Understanding that all things are impermanent is not difficult. But coming to understand that your perceptions are illusory, empty of intrinsic existence ... not to trust your senses ... that is very difficult. To believe that our thoughts have no basis in reality ... indeed to understand that we have no way of experiencing reality through the faculty of the mind ... is difficult.
But to realize that the way in which we have learned (been taught) to view ourselves and the world around us is just a product of the ego-mind and that the ego-mind is not our true self and thus all the emotions, judgments, and attachments that flow from our ego-mind are not our true self ... this is beyond difficult, it is unsettling. All our lives we have identified ourselves with our ego, and now we learn that the ego is not our true self.
Let me clarify. Facts have a basis in reality. It’s labels that don’t. For example, if one is unemployed or not making much money, that is a fact. To label yourself a failure, however, has no basis in reality. That is a dependent thought that comes from family, peers, or the larger culture. The fact that your environment supports that label makes it no less illusory; it makes it seem very real and makes it harder to free ourselves from that perception, but it is still just a creation of our mind based on our learned experience.
Because of its critical nature, I have written on this subject in both The Self in No Self (the chapter, “Behind the Clouds the Sky is Blue”) and in Scratching the Itch (the chapter, “Discovering the Emptiness of Thought”).
The easiest way to see the truth in this Buddhist maxim is a practical one … look at the experiences of your everyday life. For example, think of almost any element of weather … heat, cold, rain, snow. These are very objective, measurable facts. Yet one person will thrive in a particular weather condition while another can’t stand it. Our reactions to the weather are entirely subjective and change from person to person.
What causes these differing reactions? It’s our learned experience. Whether it’s the weather we grew up with, whether it’s how our parents or peers reacted to the weather ... a variety of learned inputs form our individual response to the weather.
And this subjective view in turn causes many of us suffering. How often have we been in a weather situation that we didn’t like … whether high heat and humidity or unrelenting rain or snow … which had the psychological impact of making us miserable and depressed?
What has happened is that our learned experience has caused us to put mental labels on everything that we experience … labels that something is good or bad … which interfere with our perception of the true quality of things. When a sensory image goes from the eyes, nose, or ears to the brain, it is these labels that impact how the images are received. Our conscious mind does not receive them neutrally.
The point here is that heat, rain, cold, snow, etc. are neither good nor bad … they just are. And they are all an essential part of our environment, of our ecological system. Our perception of the “lousy” weather may seem very real to us, but it’s all a function of our mind and thus illusory, not a reflection of reality. Take away the labels and we can perceive the value and wonder of all types of weather, with the possible understandable exception of natural disasters. But even in the case of a disaster, having no labels and understanding that it's just the way it is changes how we react to it.
And so it is with all things in life. We cannot know the true nature of things because the labels in our mind interfere with how we perceive all things, including ourselves.
Especially ourselves. Most of us have been stuck with an image of ourselves which in important aspects is negative and which we therefore deplore or even loath. We don’t respect ourselves. Even famous and successful people suffer because there is part of their self-image that is insecure and which they loath. That is what drives them, creates the craving, to be so successful.
Having worked this step we realize that this image, this person, that we loathe is not our true self. It is an amalgam of emotions and perceptions that we have been taught, that have been imprinted upon us. by our life experiences. Affirming that this “person” is not our true self is an important part of the healing process of this step.
A monk taught me one way of affirming that this "person" is not my true self. He would recite his cravings and emotions, and after each, he would snap his fingers with a flourish and say, "Not me!"
Knowing and understanding this truth intellectually can take one far along the path. But ultimately, in order to progress further, one needs to experience this truth directly, from within oneself through meditation. As related in my post, "Proof of the Nature of Mind - Fear, Ego, and Buddha Mind," only then are the creations of our ego-mind known for what they are and they lose their power.
But if our ego-mind is not our true self, what is? It is critical to fill that sudden void with something positive. The typical answer to that question is that our true Buddha nature is our true self. But that is hard for many people to wrap their hands around.
Instead see your true self as being your heart. Your heart is nothing but purity and peace and harmony. And that is your true Buddha nature. There is no fear, no hatred, no anxiety, no judgment, no craving in your heart. Those are all product of the ego-mind which have impressed themselves on the heart and burdened it. Touch your heart, hold it lovingly, and know you have found your true self, you have rediscovered your home.
Bringing our recognition of the impermanence of all things and the illusory nature of our perceptions into our daily lives, we work to be present each moment, free of the intervention of our thinking mind. And thus better able to hear our heart.
Breathing in, we are aware we are breathing in. Breathing out, we are aware we are breathing out. In this space, we are aware that there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today, only the present moment, and that this is the only reality, all else is thought. And thought we know is empty.
For a fuller discussion of this topic, see either of the books referenced earlier in this post as well as other posts on being present.