Guardian Meditations
April 22, 2024

As you’re sitting here right now, you’re shaping your experience of right now in three ways. One, by the way you breathe, what the Buddha calls bodily fabrication. Two, by the way you talk to yourself. Technically it’s called directed thought and evaluation. You pick a topic and you comment on it. That’s called verbal fabrication. And then three, by the perceptions you hold in mind and the feelings you focus on. Perceptions are the mind’s labels for things: what they are, what they mean, what their value is. Feelings here are feeling tones of pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain. That’s mental fabrication.

You’re doing this all the time, whether you’re sitting here meditating or not. But the Buddha’s meditation instructions give you ideas for how you might do all three of these things skillfully. Take, for instance, his instructions on breath meditation. They’re focused mainly on bodily fabrication, how you breathe, giving you different ideas about breathing long or short, training yourself to breathe aware of the whole body, training yourself to calm bodily fabrication. How do you do that without stifling the breath? How do you get the mind quiet? That involves mental fabrication, your perceptions and feelings. How do you perceive the breath right now when you breathe in? Where does the breath come in? Where does the breath go out? Exactly what is the breath? The Buddha doesn’t describe it as the air that makes contact at the nose. He describes it as a part of the wind element in the body itself.

That alerts you to the fact that you should be paying more attention to the movement of energy in the body as you breathe in, as you breathe out, and how it relates to other subtle movements of energy in different parts of the body.

And what feelings are you focusing on? You want to find the feelings in the body that feel relatively pleasant. Start with those. Protect them. As you breathe in, don’t put too much pressure on them. When you breathe out, don’t squeeze them. In between each breath, you don’t have to squeeze them a little bit to make a little marker to tell yourself now the breath is coming in, now the breath is going out. Think of the breath flowing into the breath, or the breath breathing the breath. That way, it’s easier to develop a sense of full well-being. That’s mental fabrication.

Then, of course, the instructions for breath meditation are a form of verbal fabrication. You talk to yourself about sticking with the breath and how this is what you do with the breath, what you do around the breath. Sometimes when the mind is willing to settle down, those instructions for the three types of fabrication are perfectly sufficient.

Other times, though, as the Buddha notes, there’s what he calls a fever in the body or a sluggishness in the mind, where it feels as if everywhere you focus in the body is really uncomfortable and you can’t make the breath comfortable. Either that or the mind just doesn’t want to settle down with this topic. In a case like that, the Buddha says to engage in a different topic, something you find inspiring. One classic list—what are called the four guardian meditations—consists of recollection of the Buddha, goodwill, contemplation of the unattractiveness of the body, and mindfulness of death. In each case, you’re using other forms of verbal fabrication and mental fabrication to get the mind to settle down, to lasso it into the breath in the present moment.

So again, you’re dealing with directed thought and evaluation, perceptions, and feelings around these different topics. As with contemplation of the Buddha: You can think about what an amazing individual he was. You can also think about how the fact that he gained awakening has changed the world, even though not all the world is paying attention to that fact. You look at his awakening and you take it seriously. You realize he has said some important things about what’s really meaningful in life, so that some issues that would pull you away from the meditation can begin to seem pretty small. You think about what he awakened to, the fact of rebirth, and how the prospects of your rebirth very, very uncertain. You can do a lot of good things in this lifetime, but then suddenly have a bad change of heart, or develop wrong view at death.

I know some people who’ve said, “I did all these good things during my lifetime. Why do I have this disease? Why do I suffer so at death?” They can develop wrong view as a result, and that pulls them down. Which means that the good that they’ve done will still show its results sometime, but it may be a long time before it does.

But then the Buddha also awakened to the fact that you can put an end to the processes that keep you coming back in this very uncertain world. You can get out. And it’s a good thing to get out. You’re not running away or being irresponsible. You’re giving a gift back to the world as you set the example that this what a human being can do.

So when the affairs of the day begin to weigh you down, or moods come over you and you don’t know where they came from, you can hold these perceptions in mind, these ways of thinking in mind. See if they make you more willing to settle down, give you a sense of well-being. After all, what the Buddha is saying is that your success or failure in the affairs of the world is not important. What’s important is that you’re a good person, that you act in harmless ways.

So the success of your life is not measured in the way the world would measure as success. It’s measured in how you’re able to train your mind. And that’s something you can do. So much of the success in the world outside is based on things that are totally beyond your control. You can amass a fortune and then lose it through bad investments, or lose it when the value of money deteriorates. All kinds of things can happen, all of which are out of your control. But the Buddha is saying that what’s really important in life are the things that you can learn to control and to master.

So think about what that means for your life. Talk to yourself in these ways. Hold these perceptions in mind. And notice that they give rise to a feeling of well-being. If they do, focus on that well-being and then switch over to your breath. See how your breath is going right now—because it’s going to be influenced by these verbal and mental fabrications you’ve engaged in.

The same goes for the topic of goodwill. You wish all beings to be happy, and you stop and think about what that means. For them to be happy requires that they act in skillful ways. So if you can think about someone who’s been really unskillful, thoughtless, cruel, behaving in outrageous ways, goodwill for that person means, “May you see the error of your ways and be willing and able to become more skillful.” That’s what you would want other people to wish for you. You don’t have to wish for this person to suffer first, just that he or she has a change of heart. That’s something you can wish without hypocrisy. And when you’re able to wish that, it changes your relationship to the people you felt have abused you in the past, mistreated you in the past, or mistreated people you love in the past.

You realize that trying to get back at them, trying to get justice out of them, is not going to solve the problem. As I said earlier today, for justice to work, the idea of sorting out who did what to whom and who deserves to be punished requires that you have a starting point where you can tell where everything began. It’s like a game in sports. The game starts at a certain time, ends at a certain time, and then you keep score in between those times. But here, in the world that the Buddha awakened to, where are you going to find a beginning point? How do you know what the whole story is? Sometimes these stories are so long that you forget who was who, who did what to whom, as you’ve gone through many lifetimes together.

So rather than wanting to get some closure through your idea of justice, you just tell yourself that the best way to get closure is to decide you’re not going to do anything unskillful and you’re going to spread lots of goodwill around to all beings.

That attitude again requires certain perceptions and certain ways of talking to yourself that will calm your breath and make the mind more willing to settle down. So you see the pattern. You’re using verbal fabrication and mental fabrication in ways that induce the mind to want to get back to the breath.

The same with the contemplation of the body: This is good for dealing with not only with lust, but also with whatever pride you might have around your body. Or pride that you used to have around your body when you were younger, and now you look at your body and say, “Where was that?” You feel depressed because you don’t have the beauty you used to have. You have to realize that even when you were beautiful, even when you were handsome, you still had all these horrible things inside you. So what was that all about?

As for whatever lust you may have for someone else, first look at your own body. As the Buddha said, your attraction to other people starts with being attracted to your own body, and for attraction to work you have to turn a huge blind eye to all these different parts of the body so that you can focus on the few things that you find excite you. So when you’re thinking about how unattractive your liver might be or your lungs or your stomach or your intestines or the contents inside the intestines, you’re not bad-mouthing the body. You’re just pointing out, “This is what you’ve been ignoring.”

Then you turn around and you look at the lust itself, and see the pride that goes with that: the pride that you can think thoughts of sensual satisfaction and have yourself play a role in those thoughts where you’re able to get other people to go along with your ideas of what you would find satisfying. There’s a lot of pride that goes with lust. And yet what is it all about? You become a slave to these things that are really not worth anything. And you put yourself in danger. You’re totally dependent on other people cooperating. So, what if they suddenly decide, “No”? You’re basing your happiness on something that’s really weak and undependable. So you look at the object of the lust, then you look at the fact of lust in the mind itself. When you can develop dispassion for both, then the mind can become more free.

When the Buddha talks about dispassion, he often pairs it with the fact that the mind becomes unfettered, the mind escapes from its prisons that it builds for itself. So try to have those associations around the idea of dispassion: freedom, release. Hold those perceptions in mind.

Then finally, recollection of death: This doesn’t means you think, “Death, death, death, I’m going to die,” all the time. What it means is that you realize that there’s work that needs to be done. Think back again, what you learned from the Buddha’s awakening: that how you die is going to depend on the state of your mind. You have to protect your right view and your virtue, and you want to be as mindful as possible. That’s going to be difficult. You think that, sitting here in this nice quiet place, it’s hard to get your mind to be mindful. What’s it going to be like when you’re dying? You’re being evicted from the body. You can’t stay here. Sometimes there will be pains. And sometimes the nurses will give you drugs to dull the pain, but the drugs are going to dull your mind as well. How do you prepare for that? Well, by meditating. That’s the whole point of the contemplation of death: to encourage you to get to work.

When the Buddha talks about the importance of focusing your attention on the present moment, it’s never because the present moment is a wonderful place. It’s because it’s the place where work needs to be done, and can be done right now. So if you’re feeling lazy, you realize, “Okay, there’s work I’ve got to do.”

This is where the different meditations come together. You think about the view of the world that the Buddha gives you. You think about the question, “Do you have goodwill for yourself?” A lot of people escape from the pain of death by going to sensual fantasies. Are they worth it? Is that an expression of goodwill for themselves? Well, no.

So you provide yourself a new way of structuring your experience of the present moment, all the way up through death and beyond. What you’re going to need at those points in life will be more mindfulness, more alertness, more discernment. Where are you going to get those things? From meditating.

When you can think in these ways, it’s a lot easier to get back to the breath. You’re not just suppressing the thoughts that are irritating you, you’re actually investigating them for a while, but you’re also providing yourself with new ways of thinking, new ways of perceiving, new feelings to focus on—i.e., new ways of constructing the present moment out of the way you breathe, the way you talk to yourself, and the feelings and perceptions you hold in mind.

It’s important that we see all the Buddha’s teachings as basically advice on how to restructure the way you construct the present moment. Regardless of what your thoughts may be—this will vary from culture to culture, from age to age—the way the mind puts things together is a constant, so this is where the Buddha has you focus your attention: How are you putting your experience of the present moment together right now? Could you do a better job? Then he gives you this checklist of the three types of fabrication, to check which fabrication is not going well. If you can’t work with the breath right at the beginning, focus on those other two types of fabrication first.

Then you can focus those fabrications on these topics, or any of the other meditation topics the Buddha gives you, until you’re ready to come back to the breath.

These are called guardian meditations because they protect you from your own defilements, from your own lack of skill. They give you directions on how to be more skillful in how you think, how you talk to yourself: better mental and verbal fabrications. So include them as part of your meditative toolbox. When you realize that the breath isn’t enough to lasso the mind into the present moment, you’ve got these other techniques. That way, you’re able to handle a much wider variety of problems in the mind, and your skill becomes more all-around.