Chickens from Hell
We like to feed on our thoughts, which is why we feed them. We gain entertainment from them. We gain help with our occupation in life, especially if we’re employed in a job that rewards thinking. So to keep the thoughts going, we just keep feeding, feeding, feeding them. But as the Buddha noted, our thoughts then turn around and feed on us. In his words, they actually chew on us. We think we’re getting the better part of the deal: We feed them; they give us nourishment of one kind or another. We tend not to notice how much they’re eating away at us, and that we’re actually getting the worse part of the deal. We notice that we’re being eaten away, but we don’t make the connection as to what’s eating away at us. Often the thoughts that we feed on cause us a lot of trouble. If we’re not discerning, we just gobble down everything that the mind churns up—identifying it as “my thought” and thinking that “I’ve got to make something with it.” Sometimes we get totally chewed up by our thoughts, and yet then we turn around and keep feeding them some more.
It’s as if we had some chickens. We feed them so that they give us eggs, but it turns out they don’t produce only eggs. They also produce chicken shit, and we don’t know which is which. So we just gobble down everything that comes out of the chickens—and of course we get sick. At the same time, it turns out that they’re the chickens from hell. They come and peck at us when we’re not aware of it, like the birds in the Hitchcock film. The problem is that we don’t make the connection—the chickens pecking at us are the ones we’re feeding—so we keep on feeding them.
One of the purposes of getting the mind into concentration is to step back from the whole process and learn to see it as it’s happening. At the same time, we practice concentration to give the mind an alternative place to feed. Otherwise, we’ll just keep feeding on whatever the chickens produce. When the Buddha provides analogies for different parts of the path, concentration is almost always the food. The first jhana is grass and water. The fourth jhana is ghee and honey and lots of other good things. We need this kind of food because if the mind doesn’t have something good to feed on, it’s going to feed on whatever it can get. As the Buddha said, if you don’t have a pleasure that’s apart from sensuality, then no matter how much you understand the drawbacks of sensuality, you’re going to go back and nibble on sensuality in secret. So try to develop a sense of ease and well-being with the breath as an alternative source of food.
We talked today about rapture. That’s actually the food of the concentration when you’re really hungry. The pleasure is the kind of food for when you’re not quite so hungry. And equanimity is the feeling you have when everything is satisfied. The different parts of the body that have been lacking energy now have their energy supplied, so you don’t have to keep gobbling things down.
So try to tune-in to a sense of well-being. Notice how you breathe and which parts of the body are especially sensitive to the breathing process. When you breathe in, what’s the part that gets satisfied? What are the parts you’re trying to satisfy as you breathe in? If you begin to notice that, then you can provide yourself with a sense of well-being very easily. Just go straight to those parts and then, when they’re satisfied, try to notice the parts that are not so obvious but could use a dose of pleasure as well. It’s as if you’re sending food to different parts of the body. First you feed the ones that are clamoring the most. Then you try to spread the nourishment around to the quieter parts.
As you’re doing this, thoughts will come up that are not related to the concentration. Remind yourself that it’s inevitable they’ll come up, but it’s not inevitable that you run with them. Make the distinction between which part of the thinking process is old kamma and which is new.
The old kamma is the fact that you have these habits. You learned this language. You learned this way of talking to yourself, so it’s only natural that the mind keeps churning out the same old stuff with its random word-generators and image-generators. But the question of whether to believe the thought, whether to run with it, whether to accept it: That’s new kamma. So as soon as you’re aware of the fact that you’ve started running with these thoughts, drop them. That’s a skillful action right there. And no matter how many times it takes, it’s a habit you’ve got to learn how to develop. Think about all the many lifetimes you’ve spent just learning how to think, learning how to master human language and enjoying the results, feeding off the results. Now you’re going to learn a new habit—how not to run with a thought—and it’s going to take time.
This is why patience is so important in the practice. This goes against the grain. We like to think. We like to talk to ourselves. That’s one of the ways the mind feeds. Now we’re giving it new feeding habits and, as always is the case with new habits, it takes a while to get used to them. So learn patience.
And learn how to keep encouraging yourself. Try to develop some of the skills that are not taught in our educational system, which channels everybody into areas where they’re talented. If you’re not talented in pulling yourself out of your thoughts, especially if you’ve been talented about thinking, it’s going to take a while to see that there’s a talent in not thinking and to actually like it. This requires patience and a kind of bounce-back attitude that no matter how many times you have to keep dropping your thoughts, you don’t give up. You just keep on dropping them and coming back to the breath.
As the mind gets a better and better sense of ease and well-being with the breath, it’s going to be easier for you to pull yourself out of the thoughts. You begin to see that there are many stages in the formation of a thought—many stages in the new kamma that encourages a thought. The quicker you are at recognizing the fact that the mind has slipped off and you’re able to drop it, then the more you’re going to see. Instead of hitting the thought at stage five, you start hitting it at stage four, stage three, stage two, stage one: down to the point where it’s just a little squirm of energy in the interface where the mind and the body meet. And that squirm of energy: It’s hard to say whether it’s physical or mental. But if you slap the perception on and say, “Oh, this is a thought and it’s a thought about the future; it’s a thought about the past; it’s a thought about this topic, that topic,” then you run with it.
In the very beginning stages, you’re going to be aware of the thought only when it’s fully formed. But as you get better and better at zapping it in time, catching it when it’s just a squirm of energy or a little stirring of energy, then the more clearly you see the different stages. It’s like a product being sent through the bureaucracy. The bureaucrat on this level puts a stamp on it; sends it to the next level. The next one puts a stamp on it and sends it up.
If you can catch it the moment the product first appears, then you have a lot more control over what’s going on. This applies not only to idle thoughts, but also to strong emotions. The problem with strong emotions is that they take hold of the breath and zip right through the stages very quickly. You have to work on taking this process apart while you’re meditating, but be alert to the fact that it’s happening all day long.
And especially with a strong emotion that you don’t like: There’s going to be a lot of denial around it. In other words, the first bureaucrat will put the stamp on and then pretend it didn’t happen. It’s like kids passing a note through a classroom. Pass it on to the next person and then pretend you didn’t do it. Pass it on to the next person; pretend you didn’t do it.
As long as you’re willing to play along with the pretense, you’re going to be stuck with fully-formed thoughts, fully-formed emotions, which you try to feed on as they chew you up. But if you can begin to sense the points in the process where this decision or that decision has been made, you can nip it in the bud. Then it’s a lot easier to deal with.
But all this requires that you have an alternative source of food. Feed off the directed thought and evaluation. Get interested in the issues of the breath: How do you make the breath energy really good? And what is the breath energy, anyhow? How do you sense when it’s flowing well and when it’s not flowing well? What ways of dealing with the breath improve your health? What ways wear you down? These are things that you can study, that are worth studying, because the breath can be medicine for the diseases of the body and the mind. It can help bring balance to a body that’s out of balance or to a mind that’s out of balance, because it’s good nourishing food, a lot better than the chicken shit that we’ve been feeding off of for so long.
So meditation is a matter of learning new feeding habits, habits that will be really good for you. And as for the chickens, you can let them starve. It’s not that you won’t be thinking anymore, but you realize that you’ve been feeding way too many chickens. At the same time, you get more and more discerning about which chickens are the ones that are actually feeding on you. Those you can stop feeding. At the same time, you also get more discerning about what’s the chicken shit and what are the chicken eggs, so that when you have to think, you’re eating only eggs.
As you get really good at the meditation, you don’t have to eat those either. They’re still there—awakening doesn’t mean that you don’t think anymore—but you find that you can do a lot of things with the eggs besides just eating them. You can fix food for other people. Meanwhile, you’ve got the food of your concentration. You’ve got the food that comes from getting the mind to settle down with a sense of well-being, feeding all the parts of the body that need breath energy each time you breathe in, and learning how to let that sense of being nourished spread out so that it seems to fill every cell in the body. That pulls you out of the vicious cycle of feeding the chickens and then having them come back to peck your eyes out at night.
Ultimately, as the Buddha said, there comes a point where the mind doesn’t have to feed anymore at all. The well-being of awakening, the well-being of release is totally free from any need to depend on conditions. It’s described as a state that’s free from hunger, not because you’ve told yourself not to be hungry, but because you’ve fully satisfied the mind.
So that’s where we’re aiming. And we start by learning new feeding habits. They’ll get you on the healthy path.