Falling doesn’t sound so appealing, in general. It sounds dangerous, inconvenient, painful, and potentially injurious. It sounds out-of-control and embarrassing. Falling sounds like things winding up not at all precisely where we’d like them. Like drool on our shirt. Like mud on the seat of our pants. Like affection or hatred, landing in places we really wish they wouldn’t. Falling sounds like every pain in the ass we’ve ever encountered, and so, no thanks, really. We’ll take climbing, or sashaying along, or even boring old sitting, any day.
This preference for control over wild wipeout is pretty much what the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta seeks to dismantle, relentlessly, and possibly for our own good. It goes piece by piece, in a way I’ve heard described as a side effect of the oral tradition through which it has been transmitted, and which also happens to be necessary, to get through the armoring we carry around.
Form is not self. If form were self, then form would not be accompanied by affliction, and it would be possible to say of form, ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
That’s pretty clear, already, but just to make sure, the Sutta continues:
Just so, since form is not self, form is accompanied by affliction, and it is not possible to say of form, ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not-thus.’
Whap! We fall into some alternate reality, where toning and trimming, waxing and tucking, shaping and exercising make no sense at all in any of the old ways. Sure – go to yoga class, keep your nose-hairs from growing down into your mustache. But also, realize that none of these things can really be filed in the self-improvement drawer. They can be considered in the same general framework as keeping the sink free of dirty dishes, or picking up stray lube-packets from the edge of the woods, but they cannot be seen truthfully as I Am Improving My Self. They can’t fall into that category and stick, with any degree of truthfulness.
What do you think? Is form permanent or impermanent? Impermanent. And things that are impermanent, can they be considered reliably satisfying? No. And of something that is unreliable, impermanent, and subject to decay, can we say, ‘This is mine, this is me, this is my self?’ Nope.
Here’s a list of questions a good lawyer would never let her client get tangled up in. For starters, who said we should be able to depend on any external thing for satisfaction? Precisely. That’s where this whole thing is going. It’s pointing the spear back at us. We can sort of see, once the package has been opened, and the thin layer of tissue paper has fallen out, that these new swim trunks aren’t going to be the salvation of us, after all. But it’s harder to see that about our minds, bodies, perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. We want very much to be able to improve those into some state where they won’t fall or fail, and what this series of questions is trying to get us to do, is to receive all of these with the same degree of not-grasping that we can sometimes muster for seemingly lesser things. Sometimes. Those swim trunks? In the first few seconds of maybe-ownership, they look pretty grand. Soft, stylish, promising to cover our rumps and new squidgy bits with grace and aplomb. It’s only later we find out the velcro is in a stupid place, and the zipper’s not going to last long, in ocean saltwater. We send them back, feeling virtuous.
What happens next? What happens if we can learn to work with all the components of our constructed selves in a way that falls open a little bit, or a lot?
Honestly, part of what happens is: we feel queasy, seasick, and like we might throw up if everything doesn’t fall back together right away into a shape that might be wildly uncomfortable, but at least has a shape. In the beginning drawing classes I teach, the time we spend learning to look at negative shape is very difficult for some people. There’s a visceral aversion to focusing on not-things, on space, on the unknown, unfelt matrix, within which all the stuff that preoccupies us is unfolding. People get angry; people get fearful. It can feel like I am the mean witch, stealing everyone’s binky, over and over again. If I let go of looking at that jar/chair/basket, how will I possibly be able to see? Where will I be? If I let go of me and my opinions, where will I fall through to? It’s not at all appealing.
And it’s also not at all the whole story. Many us have received such strong, painful training in overriding what we feel, think, and want that we first need to become quite ferocious in expressing these human impulses. We need to know them, before we can honestly make space around them. The point of learning how to see and draw negative shape is not to make weird flat drawings of the gaps between things, forever. Instead, with much time, patience, and training, we become able to switch back and forth at will, to come closer to an accounting of reality that weds the impermanent and the deathless, the thing-view and the space-view, without fixed preference for either.
Falling into relationship with Being Itself is an ideal for which there are lots of skilled ad-reps loose in the world, making it sound like bliss, blue sky, realization, hoorah! Don’t believe them. The more space intensifies, the more things do, as well. There’s a kind of interrelationship at work. More seeing means also becoming more aware of not-seeing. More rising means more falling.
Thus, with wise discernment of things as they are, a practitioner comes to see: for any form, past, present, or future, refined or coarse, internal or external, better or worse, far or near, ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.’
Is that our big invitation to the Depersonalization Ball, where we wind up with all our tendencies to dissociate validated, once and for all? I don’t think so. I don’t live so. What actually seems to happen is something more like compassionate curiosity. Wow. I really went for it, in this morning’s argument over the hot-water kettle. That came together in a way that makes divorce over beverage-habits feel like a real possibility. I wonder what is happening here? I wonder if divorce is where the story of these two people is actually inclining? I wonder how the spaces between and inside this situation are influencing each other?
I don’t need to manifest a nicer self. I don’t need to pussyfoot around this uncomfortable pattern. I don’t need to fall into the idea that It Will Always Be Like This. But I do wonder: is it helpful, to keep sharing these spaces?
Falling is also falling into the possibility of walking away. What is this like right now? What would not-this be like? What have I been telling myself about the way things are, the way I am, the way we are, the way you are, that keeps generating these particular shapes? What limits me to perceive space, but not shape; shape, but not space?
Depending on whose translation you are reading, the denouement (literally, unbinding) of the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta can sound like a clinically-inadvisable total bummer, in which the Mary Kay pink Cadillac reward for hard practice is “estrangement” or “weariness” towards form, self, other, and every possible anything. To me, that language reeks of ill-humor, bad breath, and eyebrow-stubble. More promising is “disenchantment.” What is it like to let go of our illusions about ourselves and others, and as a result, love more deeply, not less? What is it like to fall out of infatuation, and into something that depends less on frantic editing?
Falling can be unbinding, and unbinding, love.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.