You Can Pull Yourself Back

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

You Can Pull Yourself Back

Our minds are pretty chaotic systems, which is why following the middle way is so difficult. It’s so easy for a chaotic system to get knocked out of equilibrium, to veer off to the left, to veer off to the right. Staying in the middle is difficult; it requires a lot of balance.

…It’s easy for tiny little things to set them off. This is why we have to be careful in our practice. Don’t regard the little details or little distractions as totally unimportant. Ajaan Mun used to say that it’s very rare that a whole tree gets into your eye, but sometimes just a little sawdust can get into your eye and blind you. Sometimes the little things are the ones that set you off, so you have to be careful.

On the other hand, though, you have to be confident that even if the mind does get knocked off balance you can bring it back. Otherwise the practice would be full of fear all the time—afraid of tipping off too far to the left, too far to the right, toppling upside down. There’s only one way of learning what the balance point is, and that’s through experimenting.

And you can experiment only when you’re not afraid. So you have to develop the confidence that even when you do go far off the path to one side or the other, you can pull yourself back. There’s always that new opportunity in the mind to give yourself a fresh start.

In this way you can experiment and gain a sense of where the balance is because you know that no mistakes are fatal. You come back and you put yourself on the path again. You fall off… well, you put yourself back on the path again. Ajaan Mun once said at another point, “It’s normal for people to go off on the side.” You get stuck on the right side of the path looking at the flowers, sniffing the breeze or on the left side on the path where you’re stuck in the mud. But you can extract yourself from both sides.

This is why we have techniques in meditation. This is what they’re for. They assume that you’re going to go off on either side, and so they give you paths for bringing yourself back. When the level of energy in your mind is too strong—your mind starts bouncing around like a ping-pong ball—there are calming practices.

When your energy level goes weak—you start getting bored, nothing seems to interest you, nothing seems to be worth doing—there are practices for energizing you. “Think about your motivation—why you’re practicing—and that can help get you going again.”

And then there’s the factor the Buddha calls “analysis of qualities,” which means really looking carefully at what’s going on. Often we get bored with the meditation because we’ve grown sloppy, we’re not really paying careful attention, and nothing new seems to be coming along. Look very carefully at what you’re doing. Look very carefully at each breath, and you’ll begin to see things you didn’t notice before.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Dhamma Talks book, Gather ‘Round the Breath : Dhamma Talks Cited in With Each & Every Breath, “No Mistakes Are Fatal.” (Also in audio format at “No Mistakes Are Fatal—January, 2003”)