Meditate to Win
January 17, 2024

You notice in the Buddha’s instructions on breath meditation that there are sixteen steps. In the first two, you simply discern long breathing and short breathing. From that you can extrapolate—fast, heavy, slow, deep, all different kinds of breathing. Get a sense of what the different kinds of breathing can do for you.

The remaining steps though, the Buddha said, are trainings. You train in how to breathe aware of the whole body. You train in how to breathe calming bodily fabrication, which basically means calming the breath itself. And as a couple of suttas say, you get to the point where the breath stops. That’s when it’s really calm. Similarly with training in feelings, mind-states, mental qualities.

So when you come here, you’re submitting to a training. We often translate those passages as, you train yourself to do these things, and you do have to play a big role in your own training. But also know that there are standards that you’re trying to live up to.

Some of us have problems with that—living up to standards. We’ve been subject to all kinds of harsh and unhelpful standards being imposed on us. But you have to remember that these standards come not because the Buddha just made them up. They’re part of the actual duties of the four noble truths.

Again, they’re duties that the Buddha didn’t make up: If you want to put an end to suffering, this is what you’ve got to do, based on the way that causality actually works. And these duties, these shoulds, are all formulated for your true happiness. You always have to keep that in mind.

We’re aiming at a happiness that’s totally enveloping, total all-around. That fact should give you a sense of joy as you practice. It’s one of the reasons why Ajaan Fuang would always say to play with the meditation.

Now, he didn’t mean playing in a desultory way, just doing whatever you want. He meant that you play to win. That requires a certain amount of dedication, but the dedication is fueled by your sense of enjoyment. To begin with, you may enjoy exploring different ways of breathing; you may enjoy getting to know your own mind as you focus on the breath. Then there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes when you know that you’ve mastered a skill. Take joy in that as well.

Remember what the Buddha said to Rāhula: You reflect on your actions—your thoughts, your words, your deeds—and if you’ve done something that doesn’t harm anybody—doesn’t harm you, doesn’t harm other people—take joy in that fact. Learn how to remind yourself that this is a good accomplishment because for so many of our lives we’ve been looking for happiness in an irresponsible way, not really caring about the consequences.

You can see this in simple things, like the hummingbirds out there: They’re really sloppy eaters. You put up a nice, clean hummingbird feeder, and by the time it’s ready to be refilled, it’s got sugar syrup all over it and it’s got their piss all over it. That’s the way most people go about their happiness. They take what they want without any thought about the consequences: They spill things and piss on things. But here you’re thinking about the consequences, you’re a responsible human being, so take joy in that. See it as a game—a game you want to win.

A while back I was talking to a professional athlete and gave him a copy of the book Bases for Success on the iddhipādas. He looked at the title and said, “Well, the basis for success is working your ass off.” I said, “Well, yes, that is one of them: persistence.”

But then he also admitted that that wasn’t all. You don’t just put in a lot of effort. You have to be observant. And you have to take pleasure in being observant, because you’re going to learn from it.

Afterwards I thought that you could take all four of the iddhipādas and could them in sports language: Desire: You have to want to win. Persistence: You have to work your ass off. Intent: Lock-in—in other words, really focus on what you’re doing. Vimaṁsā, use your brains. Or as Ajaan Fuang would say, “Be observant and use your powers of ingenuity.”

If you’re trying to master a game, you want to hit the ball many, many times. Notice when you hit it right, notice when you hit it wrong: What was the difference? See if you can recreate the way you hit it right. Again and again and again.

The same principle applies here at the end of each meditation. Take a little time to think—when did the mind settle down really well? What was the best spot during the hour’s meditation? Where were you focused? What was the breath like? What had you been doing leading up to that? If you’re really mindful, you should be able to remember. You take what you can observe—however well you’ve observed your mind—and then you try to apply that knowledge next time around to see if it still works.

And again, you’re taking this as a game. If it doesn’t work the next time around, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It just means that maybe the mind is more complex than you thought. Maybe there was more going on than you thought. So look again, more carefully this time.

Take it as a challenge. It’s a friendly challenge because these are friendly duties. This is a friendly game. The only losers in here are your defilements. So this is a game that should be entertaining. If you get grim about it, you find it hard to stick with it.

One of the things I noticed about all the ajaans in Thailand was they all had really good senses of humor. Even some of the ajaans who were known to be fierce really had good senses of humor.

There’s that story that Ajaan Fuang tells about Ajaan Mun. When Ajaan Fuang went to stay with him, he was still young. There was a nun’s community down the road where the monks would go past on their alms round. And one of the nuns took a liking to Ajaan Fuang. She started knitting little things for his spoons, fixing special central Thai food for him.

Ajaan Mun noticed this. The first thing he wanted to look at was Ajaan Fuang’s reaction. Ajaan Fuang wasn’t interested, so then Ajaan Mun decided to help the nun.

One day the nuns came for their regular instructions from him. He started out asking if they were all observing the eight precepts, following the pattern of the old instructions that used to be given to bhikkhunīs.

Then he told them a story about Lady Visākhā seeing lots of groups of people observing the eight precepts. So she went to see why they were doing it.

She asked some old people why they were observing the eight precepts, and they said they wanted to go to heaven after they died. Then she went from group to group and finally got to a group of young women. She asked them why they were observing the eight precepts. They said, “We want something better than heaven. We want a husband.”

That was the end of the special spoons and the special dishes for Ajaan Fuang. So even Ajaan Mun had a good sense of humor.

You need a sense of humor when you’re dealing with your defilements. If you can’t laugh at your greed, aversion, and delusion, can’t laugh at your lust, it’s going to be a grim battle. But if you can laugh, you can basically step back. That’s what discernment is all about: stepping back.

I mentioned this the other day around the issue of metacognition: You watch the mind thinking, you watch the mind as it focuses, you watch the mind as it’s doing the meditation. That requires a certain distance. You’re not totally immersed in these activities.

There will come times in concentration practice when you do get totally immersed. That’s basically to give the mind a chance to rest and get still. But then once it’s been still, when things start moving again, you can see that very clearly.

The discernment part is in the stepping back. It’s one of the reasons why, in that image of the dead cow, discernment is represented as a knife. Suppose there’s a dead cow, and a butcher takes a knife and cuts all the different tendons that connect the skin to the cow and he then puts the skin back on. Is the skin attached to the cow as it was before? Well no.

That’s an image for the awakened mind. It’s not a pretty image, but it’s very effective. The skin stands for the outside sense spheres, the cow’s body stands for the inside sense spheres, and there’s a sense of disjointment, a separation between the two, even though they’re right together. It’s through the knife of discernment these things get separated. Or, as the Buddha said elsewhere, discernment is what sees things as separate, sees things as other. You step back from them. And having a sense of humor is one really good way of stepping back from things.

So it’s important that you learn how to enjoy the meditation as you’re really doing it well. You are trying to hold yourself to high standards, but you want to do it in such a way that you’re not beating yourself up. So look to where you find the enjoyment in the meditation, but also look to where you can discipline yourself more. Train yourself to have a good sense of discipline.

Remember, we’re here to live up to some standards, not just to invent the Dhamma as we like it or redo the Dhamma as we like it. The basic principle is that we practice the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma for the sake of dispassion.

An important element in dispassion is learning to outgrow your old attitudes, i.e., the attitudes you have now.

So it’s a big job. But the important part of learning how to do a big job is one, breaking it down into little jobs. And then, two, having a sense of lightness, a sense of enjoyment as you see that you can begin to do things you weren’t able to do before. You understand things you didn’t understand before. Which requires there’ll be times when you have to work your ass off, lock-in, use your brains.

It’s all because you really want to win. It is a battle, but the best battles are the ones where you develop all the skills you need, and you can be confident that you’re going to come out victorious.