The Strength of Heedfulness
March 04, 2024

One of the striking features of the Buddha’s awakening was that when he gained knowledge, he didn’t rest content with the knowledge. He later said that all along throughout the practice, the secret to gaining awakening was just that: not resting content with skillful qualities. When he gained knowledge, the question was what to do with it, how to use it, how best to use it, particularly, for the sake of putting an end to suffering.

That’s a sign of his heedfulness: realizing that we live in a world where our actions do make a difference between whether we’re going to suffer or not. It was conviction in that principle that led him to practice to begin with.

He tested many different attitudes, many different theories. The ones he didn’t test were the ones you can’t test: the ones that say, “You have no power, you have no choice, you have no free will.” He had realized early on that those thoughts, those ideas were a dead end. His conviction was that there must be a way to act that could lead to an end of suffering.

So, when we think about his awakening and develop conviction in it, part of that conviction has to include that we have to be heedful too. So what does it mean to have conviction in the Buddha’s awakening, and how do you use that conviction heedfully?

You can ask yourself: Given that we’re sometimes told that the awakening means that things depend on causes and conditions, how do you use that knowledge? Some people treat that as an end. In other words, you arrive at that knowledge and you make yourself be content with it: Accept that things have to be the way they are because they’ve been caused by past conditions.

But the Buddha’s question would be: How do you manipulate causes and conditions so that you don’t have to suffer? After all, the principle of causality that he discovered was not simply that things are the result of past actions; in fact, he denounced that as a particularly evil form of wrong view. The truth is that things are also shaped by your present actions.

So, if you really have conviction in the Buddha’s awakening, you should look at your present actions, trying to do what’s skillful and abandon what’s unskillful. This is how the strength of conviction, when you’re heedful, leads to the strength of persistence. You willingly take on the role of agency: that you are responsible for your actions—you’re the one making the choices—and that you’re going to benefit from those choices if you make them well.

There’s a joy in taking on that role. I’ve mentioned before the studies they’ve done with infant children, where they notice that a child can make a noise or do something that gets the same result again and again and again, and it gives the child joy—the sense that they can figure out their environment and manipulate it to do something they want to do.

Of course, in the beginning it’s just making noises. It drives everybody else crazy, but for the child, it’s the beginning of a sense of control, a sense of power.

Then, from that you develop your sense of agency—if you’re wise—so that you’re not just making noises. You’re actually looking at your actions and seeing what does lead to happiness, what doesn’t lead to happiness, and what leads to long-term happiness as opposed to short-term.

As you learn these lessons, you’ve got to learn how to keep them in mind. Otherwise, they don’t do you any good. This is how the strength of persistence—when you’re heedful—develops the strength of mindfulness. You have to be alert to what you’re doing. You have to try to do it well. That’s what the persistence is, but it’s also the ardency in right mindfulness: You see what you’re doing, you see the results, and you try to keep that knowledge in mind.

This is why mindfulness is said to be a refuge. If you gain knowledge but then you forget it, it’s useless. You have to store up your knowledge, and part of storing it up is learning that, Yes, you can develop skillful qualities in the mind, and you can abandon unskillful ones—to the point where you’re thinking nothing but skillful things.

But all that thinking can be tiring, so the mind needs to rest from time to time. This is how the strength of mindfulness leads to the strength of concentration—when you’re heedful—because you know that if the mind gets tired, it’s very easy to slip back to your old unskillful ways.

So the mind does need to rest, and it requires some thinking to get it to settle down, as you learn how to play with the breath, play with your meditation object. See what works, what doesn’t work. Use your imagination.

I read a passage one time in which I was accused of having an “imaginative” way of teaching concentration. It was presented as an accusation. But imagination is actually an important part of the practice. Think about Ajaan Lee’s refrain, which is that when you’re developing a skill, you have to think in ways that you haven’t thought before, ask questions you haven’t asked before. Only then will you come to know things you haven’t known before. That’s how you’re going to learn new things that help the mind to settle down.

Sometimes we’re warned that concentration is bad for you, in that it’ll get you stuck on pleasure. But from the Buddha’s perspective, that’s not the case. It is possible to get stuck, but it also teaches you how not to get stuck: One, it gives you an alternative to the pleasure of sensuality—thinking about sensual fantasies, lust, desire, greed—which for most of us is our only escape from suffering, our only escape from pain. But concentration gives you an alternative: You can have a sense of well-being, a sense of intense well-being throughout the body simply by the way you breathe, by the way you relate to the breath. That’s one way in which concentration teaches you not to get stuck on pleasure.

Another way, is that it requires that if you’re going to get the mind to stay with its object, you can’t let yourself simply wallow in the pleasure that comes when the breath is good. You do indulge in the pleasure for a while—the Buddha says that again and again—but at the same time, you can’t just wallow, because everything will blur out.

You have to learn how to stay with the breath even though the pleasure can get intense, and then you begin to see that intense pleasure or intense rapture can become tiresome. So you let that go and you tune the mind in to a subtler level of energy, until you realize that equanimity can really be pleasurable. It’s a higher form of pleasure, a subtler, more refined form of pleasure.

Then finally, the fact that you’ve been learning how to put this mental state together makes you more aware of the processes of fabrication in the mind. You begin to see that even though this is a greater pleasure than you’ve had before, it still has its drawbacks—in the fact that you have to make an effort to keep it going. This is why the mind inclines more and more to wanting to find something that doesn’t require fabrication.

This is how concentration leads to discernment, if you do it heedfully. You learn how to see individual events in the mind, just as that: events that influence one another as causes and conditions. The question is, not so much to see the oneness of all things or to rejoice in our inter-connectedness, but to see where you can ferret out exactly where the mind leads with its intentions. Is it possible to let go of those intentions? Because that’s what the fabrication is.

The answer is not straightforward. It requires some subtlety in your powers of observation and reflection. This is why the Buddha used a mirror as an image for the practice: You use the concentration as a mirror for observing your mind.

Eventually, you see that even the strength of discernment has to be let go. You know those five steps that the Buddha gives for overcoming unskillful thoughts: You see them, as they arise, to see how they’re originated—what from within the mind causes them. You see them passing away. And when the mind picks them up again, you ask yourself, “Why? What’s the allure?”

This is going to take some digging down because the mind is often very dishonest with itself about why it goes for a particular thought, especially if it knows the thought is unskillful. Then you compare the allure with the drawbacks. And when you finally get to the point where, in the comparison you see that the drawbacks way outweigh the allure and you wouldn’t want to hold on to that allure anymore—that’s when you have your escape, through dispassion.

You start by applying these steps to your defilements, but eventually you apply the same principles to the five strengths. You see that they, too, are conditioned. They’ve helped you along—as the Buddha said, it’s like taking a raft across the river, and you when you get to the other shore, you realize, okay, you don’t need to carry the raft anymore. You have a sense of appreciation for it: This has been a good raft; it’s taken you far. So you let it go, not out of disgust, but simply out of a mature realization that you don’t need it. You’ve found something better.

This is where the five strengths take you when you reflect on them and when you practice them heedfully. This is why the Buddha said that they depend on heedfulness. You take the lessons from the awakening and you try to use them as best you can. You don’t simply content yourself with an insight or with some snatches of knowledge. You keep asking yourself, “What’s the use of this? What’s the best use of this?” And as you keep developing this strength of heedfulness, that’s how all the other strengths make you strong enough to let go.