POSTCARD#437: Bangkok: The fourth hindrance is among the most subtle of hindrances. The main component of this hindrance is restlessness of mind. But first let me briefly address the matter of remorse. Editor’s note: Here, Ajahn Brahm tells us the story of Angulimāla. I have moved it the end of this Chapter where you can read it there, for a wider picture of remorse.
Remorse is the result of hurtful things that you may have done or said. In other words, it is a result of bad conduct. If any remorse comes up in meditation, instead of dwelling on it, you should forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. The wise are not people who never make mistakes, but those who forgive themselves and learn from their mistakes. Some people have so much remorse that they think they can never become enlightened. Forgiveness, letting go of the past, is what overcomes remorse.
Restlessness arises because we do not appreciate the beauty of contentment. We do not acknowledge the sheer pleasure of doing nothing. We have a fault-finding mind rather than a mind that appreciates what’s already there. Restlessness in meditation is always a sign of not finding joy in what’s here. Whether we find joy or not depends on the way we train our perception. It’s within our power to change the way we look at things. We can look at a glass of water and perceive it as very beautiful, or we can think of it as ordinary. In meditation, we can see the breath as dull and routine, or we can see it as very beautiful and unique. If we look upon the breath as something of great value, then we won’t get restless. We won’t go around looking for something else. That’s what restlessness is, going around looking for something else to do, something else to think about, somewhere else to go—anywhere but here and now. Restlessness is one of the major hindrances, along with sensory desire. Restlessness makes it so hard to sit still for very long.
I begin meditation with present-moment awareness, just to overcome the coarse restlessness that says, “I want to be somewhere other than right here, right now.” No matter what this place is, no matter how comfortable you make it, restlessness will always say it’s not good enough. It looks at your meditation cushion and says it’s too big or too small, too hard or too wide. It looks upon a meditation retreat center and says, “It’s not good enough. We should have three meals a day. We should have room service.”
Beware of finding fault in your meditation. Sometimes you may think, “I’m not going deep enough. I’ve been watching the present moment for so long, and I’m not getting anywhere.” That thought is the very cause of restlessness. It doesn’t matter how the meditation is going in your opinion. Remember that contentment is the opposite of a faultfinding mind. You should develop the perception of contentment with whatever you have, wherever you are, as much as you can. Be absolutely content with your meditation and it will go deeper. If you’re dissatisfied with your progress, then you’re only making it worse. So learn to be content with the present moment. Forget about jhānas, just be content to be here and now, in this moment. As that contentment deepens, it will actually give rise to jhānas.
Watch the silence and be content to be silent. If you’re truly content, you don’t need to say anything. Don’t most inner conversations take the form of complaining, attempting to change things, or wanting to do something else? Or escaping into the world of thoughts and ideas? Thinking indicates a lack of contentment. If you’re truly contented, then you’re still and quiet. See if you can deepen your contentment, because it is the antidote for restlessness.
Even if you have an ache in the body and don’t feel well, you can change your perception and regard that as something quite fascinating, even beautiful. See if you can be content with the ache or pain. See if you can allow it to be. A few times during my life as a monk I have been in quite severe pain. Instead of trying to escape, which is restlessness, I turned my mind around to completely accept
the pain and be content with it. I have found that it is possible to be content with even severe pain. If you can do that, the worst part of the pain disappears along with the restlessness. There’s no wanting to get rid of it. You’re completely still with the feeling. The restlessness that accompanies pain is probably the worst part. Get rid of restlessness through contentment, and you can even have fun with pain.
Develop contentment with whatever you have—the present moment, the silence, the breath. Wherever you are, develop that contentment, and from that contentment—out of the very center of that contentment—you’ll find your meditation will deepen. So if you ever see restlessness in your mind, remember the word contentment. Contentment looks for what is right, and it can keep you still. But restlessness will always make you a slave. The tyrant is the faultfinding mind. Subdue this tyrant through contentment.
After you’ve overcome the more general forms of restlessness, a very refined form often occurs at the deeper stages of meditation. I am referring to the time when you first see a nimitta. Because of restlessness, you just can’t leave it alone. You mess around with it. You aren’t content with the nimitta as it appears right now. You want something more. You get excited. Restlessness is one of the hindrances that can easily destroy the nimitta. You’ve arrived already. You don’t have to do any more. Just leave it alone. Be content with it and it will develop by itself. That’s what contentment is—complete non-doing, just sitting there watching a nimitta blossom into a jhāna. If it takes an hour, if it takes five minutes, if it never even happens, you’re content. That’s the way to get into jhānas. If the nimitta comes and goes, that’s a sign of restlessness in the mind. If you can sustain attention effortlessly, restlessness has been overcome.
The story of Angulimāla (MN 86)
Angulimāla was a serial killer. He killed 999 people. He cut off a finger from each of his victims and put them in a garland he hung around his neck. The one-thousandth victim was to be the Buddha but, of course, you can’t kill a buddha. Instead the Buddha “killed him,” killed his bad ways, killed his defilements. Angulimāla became a Buddhist monk. Even a serial killer like Angulimāla could achieve the jhānas and become fully enlightened. So have you ever killed anybody? Are you a serial killer? You probably haven’t done anything like that. If such people can become enlightened, surely you can. No matter what bad things you’ve done in your past or what you feel remorseful about, always remember Angulimāla. Then you won’t feel so bad about yourself.
Continued next week, September 24th 2021, with the Fifth Hindrance, Doubt (Vicikicchā).