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120310 How & Why We Meditate \ \ Thanissaro Bhikkhu \ \ Dhamma Talks


We start with thoughts of goodwill to remind
ourselves of why we want to meditate. We want to find a happiness that’s reliable and
doesn’t harm anybody else. That’s why we spread goodwill both to ourselves and to
all beings, to remind ourselves that this is a special kind of happiness we’re after.
And then when we’re clear about why we’re doing it, we settle down to business. Here
the business is watching your breath. Take a couple of good long deep in-and-out breaths
and notice where you feel the breathing in the body. You feel the passage of air through
the nose but you also feel the rise and fall of the chest, sometimes the rise and fall
of the abdomen or the shoulders. Notice where the feeling of breathing is most pronounced.
Allow your attention to settle there and keep it there all the way through the in-breath,
all the way through the out, and even in the spaces between the breaths.
As you breathe in, notice if there’s any unnecessary tension in that part of the body.
It may be that the breath is too long, so that as you get toward the end of the breath
it’s beginning to feel uncomfortable. Well, allow the breath to grow shorter. Or if it’s
too short and you feel like you’re not really getting the full energy of the breath, allow
it to stretch out a bit. In other words, experiment with the breathing to see what feels best.
If you find something that feels good, stick with it. And it may feel good for a long time,
or it may feel good for just a little while and then not so good anymore. So try changing
it again. Try to keep on top of what the body needs.
The purpose here is two-fold: one, to get the mind to settle down in the present moment,
and two, to be observant. The breath is one of the few bodily functions that you can actually
change consciously, so try to take advantage of that, both for the settling down and for
the being observant. If the breath feels good and if you find it’s interesting to notice
the way you breath has an impact on how the body feels, that helps you to stay in the
present moment. You start learning about what the breath is doing—and as you learn about
the breath, you’re going to be able to learn about the mind as well.
Because ultimately the breath is not the problem. The real problem lies in the mind. We all
want happiness and yet we chose to do things that can lead to pain, for ourselves or for
other people. So there’s a disconnect. The question is, where is the disconnect? Sometimes
it’s because we don’t have a very clear knowledge of what our intentions are. Or it
may be because we don’t really see the connection between our actions and their results.
So starting with the breath, notice what your intention is. You’re here for the sake of
happiness. You’re here to learn how to train the mind so that it doesn’t create a lot
of problems. And of course not every part of your mind is going to be cooperative. Some
parts are going to wander away, with other agendas. So for the time being you just let
them go. In other words, you don’t have to get entangled with them. Just notice that
there’s that other thought, but you don’t have to follow it. That right there is an
important insight. You don’t have to run after everything that comes up in the mind.
Then stick with the breath as long as you can and see what impact it has on the mind
and on the body. This is the part of the practice that requires some conviction. It’s like
making scrambled eggs. The right way to make scrambled eggs is to keep the heat really
low. You sit there, stirring the eggs in the pan, and nothing seems to be happening. You
feel a very strong temptation to turn up the heat. But you have to resist that temptation.
Just keep on stirring and stirring and stirring, and after a while you find that eggs really
do begin to coagulate on the bottom of the pan.
It’s in that period when you don’t see any results coming that’s you need to have
the conviction that the cookbook was right. And it’s the same with the meditation. There
are times when you sit in meditate and nothing much seems to be happening. And so you need
the conviction to stick with it. This is why we have the chants on the Buddha,
the Dhamma, and the Sangha: to remind ourselves that this path we’re following here is not
a brand new path. It’s not something we just recently cooked up. In fact, the Buddha
himself said he didn’t invent the path. He discovered an old path. There had been
Buddhas before him, awakened people before him, and this is the same path they all discovered.
We have all of the Buddha’s enlightened disciples’ guarantee that yes, this path
does work. So you just stick with it. Part of the mind will complain because, of course,
there’s still greed, aversion, and delusion in the mind. It’s not that you sit down,
close your eyes, and they all go away. They hide out for a while, but they’re going
to come up again. And they’re going to complain: They’d rather do this, think that, go here
or there. Just remind yourself that you’ve been following greed, aversion, and delusion
for who knows how long. They do provide some pleasure, but there’s usually a lot of pain
that goes along with that pleasure and they leave you holding the bag. How about trying
something new? New for you at least. Something different.
So you just stick with it, stick with it, stick with it. As the Buddha said, patient
endurance is what burns away a lot of the issues in the mind. It doesn’t solve all
the problems. The ultimate problems are going to require very refined discernment. You develop
that discernment from your right effort as you practice. So in the beginning you take
whatever cruder skills you have at your disposal to develop right effort: conviction, patience,
your stick-to-it-ivid-ness. Now that can get very old very quickly if
you don’t have something of interest. That’s why we put an emphasis on working with the
breath. When the breath gets comfortable, the next step is to think of that sense of
comfortable breath spreading through different parts of the body. When we talk of breath
here it’s not air coming in and out. It’s the movement of energy in the body, because
that’s what gets the air to come in and out to begin with. Without that energy, nothing
would come in and out at all. So notice, when you breathe in: Where do you
feel the energy flow in the body? If you’re really sensitive, you find that it goes throughout
every nerve in your body, from the top of the head, down to the feet, down the shoulders,
down the arms, all through the torso, all through the head, all around. There’s even
an energy that surrounds the body. So to try to make yourself as sensitive as
possible to the energy that’s happening right here.
As with any task, it takes time. But if you have something with which to entertain yourself,
it helps you stick with the task. Here the entertainment is actually part of the work.
We’ve talked about playing with the breath. We can also talk about working with the breath.
The playing with it emphasizes the fact that it can be fun. Start noticing that there are
spots, say in your spine, where there’s a lot of tension. But if you consciously relax
the tension, there’s a sense of flow that goes through. It feels a lot more refreshing.
You may find that releasing one spot of tension in the body has a chain reaction effect, so
that other areas of tension in the body begin to relax as well. This is something that’s
fun to explore. You may notice that the way you hold your
body will change. When the flow of the breath energy in the body is improved, this is going
to be good for your health. This is medicine that doesn’t cost you anything at all.
And as for the work part, try to spread your awareness to fill the whole body, so that
eventually you’ll be aware of the whole body all the time through the in-breath, all
the time through the out. That broadens the range of your awareness, and you begin to
see things happening in the mind that you didn’t see before. They were hidden in a
blind spot because the range of your awareness was very narrow. But as you allow the awareness
to broaden out, you begin to see little bits and snatches of thoughts here and there. You
can catch sight of the mind’s decisions. Usually, in an ordinary mind, there are several
conversations going on at once. You may be paying attention to one or two, but there
are others going on as well. Every now and then you slip in, add a little something,
and then slip right out. And then you can deny to yourself, telling yourself that you
didn’t do any of that slipping around at all.
This is one of the reasons why we don’t see the connection between our actions and
the suffering we cause. There’s a fair amount of denial going on in the mind. But when your
range of awareness is all-around like this, it’s harder to maintain that denial. And
it’s better for you that you don’t. You can begin to see what’s going on.
Some unskillful thoughts in the mind can hang on simply because you’re not paying attention
to them; when you see them clearly, it’s very easy to let them go. There are others,
though, that are going to require more work: what the Buddha calls exerting a fabrication,
or fabricating an exertion. He uses both phrases. What this means is that you have to do some
conscious work in order to understand why you’re stuck on this particular kind of
action or kind of thinking. Then you make the effort to provide the mind with an alternative,
a more skillful alternative to the way you’ve been thinking. And it turns out that the way
you breathe is very intimately connected with all of this. It’s called bodily fabrication.
As I said, it’s one of the few functions in the body that you can intentionally change.
So you work with that and put it to use. Suppose that anger comes up in the mind. One
of the first things you can do about it is to notice where in the body is the tension
that goes along with the anger? Then try to breathe through it. Think of the breath energy
as just dissolving that tension away, allowing it to dissipate out into the air, so you don’t
have to keep carrying it around—or you don’t feel burdened with the need to get it out
in your words, or your deeds. As you’re working with the breath, you also
become sensitive to two other kinds of fabrication the Buddha talked about. One is called verbal
fabrication, which is the way the mind talks to itself. It directs its thoughts to a particular
topic and then it starts evaluating it and deciding what it likes and what it doesn’t
like, what it wants to do and doesn’t want to do.
When you’re working with the breath, you’re engaging in just that kind of verbal fabrication.
You become more conscious of it. You realize that you can change the way you talk to yourself
about things—especially when you start getting new perspectives about what’s going on in
the present moment, as to what’s going on in the mind and what’s going on in the body.
Then there’s what the Buddha calls mental fabrication, which are the perceptions, the
labels we apply to things, along with feeling: feeling of pleasure, pain, and neither pleasure
nor pain. And again as you’re working with the breath,
you get hands-on experience in how you can shape these things and use them to shape the
state of your mind. When you stick with the breath, you’re also holding a particular
perception of the breath in mind. If you think of the breath simply as the air coming in
and out of the nose, that influences one way that you’re going to breathe. But if you
think about the energy in the body as being breath, then it can go anywhere in the nervous
system. That gives you another perception. It’s going to change they way you actually
experience the breath. You can start to think of all those little tiny nerve endings going
all the way out to the pores of your skin. They’ve got breath energy too. If you hold
that perception in mind, how does that change the way you breathe? How does it change the
way you feel in the present moment? Doe it feel more pleasant? If not, what other perception
of breathing can you think of that would? So as you focus on working and playing with
the breath, you’re getting some conscious experience in learning how to manipulate what
the Buddha calls bodily fabrication, verbal fabrication, and mental fabrication, to create
a sense of ease within the body and mind. Then you can use those same fabrications to
deal with whatever else comes up in the mind. For the time being, you don’t want to get
too involved in analyzing any distracting thoughts. Work on using these three types
of fabrication to make your concentration as solid as you can. After a while, as you
get good at these types of fabrication and you feel solid in the present moment, you
can turn and look at whatever the thought was that seemed to be so attractive. You can
start analyzing the thought in terms of the three types of fabrication: How are you breathing
in relation to the thought? What things are you saying to yourself that give rise, say
to greed or aversion or delusion? What are the perceptions or mental labels lying behind
these thoughts? And what kind of feelings surround all this? Can you change those things?
Fabricate something different—so that when an incident comes up in your life that you
would normally react to with anger, can you refabricate your reaction. Something that
would give rise to lust, can you refabricate that, so that the aversion, the anger, the
lust don’t hold any appeal? Two things help to cut through that appeal.
First, simply having access to a greater sense of well-being as you work with the breath
and play with the breath, gives the mind’s sense of hunger—just wanting some action,
wanting something entertaining—less of an edge. Second, you see that the way you normally
react is optional; it’s causing stress that doesn’t need to be there. You see that you’re
creating an awful lot of the situation, just by the way you’re looking at it, and if
it’s causing stress, well, why not look at it in a different way? Why not breathe
around it in a different way? Perceive it in a different way. Evaluate it in a different
way. These are some of the lessons you can learn
by working and playing with the breath like this: allowing the mind to become more firmly
settled in the present and to see things a lot more clearly. You come to understand this
process of how you fabricate your experience, and you can use that understanding to eliminate
all the stress that the fabrication creates for the mind. This is one of the Buddha’s
major insights. There’s an analysis of suffering and stress
called dependent co-arising and it talks about all the different factors that give rise to
stress and suffering. Half of them come even before sensory contact. Even before you see
something or hear something, the mind is already primed to create suffering out of it—if
it’s operating under the power of ignorance. What we’re doing here is learning how to
bring knowledge to those processes so that we’re no longer priming ourselves for suffering
and stress. We’re priming ourselves to put an end to it.
Which is in line with our original intention. We want to be able to see why the actions
we do for the sake of happiness end up leading to stress and how we can change those ways,
so that we can actually act in a way that leads to true happiness. We break things down
into very simple components so that we can manage them. We realize that this is a problem
we can manage. That’s the good news of the Buddha’s teachings: that even though we
may be causing ourselves stress and suffering, it’s good to know that because it means
that we can put an end to it. If our suffering really was caused by things outside that were
beyond our power then there’d be no hope. Or if it was caused by things we were doing
that we couldn’t change, there’d be no hope, either. But here we’re making choices.
We’re probably not making them all that wisely, but we do have some wisdom. We do
have some discernment. It’s just a matter of applying it, giving it a foundation here
in the present moment and then really using it to look carefully to see: Where are you
creating unnecessary stress and suffering for yourself? What can you do to change? When
the mind is well settled and well centered like this, it fosters a sense of well-being.
That sense of well-being is important. If you sit here and criticize yourself when you’re
feeling down on yourself, that doesn’t help. But when the mind feels at ease, with a sense
of fullness and well-being here in the present moment, then you can bring up the fact that
you’ve got some habits here that are not all that skillful. Let’s do something about
them. The mind is then a lot more willing to listen and to work on the problem.
So these are our basic skills. These are our basic components into which we break things
down so that we can understand how we can put them back together in a better way. Then
the things that we tend to cling to, the habits we tend to fall into over and over again that
are leading to suffering and stress: We can take them apart. And then we can put everything
back together again a better way that turns into a path that, unlike our normal life,
doesn’t just keep going around and around and around and around. It actually goes someplace:
someplace that’s really worth going to. And here again, this is where conviction is
important. The state the Buddha described as health,
nibbana, is something he can’t pull out of his heart to show to us. On the one hand,
we have to take his word for it when he talks about the kind of commitment it requires.
On the one hand, he doesn’t have the role of being a god who can tell you what you have
to do. But he does say he’s an expert in putting an end to suffering. That requires
some conviction on our part. But it’s not just a floating, uncommitted conviction. You
really do have to commit yourself to this. It’s a path that requires an awful lot of
attention and a lot of persistence, patience. Because we’re working on a big problem,
and it takes time sometimes to break the big problem down to manageable bits so we can
understand: “Oh, this is why I’ve been doing this all along. And here’s an alternative.”
So the path does ask a lot, but it offers a lot as well. And if you think of the alternative—just
continuing to keep on suffering in your old ways—it makes sense to give this path
a sincer and serious try.

Joseph Wolf

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