Q: This morning when they turned off the sound system, there was a sudden noise that startled me. How do I resolve or cure the situation?
A: There is a relationship between the levels of concentration you’re in and the extent to which you’ll be startled by loud noises. The tradition talks about three levels of concentration. The first level, momentary concentration, is your ordinary, everyday level of concentration when you’re listening to people or reading. The second level, access concentration, is a phase the mind goes through as it’s beginning to settle down. And the third level, fixed penetration, is when you’re firmly settled on your object. It’s in that second level that you’re most easily startled by sounds. So it’s normal that, as you’re beginning to settle down, the noises will have more of an impact on you.
I once heard one ajaan in Thailand explain the three levels of concentration in this way: Momentary concentration cannot stand pain. As soon as it runs into the slightest bit of pain, it changes to something else. And “pain” here can mean the slightest displeasure, even just the displeasure of boredom. However, if you can learn how to stitch those moments of concentration together, you’ll get to the second level, which can withstand pain but it can’t withstand pleasure. As soon as it hits pleasure, it goes for the pleasure and loses its focus. The third level is the level that can withstand both pleasure and pain. Whatever comes up, it can maintain its focus. That’s the level we’re aiming for.
Q: I have lots of persistence and conviction. I think I also have pretty good discernment, but as for concentration, it’s more difficult. I stay at what you describe as the second level. This is in spite of being assiduous. I really put a lot of effort into my daily practice. What can I do to alleviate the situation?
A: One thing you might want to look into is the question of sense restraint. In other words, as you’re looking at things in the course of the day, ask yourself, “Why am I looking at this?” When you’re listening to things, “Why am I listening to this?” If the motivation is neutral, then it’s okay. However, if you find that you’re looking or listening for the purpose of greed, lust, or anger, then you should change the way you look and listen. This applies especially to the media. We look at the TV, we look at the Internet, and it’s not that they pull our minds in. We’re the ones who turn them on, looking for trouble. So, the more you can control the input you get from the senses and the reasons for going out for these things, then you’ll begin to see the issues that are getting in the way of your concentration. Again, think of the mind like a committee. You have to ask yourself who’s doing the looking and listening. Often they won’t let you know who they are until you get in their way. Then they’ll complain—and that’s when you’ll know who they are.
Q: What can one do when one has doubts about one’s own spiritual practice even if one wants to stay on that particular path?
A: Try to look at what in your particular path encourages skillful thoughts, skillful words, and skillful deeds. If you see that they actually do give rise to more skillful thoughts, words, and deeds, that will help to alleviate some of your doubts.
Q: Should dispassion be better translated as non-attachment rather than disillusionment?
A: You have to realize that when the Buddha’s talking about dispassion, he’s talking about the quality that forces us to step back and look at why we like to create states of becoming. It’s because we have a passion for wanting a particular thing or a particular identity that we keep on creating those things. To get rid of that drive to keep creating these things, we have to see that there really is a negative side to what we’re creating. This means that we have to develop dispassion for them.
Now, dispassion is not aversion. It’s more a matter of sobering up, of outgrowing your addiction to what you’re creating. This also relates to the image that the Buddha likes to use, which is that we like to feed on certain pleasures. As long as you find that that pleasure is delicious, you’re going to keep going for it. You’re going to keep creating a becoming around it. But when you begin to see that it’s something really bad to feed on, you can say, “I’m not going to feed on this anymore.” You really have to lose your taste for these things. If you have any background in America, it’s like when you were a child and you liked to eat Twinkies, which is a mass-produced cake with a false-cream filling. Children love it because it’s very sweet. When I was a child, I would save my money to buy Twinkies. But nowadays if I think about a Twinkie, it’s very disgusting. So that dispassion is the attitude you have to develop to all your feeding habits, for all the becomings that you keep creating.
The term “non-attachment” gives the image that you are simply a passive observer of your experience and that you can say, “I can live with this experience or not, it’s all equal to me.” But in the Buddha’s analysis of the mind, we’re not simply passive recipients or observers. We’re out there creating things. And passion is what fuels the drive to keep creating. To overcome this drive to be creative in this way requires something stronger than just non-attachment.
Q: Buddhist masters teach us not to give any importance to our ideas or opinions. But when one is an activist or militant for a noble cause, ideas have their importance. Certain ideas, like those of Hitler, have caused a lot of horrendous suffering to millions of people. As we still live in our conventional society because we have not yet reached awakening, don’t we have to combat these ideas?
A: The Buddha never said to give no importance to your ideas or opinions. After all, he taught right view, which is composed of opinions, the opinions that are helpful for awakening. As for your opinions about how the world should be run, when you want to create a better condition in the society around you, one, be sure that your opinions really are helpful, and then, two, be skillful in how you hold to them. Learn how to hold to them in areas where it really would be helpful, and to let go of them in other areas where they are not. Also, learn how to take some time out to feed your mind with some quiet time in meditation, to give it some time out from carrying its opinions around, and so that, when returning to them, it can look at them with more objectivity.
It’s important to realize that views are necessary, simply that you have to learn how to hold to them in a way that doesn’t cause suffering, with a sense of the right time and right place. As for your activism, think of it as generosity. You’re giving this to the world, and as the Buddha said, give where you feel inspired. But he also advised that you give in a way that doesn’t cause harm to yourself or to others. Remember, the goal of an ideal society is never going to be attained, so we can’t use that ideal as a goal that justifies unskillful means. What we leave behind are the means by which we try to improve society. So focus on the means by which you are trying to attain your good goals, and in that way—even though the goal may be out of reach—at least you’ve accomplished some goodness through leaving behind a good example. If you regard your opinions as means in this way, you can then learn how to use them skillfully.