For Your Benefit Here & Now
When we meditate, we’re working on a skill: how to bring the mind into the present moment in a way that’s alert and quiet at the same time. You come to the breath because that’s your anchor in the present moment, and you try to stay here. To stay here solidly, figure out how to keep the mind interested in the breath. This is one of the reasons why Ajaan Lee teaches that you work with the breath energies. Notice how you feel the breath in the chest, how you feel the breath in the abdomen, how you feel it in your shoulders, your arms, your legs—“breath,” here, being the energy that allows the air to come in and out of the lungs, more than the air itself. This energy flow can be anywhere. As you get more acquainted with this breath energy, you begin to realize that there are lots of other breath energies in the body, and that they can be beneficial for both body and mind.
If you have any chronic illnesses, this can be your beachhead: getting familiar with the breath. For example, if you’ve got a chronic pain in your foot or your leg, think of the breath energy going down the back, out the leg, out through the foot, out to the toes, and out through the toes. Doing this improves the circulation there, and the general energy flow gets improved. Things can actually get better. Now, as you experiment, you’ll find that in some cases, working with the breath doesn’t have much of an impact on some problems of the body, but you’ll be surprised how many it does have an impact on. That’s one way you can get interested in the flow of the breath and in wanting to stay with the breath.
Then there’s the realization that the present moment is where you’re creating suffering for the mind and you don’t have to. If you want to see that suffering—how you’re creating it so that you can put an end to it—you’ve got to stay right here. So that gives you even more motivation to stay here.
And as with any skill, as we’re working on this we find that sometimes there’s too much effort, sometimes there’s not enough. Sometimes things are discovered by indirection. In other words, you see something out of the corner of your eye that you didn’t expect. But you do that by having a regular regimen to follow. When you stick with that regimen, you begin to see minor variations and little subtle things you otherwise would have missed.
It’s like a bus driver who drives the same route day after day after day. As he gets used to the basic features of the route, he begins to notice slight changes here and there, in the road, on the sidewalk, in the buildings he drives past. If he didn’t drive there everyday, he wouldn’t notice the slight changes.
This is why we keep coming back to our basic meditation topic. As we keep coming back, coming back, we gradually see more clearly what we’re doing as we come back. We also see more clearly what we’re doing when we wander off or are getting ready to wander off. That allows us to head things off at the pass. In some cases, problems can be solved by approaching things systematically. In others, they can be solved only if you’ve tried everything you could think of, and then, if nothing works, you just stop and watch for a bit. Allow things to run on their own for a while.
But you’re not giving up; you’re just being strategic. Obviously, there’s something that you’re missing. Perhaps the way you’re framing the issue to yourself is wrong. So you want to put that frame down and watch for a bit. Be open to different possibilities. When you catch something new, okay, try that out. Pick that up as your approach.
But always, as with any skill, it’s not only the indirection and the balance that work. Sometimes you’ve just got to put in the effort. You put in time, you observe, and you apply lessons you’ve learned from the Dhamma you’ve heard.
There’s a tendency in the forest tradition to take some of the Buddha’s basic teachings on everyday Dhamma, and see how they can be applied to the practice of meditation. One very basic teaching lists the recommendations the Buddha gave on how to work for your own benefit in this lifetime. It’s pretty basic stuff.
One, be industrious and take initiative in your work.
Two, when you’ve done your proper work and have gotten some income from it, you’re vigilant in looking after what you’ve gained. You don’t throw things away; you’re not careless about them.
Three, you hang around with the right people—people who won’t lead you astray.
And four, you conduct your life in a way that’s appropriate for your income. In other words, you’re not too stingy and you’re not too extravagant. You’re not too miserly, and yet you don’t waste what you’ve got. You try to find just the right balance between working, denying yourself the pleasures you may want, and then supplying yourself with some of those pleasures as they’re appropriate.
These are basic good instructions for how to lead your life so as to reap happiness in the present lifetime: Take initiative in your work; look after your gains and take good care of what you’ve got; be careful of who you hang out with; and live your life in a balanced way.
These same principles apply to meditation.
To begin with, you’ve got to take initiative. You’re sitting here and your mind is not settling down. You have to ask yourself, “What’s wrong?” And try things out. Where are you focused in the body? Is your focus the right place to be focused right now? There are lots of places where you could be focused in the body—the tip of the nose, the middle of the forehead, in your palate, in the middle of the head, in your throat, your chest, your abdomen. If you find that focusing up in the head puts a lot of pressure up there, well, move your focus down. If you’re focused down in the body and you find that you’re getting drowsy, move your focus back up.
Then look at the breath. How are you breathing? Is this the best way you could be breathing right now? Sometimes the body seems to have a way of knowing how to breathe and sometimes it’s totally clueless. In other words, the body—left to its own devices—can sometimes get into some really weird breath rhythms. So sometimes you listen to the body and what it seems to want to do, and other times you have to push things in another direction.
Back in the days when I had migraines, occasionally I’d get into a cycle where the way I was breathing was aggravating the migraine, and the migraine was aggravating the breath. To get out of that cycle, I had to very consciously breathe in a way that was not at all pleasant—I had to fill up the abdomen as much as possible, expand the abdomen in all directions as much as possible, breathing long for quite a while. And even though it wasn’t pleasant, it would get me out of the unhealthy breath cycle and help alleviate the migraine.
So sometimes you have to push things in another direction, against what the body seems to be wanting to do. Again, you learn this by trial and error—which means that you have to take the initiative in trying to figure things out and experimenting with different approaches. Read the instructions in the book, give them a try, and if they don’t work, you ask yourself, “Okay, where do I make adjustments?”
The next step is that, once you’ve got something good, you don’t throw it away. When you’re sitting here and the mind finally settles down, you do your best to maintain that sense of ease, that sense of stability. There’s a part of the mind that may say, “Well, I’ve had enough now and I can move on to something else.” That kind of enough is not enough. You want to stay here. You want to learn how to make staying here a skill. You’re not here to just give yourself a little hit of pleasure; you’re here because you want to see the present moment continuously—because this is where things are going to come up. The stress and suffering that weigh down the mind come from your present actions. So you want to catch those actions in the act, and you want to keep your gaze steady so that when unexpected things appear, you’re here to see them. That’s being vigilant in the course of your meditation.
When you leave meditation, try not to fully leave. In other words, when you get up from here, you don’t have to spill your concentration all over the floor. You carry it with you in the same way you’d carry a bowl full of oil or water—try not to let it drip. Maintain a sense of balance and poise as you get up and walk around. That’ll keep you connected with the breath. And as you’re connected with the breath, sometimes interesting things will come up as you’re getting up, leaving the meditation, walking away. So again, don’t throw away the possibility of seeing something unexpected during those unexpected times. It’s so easy to have the attitude, “Well, the time to meditate is over and I’ll meditate a bit more before I go to bed tonight,” but in the meantime you’ve dropped things. So try not to drop things. Look after them; maintain them.
As for admirable friends, this of course refers to the different voices in your mind. The voices that are on the side of greed, aversion, and delusion don’t advertise themselves as greed, aversion, and delusion’s henchmen, but they are. You have to learn how to recognize them. Ajaan Suwat used to say that our problem is that we see pain as our enemy and craving as our friend. It’s actually the other way around. If you learn how to get intimate with pain, you’re going to be able to understand it and benefit from it, so in that way it’s your friend. As for your cravings, you have to learn how to put a question mark against what they say. So be very careful about who you hang out with inside.
And finally with the principle of a balanced livelihood: We’re meditating here both for clarity and for ease. There are times when the mind really needs just to plug in with a really comfortable breath and stay there without having to think much of anything else, because it needs the rest, it needs to regain its energies. But there will come a point when you can pull out of your concentration a little bit—don’t pull all the way out—pull out a little bit and ask yourself, “What’s going on in the mind? What am I latching onto? What am I doing right now that’s causing some unnecessary stress?” In other words, ask yourself questions about the process of what the mind is doing right now.
When you learn how to balance these two things—the drive for pleasure and the questioning—that’s how the meditation can maintain itself. Your concentration leads to discernment and your discernment leads to more concentration. They work together.
Just be careful, though, when you’re going for the pleasure, that you don’t abandon the breath. This is something that’s all too easy, especially when there are people out there telling you that that’s what you’ve got to do. I was talking to someone this morning who was saying that he had been listening to teachers saying that if you want to get into deeper jhana, you abandon the breath and go jumping into the pleasure. Well, the pleasure is made steady by being steadily with the breath—either the in-and-out breath, or the background breath energies in the body. If you abandon the cause, everything begins to blur out. If you want to get solidly into concentration, stay with the breath and just allow it to grow more subtle. Even when the in-and-out breath grows still, there’s still a breath energy in the body—like a buzz in your nerves. That can be enough to keep you grounded—if you’ve developed a full-body awareness—so that you don’t go drifting away.
So even as you realize, “Okay, this is a time when I really need to just settle in and be quiet,” you’ve still got to be vigilant, you’ve got to look after what you’ve got, protect it. At the same time, when you’re asking questions of the mind, don’t go too far away from your concentration. If the analysis starts heading away from the present moment, you’re just going off into perceptions. Remember that the questions should always be related to what you’re doing right here, right now.
This is true for all meditation methods. When you’re analyzing the body parts, the questions are, “What are the perceptions I’m forming right now, what are they doing to the mind?”—the perceptions that you’re using in your analysis. You want to learn how to see which kinds of perceptions are there for the sake of saying, “I want this to be beautiful,” and the ones that say, “I want this to be unappealing.” What’s the choice aiming at? Who is making the choice? You want to look back into the mind.
It’s the same with the breath. You want to learn to look at what the Buddha calls the process of fabrication going on in the mind. That’s where the insight comes. It’s right here as you’re doing the concentration. So maintain this balance between going for the pleasure and going for the insight. They can’t be two radically separated things; they have to come together if they’re really going to give good results.
So this is one of the ways you can take a very basic teaching—the Buddha basically telling people how to find some success in the present life, get some wealth, and benefit from it—and apply it to the wealth of your concentration, the wealth of your meditation. Have initiative. Be vigilant in protecting the good things you’ve got. Be very careful about who you hang out with. And try to find the right balance between your desire for pleasure and your desire for knowledge. This way your concentration will develop in a way that will benefit you right here, right now, in this present life. And it will have a good impact on into the future as well.