INSIGHT AND MOURNING
We call our practice "insight" meditation, because in it we see the truth of anicca, dukkha, and anattà [impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness]. But insight alone is not transformative. Not in therapy. Not in meditation. Not in any process of transformation. How many times have you understood quite clearly what you should do, see very clearly into some old pattern of behavior and why it doesn’t work, and yet find yourself still repeating it? Coming to see that someone or something needs to be surrendered and surrendering it are two different processes. It is the hard, working-through of insight that makes the difference.
At its core, this always involves coming to terms with some loss. Because genuine insight always challenges us to give up something we’re clinging to: a long-held belief, a mistaken image of self, a misplaced hope, a habit or familiar way of doing things, the assumption that someone we love will always be there. True insight means seeing things as they really are (yathà-bhåta), not as we want them to be. Coming to this acceptance is the work of mourning.
This is never more true than in dharma practice, since what we confront and have to surrender is our clinging-to-self (attavàd-upàdàna)—a belief about who we are and how we are—that we have cherished for so long and believed essential to our happiness. Experiencing the reality of anicca, dukkha and anattà in each and every moment is the ultimate threat to our ego and security. Coming to an acceptance of these truths, which run counter to everything we want to believe and evoke the archaic fear of not existing, is the work that leads to awakening. Not samàdhi [concentration], not insight, but acceptance.
The two people I know who experienced awakening very shortly after beginning formal practice, one in six days and one in six weeks, were both women who had suffered great losses in their lives not long before, and who were themselves close to death. One had lost her husband and two of her three children and had been given only weeks to live by her doctors. The other had made three suicide attempts. It was not because their samàdhi was good (though it was). Both had already experienced profound anicca, dukkha and anattà. Both were already grieving deeply. Neither was holding on to much any more. Mourning had prepared them, much as the shock of his father’s death and subsequent poverty prepared the Sixth Zen Patriarch’s mind to awaken without formal practice on hearing the Diamond Sutra.
Some of us have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, before we let go, and so there tends to be more struggle in the process. For others, it’s not a lot of struggle. Their conditioning and preparation is different. Mourning is a dramatic word, but the basic process is the same. There’s no way around that. Whatever the path and however the practitioner comes to it, the path turns on the working through of loss, acceptance and surrender—at every moment, but especially in the process of awakening.
This is a somewhat different way of thinking about practice and what leads to awakening, but how could it be otherwise? If we’re going to let go of the ways of being and acting that constrict us, our ways of holding on to ourselves, then that’s going to confront us with loss. And the only way we can deal with loss and finally let go is through some process of mourning.
This excerpt comes from a day-long workshop given by Jack Engler at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on November l, l997.