How do I develop insight through Buddhist practice?

We suffer, according to Buddhism, simply because we misunderstand the nature of reality. Sylvia Boorstein on developing insight into how things really are.

Sylvia Boorstein
2 September 2016
Man with headlamp looking into space.
Photo by Štefan Štefančík.

I was walking through the airport terminal when my eyes met those of a baby approaching me, strapped into a carrier on his mother’s chest, and I knew that baby was me. A thrill went through me. I knew in that moment it did not matter that I was aging because that baby—me, in a newer, fresher guise—was on his way up in life.

I recall laughing, maybe even out loud, as the baby and mother passed by. I knew that the others around me were all me too, and the mother and baby and each other as well, coming and going in this airline terminal and in life. I felt happy and said to myself, “Thinking about interconnection is one thing, but these moments of direct understanding are great.” I sat in the boarding lounge feeling tremendous affection for my fellow travelers.

Such an understanding of interconnection comes, in Buddhist practice, from awareness of the three characteristics of experience, also known as the three marks of existence. The first is impermanence, or as one teacher put it to me, the idea that “last year’s Super Bowl is in the same past as the Revolutionary War.” The second is suffering, which he described as the result of “the mind unable to accommodate its experience.”

These two characteristics, or insights, are fairly easy to make sense of, and when I first began my Buddhist practice, I found I had a basic grasp of them. I thought, “Who doesn’t know these things?” But the third characteristic, emptiness—the insight that there is no enduring self that separates anything from anything else—seemed more elusive to me, and not particularly relevant to my life. I liked the rest of what I was learning and practicing, so I figured I would just let that one alone for now. The insight about impermanence was, in my early years of practice, what seemed most dramatically evident— although not in a comfortable way. There were periods, especially on retreat, in which it seemed to me that all I could see was the passing away of everything. I saw, as I hadn’t ever before, that sunsets followed every dawn and that the beautiful full moon immediately waned. As I came upon a flower that was newly opening I simultaneously envisioned the wilted look it would have three days hence. I remember tearfully reporting to my teacher, Joseph Goldstein, “It’s so sad! Everything is dying!” He responded, “It’s not sad, Sylvia. It’s just true.” I found that calming at the time, but I would say it differently now. I would say, “It’s not sad. But it is poignant.”

An immediately helpful aspect of my earliest insights into impermanence was the increased tolerance and courage I experienced in difficult situations.

Everything has a life cycle, with beauty in every part of it, and the passing of any part of it evokes a response, either of relief or nostalgia. Eighteen-year-olds are usually glad to be finished with adolescence and off to whatever they’ll do next. A woman in a class I was teaching recently said her daughter, at that point anticipating her marriage a week hence, was sad that all the excitement of planning and imagining would soon be over forever. An elderly man who once took a seniors’ yoga class I was teaching thanked me after the class but said he would not be coming back. “It is too hard for me,” he said. “But I would like to tell you that I was a member of the 1918 Olympic rowing team.”

I find now that time seems to be speeding up. I’ve become seventy-five years old in what feels like a brief time. The woman I see when I look in the mirror is my Aunt Miriam. It still startles me, but it also inspires me. Knowing that I have limited time left inspires me not to mortgage any time to negative mind states. I am determined not to miss any day waiting for a better one. “Carpe diem!” has never seemed like a more important injunction.

An immediately helpful aspect of my earliest insights into impermanence was the increased tolerance and courage I experienced in difficult situations. However much I had known intellectually that things pass, more and more I knew it in the marrow of my bones. I responded better to difficult news. Hearing that my father had been diagnosed with an incurable cancer I felt both deeply saddened and uncharacteristically confident. I thought, “We’ll manage this together. We’ve run 10K races together. We’ll do this too.” On a more mundane level, I noticed that I was more relaxed about ordinary unpleasantness. “This painful procedure at the dentist is taking very long, but in another hour I’ll be out of here.”

From the beginning of my practice, the insight about suffering, especially the extra mental tension that compounds the pain of life’s inevitable losses, made sense to me. A melancholy boyfriend I had when I was in high school enjoyed reciting Dylan Thomas poetry to me. I found it romantic, in a Brontë kind of way, but also depressing. I definitely thought it would be wrong to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” and I knew I didn’t want to do that. When, years later, I learned about Buddhism’s four noble truths, I was particularly inspired by the promise of the fourth noble truth, the path of practice that I thought would assure me of a mind that did not rage.

When I first began to teach, I would explain the four truths this way:

Life is challenging because everything is always changing and we continually need to adjust to new circumstances.

Adding struggle to challenge creates suffering. Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.

Peace is possible. In the middle of a complicated life, the mind can remain at ease.

The path for developing this kind of mind involves attention to ethical behavior, to disciplining the habits of mind through meditation, and to ardent intention.

I loved the third noble truth, the truth that liberation is possible. I felt that after hearing about the ubiquitous ways that we are challenged—and how heedlessly and habitually we respond to the challenges in unwise ways—it was a great relief to hear, “Peace is possible!” I said it with great conviction and I believed it then and I believe it now. What I’ve started to add now, out of my own experience, is that however much I know that struggling makes things worse, I still suffer. If I am pained enough, or disappointed enough, or anxious enough, I still suffer.

Some life experiences bring us to our knees. Someone in a class I was once teaching, after I had talked about the intensity of even terrible experiences modulating with time because “everything passes,” said, “In my case I think I am going to pass before the horror of this passes.” I was humbled by the anguish I heard in what that person said, and it has kept me more real and more honest.

For a while, in an attempt to be honest but lighthearted, I added what I called the third-and-a-half noble truth: that the intention to “surrender to the experience” doesn’t necessarily cause it to happen. These days even light-heartedness seems glib to me, so I don’t do it anymore. I say, “When the mind is able to surrender to the truth, grieving happens and suffering lessens.” But there is no timetable for that to happen and the only possible response I can have is compassion for myself and for other people. Maybe that truth—that we suffer in spite of knowing that peace is possible, and sense it is true for everyone—contributes to our sense of kinship, the sense of feeling like I’m accompanied that I sometimes experience in a crowd of strangers.

The idea of no separate, enduring self—emptiness—is a peculiar idea until we have a direct experience of it. It certainly feels that there is a little “Me” living in our bodies that decides what to do, that sees out of our eyes, that realizes it has woken up in the morning. The “Me” has thought patterns that are habitual associated with it, so it feels enduring. If I woke up one morning thinking other people’s thoughts it would be deeply disturbing.

The idea of no separate, enduring self—emptiness—is a peculiar idea until we have a direct experience of it.

So it was a complete surprise to me, some years into my retreat practice, to be practicing walking meditation, sensing physical movements and sights and smells and heat and cool, and realizing that everything was happening all by itself. No one was taking that walk: “I” wasn’t there. I was there a few seconds later, recovering my balance after the “uh-oh” feeling of “if no one is here, who is holding me up?” I thought, “This is wild! There really isn’t anyone in here directing the show. It is all just happening.” I understood that the arising of intention causes things to happen, and that intention arises as a result of circumstances such as hearing the instruction, “Do walking meditation.” Hearing the instruction was the proximal cause of walking happening. The habit of following instructions, developed since birth, was another cause.

In years since, the understanding that everything anyone does is a result of karma—of causes and effects—has helped to keep me from labeling people as good or bad. Circumstances and behavior can change, of course, but at any given time no one can be other than the sum of all of their contingent causes. A student in a class discussion about this topic once said, “When people ask me, ‘How are you?’ I always answer, ‘I couldn’t be better. Because, I couldn’t!’” It’s true. We couldn’t, any of us, be better. In our most out-of-sorts days, we couldn’t be better. If we could, we would. Suffering happens, but no “one” decides to suffer.

As a beginning student, I wondered whether hearing about the three characteristics of experience, rather than discovering them for myself, would diminish their impact—that thinking about them wouldn’t count as much as discovering them directly. Today, I know that thinking, pondering, and reflecting on them count as well as direct moments of experience. Everything counts.

Meditation: Interconnectedness

Here’s a practice that directly evokes the truth that there is no separate and enduring self, meditated on in the context of interconnectedness.

Read these instructions and then sit up or lie down with your spine straight and your body relaxed so that breath can flow easily in and out of your body. Close your eyes. Don’t do anything at all to manipulate or regulate your breathing. Let your experience be like wide awake sleeping, with breath coming and going at its own rate.

Probably you’ll be aware of your diaphragm moving up and down as your chest expands and contracts. Of course you cannot feel that the exhaling air is rich in carbon dioxide and the inhaling air is rich in oxygen, but you probably know that. You also probably know that the green life in the world—the trees and vines and shrubs and grasses—are breathing in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen back into the environment. The green world and your lungs, as long as they both are viable, are keeping each other alive.

Without any volition on your part, your body is part of the world happening, and the world is part of your body continuing. Nothing is separate. Your life is part of all life. Where is the self?

photo of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books include Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happiness Is An Inside Job.