Mindfulness Like a Dam
Upasika Kee has an analogy where she compares mindfulness to a dam across a river. This goes against our usual picture of mindfulness as an open, allowing state of mind that allows everything to flow. But her understanding of mindfulness is closer to what the Buddha talked about. It’s a way of exercising restraint over the mind. You keep in mind the fact that you want to stay with a particular topic—like the body, or feelings, or the mind, in and of themselves—and within that framework, you remember what to do with whatever comes up. If something unskillful comes up, you try to get rid of it, or at least turn it into something skillful. If there’s something skillful there, you try to encourage it. You’re not just letting things arise and pass away on their own.
You’re actually trying to give rise to skillful things and make sure they don’t pass away. And, as with putting up a dam across any river, in the process of putting it up you learn a lot about the currents in the river. You want to keep the mind with the breath. And, all of a sudden, you find yourself someplace else. What’s important there is that you take a very matter-of-fact attitude toward what’s happened and just bring your attention back. Stay with the breath again.
But the next time around, try to be a little bit more alert to the warning signs that the mind is about to go off, and do what you can to counteract them. There may be a little twitching or stirring someplace in the body, which corresponds to a little twitching or stirring in the mind. And you can breathe through it. You’ve diffused it, at least for the time being. The quicker you can get at this process, catching the mind in time, the more you learn about the currents of the mind, how a decision gets made.
We were talking today about a knee-jerk—or I guess what you might call an elbow-jerk—reaction: An image of a watch comes into your mind, and you lift up your arm to look at the time. Noticing this makes you think about how many times you do that sort of thing in the course of the day without even thinking about it—which is just like letting the river flow. But now you’ve put up a dam, and so you begin to notice things in the mind you didn’t notice before. You begin to realize how many layers there are in the mind, like the many layers of currents in a deep river. If a dam isn’t strong, you’re not going to see them.
Ajaan Fuang once had a student who complained that the more she meditated, the messier her mind seemed to be. And he told her that it was because she was detecting things that were there all the time but that she hadn’t noticed before. It’s like cleaning your room. If you don’t dust your room every day, you never see how many new layers of dust settle on the furniture or the floor in a day because the old dust is already there. When the new dust comes, it doesn’t make much difference. But if you dusted the room every day, wiped it down every day, then the least little bit of dust that came in, you’d see immediately. And it would look appalling.
So your standards change. They become more meticulous, and you get to see things that are more and more refined happening in the mind. Now, you’re not going to like a lot of what you see. Well, just accept that fact. Again, take a very matter-of-fact attitude toward that: that this is the way the mind has been all along. You’re trying to uncover things, so don’t be afraid to see things you don’t like. After all, if you don’t see them, how are you going to deal with them? They’re just going to stay there—hidden powers in the mind.
The other part of having a dam across a river is that you can then direct the water in the direction you want it to go. In this case, you’re trying to turn it toward concentration. Here again, it requires mindfulness to remember what works in getting the mind to stay with the breath. And when you finally get a sense of ease and well-being with the breath, what do you do with it? How do you let it soak through the body, seep through the body, and keep watch over it? Here the currents of the mind are headed toward one thing. And when the currents in the mind are concentrated like this, they can wash a lot of things away. So even though the image of the dam seems a little bit restricted, it’s there for a good purpose, because otherwise your mind is all over the place.
There’s a passage in the Canon comparing a mind with hindrances to a river with lots of outlets. As a result, the river doesn’t have any strength, because the water goes flowing off in all directions. But if you focus it on one channel, it has a lot of force. So we’re going to use this force to clean up what’s in the mind. You’re going to find things you don’t like in the mind, but they’re not going to stay there. Your ability to see them is the first step toward washing them away—trying to understand when and why you have greed for something, or lust for something, or anger for something.
There are many layers going on—again, like many layers of currents in the river. First, there’s what you see as immediately appealing about the object. And, even with anger, there’s something appealing about the anger around it. Then there’s another layer of appeal: Why do you like seeing that as attractive? These layers get more and more subtle. But the really subtle ones are the ones that are going to matter, that come from the lizard brain, communications that zip through the mind: very quick, very subtle. If you haven’t been training your mind to keep it with one object and bring it back when it wanders off, you’re not going to see them. But if you have, you will. And you begin to realize the extent to which these little images that go through the mind, like subliminal images on TV, have a huge impact. The more stillness you have, the more you can be in control of how you respond to things. This is what the dam of mindfulness does for you: It allows the water to stop, and then you direct it to where you want it to go.
So it’s through standing in the way of these things that we learn about them. If you just go with the flow, everything is a flow. All the currents get mingled together, and you can’t tell them apart. Whereas the Buddha says that if you really want to understand things, you have to learn how to separate them, in the sense of seeing how this thought functions in this way and that thought functions in that way. This perception feeds on that perception. They are interconnected, but they are somewhat distinct. And you want to see them as separate from one another, and separate from you. That, he said, is how you get past ignorance. You learn how to see things in the six senses and all the processes around the senses as something separate.
So there are many currents to see here. And the more stillness you have, the better.
To change the analogy, it’s like being in charge of a large corporation and suddenly realizing that the different workers have power centers and ways of making decisions that you didn’t know about at all. They were making independent decisions without really consulting you. And they were skewing the information that was coming up from the lower levels of the organization so that you’d be inclined to see things their way and would automatically make decisions their way. But now you’re beginning to wander around the office, learning the politics inside and seeing where the misinformation’s coming from. It can be somewhat upsetting or embarrassing to realize how much you’ve allowed things to go astray inside your own corporation. But now, at least, you’re cleaning things out.
And right there, there’s hope, in the same way that putting a dam across the river of the currents of your mind can serve a good purpose. In the beginning, it feels constricting because things don’t flow as they normally did. But if you learn how to direct the flow of the mind in a new direction, you see a lot of things you didn’t see before. You can clear up a lot of messes that you didn’t even know were there.
So as you build this dam of mindfulness in your mind, make sure that it’s solid. Build it on good foundations: the foundation of the precepts, the foundation of right view. And that way, you’ll be like the image in the Dhammapada: Just as irrigators direct the flow of the water, you learn how to direct the flow of the mind. You build a dam, open a channel in the right direction, and you get the water to do what you want.