but everything changes. Sensations, feelings, thoughts arise. They pass away. Some of them don’t pass away fast enough for us, so we’re basically fighting the fact that everything changes.

It also works the other way: The things we like, we want to keep them around. So we’re fighting the fact that everything changes. We want that sunset to last forever. Or we go on retreat and at first it’s horrible. And we just want to get out of here. But by the end of the weekend, we’re sort of liking the simplicity of it. And the fact that we don’t have to answer the phone and suddenly now we want it to keep going. So, we’re fighting the passage of time, the arising and subsiding of feelings, sensations, events.

Another thing that we’re struggling with is to get our emotional needs met. Whatever they are or whatever we think they are. Another reaction is to survive, to build a sense of self in relation to meditation practice or to a relationship. So, Ken and Claudia will be talking about trying to get our emotional needs met. And trying to hang onto things, make things solid. But I’d like to focus on the change.

Change and impermanence is in traditional Buddhism--it’s not very popular in Western culture--but in traditional Buddhism, probably the number one form of practice is contemplation on death and impermanence. You need some basic stability of attention, some basic mindfulness to be able to do that. So you learn--as Ken said--you build some capacity in that first.

But then often the first practice that you do for a period of time is on change and impermanence. And of course the big one for humans is the impermanence of our lives. If everything depended on the moment of death as some Buddhists have it--I have trouble with that myself, because I have a hard time being inspired and focused and maintaining motivation for some theoretical moment that’s going to happen in the future.

But change is happening constantly. Happening in our bodies, happening in our emotional experience, happening in our thoughts, happening in the world around us. We tend not to notice it. We grasp after what we like, try to hang onto that. We push away what we don’t like, try to get rid of it as quickly as possible. And we ignore the basic fact of change--constant but irregular change that’s actually taking place. That our experience arises due to causes and conditions, a few of which we have some influence over. And it subsides for the same reason--causes and conditions fall apart.

You can approach it philosophically like that and then go through your life systematically trying to find things. What actually lasts in my life? Some things last longer than others. But what is actually dependable, reliable—it’s going to be there forever. Try to find something. That’s kind of a contemplative or philosophical approach.

But a more immediate way and one that might be more useful in the context of the practices for this retreat is to notice those reactive impulses as they arise, at the moment they arise in the body. The actual sensation, the movement in the body, of pushing away or grasping. Start with those. Begin to notice those. How they happen moment after moment with practically everything that arises in experience. We like it and we grasp it. Or we don’t like it, we push it away. Or it doesn’t mean anything to me, so I’m going to ignore it.

Watch those impulses. And see how many of them are an impulse to do away with time. The passage of time, the flow of things, whether slow or fast. Whatever the causes and conditions of things arising, occurring at the moment. See how many of those impulses are to try to fight that.

And for now just notice the impulse rather than go to philosophy or try to change the impulse. But since my theme is usually the body--to actually notice, acquaint yourself with that process. And keep it as visceral and physical and--not concrete--but real in the sense that it’s actually something arising.

I have an impulse to continue talking, but I think I won’t. [Laughter]