Q: You’ve said that letting go should be done only in stages and it should be done at the right moment. You presented it as if it were something like an act of will, but sometimes one finds that letting go just happens on its own, when the conditions are right. So, what is the exact case?
A: Actual letting go is not something you will, but the causes come from understanding your attachment to something and seeing no more reason to maintain that attachment. At that point, the mind lets go without your having to tell it. But to get there, you have to will yourself to contemplate the attachment. The understanding has to come from the contemplating, but you can’t determine beforehand when your understanding will reach the point where it’s ready to let go. That’s the part you can’t control.
The problem is when people let go before they’re really ready. For example, when you get discouraged in the practice and you decide, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t meditate. Maybe my desire for jhāna is a bad thing, so I should let go of my desire for jhāna.” That kind of letting go comes from laziness and that’s what you have to watch out for.
Q: Can one say that we live in three times, in other words, past, present, and future, thinking about your actions of the past and preparing for the future?
A: That is the case: We do live in three times. Alfred Brendel, the Austrian pianist, went to America for his last concert tour there a couple of years ago. He’s famous for being more cerebral than most classical pianists, and so an interviewer asked him, “What is it like while you’re playing the piano?” He replied, “You’re living in three time spaces. You have to keep in mind what you’ve been playing up until that point, and also where you want the piece to go in the future, at the same time being aware of what you’re actually doing. Because sometimes you find that what you’re actually doing is not in line with what you had planned and you have to decide, ‘Is this going in a better direction than I had planned, and should I follow that new direction? Or is it going in a bad direction and I have to correct it?’”
And that’s basically what we’re doing as we meditate. We have a sense of where the mind has been developing, where we want it to go, but also what we’re doing right now. And again, we have to evaluate, “Is this going in a better direction or is it going off track and, if so, how do we put it back on track?” When you think about those three qualities that go into mindfulness practice, mindfulness is referring to the past, ardency has to do with the future and the present, and alertness is right there in the present moment.
Q: Where are your thoughts stored away and where do they come from?
A: That’s one of those questions the Buddha doesn’t answer. And this is an important point. Remember, the Buddha said he answered one question—how to put an end to suffering—and he explained the actions of your mind as they relate to that. As for other aspects of the mind that are not relevant to that question, he put them aside as a waste of time that interferes with the practice. So, the question, “Where do you store your memories?” is not really a problem. The real problem is: “Are they good memories to use or not?”
Q: It’s hard to find the right words to say this well, but with your sense of humor, you’ll understand the question. Why do you intellectualize meditation to this extent, something that’s not really on the order of the intellect? Meditation is for everyone, isn’t it, and not just for those who are learned?
A: As with any skill, meditation has its own vocabulary and behind the vocabulary is a mindset, a view of the world. We tend to think of the Thai ajaans as just being natural meditators, but they, too, grew up in a culture that was aimed in this direction, toward training the mind, and they themselves had to study Buddhist texts in order to acquire the vocabulary that helps to explain what’s involved in that training: what you have to notice, what you can ignore, and what you have to do with what you notice. In the case of mettā, we’re training ourselves in qualities of the heart, but this training also requires some understanding. This is why we’re dealing with these concepts, because the more the concepts are aimed at getting the best results, the better your heart and the mind work together.
Q: This is an illustration. I would like to better understand sati. Is it an impersonal consciousness without ego? Is it a consciousness that is connected through the self that is stuck on the ground of pure consciousness? Is it an awakened consciousness that comes from the gradual development of attention, in which case, can one listen to one’s own thoughts without being their prisoner? I don’t understand its relationship to memory as you’ve been discussing.
A: Much of what we hear about sati or mindfulness as being a pure consciousness or a pure awareness actually is related to what the Buddha taught about equanimity. In other words, you’re trying to be as aware but calm as you can while watching things coming and going. As for mindfulness, that’s actually a quality of the memory. Now you might say, “Well, it doesn’t really matter what you call it, it’s just a matter of words.” The problem is that equanimity is not always skillful, but you always need mindfulness to direct the mind. Equanimity just says, “Okay, I will just let whatever happens, happen,” and sometimes that’s skillful and sometimes it’s not. But having good mindfulness is what helps you remember the lessons you’ve learned from the past as to when it’s good to let go, and when you have to be more proactive to change things.
Q: Is mindfulness our original consciousness that appears at the birth of the physical body and then lasts as long as saṁsāra, obscured by the defilements? Or would it be a permanent consciousness because it accompanies us in all our life? Or is it impermanent because it develops gradually through the force of attention?
A: There is no permanent consciousness in the Buddha’s teachings. We have moments of consciousness that follow in a process, a process that comes from previous lifetimes and lasts beyond this lifetime as well, as long as we’re going to be in saṁsāra. It continues because there are conditions to keep it going. The main condition is craving. This process ends totally only when craving ends. The Buddha never talks about original awareness or original consciousness, simply that there is a luminous state of consciousness that can be obscured. But then there’s another consciousness, which we talked about earlier in the week, which is the consciousness of awakening. You can’t say that it’s permanent because something permanent has to be lasting through time, and this consciousness is outside of time.