The three characteristics are anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anattā (non-self). One of the historical Buddha’s main teachings is that humans are subject to delusion about the three characteristics, that this delusion results in suffering, and that removal of that delusion results in the end of dukkha, or suffering.
Meditating with the three characteristics is an incredibly profound approach for awakening a certain aspect of experience. They reveal a meta-pattern of both consciousness and the Universe – they are describing aspects of experience that are present at all levels and modes of being and experiencing.
The way in which the three characteristics are present operates in different ways at different levels of experience. An example of this is that the impermanence of your immediate subjective experience is very different to the impermanence of physical objects.
A simple example of this is that a thought will disappear into the ether immediately after it has been thought, but a glass bottle will last over a million years if it isn’t recycled.
One of the benefits of this practice is that noticing the way that subjective experience has this sense of lightness and flexibility in it creates a lot more spaciousness in someone’s experience. The three characteristics also cut through some of the deepest ways in which humans cling to their experience – wanting things to be perfect, clinging to the idea of a fixed self and wanting certainty or permanence.
Vipassana meditation that uses the three characteristics is also sometimes called insight meditation and one of the features of this approach is that it can continue to keep unlocking deeper and deeper insights into the nature of both experience and reality. There is no limit to the ways in which the three characteristics can continue to open doors.
However, they can also cause problems when they are embraced too fully as final truths in a fixed way. Rather than using the qualities of impermanence, suffering or non-self as a lens for investigating the true nature of things, people can turn them into new, fixed ideas about what reality is.
People start to spout the idea that anything and everything is impermanent, without first investigating in what ways that is true.
With this practice it’s easy to get into a state of consciousness where everything feels subjectively like it is appearing from and dissolving into the void and to extrapolate this out into all reality – that there is no object permanence. But this is just a case of someone projecting their subjective experience onto the world and it doesn’t stand up to robust investigation into the nature of things.
The three characteristics provide an endless fractal of insights into the nature of reality in a very deep and important way.
The point isn’t that these things are ultimately true but that there is some truth in them and that they are tools that point to areas where you can open your mind to new ways of understanding the world. They are like a formula for a certain type of awakening or opening.
Delusion and ignorance come from denying and ignoring parts of experience because you don’t have the capacity or clarity to be with the truth of experience. By opening to more of experience you increase the amount of truth you can see and be with.
One of the deepest insights you can realise is that there are no final or ultimate truths that can be landed on.
If you think you have found a Universal truth in experience, see if you can also embrace the opposite of it. This is not to talk yourself out of it or to undermine the original idea, but to enrich it with the truth that can be found in both aspects of it.
The more of a fixed idea you have that something is undeniably true or false, the richer the process of embracing the opposite will be for you.
Once you have let go of the idea that truth can be found in fixed ideas and perceptions you can land in what feels true and important to you in your heart-mind-body-soul in this moment. You can investigate the reality of what is in front of you.
It is this curiosity towards experience that will create the possibility for more truth and growth.