Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
Playing with impermanence.
This story is one of a number to challenge assumptions about ourselves and reality. Each is inspired by a real-world scientific or spiritual genius (Einstein, LaoTzu, Ramana Maharshi…), and is presented as a visit to a game world in which that thinker’s message is re-imagined in unconventional form.
Welcome to 6autama’s World, which is committed to alleviating human suffering. Its central insight is the impermanence of every aspect of existence: everything passes. Its primary tool is precise attention, especially to the body’s sensations. They are the key to breaking the chain of suffering, in which our craving and clinging are primary characters. Careful meditation on impermanence reveals the deepest truth: no durable self exists. You are among the “things” that seem stable but are actually juggled, fleeting aspects of an undivided flux. If there is no “you,” then who suffers?
This world is inspired by a great royal prince. He lived on the Indian sub-continent in the sixth century BC. Although his name was Siddhartha Gautama, he is often referred to as Buddha. Gautama attained liberation from suffering while meditating beneath a fig tree, refusing to move until he cracked it.
You jump in and take your seat in a waiting room. It seems you’re visiting the doctor. The building is narrow and long. Out the window, on one side, heavy and rapid traffic heads south on the interstate. The northbound lanes sit outside the opposite window. These have light traffic, all of it pedestrian. Are their cars broken down? Why would anyone walk, and on the interstate, of all places? The northbound trek barefoot.
A passing nurse, Brent, according to his nametag, helps you out. “Our clinic is in the median strip of the old interstate. The traffic is quite lopsided these days. The world is heading south in a terrible rush. The few walking north are desperate to prove to themselves they aren’t in a rush.”
“I’ve never seen a clinic or any public building in a median strip. Is it cheap rent?”
“It’s symbolic. Consider it a visual metaphor.”
“Thanks for the tip. For what?”
The receptionist interrupts. “The doctor will see you now.”
“Come in,” invites the doctor, a pleasant, even serene, lady. She completes the analogy for you. “6autama’s World is one of balance, reached by walking the narrow middle path between two extremes.
“The first is the path of pleasure — the chase from one shallow satisfaction to the next. What we might call hedonism. This path is very wide indeed, for nearly all twenty-first century humans tread it.
“The second extreme is the path of penance — the rejection of joy and the turning from the world. What we might call austerity. This is an over-reaction to the first path, followed by relatively few, but with enough severity for us all.”
“I see. Does the middle path itself have a name, like ‘the median strip?’?”
“Ha! You jest. Fair enough. It’s called the Noble Eightfold Path, but let’s not rush. This health practice, serving the human mind and spirit, follows Buddha’s teaching. He took a clinical approach, and he was his own first patient.”
“It’s possible for someone to treat themselves?”
“Not only possible but imperative, although help is always available.” She goes on:
Gautama, the Buddha, proclaimed Four Noble Truths:
- Life is suffering. He here identified the central problem of existence.
- Suffering is caused by craving or clinging. Here, he identified the problem’s cause.
- If craving / clinging ceases, then suffering ceases. He here identified the necessary condition for solving the problem.
- There is a means, or path, that leads to the cessation of craving / clinging. Here, he promised a way to meet the required condition.
“That seems very general. I mean, would the diagnosis, prescription, program, and prognosis be the same for anyone who walked in here?”
“Essentially yes. The details differ immensely, as you can imagine, but at heart, these truths hold in all cases. Gautama went on to outline the disciplined Eightfold Path promised in the Fourth Noble Truth: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Awareness, and Right Concentration.”
“Whoa! That’s a lot to get right! I’ve never been able to stick to a diet, exercise plan, or even work schedule, to be honest. Haven’t you managed to put it all into a pill?”
“If you’re lucky, you may access a more direct way to stop craving, and thereby, to end suffering. This requires extrapolating from Gautama’s original Truths. The First Noble Truth — Life is suffering — is a fundamental premise in 6autama’s World. A second such premise (though it’s not a Noble Truth) is that all is impermanent. Another way to express this second premise is that there are no things — whether those “things” are physical or mental. There are no entities.”
“What exists, if not entities?”
“There is this — what surrounds and includes you. What you feel within you. The arising and passing of all there is. All is an unbroken field of continuous change.
“Let this sink in, and an insight may arise: there is no self (as in a separate self for me or for you).”
As she notes your look of painful concentration, the doctor clarifies. “Don’t try to make it sink in this instant. Even this most direct route takes more time and contemplation than that. As I was saying, the ‘things’ we take ourselves to be are stable, durable, separate objects — my-self, your-self. They’re among the entities the second premise tells us are illusory.”
You process that for a second or two. “So, it isn’t so much that the problem of suffering (The First Noble Truth) is solved. It’s that there is no separate thing (you, me) who suffers? There is suffering, as part of an ever-changing flux, but there is no sufferer? And in a way, no sufferer means no problem, and realizing there is no problem brings an end to suffering!”
“Just so. Few are lucky enough for this insight to leap out, let alone for it to instantly incinerate their years of conditioning to dissolve suffering. This leads us back to Gautama’s Eightfold Path.” She continues:
Let’s look back to the Four Noble Truths. Gautama explained them further through describing a chain of causality behind suffering. An abbreviated form of that chain looks like this:
- Ignorance (especially ignorance of impermanence) serves as background;
- We experience contact with the external world;
- This contact, through the senses, yields sensations in the body;
- These sensations yield craving, as we seek to re-capture those sensations we find pleasurable;
- Craving leads to clinging, trying to hold on to pleasurable experiences when we have them, despite their impermanence;
- Craving and clinging yield suffering, for they seek the impossible — to alter or stop reality’s flow.
“Do we need to isolate ourselves from the things we crave and cling to?”
“No, that would be the path of penance, of austerity.”
Gautama used his determined, empirical meditation to break this causal chain at the link between sensations rising and cravings taking hold. The body’s sensations — his own — were the crucial content of study. He realized craving and clinging were not a response to anything outside us, but instead, to sensations within us.”
Careful, disciplined living and meditation allow others to break the chain as Gautama did. They observe that no sensation — pleasant or painful — lasts. All sensations, like everything else, are impermanent.
They realize clinging to sensations is like trying to grasp the mane of a powerful stallion galloping by — it’s bound to end in suffering! This realization eradicates ignorance. Without ignorance as background, the link, the automatic reaction that used to lead from sensation to craving/clinging, breaks. As we’ve seen in the Third Noble Truth: If craving / clinging ceases, then suffering ceases.
“We break the chain by fully recognizing the truth of impermanence — either through the powerful insight that this implies the absence of a self (and therefore the absence of a sufferer) or through meticulous empirical investigation to prove to ourselves the futility of clinging to fleeting sensations. In either case, the ignorance on which the cascade to suffering depends, dissolves.”
“You’ve listened well. And you seem to have gained an intellectual understanding very quickly, unless you’re just parroting me. (Please don’t take offense. This is a common trap people fall into. They think they understand because they can repeat a few pithy phrases. You can fill entire books with just such parroting.) Even from intellectual understanding, a further step exists, which is full absorption and lived understanding.”
“I guess I won’t walk out of here ‘cured’ of suffering, right?”
“If you did, you’d be the first. In another way, if you did, it wouldn’t be you. Anyone who fully absorbs — experientially and practically — the truth of impermanence, either through the lucky direct path or through the Noble Eightfold Path, also recognizes that it is not a separate “them” doing any “thing” but that the recognition is an impersonal event in reality’s flux.”
You thank the doctor and step out. On the observation deck of 6autama’s World, looking out onto your own from this new perspective, you see a lifetime of craving, a population clinging. Your world wants what it doesn’t have; fears the loss of what it does.
You ask in your logbook:
Might the fear of loss be worse than loss itself? If the content of craving isn’t the issue, is there a meta-craving beneath all desire? If I use my sensations to break the cascade to suffering and to overcome the grip of craving, what fills the space it used to occupy?
You don’t know the answer, but you’re ready, so you say, “Let’s play.”
There is no better-written source for investigating the Vipassana technique for breaking the causal chain of suffering between bodily sensations and craving than Goenka’s The Discourse Summaries. Better still, go on a retreat.