In the tumult of modern society I see more and more people struggling psychologically. They struggle with anxiety, despair and depression. Many are on a treadmill that they are finding difficult to keep up with. The treadmill is driven by expectations of employers to keep improving the bottom line. It is driven by expectations of family and friends for us to be a success (whatever that means!). It is driven by our own expectations for material well-being, meaningful relationships, recognition of our personal worth and most importantly by our existential angst. How can we possibly get off?
In the Buddhist tradition, meditation practice reveals the stable reference points we can hang on to for a sense of peace and security. These are called the “three marks of existence.” These concepts shape the basic context in which human existence unfolds.
The three marks of existence may be termed (sometimes they are called differently by the different branches of Buddhism):
2. Egolessness, and
For many Westerners these are negative aspects of our existence which we would sooner put out of our minds. This act of denial, itself can lead to psychological problems. Buddhism requires its adherents to embrace these concepts, learn to live with them and then hopefully to transcend them. Let us examine each of these marks of existence and see how their acknowledgment might benefit us.
The first mark of existence is impermanence. When we look about us everything is forever changing. We change. We grow older. We learn new ideas. We have new thoughts. Our environment is continually changing. We cope with a diurnal cycle of day and night. We are faced with the annual cycle of the seasons. Our physical environment is in constant flux. As I write, I am sitting in my office looking out the window. The avocado tree is flowering. Soon it will set fruit. My roses have had their first flush of blooms and my lawn is bespattered with the petals of the aging flowers. But on each bush there are new shoots. The sunbirds that I haven’t seen for months are back feeding off the nectar from the flowers of my male pawpaw tree. Even the landscape can change massively. The lagoons that were almost dry a year or two ago are now brimming full. Flying into the airport last week I noticed that one of the mangrove creeks that forms part of the Fitzroy River estuary has cut through one the loops in its circuitous course and has formed a new waterway. The grasslands that were so abundant early in the year and now beset by fires. So there we have cyclical change and linear change – but always change! Things change, die, proliferate, merge and separate to form the tapestry of our existence. That child you loved is now a fine young woman. That man you revered has passed away. That great idea you had now seems so trite. That work you found so difficult comes second nature to you now.
On the death of the Buddha, Sakka, the chief of the deities, is said to have uttered the following:
“Impermanent are all component things,
They arise and cease, that is their nature:
They come into being and pass away,
Release from them is bliss supreme.”
So then nothing ever stays the same. Our bodies and the physical environment are in a constant state of flux. But our minds change too. Our mental and emotional states are ceaselessly shifting and passing away. Every mind-state brings with it a new take on reality, only to be replaced soon after with a somewhat different interpretation of reality.
As the Buddhist psychologist John Welwood wrote, “No state of mind is ever complete or final.”
The second mark of existence that I have chosen to call “egolessness”, is a natural consequence of impermanence. Whatever we consider to be “the self”, that which we imagine ourselves to be, is also constantly changing. So, although it is sometimes useful to talk of an ego structure as an explanatory concept, it is impossible to pin down, locate, or establish a substantial continuous self-entity in any concrete, definitive way. Can you remember all those soulful young things that in the sixties and seventies went off on journeys “to find themselves”? Such searches were always doomed to failure, because of the transient and ephemeral nature of what they were earnestly seeking to find. This realisation might come as a great disappointment to such people. Yet, once we understand the full implications of this state of affairs, it can be liberating indeed! So many of us are driven to meet the needs of sustaining an ego, which is a pointless task and diverts much of our energy and talents, that abandoning such a pursuit immediately gives us access to resources to do more useful things. (Remember Dr Phil Harker’s injunction in previous blogs to “forget yourself!”).
The third mark of existence is suffering. This is, of course, one of the “Four Noble Truths” that defines Buddhism. No matter how privileged or fortunate we are, life brings with it pain. There is no avoiding the pain of birth, the suffering of illness, the anguish of death, the affliction of trying to hang on to things that must inevitably fade away, the discomfort of what we believe is failure and so on. Much of our pain is associated with trying to control those facets of our lives that are beyond our control or becoming attached to those things that are ephemeral and must inevitably be taken from us.
Underlying all of this is another important concept in the Buddhist tradition. It is emptiness. Emptiness, as used in Buddhism, is a term that points to the ungraspable, unfathomable nature of everything. Nothing can be grasped as a solid object that will provide enduring, unshakeable meaning, satisfaction or security. Nothing is ever what we hope, expect, or believe to be. I have written of this in previous blogs. We desire someone and hold them up on a pedestal. But when they consent to be our partner we discover they are all too human and replete with everyday foibles and very human failings. I covet a new car and scrimp and save until I can finally buy it. Three weeks after I have possessed it, it becomes as ordinary as the one I have just traded in. I remember myself studying at university and driven by the comforting thought that after graduation I would be fulfilled. Again my sense of fulfilment was very short-lived. It took me a very long time indeed to understand that my sense of well-being was not determined by what I acquired but by how I viewed the world. All such experiences point to the truth of emptiness. It is indeed impossible to carve anything of substance out of the flow of reality or hold down and grasp anything of it that can sustain you.
Here we are yearning for and clutching at glimpses of the real and hoping for certainty. And yet, what makes life interesting and fulfilling? Well, of course it is change, innovation, novelty and variety.
So what can we learn from all this? To begin with we need to cease this mindless striving. Whoever we are won’t be changed by our frenetic activity. What we acquire and what we achieve won’t in the end make much difference to who we are. When we can reconcile with this emptiness, when we can put aside our material desires and our need for status and achievement, then we can embrace the notion of emptiness and bask in the satisfaction of our true being. If we are wise we learn that emptiness is not an abrogation of those things that we need for our happiness but an opportunity to put aside those distracting and peripheral issues that prevent us from knowing and accepting ourselves.
So after all this, we need to put aside our pointless strivings, forget about trying to prove our superiority over others, and accept the changing world just as it is. There is no reasonable prospect that we should be able to avoid change. There is little likelihood that we could pin down an image of who we essentially are. There is nothing left to us but to accept, and hopefully rejoice in the ongoing change we face every day. When we can do this, and feel comfortable that our sense of being is not tied into a need to constantly adapt to the moving feast that artificially requires our maladaptive response, then we can come to rest in the security of our own essential being. Then we can step off the treadmill.