This is a shortened version of a dharma talk given by IMS teacher Tara Mulay as part of Befriending the World through Mindfulness, a retreat at IMS’s Retreat Center held in January 2022. For more information on Tara Mulay, click here.
I write, erase, rewrite
Erase again, and then
A poppy blooms.
This haiku by Japanese poet Katsushika Hokusai captures how, as we practice, mindfulness repeatedly falls off, arises, we let go, and begin again and again. The insight we can experience as practice deepens is like the poppy blooming—it is the promise of the practice. We don’t really actively erase anything, it is always being erased, and we let go. We see this more and more as we gain insight into aniccā, or impermanence.
So, what is this insight and how does it come about?
Insight refers to seeing the truth of the way things are, that all conditioned experience is marked by the three characteristics—impermanence (aniccā), non-self (anattā), and unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha). Our insights into these three characteristics come through this practice of mindfulness.
So, how does that happen? One way of looking at it is when we see the individual experiences that we have in each moment—a moment of frustration or tranquility—we notice the individual characteristics of these experiences, and eventually, what’s universal about all of them pops out at us. We see they all have this quality of impermanence. They all have a quality of dukkha. And they all have the quality of not being solid enough to be a self.
Exploring the meaning of dukkha helps illuminate the way in which the three characteristics are interrelated. They are not really three separate things and are instead three ways of looking at the truth.
Dukkha is frequently translated as “suffering,” but dukkha has a much broader meaning than what we typically think of in English as suffering. It can be translated as unsatisfactoriness or unreliability. The Buddha taught that dukkha is to be understood through our practice.
There are three kinds of dukkha. What we usually think of as suffering, the mental and bodily afflictions that we have, such as grief, sorrow, and lamentation, is one form. It’s also the fact that even our pleasant experiences are unsatisfactory because they will pass. Finally, there is a more existential form of dukkha, called the dukkha of conditionality, which refers to the constant impingement of conditioned experiences, none of which fully come together as they disappear in a flow of impermanence, and from which we cannot wall ourselves off.
One of the foundations of mindfulness, the fourth foundation, involves mindfulness of the patterns of our experience that can lead towards or away from suffering. Practicing with the Five Hindrances, i.e., sense desire, aversion, restlessness and worry, sloth and torpor, and skeptical doubt, can be a vehicle to insight into the three characteristics. They can also help us notice the ways that we get entangled and suffer and mistakenly think things are permanent or “self.”
As my teacher Howie Cohn used to say, we make our difficulties the path in this practice. But at times, it’s also skillful to use antidotes to some of these hindrances. So, how can we be mindful of the hindrances to have them be a vehicle for insight? And what are some antidotes we can bring when we discern that we want to shift to a different mind-state to support us along the way?
Starting with aversion, i.e., not wanting what’s here right now. Aversion has many forms, from subtle to strong, from simple disliking to frustration, anger, impatience, and irritation. Fear is also a form of aversion. Fear is a thought of the future and a disliking of that—not wanting something to happen.
Anger is a classic form of aversion. As Ajahn Brahm pointed out, ownership causes anger. A mistaken sense of ownership—that we can own impermanent experiences. Or that we can own a thought about ourselves. Ownership can cause us to feel entitlement. Practicing with aversion, we can start to disentangle some patterns, or the sense of entitlement that can cause a great deal of contraction in our heart.
Some of the most difficult patterns of aversion are those that are turned towards ourselves. We can have feelings of self-judgment, shame, or disliking ourselves. Practicing with that, it’s interesting to see how a measure of entitlement or mistaken ownership might be there. A mistaken belief that there’s a solid self that one could dislike. Maybe even because the pattern is so familiar, there’s a bit of pleasantness, and then letting go of it can be a bit scary. We see this when we decide we’re a “bad” meditator. It’s a skillful thing to practice with—to see it coming and going.
You may have heard of an acronym for this practice that breaks down the components of mindfulness in a way that’s supportive for being with difficult experience, particularly hindrances. It’s often referred to as “RAIN,” and was originally developed by Michelle McDonald. The “R” refers to recognize; the “A” to accepting and allowing; the “I” to interest or investigation, which only involves mindfully noticing what an experience feels like in the body or mind; and the “N” is non-identification, making space for experience and letting go of sense of ownership of it. If you experience a struggle with being mindful, particularly of a hindrance or something difficult, it can be helpful to check out whether any of these components is missing.
One of the things that’s helpful in being with a difficult experience, including aversion, is to practice with “the last arrow.” With all forms of aversion, we tend to get caught in a karmic loop with disliking. Anger, frustration, irritation, and anxiety all feel bad. And we tend to dislike the disliking, and then dislike the disliking of the disliking. The Buddha said that one of the reasons we suffer is that we have an unpleasant experience and then we dislike it. So, the unpleasant experience is the first arrow. And the second, the disliking of it, is a second arrow.
But sometimes it can be many more arrows than that. That’s why I suggest practicing with the last arrow. If there’s anger there and you’re disliking it, can you notice the not wanting the anger to be there—the last arrow? Lovingkindness and compassion are mind states of goodwill and there’s an absence of aversion in them. If we practice these when we have patterns of aversion, it can help generate more of these wholesome feelings of non-ill will.
Next is sense desire or wanting pleasant experiences. A classic example is wanting the bell to ring during meditation practice. This can arise because the mind gets bored or restless. But it can also arise with unpleasant experience, for example, body discomfort. And there’s a sense of how pleasant it’s going to be when the bell rings. I’ve heard of a cartoon in which several monks are meditating and there’s a thought bubble above them that reads, “Has the bell ringer died?”
An antidote—a way of practicing with sense desire—is to notice the pleasantness of an experience separate from the wanting to hold on to that. Noticing pleasant experience in a situation can drop you below the experience of the desire.
And again, we can replace this with more wholesome thoughts. The Brahma Viharas can be supportive. If sense desire is a strong tendency for you, muditā—taking joy in other people’s good fortune—might be a great practice to try.
Restlessness can show up in the body, feeling like you must move, or it can feel like a restlessness of the mind, e.g., repetitive thinking. Restlessness is deeply entrenched in the mind due to our lack of a full understanding of the peace and stillness that is possible. Until we understand this, there will be restlessness in the mind. So, it’s important to be mindful of stillness in the mind when it’s here, and to know how wholesome that is.
Joseph Goldstein shares the statement that movement masks dukkha. So, when we’re moving to shift away from an unpleasant experience, we’re not noticing that it masks the way in which our lives—this physical experience of our body—is marked by a lot of unsatisfactoriness. We’re masking ourselves, covering over the truth of our experience as human beings when we’re consistently moving.
Dharma teacher Erin Treat suggests an antidote to practicing with restlessness. She recommends noticing a part or parts of the body where there’s a lot of earth element—pressure, solidity, hardness—such as the bones of the legs, instead of forcing oneself to be with something difficult. It’s not cheating to take the attention and place it somewhere—to be mindful of something that is either neutral or pleasant. With restlessness of the mind, it’s helpful to notice if there’s an emotion underneath. Is there anger, grief, or anxiety that’s present—and be mindful of that.
If you have a strong tendency towards experiencing restlessness, it’s important to notice when there is even a small amount of tranquility and to be mindful of that experience of calm. This allows the mind to become aware of that wholesome state and the peace that comes with it. We tend not to trust these more beautiful, wholesome states, so this practice opens us up to more of the capacities of our minds.
Sleepiness or dullness is the fourth hindrance. There are two types of sleepiness. First there is the experience of simply being overtired, and we need more rest. Sleepiness can also show up as a way in which the mind withdraws from difficulties. It’s helpful to know or feel which type of sleepiness might be present. Is this really a time when the body needs more rest? Or is the mind tuning out into sleepiness or dullness? And then to practice with it—to notice that one can be mindful of a dull mind. And to clearly see what dullness feels like. We can investigate that. What does it feel like in the body? What does it feel like in the mind?
One simple antidote to sleepiness is to open the eyes and let the light in. You can have your eyes a little downcast and forward, but with the eyes open and breathe a little more deeply. You can also do more walking meditation in between practice periods if you’re feeling a lot of sleepiness.
Standing meditation can also help bring energy into the practice. The Buddha taught mindfulness in four postures—lying down, sitting, standing, and walking.
Skeptical doubt usually manifests as thoughts in the mind. The idea of being the “bad” meditator is a form not only of self-judgment, but of skeptical doubt, because it refers to not just doubt in the teachings, but doubt in our own ability to practice.
And these are common thoughts that many people have, such as, “I can’t concentrate,” or “I’m not good at this.” One of the reasons it’s so difficult to practice with this hindrance is that it masquerades as wisdom because it sounds so convincing in the moment.
One way to practice with this is to notice it as doubt thoughts. When our mind is saying, “I can’t concentrate,”—notice “doubt thoughts.” Another way to practice with this is to bring mindfulness to any emotion that might be underlying the doubt, such as fear, sadness, or self-judgment.
Another way to practice with skeptical doubt is to recall a time in your practice when you have experienced a transformation or insight. And to recall what brought you to this practice. It might have been some experience of practicing with mindfulness, practicing with lovingkindness, or having a shift of perspective that’s been freeing. The classical antidote for practicing with skeptical doubt is to listen to or read the Dhamma or to borrow the faith of people who are sharing the Dharma. Being with like-minded practitioners can also be a real support when we’re in a state of skeptical doubt.
Practice with the wholesome states of mind, those that we experience as the fruits of the practice. For example, if there’s restlessness, but then we notice relative tranquility, we can see “oh, restlessness is a little less right now, how does that feel?” And when there’s a sense of “bad meditator” or “I can’t concentrate,” but there’s an intention to go back into the hall and practice, there is at least enough confidence for a commitment to keep going. What does that commitment and confidence feel like? We can be mindful of these qualities of mind that are actually already present in us and are our strengths.
When we can respond with mindfulness, we’re able to hold what the experience is in any given moment, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, and respond with wisdom and compassion.