Success Through Maturity

November 2, 2017

There are four qualities that the Buddha said can bring about success in the practice of meditation, and in particular, success in concentration: desire; persistence, or effort; intentness; and using your powers of judgment wisely. Of those four, three are omitted in modern instructions in meditation. In fact, the three are said to be bad in modern meditation. Desire is bad. Efforting is bad. Judging is bad. Even the idea of success is bad. And as for intentness, paying attention carefully to the present moment, the meaning has changed from the way the Buddha used it.

A lot of this comes from the fact that most people are taught meditation on retreat in a pressure-cooker atmosphere. The retreatants could have gone on vacations on beaches or out in the wilds, but instead, they’re spending their time in a meditation hall. So they want something to show for it. To avoid explosions in this pressure cooker, teachers will say, “Have no goals. There is no such thing as success. There’s simply the present moment,” which may get people through the weekend or the week or whatever, but doesn’t necessarily bring the best results in meditation long term.

There was a time when the Buddha once told the monks to practice breath meditation. And one monk said, “Yes, I practice breath meditation.” The Buddha asked him, “What kind of breath meditation do you do?” The monk replied, “I put aside hopes and expectations for the future, thoughts about the past, and—equanimous in the present moment—I breathe in, I breathe out.” Which sounds like a lot of the meditation instructions you may get at a meditation retreat. But the Buddha said, “Well, there is that kind of breath meditation, but it doesn’t give the best results.”

Then he set forth his sixteen steps, which are very proactive. You make up your mind that you’re going to breathe in certain ways: Breathe aware of the whole body. Breathe calming the breath. Breathe in a way that gives rise to rapture. Breathe in a way that gives rise to pleasure. Breathe in a way that steadies the mind, gladdens the mind, or releases the mind, depending on what the mind needs. What all of these steps have in common is that they’re very proactive. They’re aimed at giving rise to certain states, getting the mind into right concentration. There is a purpose to all this. The Buddha’s instructions on mindfulness, if they’re done right, go right there, to right concentration.

One reason for why those bases for success got pushed aside and developed a bad reputation is that people are pretty immature about how they approach their desires, their efforts, and the way they use their powers of judgment. You can’t teach maturity in a week, so the teachers try to sidestep the issue entirely. But for a long-term practice, we need to develop maturity, especially in relating to our goals, realizing that we’ve set ourselves a large task here.

To put an end to suffering requires really understanding the mind, training the mind, bringing the mind into states of concentration so that it can see itself clearly. That’s a big task. As with any big task, you need to be mature in how you approach it if you want to succeed. The first requirement is realizing that it has to be taken in small steps, but you have to be persistent in taking the steps.

This means that you have to have an immediate focus on the present at the same time you take a long view. The immediate focus is for making sure you give full attention to what you’re doing. The long view is for learning how to read the results of your actions without getting upset over setbacks. Accept the fact that there will be progress and regress, back and forth, as you get to know the territory of the mind. You have to learn how to bear the task with patience and equanimity, which doesn’t mean that you just simply let things slide. It means that you put in the work, you make the effort right here, right now, but you have to be realistic about the goals you’re setting for yourself, realizing that the big goals won’t yet appear right here, right now. Set interim goals for yourself so that the task isn’t too overwhelming, so that you can keep your desire nourished and alive. And, beginning with desire, learn how to be mature in all four of these bases for success.

Mature desire realizes that effects come about through causes. If you simply sit there wishing for the effects without doing the causes, nothing’s going to happen. That kind of desire gets in the way. If you’ve ever mastered a manual skill—a sport, carpentry, cooking, anything that requires time and energy to get really good at it—you’ve probably learned how to get your desire under control, get it focused on doing the steps right. When the steps are done right, the results will come.

In this case, directed thought and evaluation are the causes. You direct your thoughts to the breath. You evaluate the breath so that it’s comfortable. If it’s not comfortable, you ask yourself, “What can I do to make it comfortable?” When it finally is comfortable, “What do I do to maintain it to keep that sense of comfort going all the way through each in-breath, each out-breath?” As the needs of the body change, how do you change the breath to maintain that comfort? And then how do you let it spread throughout the body, to get the most use out of it?

In the Buddha’s analogy, it’s like mixing water with flour to make dough. You want the water to moisten the entire ball of dough with nothing left over. So you knead the sense of pleasure through the body in the same way you’d knead the water through the dough. How do you do that? You figure that out, using the help you can get from people like Ajaan Lee and Ajaan Fuang, who’ve worked on this problem and offered advice. That’s the way you focus your desire: on desiring to master the skills needed to succeed. And then you try to make your desire single-minded here with the breath. Anything else that comes up right now is of no interest, no importance. That’s the kind of attitude you want to develop. You want to make your desire focused, and focused properly on the steps that act as the causes.

As for effort, realize that there are many kinds of right effort. There’s the effort to prevent unskillful qualities from happening, the effort to get rid of them when they’re there, the effort to give rise to skillful qualities, and the effort to maintain and develop them when they’re there—all of which are different kinds of efforts. You can ask yourself which kind is appropriate right now. As for the amount of effort, it depends partly on the task at hand and partly on your strength right now: what level of energy you have, reminding yourself that the effort here is not muscular effort. It’s an effort in the mind: the effort to abandon unskillful qualities that have arisen, the effort to prevent unskillful qualities from arising again, the effort to give rise to skillful qualities, and the effort to maintain them so that they grow.

These are efforts of the mind that have to be continued even as things start getting comfortable. And this is how effort becomes mature. It’s very easy for the mind to start wallowing in a comfortable thought or a pleasant thought that has nothing to do with the meditation, nothing to do with thoughts of “skillful” or “unskillful.” It’s also easy to wallow in the comfort caused by the meditation. But then you forget the causes, and things fall apart. You have to work at maintaining your focus. Remind yourself that you don’t know how many more breaths you have. Each time your heart beats, it’s one less beat between you and death. So you want to use those heartbeats well. Focus each on nurturing a skillful cause.

As for intentness, you’re intent, you pay careful attention to the present moment, but not in a general way. To be maturely intent, you pay attention specifically to what you’re doing and the results of your actions. The more sensitive you are to what you’re doing, the more you see where your unskillful thoughts are hiding out or where you can improve things.

As for using your powers of judgment, it’s very important that you not judge yourself as a meditator. To be mature, you judge your actions. Judge your meditation as a carpenter would judge a work in progress: impersonally, with the purpose of making it better. When things are not going well, learn how to be critical in a useful way, i.e., try to use your ingenuity for the purpose of doing things more skillfully. Figure out, “What’s going wrong and what can be done to change what I’m doing?”

This is the way the Buddha approached his quest for awakening. He made some pretty big mistakes: six years of self-torment. But at the end of those six years, he didn’t get down on himself. He simply said, “Well, that’s obviously not the way. There must be another way.” He depersonalized it. It was simply a matter of actions and results. And then he used his ingenuity: “Is there another way?” He thought of the time when he was young and had spontaneously gotten into the first jhana. He asked himself, “Why am I afraid of that pleasure?”—because those six years of torment were driven by a fear of pleasure. Now he realized that the pleasure of jhana was not a sensual pleasure. It was a skillful pleasure. It caused no harm. It didn’t fog the mind. It deserved no blame. So he gave it a try.

So learn how to take criticism well, both external criticism and internal criticism. The criticism, to be helpful, is focused on actions and how you can change your actions to yield the results you desire. All these four qualities, when they’re mature, center on this: realizing that everything has to be understood as causes and effects, so you desire to do the causes well. You put the effort into doing the causes well. You pay careful attention to what you’re doing, sensitive to the results. Then you try to figure out how to make those results better.

Those last two qualities are well-summarized by Ajaan Fuang. I’ve said many times that the two instructions he gave most often when teaching meditation were, “Be observant,” and, “Use your ingenuity.” Being observant is a matter of intentness. Using your ingenuity is the best way of using your powers of judgment to get yourself past an impasse.

This is how these four qualities actually do lead to success in the meditation. You attain the goal that the Buddha talked about. In the very beginning, you get the mind into a state of right concentration. From there, you develop insight, again, by looking at what you’re doing and being sensitive to your actions and their results. But these bases of success help not only with concentration, but also with the development of discernment, because they force you to be more sensitive to what’s possible. And they spur you on to want to keep succeeding on higher and higher levels.

As the Buddha said, the total ending of suffering is possible. Listen to that: Total. Ending. It’s not simply a matter of being okay with whatever comes up and passes away. It’s not a matter of lowering your expectations. You raise your expectations as to what a human being can do, as to what you as a human being can do. As they say of marksmanship, you don’t hit any higher than you aim. So aim high. But learn how to live with a high aim in a mature way, so that your immaturity doesn’t get in the way of attaining the goal we all want.