Training Your Cynical Voices

March 18, 2014

Training the mind is work. Greed, aversion, and delusion have gotten very well ensconced in the mind, and it’s going to take a lot of digging to get them out.

The reason we’re sitting here meditating is because at least some of the voices in the mind say, “Yes, you can do this,” or, “Yes, you can find some peace of mind this way.” But when they start getting to work, other voices in the mind get stirred: the cynics, the skeptics, the ones who don’t want to do the work, who want an easy way out of the work, either by doubting the teaching or by doubting your ability to practice the teachings.

And yet the cynical voices do have their uses. You have to learn how to apply the cynics to your greed or your aversion or your delusion or any other unskillful attitude that comes up in the mind. Those are things you really have to question. So a lot of the training lies in learning when to use the cynics and when not.

Laziness is a big problem that you have to be cynical about. The voices that say, “You can’t do this,” are largely motivated by a desire to be let off the hook. They say, “Well, I’m incapable of doing this.” The old story about the game leg: “I’ve got this game leg that makes it impossible for me to do this or that job,” regardless of whether the leg is game or not, or of whether the job requires a good leg. You’ve got to learn how to be cynical about that, skeptical about that. When the mind says, “You can’t do this,” how much effort have you actually put into this? How much are you really trying to do the practice?

As Ajaan Lee once said, there are only four jhanas. There are people who can run corporations with thousands of workers and develop land stretching for thousands of acres. Yet here, all we have are just four jhanas and we can’t figure out where they are or what to do with them or how to find them.

It’s work, but it’s good work, and often pleasant work. And even when it’s not all that pleasant, the fact that it’s heading you in the right direction, and you’re doing noble, honorable things, makes it good work.

So this is when you have to bring out your motivating factors, the “I believe in you” forces. Remind yourself of why this is a good thing and how you’re not being asked to do anything superhuman.

There is a tendency to think of the Buddha and some of the great arahants as being superhuman, but they were human beings. At some point in their career they had all the problems you have—and probably more. But they were able to turn themselves around—sometimes with help, sometimes without anybody there to help them at all.

The most someone else can do for you is to provide you with advice, provide you with a good example, and create a good atmosphere. From there, the work is yours.

Ajaan Fuang noticed that his students, when he was not in Bangkok, had a lot of trouble meditating on their own. But when he was there, their minds could settle down. He realized he had to create an atmosphere for them, and that’s what he was doing as he sat there and meditated with them.

In the same way, we’ve tried to create the right atmosphere here at the monastery. This is a quiet place. People live virtuous lives here, and that creates a good environment for the practice. There are the teachings, and there are good examples all around you. So, as much as other people can do for you, they’re doing it. Now it’s up to you to do the remaining work yourself.

And what are you asked to do? Look at the noble eightfold path. Try to develop right view. Try to develop right resolve: the resolve not to stay stuck in your sensual fascinations, not to stay stuck in harming yourself or harming others, or having ill will for yourself or ill will for others. There’s nothing really superhuman there.

In some cases it takes a lot of effort. Sensuality is one of the hardest problems for the mind to overcome. But there are people who can do it. And even if you don’t get all the way there, the fact that you’ve learned to curb your sensuality, or your fascination with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, as opposed to the qualities of rapture and well-being that can come just from inhabiting the body: It’s all to the good.

Right speech, right action: You’re asked to avoid things that are harmful. Again, it’s not superhuman. Right livelihood: Earn your livelihood in a way that’s honest.

The real work comes in those last three factors of the path: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. But these are all things that you can do. What are you asked to keep in mind? Your body, your feelings, mind-states, mental qualities: things that are right here. You keep them in mind so that you can sort out what’s happening in the mind, what’s happening in the body, and you can figure out what to do with it.

This is what the right effort is, or the ardency in right mindfulness. When unskillful mind-states come up, you learn how to drop them, drop them, drop them. If they keep coming back, you drop them some more. What usually happens is you get tired before they do. But they can wear out, too, you know. You’ve got to have some confidence in yourself, that you are a human being, and you’re being asked simply to commit yourself to doing something that human beings can do.

As for skillful mind-states, they’re good things to develop. The mind gets clearer, sharper.

This is a path where you’re asked to do nothing but good things. Try to be aware of your body. Again, you’re not being asked to be aware of something that’s far out there in the abstract. It’s something right here, right now. And it feels good to inhabit the body; it feels good to be with the breath.

As for right concentration, if thinking about jhana is causing problems one way or another, put it aside. Nobody gets into jhana by thinking about jhana. You get into right concentration by focusing on your breath, focusing on the body. You don’t have to think about directed thought and evaluation. You just do them. Evaluate your breath. If it’s not good, change it. Keep coming back to the breath again and again and again. Keep exploring how you can breathe in a way that really feels gratifying. As for the stages of concentration, they’ll come on their own when you’re working with the breath like this.

So there’s nothing superhuman about what you’re doing here—simply that you’ve got to learn how to train those committee members and turn the cynical or skeptical voices on your greed, aversion, and delusion. At the same time, learn how to bring in some more confidence, conviction in this path.

For most of us, it’s not a path that we learned about when we were growing up as children. It’s something new. And as a result, it often can feel foreign. But what’s really amazing about this path is that it’s common to human beings all over the world. All these qualities, starting from right view through right concentration, are things that you can develop regardless of your background.

Now you may have different problems coming to it. And we tend to think in the West that we have some special problems that we bring to this, and maybe in some cases we do. But a lot of times it’s just the same old stuff rehashed again and again and again.

You read about the people who disliked the Dhamma back in the time of the Buddha, argued with it, resisted it. And a lot of their resistance was the same sort of stuff you see now: They were materialists, they didn’t believe in the power of kamma, thought that going to nibbana was impossible or selfish. But were they the people who benefitted from hearing the Buddha? No.

The Buddha taught noble truths. The word ariya, which we translate as “noble,” also means standard or universal. They’re true all over the world. The problem is simply a matter of learning how to relate to them in a way that’s as natural to you as just breathing. Start with the breath. Start with your actions. Notice where you’re doing things that are harmful, thinking in ways that are harmful, speaking in ways that are harmful. Figure out ways to stop causing that harm, and then your thoughts and your words and your deeds will begin to fall in line with the path. It’s nothing foreign, nothing superhuman.

But it is work. So you have to be very careful about the voices that tend to get lazy. There’s the critical voice that says, “You’re not doing things well enough,” and partly that’s right. If you’d totally mastered these skills, you’d be an arahant. But the part that says, “You can’t do this”: That’s the part you have to watch out for. It sounds so convincing but it doesn’t have any proof. It can point to times in the past when you’ve not done very well in the meditation, but that’s not proof that you can’t do it now.

One of the attitudes the Buddha has you develop is seeing that other people can do this: “They’re human beings, they can do it; I’m a human being, I can do it, too.” That’s the attitude you want to develop.

So learn how to sort out these voices in the mind and figure out which ones to apply to which problems. Be skeptical about your cynical voices, as you should be skeptical about your greed, aversion, and delusion. There’s a fair amount of aversion in the skepticism and the cynicism. And there’s a lot of delusion, thinking that you’d be better off not doing the practice, or resting, not driving yourself so hard.

What this comes down to is that you’ve really got to train your powers of judgment so that you judge things in a way that’s helpful and not in a way that destroys the skill you’re trying to develop.

So learn to look at these voices from all sides. They have their uses and they have their abuses. When you can see that they’re not totally bad or totally good, and you can sort out when they’re bad and when they’re good, that’s when you can start to depend on yourself on the path.