Observe & Evaluate

July 24, 1956

In fixing our attention on the breath, the important point is to use our powers of observation and evaluation and to gain a sense of how to alter and adjust the breath so that we can keep it going just right. Only then will we get results that are agreeable to body and mind. Observe how the breath runs along its entire length, from the tip of the nose on down, past the Adam’s apple, windpipe, heart, lungs, down to the stomach and intestines. Observe it as it goes from the head, down past your shoulders, ribs, spine, and tail bone. Observe the breath going out the ends of your fingers and toes, and out the entire body through every pore. Imagine that your body is like a candle or a Coleman lantern. The breath is the mantle of the lantern; mindfulness, the fuel that gives off light. Your body, from the skeleton out to the skin, is like the wax of the candle surrounding the wick. We have to try make the mind bright and radiant like a candle if we want to get good results.

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Everything in the world has its pair: There’s dark and so there has to be bright. There’s the sun and there’s the moon. There’s appearing and there’s disappearing. There are causes and there are results. Thus, in dealing with the breath, the mind is the cause, and mindfulness the result. In other words, the mind is what acts, mindfulness is what knows, so mindfulness is the result of the mind. As for the properties of the body—earth, water, fire, and wind—the breath is the cause. When the mind makes the cause good, the physical result is that all the properties become radiant. The body is comfortable. Strong. Free from disease. The results that arise by way of the body and mind are caused by the act of adjusting. The result is that we notice and observe.

When we sit and meditate, we have to observe the breath as it goes in and out to see what it feels like as it comes in, how it moves or exerts pressure on the different parts of the body, and in what ways it gives rise to a sense of comfort. Is breathing in long and out long easy and comfortable, or is breathing in short and out long easy and comfortable? Is breathing in fast and out fast comfortable, or is breathing in slow and out slow? Is heavy breathing comfortable, or is light breathing comfortable? We have to use our own powers of observation and evaluation, and gain a sense of how to correct, adjust, and ease the breath so that it’s stable, balanced, and just right. If, for example, slow breathing is uncomfortable, adjust it so that it’s faster. If long breathing is uncomfortable, change to short breathing. If the breath is too gentle or weak—making you drowsy or your mind drift—breathe more heavily and strongly.

This is like adjusting the air pressure on a Coleman lantern. As soon as the air and the kerosene are mixed in the right proportions, the lantern will give off light at full strength—white and dazzling—able to spread its radiance far. In the same way, as long as mindfulness is firmly wedded to the breath, and we have a sense of how to care for the breath so that it’s just right for the various parts of the body, the mind will be stable and one, not flying out after any thoughts or concepts. It will develop a power, a radiance called discernment—or, to call it by its result, knowledge.

This knowledge is a special form of awareness that doesn’t come from anything our teachers have taught us or anyone has told us. Instead, it’s a special form of understanding praised by the Buddha as right view. This form of understanding is coupled with mindfulness and alertness. It ranks as right mindfulness and right concentration as well. When a mind rightly concentrated gains increased strength, the results can lead to intuitive insight, direct realization, purity of knowledge, and ultimately to release, free from any sort of doubt.

The mind will be independent, quiet, light, and at ease—self-contained like a flame in a glass lantern. Even though insects may come and swarm around the lantern, they can’t put out the flame; and at the same time, the flame can’t lick out to burn the hand of the person carrying it. A mind that has mindfulness constantly watching over it is bound to be incapable of stretching or reaching out to take up with any preoccupations at all. It won’t lick out in front or flicker back behind, and external preoccupations won’t be able to come barging into the heart. Our eyes—the eyes of our discernment—will be clear and far-seeing, just as if we were sitting in the interstices of a net, able to see clearly in whichever direction we looked.

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What does discernment come from? You might compare it with learning to become a potter, a tailor, or a basket weaver. The teacher will start out by telling you how to make a pot, sew a shirt or a pair of pants, or weave different patterns, but the proportions and beauty of the object you make will have to depend on your own powers of observation. Suppose you weave a basket and then take a good look at its proportions, to see if it’s too short or too tall. If it’s too short, weave another one, a little taller, and then take a good look at it to see if there’s anything that still needs improving, to see if it’s too thin or too fat. Then weave another one, better-looking than the last. Keep this up until you have one that’s as beautiful and well-proportioned as possible, one with nothing to criticize from any angle. This last basket you can take as your standard. You can now set yourself up in business.

What you’ve done is to learn from your own actions. As for your previous efforts, you needn’t concern yourself with them any longer. Throw them out. This is a sense of discernment that arises of its own accord, an ingenuity and sense of judgment that come not from anything your teachers have taught you, but from observing and evaluating on your own the object that you yourself have made.

The same holds true in practicing meditation. For discernment to arise, you have to be observant as you keep track of the breath and to gain a sense of how to adjust and improve it so that it’s well-proportioned throughout the body—to the point where it flows evenly without faltering, so that it’ s comfortable in slow and out slow, in fast and out fast, long, short, heavy, or refined. Get so that both the in-breath and the out-breath are comfortable no matter what way you breathe, so that—no matter when—you immediately feel a sense of ease the moment you focus on the breath. When you can do this, physical results will appear: a sense of ease and lightness, open and spacious. The body will be strong, the breath and blood will flow unobstructed and won’t form an opening for disease to step in. The body will be healthy and awake.

As for the mind, when mindfulness and alertness are the causes, a still mind is the result. When negligence is the cause, a mind distracted and restless is the result. So we must try to make the causes good, in order to give rise to the good results we’ve referred to. If we use our powers of observation and evaluation in caring for the breath, and are constantly correcting and improving it, we’ll develop awareness on our own, the fruit of having developed our concentration higher step by step.

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When the mind is focused with full circumspection, it can let go of concepts of the past. It sees the true nature of its old preoccupations, that there’s nothing lasting or certain about them. As for the future lying ahead of us, it’s like having to sail a small boat across the great wide sea: There are bound to be dangers on all sides. So the mind lets go of concepts of the future and comes into the present, seeing and knowing the present.

The mind stands firm and doesn’t sway.

Unawareness falls away.

Knowledge arises for an instant and then disappears, so that you can know that there in the present is a void.

A void.

You don’t latch on to world-fabrications of the past, world-fabrications of the future, or dhamma-fabrications of the present. Fabrications disappear. Avijjā—counterfeit, untrue awareness—disappears. ‘True’ disappears. All that remains is awareness: ‘buddhabuddha

Bodily fabrication, i.e., the breath; verbal fabrication, i.e., thoughts that formulate words; and mental fabrication, i.e., thinking, all disappear. But awareness doesn’t disappear. When bodily fabrication moves, you’re aware of it. When verbal fabrication moves, you’re aware of it. When mental fabrication moves, you’re aware of it, but awareness isn’t attached to anything it knows. In other words, no fabrications can affect it. There’s simply awareness. At a thought, the mind appears, fabrications appear. If you want to use them, there they are. If not, they disappear on their own, by their very nature. Awareness is above everything else. This is release.

Meditators have to reach this sort of awareness if they’re to get good results. In training the mind, this is all there is. Complications are a lot of fuss and bother, and tend to bog down without ever getting to the real point.