When it’s Hard to Settle Down

January 17, 2017

When the mind has trouble settling down with the breath, you want to check to see whether the problem is with the mind or with the breath—or with your perceptions of the mind or of the breath.

The first problem, the mind: Sometimes you have lots of issues that are unresolved, and simply putting them aside and trying to focus on the breath is not enough to get past them. You have to think them through. This means thinking about them in a way that’s not your usual way of thinking about them, because your usual way of thinking about them is what’s causing the problem. And you can’t just say, “Well, I’ll stop thinking altogether and that’ll solve the problem.” You have to first think in a way that’s going to take some of the burdens off your heart. Then you can settle down.

When I first went to stay with Ajaan Fuang, I found a lot of issues from my family life and childhood, college years, whatever, coming up in my meditation. With some of them, I could talk them over with him. Some of them he just thought were very strange. I began to realize that if he got that strange look in his eye when I’d tell him about one of my problems, this was a very American problem and I’d have to work through it myself. But I noticed that when he was dealing with the problems that he was familiar with, the solution was always to think about them from a new angle, based on a combination of understanding kamma and understanding goodwill.

The fact of kamma doesn’t mean that people suffer because they deserve to suffer. That’s not the right understanding of kamma at all. Kamma means basically that people have lots of actions in their personal history, good and bad. It’s like having a field filled with seeds. Some of the seeds have been buried there for a long time and they’re not going to sprout for a long time. Others are ready to sprout at the slightest provocation. What you see at any one moment are the seeds that are sprouting—and particularly, the ones that you’re watering with your own attention, your own interest in them, whether they’re good or bad. So the fact that something bad is sprouting right now doesn’t mean that everything in the field is bad. It’s simply the current crop. And how do you make sure that there are good seeds in there? Well, you plant them.

That’s the other aspect of kamma that’s useful to think about if you find yourself trying to go back and straighten out everything in your past, trying to settle things as to who’s right, who’s wrong, where the blame can be assigned or whatever. From the point of view of kamma and rebirth, try thinking back, back, back through all those many lifetimes. There’s no starting point. There’s no way you could settle the scores. So you just have to say, “Well, it’s part of the human condition that we all have good and bad seeds in our background. Right now, though, you have the opportunity to plant some good seeds. And in planting the good seeds, you make it a lot easier for the mind to withstand the effects of the past bad seeds when they sprout.”

As the Buddha said, it’s like throwing a lump of salt into some water. If you have just a little cup of water, then you can’t drink the water because the lump of salt makes it too salty. But if you have a large river, and the water in the river is clean, then when you throw the lump of salt in, you can still drink the water. The large river here stands for a mind that’s trained—specifically, trained in the brahmaviharas: goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity—learning to extend these attitudes to all people, all beings, both for their benefit and for yours. For their benefit, sometimes you simply extend goodwill to other beings and they’ll feel it. There are other times when they won’t feel it, but at least the fact of having developed that attitude within yourself means you’re more likely to be trustworthy in your interactions with others.

And you make it an immeasurable quality of the mind. In other words, you don’t measure out your goodwill, saying, “I’m going to give this much to this person and this much to that person, and deny it to that person over there.” Give everything you’ve got to everybody. And it comes back as a kind of safety. As the Buddha said, this is your wealth as a meditator; this is your protection. It’s your gift to the whole world. You can make it specific, sending it to specific people you know are suffering, but you also want to be able to extend it to everybody.

And taking that point of view—everybody—you start thinking about the chant that we repeat often: All living beings are the owners of their actions. And that other chant: subject to aging, subject to illness, subject to death. The Thai translation is that aging is normal, illness is normal, death is normal. The original sutta where that reflection is found goes on to say that this applies not only to you. It applies to everybody. If you think about the whole world, the whole cosmos, everybody lives in a state where aging, illness, and death are normal. And when you can think in these terms, it helps to relieve a lot of old burdens or the desire to settle old scores. There’s already enough suffering as it is. Why would you want to add more? That larger perspective makes it easier to finally settle in and get centered with the breath.

There are other helpful reflections as well. Sometimes reflecting on the Buddha is helpful. Here’s somebody who had everything in life but he realized that having everything in life is not enough. There’s got to be something better than the normal stuff of what they call “everything in life.” He went out, sacrificed a lot of years of his life, went through a lot of suffering, but finally came across something that was more than everything. It was the deathless.

And he came back and taught it for free. It’s hard to find that sort of person now. Just this evening we got a brochure from a publisher offering at least 30 or 40 mindfulness books, all for sale. This is what people do nowadays: They learn a little bit about mindfulness and they find a way to make money off of it. Whereas the Buddha knew a lot more about mindfulness and he didn’t charge at all. His teachings were free. He walked all over India for 45 years, teaching whoever could be taught. People of all kinds. So this is the type of person who found this path we’re on. Sometimes thinking about that can give you the energy you need to practice.

Or you can reflect on the Sangha and stories in the Canon of members of the Sangha, many of whom suffered an awful lot and got very discouraged in the practice but were able to pick themselves up and finally gain awakening. That can be inspiring, too.

So there are various reflections you can engage in. Sometimes you can spend the whole hour in those reflections, and it’s not a wasted hour. You’re learning to re-think the issues in your mind from the Buddha’s point of view. These are some of his ways of thinking that he recommends for all of us, ways of thinking that help take the sting out of our suffering. It’s all part of right view and right resolve, all part of the path.

Learning how to re-think your issues is an important skill in the meditation. You look at the values you’ve picked up from society and you realize that a lot of them are not designed to help relieve suffering. They actually pour more suffering on. This is why it’s in your own best interest to learn to re-think things, re-cast the narrative, until the mind is ready to settle down.

Then you look at the breath. Sometimes, if you still can’t settle down, that’s where the problem is: The breath is not comfortable. There may be pains in the body. Learn how to breathe through the pains. Think of the breath not just as the air coming in and out of the lungs, but also as the flow of energy in the body. If you can’t feel the flow, just ask yourself where it’s tense or tight in the body, and relax those spots. Make a comparison. If you think there’s some tension in your right shoulder, compare it with your left shoulder. If the left shoulder seems more relaxed, see if you can create that same relaxed sensation in the right shoulder. Go down through the body this way.

Often an issue that seems to be an issue of the breath is actually an issue of your perception of the breath or your perception of the mind in relationship to the breath. When I was first meditating, Ajaan Fuang would say, “Watch out for your mind so that if you see it’s going to slip off into distraction, you work more with the breath.” Well, I couldn’t believe that you could see yourself slip off into distraction. You either weren’t distracted or you were. So I asked him, “How can you see if the mind’s going to slip off?” He replied that there are warning signals. And as I watched, sure enough, that was the case. The mind is like an inchworm. It comes to the edge of a leaf and part of it’s still on the leaf but another part of it is waving around, looking for the next leaf. The next leaf comes by and—pop—it’s off.

It’s the same with the mind. Part of it may be with the breath, but part of it starts looking around. If you’re really alert, you begin to see, “Oh, these are the warning signals. This is the mind about to slip off.” And when it’s about to slip off, a lot of the problem is that the breath is no longer interesting. So turn around to see what’s going on in the breath that you can work with. Learn how to take more of an interest in the breath. See if there are any pains in the body. Can you use the breath to work around them, work through them, dissolve the tension around them? If there’s some stiffness or a sense of blockage, see if the breath can help. It gives you something to get interested in.

Or you can ask yourself where in the body is the greatest sensitivity to the breath. Often it’s the area around the heart. Does it feel really good when you breathe in right down in that area or does it just feel kind of bland? If it feels bland, ask yourself what would be really satisfying there, what would feel really, really good there, and see how the body responds. Sometimes it’ll involve thinking of the breath coming in from another direction than you normally think it comes. And in releasing whatever tension there may be around the heart, you may find other patterns of tension showing up in the body as well, and they can get released, too.

So there’s a lot to explore here. If you’re bored with the breath, it means you’re not looking, or not looking carefully enough.

There’s also a common perception of the mind that can get in the way: the idea that the mind is only in one spot. Actually, you have an awareness that fills the body already. It’s a background awareness, and then there’s one spot where you’re focused. What you’re trying to do as you work with the concentration and develop a whole-body awareness is to try to connect that sense of being focused with the background, so that you begin to see it’s all part of the same awareness. Even though there may be one spot that’s more prominent than the others in the awareness, it’s connected with the background awareness, too.

One way to build up to this is to think of two spots at once—say, in the head and at the base of the spine—and of a line connecting the two. Make yourself aware of the whole line, and then from there you can give the line more of a three-dimensional quality so that it begins to fill out the rest of the body, while your focused awareness and your background awareness all become one.

It’s when the mind fills the body like this that it doesn’t have any extra hands to grab onto anything else. If the mind is only in one spot, it’s like holding onto a post with one hand and then spinning around and trying to grab whatever comes by with your other hand. There’s a lot you can grab that way. In other words, you can be with the breath, you can be with buddho, but other parts of the mind are grabbing onto this, grabbing onto that. But if you’re aware of your whole body and you try and make your awareness three-dimensional like this, then there are no extra hands to grab onto anything. Everything is full. Your sense of your hands fills your hands; your sense of your head fills your head; the awareness fills the body. It’s as if your awareness has a shape like your body and all the parts are together, all the parts line up. When you think in these ways, you can actually get the mind into concentration.

When we talk about keeping the mind in concentration, what are you doing? It’s not like you’re holding it by the scruff of the neck or putting a chain on it. It’s the way you think about things that keeps you concentrated. And you’ll learn how to think about things connecting with this full-body awareness, so that the thinking and the awareness are in tune. Then it’s simply a matter of reminding yourself: Stay here; stay here.

When you’re not staying here, then you have to remind yourself to move back to the breath, to do this or do that. There’s going to be a lot of direction going on in the background. But as things begin to settle down, that directing voice can get simpler. The directions get simpler. They turn from thinking into simple perceptions: This breath. This breath. And they actually become part of the concentration.

So the way you think as you’re coming into the meditation is an important part of the practice. You can’t just say, “Well, I’ll drop all my thinking and be right here.” Sometimes you’ve got to think your way through whatever problems are getting in the way. And as I said earlier, don’t regard the thinking as a waste of time, because it takes thinking to solve thinking. Some issues you can put aside for the time being. Maybe you can’t cut all the way through them but you can disable them enough so that they’re not going to get in the way. But with other issues, you have to think them through a certain amount before you can get them out of the way for the time being. This is a long-term project we’re working on, because the mind has lots of unskillful ways of thinking, lots of unskillful ways of understanding itself. And learning how to get the mind into concentration gives you a long-term source of sustenance to keep you going as you begin to take all these problems apart.