The Current News
I had a student once who told me that his version of checking the morning news was to go out into his garden and check on what was growing, what was blooming, what was dying. I had to tell him that even that was too far afield.
The important news is what’s going on in your mind right now: What are you doing? What are you saying? What are you thinking? Why? What’s the motivation? This is the news that’s really important for us, because it’s what we’re responsible for.
Yet all too often we don’t exercise our full responsibility here. We pay attention to other things. We let the news of the world outside coming through the media invade our attention, to the point where we really don’t know what we’re doing or why.
So, it’s good when you meditate to remind yourself that this is the news you should be current with: Each time the breath comes in, what are you doing? Each time the breath goes out, what are you doing? Are you with the breath or are you someplace else? If there’s something coming up in the mind, do you see it clearly? Here’s an area where you can exercise some power, some control.
There’s so much in the outside news over which we have no control at all. And it’s frustrating to have knowledge about things we can’t do anything about.
On top of that, we let ourselves get worked up about the news of other people. Instead, we should be getting worked up about the fact that greed, aversion, and delusion are taking charge of our own mind, and yet we’re not doing anything about it, or our efforts are half-hearted. You want to give full attention to what’s happening right here, because right here is where you’re responsible, and this is where you can make a difference.
As you sit here focusing on the breath, you can ask yourself: What would be the best way to breathe right now? Unlike the news outside, this isn’t anything you can discuss as a topic of conversation with your friends: “I had a really great breath last night.” But it is important for your internal well-being right now.
That’s because the mind needs a place in the present moment where it can settle down. If it’s going to see itself clearly, it has to stay anchored in the present. The breath is good for that, both because it’s always in the present moment—there’s no future breath, no past breath that you can watch right now—and because you can make the breath comfortable. That helps the mind be willing to stay here.
If there’s a sense of ease in the body, try to spread it around. Think of it filling the whole body. Think of the breath bathing the body and of good energy filling the body along with the breath. When we talk about the breath being full, it’s not a matter of lots of air in your lungs. It’s more a sense of fullness in your blood vessels, fullness in your nerves. That’s a feeling you want to be able to maintain even as you’re breathing out. It may give rise to a sense of floating. As long as that feels good, keep it up.
When you’re with the breath, you don’t stop there. You ask yourself: What’s going on in the mind? Don’t try to stir things up, just keep an eye out for it. This is what alertness is for, to be not only with the breath but also with the mind. That way, if anything’s going to come in and invade, you see it. And you begin to see the stages by which you get involved in the thought and how the thought goes out into a desire to do something. It’s something you want to see, because the mind plays a lot of tricks on itself as it goes from just a stirring to a decision to do something. All too often those stages are totally hidden from us because we’ve got our attention someplace else.
Someone once told me that her approach to watching the news was always to ask, “Someone wants me to believe this. Why?” In other words, you have to bring a sense of skepticism, you have to wonder about the motives and agendas of other people. And you can never really know. Well, you’ve got to bring the same attitude toward your own motivations. “Something inside me says to do this. Why?” Here’s something you actually can know. You can look into your motivation. What is the agenda? Is it an agenda you’d like to continue with? This way the news is current, and you’re on top of something where you can make a change. That’s the most useful news of all.
The Buddha once said that his test for anything he would say was threefold: Is it true? Is it beneficial? And is this the right time and place? You can apply those same questions to your thoughts. Something comes in: Is this true? If it’s not true, why bother? And when you say it’s true, based on what do you think it’s true?
So much of the news is hearsay. It may be guaranteed from many different sources, but it’s still something you just hear about, it’s just a report. Yet we base so many of our opinions on reports like that. As the Buddha points out, there’s so little you can really trust in reports. They may be right, they may be wrong. You don’t really know.
But the truth that you see while you meditate is the truth of what’s going on in your mind, whether it’s giving rise to pleasure or pain. That’s something you can trust a lot more. But even then if something’s true, that’s not enough. The next question is: Is it beneficial? In other words, can you do something useful with that knowledge? Something that really is for your benefit and for the benefit of others?
Finally, is this the right time and the right place? You could spend the hour thinking about lots of good things you could do tomorrow—which could be true and beneficial, but this is not the right time. Right now you’ve got the opportunity to get the mind really quiet, so that you can see clearly inside what’s going on. Take the opportunity while it’s there.
The Buddha’s image for seeing things clearly is of standing by a clear pool of water where you can see the fish moving around, and you know which fish is doing what because the water is so clear. That’s the clarity you want to have in your mind. Yet for so many of us, our minds are not a clear pool of water. They’re all pretty murky. Every now and then something seems to show its head out of the murk, but the question is: What lies further down in the murk? You’ve got to make the water clear.
You do this by looking at your actions. When you do something, look at the intention beforehand; look at the action while you’re doing it, to see what results you’re getting while you’re doing it; and then look at the results over the long term.
To see the long term requires not only clarity but also mindfulness: the ability to remember what you did. This is one of the reasons why we practice not only being with the present moment but also developing mindfulness and alertness and ardency: keeping in mind the lessons we’ve learned from the past as to what’s useful and what’s not, being alert to what’s actually going on, and trying to do this as best we can for the sake of good results now and into the future.
Is your mind staying with the breath or is it wandering off? If it’s wandering off, bring it back. That’s part of the ardency. While you’re with the breath, ardency tries to be as sensitive as possible to how the breathing feels and how the mind’s relating to the breath.
When you bring all these qualities to bear, that clears the water so you can see precisely what’s going on.
We hear about the unconscious or the subconscious as if it were a separate room in the mind. Actually it’s just actions happening in the mind, right below the surface, but we’re not paying attention to them. When the water’s clear, we can see them clearly.
As meditators we want to be investigative reporters, to look into what’s really going on, to see how many layers there are in your intentions and which ones you can trust. These are things that you can learn, skills that you can master. It’s an area of your experience where you can make a difference for sure. You’re the one in charge. In fact, you’re the only one who knows how you feel the mind from within, how you feel your breath from within.
So here’s your chance to make your eyewitness report to the person who’s responsible for making changes. And try to cultivate the desire that you really want to make the changes for the better. You want to be as skillful as possible in what you do, able to rely on yourself as much as you can.
Because all those reports that come from the world outside may be interesting right now, but as you get older, as death approaches, they won’t be able to do much for you at all. The skills you’ve learned in watching your own mind: Those are the things that will come in handy, that will really help you, so that whatever thought or emotion flares up in the mind, you know how to handle it—because you’ve learned the skill now, because you’ve been on top of things now. You’ve paid careful attention to the news inside your mind right now.
That way, when death becomes something happening right now, or a very strong pain becomes something happening right now, you won’t be in unfamiliar territory. You’ll know the area because you’ve watched it, and you’ve dug down to see what’s really going on right here. That means you’ll be in a position of strength, the strength that comes from being current with what you’re doing and what the results are. It’s through those two things that everything else you know in the world gets filtered.
So be very clear about how you engage with your senses, how you make up your mind to do or say or think something, because everything else you know gets filtered through those decisions. When you’re clear here, everything important becomes clear.