The question underlying this retreat has been: Who’s in charge of your mind? You sit down to meditate with the intention to stay with the breath for an hour and suddenly, within a few minutes, you find yourself someplace else. This question is also relevant even when you’re not meditating. You do something for the sake of happiness—in fact, all of our actions come from the desire to create happiness—yet so often the actions don’t get the results you want. Sometimes you don’t even do what you intended to do to begin with. So, who’s in charge?
The Buddha says that we suffer because we let craving take charge of the mind—the craving that gives rise to becoming. The becoming itself depends on clinging. And we suffer in the clinging: clinging to things that disappoint, clinging to desires that create contradictory becomings. In other words, one desire will lead you in one direction, giving you a sense of your self and the world that goes in that direction, and then there will be another desire that creates another becoming that goes in another direction. So we’re pulled not only between two desires, but also by two different senses of who we are and two different senses of the world we inhabit. No wonder we feel torn apart. We even cling to the experience of the deathless when we first encounter it.
The clinging, which is a kind of feeding, is a bad position to be in, and it’s the result of bad judgment. However, the path to the end of suffering, which teaches you how to use your powers of judgment in a better way, does require becoming, too: the mind in the state of right concentration. It also requires a sense of the world where the practice is possible: a world where the Buddha showed the possibility of creating freedom from suffering based on our own efforts.
The five faculties are qualities that we develop so that we can be in charge of creating and strengthening good becomings in terms of how we define the goals we desire in life, how we define ourselves around that desire, and how we interpret the world so as to help with that desire. The five faculties put good judgment in charge of the mind. They take a wise desire—the desire for true happiness—and make it the key factor in shaping your views and actions: what you pay attention to, and the intentions you choose to follow. Throughout life. As you leave the retreat, you’ll find that if you depend on these five faculties, they put you in a position where you can fend off your inner moods, the moods that get in the way of the path, and also protect you from efforts from the world outside that try to define the world for you. They help you to define yourself and your sense of the world for the sake of a genuine happiness—so that your original motives for action can lead to the happiness you want.
So let’s review the five faculties.
First, conviction: We live in a world where no one’s in charge, so we’re free to pursue our deepest desire for true happiness. Also, it’s been shown by the Buddha that people can put an end to suffering based on their own efforts. This means that you have to treat your virtue and right views as your most valuable possessions. Don’t let the fear of losing wealth, health, or relatives cause you to be willing to do unskillful things. Think for a moment of the ways in which society tries to use your fear or your greed to get you to do what they want, to vote for their policies or to buy the things that they’re trying to sell you. Conviction in the importance of your actions helps you to fend off their influences. Conviction in the Buddha’s awakening, in people of integrity, and in the Dhamma they teach, helps to ensure that your actions will be principled. Then, even when the situation gets difficult, you won’t do anything to harm yourself—i.e., by breaking the precepts—or to harm others, i.e., trying to get them to break the precepts. That’s conviction.
As for persistence, you use whatever means are necessary to keep yourself motivated to abandon unskillful actions and to develop skillful actions: in other words, you motivate yourself with qualities like heedfulness, compassion, humor, pride, a sense of healthy shame, and inspiration from good examples of the past. There was a question yesterday as to how to keep yourself motivated to stay on the path and I forgot to emphasize an important quality, which is joy: learning to find joy in the times when you are skillful. Each time you do something skillful, the Buddha recommends that you take joy in the fact that you can see you’re advancing on the path, because that joy is going to help you in the future. If you feel tempted to stray from the path, remember the last time you felt tempted and yet you didn’t give in, and how much joy you felt the next day. That joy will then help you resist the temptation the next time. At the same time, you learn not to get discouraged by your failures. There’s a story they tell of a Zen master in Minnesota who had a student who wanted to go to Hollywood. The student wanted to try his fortune in the entertainment industry, so the teacher asked him, “What will you do if they knock you down?” And the student said, “Well, I guess I’ll have to accept it.” And the teacher said, “No! You get back up. You fight again. If they knock you down again, you get up again.” That’s persistence.
The third faculty is mindfulness. You do your best to remember that your actions now are the most important thing to focus on, you’re alert to what you’re actually doing and the results you’re getting, and you’re ardent in putting your whole heart into wanting to do this well. Look after your mind as you’d look after a baby. You always have to keep the baby in mind. You’re alert to what the baby is doing, and also to what you’re doing to help raise the baby: what works and what doesn’t work. And because you love the baby, you put your whole heart into doing this well. That’s mindfulness.
As for concentration, try to find time every day to quiet the mind, to give it seclusion from the world—and in particular, from the world as defined by other people and your sense of “you” as defined by other people. Try to redefine yourself as a meditator, someone dedicated to training the mind for true happiness, someone who’s developing the inner strength that will hold you in good stead no matter what happens in the world outside. This will give you the nourishment and inner ease and refreshment you need to keep you going. As Ajaan Fuang used to say, you need refreshment as a lubricant for your practice. If you don’t have this sense of refreshment, it’s like an engine with no lubricant. After a while, it’ll burn up. So, find time every day to keep your mind lubricated.
As for discernment, remember the basic questions that lead to discernment: “What, when I do it, will lead to long-term welfare and happiness? And what, when I do it, will lead to long-term harm and suffering?” Wisdom or discernment lies in focusing on your actions and making proper value judgments about what to do and what not to do, remembering that long-term happiness is better than short-term happiness, and that everything in life depends on what you think, say, and do. Remember also the Buddha’s advice on how to make proper value judgments. Regarding any action you’re thinking of doing, look for the origination of the intention to do that action, see what happens if it passes away, look for the allure of the action or the intention, look for the drawbacks, and then look for the escape. In other words, if it’s an unskillful action, look for why you’re drawn to it and then look for the drawbacks. And once you see that the drawbacks outweigh the allure, you can develop the dispassion that provides the escape. For example, you wake up in the morning and you know, “If I get up now, I could meditate for half an hour.” Then another voice in the mind says, “No, I’d rather sleep for half an hour. I need the rest.” Can you trust that voice? What’s the allure of that voice? Then you can ask yourself how many people gained awakening by sleeping an extra half hour. That can help you get up.
Now, maybe you’re telling yourself that these teachings are just for monastics or just for people on a retreat, but that very thought right there weakens you. You have to ask yourself: Which voice inside you is saying that and why is it saying that? If you don’t know clearly what voice that is, resist it. It’ll get more insistent and more explicit in its reasons, and then you’ll know it for what it is. That’s the kind of voice that’s exposed by developing the five faculties, to see what its allure is, but also what its drawbacks are and how you can find some escape from it.
In this way, you don’t let the world outside or your inner moods or defilements define you. You can define yourself by the desire to find awakening. In the same way, you don’t let the world outside or your moods define the worldview in which you choose to live. You’re in charge, and with these five faculties in charge of your mind, you find that you can trust yourself more and more to do what’s right, both for yourself and for the world touched by your actions.