POSTCARD#438: Bangkok: Doubt can be toward the teaching, about the teacher, or toward yourself. Regarding doubt toward the teaching, you should have enough confidence by now to know that some beautiful results come from practicing meditation. You may have experienced many of them already. Allow those positive experiences to strengthen your confidence that meditation is worthwhile. Sitting in meditation, developing the mind in stillness, and especially developing the mind in jhānas are all tremendously worthwhile and will give you clarity, happiness, and understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.
With regard to teachers, they are often like coaches of sports teams. Their job is to teach from their own experience and, more important, to inspire students with words and deeds. But before you put your confidence in a teacher, check them out. Observe their behavior and see for yourself if they are practicing what they preach. If they really know what they are talking about, then they will be ethical, restrained, and inspiring. Only if teachers lead by example—a good example, that is—should you place your confidence in them.
Self-doubt—which thinks, “I’m hopeless, I can’t do this, I’m useless, I’m sure everyone else who practices meditation, except me, has got jhānas and is already enlightened”—is often overcome with the help of a teacher who inspires and encourages you. It’s the teacher’s job to say, “Yes, you can achieve all of these things. Many other people have achieved them, so why not you?” Give yourself encouragement. Have confidence that you can achieve whatever you want. In fact, if you have sufficient determination and confidence, then it’s only a matter of time before you succeed. The only people who fail are those who give up.
Doubt can also be directed toward what you are experiencing now: “What is this? Is this jhāna? Is this present-moment awareness?” Such doubts are hindrances. They are inappropriate during meditation. Just make the mind as peaceful as you can. Let go and enjoy the peace and happiness. Afterward, you can review the meditation and ask, “What was that? That was really interesting. What was happening there?” That’s when you’ll find out whether or not it was a jhāna. If while meditating the thought “Is this jhāna?” arises, then it cannot be jhāna! Thoughts like that can’t come up within these deep states of stillness. Only afterward, when you review those states, can you look back and say, “Ah, that was a jhāna.”
If you get into any difficulty in your meditation, stop and ask yourself, “Which of the hindrances is this?” Find out what the cause is. Once you know the cause, then you can remember the solution and apply it. If it’s sensory desire, just take the attention away from the five senses little by little and apply it to the breath or the mind. If it’s ill will, do some loving-kindness. For sloth and torpor, remember “give value to awareness.” If it’s restlessness and remorse, remember “contentment, contentment, contentment” or practice forgiveness. And if it’s doubt, be confident and be inspired by the teachings. Whenever you meditate, apply the solutions methodically. That way, the obstacles you experience won’t create long-term barriers. They’re things that you can recognize, overcome, and move beyond.
Preview of next week’s text:
“All the Hindrances emanate from a single source. They are generated by the control freak inside of you that refuses to let things go. Meditators fail to overcome the hindrances because they look for them in the wrong place. It is crucial to success in meditation to understand that the hindrances are to be seen at work in the space between the knower and the known. The hindrances’ source is the doer, their result is lack of progress, but their workshop is the space between the mind and its meditation object. Essentially, the five hindrances are a relationship problem.”
POSTCARD#436: Bangkok: I don’t need to describe sloth and torpor in detail, because I’m sure we know it all too well through our experience of meditation. We sit in meditation and don’t really know what we are watching, whether it’s the present moment, silence, the breath, or whatever. This is because the mind is dull. It’s as if there are no lights turned on inside. It’s all gray and blurry.
Making Peace with Sloth and Torpor
The most profound and effective way of overcoming sloth and torpor is to make peace with the dullness and stop fighting it! When I was a young monk in the forest monasteries in Thailand and became sleepy during the 3:15 A.M. sitting, I would struggle like hell to overpower the dullness. I would usually fail. But when I did succeed in overcoming my sleepiness, restlessness would replace it. So I would calm down the restlessness and fall back into sloth and torpor. My meditation was like a pendulum swinging between extremes and never finding the middle. It took many years to understand what was going on.
The Buddha advocated investigation, not fighting. So I examined where my sloth and torpor came from. I had been meditating at 3:15 in the morning, having slept very little, I was malnourished, an English monk in a hot tropical jungle – what would you expect! The dullness was the effect of natural causes. I let go and made peace with my sleepiness. I stopped fighting and let my head droop. Who knows, I might even have snored. When I stopped fighting sloth and torpor it did not last all that long. Moreover, when it passed I was left with peace and not with restlessness. I had found the middle of my pendulum swing and I could observe my breath easily from then on.
Dullness in meditation is the result of a tired mind, usually one that has been overworking. Fighting that dullness makes you even more exhausted. Resting allows the energy to return to the mind. To understand this process, I will now introduce the two halves of the mind: the knower and the doer. The knower is the passive half of the mind that simply receives information. The doer is the active half that responds with evaluating, thinking, and controlling. The knower and the doer share the same source of mental energy. Thus, when you are doing a lot, when you have a busy lifestyle and are struggling to get on, the doer consumes most of your mental energy, leaving only a pittance for the knower. When the knower is starved of mental energy you experience dullness.
At a retreat I led in Sydney a few years ago, a retreatant arrived late from her high-stress job as an executive in the city. In her first sitting that evening her mind was almost as dead as a corpse. So I gave her my special teaching on how to overcome her sloth and torpor: I told her to rest. For the next three days she slept in until dawn, went back to bed again after breakfast, and had a long nap after lunch. What a brilliant meditator! After three days of no fighting, giving hardly any mental energy to the doer but letting it flow to the knower, her mind brightened up. In another three days she had caught up with the rest of the group in her progress through the stages. By the end of the retreat she was way ahead and one of the star meditators of that retreat.
The most profound and effective way to overcome sloth and torpor is to stop fighting your mind. Stop trying to change things and instead let things be. Make peace not war with sloth and torpor. Then your mental energy will be freed to flow into the knower, and your sloth and torpor will naturally disappear.
Giving Value to Awareness
Another method for overcoming sloth and torpor is to give more value to awareness. All Buddhist traditions say that human life is valuable and precious, especially a life like this one where you have encountered the Buddha’s teachings. Now you have the opportunity to practice. You may not realize how many lifetimes it has taken and how much merit you’ve had to accumulate just to get where you are now. You’ve invested lifetimes of good karma to get this close to the Dhamma. Reflecting like this means you will incline less to sloth and torpor and more to bright awareness.
The path of meditation sometimes comes to a fork in the road. The left path leads to sloth and torpor while the right path leads to bright awareness. With experience you will recognize this fork. This is the point in meditation where you can choose between the alley to sloth and torpor or the highway to mindful stillness. Taking the left path you give up both the doer and the knower. Taking the right path you let go of the doer but keep the knower. When you value awareness you will automatically choose the right path of bright awareness.
Sloth and Torpor and Ill Will
Sometimes sloth and torpor is the result of ill will, the second hindrance. When I used to visit Australian prisons to teach meditation, I would often hear the following prison proverb: “an extra hour of sleep is an hour off your sentence.” People who don’t like where they are will try to escape into dullness. In the same way, meditators who easily get negative will tend to drift into sloth and torpor. Ill will is the problem.
In our monastery in Thailand we would meditate all night once a week. During those all-night sittings, sloth and torpor would regularly conquer me an hour or two after midnight. Since it was my first year as a monk, I reflected that less than twelve months previously I would spend all night at parties, rock concerts, and clubs. I recalled that I never experienced sloth and torpor when listening to the music of the Doors at 2 A.M. Why? It became clear that when you are enjoying what you are doing then you don’t tend to get sloth and torpor, but when you don’t like what you are doing then sloth and torpor comes in. I did not like those all-night sits. I thought they were a stupid idea. I did them because I had to. I had ill will, and that was the cause of my sloth and torpor. When I changed my attitude and put joy into the all-night sittings, making them fun, then sloth and torpor rarely came. So you should investigate whether your sloth and torpor is the result of an attitude problem—the attitude of ill will.
When I was a lay Buddhist I attended a Zen retreat in the north of England. It was very early in the morning, and the meditation hall was freezing cold. People had their blankets around them. When you meditate with a blanket anywhere close to you, you tend to get sleepy. The teacher was walking up and down with a big stick, and the fellow next to me who had started nodding got hit. Everyone’s sloth and torpor suddenly disappeared right then. We only needed one person to get hit and that was enough. The problem was that the fear that woke me up remained with me, preventing further progress. Experience teaches that you can’t generate wholesome states like peace and freedom by using unwholesome methods like fear or violence.
In the old forest tradition of northeast Thailand, monks would meditate in dangerous places such as platforms high in the trees, on the edge of cliffs, or in jungles full of tigers. The ones who survived said they got good meditation, but you never heard from the monks that didn’t survive!
Continued next week 17 September 2021, with the remaining two hindrances: restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca) and doubt (vicikicchā)
POSTCARD#434: Bangkok: In this chapter and the next I will explain in detail the five hindrances, obstacles that you will meet in your meditation and that you should learn to overcome. These obstacles to deep meditation are called in the Pāli language nīvarana. Literally that means “closing a door” or “obstructing entering into something,” and this is exactly what the hindrances do. They stop you from entering into the deep absorption states, or jhānas. They also obstruct or weaken wisdom and strengthen delusion. So if one is going to say anything in Buddhism about the enemies to meditation, one can say that the five hindrances are Public Enemy Number One. They stop people from becoming enlightened, and it’s precisely for this reason that understanding these five hindrances and overcoming them is crucial. When you don’t fully understand them, you cannot overcome them. Some teachers fail to explain the hindrances clearly enough, especially the hindrances that are very subtle. These refined hindrances prevent you from getting into deep meditation. If you do not even try to identify them and surpass them, then they will hold sway over your mind. You will be obstructed from enjoying the bliss of the mind and from developing the great insights of enlightenment. Basically, these five hindrances stand between you and enlightenment. When you know them, you have a good chance of overcoming them. If you have not achieved the jhānas yet, it means you have not fully understood these five hindrances. If you have gotten into such deep states, then you have overcome the hindrances. It’s as simple as that.
The Buddha named the five hindrances as follows: sensory desire (kāma-cchanda), ill will (vyāpāda), sloth and torpor (thīna-middha), restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vicikicchā). This is the usual order in which the Buddha lists them, and this is the order in which they will be presented here, too.
The First Hindrance—Sensory Desire, Kāma-cchanda, is first on the list of hindrances because of its importance. It is the major obstacle preventing one from entering deep meditation. Few meditators fully understand its scope. It is not just sensory desire as that term is commonly understood. First of all, the Pāli word kāma means anything pertaining to the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Chanda means to delight in or agree with. Together the compound kāma-cchanda means “delight, interest, involvement with the world of the five senses.” For example, when we are meditating and hear a sound, why can’t we simply ignore it? Why does it disturb us so? Many years ago in Thailand the local villages surrounding our monastery held a party. The noise from the loudspeakers was so loud that it seemed to destroy the peace in our monastery. So we complained to our teacher, Ajahn Chah, that the noise was disturbing our meditation. The great master replied, “It is not the noise that disturbs you, it is you who disturb the noise!” In the above example kāma-cchanda was the mind getting involved with the sound. Similarly, when your meditation is interrupted by a pain in your legs, say, then it is not the pain that disturbs you but it is you who disturb the pain. If you had been mindful, you would have seen your awareness go out to your body, becoming interested in sensations again. That was kāma-cchanda at work. It is difficult to overcome kāma-cchanda because we are so attached to our five senses and their affairs. Whatever we are attached to we find impossible to release. To understand this attachment it is useful to examine the connection between our five senses and our body. It is commonly claimed that the five senses are there to protect our body, but insight will tell you the opposite: that the body is there to provide a vehicle for your five senses to play in the world. You will also notice that when the five senses disappear so does your body. Letting go of one means letting go of the other.
Abandoning Kāma-cchanda Little by Little
You can’t simply decide to let go of the five senses and the body through a single effort of will. The abandoning of kāma-cchanda in meditation is achieved little by little. You start by choosing a comfortable, quiet place in which to meditate. You may sit on a chair if it is more comfortable for you, remembering that even the Buddha sat on a chair sometimes. When you first close your eyes you will be unable to feel much of the body. In the same way that it takes a few minutes to see when you go out from a well-lit room into the dark, so it takes a few minutes to become sensitive to your bodily feelings. Thus the final adjustments to our body posture are made a few minutes after closing our eyes. Indulging kāma-cchanda in this way will subdue it for a while. Your body will feel comfortable and the five senses satisfied, but not for long. You must use this initial freedom to start placing the mind beyond the reach of the five senses. You begin with present-moment awareness. Most if not all of our past and future is occupied by the affairs of our five senses. Our memories are of physical sensations, tastes, sounds, smells, or sights. Our plans are likewise filled with five-sense business. Through achieving present moment awareness we cut off much of kāma-cchanda.
The next stage of meditation is silent present-moment awareness. In this you abandon all thought. The Buddha identified an aspect of kāmacchanda that is called kāmavitakka, meaning thinking about the five-sense world. For the new meditator, the most obvious form of kāma- vitakka is sexual fantasy. One can use up many hours, especially on a long retreat, with this type of kāma-vitakka. This obstacle to progress in meditation is transcended by realizing, through insight or faith, that total freedom from the five senses (i.e., jhāna) is more ecstatic and profound than the very best of sexual experiences. A monk or nun gives up their sexuality not out of fear or repression, but out of recognition of something superior. Even thoughts about lunch belong to kāma-vitakka. They disturb the silence. And few meditators realize that noting bodily sensations, for example thinking to oneself “breath going in” or “hearing a sound” or “feeling a stabbing pain,” is also part of kāmavitakka and a hindrance to progress.
Lao Tzu, the great Taoist sage, would allow one student to accompany him on his evening walk, as long as the student maintained silence. One evening, as they reached a mountain ridge, the student remarked, “What a beautiful sunset.” Lao Tzu never let that student accompany him again. When others asked why, the master explained, “When that student said, ‘What a beautiful sunset,’ he was no longer watching the sunset, he was only watching the words.” That is why you have to abandon noting, for watching the words is not being mindful of the thing it tries in vain to describe. In silent present-moment awareness it is as if the world of the five senses is confined in a cage, unable to roam or create any mischief…
Editor’s note, the five senses confined in a cage; this is the end result, so how did we get there? I found it easier to reorder the sequence of events in this part of Ajahn’s teaching on the method for abandoning kāma-cchanda little by little. I broke it down to the simple directives, getting rid of unnecessary words. The following is what I comprehend the teaching is today at the time of writing. Please refer back to the original for anything I might have missed, page 32 – 33 print copy.
First, settle into meditation posture, some adjustments are made a few minutes after closing the eyes. Indulging kāma-cchanda in this way will subdue it for a while. Your body will feel comfortable and the five senses satisfied, but not for long. You must use this initial freedom to start placing the mind beyond the reach of the five senses. Begin with present-moment awareness. Our past and future are occupied by the affairs of our five senses, memories physical sensations,. Through achieving present moment awareness we cut off much of the kāma-cchanda multi-purpose affairs.
The next stage is where we abandon all thinking about the five-sense world. Using present moment awareness we can choose to focus our mindfulness on a small part of the five-sense world to the exclusion of the rest. You focus your mindfulness on the physical sensation of the breath, paying no attention to other sensations in your body, nor to sounds and so on. The breath becomes the stepping stone from the world of the five senses over to the realm of the mind. It is as if the world of the five senses is confined in a cage, unable to roam or create any mischief.
When you succeed in full sustained attention on the breath you will notice the absence of any sound. For a period your mind was impervious to any sound. You also notice that your body had disappeared, that you could not feel your hands, nor did you receive any messages from your legs. All that you knew was the feeling of the breath. Some meditators become alarmed when parts of their body seem to vanish. This shows their strong attachment to their body. This is kāmacchanda at work, hindering progress in their meditation. Usually you soon become familiar with the fading away of bodily sensations and start to delight in the wonderful tranquility beyond their reach. It is the freedom and joy born of letting go that repeatedly encourages you to abandon your attachments.
Soon the breath disappears and the awesome nimitta fills your mind. It is only at this stage that you have fully abandoned kāma-cchanda, your involvement in the world of the five senses. For when the nimitta is established, all five senses are extinguished, and your body is out of range. The first and major hindrance has now been overcome and it is blissful. You are at the door of the jhānas. This is the method for abandoning kāma-cchanda little by little.
POSTCARD#432: Bangkok: Welcome again to our analysis of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. We rejoin the text on page 20 ( print book layout ) and Ajahn is saying: “We are passively observing the beautiful breath in the moment, and the perception of “in” (breath) or “out” (breath), or the beginning, middle, or end of a breath, disappears. All that remains is the experience of the beautiful breath happening now. The mind is simplifying the object of meditation and the breath is experienced in the moment, moving beyond the duality of “in” and “out” whilst the beautiful breath appears smooth and continuous, hardly changing at all… see how smooth, beautiful, and timeless the breath can be! See how calm you can allow it to be – take time to savor the sweetness of the beautiful breath – ever calmer, ever sweeter.”
Only “the Beautiful” Is Left
“Soon the breath will disappear, not when you want it to but when there is enough calm, leaving only the sign of “the beautiful. The story of the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is an eerily accurate analogy for the meditation experience. Alice is startled to see the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a nearby tree and grinning from ear to ear. Like all the strange creatures in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat has the eloquence of a politician. Not only does the cat get the better of Alice in the ensuing conversation, but it also suddenly disappears and then, without warning, just as suddenly reappears.”
Alice said,“… I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy!”
“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.
“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”
Just as the Cheshire Cat disappeared and left only its grin, so the meditator’s body and breath disappear, leaving only the beautiful. For Alice, it was the most curious thing she ever saw in all her life. For the meditator it is also strange, to clearly experience a free-floating beauty with nothing to embody it, not even a breath. The beautiful, or more precisely the sign of the beautiful, is the next stage on this meditation path. The Pāli word for “sign” is nimitta. So this next stage is called “experiencing the beautiful nimitta.”
Experiencing the Beautiful Nimitta
“This sixth stage is achieved when one lets go of the body, thought, and the five senses (including the awareness of the breath) so completely that only a beautiful mental sign, a nimitta, remains. This pure mental object is a real object in the landscape of the mind (citta), and when it appears for the first time, it is extremely strange. One simply has not experienced anything like it before. Nevertheless, the mental activity we call perception searches through its memory bank of life experiences for something even a little bit similar. For most meditators, this disembodied beauty, this mental joy, is perceived as a beautiful light. Some see a white light, some a golden star, some a blue pearl, and so on. But it is not a light. The eyes are closed, and the sight consciousness has long been turned off. It is the mind consciousness freed for the first time from the world of the five senses. It is like the full moon—here standing for the radiant mind, coming out from behind the clouds—here standing for the world of the five senses. It is the mind manifesting —it is not a light, but for most it appears as a light. It is perceived as a light because this imperfect description is the best that perception can offer.”
For other meditators, perception chooses to describe this first appearance of mind in terms of a physical sensation such as intense tranquility or ecstasy. Again, the body consciousness (that which experiences pleasure and pain, heat and cold, and so on) has long since closed down, so this is not a physical feeling. It is just perceived as being similar to pleasure. Although some meditators experience sensations while others see light, the important fact is that they are all describing the same phenomenon. They all experience the same pure mental object, and these different details are added by their different perceptions.”
The Qualities of a Nimitta
“One can recognize a nimitta by the following six features: (1) it appears only after the fifth stage of the meditation, after the meditator has been with the beautiful breath for a long time; (2) it appears when the breath disappears; (3) it comes only when the external five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are completely absent; (4) it manifests only in the silent mind, when descriptive thought (inner speech) is totally absent; (5) it is strange but powerfully attractive; and (6) it is a beautifully simple object. I mention these features so that you may distinguish real nimittas from imaginary ones.”
“Sometimes when the nimitta first arises it may appear dull. In this case, one should immediately go back to the previous stage of the meditation, full sustained attention on the beautiful breath. One has moved to the nimitta too soon. Sometimes the nimitta is bright but unstable, flashing on and off like a lighthouse beacon and then disappearing. This too shows that the meditator has left the beautiful breath too early. One must be able to sustain one’s attention on the beautiful breath with ease for a long, long time before the mind is capable of maintaining clear attention on the far more subtle nimitta. So you should train the mind on the beautiful breath. Train it patiently and diligently. Then when it is time to go on to the nimitta, it will be bright, stable, and easy to sustain.”
“The main reason why the nimitta can appear dull is that the depth of contentment is too shallow. You are still wanting something. Usually you want the bright nimitta or you want jhāna. Remember—and this is important—jhānas are states of letting go, incredibly deep states of contentment. So give away the hungry mind. Develop contentment on the beautiful breath, and nimittas and jhānas will happen by themselves. Put another way, the nimitta is unstable because you, the doer, just will not stop interfering. The doer is the controller, the backseat driver, always getting involved where it does not belong and messing everything up. Meditation is a natural process of coming to rest, and it requires you to get out of the way completely. Deep meditation only occurs when you really let go. This means really letting go—to the point that the process becomes inaccessible to the doer.”
“A skillful means to achieve such profound letting go is to deliberately offer a gift of confidence to the nimitta. Very gently interrupt the silence for a moment and whisper, inside your mind, that you are giving complete trust to the nimitta, so that the doer can relinquish all control and just disappear. The mind, represented here by the nimitta before you, will then take over the process as you watch. You do not need to do anything here, because the intense beauty of the nimitta is more than capable of holding your attention without your assistance.”
“Be careful here not to start asking questions like “What is this?” “Is this jhāna?” “What should I do next?” which all come from the doer trying to get involved again. Questioning disturbs the process. You may assess everything once the journey is over. A good scientist only assesses the experiment at the end, when all the data are in. There is no need to pay attention to the shape or edges of the nimitta: “Is it round or oval?” “Is the edge clear or fuzzy?” These are all unnecessary queries, which just lead to more diversity, more duality of inside and outside, and more disturbance. Let the mind incline where it wants, which is usually to the center of the nimitta. The center is where the most beautiful part lies, where the light is most brilliant and pure. Let go and just enjoy the ride as the attention gets drawn right into the center, or as the light expands and envelops you totally. Let the mind merge into the bliss. Then let the seventh stage of this path of meditation, the jhāna, occur.”
POSTCARD#431: Bangkok:Hello and welcome again to our study group of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. This time it begins with request for help with a perceptual difficulty I found in the last two paragraphs of last week’s study on the breath. The two paragraphs are presented under the sub-heading as follows:
Stage Four: Full Sustained Attention on the Breath (page 16 print copy)
“The fourth stage occurs when your attention expands to take in every single moment of the breath….”
The text goes on with a wonderfully detailed analysis of the breath as it’s going through a complete cycle. Maybe it’s my 24/7 headache that’s pushing me to take short cuts all the time, but I think that what Ajahn is saying here is these are the collected moments of the breath in all their stages and describing a number of breaths, not just one. The presentation is as if it were being shown in slow-motion. If the camera was shooting in ‘real time’, I would have to control my breath for as long as it takes to read the text describing the stages of the breath in its whole cycle, for say, 30 – 45 seconds. Then, without a break, to move on to the next breath cycle for the same duration. Is it possible? Is this how it seems to you? If someone could help me with this I’d be very grateful.
Now returning to our summary and analysis of the text. This where the meditator is asked to notice the following:
“Actually “you” do not reach this stage, the mind does. The mind does the work itself. The mind recognizes this stage to be a very peaceful and pleasant place to abide, just being alone with the breath. This is where the doer, the major part of one’s ego, starts to disappear. One finds that progress happens effortlessly at this stage of meditation. We just have to get out of the way, let go, and watch it all happen. The mind will automatically incline, if we only let it, toward this very simple, peaceful, and delicious unity of being alone with one thing, just being with the breath in each and every moment. This is the unity of mind, the unity in the moment, the unity in stillness.”
The Beginning of the Beautiful Breath
“The fourth stage is what I call the “springboard” of meditation, because from it one may dive into the blissful states. When we simply maintain this unity of consciousness by not interfering, the breath will begin to disappear. The breath appears to fade away as the mind focuses instead on what is at the center of the experience of breath, which is awesome peace, freedom, and bliss.”
“Now as I will explain further in the next chapter, when the breath disappears, all that is left is “the beautiful.” Disembodied beauty becomes the sole object of the mind. The mind is now taking the mind as its own object. We are no longer aware of the breath, body, thought, sound, or outside world. All that we are aware of is beauty, peace, bliss, light, or whatever our perception will later call it. We are experiencing only beauty, continuously, effortlessly, with nothing being beautiful! We have long ago let go of chatter, let go of descriptions and assessments. Here the mind is so still that it cannot say anything. One is just beginning to experience the first flowering of bliss in the mind. That bliss will develop, grow, and become very firm and strong. And then one may enter into those states of meditation called the jhānas.”
“I have described the first four stages of meditation. Each stage must be well developed before going on to the next. Please take a lot of time with these four initial stages, making them all firm and stable before proceeding. You should be able to maintain with ease the fourth stage, full sustained attention on the breath, during every moment of the breath without a single break for two or three hundred breaths in succession. I am not saying you should count the breaths during this stage; I am just giving an indication of the approximate span of time that one should be able to stay in stage four before proceeding further. In meditation, as I indicated earlier, careful patience is the fastest way!”
The fifth stage is called Full Sustained Attention on the Beautiful Breath.
“When one’s full attention rests easily and continuously on the experience of breathing with nothing interrupting the even flow of awareness, the breath
calms down. It changes from a coarse, ordinary breath to a very smooth and peaceful “beautiful breath.” The mind recognizes this beautiful breath and delights in it. It experiences a deepening of contentment. It is happy just to be watching this beautiful breath, and it does not need to be forced.”
‘“You”’ do not do anything. If you try to do something at this stage, you will disturb the whole process. The beauty will be lost. It’s like landing on a snake’s head in the game of snakes and ladders—you must go back many squares. From this stage of meditation on, the doer has to disappear. You are just a knower, passively observing. A helpful trick at this stage is to break the inner silence for a moment and gently say to yourself: “calm.” That’s all. At this stage of the meditation, the mind is usually so sensitive that just a little nudge causes it to follow the instruction obediently. The breath calms down and the beautiful breath emerges.”
POSTCARD #184: Geneva, Switzerland, August 28, 2012: The number 9 bus drops me near a shopping mall coffee shop. Order something and open my book: ‘Satisfaction is a moment of relief from the pressure of wanting.’ That instant relief from the pressure of wanting comes with a thirst for more.
Just then, a little bird appears at the table; hops over, quite close to me, where there are crumbs scattered, looks at me with a flick of the head, picks up a crumb and flies away, whrrrt. Mall sparrows are incredible; evolved as these urban forms in an artificial environment that doesn’t really look like what it’s trying to be; high ceilings, glass roof, obviously ‘real’ foliage descending from stylized pillars made from polystyrene, surfaced with a resin that makes it look like marble – a hybrid reality form, an act, stage-set for a performance.
I go on reading and the bird comes back, picks up another big crumb and flies off, whrrrt. I can see it going up to the top of a pillar and now perched on the plastic leaves, then disappears in the foliage. Hmmm… a nest constructed from woven drinking straws, paper serviettes, fragments of cash till receipts, hidden in the simulated foliage up there? Generations of sparrows and other creatures have lived inside these places for years, long since lost the inclination to find the way out. The birds wouldn’t survive out there, they’ve adapted to conditions in here; proximity to table crumbs…
The small sparrow comes back to my table, takes another crumb, flies off again, whrrrt. The speed of the action… snatch, fly, eat. Feed the offspring and that’s how it evolved here. The dukkha of endless searching is not an issue for this bold little bird. It has everything it needs. I wait to see if it comes again, there are still crumbs, more than enough. But I don’t see it again, time for me to go. Across the road and the tram I need is arriving at the stop, traffic lights change just at the right time, I cross over and jump on. Light and easy, moving from one thing to the next. Not driven by wanting things to be how I’d like them to be and never quite getting enough. It’s got to do with the way you see it; the tram speeds up and glides along on smooth rails.
‘When desire does not shape the mind and limit it to thought, consciousness becomes translucent. Entering into the spaciousness of the original mind, we become the vastness itself. Inseparable from all else, at one with all that is.’ [Stephen and Ondrea Levine, ‘Who Dies’, chapter 4: ‘The Thirsty Mind’] ————————-
Reblogged, edited post, original title ‘bird in the mall’
POSTCARD#423: Bangkok: Excerpts from “Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods” by Ajahn Sucitto. Click on the link for Wiki Bio Ajahn Sucitto
Ajahn helps us discover and overcome difficulties in confronting negative self-views when clearing the ways that lead to holistic kindness. Also called loving-kindness, it is mettā in Pali, maitrī in Sanskrit; and synonyms for benevolence, friendliness, amity, good will. With the support of other pāramī; Generosity, Morality, Renunciation, Patience, Truthfulness we can emerge from the negative overwhelm of self-view and experience this sense of grace, of receiving compassion that is greater and more boundless than any of one’s personal attributes or efforts – the divine (or sublime) abiding (brahmavihāra).
The ability to generate mettā depends on both willingness and capacity. These may be in short supply. Those who have experienced sustained abuse can find it very difficult to experience kindness for themselves or for others; those who have not had the secure presence of goodwill can be subject to the insecurity that leads to attachment to views and becoming. Our capacity can also be limited by how we’re being affected in the present. Although conditions are always changing, when the mind is affected by visitors such as fear, worry, guilt and passion, it easily becomes fixed in that state. If the visitor is anger, then the mind becomes bristling and volcanic. If the visitor is remorse or guilt, the mind becomes an eddy that chases itself and sinks down. So we need to develop strengths and skills to stop being overwhelmed by these fixating forces.
Hence there’s a requirement to develop pāramī. Generosity and morality are foundations for fellow-feeling. And with renunciation, we practise letting go of the sense of covetousness and selfishness, the ‘me, me, me’ attitude. That, too, is a basis for kindness. With renunciation, we start to let go of the need to be successful or the need for status, and look into the props we use to support our self-image and emotional well-being, which include material things, stimulation, busyness, status and praise. When we start to let go of some of those props, then we notice the blank patches in the mind, where there’s a raw need to be stimulated, and we notice the consequent restlessness. These blank patches
indicate where we must begin filling our emotional body with well-being. The first three perfections — generosity, morality and renunciation — make well-being possible because when one is generous and virtuous, there is self-respect. Because of that good kamma, we have emotional brightness in which the mind can extend itself to other beings in empathic rather than grasping ways. Hence we get fuller and richer in ourselves and can let go of a few more props. As the fear and the need disappear, discernment gets clearer, and we can see where we need to work. This means we begin to recognize where fearful, self-defensive boundaries occur in our lives. Beyond these boundaries we collapse or get incoherent, and in maintaining them we contract or get volcanic. But with the pāramī, we see what affects us at the edge of our sense of self, and then we find the energy to work into that sensitive place.
Extending the mind into sensitive places takes us into the turbulence that the boundary has been created to contain. Often there are emotions and energies that have been pushed aside or repressed, and they lie dormant in the field of consciousness, for as long as we keep busy or can control what’s going on. But outside of that — when things go wrong, or somebody or something pushes our buttons, or when we meditate — old senses of being intruded on or pushed around or rejected can get activated. Then what arises are generally forms of fear, grief or rage. Somebody has invaded our space; we have been denied or pushed out of warmth. There are of course personal versions of these stories, but those are the basic messages of the turbulence out of which need and depression, anxiety and resentment boil up. And with these, the first intention is of patience, then truthfulness, plus the resolve of kindness. Hold the centre, soften, widen, include it all. Sustaining these intentions — no matter what — leads to the settling and crossing over.
Patience is essential because sometimes it can take a long time staying at the edges before things shift. Truthfulness is required to acknowledge: ‘This turbulence, this sense of intimidation is not him, her, them or me. It’s actually that affect and response.’ So it is: often in our lives we find ourselves going through the same emotional scenarios and the same wounded, ‘dumped on’ experiences — just with different characters doing the dumping or irritating. First you assume, ‘It’s him or her.’ Then you might think ‘It’s me, it’s my weakness.’ But is this really true? You can spend ages attributing causes anywhere you choose along the self-other boundary, but that doesn’t release the pain. Instead you need the resolve to stay with it, to get to the truth behind the self-view. As
you let go of all the discriminations and positions, your mind widens to include it all. This is where the latent tendency that is holding the self-other boundary gets released.
As a Dhamma practice, we sustain and deepen the intent of kindness, irrespective of the various identities and shadow forms that arise in awareness. That’s enough. We establish clear awareness and sustain kindness in the moment where impressions occur and where responses arise. It’s not about conjuring up any great feelings of emotional warmth, but a process of staying in touch, of not blaming oneself or others, and of not going into the past to rehash old issues. The ‘staying at’ that point of the hurt, ill will and pain then begins to carry the awareness across to compassion (karunā) and transpersonal wisdom. Karunā is the kindly eye on the helplessness of our suffering. When we experience this without blame or defence or struggle, compassion arises. And it arises irrespective of the identity or value of the wounded being. Compassion sweeps over judgments of others or ourselves. It knows how terrible it is for anything – even a mass murderer, tyrant, or poisonous snake – to be trapped in pain. When entering into this sphere of compassion, it is not a matter of doing anything, blaming or feeling sad about it, or wishing it were different. Instead, it is about entering that place where one touches the pain directly. Then, through staying in the hurt where the mind can’t do anything, has no remedies, ideas or
philosophies, it comes out of the position of ‘me.’ The small, localized state of mind opens out of the default self-and-other sense into the Great Heart. The non-doing of such a heart has powerful effects. Instead of trying to conjure it up (and feeling frustrated if ‘it doesn’t work,’ or ‘I’m not good enough’), we let the healing happen by itself. Then there is a sense of grace, of receiving compassion that is greater and more boundless than any of one’s personal attributes or efforts. Truly this is called a divine (or sublime) abiding (brahmavihāra). And through contemplating the selfless nature of
this abiding, the mind lets go — not only of ill-will, but also of the push of becoming and self-view. This is the shore of the Beyond.
Ajahn begins with mettā as loving-kindness that includes releasing others from being the objects of our projections, lust and idealism – self and other. Mettā allows others to not be the way I want them to be for me. Mettā means ‘recognizing otherness’. We don’t have to make people the same as ourselves or judge ourselves, based on what we think about other people.
It’s valuable to bring to mind that each of us has at some time been on the receiving end of freely given goodwill. So when you’re feeling bitter, anxious or lonely – remember this: at some time you have been seen with a loving and sympathetic eye.
The Mind of Self and Other
Mettā is an extension of the affective and responsive mind or heart. How crucial its alignment is! On the one hand, the mind can get trapped by fear, greed, hatred and delusion, and on the other hand it can extend in generosity and other perfections. The main issue for the mind is how it relates to what happens. Relationship is fundamental, because we are actually never a stand-alone being, but always a ‘being with’ or a ‘being in,’ or even a ‘being with the sense of being without.’
Consciousness is just this awareness of ‘being with’ in the various fields of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching and thinking. And in that process of being with, consciousness automatically establishes the sense of a subject and an object: a seer who sees a visible object, a hearer who hears an audible object, etc. Out of that duality, the sense of self and other arises. That’s the program of consciousness.
Notice that self and other are relative positions that depend on each other. You can’t have an experience of self without an other (animate or inanimate) that is in contrast to it. However for each mind, the emphasis is on the self; the ‘me, mine’ part is the crucial aspect in a world of changing others. Even in your own mind, there appears the self (the subject) as a watcher and the other (the object) as thoughts and emotions. Or the self is how you conceive yourself as being, and other is what you should be, might be, or were.
This is self-view, and it’s the norm for unawakened beings. Self-view rests on the assumption that these dependently-arisen polarities are actually separate and autonomous. It infers a self, despite the inability of that self to own or control the body or mind that it adopts as its own; despite its genetic and psychological inheritance from others; and despite its inability to rest unsupported by sights, sounds, affection and purposeful activity – all of which are outside its dominion. Self-view is blind to interdependency. Consequently, its flooding ignorance sweeps us into a sense of separation and alienation, whilst all the time asserting that this is our empire.
In the practice of kindness, we look into the mind as it is happening, a moment at a time, with the intention to gentle it out of the hold of aversion, depression and anxiety. To support this, the teaching is that, although the sense of self-other happens by default, we can have some say over its emotional and energetic flavouring. Our current intention doesn’t need to be tense, inadequate and critical; it can be uplifted and uncramped. The sense of self-other can catalyse and give occasion for an intention to offer support. This intention is essential for a happy life, because if we don’t use the relational experience in a kind and generous way, then defensiveness, anxiety, fault-finding and grudges are going to haunt our lives and impair the lives of others.
Mettā is non-aversion, but it’s also non-fascination and non-projection. It releases others from being the objects of our projections, lust and idealism. It allows others to not be the way I want them to be for me. True love for another means that you don’t appropriate someone or project your unfulfilled wishes or needs onto them. Instead, mettā means recognizing otherness, and feeling that it’s OK. We don’t have to make people the same as ourselves or judge ourselves, based on what we think about other people. We don’t have to feel we have to win them over, or feel that they should satisfy our emotional hunger. And when mettā is fully developed it can allow us to be with the irritating and the unfair and the messy, so that such perceptions no longer even take hold.
It’s the same for ourselves: when we hold ourselves with the mind of goodwill, we don’t have to feel intimidated and compelled to prove ourselves. We have all been small, weak and stupid. We have all been totally irresponsible infants, awkward adolescents, made a mess of things, lied, cheated and maybe even killed. Yet we changed. These were all visitors and forces that occupied the mind. Now there’s no denying the responsibility for allowing one’s mind to be so occupied, but our current responsibility is one of cultivating virtue, discernment and kindness, not of obsessing and sustaining the burden of guilt and denial. And one of the major healing tools for this process is mettā. With this we take on samsāra with non-aversion and non-projection. We can accept the presence of the petty-mindedness, the guilt and anxiety as visitors conditioned into the mind, and work with them. Then there is nothing to hide from or dread anymore. This is a more useful approach than going through another round of anguish, self-hatred and defensiveness. By stilling these reactions, mettā enables us to penetrate to, and remove, the root cause of ill-will – often towards ourselves – underneath the complexes.
Start with Empathy
If you can regard this mind as it really is, you become compassionate. People’s minds are conditioned and formed around circumstances. You realize that people may not know much about kindness simply because they haven’t received much of it. Hurtful, abusive things may have been done or said to them; appreciation and warmth may have been in short supply. Consequently, such minds can have sour flavourings which attach to their sense of self and others, and which engender aversive or mistrustful responses. The default then is a distorted relational sense in which pleasure and personal security come from besting others, even through making fun of or scapegoating them. A boundary has been created which blocks empathy. And it doesn’t even feel bad at first: getting more than another, putting others down or taking revenge has the same sweet burst to it as a drug. That’s why it takes over.
But it doesn’t have to, all that’s needed is for someone to tell the truth about suffering and the note of empathy is struck: ‘You mean you feel like that too!’ Suddenly the conflict, the ‘you’re so different from me,’ falls away. No one has changed anything except the self-other line up, but in that moment of empathy there is a mutual deepening. The way out of ill-will is not through judging who’s right, but through finding common ground. Kindness, or non-aversion, begins with empathy, the sense that we’re all in this same samsāric ocean together, struggling in the floods.
(Continued next week 21 May 2021 with Holistic Kindness, the Mettā Pāramī) Part 2)
Some of the chief sources of emotional pain are called the ‘worldly winds’: the gusts of Praise and Blame, Gain and Loss, Fame and Ignominy, Happiness and Unhappiness. These impressions trigger demand, anxiety and despair wherein we never feel good enough where and how we are. And like winds, they can blow through the heart at gale force and throw us completely off balance.
Take for example how powerful the experience of Praise and Blame can be! We can hunger for praise… even a little crumb of approval now and then. Then you feel jealous if somebody else is getting huge amounts of praise, and you are standing by the door, hardly noticed. As for blame, how we wriggle and contort to try to avoid it! We aspire to being liked, and we work at it, but still somebody doesn’t like us. Or maybe we blame ourselves.
The Buddha made a very helpful summary of blame: ‘They blame one who remains silent, they blame one who speaks much, they blame one who speaks in moderation. There is no one in this world who is not blamed’ (Dhp. 227). That applied to him, too, for the Buddha was blamed many times. So when we know it’s inevitable we can just focus on doing our best, all the time keeping our wisdom-ear cocked for the mind’s yearning for approval and its dread of disapproval.
Once the mind starts to even anticipate being blamed, a flurry enters into it. And when the blaming begins … our mind may try to come up with a rational explanation for whatever it was we’re being blamed for, rather than simply feeling where the blame is digging in and then drawing a line around it: ‘This is painful mental feeling.’ It’s a trigger, so we need to be extremely patient with that feeling.
Patience has to be learned by focusing on that painful feeling and not reacting. It’s a humbling lesson: to feel the pain, be patient with it and learn something about letting it pass through. Feel the impression in the heart and don’t shrug it off, don’t fight back, don’t go under. An impression is an impression. Don’t rely on it, don’t adopt it, don’t try to avoid it. Instead, understand it for what it is.
Then you can see the truth about someone blaming you. You made a mistake? Is there something you can learn from this? And you can see the truth about someone praising you. How much good will praise do for you? Doesn’t it deprive you of privacy? And that surge that you feel from gain… doesn’t it make you vulnerable to loss? These winds are there to teach you patience. Focus on how patience feels and value it. Then you can acknowledge specific mistakes you’ve made without taking on the sense of being a failure. And you can experience others’ gratitude or praise with a sense of gladness that they have received something of benefit. You don’t have to own it.
Learning the True Response
For an achievement that will provide long-lasting nourishment, we have to develop a response to unsatisfactoriness, dukkha. The Buddha’s encouragement was that dukkha must be understood. The unsatisfactory, inconclusive, never-quite-fitting, things going- wrong, unstable quality has to be understood in order to realize the place where it ceases. And in order to understand, we have to ‘stand under’ that unsatisfactoriness. We don’t pole-vault over it to the nice bit on the other shore. Instead, we stand under it as it cascades over us. When there is a complete standing-under, we feel the quality of that flood. You look to where things touch you, where things are felt.
You look at physical pain and see what that does to you. First of all you wriggle a bit to find a way to soften it; then you begin to get a little annoyed by it; then you get very annoyed by it. You think, ‘It’s not fair this is happening to me.’ Then you think, ‘Oh, I give up.’ But still it hasn’t gone. It didn’t go because you haven’t really given up; you were waiting for it to end, so you’ve only given up ninety percent. Eventually, it pushes you into a corner, and the only thing you can do is accept its presence and work on your reactions.
In that full allowing of conditions to be what they are, we stabilize our hearts and find peace. It’s like putting a boat into water. We make an ark of truth: ‘Conditions are like this,’ and in that truth, we don’t adopt the conditions as our own. This is important: you can’t drain the sea, but you don’t have to drown.
Why we feel overwhelmed, as if we’re drowning, is because the heart is ‘leaky.’ When it isn’t secure, perceptions and feelings flood in and cause it to sink. But even then it’s just mind-stuff — no sights, sounds, physical pains or harsh words, just the impressions of those. It is these impressions that mount up to a sense of overwhelm and alienation. And the heart can recycle them for years, even when their apparent external source has long disappeared.
These perceptions, moods and reactions arise dependent on the mind’s expectations, fragility or aims. We have to learn deeply that the approval of others, the success in our career, and the presence of what we love are not to be taken as given, not to be adopted as mine. This adopting of conditions is what knocks holes in our boat. But when these conditions can be held in the truth of their nature, the mind lets go and senses a freedom that doesn’t depend on supports. Gain, loss, praise, blame — you don’t have to go under. You can wear out the reflex of hanging on to the world. But for this you have to be very patient.
POSTCARD#411: Bangkok:Ajahn Sucitto continues with an analysis of Khanti [patience], number six in the Ten Perfections, and draws attention to some interesting aspects of our everyday lives that may have gone unnoticed. Looking as well, at the strategies that are needed to find a way out of Suffering [Dukkha] through Patience [Khanti].
The Buddha spoke of the restraint of holding the heart still in the presence of its suffering until it lets go of the ways in which it creates that suffering. That is, the mind/heart (citta) habitually creates suffering and stress through reacting to, holding onto or getting caught up with what life throws at us. All the perfections contribute to the lessening or dismantling of that Dukkha, but the specific quality of Khanti is to carry the heart through the turbulence of existence so that it no longer shakes, sinks or lashes out.
So when you’re stuck in a traffic jam, anxious for resolution to a crisis or beset with a migraine, it’s good to remember that the Buddha was here too and found a way through.
Acceptance Without Expectation
Patience has the gut-knowledge that recognizes that a problem or a pain is not something to run away from, get flustered by or be self-pitying about. It has the wisdom to know that we have to prioritize the steps through which we can resolve suffering. There may be any number of ways to arrive at the destination, but the first thing to do is to not react – to not rage, despair or get caught in mental proliferation.
Draw a line around the suffering, take a step back and know ‘that’s that.’ Recollect that we can be free of the suffering: that we can let go; we don’t have to take suffering in and adopt it as final, real and solid. Patience holds us present with the suffering in a spacious way, encouraging the mind to open. In its perfection, patience means giving up any kind of deadline, so the mind is serene and equanimous. But if the patience isn’t pure yet (and it takes time to develop patience!), the mind still feels pushy or defensive. Impure patience is the attitude: ‘Just hold on and eventually things will get better; I’ll get my own way in the end if I’m patient enough.’ This approach can temporarily block or blunt the edge of suffering, but it doesn’t deal with the resistance or the desire that is suffering’s root.
Pure patience is the kind of acceptance that acknowledges the presence of something without adding anything to it or covering it up. It is supported by the insight that when one’s mind stops fidgeting, whining and blaming, then suffering can be understood. Reactivity isn’t the truth of the mind; it’s a conditioned reflex, and it’s not self. Because of that, suffering can be undone, and when it is, the mind is free.
Therefore, all conditioned reflexes have to be understood as unreliable and dependent on causes and conditions. They’re not to be adopted as real and solid. Yet they do happen: holding on, expecting things to be satisfying or feeling cheated are immature responses. In order to undo these attitudes we must first be patient with them. The practice does urge us to stay with it and this requires us to grow stronger and broader rather than hide or run away. The process of bearing with the suffering is not a punishment but a voyage of growth.
The suffering that can be relinquished arises dependent on causes and conditions: on attitudes and assumptions that things should go our way, that life should be comfortable, and that society should be fair and peaceful. We look for conditioned phenomena to be satisfying, conclusive, reasonable, productive and so on. But taken as a whole over a period of time, they aren’t. So we cause ourselves and others suffering when we expect them to be so.
We can organize and create supportive conditions such as health and education and laws, but those conditions have to be constructed and maintained, they’re not a given norm. And suffering doesn’t abate: anxiety and depression are now the number one disease of the developed world. Here we find the widespread pain of being driven to attain material goals that are never fulfilled or fulfilling, and the anxiety of competitive pressure and loneliness.