The next characteristic is suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Sounds grim or pessimistic at first, and perhaps deservedly so in one sense, but it is also a powerful statement that our moment-to-moment experience will not permanently satisfy ever. It will never happen. Why? Because everything is impermanent, that's one reason why! I just said that nothing lasts, meaning that you can actually experience everything that you normally think of as a solid world arising and passing instant to instant. So what could last for even the blink of an eye to satisfy? Nothing!
The point is not to be a radical, pessimistic, nihilistic cynic. The point is that it is not a thing that will help, but an understanding of something in the relationship to things. There is no thought, mind state or whatever which will do it. This is not to say that conventional day-to-day wisdom, such as taking care of ourselves and others, isn't also quite important: it very much is. Remember that awakening is not a thing or a mind state or a thought, it is an understanding of perspective without some separate thing that perceives.
There is a great relieving honesty in the truth of suffering. It can be very validating of the actual experience of our life and also give us the strength to look into the aspects of life that we typically try to ignore and run from. Even some deep and useful insights can be distinctly unpleasant, contrary to popular belief!
There is more to this truth, and it relates to the third characteristic, no-self. We are caught up in this bizarre habit of assuming that there is an “I.” Yet the definition of this seemingly permanent thing has to keep constantly changing to keep up the illusion in an impermanent world. This takes up a lot of mental time and is continually frustrating to the mind, as it takes so much constant work and effort. This process is called ignorance, i.e. the illusion of an “I” and thus that everything else is “not I.”
This is the illusion of duality, and the illusion of duality is inherently painful. There is just something disconcerting about the way the mind must hold itself and the information it must work to ignore in order to maintain the sense that there is a permanent and continuous self. Maintaining it is painful and its consequences for reactive mind states are also painful. It is a subtle, chronic pain, like a vague nausea. It is a distortion of perspective that we have grown so used to that we hardly notice it most of the time. The suffering caused by continually trying to prop up the illusion of duality is fundamental suffering. This definition of suffering is the one that is most useful for insight practices.
To actually feel moment to moment this quality of reality can be hard to do, not because suffering is so hard to find (it has actually been said to be the easiest of the three to tune into), but because it takes a certain amount of bravery. Yet, it is so well worth it. If we finally wake up to this quality of suffering we will effortlessly let it go, drop it like a hot coal that we have finally realized we were holding. It really works like that, and letting go in this way means being free.
Investigate your experience and see if you can be open to that fundamental, non-story based aspect of your bare experience that is somehow unsettling, unpleasant, or unsatisfactory. It can be found to some degree in every instant regardless of whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Once you have some mental stability, you can even look into the bare experience of the sensations that make up the stories that spin in your mind and see how unsatisfactory and unsettling it is to try to pretend they are a self or the property of some imagined self. If we continue to habituate ourselves to this understanding moment to moment we may get it into our thick heads and finally awaken.
My favorite exercise for examining suffering is to sit in a quiet place with my eyes closed and examine the physical sensations that make up any sort of desire, be it desire to get something, get away from something or just tune out and go to sleep. At a rate of one to ten times per second, I try to experience exactly how I know that I wish to do something other than simply face my current experience as it is. Moment to moment, I try to find those little uncomfortable urges and tensions that try to prod my mind into fantasizing about past or future or stopping my meditation entirely.
For that meditation period, they are my prey and nourishment, opportunities to understand something extraordinary about reality, and so I do my very best to let none of them arise and pass without the basic sense of dissatisfaction in them being clearly perceived as it is. I turn on sensations of the desire to get results, turn on the pains and unsettling sensations that make my mind contract, turn on the boredom that is usually aversion to suffering in disguise, turn on the sensations of restlessness that try to get me to stop meditating. Anything with fear or judgment in it is my bread and butter for that meditation period. Any sensation that smacks of grandiosity or self-loathing is welcomed as a source of wisdom.
A half hour to an hour of this sort of consistent investigation of suffering is also quite a workout, particularly as we spend most of our lives doing anything but looking to these sorts of sensations to gain insight from them. However, I have found that this sort of investigation pays off in ways I could never have imagined.
Looking into unsatisfactoriness may not sound as concrete as the thing about vibrations, but I assure you it is. Even the most pleasant sensations have a tinge of unsatisfactoriness to them, so look for it at the level of bare experience. Pain is a gold mine for this. I am absolutely not advocating cultivating pain, as there is already enough there. Just knowing in each precise instant how you actually know that pain is unsatisfactory can be profound practice. Don't settle for just the knee jerk answer that “of course pain is unsatisfactory.” Know exactly how you know this in each moment, but don't get lost in stories about it. This is bare reality, ultimate reality we're talking about. Just be with it, engage with it, and know it as it is at a very simple level.