Holistic Living: On Three Marks of Existence + How to Suffer Less

March 25, 2015

Holistic Living: Three Marks of Existence + How to Suffer Less Whether we identify ourselves as religious, atheist, spiritual, agnostic or what have you, we are all seeking happiness on some level.  We are extraordinarily fortunate to live in an age when we have access to  a vast amount of information at our fingertips.  Today, we can load up our tool boxes for life, accessing different philosophies and beliefs, adopting and applying ideas originating far from our environment.  The Buddha said to question everything, and so today, we question Buddhism:  What are The Three Marks of Existence? And how does understanding existence help you suffer less? 

Often we hear people sum up Buddhist philosophy as “life is suffering,” but it really isn’t such a sad perspective.  Our experiences through ego, suffering, and impermanence lead us to believe that life is difficult, sometimes sad, frustrating, fleeting, perhaps even painful.  In the first Noble Truth in Buddhism, this notion is explored in the Dukkha doctrine.  In this doctrine, the Three Marks of Existence say that the “fundamental situation is joyful.” By identifying the three marks, impermanence (anicca), insubstantiality or “not-self” (anatta), frustration or suffering (dukkha), we can begin to transform our perspective, finding ourselves awake to the joy in the present moment.  We must be aware that the three are intertwined, and how we react to each separately.

Anicca, or impermanence, is the law of constant change.  When we defy impermanence, we struggle, and when we accept the the condition in each moment, we are at peace.  Impermanence exists in complementary aspects.  We love deeply because of death; we enjoy food when we are hungry; and sleep feels extra wonderful after we expend ourselves.  Happiness exists because suffering exists.  Our bodies change moment to moment, our children grow, pets come in to our lives and leave us.  To be in the moment, not anticipating change, but being with what is in this moment is to find harmony in impermanence.  To hold back from love out of fear of its ending, is to refuse joy, and not feeling sadness takes away from the goodness the situation has offered us.  Impermanence complements peace.  We know happiness because we have suffered.  A great practice in accepting change is keeping a daily gratitude journal, recording at least three things for which you are grateful for on that particular day.  Riding on top of the ebb and flow allows us to realize the fundamental joy in each situation, in harmony with life on life’s terms.

Anatta, or selflessness, is also interpretated as egolessness.  Though the Buddha did not specifically say that there is no soul, some have adopted the idea, since nothing is permanent.  In acknowledging anatta, we are not attached to ourself.  However, this fundamental can still be understood coinciding with the belief that we have a soul.  Anatta is explained through the five Skandhas:

Rupa (matter)- the physical plane, including the physical body which is constantly changing.

Vedana (sensations)- the first experience through the senses, constantly coming and going.

Sanna (perceptions)- how we identify objects through our senses, related to other experiences.  Always changing.

Sankhara (Mental formations)- our analysis of an object or experience.  Always changing throughout our life.

Vinnana (Consciousness)- The state of our mind, and how we react to situations.  Changing lifetime to lifetime, day to day.

From someone who believes in that we each have a soul, anatta may be explained as the notion that we are the same.  No one is less than or better than.  In action, this may mean that when your neighbor gets something that you so badly want, you should be genuinely happy for them. Be conscious of your attachment to your self.  This may be how you identify yourself, but peel away the layers of your self-identity to reveal fundamental goodness.  The ego takes one away from the present moment, stealing you away from the fundamental joy that exists in all situations.  Observe when your ego, which always compares and measures,  stands between you and unconditional joy.

Dukkha, or suffering, is experienced on three levels:

Sankhara-dukkha is when something fails to meet our expectations.  We are attached to an outcome.

Viparinama-dukkha is the frustration with impermanence.  It is the suffering caused when we anticipate the end, forbidding the joy in the present moment.  This also can explain the phenomenon of craving and addiction, where we seek to experience a pleasure again and again.

Dukkha-dukkha– pain and suffering as a direct experience.

Checking in with the three dukkhas allows us to exit the cycle of suffering.  Identifying impermanence, staying present to the current situation without expectations, and not seeking joy in pleasure but in the status quo will change our level of consciousness.

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Photo: Guilherme Yagui via Flickr



Jessica is a runner, snowboarder, amateur gardener, yoga teacher, mala maker, cook, excellent eater, and is always listening to music. She lives on Cape Cod with her two children and husband.


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