Get Out of Yourself
February 01, 2024

When the mind’s narratives seem oppressive, it’s good to think about the Buddha on the night of his awakening.

You think you have narratives. The first knowledge he gained consisted of many, many, many narratives, many, many eons of lifetimes. He could have dwelled on the details, but seeing the huge number, he began to reduce things to their common terms.

With each lifetime, he had an appearance and he had this or that food, he had this or that experience of pleasure or pain, and then he died. That’s it: eating, pleasure, pain, dying. Then he’d come back again for more eating, pleasure, pain, dying. But his appearances and his pleasures and pains varied from life to life quite radically, from the very high levels of heaven down to the lower levels of hell.

That presented him with two problems: one, the problem of figuring out why there was such a variety; and two, how to get out of it. How did he solve those problems? First, he thought of all beings, the whole cosmos. He saw beings passing away and then being reborn in line with their kamma. That was his second knowledge.

And although he saw the workings of kamma as very complex, there was the basic principle: You act on skillful intentions, there’s going to be a good destination. You act on unskillful intentions, there’s going to be a bad destination. Now, these can mix in various ways, so that sometimes they cancel each other out. Sometimes one takes charge over another. But still there’s a pattern. And he saw the pattern by enlarging his mind.

It was because he enlarged his mind that he was then able to focus in on what was going on in the present moment without dragging all the narratives in.

So as you’re sitting here with the meditation, focusing on the breath, if these narratives do come up about how you’re not making progress as fast as you’d like, about how the goal seems far away: Get out of yourself. Think of all the beings in the world and where they’re heading. You, at least, are heading in the right direction. Have compassion for them and have some compassion for yourself.

There’s a story in the Canon of a monk who’s sitting in the forest. His meditation is not going well, it’s nighttime, and off in the distance he hears a festival in a nearby village: music, singing, dancing. He comes down on himself. He says, “At least these people know how to find some pleasure in life. Here I am, miserable, living alone in this little hut, making myself suffer.” A deva appears to him and says, “Do you realize how lucky you are? There are beings going to hell right now, they really envy you because you’re on the way out.”

So again, you have to get out of your inner echo chamber by thinking of other beings.

There’s that passage we repeat again and again about being subject to aging, illness, death, and separation. And we have kamma: We’re the owners of our kamma; whatever we do, for good or for evil, to that we will fall heir.

That reflection, the Buddha says, should make you more heedful. But then he expands the reflection. All beings everywhere are subject to aging, illness, death, and separation. They’re all the owners of their actions. *That *reflection, he says, gives rise to a different emotion. It’s enough to get you on the path. In other words, it gives rise to samvega. You realize how big the issue is, and how no matter where you might go in the universe, whatever way you might be reborn, it’s all the same sort of thing again and again. So you want to get out.

This is why, in the description of right mindfulness, the Buddha talks about being aware of body in and of itself, feelings, mind states, mental qualities, both inside and out. Now, if you think of mindfulness as meaning awareness, you wonder how you’re going to be aware outside of somebody else’s breath or aware of their greed, aversion, or delusion, or their feelings of pleasure and pain. But that’s not what mindfulness means. It means keeping something in mind. And here the reflection to keep in mind is that whatever you’re experiencing inside now, there are other beings outside experiencing the same sort of thing.

That means, on the one hand, that you’re not in a miserable situation vis-à-vis other beings. Yet if you’re sitting here thinking about where you would like to be or who you would like to be, you’re going to run into the same sort of thing again and again. But here you’re on a path that leads to a goal where there is no where, there is no location, and there’s no identity you take on. In other words, it’s totally unlimited, free even of the limitations of things that basic.

So take joy in the path. As for the voices that come in complaining about this, that or the other person—or this, that or the other event—try to put them in a larger perspective. You’ve been through worse; you’ve been through better. But if the better were really all that good, then it wouldn’t have led to worse again. You’re on the path out. And it’s a good path to be on.

So console yourself, urge, rouse and encourage yourself, in the same way that the Buddha would urge, rousem and encourage his listeners. After all, the goal really is good. Sometimes it sounds like an absence of things, and there is an absence, but it’s absent of a lot of undesirable things. But there’s a lot positive about it as well. And whether you get there fast or slow, in this lifetime or some future lifetime, the important thing is that you stay on the path.

This is one of the reasons why we develop mindfulness, so that we don’t change our minds. We do have this problem: The mind is so quick to change direction. You can’t say that it’s innately good or innately bad, but it is innately changeable. Yet even that innateness is something that can be trained and tamed, brought under control. So you develop mindfulness, alertness, so that you can catch yourself in time.

As you go from moment to moment, mindfulness is there to remind you again and again to be alert, to focus on what’s skillful and what’s not skillful, and try to understand these things so that you can really develop what’s skillful, and abandon what’s unskillful effectively. It’s good work, and you’re learning the skills that are needed.

So again, think of the Buddha. As he said, he got on to the right path when he was able to look at his thoughts not so much in terms of what he liked thinking about or what he was stewing about or whatever, but he pulled out of his thoughts and looked at them as causal processes. “Where does this thought come from? Where does it lead? If it leads in a bad direction, why think it?” You have so many other choices of things you could think about: Why do you focus on things that pull you down? Focus on things that are uplifting.

That’s a point that Ajaan Suwat liked to make a lot, that we do have the power to choose where we’re focused: what we take as our object or, in the Pali idiom, what we take as our “support.” If you take as your support something that’s really rickety and miserable, why? It’s an old habit. But habits can be changed.

A lot of us are in our particular worlds with our particular identities, and there’s a certain resistance: “This is who I am, this is the world in which I live. I don’t want to change it.”

It’s like that woman who came here one time and was talking about how she had had an experience of Oneness. Then she turned to me and said, “I don’t want you to take that away from me!” I told her, “I have no desire to take it away from you, but I just want you to know that there’s something better.” She looked surprised.

It’s only when you see the drawbacks of what you think is really good that you’re going to be open to something better. But then again, there are many times even when you see the drawbacks that you just can’t let go.

Like that poor man in the sutta who has a little house, not the best sort of house, an ugly wife and an uncomfortable bed to sleep on, an ugly little pot with just a few pumpkin seeds, but he can’t let those things go.

Part of that comes from is unwillingness to leave what you already have for fear that you’ll have nothing, and another part is a lack of imagination. So imagination can be used on the path, and its important use is thinking about not just yourself but all beings, so that you can get out of yourself and see that there are alternatives, there are other possibilities, other ways of thinking, and there are many other ways of thinking that are really good. They’re available to you, they’re possible, so why choose something that’s not?

Get out of yourself a bit. Ventilate your mind and you’ll be able to come to the present moment with a much better attitude. You’ll see things you didn’t see before, things that really can be liberating.

So look for them. They’re there.