The first insight reveals self-nature: when all arising ceases, there is nothing I can call myself. There’s no soul, nothing permanent or lasting that moves from one moment to the next moment that is distinctly me. To see the truth of this, the student has been very carefully observing their mental patterns and practicing non-grasping. By virtue of this, they are experiencing themselves in a radically new way that is helping them to not bind to each and every thing that arises. Again and again the student observes how everything that arises not only must pass, as the Buddha said, but actually does pass. What we have encountered in the teachings and taken on faith is verified in our own direct experience.
This practice and verification is what inspires us to continue along the path, even while the path is difficult. The Buddha spoke of habit energy, and it’s a good way of thinking about it. So many of the ways that we are in the world are habitual, which means we act without thinking about it. Even after seeing into the nature of the self, our old habits are still very strong and continue to exert power—we’re still caught in the grips of dualistic views. These habits are nothing but our self arising, yet we speak of these habits as though they’re objects, because that’s how we experience them. Strong emotions or thoughts seem to drag us down old familiar paths, renewing our greed, anger, and fear, our sadness, ignorance, and confusion—and we feel like helpless victims. But even as this is happening, at this stage of the path we have a clearer understanding of what’s going on. We know it’s not anything other than the constructed and conditioned self. In other words, we recognize that the voice we hear in our mind is not our real voice.
Over time, we’re able to see this more and more clearly, which means we’re not getting caught as thoroughly or as quickly. Commensurate with this, we develop the capacity to free ourselves more easily, more readily, and more skillfully, with less flailing, less force, less aggression—we’re learning to live more in accord with the dharma. It’s here that a deeper desire for genuine self-awakening can become very strong, very real and immediate. In a sense this is the appearance of one aspect of bodhichitta: the desire to liberate ourselves from suffering. It’s like a hunger—a good, yearning hunger.
With this insight into our self, our view of the world is also being transformed. Just as we see that our own attachments and habit patterns are of an illusory nature, we begin to recognize the same is true of everyone else. Everyone we come into contact with is also empty of any solid, permanent self. Their suffering, their patterns, their habits of relating are also not things at all; they are conditioned ways of being, empty of any fixed quality.