When you sit down to practice Vipassana meditation, you observe your moment to moment experience with the intention of seeing the three characteristics: anicca (impermanence, change), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, suffering) and anatta (not-self).
More accurately, you are tuning into the 3Cs, as they are always already the case. This is not a philosophical exercise – the practice is to stay at the immediate sensate level of your experience, with a degree of mental calm that allows you to observe manifesting reality without getting caught up in it.
As you sit, you gradually see that all the sensations that constitute body and mind arise and cease (anicca), of their own accord and without any effort (anatta). You see that craving for phenomena causes suffering (dukkha), because these things are, at final analysis, impermanent and not you. That doesn’t mean you repress pleasant experiences. When there is pleasant experience, there is pleasant experience. When you are upset, you are upset.
Noticing the 3 characteristics again and again and again leads to insight, or wisdom. As we cultivate insight and allow it to percolate deeper into our experience, it begins to seep into the structures of the self and the way we perceive phenomena. An engagement with insight slowly erodes away at what is called fundamental ignorance or delusion (avidyā).
Traditionally, avidyā is often characterised as misunderstanding the Four Noble Truths – suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation. On a simplified level this means that we continue to suffer because we crave for what we don’t have, and cling to what we think we have.
These cravings become more subtle, and at the most subtle level there is the illusion of duality itself. This attachment to the sense of being a separate subject (a.k.a. the watcher, the controller) is the belief in something independent and unchanging amongst the chaos of life. As your practice deepens, you can tune into this subtle level of ignorance, this fundamental identity fixation, in a very direct way.
Unfortunately, this can get quite messy and frustrating. How do you see through the self if that self isn’t supposed to have any ultimate reality? How do you let go without craving for resolution, for an end to suffering? On an experiential level, the emptiness of phenomena may be very apparent, and yet the sense of subtle duality can become infuriatingly persistent, manifesting in a multitude of subtle ways – it’s behind the eyes, it’s the eyes themselves, it’s a feeling of radiance around the head, a subtle seeing background, a vague sense of being out of sync with things… (Note: anicca!)
As Owen put it in his practice journal:
It is as if the crux of the problem is the very sensation of self-contraction (small self, ego) trying to separate itself from what’s actually happening. But it’s a false problem since the contraction is just another thing that’s happening. The perception of a self other than what’s occurring is the fundamental delusion.
At these levels, we can often be lead astray by what I have come to call pointers. A pointer is an almost physical sense of self that seems to jump around and pretend to be seeing all this, despite your efforts. Pointers are what distract us from the realisation that “selfing” is just another part of this auto-immediate happening; that experience unfolds without a separate someone experiencing it.
All feelings/inklings of self are actually just pointers, passing your attention from one to another, creating the sense of an outside, the watcher: you. And most of the time you like being handed around by all these pointers – the place they point to is your ground, your home, your core, your self. To help maintain this special place, you actively allow everything you experience to get passed through these pointers, to establish what’s me and what’s mine. This is the self-referencing loop, the process of ego.
Each time you follow the pointers they proliferate and the self-loop continues. And yet the holy grail in many seems just as far away as it ever did, and so you grip even harder or slip away into distraction. Attachment to these pointers is what maintains them, what keeps their surfaces mirror-like so that the basic light of awareness is reflected out of the immediate present into an apparently static receptive beyond.
The trap here is to buy into the pointers in the first place. The temptation is to try and see “around” them or to view them from afar, but these approaches are actually increasingly refined forms of craving. What you don’t see is that by trying to penetrate this sense of self from varying angles, you are subtly legitimising it by assuming it is actually a centre point that needs to be “seen through.” Furthermore, by believing that you can see it objectively you are subtly supporting the sense of an all-seeing subject or witness.
What to do? Just stay with present experience at a relaxed surface level that avoids getting caught up in all the loopiness. This may seem very counter-intuitive at first, especially if you are used to diving in deeper and pulling things apart.
Staying at the basic rough edge of reality prevents you getting pulled into subtle pointers that bend time to imply a sense of self prior to this moment, or outside of all this, or “on the side” waiting to return. These pointers are not what or where they might seem to be.
The pointers, no matter how seductive and real they feel, are just sets of dynamic sensations that disguise their basic causal impermanent nature by diverting your attention to that fundamental illusion that there is someone inside here that you have to protect.
It is because the pointers are held so tightly and accepted so blindly that it can take years to even get to the level where this is apparent. Even then, it might take another few years to take the plunge and stop listening to the them. It’s not easy to let go, but at some point every yogi has to drop his weapons.
Either way, stay with experience, moment to moment to moment, and don’t push too hard. And when you do inevitably burn out chasing your own tail, remember:
The self is always implied, it is never actually experienced. You’re just following pointers.