The Buddha's Cure
April 27, 2024

In medicine in general, and in psychotherapy in particular, they have two stages of treatment. One is called symptom management, when you try to calm down the symptoms that are making the patient suffer, but you may not be getting to the root of the disease. That’s why you need the second step, which is the total cure—where you actually attack it at its cause.

In the practice of the Dhamma and in meditation, we have the same two steps. Symptom management comes with working with the breath. As we were saying this afternoon, your mind is like a committee—and it’s a pretty raucous one: lots of different opinions, good and bad, and the discussion can get pretty unruly. Some of the committee members simply use force, and one of their ways of using force with you is to change the way you breathe.

Anger comes along, lust comes along, fear comes along, and a lot of the power of these emotions comes from their ability to make the breath really uncomfortable. You feel like you have to give in to them to get them out of your system. They don’t listen to reason. They just want what they want, and they force themselves on you.

What you’ve got to do is reclaim the breath. This is where we work on breathing in a way that’s really comfortable, trying to be sensitive to how the breathing feels in the body.

When the Buddha talks about breath, it’s not just the tactile sensation of the air coming through the nose, it’s the flow of energy in the body. And that can happen on many different levels, some very obvious, where you feel the in-breath, where you feel the out-breath. Others are more subtle: There’s a reverberation of the in-breath and out-breath that goes through the whole body. And it goes at different speeds.

There are some breath energies that are very subtle, and as soon as you start breathing in, they’ve coursed through the whole body already. Others take more time. But if you take some time to get to know them, you can calm down the breath.

Notice when, say, anger comes, or fear comes, when there’s a tightening in some part of the body. You can relax it. Get more in touch with how these patterns of tension build up in the body, and how you can release them, relax them, dissolve them away. That makes it a lot easier not to give in to the fear, or the anger, the irritation, or whatever the emotion is, because it doesn’t feel so oppressive.

So take some time to get to know your breath. Think of the breathing as a whole-body process. If there are parts of the body where the breath doesn’t seem to go, just watch them for a while and ask yourself, “Suppose the breath did flow there?” If you hold that perception in mind, what would that do to those sensations?

There are some sensations in the body that seem hard and resistant. You think, “Well, maybe those are bones; maybe they’re tight muscles.” If you think that maybe they’re tight muscles, you can relax them. If they’re bones, of course, you can’t relax the bones. But you can relax the muscles. You can do that by thinking of the breath flowing through them.

This way, you calm things down. And you can begin to manage the symptoms of these emotions that sometimes seem so strong that you can’t resist them.

As for the cure, that starts with getting some order among the different members of the committee. That requires discernment, wisdom. The Buddha says discernment begins with the question, “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?”

You want to use that as a standard for judging all the different desires and emotions that come up. If you go with this desire, this emotion, or do what it’s telling you to do, will that lead to long-term welfare and happiness, or just short-term?

And do you really want short-term? After all, short-term turns into something else. And when happiness turns into something else, it doesn’t turn into more happiness. You have a short-term pleasure, and then there’s pain. Do you want that?

If you decide you don’t want that, then you listen to the Buddha’s advice on how you can act to lead to your long-term welfare and happiness: You want to be generous, you want to be virtuous, and you want to have goodwill for everybody.

The goodwill here connects with compassion. And compassion is going to be an important part of long-term happiness, because if your happiness depends on other people suffering, or if it depends on your getting them to do unskillful things, then it’s not going to last, because they’re going to want to undo whatever your happiness is based on.

So you’ve got to think about their happiness. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to go around pleasing people all the time. And it doesn’t mean that we have to regard anything that’s displeasing to people as harmful. That attitude has no place in the Buddha’s teachings, because as he said, there are times when you have to say displeasing things for the good of other people.

The analogy he gives is of a child that’s gotten a sharp object in its mouth. Sometimes, to get the sharp object out, you have to draw blood. Otherwise, if you don’t get it out, then the child’s going to swallow the object, and then it’s really in trouble.

In other words, if someone is doing something wrong, sometimes you have to alert them to it—alert them to the consequences of what they’re doing. They may not like to hear that, but again, it’s not harming them to tell them that. It’s actually for their own good.

Harming other people is when you try to get them to kill, or steal, or have illicit sex, or lie, or take intoxicants. In other words, you try to get them to do something unskillful.

So you have to have some compassion. And this is how compassion best expresses itself: by encouraging other people to be moral as well, to be generous as well, to have goodwill.

Those are two of the qualities of the Buddha himself—wisdom and compassion. The third traditional quality is purity. When you decide you’re going to act on skillful intentions, you’re going to have to learn which intentions that seem good are actually skillful, and which ones are not. Sometimes you mean well, but you’re acting out of ignorance, or you haven’t really thought the issue through carefully. That would count as an unskillful intention.

So, as the Buddha said, you look at your intentions, and try to act only in cases where you think that your intentions are harmless.

And then as you’re following through with those harmless intentions, sometimes you see that, whoops, you didn’t understand. Something’s going wrong. You actually are harming somebody else, so you stop. If you don’t see any harm, you continue.

Then, when the action is done, you reflect on the long-term consequences. If you see that you didn’t foresee any harm, you didn’t notice any harm while you were doing it, but it did turn out to cause harm in the long-term, you make up your mind not to repeat that action. And you go talk it over with someone who’s more advanced on the path so that you can get some wisdom from them as to how to avoid that mistake in the future.

But if you don’t see any harm, then you take joy in the fact that your practice is progressing. This, the Buddha defines as purity.

In other words, you don’t simply mean well. You look at your actions, you act on your best intentions, and you see when best intentions really are good, really are skillful, and when they’re not, and then you can learn. Then you can use that knowledge to sort things out in your own mind as to what you really want out of life, what really is consistent with long-term welfare and happiness.

Now, we do this based on symptom management because the mind finds it a lot easier for the different members of the committee to talk reasonably when you feel well inside, when the breath is flowing nicely, the body feels balanced, you don’t feel irritated because you’re not creating irritation inside. You’re not holding on to irritation inside. You’re letting it go.

When things are more calm inside, with a sense of refreshment, a sense of ease, well-being, pleasure inside, then it’s a lot easier to reason with the usually unreasonable members of your mind. You get to understand where they’re coming from. Because every member of the mind wants happiness, it’s just that different members have different ideas about what happiness is, and how you go about it.

If you can begin to point out that some attitudes really are only for short-term happiness and other attitudes that are more for long-term, and you can do this with a sense of feeling calm, collected, and solid inside, then it’s a lot easier to go for the long-term. It’s when you’re feeling hungry, irritable, exasperated, that you want a quick fix and you don’t care about the consequences.

So use the breath to do some symptom management. Then you use your ability to talk to yourself inside, to notice things inside, to ask questions inside, to get to the root causes of why these unskillful emotions take over.

Sometimes you know they’re unskillful, you know they’ll have long-term bad consequences, but, why is it that you give in? Which part of the mind is really impatient? As I said, if you can engage in some good symptom management, those impatient members begin to calm down. But the important thing is that you work at understanding them: where they come from.

Sometimes it’s useful to ask yourself, “Who did I get this idea from?” or “What incident did I get this idea from, thinking that this would lead to happiness, when I’ve seen again and again and again, that it doesn’t?”

As the Buddha said, some of the causes for suffering inside the mind are things you simply don’t see. When you turn your gaze on them and look at them, they shrivel up. You don’t have to do much thinking or analysis.

Others, when you look at them, will just stare right back. They’re going to be insistent that they want to stay. In a case like that, you have to reason with them, probe them. Try to figure out where they’re coming from until it becomes obvious that they’re coming from a lot of ignorance.

As Ajaan Suwat says, it’s like shining a light in a dark cave. The darkness may have been there for a long, long time, but it can’t say that the light doesn’t have any right to come in. Once there’s light, the darkness has to go.

So when the mind feels confident, feels calm, collected, you can see a lot more clearly, probe a lot more clearly. The parts of the mind that are recalcitrant, that are really clinging, can begin to loosen some of their grip, because they can see that they’re not being chased out for the sake of pain or harshness, they’re being chased out because there’s a better alternative. They’re finding a happiness that’s really secure.

That’s when you can manage both stages of the Buddha’s treatment—and get some peace and harmony inside.