The Sport of Wise People

June 19, 2015

Ajaan Fuang once called concentration practice “the sport of wise people.” Like any sport, it’s something you want to do well but you also want to enjoy yourself while you’re doing it. So you’ve got to find that right balance between sticking with it, mastering the technique, and having some fun in the process. Otherwise it gets grim and serious. Of course, our purpose is serious, the practice is serious—we’re dealing with a big problem, the problem of suffering—but if you’re grim about the path, that grimness begins to grind you down. So you have to learn how to develop a light attitude around what you’re doing.

One of the skills of meditation is learning how to gladden the mind as you’re practicing. So, what would gladden your mind right now? Maybe some thoughts of goodwill. Try to think of someone you’ve never extended goodwill to before and spread goodwill to that person. You might want to choose someone a little bit challenging, and take it as you’d take a challenge in any sport: Here’s a problem, here’s a difficulty, but there must be a way around it, and you’re going to find it. This is one of the hallmarks of people who are not just good at a particular sport but really good. Once they’ve mastered one problem, they figure out where the next problem is, and the next, and they take joy in posing questions and learning how to answer them.

Once you’ve spread thoughts of goodwill, the next question is, how are you going to stay with the breath? Where would be a fun place to focus on the breath right now? Some place you haven’t thought of before, something new, something different. Ajaan Fuang would sometimes talk about thinking of a pole of light inside the body, extending down from the middle of the head, down through the spine. As you breathe in, think of the breath coming in from all directions into that pole of light, and as you breathe out think of it going out in all directions from that pole of light. This way, you’re not staying with just one spot. You’ve got a line in the body for your focus.

Another time I heard him talking about breathing into your bones—think of all the bones in the body and the breath energy going into the marrow.

What this means is that you’ve got to ventilate the mind a little bit. Otherwise, it gets stagnant like the huts here when they’re closed during the heat of the day. I’ve been going into the empty huts and opening them up in the evening and they’re really stuffy because there’s no circulation at all. Sometimes the temperature inside is actually cooler than the temperature outside, but because nothing is moving, because there’s no ventilation, it feels hotter. And the mind can be that way, too. If you’ve got a particular idea about the meditation in mind and you just hold, hold, hold to it and don’t have any opportunities for changing things a little bit, it gets stuffy. So think of things that will gladden the mind, things that will bring some novelty to your meditation, and that way you give yourself some staying power.

Also, think about things you’re carrying in from the day or carrying in from other aspects of your life. Can you let go of them? A lot of things we hold onto as being really important in life: We define ourselves around them, but if we can’t let them go at all, it’s like having a muscle that’s tensed up all the time. So think of something you tell yourself would be impossible to let go of and then see if you can put it down for right now. Think the opposite thought.

Like that character in Through the Looking Glass who said he liked to think about three or four impossible things every morning before breakfast: Think of something that would be ordinarily impossible for you to let go of, something you would define yourself around, and see if you can un-define yourself, at least for the time being. After all, everything you’re holding in mind right now, you’ll have to let go of at some point—all of your perceptions, all of your ideas. When the time comes to leave the body, you’re going to have to leave a lot of those behind as well—and it’s good to get practice in letting go, because the path requires staying power, and the trick to staying power lies in letting go of things that are really unnecessary.

It’s like going camping. If you want to hike for a long time, you take a light burden: the lighter the burden, the longer you can hike. But most of us have too many things in our knapsack—we’re afraid we’re going to miss this little convenience or that, we’ve got to hold onto this, hold onto that—and as a result we hardly get away from the trailhead at all.

So with any distraction that comes up in the meditation, just say, “Let go, let go, let go.” You hold onto the breath, or whatever you’ve taken as your object, and just say to yourself, “That’s it, that’s all I’m going to hold onto.” And have a light attitude toward it. As Ajaan Fuang would say, you play with the meditation. But you don’t play in a desultory or scatterbrained way. You play in the same way that a professional sportsperson would play at a sport—you keep at it, keep at it, keep at it, but find ways of making it interesting, ways of making it challenging, and learn how to encourage yourself to be up for the challenge, to enjoy the challenges. This is what gives you staying power.

I’ve been working on a project having to do with humor in the Pali Canon. There are two basic ways it’s used. One is to let go of the values of the world, to encourage you not to be impressed by things that people in the world are generally impressed by, such as the fact that there are devas out there. There are some people who think, “Wow, if I get to talk to a deva I must be really special. The deva might give me important information.” Well, the Buddha has you question that, by pointing out in a humorous way that there are a lot of devas who don’t really know very much.

Or you might think that people who are rich and wealthy and powerful have something that’d be worth aspiring to—well, you look at the lives of the kings in the time of the Buddha. For all their power, they had a lot of the problems that everybody else has: nothing special there. In fact, they have a lot of problems that ordinary people don’t have. People who want a share of their power will feel no compunction about lying to them.

So use the discernment of humor to give yourself a sense of distance from the values of the world. You can step back and realize, “I’m not enmeshed in those things; I don’t have to be enmeshed in those things; those are things that I don’t have to believe in or be impressed by”—and there’s a lightness that comes from that.

The other use of humor is to look at the practice as something enjoyable. There’s a really nice image of a bull elephant who’s tired of being in a herd of elephants: When he goes down to bathe, all the other elephants bump up against him. He tries to drink clear water, but all the elephants have muddied the water. So he goes off alone and bathes without anybody bumping into him. When he drinks water, it’s clear. Whenever he itches anywhere, he takes a branch off a tree and scratches himself with it. And the Buddha interprets this image as being like a person who’s going off to meditate: You use your concentration to scratch wherever you feel an itch.

So, where does your mind itch right now? Where does your body itch right now? Can you use the breath to scratch it? Can you use whatever your concentration topic is to scratch it? The image is nice and light-hearted, and so even though we’re serious about the practice—and, as I say, we’re dealing with a serious problem, the suffering in the mind—we want to have a light touch. Otherwise things get bogged down.

I think I’ve told you about the Englishman who walked across the Northwest Territories way back in the 1820s—the first recorded instance of an English person entrusting his life to a band of Dene. As they were going across the land, of course, they were hunting. On some days they’d catch some game and on other days they wouldn’t. On the days when they couldn’t catch game, he said, they tightened up their belts and spent their time joking with one another as they walked along, to keep up their spirits. Otherwise, you start focusing on how hungry you are and you get more and more miserable and the trail seems more and more impossible. But if you can keep a light spirit about things, a long trail becomes shorter, and a heavy load becomes light.

So do what you can to keep your spirits up and to enjoy the meditation as a game.

Building a Home for the Mind

November 25, 2015

The texts often talk about concentration as being a home for the mind—vihara-dhamma—the place where the mind can settle in. Before you can settle in, though, you have to build a house. And as Ajaan Lee said, the work in building this house lies in the directed thought and evaluation. You find a topic that you like to think about and then you evaluate it here in the present moment.

For example with the breath, you’ve got all kinds of in-and-out breathing that you can focus on: long, short, heavy, light, deep, shallow, fast, slow. Or you can start with the breath energies in the body. Some people, in the beginning, find them easier to focus on than the in-and-out breath. Just scan through the body. Notice where there’s any tension or tightness. Think of it relaxing. And then move on until you’ve been through the body several times. As you do that for a while, you’ll find that the in-and-out breathing will find its own rhythm that’s just right for the needs of the body.

The important point is that you’re focused on the sensations in the present moment. That’s what you’re thinking about and that’s what you’re evaluating. It’s not that you’re thinking about something someplace else or analyzing things in abstract terms. You’re asking very practical questions, focused on what you’re doing. How does this feel? Is this a place where you can settle in? How’s the living room? How’s the dining room? Is it big enough? Or do you feel cramped or tight? You’ve got to expand the house.

Think not only of the body but also of the area immediately around the body. Can you sense an energy field there? Some people can; some people can’t. If you can, how do you make use of it? That’s a lot of what the evaluation is about. It’s like looking at the lumber and the other things you’ve got for the house. What can you make with this lumber? You may have had one house in mind, but when you actually get your materials, you see they’re not quite what you expected. Well, make the best of what you’ve got.

You’ll find that there are some parts of the body where the energy is hard to work with. Well, work around them. If there’s a blockage someplace, think that the breath can go right through it. If there’s a pain in one part of the body and the more you focus on it, the worse it seems to get, ask yourself, “What is my perception adding to the pain? Can I think about the pain using other perceptions?” So the evaluation here evaluates the breath and other physical aspects of the body together with what you’re doing, in terms of your perceptions and thoughts, to see what can be changed.

One perception game that I’ve found useful is that, if you feel that there’s a pain in your back, ask yourself, “Suppose that pain was actually a pain in the front of the body and I’m misperceiving it?” And hold the perception in mind that it’s actually a pain in the front. Or if the pain is in the front, see if you can perceive it as being in the back. You’ll find that the energies in the body move around. Sometimes even your posture will change a bit. The pain will change. And you’ve learned something about the power of perception. You’ve learned something about how you relate to the body; how your awareness relates to the body. And you begin to realize there’s a lot to explore in the present moment.

Someone asked me the other day what I found interesting in the breath. And I said, “There’s just so much to explore in the area of how your awareness relates to this physical body here. How is it that it can move the body? Why is it that your perceptions change the way you sense the body? How does this all work?” If you’re interested in these questions—and how can you not be interested?—the breath is the ideal interface for watching the relationship between body and mind. When you can explore things in these terms, you’ve won half the battle right there, because then the house won’t be just a nice place where you rest before you go looking for entertainment outside. You find there’s a lot of entertainment in the house—educational entertainment—because it’s not just a house of lumber and shingles. It’s a home of your awareness in this body.

You’ve taken up residence in this body. You’ve been with it for a long time. So what’s actually going on here with this relationship? There’s plenty to study. There are the different elements or properties: earth, water, wind, fire. Breath, of course, is part of the wind element. On cold days like this, it’s good to have something warm inside. Well, where are the warm parts of the body, or the parts that are warmer than others? Think about those. Evaluate those. In other words, see how you can integrate them with the breath, and spread the warmth around the body.

When this kind of evaluation becomes too tiring for you, let yourself rest. You work at building the house, but you can’t work 24/7, so rest in what you’ve got: a corner of a room that you’re able to make comfortable, even though the rest of the house is unfinished. Convince yourself that it’s good enough for you to stay here for a while.

Someone was telling us about a meditation teacher who’d get into different levels of concentration but wouldn’t stay there very long because, although they were pleasant at first, they wouldn’t stay pleasant for more than a few minutes. That’s not right concentration. Right concentration has to be a place where you can settle down and stay, in comfort, for long periods of time. So evaluate things. Check to see: Is the amount of pressure you’re putting on the breath something you could apply comfortably for a long period of time, or are you pushing too much? If it’s too much, okay, back off a bit. Try to find out what’s just right that can stay just right, something you can stick with for long periods of time. It’s not that you’re going to push, push, push and then break through to something. You simply stay and learn how to be balanced right here. When things are in balance, they open up. They don’t open up when you push them too hard.

The more precise your awareness of what’s going on, the more precise your sensitivity to what’s going on, then the more solid and balanced the breath becomes—and the more solid and balanced your concentration.

So we’re evaluating the breath and evaluating the way the mind relates to the breath. When a sense of pleasure does come, you evaluate what to do with it. How do you spread it without ruining it? If you push on it to spread it around, that’s not going to be pleasant anymore. Pleasure has to radiate, to glow. Sometimes it’ll flow. But you can’t push it. All you can do is open up the different channels of energy, or the spots where things are tight and blocked, and see what happens. This is how you can develop a place where you can settle in and stay.

And when the work is done, you can put aside the directed thought and evaluation and rest comfortably in deeper levels of concentration because the whole body has been worked through and cleaned out. It’s as if directed thought and evaluation are sweeping through the body, getting rid of all the cobwebs, getting rid of all the dust, throwing out the junk that clutters your way. When those things are gone, you can settle in and become one with the breath: unification of awareness, as the Buddha calls it. There’s a sense of flow and there’s no sense that you have to direct it or that the flow is going to stop. It just flows and flows and you’re right there. The Buddha’s image is of a lake that’s fed by a spring welling up. One of the Thai ajaans called it still flowing water—the mind is still, but there’s a sense of flow in the body. And you allow that to mature. You settle in.

The next step in making your home more comfortable is to use a little bit of directed thought and evaluation to take you to deeper and deeper levels of concentration. You settle into one level, and then you back up a bit to see where there’s still some disturbance on that level. It’s like a dog getting ready to lie down to sleep. It lies down and then feels a root or a stone that’s getting in the way. So it gets up, circles around and finds it, scratches it away, and then lies down with an even greater sense of ease.

You don’t have to count the levels of concentration you go through. Just start asking yourself these questions: Where’s the disturbance in here? What’s causing it? Can I drop the cause? This is what the work is all about: settling in and then realizing, okay, it’s not quite right. Back up a little bit, check things out, evaluate a little bit. You can sense what’s wrong. Okay, fix that. And then settle in again. And if you don’t see anything wrong, stay right there. Let the mind gain a sense of ease, gain a sense of well-being from settling in.

As the Buddha said, you want to indulge in the sense of well-being because it’s nourishing for the mind. Ajaan Fuang called it the lubricant of our practice. It keeps things flowing, keeps things running smoothly, without a lot of friction. You get a greater and greater sense that you really belong here. This is a good place to be. You feel no need to move.

Some people are afraid that when they get into concentration, they’ll get stuck there and won’t be able to get out. Actually, you can get out very easily. Concentration is one of the easiest things in the world to leave. The stuckness that they’re afraid of is the fear—and it’s a legitimate fear for people with addictive tendencies—that they’ll crave this so much that they’ll get overly upset about anything that disturbs it, that they’ll always keep running away to concentration, without dealing with the issues of the world or their own inner issues. That can be a problem. But first develop the concentration, because those problems can be solved.

The problem that can’t be solved is if you’re afraid to do the concentration and don’t do it, or if you’re afraid to settle in, or if you’re afraid to stay. Right concentration has to involve finding a place where you can stay for long periods of time, because there are a lot of issues in the mind that you won’t be able to understand unless you watch them steadily, continuously for long stretches of time.

As we deal with the troublemakers in the mind—the defilements and other unskillful qualities—you have to be alert to their tricks. And only a very steady gaze can see through some of those tricks. So this is what you need. Find an object that you can stay with. And if it’s not quite right, evaluate it and adjust it so that it becomes right—something you can stay with for long periods of time without a lot of in and out, in and out. It’s like riding in a car. If the driver’s foot isn’t steady on the accelerator, it goes up and down, up and down, and the ride is jerky. You want a smooth ride so that you can read in the car. You want to be able to settle in so that you can stay steadily here and read your own mind.

And as for whatever level of jhana it might be, you can put those questions aside. Right concentration is not focused on jhana. It’s focused on an object like the breath. The quality of the concentration, the jhana itself, comes from being really settled and doing your proper concentration work with the breath and your perceptions so that you can settle in with the breath even more. You want a quality of awareness that allows you to be steady and to watch steadily things that are very subtle, to see how they’re connected. This connection may take a while to detect, to understand. So, try to get into a state that can stay steadily here.

If you can do the work you need to do, it’ll go further than concentration and lead you to something that’s even more solid—an even greater refuge than your little home of concentration. Think of concentration as a little shack that you build on the side of the path. It’s not your ultimate home, but you build it well because you’re going to be on the path for a while. And the act of building and furnishing the home will teach you lessons about the mind. Your sensitivities will improve. Your standards as to what counts as pleasure will get heightened. While the home allows you to rest, the act of building the home will spark the insights that can take you where you ultimately want to go.