Measuring the Mind

Ajahn Pasanno

Measuring the Mind

This evening I’d like to talk a bit about meditation practice. Particularly as we’ve begun the Vassa, the formal rains retreat, we are trying to encourage everybody to give more time to the formal side of practice. In doing that, one of the things we need to learn is how to measure our own minds. The term “measure the mind” means to give ourselves a more clear sense of what the mind actually needs, what is going to be useful and beneficial. Oftentimes when we evaluate the mind, we produce a running commentary on how things relate to the self: “I’ve got this defilement or that defilement,” “I’ve got this problem or that problem,” “I’m like this or I’m like that,” “I shouldn’t be like this or like that.” When we do this, we tend to fill our minds with things that actually create more suffering than is useful, and more confusion than is necessary.

But there is another way to practice. We can attend to the actual need of the mind, gauge what’s going to be useful, and discern how we can bring about a certain balance in the mind. If the mind is restless or agitated, rather than launching into a running commentary on how awful it is, we should ask, “What is it that would be a source of balance? What would be useful in bringing about settledness?” If the mind is dull or lacking energy, we should actually recognize that, not as some personal trait or some personality flaw, but instead as the state of the mind right now. Then ask, “What would be useful to brighten it? How could I engage the mind in a way that brings a quality of lightness to it?”

When we practice this way, we are employing appropriate attention. It’s measuring the mind from a place of Dhamma, as opposed to a perspective of personality, of “me” and “mine.” We recognize that the mind is just a force of nature that can bring benefits or have drawbacks. When we simplify things for ourselves in this way, we can engage in a manner that brings forth the benefits that are possible.

For working with the mind, the most general perspective on practice is to divide it into the aspects of samatha and vipassanā—the development of tranquility and of insight. These are different qualities that the mind needs to rely on. They can be developed in a variety of ways. To create balance within the mind, we need to have both of those capacities available to us. The mind has the potential to become peaceful, tranquil, settled, still. It has the capacity for insight, understanding, wisdom, and discernment. Those are both fruits of the practice that can arise, but they’re also ways of attending to the mind and skills we can develop: attending to the mind in ways that foster tranquility and stillness, or attending to the mind in ways that foster discernment and understanding. We need to learn those skills, and we need to learn when it is appropriate and useful to direct more attention to the tranquility and stillness aspect, and when it is useful to direct attention to the discernment and understanding aspect. They have different applications; they have different results. It isn’t as if one particular aspect is right and the other is wrong. It’s just that the mind needs to rely on a balance of those qualities. We have to learn how to measure the mind and see what is actually going to be useful at any given moment, at any given sitting. You can’t work from an idealistic program or a fixed methodology—you just have to recognize that the mind changes. We have to be ready to adapt to those changes.

For example, when we attend to the tranquility aspect, one of the ways of investigating—and there are many different ways—is to be attentive to sensory experience in and of itself: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, mental objects. These are what we experience through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. What are we experiencing in the present moment? What is the avenue of experience? What is the sense-medium that the mind is drawn to? As we investigate in this way, we recognize that consciousness tends to be drawn to that which we like, things that are conducive to desire, to attraction. We recognize there are the things we dislike, and are conducive to aversion. And there are the things we’re neutral to, but can easily result in dullness, restlessness, or confusion. We need to pay attention to those moods that arise following the sense contact. We need to be willing to be attentive to and relinquish that push and pull within the mind. That push and pull of likes and dislikes, the agitation of confusion or restlessness or simply dullness: these all lead the mind to be unsettled and sap its energy. They pull and drag the mind so it isn’t stable. But our intention is to guide the mind to a place of balance and poise.

Fixating on a meditation object doesn’t necessarily make the mind peaceful. When we use a meditation object such as the breath, we direct attention to and sustain attention on the meditation object, but as you do this you have to use the meditation object as a mirror. We have to understand the way that the moods move within the mind, that swinging towards liking and disliking, that oscillating between attraction and aversion. In using the breath–a neutral object—as a meditation object, we find that the simple rhythm of the breath is settling and soothing. It has a quality of relaxing the body and relaxing the mind, but you can’t just drift into that relaxation. Instead, you have to be aware of how you’re doing what you’re doing with the breath. You’re focusing on the breath, but are you doing it in a way that gives up alertness and leads to dullness, or a way that leads to openness and brightness? If we are sensitive to which results our actions bring, we can discern how to proceed. We do cultivate that quality of sustaining attention on the meditation object, developing the ability to focus in a consistent way. Yet, the purpose of it is to be able to see the moods of the mind more clearly; to be able to recognize the tendency and the pull towards liking and disliking, confusion or dullness and then let those moods calm down.

In working with a meditation object and directing attention towards tranquility and settling the mind, one is still learning about the nature of greed, hatred and delusion; the nature of the qualities that obstruct the mind. We use phrases like “developing samatha practice” or “developing concentration” or “developing tranquility”, but in doing this you still have to rely on a quality of discernment and investigation to see the unskillful tendencies within the mind more clearly. The mind doesn’t just magically become peaceful because you’re watching the breath. We need to apply appropriate attention and ask, “What are the obstacles? What are the obstructions? How do we relinquish them, how do we not get entangled in those habits of mind that create the swinging towards the different moods and sense-impressions?” We need to be aware that that’s all we’re experiencing: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, mental objects. We should be able to deconstruct the habit of identifying things that are bound up with attachment and clinging. We need to respond to sense impressions by noting, “That’s a sense-impression that rises and passes away.” It’s a sense-impression, and when we don’t discern it clearly, it can create agitation within the mind and obstruct peace. Take up the meditation object and the goal of developing concentration and tranquility, but recognize that it’s not just a passive process where you sit down and watch the breath, and the mind becomes peaceful. You have to engage in a way where you’re understanding more clearly the process of the mind and learning how to measure the mind—not measuring it in a judgmental way, because that just creates more confusion and agitation. The judgments and the running commentary centered on “I” and “mine” keep the mind proliferating and off balance. But when we measure our experience from the perspective of Dhamma, letting the mind become calm gets much easier.

When we turn our attention to the aspects of discernment, wisdom, insight—the vipassanā elements—we are investigating the same phenomena of the sense-impressions and what we’re experiencing in the present moment: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, mental objects, but our perspective is that these things are elements of nature. These various moods and impressions that we experience are part of a causal process. There are causes and conditions that are unfolding and manifesting that allow us to experience these sense impressions. It’s not about “me” as a solid, real, absolute core. It’s recognizing that what we experience and what we call “me” and “my world” is built up of these multi-layered impressions that we tend to get lost in, confused by, fascinated by, excited by. When we don’t see sense experience clearly, it tends to carry us along. It picks us up like a tornado of experience. It picks us up and drops us somewhere else, and we don’t quite see how we got there. Investigation shows that what we relate to as “my self” and” my world” are actually causes and conditions, arising and ceasing, and we don’t have to get caught up by that.

That’s the insight into the impersonal nature of things. When we say things are impersonal, that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter, but that they’re not about “me” as a personality. These are just fundamental forces of nature. When we understand this, we can be at peace with them and experience happiness and well-being. When we get caught and confused and obsessed within those fundamental forces of nature, we keep perpetuating suffering, dissatisfaction, discontent. One recognizes that one has an option. The option is understanding. It’s discernment, insight into the true nature of what arises, seeing its impermanent, unsatisfactory, non-self nature. That’s the fundamental insight of the Buddha: whether it’s internal or external, near or far, to do with the world or the self, it’s anicca, dukkha, anatta. It’s uncertain. It’s fraught with dissatisfaction and suffering, and it has a non-self nature. These aspects of insight are not something to just try to slap as a label on top of all phenomena. That’s superficial and won’t lead to deep insight on its own. You have to ask, “What does it feel like? What is the experience like when something is uncertain, changing, of a fundamentally impermanent nature? What’s the experience? Or is it stable? Is it actually permanent? Why not?” The Buddha points to that very nature of things: changing. Whether it’s the extraordinarily rapid change of the mental state in a moment, or the arising and passing away of world systems, the scale is different but the nature of change is the same. That’s the reason why Ajahn Chah when he talked of impermanence would say “uncertain” or “not sure.” This brings across the internal aspect of how we experience impermanence and change: What does it feel like when we experience something that is changing, that is not stable? It helps to internalize the experience, as with the aspect of dukkha, of things having a certain imperfect, unsatisfactory nature; to be subject to change, to not being able to completely fulfill our desires and wishes. What does it feel like?

We don’t do this so we know what to push away. We do it to be able to say, “What is it like when we can’t quite fulfill our desire?” or “When the desire is always moving ahead of the experience?” One example I’ve given many times over the years is the story from Winnie the Pooh, when Christopher Robin asks Winnie the Pooh, “What’s your most favorite thing?” And of course, Winnie the Pooh has a very limited range of desires. He is fixated on honey. He’s a honey guy. And so he is ready to answer, of course, to just blurt out “honey!” But then he realizes that actually, the moment just before you taste the honey is better. The moment just before is better than the actual experience. That’s the nature of desire: the desire is always running ahead of the experience. It leads to things being not quite as good as one had hoped for…

When the Buddha is depicted in a Buddha image, he is never depicted as somebody who is always completely miserable because he can’t get what he wants. He’s somebody who is completely happy and peaceful because he sees the nature of desire. When I think of the people who I have met over time who have been reputed to have finished their work, experienced liberation—they are the same way. Ajahn Chah, my own teacher, was someone like that. Such a person can be in the midst of a lot of different responsibilities and duties and externally can live a quite austere life yet will be completely happy and completely self-contained. There is a realization that is very transformative.

Those qualities that are the basis of insight—anicca, dukkha, anatta—give us ways of directing attention. We can attend to the impermanent, unsatisfactory, or non-self aspects of things. And actually there are all sorts of different ways to direct attention as part of the insight practices. It’s the same for tranquility practices. Some ways of directing attention lead more toward tranquility and stillness and others are more conducive to insight and discernment. But they support each other; they’re part of a continuum, they’re not separate. We need to learn how to measure the mind and see what’s going to be fruitful and beneficial. You have to do that through your own experience. You have to train your intuition; you can’t just think that through. You have to experiment, try things out, and gradually get more skilled at recognizing the results. It’s that engagement with the practice that gives one the skill and confidence to say “This is how the practice works.” And we recognize that there are different times and circumstances when one puts more attention on the samatha practices and there are times when one puts more attention on the insight practices. One needs to develop skill in both.

One of the illustrations that Ajahn Chah gives is the example of having a candle. You’ve got a candle; it’s got potential for giving light. But if it’s not lit yet, then it’s not fulfilling its potential. If you’ve got a match, you can have a bright light that flares up really quickly, but it goes out—a match doesn’t last very long. But if you put the match and the candle together, then you’ve got a light that shines and brings benefit for a longer period of time. This is similar to the mind: the insight practice is like the match. It’s a spark of light, a spark of insight, a spark of seeing truth. But it needs the samatha practice to sustain it. With the samatha, the potential of the mind is ready to be used, the peacefulness of the mind is there, but it needs to be lit up. They need to work together and rely on each other for the heart to be purified.

Measuring the mind and recognizing what’s needed gives the space for samatha and vipassanā to rely on each other in this way. We need to develop the ability to measure the mind that does not come from a place of self-obsession, a running commentary of “me and my mind.” Instead, we learn to recognize what the experience is, and given this experience, what would be useful in order to bring balance to the mind, to guide the process of experience in the direction that is fruitful. Learn how to pay attention to your experience, to draw your attention inwards and see clearly. What is the experience? What is the way of Dhamma within that? What is the way of aligning yourself with Dhamma, of according yourself with fundamental truth?

I offer this for your reflection this evening.

Adapted from a talk offered by Ajahn Pasanno at Abhayagiri on July 31, 2010.