Deal with the Big Issues

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

Deal with the Big Issues

So here we are with our breath. Sometimes we’ve also got pain and at other times distractions — sometimes both together — and we tend to regard them as mosquitoes swarming around as we meditate. We’d like to swat them and get rid of them so we can actually get down to the real business of meditating.

But dealing with the distractions, dealing with the pain is the real business of the meditation. When you die, the big problems are going to be distraction and pain. Even before you die.

You’ve probably noticed this with old people: They can’t look ahead into the future because all they see in the future is death. So they start looking only to the past. They cut off large swaths of their awareness. Their minds can’t accept what’s actually happening — and if they haven’t been trained, then the pain and depression of having to face death overwhelm them.

When the actual pain of illness and death comes, they’re even more overwhelmed because they have no tools. They don’t have the right attitude for dealing with these things.

But if you’re practicing meditation, you’re dealing precisely with the big issues that are going to cause suffering as you die. The more skilled you get at the meditation, the more you’ll be ready for whatever comes, and the more you’ll have the right attitude toward it. You see it as just one more challenge, and you’re up for it. You’ve got your tools.

When illness comes, you can deal with it lucidly. When death comes, you can deal with it lucidly, with a sense of confidence. You’ve dealt with pain and distraction in the past, so the basic principles are the same.

For this reason, when things like pain and distraction come up in the meditation, don’t get discouraged. These are the riddles of the meditation; these are the things you want to figure out — how to spar and parry, how to sidestep when necessary, how to take them straight on when you have to. Don’t get discouraged by how big the task is. Just keep chipping away, chipping away.

This is another thing we don’t learn from our education system: how to deal with something we’re not good at from the very beginning.

Often they channel you into areas where you show a talent and neglect to teach you how to gain skill in areas that don’t come easily to you. As a result when you come to meditation, you need to develop the basic skills needed to deal with a long-term project: Keep chipping away, chipping away, step by step.

Learn to look for the least little signs of progress so you can give yourself encouragement.

Take things as they come. The world doesn’t always throw things at you step by step. Sometimes big pains come, and then little pains, and then big pains again. But you do what you can. Don’t forget that every step you take in the right direction, big or small, is an important step. It’s not wasted.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Dhamma Talks Section, Meditations Series book, Meditations 3, “A Decent Education.” (Also in audio format at, “A Decent Education, May 18, 2005.”)