suffer, according to Buddhism, not because there’s anything inherently
wrong with us but simply because we misunderstand the nature of reality.
SYLVIA BOORSTEIN on developing insight into the way things really are.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
path for developing this kind of mind involves attention to ethical
behavior, to disciplining the habits of mind through meditation, and to
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
a practice that directly evokes the truth that there is no separate and
enduring self, meditated on in the context of interconnectedness.
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.
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
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?
Boorstein, Ph.D. has been a psychotherapist since 1967 and a dharma
teacher since the mid-1980s. She is a co-founding teacher of Spirit Rock
Meditation Center in Woodacre, California and the author of five books
on Buddhism and mindfulness, including Happiness Is An Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.