That passage we chanted just now: “May I look after myself with ease.” It doesn’t refer to just being physically at ease. It also means learning how to look after your own mind, getting a sense of how to correct its imbalances.
This is one of the treasures that the Buddha’s teachings have to offer, in that it gives you some pointers in how to look after yourself, how to be alone and not go crazy, how not to get off balance, learning how to be self-correcting, self-governing.
To begin with, right view allows you to see where your thinking has gone off course. And second, it allows you to realize that you don’t have to be immersed in a mood.
One of the basic principles of right view is the principle of kamma, and one of the principles of kamma is that we have freedom of choice in the present moment.
Yet this is an area where the wrong views of our culture get in the way. We tend to think that our moods are our real self. We tend not to trust our thoughts because we know we’ve picked up a lot of ideas from the media and other people around us, but our moods and emotions seem to be genuinely ours, who we are in the present moment.
This is where the Buddha’s teachings on understanding yourself are important. You don’t have to identify with your mood. There is always a spot in the mind that’s just simply aware of these things. And you want to learn how to stand in that spot.
One of the images in the Canon is of a person sitting down looking at someone who’s lying down, or a person standing who’s looking at someone sitting down. In other words, you step back a bit; you’re slightly above what’s just happened, and you evaluate it.
That’s the second part of the Buddha’s approach: not only having a place to step back but also having good standards to evaluate things.
For instance, when you’re in a bad mood, there is a tendency — especially if you’re in the West — to say, “Here I am. I’m finally being honest with myself, and I’m miserable. I’m horrible. My life is going nowhere.”
We tend to think that that’s getting down to the true facts of the situation because it’s so harsh. But why should we believe that? And in what way is it helpful?
You might say, “Well, it’s better to be realistic than living in fantasies,” but your bad mood is just a mood. It doesn’t guarantee the truth of what you see while you’re in that mood. And it’s also self-defeating, for as the Buddha points out, it’s possible to change your mood and to create moods that are a lot more useful in the practice.
That’s why one of the steps in breath meditation is learning how to gladden the mind when it needs to be gladdened. In other words, see where the mood is leading you, and if you don’t like the direction it’s heading, realize that you’re free to look at things in a different way.
You’re not committed to the mood; after all, it’s not committed to you. It comes and goes without asking your permission, so you don’t need its permission to push it out.
He [Ajaan Fuang] had learned that regardless of how true you might think the mood is, you’ve got to look at its effects. Where is it leading you? After all, we’re here to follow a path. So you can ask yourself, “What kind of path is a depressed mood? What kind of path is an unhealthy mood?” It’s not a decent path at all. It’s a path downward, not the path you want to follow.
So again, remind yourself that these moods are not necessarily true; they’re not necessarily you.
They’re like a set of clothing: You can choose to put them on, or you can take them off. The breath provides you with a place to step back and look at yourself, the way you’d look at yourself in a mirror. The Dhamma gives you a set of standards for judging what looks good in the mirror, what doesn’t, what’s healthy and what’s not…
So to be able to look after your own mind and to thrive at being alone, you need a whole set of skills.
You need a spot where you can step back and look at things, the right set of attitudes that help you gauge the situation for what it is, and then skills in creating and maintaining a better mood. This is how you look after yourself with ease.
The skills that enable you to be more mature in general, also help make you a more mature meditator. In this way, as you meditate, you become your own best friend, instead of your own worst enemy. You learn how to handle being alone.
And it’s only when you can handle being alone that you can really handle being with other people. You don’t get swept away by their ideas or their moods, and you can actually become a source of stability in their lives as well.
These reflections by Ajaan Geoff are from the Dhamma Talks, Meditation Series book, Meditations 4, “How to Be Alone.”