Lesson 5

The three Fundamental Characteristics

During our practice, there often are hindrances, like tension in our legs, unpleasant feeling, pain (strongly unpleasant feeling), disliking it (aversion), getting tense and moving in vain to get relief. Using the four Foundations of Mindfulness, we can observe this as follows.

Tension: body.
Unpleasantness, pain: feeling.
Disliking, aversion: mind-state.
Tension resulting in moving: conditioning.

If we see clearly these components of the total, then there is less or no suffering. In this way the knot gets disentangled, or better, the rope that binds us gets untwisted. Similar untwisting may be happening at desirable objects in our consciousness, combined with liking and lust. In this way, during the practice one may have to ‘untwist the rope‘ of the many fetters that hold us captured. One can do this with patience, one by one, staying at least some moments in each foundation. It brings relief. At some point, and we discuss this now theoretically to be verified later in your practise, we may feel ’empty’. The fetters had been in some sense a ‘mental hold’. At the same time more and more fetters pop-up so that the untwisting process gains speed. One sees that the mind is an impersonal process of tangled components, coming and going very fast. This may give a strong aversion. At that moment one perceives the
three fundamental characteristics of existence (actually of consciousness):


Other words that render the experience: chaos—nausea—beyond-control.

Because of sharp vision one can see all these processes. They are real, not imagined: there are many mental and physical processes in our mind and brain. Knowing that this experience may happen, one is somewhat prepared. But now the suffering part of the experience has to be domesticated (not conquered). This is done in a way comparable to what someone has to learn in order to surf. The sea is unstable, the waves are beyond control. At first one has a strong aversion against the experience. But by looking sharp, an experienced surfer sees the coming waves and slides over them. As long as we have not yet domesticated the waves, i.e. the three characteristics, we try to hide them by compulsory feeling, thinking, acting. We are addicted to this hiding, and this addiction has a lot of unwholesome side-effects. This is what is behind the second Noble Truth. This is the dark night of the soul spoken of by Saint John of the Cross,  mentioned by Jung as the inner darkness, and also known to the existentialists. Because of psychological defence mechanisms one may come to the stage of the three characteristics only after some longer time.

One cannot say that ‘ego’ exists, nor that it does not exist. Ego is a process consisting of input, appreciation, and action, depending on thoughts and state of mind. We reify it, that is imagine it as a thing, and then identify with this thing. Homo sapiens is very good in reifying processes as things. Propagation of ripples in water is called a wave, and we say that it moves to the shore. But no drop of water goes to the shore, there is only displacement of the process. Now, observing the characteristics of non-permanence and selflessness, our conditioning causes the mind to be in an alarm phase: the reifying of our agency as a substantial object does not function any longer. Unfortunately this is in daily life often treated by symptomatic reactions, like feeling, thinking, and doing all those things that constitute our ‘personality’. These have considerable ‘side effects’ in the form of  suffering.

The right reaction, consisting of diligent practise of the eightfold path, has a truly liberating effect. Using reinforced discipline (with the right intention and understanding, and the consequent vigorous, but at the same time gentle, naming described in lesson 3) one continues the practise. Sitting and especially walking with its moments of relaxation, bring equanimity. Phases of anxiety, feeling threatened, and disenchantment come by. If treated well, using the methods of previous lessons, one can handle these and eventually one will arrive at a phase of equanimity. The exact amount of time this takes depends on the personality of the meditator. In case of minor past traumas, getting to the equanimity phase may take longer and patience will be needed. Having reached the equanimous stage is an important milestone in the process of deconditioning. This work can be done best in the safe environment of a meditation retreat. The three characteristics are transformed to what later was called in Mahayana Buddhism


By cessation of craving (nirwana) for control, one is deconditioned. Both versions of the three characteristics are the same, depending on the side one looks at it: in the presence or absence of craving.

For the diminishing of the suffering part of the three characteristics the so called mind-object method (MOM) is relevant.

Notes. 1. Some people have a latency to psychosis. They better do not practise vipassana in a longer intensive retreat, as it may trigger the psychosis. 2. The same advice applies in case of unresolved major traumas. Then a preliminary psychotherapeutic path and/or meditation directed to loving-kindness and compassion may be advisable. For this reason persons under psychiatric treatment or taking psychoactive drugs should both get permission of their psychiatrist to follow an intensive retreat and discuss with the meditation teacher whether participation is advisable. 3. The three characteristics, if undergone well, do not lead to dissociation. This because all mental phenomena remain visible, while in a clinical dissociation some components of consciousness and its state are not accessible any longer. The phenomena in the three characteristics are considered as leading to disidentification, a first major step towards breaking the addiction to ego. 4. The American philosopher Ken Wilber states (as hypothesis) that many persons with mental problems are really having spiritual crises (like the ones related to coming close to the three characteristics); he adds that one should not make the mistake to consider all clinical mental problems as spiritual crises. Consciousness research may eventually determine the correctness of this far-reaching hypothesis.