Day Eight

Maintaining Concentration

The question sometimes arises: After you’ve done the body scan, you finally settle down at one spot and you spread your awareness to fill the entire body, and then, what’s next? “What’s next” is just maintaining what you’ve got. Try to make sure that no other thought comes in to disturb the stillness of your awareness. Now, if your focus begins to get a little bit vague, a little bit blurry, go back to the body scan. Or you can focus special attention on any one spot where you find that there’s an energy problem. As that strengthens your concentration, then you can go back to the whole body.

Watch out for the thought that says, “This is boring.” Just tell yourself that that thought is a disturbance. You don’t have to believe it. Or, if a thought comes in and says, “This is stupid; the mind isn’t thinking any intelligent thoughts at all,” tell yourself that you don’t have to be intelligent all the time. You’re learning how to step back from your thoughts. This is an important skill, an exercise in a different kind of intelligence, so you protect what you’ve got.

Now, you begin to notice that even before a thought forms, there will be a little knot of tension appearing someplace in your awareness. The mind will have a tendency to focus there to decide whether it’s a physical tension or a mental tension. If it decides it’s a mental tension, then it will take that mental tension and turn it into a thought. It’ll slap a perception on it, saying, “This is a thought about x, and so, let’s go with it.” That’s how thoughts and disturbances take over the mind.

So, try to catch the thought at the moment when it’s just a little knot of tension. Zap it with a good breath and it’ll dissolve away. Then watch out for the next little knot of tension. It’s like being a spider on a web. The spider is at one spot on the web. All of a sudden, a fly comes and hits another spot. The spider will immediately go and take care of the fly and then return to its original spot. So, try to make this your sport: shooting down these thoughts before they turn into something big.

In this way, as you watch over your concentration, it will become deeper and deeper. Then part of the mind says, “I’ve rested enough.” Again, remind yourself you’re not here just to rest. You’re here to learn about the mind. And one of the best ways to learn about the mind is to see the different stages by which thoughts form. In this way, you take charge of your thoughts, instead of letting your thoughts be in charge of you, and the process of protecting your concentration becomes the process by which you gain insights into the mind’s fabrications.


Q: The quality and depth of my concentration has been decreasing since I started applying directed thought and evaluation to my mind . Instead of applying directed thought and evaluation, should I just let the meditation flow more freely?

A: When you apply directed thought and evaluation, it should primarily be directed toward the breath with very simple questions: “Is the breath comfortable? Could it be more comfortable? If it is comfortable, how can I maintain that? And then, when I’m maintaining the comfort, can I let it spread?” Try not to evaluate anything much more than that. However, if even that much is disturbing, just pose the question in the mind each time you breathe in: “What kind of breathing would feel good now?” See how the body responds.

Q: If we’re able to concentrate on the more subtle breath energy in the body, should we focus on that and let the in-and-out breath go into the background?

A: Yes.

Q: Second question: If the breath stops while in concentration, we wouldn’t die, right?

A: Most of the time, you won’t die. But if it does happen that you die, it’s good to be in concentration. Now, it is possible for the body to survive without breathing as long as the mind is really, really quiet. How that happens, I can’t explain in terms of modern physiology, but it does happen.

Q: Regarding the steps of breath meditation listed in the Canon, my first question is: What does it mean to discern, “I am breathing in long” or “I’m breathing in short”? What does that mean and how does that apply to the practice?

A: It simply means being sensitive to the quality of the breath. And you don’t stop with just noticing whether it’s long or short. You can also notice the effect that long and short breathing have on the body, because in further steps you’ll be trying to breathe in and out calming bodily fabrication, and then breathing in and out sensitive to pleasure and rapture. So, it’s good to notice what kind of breathing is calming, what kind is conducive to pleasure and rapture.

Q: Second question: Do the sixteen steps have to be mastered in order?

A: The sixteen steps come in sets of four, called tetrads in English. The first tetrad has to do with the body; the second one with feelings; the third with the mind. When you’re getting the mind to settle down with the breath, you’re dealing with all these three things at once: body, feelings, and mind. Whichever aspect is the problem, that’s the tetrad you’ll focus on. For instance, if the breath is uncomfortable, you focus your primary attention on the body and the breath. If the mind is disobedient, you focus primary attention on the step of steadying it. Now, within each tetrad, there’s a pattern. You become sensitive to how you’re fabricating that particular aspect of your experience, you fabricate it in a way that gives rise to a sense of energy, well-being, or rapture, and then you fabricate it in such a way as to calm things down. So, within each tetrad, the steps are mastered in order, but there’s no particular order from tetrad to tetrad.

Q: And then the last question is: How are your instructions on meditation specifically related to these sixteen steps?

A: The instructions I’m giving are primarily related to the first four steps in the first tetrad, which is to be sensitive to the breathing, to be aware of the whole body as you breathe in and out, and then to calm the breath as you’re breathing in, breathing out. However, we’re also dealing with the second and third tetrads indirectly. In the second tetrad, we’re following the steps of being sensitive to pleasure, rapture, and the effect that pleasure, rapture, and your perceptions have on the mind, and then calming that effect down. Within the third tetrad, we’re focusing on the steps of being sensitive to the mind, trying to breathe in a way that gives energy to the mind if the mind is lacking energy, to steady the mind if it has too much energy. So, the meditation we’re doing deals with many of the steps listed in the Canon.

Q: Do you consider that the experience of steps 5 and 6 in the sutta on breath meditation correspond to the first and second jhānas? Do you see other connections between these steps of breath meditation and jhānas?

A: As I just said, there are four tetrads in the 16 steps of breath meditation. The first tetrad corresponds to the body, the second to feelings, the third to the mind, and the fourth to dhammas or mental qualities. It’s not the case that you work on the body and then you work on feelings and then you work on the mind. Right from the beginning, you’re going to be working on the first three together: body, feelings, and mind.

In the first tetrad, the one dealing with the body, step number 4 is calming bodily fabrication. Bodily fabrication is the in-and-out breath. That step corresponds to all four jhānas as the breath gets more and more calm to the point where it finally stops.

As for the steps dealing with the third tetrad, dealing with the mind, these, too, would also be equivalent to the jhānas, but the numbers of the steps don’t correspond to the different stages of jhāna.

In the second tetrad, on feelings, you go into the first and second jhānas in the first two steps (5 and 6), dealing with rapture and pleasure. Then you get to 7 and 8, where you become sensitive to mental fabrications—feelings and perceptions—and then calm them down. The calmest feeling is equanimity, which is present in the third and fourth jhāna. The calmest perceptions are those that aid in that process, taking you to the fourth jhāna and potentially beyond it, into the formless states, as you focus on perceptions of infinite space, infinite consciousness, and nothingness.

Q: When I begin to find myself getting established in the second jhāna, my breath completely goes out of whack. The need for oxygen seems to be much less, things are suddenly quiet, and yet both the mind and the body still need to breathe at a normal rate. I find myself almost suffocating without knowing what to do. Can you give me some advice?

A: The first piece of advice is not to try to enter the second jhāna. Don’t force yourself to stop breathing. And you don’t have to move from the concentration where you already are in order for your concentration to develop. Allow it to develop at its own rhythm and pace. When it does deepen, it’ll deepen with a sense of doing it naturally without any pressure. It’s like a piece of fruit on a tree. To ripen, it doesn’t have to go anywhere, and you don’t have to squeeze it to make it soft. It just stays right there and, as it’s nourished, it ripens on its own.

Q: Bhante, I have developed an attachment to very refined mental states. I am mostly now stuck in the third jhāna. How do I reenter these states with the proper skillful attitude?

A: The third jhāna is a pretty good place to be stuck, because there are many worse places you can be stuck. The only times when these states become a problem is when you refuse to leave concentration in order to take care of your daily duties. Otherwise, if the mind wants to stay there and rest, let it rest for a while. Then, the next question to ask yourself is, “Is there still some disturbance in this state?” There may be a very subtle level of stress that goes up and down. When you notice the ups and downs, ask yourself, “What am I doing when the stress goes up? What am I doing when the stress goes down?” In that way, you actually use the state of concentration to gain insight into the mind.

Q: Could you give us a guided meditation on the dissolution of the body and pure awareness, which would be the fourth and the fifth jhānas? Or could you give some indications?

A: I would love to get all of you into those jhānas, but it’s impossible to give a guided meditation to get you there. Still, I can give you some indications. As you get settled in with the breath and gain a sense that your awareness and the breath are one, and that all of the breath channels in the body are connected, just stay with that sensation of everything being connected. After a while, you find that your need to breathe gets weaker and weaker, and then you get to the point where you don’t feel like you’re breathing at all. Your first reaction will usually be fear that you’re going to die. But you can remind yourself: “As long as I’m aware in the body, I’m not going to die.” If the body needs to breathe, it will. If you can simply stay balanced at that sensation of total stillness in the body, after a while you’ll feel that you’re solidly there. You’re comfortable there.

Then you begin to notice that the sense of the outline or the surface of the body begins to disappear, and the body feels like a cloud of sensation dots. You can stay with that sensation of a cloud for a while. Then you begin to notice that if you focus on the space between the sensations, that sense of space permeates your entire body and spreads out from the body in all directions, without your sensing any boundary or limit. That’s the infinitude of space, and you should stay with that perception of space until the perception is steady and solid. Then you can ask yourself, “What is aware of the space?” and there will be a perception of pure awareness, and you can just stay with that perception. That, too, has no boundaries. Once you can do that, then let me know, and I’ll tell you what to do next.

Q: Is meditation only for the purpose of attaining the jhānas? Is that beneficial as a practice? Or should the daily practice also include right view, right resolve, right action, right speech, right livelihood in order to give benefits?

A: The practice of concentration on its own can give benefits, but if you’re doing it with wrong view, it can also lead to harm. The other factors of the path are needed to protect your concentration and turn it into right concentration. For example, if you practice concentration with wrong view, there are some states that you get into when you feel that you’ve touched the ground of being, especially if you develop a sense of consciousness in and of itself, and you notice that no matter what you do, that consciousness remains unaffected. That might give rise to the idea that you can do anything and that that consciousness won’t be harmed. This is how some meditators think that they’re beyond good and evil, and they start doing some very unskillful things. So, it’s safest if you practice all factors of the path.

Q: When I was first learning meditation, I was told it was not a matter of emptying the mind and then not having any thoughts, but of observing the thoughts as they come and then regarding them as on a movie screen, simply not following them as they go. This is in contradiction with what you’ve been teaching us, teaching us how not to think. Are these two different types of meditation? Can you say more about this? And is the first technique bad?

A: It’s more a question of knowing the right time and place for how to relate to the thoughts of your mind. There are times when you do have to watch your thoughts, but there are also times when it’s really good to be able to rest and have as little thinking as possible. In the very beginning, you have to think about the breath in order to get the breath and the mind to fit snugly together. This is why directed thought and evaluation are part of the first jhāna. Then, when they’ve done their work, you can put them aside.

As the mind gets quieter, then when you come out of concentration you can see the processes of thinking a lot more clearly. At the same time, as I was saying earlier, if you can get the mind really quiet, then as soon as you sense a little stirring in the body or mind that would be the beginning of a thought, you learn how to zap it. This is what gives you more understanding into the processes of how the mind will create a thought and how it will latch on to a thought—and how you can stop those processes. You can’t gain these insights if you simply watch the thoughts come and go.

However, there are times when you cannot figure out how to put a stop to your thinking. Those are good times to simply watch the thoughts come and go—as long as you stay separate from them—in hopes that you might catch sight of something that you would have missed otherwise.

Q: The very beginner thinks that meditation is simple: It’s only to sit and to breathe. After a while, we think it’s complex and we search for a lot of support points, like temporary supports of a building. I expect that for the experienced meditator, the meditation—like a finished building where the temporary supports have been removed—becomes simple again. After all: It’s just to sit and to breathe. Am I correct?

A: The practice of concentration does get simpler as you get better at it. And the development of discernment tries to boil things down to one major question: What is the ignorance that causes us to create unnecessary suffering for ourselves? The work of discernment, however, grows more and more subtle as it gets closer and closer to the real cause. So, it’s not necessarily simpler as you go along. The concentration gets simpler, but the work of discernment gets more demanding as it become more subtle.

Q: Is success in meditation analogous to recovering a lost friendship?

A: In many ways, yes, especially in the practice of concentration. However, as you develop insight, you may find the mind going to places it’s never been before.



Tonight, we begin the discussion of the perfections coming under the heading of calm. Tonight, we’ll discuss endurance, and tomorrow night, equanimity.

As I noted the other day, many of the forest ajaans noticed that when Westerners came to study with them, these were the two qualities they lacked most. So, I’ll have to go into them in detail. We’ll notice, as we’re discussing them, that these two perfections are very closely related to the practice of concentration and the practice of discernment. You’re going to need both endurance and equanimity in order to develop concentration, and these two qualities will also have to depend on your powers of concentration in order to maintain them. We’ll also discover that, in developing them, we have to use our background in discernment, particularly our knowledge of the three fabrications.

The Pāli word for endurance, the perfection we’ll discuss tonight, is khanti. This word can also be translated as “patience” or “tolerance.” As with all the other perfections, it’s rooted in desire: basically, our desire to stick with our skillful desires in spite of the pain and other hardships that following through with our skillful desires may entail. This, in turn, is based on a desire for independence: You don’t want your goodness to have to depend on the goodness of others or on the goodness of the situation in which you find yourself.

Think of the story of Lady Vedehikā in the readings. She was the one who had a reputation for being kind and gentle, so her female slave, Kālī, decided, “Well, does she have this reputation because she really is kind and gentle, or is it simply because I’m always good in my work?” So, Kālī tested her. One day, she woke up a little bit later than normal, and her mistress got a little upset. The slave said to herself, “Ah, there is anger present in her. Let’s test her some more.” The next day, Kālī woke up even later, and the mistress got even angrier. Kālī said to herself, “Ah, she really is angry. Let’s test her again.” On the third day, she got up even later. The mistress got so upset that she hit Kālī over the head with a rolling pin. So, Kālī, her head bleeding, went to denounce her mistress to the neighbors. From that point on, Lady Vedehikā had a reputation for being harsh and violent.

The point of this story is to remind you that you don’t want your goodness to have to depend on the goodness of others. If it’s dependent on them, you can’t rely on it yourself.

Endurance is a quality that, when you develop it, is a way of helping others and helping yourself at the same time. If you respond to hardships with anger, it creates trouble for yourself and creates trouble for the people around you. However, if you can restrain your anger, then you benefit, and the people around you benefit as well. This is why, in the Canon, endurance is directly linked to the perfection of goodwill.

Now, as I said, we have to apply discernment to our practice of tolerance or endurance. One way to do this is to remember the framework of the three kinds of fabrication, and to use that framework to fabricate mind states that strengthen endurance and make it easier.

When I returned to America after many years in Thailand, some people asked me, “What was the hardest thing you had to put up with while practicing in Thailand?” I couldn’t think of anything in particular. This made me realize that that was probably why I was able to endure a lot of hardships over there: I wasn’t focusing on the hardships; I was focusing on the things that were interesting and good. That can strengthen endurance: You don’t focus on what’s hard. Instead, you focus on what’s supporting and energizing you.

For example, with the three kinds of fabrication, no matter how difficult things are outside, you can always breathe comfortably. There are no breath police, and they haven’t privatized your breath yet, so it’s still yours to do with as you like.

Secondly, with verbal fabrication, a lot of endurance has to do with how you talk to yourself about the situation. For instance, there’s often a belief that if someone mistreats you and you don’t respond with anger, they will see you as weak. So, to counteract that belief, you have to hold in mind the perception that endurance is a strength. Also, by not showing your feelings, you’re putting yourself in a safer position. You keep in mind the fact that if other people know what makes you angry, they can control you.

I was once giving a talk to a group of people in the California desert, and the morning after the talk one of the students said, “You know, I realized after your talk last night that I was very angry at you, so I asked myself why. I thought it over afterwards, and I realized that it was because I didn’t know where your buttons are.” (This is a common expression in America: It’s as if the other person is a machine, you push the button, and the machine does what you want it to.) I smiled and said, “This is one of the reasons why we monks wear robes, so that no one can see where our buttons are.”

So, from the Buddha’s point of view, not reacting is a position of strength. This doesn’t mean that you don’t try to correct injustices and misbehavior. It means that you simply stay calm enough to figure out what would be the best time and place to respond to a difficult situation. This is a good thing to tell yourself when you’re faced with a difficult situation: that you’re in a stronger position if you don’t react. It allows you to find the proper way to respond. That’s a good verbal fabrication to hold in mind.

As for mental fabrications, suppose somebody is attacking you verbally. Mark Twain had a good perception to hold in mind, which is that it’s not wise to fight with a pig. One, you’ll get dirty; and two, it pleases the pig.

Note the importance of using your sense of humor to—as we say in English—“make light” of difficulties. We’ve already seen the element of humor in the story of Lady Vedehikā. But the use of humor in developing endurance is something universal and contains an element of folk wisdom.

There was a British explorer in Canada back in the 1830s who wanted to find a copper deposit that was said to be in the Northwest Territories. He couldn’t find anyone to guide him there except for a group of Dene natives. So, he decided to go with them. It was one of the first cases of a British explorer entrusting his life to the natives. As they were going across the territory, they lived off their hunting and fishing skills. He noticed that on the days when the hunting and fishing were bad, those were the days when the Dene were telling the most jokes, to keep their spirits up in spite of the hunger.

These are some of the ways that you use your knowledge of fabrication to help you endure a situation.

The other use of discernment in strengthening endurance is to see clearly what should and shouldn’t be tolerated. The basic distinction comes down to the difference between the results of past kamma and your present kamma: You should learn to tolerate the results of past kamma, but you don’t tolerate any unskillful kamma you might do right now.

In terms of the results of past kamma, the Buddha focuses on two things that you should tolerate: harsh words and pain.

The Buddha’s basic approach for learning how to endure harsh words is to depersonalize them. In one case, he has you remind yourself that human speech has many aspects. It’s normal that there will be kind words and harsh words, true words and false words, things said to you with good intentions and things said to you with bad intentions. So, if someone lies or says something harsh to you, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. This is the nature of human speech.

Sometimes, when I was living in Thailand, people would insult me. I would remind myself, “I was the one who made the effort to learn the Thai language, so it’s my fault that I understand them.” That’s one way of depersonalizing things, to realize that this is the nature of human speech. As they say in Thailand, “Even the Buddha was criticized, so what should I expect?”

The second way of depersonalizing harsh words is when someone says something nasty to you, you just tell yourself, “An unpleasant sound has made contact at the ear.” And just leave it there, at the ear. The problem is that we tend not to leave it there. We pull it into the mind. Our minds are like vacuum cleaners that pull in only the dirt. So, who are you going to blame? You’re the one who pulled it in.

Ajaan Lee has a nice image. He says if someone says something nasty to you, it’s as if they’ve spat something out on the ground. If you take it to brood about, it’s as if you’ve picked up to eat what they’ve spat out. And if you get a stomachache, who are you going to blame? We can also build on his image to say that if you put their food in your mouth to spit it back at them—in other words, you fling an insult back at a person who insulted you—you look foolish, and you’ve picked up whatever germs were there in the food. In other words, the other person’s bad kamma now becomes yours.

These are ways of using verbal fabrication and mental fabrication to help you to endure harsh words by depersonalizing them.

As for pain, we talked about this the other day, in terms of the second tetrad in breath meditation: You learn how to breathe with a sense of rapture, breathe with a sense of ease. Then you try to notice which perceptions are making the pain worse, and you change the perceptions to calm the mind down.

The Buddha offers another approach when you’re in pain. Once Devadatta tried to kill the Buddha by rolling a rock down a mountain. The rock hit another rock and split into slivers, and one of the slivers pierced the Buddha’s foot. After the sliver was removed, the Buddha lay down with a lot of pain. Māra came to taunt him: “You sleepy head, are you miserable because someone tried to kill you?” And the Buddha said, “No, I’m lying here spreading goodwill and sympathy to all beings.”

I’ve personally found that when I’m sick, spreading thoughts of goodwill as far as I can is a good way to deal with the illness. It keeps the mind from complaining about the illness and expands it to a much larger state, like the river into which the lump of salt has been thrown.

So, those are the two things you have to learn how to tolerate: harsh words and physical pain. Using discernment and developing your powers of concentration can help in both cases. You’ll notice that, in both cases, you’re following the steps in the second tetrad of breath meditation. We’ve already made this point explicitly when explaining how to deal with pain, but it applies to dealing with harsh words as well. You focus on breathing comfortably while you’re being verbally attacked—that’s bodily fabrication—which keeps you from adding unnecessary stress to the situation, and then you find ways of perceiving the situation—that’s mental fabrication—to calm the mind down.

Now, the things that you don’t tolerate are your unskillful mind states. The Buddha says that if greed, aversion, or delusion arise in the mind, you don’t let them stay. You try to get them out of the mind in the same way that you’d try to put out a fire burning the hair on your head.

This distinction between the things you should and shouldn’t tolerate has a parallel with the Buddha’s teachings on contentment. You learn to be content with your physical surroundings, in terms of food, clothing, and shelter. If these requisites are good enough to allow you to practice, then they’re good enough. But you’re not content with your level of skillfulness. As long as you find that the mind is still causing itself suffering, you have to say, “I’ve got to do better.”

Now, one of the types of tolerance that’s not mentioned in the texts is when you find yourself in a situation where it’s difficult to practice and you have too many responsibilities to get out of the situation. In a case like that, my teachers have said not to focus on the difficulties. Instead, focus on the things you can do. The ajaans in Thailand are often told by people, “I don’t have any time to meditate,” and the ajaans always respond, “Do you have time to breathe?” “Yes.” “In that case, you have time to practice.”

Ajaan Maha Boowa had a student, a woman in her 60s, who was dying of bone cancer, and she asked his permission to mediate at his monastery to prepare for her coming death. He told her to bring a doctor along, as he had no medical knowledge. She had a friend who was a retired doctor, an elderly woman in her 80s, who agreed to go with her.

They stayed for three months, and he gave them a Dhamma talk almost every night. After they returned to Bangkok, the old doctor decided to transcribe the talks, which they had recorded on tape. Her health wasn’t good, and her eyesight was poor, but she managed to transcribe all the talks—almost 90 in all.

She said that she took encouragement from one of Ajaan Maha Boowa’s teachings: that as you get older and your body is failing, try to squeeze as much goodness out of it as you can before you have to throw it away.

That’s a thought we should all keep in mind.

So, we can regard our difficulties as opportunities to develop the perfections. When I was looking after my teacher, there were times when it would take all hours of the day and night to look after him, but I kept telling myself, “I’m learning good lessons.” Prior to looking after him, I was not very good at looking after people who were sick. I always thought that I was doing them a big favor. But with Ajaan Fuang, I never got the sense that I was doing him any favor at all. For instance, I would have to be up with him two or three nights in a row, and then when he finally got better, he would say, “You can go off anywhere you want.” No, “Thank you.” Just, “Go.” I realized I had to do this not for the thank you, but for the good qualities I was developing: patience and endurance. That’s the attitude you have to adopt when things are difficult around you. There are a lot of things you can’t change or that will take a while to change, but if you regard them as a challenge to develop the perfections, then they actually become part of the practice.


Q: Are emotions all mental fabrications?

A: Emotions are composed of bodily, verbal, and mental fabrications. For example, when anger comes, you’ll be breathing in a certain way, talking to yourself in a certain way, and then holding certain perceptions and physical feelings in mind.

Q: And the next question: Can you trust your emotions?

A: No. You made them up. As with anything you’ve fabricated, you have to ask yourself: “Is this emotion skillful? If it’s not skillful, which fabrications do I have to change?”