Mental Power, Step by Step

July 26, 1956

Try to be mindful as you keep track of the breath going in and out. Don’t let yourself forget or be distracted. Try to let go of all concepts of past or future. Silently repeat ‘buddho’ in your mind—‘bud-’ in with every in-breath, and ‘dho’ out with every out—until the mind settles down and is still. Then you can stop your mental repetition and begin observing the in-and-out breath to see how fast or slow, long or short, heavy or light, broad or narrow, crude or subtle it is. Stick with whichever way of breathing is comfortable. Adjust whichever way of breathing isn’t comfortable or easy until it’s just right, using your own discrimination—dhamma-vicaya-sambojjhaṅga—as your standard of judgment. (When you’re making adjustments in this way, you don’t have to do any mental repetition. You can let ‘buddho’ go.)

You have to keep an eye on your mind to make sure that it doesn’t wander, waver, or fly out after any external concepts. Keep the mind still, equanimous and unconcerned, as if there were only you sitting alone in the world. Let the breath spread throughout every part of the body, from the head to the tips of the fingers and toes, in front, in back, in the middle of the stomach, all the way through the intestines, along the blood vessels, and out through every pore. Breathe long and deep until the body feels full. The body will feel light, open and spacious, just like a sponge full of water: When we squeeze the water out, it all comes out easily without any interference.

At this point, the body will feel light and at ease. The mind will feel as cool as the water that permeates the soil, seeping into the roots of trees, keeping them nourished and fresh. The mind will be set straight and upright, not leaning to the left or right, forward or back. In other words, it doesn’t stretch out to any concepts or outside preoccupations at all.

Concepts lie at the essence of mental fabrication. The mind thinks of matters either past or future, and then starts elaborating on them as good or bad, liking or disliking them. If we see them as good, we get pleased and taken with them: This is delusion. If we see them as bad, we get displeased, which clouds and defiles the mind, making it irritated, restless and annoyed: This is ill will. The things that give rise to unrest and disturbance in the mind are all classed as hindrances (nīvaraṇa)—fabrications that fashion the mind, destroying whatever is good in our practice of concentration. So we have to do away with them all.

Mental fabrications, if we think in terms of the world, are world-fabrications. If we think in terms of dhamma, they’re dhamma-fabrications. Both sorts come from avijjā, unawareness. If this unawareness disbands, awareness will arise in its stead. So we have to try to increase the strength of our concentration to the point where fabrications disband—and at that point, unawareness will disband as well, leaving only awareness.

This awareness is identical with discernment, but it’s a discernment that arises from within. It doesn’t come from anything our teachers have taught us. It comes from the stillness of mind focused on events in the present. It’s an awareness that’s very profound, but it’s still mundane—not transcendent—discernment, because it comes from labels and concepts. It’s still tied up with affairs of being and birth.

Perhaps we may become aware of matters of the past, knowing and seeing the states of being and birth we’ve been through. This is called knowledge of past lives. Perhaps we may become aware of the future, knowing the affairs of other people, how they die and are reborn. This is called knowledge of death and rebirth. Both these forms of knowledge still have attachment infiltrating them, causing the mind to waver in line with its likes and dislikes. This is what corrupts our insight.

Some people, when they learn of the good states of being and birth in their past, get engrossed, pleased, and elated with the various things they see. If they meet up with things that aren’t so good, they feel disgruntled or upset. This is simply because the mind still has attachment to its states of being and birth. To like the things that strike us as good or satisfying is indulgence in pleasure. To dislike the things that strike us as bad or dissatisfying is self-affliction. Both of these attitudes are classed as wrong paths that deviate from the right path, or right view.

Matters of the past or future, even if they deal with the Dhamma, are still fabrications, and so are wide of the mark. Thus the next step is to use the power of our concentration to make the mind even stronger, to the point where it can snuff out these mundane forms of discernment. The mind will then progress to transcendent discernment—a higher form of discernment, an awareness that can be used to free the mind from attachment—right mindfulness, the right path. Even though we may learn good or bad things about ourself or others, we don’t become pleased or upset. We feel nothing but disenchantment, disinclination, and dismay over the way living beings in the world are born and die. We see it as something meaningless, without any substance. We’re through with feelings of liking and disliking. We’ve run out of attachment for ourself and everything else. The mind has moderation. It’s neutral. Even. This is called six-factored equanimity (chalaṅg’ūpekkhā). We let go of the things that happen, that we know or see, letting them follow their own regular course without our feeling caught up in them. The mind will then move up to liberating insight.

At this point, make your strength of mind even more powerful, to the point where it is freed from attachment even to the realizations it has come to. Knowing is simply knowing; seeing is simply seeing. Keep the mind as something separate. Don’t let it flow out after its knowing. We know, and then leave it at that. We see, and then leave it at that. We don’t latch onto these things as being ours. The mind will then gain full power and grow still of its own accord—not involved, not dependent on anything at all.

Fabrications disappear completely, leaving just a pure condition of dhamma: emptiness. This is the phenomenon of non-fabrication. Release. The mind is free from the world— exclusively within the current of the Dhamma, without going up or down, forward or back, progressing or regressing. The mind is a stake driven firmly in place. Just as when a tree is attached to a stake by a rope: When the tree is cut down, the rope snaps in two, but the stake stays put. The mind stays put, unaffected by any objects or preoccupations. This is the mind of a noble disciple, a person free from the fermentations of defilement.

Whoever trains his or her heart in line with what has been mentioned here will meet with security, contentment, and peace, free from every sort of trouble or stress. What we have discussed briefly here is enough to be used as a guide in the practice of training the mind to gain release from suffering and stress in this lifetime. To take an interest in these things will be to our advantage in the times to come.