“‘All conditioned things are impermanent’
When one sees this with wisdom,
One turns away from suffering.”
– The Buddha
To begin the practice of Mindfulness is to begin a brand new way of relating to life. By paying attention to the raw actuality of each given moment, we can begin to see clearly that the weighty story of my life, is only ever made from momentary experiences, and that my momentary experiences are themselves created from fleeting sensations.
This is why Mindfulness does not build anything new, it deconstructs our ordinary experience, taking out the weight, heft and suffering. Good, bad or ugly all that we have ever seen, heard, thought, smelled, touched or tasted, was made from sensation and the nature of sensation is to arise from nothing, and pass away into nothing, like bubbles in a stream.
This way of seeing may appear to drain the juice out of life, reducing it to a dried husk, but in reality it is a gateway to incredible new vistas of lightness, freedom, freshness, spontaneity, clarity and calm.
The more we encounter ourselves in this way, the more our suffering and angst waxes and wanes. It falls away because we are discovering new evidence which contradicts the stories we have spent a lifetime telling ourselves.
We are not chained to our thoughts, habits and reactions. We are not imprisoned by our personal stories. We are free right now, to act from now.
But we don’t live with this understanding because we have never really stopped to notice our direct experience of being a living, breathing, human. When we don’t know the nature of experience, then we are setting ourselves up for frustration because we are ignoring a fundamental law of nature: impermanence.
To seek happiness without understanding the law of impermanence, is like trying to understand the Universe without the law of gravity.
Instead, we live transfixed by the mind which solidifies (or at least attempts to) fleeting sensations in to dramatic story-lines in which the protagonist is “me,” a permanent identity who strives to be happy, enlightened or free.
When the story in our mind smothers the reality of raw shifting sensation, it really can seem that there is more happening here and now than a flow of simple, natural sensation.
What we see when we shift our spotlight away from the minds vivid myths and legends and into our present moment experience, is that sensation is not fixed or stuck, it has no story, but is instantaneous, fleeting and ephemeral. Sensation is, but it is also not. It is rich and full, textured and flavoured, it is the juice we have been searching for, and yet it is also essentially transparent, dream-like and empty of substance.
Can something which is inherently empty provide us with a permanent identity?
Years I ago spoke to an Israeli Teacher of Advaita Vedanta regarding my experience of awakening. I went into great detail (no doubt with dreamy glazed eyes) sharing my fantastic story with him.
“Ok, now it’s gone, flushed away,” was his abrupt reply.
He was right, my awakening experience, like all experiences, had been flushed away. It wasn’t there anymore and could not be used as a crutch to support the epic tale of “Mike’s Awakening.”
Sometime after my conversation with this teacher, I ran into an old friend in the bakery I worked at. He was a Professor of Archaeology and had encouraged my interest in the subject when I was a boy, allowing me to take part in field trips and excavations.
I was happy to see him after all these years and my mind was suddenly fizzing with everything I needed to tell him: All that had happened since I was 10 years old, my failure to study archaeology and the journey into live music and bands, India, Ramesh, University, Mindfulness, depression, my break-down and the “death” of Mike in that sunlit Falmouth garden, how I was really no-one yet everything, and that even the bread was god…
“Ah Mike! Where are the toilets??”
In that moment I saw the ridiculousness of carrying my story and attempting to force it onto him, a story which can’t be found, an awakening which can’t be found, a moment which can’t be found. I dropped that baggage on the spot.
Moments do what moments can only do: self-destruct. A moment of enlightenment is just a moment, a moment of misery is just a moment.
Neither last, stick or can be grasped hold of. No story, experience, moment or sensation can be made to house our true identity. Where will we put that precious cargo? That object we call “myself?”
It may cause us to crack-up with laughter when we see that there is no where fit to keep it safe, no when it could possibly exist, and no thing called “myself” to make secure.
Bubbles in the stream.
Yet, consider the amount of mental, emotional and physical energy we use up every day of our short-lives, investing in the all-consuming project of being a solid person with a solid story in a solid world.
We pour our precious and fragile life-energy into building something which cannot be built, and this is the source of our unhappiness.
Mindfulness develops the freedom to treat all thoughts, sounds, emotions, urges, discomfort, pain, bliss, joy, trauma and calm, as sensations which only have the power to do what all sensations do:
Tasting this lack of substantiality is not a rare or mystical experience, achieved by the chosen few. You do not need to run away to an ashram or join a religious group to know it. It is here right now, as your ordinary experience, as your constant experience.
To become familiar with the shifting nature of sensation and understanding that it cannot provide us with the “fixed self” or “permanent experience” we long for, is to release ourselves from the tension of grasping.
When we let go of sensation, it lets go of us. No sensation will ever give us a permanent foothold, no moment will ever give us a fixed resting place, no story will ever really make sense.
And yet, here we are, sitting on a chair, absolutely convinced that this moment is unquestionably real…