Nourishing & Interesting
May 25, 2024

We had a visitor this evening who complained that he would go once a year on a vipassanā retreat, learn how to get the mind into a state of equanimity, but he couldn’t maintain that equanimity when he came back home. He wanted to know what to do. And I told him if meditation is just equanimity it gets dull very fast, it’s not nourishing, it’s not interesting, and it’s hard to maintain it because, after all, meditation is something you have to maintain.

Persistence is an important part of the practice, and that means sticking with it. Each breath, right now as you’re practicing breath meditation, each breath as it comes in, goes out, and then the next breath, in, out, next breath, in, out. But if it’s just in-out, it’s going to get dull very fast, so you want to find some way to make it nourishing.

This is why the Buddha says that you try to breathe in and out sensitive to rapture, sensitive to pleasure. Try to find out what are the potentials in your breath right now for something that would feel refreshing. That’s another meaning for the word pīti, which we translate as rapture. It can also mean refreshment. What kind of breathing would be refreshing right now? Which parts of your body tend to be most sensitive to the breath? Focus on those, and see if you can get some exquisite breathing going, something that energizes you. Go straight to where the breath energy is needed and see what needs to be done to maintain it. This is where the process gets interesting because you’re going to be learning not only about the breath, but also about the mind.

Years back, I was talking to a Tibetan practitioner and that was their first criticism of breath meditation: “You’re going to need your meditation when you die, so how can you learn anything by staying with the breath, because it’s going to leave you at the moment of death right when you need it?”

As I said, when the Buddha described breath meditation, it wasn’t just a matter of watching the breath. It was also learning how to see the processes of fabrication in the mind: the way you talk to yourself, the images you hold in mind, the feelings you focus on, how you relate to those feelings. There’s a lot to explore here, because you learn that when you hold a certain image of the breath in mind, it can either be very nourishing—it can lead to breathing that feels really good—or to the opposite. That should alert you to the fact that the body is not just doing this on its own. The mind is not just a result of physical processes, it actually governs physical processes. As the Buddha said, mano-pubbangama dhamma, mano-settha, mano-maya: “Phenomena have the mind is their forerunner.”

The mind is what’s creating things. Like right now, the processes of fabrication are taking the raw material coming from your past and shaping them into your experience in the present moment. One of the things you learn as you meditate, as you get deeper and deeper into the meditation, is how extensive your participation is.

There was a letter I received the other day from someone whose understanding was that you try to get the mind very still, and then you learn how to admit that, “Yes, it is true that things are inconstant, stressful, and not-self.” You learn to accept that, and that will take you to the transcendent. Well, that’s just being equanimous, and, again, the Buddha didn’t say that equanimity on its own could take you to nibbāna. You want to see how you’re complicit in the things that are inconstant, stressful, and not-self. You’re not just observing them and deciding whether you want to continue watching the show or not. You’re the producer, you’re the actors, and you’ve been doing this for so long and so thoroughly that you are hardly aware of what you’re doing.

It’s one of the reasons we dig up this issue of fabrication so that we can become more sensitive to what we’re doing: how our perceptions shape things, how the way we focus on feelings shapes experience, how the way we talk to ourselves shapes experience.

One of the reasons we have Dhamma talks is to give you some ideas of how you should talk to yourself. Think about how the Buddha would teach. He wouldn’t just instruct, he would also urge, rouse, encourage you—one part instruction, three parts motivation speaking. Part of the motivation is not just saying, “Hey, you can do this, keep at it,” but it’s also pointing out that some really interesting things are going on right here in the mind right now. Being with the breath allows you to observe the mind and to observe the power of the mind in shaping something as basic as breathing.

You also get to see the processes of how thoughts form. because there will be thoughts that are going to come having nothing to do with the breath. In the beginning it’s hard not to fall into them because that’s the way the mind has been acting all along. But if you decide that you’re not going to fall in with them and you’re going to watch out for the steps by which you would fall into the next thought, you begin to see there are lots of levels of conversation going on in the mind. You can ask yourself, “How have I let myself be blind to these things?”

An image from one of the forest ajaans is that it’s like someone comes up behind you with a big bag, throws it over your head, and carries you off, and dumps you someplace else. That’s how it is for most of us when we go from one thought world to another. There’s a blanking out. And one of the reasons we have to be persistent, consistent, and persevering in our practice is to be able to see through that stage where we blank out. What happens there?

So the rousing and the encouraging is not just telling you that you can do this, but it’s also pointing out there are interesting things going on here.

After all, where is the cause of suffering? It comes from within. There are the desires that go off in the wrong direction, but there are also desires that go in the right direction, and you’ve got to learn to figure out which is which. This is how the mind works: It’s not just sitting there, passively receiving information through the senses. It’s actively looking. After all, we are beings because we have a sense that we need to feed. That means we have something in mind that we want, and we’re acting based on our image of what we want, so the mind always has an arrow focusing someplace further, further, further along. And in the course of going to that “further,” we do pick up information from outside, but the fact that we’re already moving further, doing things for the sake of something else, our intentions are going to shape how we pick up things from outside.

You know that experiment they did with people playing a little ballgame, and the people are asked to watch a video of the ballgame and try to figure out what the rules of the ballgame are. So they’re paying very careful attention to the ballgame. It turns out they have someone in a gorilla suit walking behind the people playing the game. Most of the people watching the video won’t see the gorilla because they’re intent on the game. So think about that: That’s how we lead our lives. We’re focused on certain things, and other things are going on, but because they’re not relevant to what we think we want, we’re going to miss them.

So an important part of the practice is learning how to make yourself want to understand your mind, want to understand why it is that you can create suffering for yourself even though you don’t want to. When you can ask this question and stick with it, then the meditation becomes interesting. Even the task of staying with the breath—trying to make the breath easeful, nourishing, gratifying—becomes an interesting process. The body will throw up different problems for you. You can meditate for fifty years and see all kinds of new things coming up as the body does things it never did before. And they’re things you’ve got to learn how to deal with—pains here, pains there, a weakness here. What can the breath do to help with those things? The body gives you these challenges, and the Buddha says to stick with the meditation.

Ajaan Fuang would say, “Take the breath as the basis for your skill.” And the question always is, “What can the breath do here,” or “What can your awareness of the breath do to help with whatever’s coming up in the body or in the mind?”

There are always things to learn. The problem is that sometimes they come slowly. Meditation is not like a basketball game, it’s more like a baseball game: long pauses where nothing much seems to be happening, but there is something going on. Then there are fast movements back and forth in the mind, fast movements back and forth in the body, that sometimes come so fast that you can’t see them. So as you slow yourself down, these processes also slow down, and you begin to see them step by step by step, so that you see there really is something going on here that should capture your interest and should make you want to stay here continually, to watch your mind continually, so that you can understand why it’s causing suffering and you can also understand what the steps are in putting an end to that.

When you’re sitting here meditating, sometimes you want to be told what level of concentration you’re on, but that’s imposing outside words on you. You want to become more sensitive: Well, what does it feel like to have the mind settle down? How many different ways does it settle down, and how do they feel to you?

The whole purpose here is to make yourself more sensitive to what’s actually going on here in an area that you’ve tended to block out. You deliberately ignored what was going on inside because you wanted to pay attention to things outside. The gorilla can walk past many, many times, and you don’t see it. Once you’re told: Okay, there’s a possibility a gorilla could come, then you look for it. It may not come with every breath. But we take this habit of the mind—which is constantly looking for something, aiming at something, and which can cause us to miss a lot of things that are important—and we learn how to aim and at the right things that open up this process of what’s going on in the mind. We can unlock all the secrets that the mind has been keeping from itself.

There’s a lot to learn here, a lot to grab your interest. So focus your desires on wanting to maintain this practice to learn from it. And as long as your desire is focused in the right direction, you’re bound to see things you never saw before, things that were happening all the time, but now you’re aimed in the right direction, and that’s what makes the difference.