One of the really useful qualities we’re developing as we stay with the breath is mindfulness. If you’re going to stay with the breath, you have to keep the breath in mind. As soon as you forget the breath, you’re off someplace else. This training in remembering plays a huge part in the practice—and it bears repeating again and again and again that mindfulness is remembering. It’s your active memory. It’s how you apply your memory to what you’re doing right now, what you’re experiencing right now—because there’s a lot to remember about how to shape your experience skillfully, and in particular, how to shape it into the path.
Usually when a thought comes up, it’s your thought. If an opinion comes up, it’s your opinion. A feeling, an emotion, a mood: The first thing you think is, “This is my mood,” “my feeling,” or “my opinion.” We don’t get to look at these things carefully—in the Buddha’s terms, as something separate, in and of themselves. We just ride with them, and we end up dealing with these thoughts and opinions in very unskillful ways, because of that framework of “my.”
So we need a new framework, a different framework for looking at these things, and that’s what we’ve got to remember.
The Buddha said to look at the body in and of itself; feelings in and of themselves—“feelings” here meaning feelings of pleasure, pain, and neither pleasure nor pain; mind-states, which is where moods, emotions, and opinions all come in; and then mental qualities—specific mental qualities that are skillful or unskillful and go into making up mind-states. In each of these cases, the Buddha gives you a framework for looking at these things in and of themselves so that, for the time being, you can take away the “my” and “mine,” and instead look at these things as events, as part of a causal chain. Where do these things come from? Where do they lead?
Take feelings, for instance. There are feelings of pleasure, pain, and neither pleasure nor pain. As the Buddha points out, in the abstract, there’s nothing really wrong either with pleasure or pain. But there are specific pleasures that are worth cultivating and specific pleasures that are not. It’s the same with pains. A lot of pains are totally useless. The Buddha gives an example of all the pain that went into the huge sacrifices kings and queens used to perform back in his time. They were painful in the doing and painful in the result. That kind of pain doesn’t accomplish anything.
Then there are pleasures. Some are worth developing, others are worth dropping. There’s the pleasure of concentration. There’s the pleasure of being generous. Those are skillful pleasures, pleasures worth developing.
For, as he also points out, we’re not here just watching things arising and passing away on their own—because they don’t arise and pass away on their own. There’s an element of intention in how we shape our experience.
Simply focusing on the breath, you’re changing the feelings in the body. If you learn how to apply your attention to the breath in the proper way, you can create what the Buddha calls “pleasure not-of-the-flesh.” This doesn’t happen on its own. There may be moments when it comes and goes, but you’re not here just watching the moments. You’re trying to develop the ease and pleasure that comes with being with the breath, to make it continuous. And that’s a good pleasure, something worth cultivating.
As for unskillful pleasures: The Buddha says you want to stay away from them because of their impact on your mind—and through that, their impact on your actions and the way you affect other people.
So this is the framework you’re trying to remember when a feeling comes. It’s not so much, “It’s my feeling,” or “I like it,” or “I don’t like it.” The question is, “Where does this feeling lead?” This brings your feelings and mind-states into the realm of right resolve.
As the Buddha said, the first thing that really got him on the path was his ability to separate his thoughts into two types: those worth pursuing and those worth letting go. What was the distinction? Basically, the distinction was: “Where do these thoughts lead? What kind of intention is motivating them? Where does the intention lead?” If the thoughts had to do with sensuality, ill will, or harmfulness, he would drop them—beat them down, actually, because they led to affliction, either for himself or for others. That’s part of right resolve.
But if the thoughts were thoughts of renunciation, goodwill, or harmlessness, he’d allow them to roam around, because they caused no affliction. That’s right resolve, too. He said it was like watching over cattle during the dry season, when there’s no danger of their getting into the crops. All you have to do is just be mindful: “Okay, they’re there. Remember that they’re there.” That was it. But he noticed that if you continued thinking in those ways, even if they were skillful, it would eventually tire the mind—and when the mind is tired, it’s not only wearisome. It can weaken itself so that it can’t keep its unskillful thoughts in check. That’s why he brought the mind to concentration.
The same principle applies to all the different thought patterns and mind-states that can go through the mind. You have to figure out which ones you can allow to roam around and which ones you’ve got to bring under control—and specifically, which kind of thinking is useful to get the mind into concentration. If your energy level is down and the mind is getting depressed, what can you do to lift your spirits? When the mind is wired and scattered all over the place with lots of frenetic energy, what can you do to calm it down? If the mind isn’t concentrated, what can you do to get it concentrated? If the mind isn’t in an expansive state, what can you do to expand it?
These are the questions the Buddha has you ask. This is the framework you want to keep in mind. This is your frame of reference; this is where you want to establish your mindfulness.
It’s the same with mental qualities. The hindrances? You want to recognize: “These are hindrances.” Sensual desire comes up and, all too often, we don’t think, “This is a hindrance.” We think, “Let’s run with it.” Thoughts of ill will come up. We can think of all the harm that other people have to done us, and we can stew in that for quite a while, thinking that we’re perfectly justified in wanting to see those people suffer. The mind gets sleepy? You tell yourself, “Ah, a sign that I’m getting drowsy. I’m getting tired. I need to rest.” In other words, you side with the hindrances because they’re yours. The Buddha wants you to take off that little label of “me” and say, “Okay, look at this simply in terms of this framework; keep this framework in mind.” If any one of these five hindrances comes up, it’s something you want to understand so that, through understanding it, you can drop it.
This is where another main aspect of mindfulness practice comes in, which is ardency. What can you do to develop the skillful states, and what can you do to get rid of the unskillful ones? You want to keep that in mind as well. Whatever lessons you’ve learned in the past, try them all out. And if nothing seems to work? Then try to use your ingenuity to figure out what’s wrong. Keep watching until you can see the connection between a particular mind-state and what’s giving rise to it—and then, how you can cut it off at the source.
As for the factors for awakening—mindfulness, analysis of qualities, persistence, rapture, calm, concentration, and equanimity—how do you give rise to them? How do you recognize them when they’re there? Sometimes they come as just little seeds or little tiny sprouts. How do you recognize a moment of concentration, a moment of mindfulness? How do you recognize the potential for rapture? You want to look for these things. Learn how to recognize them and nurture them when they’re there. When you’re having trouble settling down, where in the body is there a sense of calm or serenity? If you’re all tied up in tension—say, in your head—which part of the body is not tense? Focus there.
It’s like that old book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which recommends, when you’re drawing a face, instead of drawing the eyes, the nose, and the mouth, that you draw the spaces between the mouth and the nose, between the eyes and the nose, between the edge of the hair and the eyebrow, and so forth. In other words, focus on the spaces you tend to ignore. You’ll find that you can draw much more accurate pictures because you don’t let your preconceived notions of the shape of an eye or a nose get in the way. You don’t have preconceived notions about the shape of a forehead or the shape of the space between eyebrows and eyes. Those are the areas where you tend not to focus. So by focusing on the areas where you tend not to look, you find there’s a space, and you can draw the shape of that space with a fresh eye. You get a much better picture.
It’s the same with areas where there are bands of tension in the body. You don’t focus on them; you don’t connect them up; you focus on areas between them, where things are going well. The “going well” here may not be all that impressive to begin with, but if you give it some space, give it some time, it’ll develop. One of the advantages of the kind of mindfulness practice that encourages you to be accepting and equanimous and patient is just that: You develop powers of patience and equanimity, so that when you can’t figure something out, you have the patience to watch. And when you’ve figured out something and you know it’s going to take time, well, you have the patience and equanimity to stick with it.
But mindfulness practice doesn’t stop with equanimity. Equanimity is simply one of the elements of the practice. Remember that mindfulness is the remembering and the framework you’re trying to keep in mind so that you recognize, when something comes up in the mind, what you can do with it—for example, when it’s skillful to be equanimous and when it’s not. This way, mindfulness practice fits ultimately into the four noble truths. Each truth has a duty. When something comes up, is it part of the truth of stress? Okay, remember: What do you do with stress? You try to comprehend it. You try to see where the clinging is—which particular aggregate you’re clinging to—and then you learn how to depersonalize these things so that you can get the upper hand.
Part of you may resist, thinking, “Well, this is me. These are my feelings. This is me, mine”—whatever. But what’s happened is these things have taken you over. You’re enslaving yourself to these things: the clingings and the things that you cling to so much. Through your taking possession of them, they take possession of you.
So what the Buddha’s giving you is a framework for freeing yourself. It requires effort and ardency, but it’s all to the good. It’s in this way that mindfulness guides right effort and leads to right concentration, and to all the other right elements of the path that take you to freedom.
So remember this: Mindfulness is about remembering, holding a certain framework in mind, and then using that as a guide to what needs to be done with whatever comes up.
And you’re not just waiting for things to come up willy-nilly. You realize that certain things, when they come up, you have to let go. You have to get rid of them. Other things, when they come up, you want to encourage—to keep them going so that they can grow. As the Buddha says, this is what it means to have mindfulness as your governing principle: not just watching things coming and going, but realizing that some things, when they come, should be allowed to go really fast. In other words, you get rid of them as quickly and effectively as you can. Other things, skillful things, that haven’t yet come should be encouraged to come because they’re helpful. If they don’t arise on their own, you remember to make them arise—and to try to keep them from passing away.
So remember this, because this is the framework that helps you find freedom from all the things you used to lay claim to. But then, when you learn that you can pull off that label of “me” or “my,” you’re not deprived. You’re freed.