MCTB 3. The Three Characteristics
The Three Characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and egolessness or no-self become predominant, which is good, as these are the fundamental basis for insight. Here it begins to become quite clear that these intentions and actions, sensations and the knowledge of them, and all of the constituents of this experience are quickly arising and passing, somewhat jarring, and not particularly in our control or us. Further, as these sensations are all observed, including the crude mental impression that follows them (“consciousness”), the whole of the mind and body process is seen to be not a separate self. It is merely a part of the interdependent world.
These characteristics become clearer and clearer, as well as faster and faster, as the meditator diligently pays careful attention to exactly what is happening at each moment. For those doing noting practice, somewhere around here your speed and precision may begin to get so fast that you cannot note every sensation you experience. Move to more general noting, mono-syllabic noting (such as “beep” for each sensation experienced regardless of what it was), or drop the noting entirely and stay with noticing bare sensation come and go. At this stage, practice begins to really take off despite the fact that this stage tends to be fairly unpleasant.
This unpleasantness tends to be mostly physical, though this stage can also cause numerous dark feelings and a sense of wanting to renounce the world and practice. Occasionally, the early part of this stage can cause people to feel vulnerable, raw, and irritable to a small or large degree in the ways that a migraine headache or a bad case of PMS can. I have occasionally been laid out on a couch for hours by this aspect of this stage, holding my head and just wishing that these early stages didn’t sometimes involve so much pain and anguish.
There may be odd bodily twistings, obsession with posture, and painful tensions or strange other sensations, particularly in the back, neck, jaw and shoulders. These tensions may persist when not meditating and be quite irritating and even debilitating. The rhomboid and trapezius muscles are the most common offenders. It is common to try to sit with good posture and then find one’s body twisting into some odd and painful position. You straighten out, and soon enough it does it again. That’s a very Three Characteristics sort of pattern. People sometimes describe these feelings as some powerful energy that is blocked and seems wants to get out or move through.
Feelings of heat and sensations like those of a fever may sometimes accompany this stage. One’s neck and back may become very stiff, either on one side or both sides. The right and left sides of one’s body may feel quite different from each other sometimes. The easiest way to get these unpleasant physical manifestations to go away is to keep investigating the Three Characteristics, either of them or of whatever primary object you have chosen. These are common early retreat experiences, particularly in the first few days.
Fighting them or trying other methods (back rubs, etc.) seems to either help only a little, work only temporarily, or sometimes make them even worse, though sometimes hatha yoga and related practices done with a high degree of awareness can be helpful. This is a common time for people to go to health practitioners of various kinds, from orthopedists and dentists to chiropractors and body workers. For example, I had a wisdom tooth removed during one pass through this stage because I thought it was throwing my jaw out of alignment, and perhaps it was, but this was clearly exacerbated by this stage of practice.
Even if these unpleasant physical manifestations do slack off for a bit, they are likely to keep coming back until one’s insight is sufficient to progress beyond this part of this stage. Thus, should one find such things interfering with one’s life, I recommend continued precise and accepting practice. This is a phase of practice when strong effort and very quick investigation really pay off.
Certain traditions may look at such physical manifestations as “energy imbalances” or in some other negative light, and I can see where they are coming from, but I find those perspectives limiting. Rather, I see this stage in its broader context as just one more phase of practice. Others may invent very strange stories to explain these experiences. A friend of mine ran into this ñana on retreat, found it very unpleasant, stopped practicing and began to spin out all sorts of fantastic stories in her head about how the poor fellow sitting next to her was very angry and how it was making her tense. This didn’t help whatsoever, and she got stuck there. I have learned to welcome these odd manifestations as clearly recognizable markers of progress on the path. They are clear objects for practice and reassure me that I am on the right track. Unfortunately, this is a hard lesson to teach others. True, these manifestations can suck, but being able to appreciate what is happening in the face of the difficult stages is important, and becomes much more important later on.
As the mind gains speed at really seeing each of the sensations of the mind and body come and go, the jerkiness from cause and effect can get quite rapid and pronounced. These physical movements and spasms seem to help break up the physical tension that may sometimes accompany this stage, and are a sign of progress.