Patience & Tenacity

May 23, 2017

We come to meditation with ideas about how wonderful it’s going to be: The mind settles down with the breath, waves of pleasure and rapture come over the body, everything is at peace. That’s the idea. But before that idea becomes a reality, you’ll discover that there’s going to be pain and there are going to be distractions. And to get through the pain and distractions requires both patience and ingenuity.

The word for patience in Pali, khanti, also means endurance and tenacity. In other words, you’re not just sitting here passively on the receiving end of the pain or the distractions. You’re tenacious in trying to figure them out—because you can’t really get past them until you figure them out. You can’t just blot them out. Concentration does require some insight. We hear all the time that you need concentration first before you can gain insight. But a lot of practical experience, backed up by what the Canon says, indicates that there has to be some insight to do the concentration. You have to understand the mind to some extent before you can get it to settle down. That means you’ve got to figure things out. To figure things out, you have to watch them and ask the right questions.

To help with the watching, the Buddha—when he gave instructions to Rahula, his son, before teaching him breath meditation—taught him, “Make your mind like earth.” People throw disgusting things on the earth, the earth doesn’t get disgusted. People pour perfume on the earth, the earth isn’t excited. It just stays right there, impassive. But the Buddha’s not telling you to make your mind like a clod of dirt. He’s telling you that if you want to understand things, you first have to be able to sit through them patiently to see them clearly.

Then, when he goes on to describe the stages of breath meditation, it’s very proactive. You breathe in certain ways, you breathe with certain intentions in mind. You want to shape your experience, but you want to shape your experience based on some understanding. So you experiment. This is where the ingenuity comes in. And this is also what keeps you going. In other words, you don’t let yourself be solely on the receiving end. This applies both to pain and to distractions. When pain comes, you ask questions about it.

One of the first questions is, “Is there pain everywhere in the body?” Well, no, if there were pain everywhere in the body, you’d die. There have to be some areas of the body that are comfortable. Focus on those first. The secret to patience is that you focus on your strengths. In the midst of things that are pretty miserable, you can at least focus on the places where there’s some amount of pleasure, the places where you’re relatively safe and that can act as a basis for your strengths. Focus on those. As you focus there, the whole idea of being patient doesn’t seem so onerous, doesn’t seem so heavy. That way, you can look at your mind’s tendency to make more out of the pain and more out of the distractions than you have to.

Ajaan Lee has an image where you’re plowing a field with a water buffalo and you tie a big bag to the water buffalo’s leg. All the dirt that falls off the plow, you put in the bag. Of course, you’re going to get weighed down. But that’s a good symbol for how the mind often reacts to pain. You keep gathering it up and carrying it with you. For instance, you’re sitting here for a whole hour and you’re thinking, “All this long time I’ve been sitting here with pain and I don’t have anything to show for it.” Drop what’s in the past entirely. The pain in the past is no longer there, so why think about it? Don’t think about how long you’ve been sitting with the pain. You’re just here right now as the dirt falls off the plow.

The same goes for the future: Don’t think how much longer it’s going to last. Otherwise, you’re weighing yourself down with the past pain and anticipating the future pain, and that puts too much pressure on the present moment. You’ve got the physical pain here already, and then the memory and the anticipation of the pain get piled on top. Things get unbearable. So keep reminding yourself that the past is gone, gone, gone. Every moment, as soon as it appears, is gone. In fact, think of the pain as going away from you rather than coming at you to begin with.

The lesson here, of course, is that your perception of the pain has a lot to do with how much it’s going to weigh down the mind. So change your perception.

If you notice that there are periods when the pain seems to be bothering the mind more than at other times, okay, what happened? What perception went through your mind that made the pain more intense or more burdensome for the mind? Can you drop that perception and replace it with a different one?

As you get more proactive with the pain here, you don’t feel like you’re on the receiving end so much. And as you get more proactive, the pain begins to recede. It may still be there, but it doesn’t have the same presence. It doesn’t have the same power as when you simply let it come at you.

Dealing with distraction is something else. A large part of the problem, of course, is a lapse of mindfulness. But there’s the added problem, if you’ve just arrived here, that the momentum from the past few days outside of the monastery is going to carry over into your first couple of days here. So realize that it will take a while for things to settle down, for that excess energy to wear itself out. Then you can ask yourself, what are you going to do in the meantime? Find some little spot in the body that’s comfortable or find some topic you like thinking about. As long as the mind has energy to think, think about something that’s not just the breath—like the contemplation we did of the body parts just now.

A lot of people don’t like that contemplation, but it can actually be a very calming process, realizing that everybody’s bodies are just like this. All the issues you may have about your body: Whether you like your body or don’t like your body, they get cut through when you realize that when you open up your body and everybody else’s body, there is nothing you really want to look at in either case. There’s no reason to feel jealous about other people’s bodies or to be worried about your appearance. This allows you to focus instead on what you can do with your body, what you can do with your mind, in the sense of creating good kamma by doing skillful things

So you can think about the fact that the body is just these different pieces. You might think about the skeleton. Visualize the skeleton to yourself and just go through each bone, one by one by one. Start with the tips of the fingers, relax your hands around the bones that you’re thinking about, then work your way up to the wrists, the forearms, the elbows, the upper arms, the shoulders. Then start down at the feet: the tips of the toes, the bones in the toes, the bones in the feet, up to the ankles, the shins, the knees, the thigh bones, the pelvis, up the spine, vertebra by vertebra, up to the skull. As long as you’ve got the energy to think, think about these. Visualize the bones and also have a sense of relaxing around whichever bone you’re visualizing. Here again, you’re not just on the receiving end. You try various things. You probe, you question, you take the initiative. This is the tenacious side of the practice You keep at it.

Even though part of the mind may be in a lot of turmoil, you can find a little corner that’s not, that can actually think about what you want to think about or be still with the breath if you finally want to be still with the breath. Think of your mind as being like a large room. There maybe some people off in the corner chatting away, but you don’t have to get involved in their chatter. And the fact that they’re chatting doesn’t wipe out the experience of the breath. It doesn’t have to, let’s put it that way. If you let it, it will. But it doesn’t have to. The breath is still there. You’re still breathing.

So learn how to separate yourself from the chatter in the mind. And don’t worry about how long it’s going to last. As long as you’re not getting involved, you’ve covered the important point. Think of the chatter as past kamma, and your determination not to get involved as your present kamma. Focus on your present kamma. Let the past go.

This way, you find it a lot easier to stick with the meditation. The fact that you can sit here for long periods of time doesn’t seem to be such a chore because you’re not carrying the past around. You’re not carrying your anticipation for the future around. Whatever happens, you note it and it’s gone. You note it and it’s gone. Now you can sit here with a sense of lightness.

So this is how you become patient. This is how you become enduring. Not by talking to yourself about how long a slog it’s going to be, but by reminding yourself that the stuff weighing you down in the past is gone. The stuff weighing you down in the future is nowhere to be found. It’s not here yet. All you’ve got is the present moment. And you stick with that, stick with that, stick with that. And by using mindfulness to stitch together these little moments of the present, stitching them and then letting the past pains go, stitching them and letting the past pains go, connecting your mindfulness, letting everything else go: That’s how you get into concentration. By keeping your object in mind and letting go of everything else. At first you have to be focused on doing this in spite of all the other noise and all the other stuff that’s going on, but as you are really single-minded in pursuing this, things really do begin to quiet down.

If there’s pain in the body, you have a place to focus that’s not in pain. As for the thoughts, you’re no longer feeding them. The thoughts keep coming back again and again and again like stray cats and dogs because you feed them i.e., you pay attention to them. Even getting upset about them when you’re trying to chase them away, they’ve got you. You’ve given them food. So let them be there, but you don’t have to be with them.

If you notice any tension in the body that’s related to the thoughts, let it disperse. Breathe right through it. Any tension building up around your pain, breathe right through it. Notice that often the spot where the pain is felt is not where the cause of the pain is in terms of energy flow in the body. So do a little exploring. I found, for instance, that headaches often come from tension down in the lower back. Pain in the knees can also be aggravated by tightness in the neck.

So look around, use your ingenuity. And try to have that attitude that the mind is like earth. It can stick with these things but not get involved with them. It can be present to them but not involved. And when you have that kind of solidity, then you really can begin to see cause and effect clearly in the mind as you try different approaches and you see what works and what doesn’t work. When the mind lacks that solidity and you want things to be a certain way, then when they’re not a certain way, you get upset. You don’t really see what you’re doing. It’s like scientific equipment: If you put it on a wobbly table, then no matter what it’s measuring, you can’t really trust the measurements because the wobble is in there as well. But if the equipment is on a table that’s solid, and the table is in a building that’s solid, then you can get precise measurements.

So be solid in your determination that whatever comes up, you’re not going to get upset. You’re not going to get excited. You’re not going to wobble. You’re just going to watch and learn. Meditation, even if it’s not yet as quiet as you’d like it to be or as blissful as you’d like it to be, is still a meditation where you can learn. And learning is heading in the right direction.