Pema Chödrön is a fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun. After many years of studying with her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, she became the director of Gampo Abbey on Cape Breton Island in Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada. She is the author of several books about how to apply Buddhist teachings to everyday life, including When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times and Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears (both Shambhala). The following is excerpted from The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, by Pema Chödrön. Copyright 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., www.shambhala.com.
The Buddha taught that there are three principal characteristics of human existence: impermanence, egolessness, and suffering or dissatisfaction. According to the Buddha, the lives of all beings are marked by these three qualities. Recognizing these qualities to be real and true in our own experience helps us to relax with things as they are.
When I first heard this teaching, it seemed academic and remote. But when I was encouraged to pay attention — to be curious about what was happening with my body and my mind — something shifted. I could observe from my own experience that nothing is static. My moods are continuously shifting like the weather. I am definitely not in control of what thoughts or emotions are going to arise, nor can I halt their flow. Stillness is followed by movement; movement flows back into stillness. Even the most persistent physical pain, when I pay attention to it, changes like the tides.
I feel gratitude to the Buddha for pointing out that what we struggle against all our lives can be acknowledged as ordinary experience. Life does continually go up and down. People and situations are unpredictable, and so is everything else. Everybody knows the pain of getting what we don’t want: saints, sinners, winners, losers. I feel gratitude that someone saw the truth and pointed out that we don’t suffer this kind of pain because of our personal inability to get things right.
That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything — every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, and buildings, the animate and the inanimate — is always changing, moment to moment. We don’t have to be mystics or physicists to know this. Yet at the level of personal experience we resist this basic fact. It means that life isn’t always going to go our way. It means there’s loss as well as gain. And we don’t like that.
Once I was changing jobs and houses at the same time. I felt insecure, uncertain, and groundless. Hoping that he would say something that would help me work with these changes, I complained to Trungpa Rinpoche about having trouble with transitions. He looked at me sort of blankly and said, “We are always in transition.” Then he said, “If you can just relax with that, you’ll have no problem.”
We know that all is impermanent; we know that everything wears out. Although we can buy this truth intellectually, emotionally we have a deep-rooted aversion to it. We want permanence; we expect permanence. Our natural tendency is to seek security; we believe we can find it. We experience impermanence at the everyday level as frustration. We use our daily activity as a shield against the fundamental ambiguity of our situation, expending tremendous energy trying to ward off impermanence and death. We don’t like it that our bodies change shape. We don’t like it that we age. We are afraid of wrinkles and sagging skin. We use health products as if we actually believe that our skin, our hair, our eyes and teeth might somehow miraculously escape the truth of impermanence.
The Buddhist teachings aspire to set us free from this limited way of relating. They encourage us to relax gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change. Acknowledging this truth doesn’t mean that we’re looking on the dark side. What it means is that we begin to understand that we’re not the only one who can’t keep it all together. We no longer believe that there are people who have managed to avoid uncertainty.
The second mark of existence is egolessness. As human beings we are as impermanent as everything else is. Every cell in the body is continuously changing. Thoughts and emotions rise and fall away unceasingly. When we’re thinking that we’re competent or that we’re hopeless, what are we basing it on? On this fleeting moment? On yesterday’s success or failure? We cling to a fixed idea of who we are, and it cripples us. Nothing and no one is fixed. Whether the reality of change is a source of freedom for us or a source of horrific anxiety makes a significant difference. Do the days of our lives add up to further suffering or to increased capacity for joy? That’s an important question.
Sometimes egolessness is called “no self.” These words can be misleading. The Buddha was not implying that we disappear or that we could erase our personality. As a student once asked, “Doesn’t experiencing egolessness make life kind of beige?” It’s not like that. Buddha was pointing out that the fixed idea we have about ourselves as solid and separate from each other is painfully limiting. It is possible to move through the drama of our lives without believing so earnestly in the character we play. That we take ourselves so seriously, that we are so absurdly important in our own minds, is a problem for us. We feel justified in being annoyed with everything. We feel justified in denigrating ourselves or in feeling that we are more clever than other people. Self-importance hurts us, limiting us to the narrow world of our likes and dislikes. We end up bored to death with ourselves and our world. We end up never satisfied.
We have two alternatives: Either we question our beliefs, or we don’t. Either we accept our fixed versions of reality, or we begin to challenge them. In Buddha’s opinion, to train in staying open and curious — to train in dissolving our assumptions and beliefs — is the best use of our human lives.
When we train in awakening bodhichitta [compassion for all beings], we are nurturing the flexibility of our mind. In the most ordinary terms, egolessness is a flexible identity. It manifests as inquisitiveness, as adaptability, as humor, as playfulness. It is our capacity to relax with not knowing, not figuring everything out, with not being at all sure about who we are — or who anyone else is either. . . .
The teaching on egolessness points to our dynamic, changing nature. This body has never felt exactly the way it’s feeling now. This mind is thinking a thought that, repetitious as it may seem, will never be thought again. I may say, “Isn’t that wonderful?” But we don’t usually experience it as wonderful; we experience it as unnerving, and we scramble for ground. The Buddha was generous enough to show us an alternative. We are not trapped in the identity of success or failure, or in any identity at all, neither in terms of how others see us nor in how we see ourselves. Every moment is unique, unknown, completely fresh. For a warrior-in-training, egolessness is a cause of joy rather than a cause of fear.
The third mark of existence is suffering, dissatisfaction. As [Zen teacher] Suzuki Roshi put it, it is only by practicing through a continual succession of agreeable and disagreeable situations that we acquire true strength. To accept that pain is inherent and to live our lives from this understanding is to create the causes and conditions for happiness.
To put it concisely, we suffer when we resist the noble and irrefutable truth of impermanence and death. We suffer, not because we are basically bad or deserve to be punished, but because of three tragic misunderstandings.
First, we expect that what is always changing should be graspable and predictable. We are born with a craving for resolution and security that governs our thoughts, words, and actions. We are like people in a boat that is falling apart, trying to hold on to the water. The dynamic, energetic, and natural flow of the universe is not acceptable to conventional mind. Our prejudices and addictions are patterns that arise from the fear of a fluid world. Because we mistakenly take what is always changing to be permanent, we suffer.
Second, we proceed as if we were separate from everything else, as if we were a fixed identity, when our true situation is egoless. We insist on being Someone, with a capital S. We get security from defining ourselves as worthless or worthy, superior or inferior. We waste precious time exaggerating or romanticizing or belittling ourselves with a complacent surety that, yes, that’s who we are. We mistake the openness of our being — the inherent wonder and surprise of each moment — for a solid, irrefutable self. Because of this misunderstanding, we suffer.
Third, we look for happiness in all the wrong places. The Buddha called this habit “mistaking suffering for happiness,” like a moth flying into the flame. As we know, moths are not the only ones who will destroy themselves in order to find temporary relief. In terms of how we seek happiness, we are all like the alcoholic who drinks to stop the depression that escalates with every drink, or the junkie who shoots up in order to get relief from the suffering that increases with every fix.
A friend who is always on a diet pointed out that this teaching would be easier to follow if our addictions didn’t offer temporary relief. Because we experience short-lived satisfaction from them, we keep getting hooked. In repeating our quest for instant gratification, pursuing addictions of all kinds — some seemingly benign, some obviously lethal — we continue to reinforce old patterns of suffering. We strengthen dysfunctional patterns.
Thus we become less and less able to reside with even the most fleeting uneasiness or discomfort. We become habituated to reaching for something to ease the edginess of the moment. What begins as a slight shift of energy — a minor tightening of our stomach, a vague, indefinable feeling that something bad is about to happen — escalates into addiction. This is our way of trying to make life predictable. Because we mistake what always results in suffering for what will bring us happiness, we remain stuck in the repetitious habit of escalating our dissatisfaction. In Buddhist terminology this vicious cycle is called “samsara.”
When I begin to doubt that I have what it takes to stay present with impermanence, egolessness, and suffering, it uplifts me to remember Trungpa Rinpoche’s cheerful reminder that there is no cure for hot and cold. There is no cure for the facts of life.