The attitude that the Buddha recommended was the attitude of the student, a student of life. In the meditation practice itself, it helps a great deal to consider the meditation practice as an exploration, as a study. If we consider meditation as an effort to achieve a certain state of mind or the accumulation of certain special experiences, then we are looking at meditation in a very worldly way. This is a very common phenomena, where people rather tragically seek to recreate and re-experience certain meditation experiences they had six months ago, a year ago, or even ten years ago. Ajahn Chah would say things like, “If you’re peaceful, know that you’re peaceful. If you’re not peaceful, know that you’re not peaceful. If you’re peaceful, learn from peace. If you’re not peaceful, learn from not peace.” This, I think, takes away a great deal of the tension and gaining attitudes that can arise in the practice of meditation without, at the same time, removing interest or enthusiasm for practice. We are learning all the time, and although some mental states are less enjoyable to learn about than others, in the long run we may well benefit more from being willing to look and to learn from them. In this way, there is more of a seamless relationship between meditation practices and daily life. We are just doing the same thing, but in the meditation practice, we are reducing the amount of distraction and we are practicing life skills in a very focused way.
One analogy that I am fond of using is that if we compare the mind to a moving light, to track the movement of that small point of light across a very complex background is possible but difficult. One thing that will help us to do that is if we spend a certain amount of time regularly following the movement of a small point of light against a white background or a very simplified background. We attain a certain fluency, a habituation through a much simplified effort, which then enhances our ability to do the same thing in more complex environments: this is an understanding of meditation practice.
We are learning to be with the mind, to learn from the mind, to understand the mind by creating an artificial situation in which sense contact is radically reduced, allowing us to see the arising and passing away of mental objects as mental objects, to see memory as memory, to see thought as thought, imagination as imagination and so on. It’s just that much—nothing more, nothing less. A sense of interest in learning and understanding is key here. It’s a refreshing kind of desire, not a draining and agitated kind of desire, and it’s sustainable.
Even in the early stages of meditation when the mind is wandering frequently, what happens when you bring your mind back to the meditation object? Often, meditators will complain or become discouraged that they are just wasting their time. They try to meditate on an object and the next thing they know, the mind has gone here and gone there, so they bring it back but before very long it’s gone again. However, I would suggest looking at that whole process again. What is that moment when you realize that you have been distracted? That is a moment of enlightenment. That is a moment of awakening; you have woken up and then you bring your mind back, and that’s a moment of renunciation. So you are training on that very basic initial level; you are learning to wake up to your experience and to realign yourself with your considered aims and objectives. The more that you do it and apply yourself to it, the easier it becomes.
Some time ago in a study at a leading music school, I think in America, they divided a group of pupils who were already quite gifted into three groups: the very gifted genius types, the middle type, and the less gifted, in order to see the relationship between inborn genius and practice, the idea being that someone who is naturally gifted doesn’t have to do so much practice while the less gifted have to do more practice to make up for their lack of inherent giftedness. The actual results were exactly the opposite. The more gifted the pupil, the more time they spent practicing. They came up with this theory called the 10,000 hours theory, which says if you want to be really fluent and adept at anything of any substance, you have to be willing to make a commitment of 10,000 hours.
If you’ve been meditating, you might say I’ve been meditating for weeks now or months now, not every day but quite often. Rather than looking at the calendar, if you have to have some quantitative assessment, look in terms of 10,000 hours and take the long-term view: 10,000 hours of study. Going back to the three-fold training of the four kinds of bhāvanā and the bhāvanā development of one’s relationship to the physical world, the social world, the emotional development, and the wisdom development and how they affect each other, the more that one is willing to observe, then the more one’s wisdom and one’s confidence and faith in the Buddha’s teaching matures.
I am fond of making the suggestion that Buddhism is ultimately the supremely comprehensive education system. If you adopt this assumption, then where does this education take place, where is the classroom? The classroom is the present moment. Being in the present moment is not the goal−it’s just a necessary condition for this education to take place. The necessary emotional condition is primarily that of equanimity. Being equanimous in the present moment is not the goal but an important part of the process leading to the development of wisdom. Before you can assess any situation accurately, before you can act effectively, you have to be able to put the mind into an equanimous mental state. It’s not like, now you’re not suffering anymore, now your mind is on an even keel, you’ve done the work. This is just a stage. After that, the wisdom faculty takes over. Should you say something, should you do something or not? Should you just be patient and endure or should you apply yourself in some way? One of the life skills involved in training ourselves is sustaining this relaxed alertness in the meditation process in order to be able to sustain that more and more effectively in daily life, to have the ability to be awake, aware and equanimous with regard to sense contact and various experiences, not as an end in itself, but in order to facilitate in the abandonment of the unwholesome, the development of the wholesome, and the purification of the mind.
One way I look at practice is broadly distinguishing four primary areas: 1) physical development, 2) virtue (sīla) development—our relationship to the social world, 3) emotional (citta) development—the abandonment of negative emotions and the development of positive emotions, and 4) wisdom (pañña) development —to be applying the Buddha’s teachings in these four areas in terms of the frameworks given by the Buddha, called by him sammā vāyāmā, or Right Effort. So in these four areas, physical, sīla, citta, and paññā development, the challenge that one takes upon oneself is to figure out how to protect the mind against unwholesome dhammas that have not yet arisen, to overcome those unwholesome dhammas that have arisen, to arouse those wholesome dhammas that haven’t yet arisen, and to cultivate those that have. What is the most skillful way to prevent, reduce or eliminate the unwholesome aspects in any one area?
Which wholesome dhammas in this other particular area of life have not yet arisen which may arise, and which wholesome dhammas have arisen and need to be cared for and developed further? So I apply these four efforts in those four areas, a systematic way of looking at practice and one that recognizes and upholds the primacy and the necessity for formal practice but yet integrates it into an understanding of one’s whole life as a Buddhist, as a student. Only the Arahant is the asekkha puggala, the graduate; everyone else is a student, not yet graduated.
Let me give you an example. If you’re in a car or you’re in a city – this is really great fun – and you have the luxury of just looking out the window, try to wish some good thing for every person you can see. You can do it with, “May you be happy, may you be happy,” and that is already very good practice. But you can make it more fun and creative by trying to think of something more specific. I do this in all kinds of contexts. There is a little boy in the village in Ubon, and he has been coming out to put food in the monks’ bowls since he was a small child, about 2 years old. This little boy has got really big ears and he has just started to grow up since I left Wat Pah Nanachat, but whenever I go back and he puts food in my bowl, I always wish, “May no one tease you about your ears.” I see young women walking along on really high heels and wish, “May you never fall off your high heels,” or “May you have the wisdom to choose sensible footwear.”
You can make it fun and creative, just trying to find some specific good thing for each passing person that you’ve never met before. It’s a very simple, practical means of developing and protecting the mind. If you are doing that, then you are not getting distracted by all the colors and advertising, looking at a person’s dress and thinking, “Oh, I’d like one like that,” or looking at members of the opposite sex with more unwholesome thoughts. You are substituting wholesome dhammas; you are protecting the mind against unwholesome dhammas. You can remove unwholesome dhammas through this practice−you are creating and sustaining wholesome practices.
This is also meditation: taking responsibility for your mind, working with your mind, massaging your mind, disciplining your mind in whatever situation you find yourself. What happens is that you develop a strong appreciation for goodness, even in its most mundane expressions.
A teaching given by one of my teachers is that if you are practicing correctly, how do you know? You know because before you started practicing so many things made you suffer and so few things made you happy, and as you practice, if you’re practicing correctly, what you should find is fewer and fewer things make you suffer and more and more things make you happy. That’s one of the best criteria to see whether you are on the Buddha’s path or not. Things like getting up early in the morning, “Oh, what a torture”, or sweeping, manual work and other chores like that, “How would a chore like that be a source of happiness?” But as you see the importance and centrality of your state of mind, your attitude, your quality of attention and your respect and interest for whatever might be your responsibility at any given time, you see how it’s that more than anything else that affects the quality of your life.
There is this great sense of confidence and freedom; you don’t have to be a victim or prey of anything. Nobody can make you unhappy. People can create conditions where it’s very conducive for you to feel unhappy, but nobody has the power to control your mind. People can oppress you physically, certainly, but in the end dukkha is always caused by tanhā. If you are suffering, you say, “Where is the tanhā right now?” If there is no tanhā, then there is no craving, there is no attachment, there can’t be any suffering. Irrespective of what this person has said or done or the situation, in the end if there is mental suffering there has to be craving. This is taking the Buddha’s teachings on trust and taking them as the lens through which we look at life. Thus, in this study of life, as we learn from life, we have the Buddha’s teachings as tools, things we don’t grasp onto as dogmas but learn how to make use of through a constant and consistent practice and application.
A talk given by Ajahn Jayasaro on May 28, 2011. Ajahn Jayasaro resides in Thailand.