In this article, we’ll explain what we mean by mindfulness wisdom, and how to see the world as it is without any judgments and ill-will.
Transience, dukkha, and not-self are interrelated marks of existence. The failure to apprehend that people are subject to impermanence and insubstantiality gives rise to dukkha, and the experience of dukkha reinforces our misapprehensions.
By imputing permanent selfhood where there is none, we effectively believe ourselves to be individual entities whose fragile existences must be propped up by possessions, achievements, beliefs, and relationships—but that is an illusion.
Paradoxically, when we awaken to reality, we discover that the only way to find happiness is to relinquish these feverish efforts to protect and empower the mistaken belief we call the self.
(Also Read: Mindfulness and Religion)
I. Mindfulness Wisdom: The Quest for Happiness
Like Aristotle, Mencius, and a great many other thinkers, the Buddha thought that the quest for lasting happiness was the principal impulse of human activity. Aristotle said happiness was the one thing we seek for itself and not as a means to something else; whether we’re aware of it or not, happiness is the true aim of all we do. The Buddha would have agreed.
Neither the Buddha nor Aristotle, however, conceived of happiness in the way we’re apt to think of it these days—as a pleasurable experience. The Buddha understood happiness as an enduring reality that is not contingent on fleeting pleasures. This kind of contentment is what all beings truly want and seek.
While he regarded the desire for happiness to be natural and wholesome, the Buddha did see serious problems with the ways we try to satisfy that yearning. Because we lack wisdom, because we fail to see the world as it is, we inevitably go about the pursuit of happiness in the very ways that sabotage its fulfillment.
Without awakening to the true nature of reality—without insight into the three marks of existence—we seek contentment in the wrong places and through the wrong means. Because we can never find it, our thirst for satisfaction intensifies and worsens.
II. Mindfulness Wisdom: Acquisition
Most of us seek happiness in two basic ways: the first is by acquisition, which is the preferred method in the modern world, and the second is by aversion, which is trying to avoid unpleasant situations. Both techniques are based on what Sigmund Freud called the pleasure principle—grasping for the things that we enjoy and evading the things we don’t.
The quest for contentment through acquisition usually leads us to try to enhance our lives by surrounding ourselves with things we believe will give us pleasure: homes, cars, clothing, trophies, and other commonly accepted markers of well-being and achievement.
Acquisitiveness, however, need not focus on material items. One can seek happiness by having unique and interesting experiences— including spiritual experiences—or by holding the right religious or political beliefs or by affiliating with an organization or a cause.
If we fail to get what we want, of course, we usually suffer. Because we have acquired a particular thing the condition for our contentment, not getting it leaves us feeling sad, disappointed, frustrated, and perhaps angry—thinking we’ve missed the very thing that would have made us happy.
III. Mindfulness Wisdom: Life’s Two Tragedies
A lot of our remembrance of the past is a reflection on the times we didn’t get what we wanted—the first tragedy of life. Tragedy two appears when we get what we want.
Getting what we want may indeed bring us great pleasure, but the pleasurable feelings won’t last. When the initial pleasure subsides, disappointment sets in. Disappointment comes in exact proportion to how much happiness we expected our acquisition to provide.
Desires, whether they are fulfilled or frustrated, only beget more desires. There is no end to our desires when we think that fulfilling our wishes is the way to happiness.
IV. Mindfulness Wisdom: Aversion
Alongside the acquisition, we also seek satisfaction by avoiding unpleasant situations, things, or people. Aversion is just the opposite of acquisition; both are manifestations of desire. As with acquisition, the problem with trying to find your happiness through avoidance is the nature of reality. Reality simply does not allow us to evade unwanted experiences.
We might be able to escape a few unwanted experiences, but evasive life often comes at a cost. Even if we can successfully ward off some terrifying experiences, we cannot avert them all— particularly the most unpleasant ones: sickness, old age, and death.
Note: Getting what we want may indeed bring us great pleasure, but the pleasurable feelings won’t last.
V. Three Principal Insights: Dukkha
If our strategy has been to flee from unpleasant circumstances, when they come to meet us, as they surely will, our suffering will be great indeed. These difficult situations are all encompassed by the Buddhist word dukkha, which denotes the fundamental frustrating, insatiable quality of our mindless existence.
Usually translated into English as suffering or dissatisfaction, the meaning of dukkha is far richer than a single English word, or even a cluster of English words can express. You might find it translated as illness, anguish, sorrow, unease, distress, unsettledness, lamentation, pain, grief, despair, and disappointment.
Dukkha does not merely characterize episodes or aspects of existence. It does not simply suggest that life has a lot of sorrow and anguish, although it does mean that. Rather, the term dukkha indicates that sorrow and anguish, suffering and disappointment permeate existence.
Dukkha is pervasive, subtle, and insidious—not merely episodic. Like impermanence, there are no exceptions to dukkha in the conditioned world of life as we ordinarily know it. Dukkha names every aspect of experience in which there is the slightest twinge or possibility of anxiety, fear, or disappointment.
In its full sense, dukkha is not a readily apparent fact of life but a challenge for individuals to discover for themselves utilizing introspection and observation. As with the facts of transience, the surface of dukkha can be grasped conceptually, but its depth can only be seen by insight.
An Exercise in Dukkha
Schedule an appointment with disappointment. Determine to spend an entire day trying to be mindful of all your disappointments and frustrations—no matter how small. If you find this approach too demanding, take some time at the end of a day for reflection.
As you prepare for the day or reflect on it, consider the potential sources of routine disappointment: When you’re on the road, how’s the traffic? Does anyone say something to hurt your feelings? After you’ve tallied up your disappointing experiences, reflect on how you reacted to them.
With continued observation and mindfulness practice, the reality of dukkha becomes clearer, and we begin to gain insight into its source and its cure. Eventually, we realize that dukkha is the result of one thing: the fact that the world does not always conform to our desires and expectations.
The world’s not to blame, of course. Reality just is what it is. The problem is with our desires and expectations. We simply expect too much from the world.
Insight lets us see that the whole approach to contentment through acquisition or aversion is fundamentally misguided. Rather than bringing the satisfaction we so deeply want, acquisition and aversion only serve to frustrate us and increase our anguish and disappointment.
Instead of questioning these methods themselves, we foolishly think in our mindless state that we simply haven’t acquired or averted the right thing or enough things.
VI. Three Principal Insights: Not-Self
The third mark of existence—and the most difficult to grasp both by intellect and by insight—is not-self, which is sometimes compared to “insubstantiality.” Not-self is even difficult for those within the tradition to understand, yet it is central to the Buddhist worldview.
By observing the radical depth of transience, we have already begun to make our acquaintance with the mark of not-self. Insight into impermanence reveals that nothing maintains sameness or identity over successive moments or exists independently of other realities.
Consequently, the idea of a thing, an entity enduring through time and having its separate existence, is potentially a misleading habit of the mind. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a thing.
This idea sounds fine as long as we’re considering trees and other items in the world, but when it comes to the human person, we become a bit more apprehensive.
As we observed in the previous lecture, people want to exempt themselves somehow from the reality of impermanence, even against evidence to the contrary. One of the ways we try to make an exception for ourselves is through the concept of the soul or a permanent self.
Almost every religious and many philosophical worldviews posit an immortal soul or some version of an unchanging self in which the personality has a core identity that endures even if the body dies.
Even some modern views in psychology maintain the existence of a “true self” that underlies so many false selves or masks of our personality.
Not-self is nothing more than a denial of the idea of an immortal soul or an enduring self. It simply means that human beings are not exempt from the quality of impermanence; our every aspect is subject to change.
Not-self does not mean that human beings do not exist or are unreal. We exist and are real, but we do not exist in the way we’re accustomed to thinking. Problems arise when we reify the concept of the self—when we begin to think of the self as a real thing.
If we take the concept of self as referring to something real and permanent, we mobilize the rest of our lives to accommodate it. Based on a self, we create all manner of self-centered desires and based on those desires, we and others suffer. That is dukkha.
Given the tendency of the idea of the self to cause damage, the mindfulness tradition, as well as other religious and philosophical traditions throughout the world, maintains that it is in our best interest—and in the best interest of everyone—to relinquish our attachment to self and to live without putting ourselves at the hub of the universe.
No matter how wholesome it may be, relinquishing the idea of self may be the most difficult thing a person can do. We are so attached to this sense of self that we believe giving it up will mean our demise. However, many thinkers and traditions throughout history have suggested that this is precisely the way to lasting happiness.
What we must realize, according to the Buddhist mindfulness tradition, is that all we are letting go of is a fiction, a fabrication of the mind that causes us to suffer. It is not our true identity; it is not who we are.
We should also realize that letting go of the self, or ego if you prefer, does not mean we are on a crusade to destroy it. If we simply refrain from acting as if it were real, the self—a thought like any other—will fall away of its own accord. Paradoxically, if we try to annihilate the self, we will only empower it.
An Exercise in Not-Self
During a sitting meditation practice, spend some time reflecting on these questions. When I refer to myself, what exactly do I mean? When I use the word “I,” to what does that refer? Is there anything about me that endures or is permanent? If so, what is it? How do I know it’s there? Is there anything about me that does not rely on something else for its existence?
VII. Things to Remember:
Dukkha: A Buddhist term that means “suffering” and that denotes the fundamental frustrating, insatiable quality of the mindless existence of human beings.
Not-Self: A term that is sometimes compared to “insubstantiality.” This is the third mark of existence that is central to the Buddhist worldview—and the most difficult to grasp both by intellect and by insight, even for those within the tradition.
Pleasure Principle: A term introduced by Sigmund Freud that describes how people grasp for the things they enjoy and evade the things they don’t.
VIII. Things to Consider:
- Why is getting what we want so often unable to provide us with satisfaction?
- Do you agree that belief in a permanent, substantial self leads to the experience of what the Buddha called dukkha?