"No monk is an island."
This morning I was talking to Ven. Subbato. He was saying he never developed Anapanasati ("mindfulness of the breath"). So I said, "Can you be mindful of one inhalation?" He said, "Oh yes!" "And of one exhalation?" He said, "Yes." I said, "You got it!" There's nothing more to it than that.
However, one tends to expect to develop some special kind of ability to go into a special state. Because we don't go into such a state, we think we can't do Anapanasati. But the way to a spiritual life is through renunciation, relinquishment, letting go. It is not through attaining or acquiring. Even the jhanas (meditative absorptions attained through serenity) are actually relinquishments [abandoning the Five Mental Hindrances] rather than attainments.
- Drowsiness (physical and mental)
- Restlessness and worry
- Sceptical doubt
If we relinquish more and more, letting go more and more, the jhanic states are natural. Our attitude is the most important thing. To practice Mindfulness of Breathing, one brings undivided attention to one inhalation, being mindful of it from the beginning of the breath to the end of it. One inhalation, that's it. The same goes for the exhalation. That's the perfect attainment of Anapanasati.
The awareness of just that much is the result of concentration (samadhi) of the mind through sustained-attention (vicara) on the breath -- from the beginning to the end of the inhalation, from the beginning to the end of the exhalation. There is no "noting" or "discursive thinking." One simply knows the breath directly, right at that point of contact with the breath's touching point near the nostrils.
The attitude is always one of letting go, not attaching to any ideas or feelings that arise. One is always fresh with the next inhalation, the next exhalation, just as it is. One is not carrying over anything. So it's a way of relinquishment and letting go, rather than of attaining and achieving. One danger in a meditation practice is the habit of grasping for things, grasping at states. So the concept that's most useful is relinquishment, rather than achieving.
If today one says that yesterday one had a really super meditation, absolutely fantastic, just what one always dreamed of, and one tries to get the same wonderful experience as yesterday, one would be more restless and agitated than ever before. Now why is that? Why can't one get what is wanted? It's because one is trying to attain something remembered rather than really working with the way things are now.
The correct way is one of mindfulness, of looking at things as they are now rather than remembering yesterday and trying to get to that state again.
The first year I meditated, I didn't have a teacher. I was in a small kuti (meditation hut) in Nong Khai, Thailand for about ten months. I had all kinds of blazing insights. Alone for ten months, not having to talk, not having to go anywhere, everything simply calmed down after several months. I thought I became a fully enlightened person (arahant)! I was sure of it.
Of coure, I later found out I wasn't. I remember a famine that came through Nong Khai that year. We didn't get very much to eat. I became malnourished. So I thought, "Maybe malnutrition's the answer. If I just starve myself..." I remember becoming so weak with malnutrition at Nong Khai that my earlobes started cracking open. On waking, I'd have to pry my eyelids open. They'd be stuck shut with the ooze emanating from eyelids when one is not feeling very well.
One day a Canadian monk brought me three cans of tinned milk. In Asia there is sweetened milk in tin cans that's very, very delicious. He also brought me instant coffee and a flask of hot water. So I made a cup of coffee, canned milk, hot water and started drinking it. I just went crazy.
It was utterly delicious -- the first time I had anything sweet or stimulating in weeks. When I was malnourished, I was in a very apathetic state -- dull (torpor) and tired (sloth). This hot drink was like high-octane fuel, whoomph! Immediately when I gulped that down, I couldn't stop myself. I consumed all three cans of milk and a good portion of the coffee. My mind went flying into outer space, or it seemed like it did. I thought, "Maybe that's the secret? If I can just get somebody to buy me tinned milk."
When I went to Wat Pah Pong [Ajahn Chah's famous forest monastery in Northeast Thailand] the following year, I kept thinking: "Oh, I had all those wonderful experiences in Nong Khai. I had all those beautiful visions, all those fantastic floating experiences and blazing insights. And it seemed like I understood everything. And one even thought oneself an arahant (a saint, a fully enlightened person)."
At Wat Pah Pong that first year, I didn't have much of anything. I just kept trying to do all the things I'd done in Nong Khai to get these things. But after a while, even using strong cups of coffee didn't work anymore. I didn't feel that exhilaration, the fantastic highs and blazing insights I had the first year. So after the first Rainy Season (vassa) at Wat Pah Pong, I thought, "This place is not for me. I think I'll go and try to repeat what happened in Nong Khai." I left Ajahn Chah and went to live on Pupek Mountain in Sakorn Nakorn province.
At last, I was againi in an idyllic and isolated spot. However, for alms one had to set off before dawn descending the mountain. It was quite a trek. Then one had to wait for the village-donors to arrive. They'd bring one food. Then one had to make the ascent, climb all the way up the mountain and eat the food before 12:00 noon. (These are the standard Buddhist monastic rules regarding food). It was quite a problem.
I was with another monk, a Thai monk, and I thought, "He's really very good." I was quite impressed with him. But when we were on the mountain, he wanted me to teach him English. So I got really angry with him! It was in an area of Northeast Thailand with a lot of terrorists and communists. There were helicopters flying overhead sometimes looking down on us. They once came and hustled me to the provincial town, thinking I might be a communist spy.
Then I got violently ill, so ill I had to be carried down the mountain. I was stuck in a wretched place by a reservoir under a tin roof during the hot season with insects buzzing in and out of my ears and other orifices. The food was so horrible, I nearly died, come to think of it. I almost didn't make it.
But it was during my time in that lean-to under the that a real change took place. I was in despair, sick, weak, and totally depressed. My mind would fall into these hellish realms, what with the terrible heat and discomfort. I felt I was being cooked alive. It was like being tortured. Then a change came.
Suddenly, I just stopped my mind. I refused to get caught in that negativity. And I started to practice Mindfulness of Breathing (Anapanasati). I used the breath to concentrate my mind. And things changed very quickly. After that I recovered, and it was time to enter the next Rainy Season, so I returned.
I had promised Ajahn Chah I'd return to Wat Pah Pong for the vassa. My robes were in tatters, torn and patched. I looked terrible. When Ajahn Chah saw me, he burst out laughing. But I was sure glad to be back after all I had been through! I had been trying to practice, and what I had wanted were the memories of these insights. I'd forgotten what the insights really were. I was attached to the idea of working in some kind of ascetic way. I did it the first year, and the asceticism really worked. At that time being malnourished and being alone seemed to give rise to insight. So much so that for the following several years I kept trying to recreate the same conditions so I'd be able to have these fantastic insights.
But the following two or three years seemed to be years of just getting by. Nothing much seemed to happen. I was on Pupek Mountain for six months before returning to Wat Pah Pong, deciding to stay on and follow the insights I had:
One of the insights the first year was that I should find a teacher. Another was that I should learn how to live under a discipline imposed on me by that teacher. So I did. I realized Ajahn Chah was a good teacher and had a good standard of monastic discipline. So I stayed with him. The insights I had were right. But I had become attached to the memory, when actually insight is more and more a matter of living insightfully.
It's not just that you have insight sometimes. But more and more as you reflect on Dharma, everything is insightful. You see insightfully into life as it's happening to you. As soon as you think you have to have special conditions for it, and you're not aware of that, then you're going to create all sorts of complexities about your practice.
So I developed letting go: to not concern myself with attaining or achieving anything. I decided to make little achievements possible by learning to be a little more patient, a little more humble, and a little more generous. I decided to develop this rather than go out of my way to "control" and manipulate the environment with the intention of setting myself up in the hope of getting high.
It became apparent, with reflection, that the attachment to the insights was the problem. The insights were valid, but there was attachment to the memory of them. Then the insight arose to let go of all insights. Don't attach to them. Just keep letting go of all the insights. Otherwise they become memories. And memories are conditions of the mind. And if you become attached to them, they can only take you to despair.
In each moment, it's AS IT IS. With Mindfulness of Breathing (Ana-Pana-Sati), one inhalation, at this moment, is this way. It's not like yesterday's inhalation was. One is not thinking of yesterday's inhalation and yesterday's exhalation while breathing now. I'm with it completely, as it is. So you establish that.
The reflective ability is based on establishing awareness on the way it is now. This is done rather than having some idea of what one would like to get and then trying to get it in the here-and-now. Trying to get yesterday's blissful feeling here-and-now means one is not aware of the way it is now. One is not with it. Even with Anapanasati, if you're doing it with the hope of getting the result you had yesterday, that will make it impossible for that result to happen.
Last winter, Ven. Vipassi was meditating in the shrine room. Someone was making quite distracting noises. Talking to Ven. Vipassi about it later, I was quite impressed. He said first he felt annoyed. Then he decided the noises would be part of the practice. So he opened his mind to the meditation hall with everything in it -- the noise, the silence, the whole thing. That's wisdom, isn't it?
If the noise is something you can stop -- like a door banging in the wind -- go close the door. If there's something you have control over, you can do that. But much of life you have no direct control over. One has no right to ask everything to be silent for one's "own" meditation. When there is reflection, instead of having a little mind that has to have total silence and special conditions, you have a big mind that can contain the whole of it: the noises, the disruptions, the silence, the bliss, the restlessness, the pain.
The mind is all-embracing rather than scrutinizing a certain refinement of consciousness. Then one can develop flexibility because one can concentrate the mind. This is where wisdom is needed for real development. It's through wisdom that we develop it, not through willpower or controlling or manipulating environmental conditions.
Getting rid of the things we don't want, trying to set ourselves up so that we can follow the desire to achieve and attain, it's not the way. Desire is insidious. When we are aware that our intention is to attain some state, that's a desire, isn't it? So we let it go.
If we are sitting here, even with a desire to attain the first jhana (absorption), we recognize that that desire is going to be the very thing that's going to prevent us from fulfilling our wish. So we let go of the desire, which doesn't mean not being Mindful of Breathing. It means changing our attitude toward it. So what can one do now? Develop mindfulness of one inhalation.
Most of us can do that. Most human beings have enough concentration to concentrate (with undivided attention) from the beginning of a single inhalation to the end of it. But even if your concentration span is so weak you can't even make it to the end, that's all right. At least you can get to the middle, maybe. That's better than if you gave up totally or never tried at all, isn't it?At least you're composing the mind for one second, and that's the beginning:
Learn to compose and collect the mind around one thing, like the breath, and sustain it just for the length of one inhalation. If not, then half an inhalation, or a quarter , or whatever. At least you have started. Moreover, develop a mind that's glad at just being able to do that much!
Rather than being critical because you haven't attained the first jhana, or the fourth, be glad you're mindful of the breath.
If meditation becomes another thing you have to do, and you feel guilty if you don't live up to your resolutions, then you'll start pushing yourself without an awareness of what you're doing. Then life becomes dreary and depressing.
But if one is putting that skillful kind of attention into daily life, one finds so much of daily life very pleasant -- which one may not notice if caught in one's habitual compulsions and obsessions. If one acts with compulsiveness, it becomes a burden, a grind. We drag ourselves around doing what we have to do in a heedless and negative way.
But being able to be in the countryside -- the trees, the fields, all we at this time for a retreat -- we can sit and walk. We don't have a lot to do. The morning chanting and the evening chanting can be extremely pleasant for us -- if we're open to it. People are offering food. The meals are quite lovely things. People are eating mindfully and quietly. When instead we're doing it out of habit and compulsion, it gets to be a drag. And many things that are quite pleasant in and of themselves are no longer pleasant. We can't enjoy them when we're coming from compulsiveness, heedlessness, and ambition.
Those are the kinds of driving forces that destroy the joy and the wonder of our lives. Sustaining attention on breathing really develops awareness. But when one gets lost in thought or restlessness, that's all right too. Don't drive yourself. Don't be a slave driver. Don't beat yourself with a whip, driving yourself in a nasty way. Lead, guide, and train yourself. Leading onward, guide yourself rather than driving and forcing yourself.
Nirvana is a subtle realization of non-grasping. You can't "drive" yourself to Nirvana. That's the sure way of never realizing it.
It's here and now. If you're driving yourself to Nirvana, you're always moving away from it or driving right over it.
It's pretty heavy sometimes to burn up attachments in the mind. The Holy Life (brahmacariya) is a holocaust, a total burning, a burning up of self, of ignorance. The purity that comes from the holocaust is like a diamond emerging out of compressed coal. It's something that went through so much fire that everything was burnt away; all that was left was purity.
So too in our lives here. There has to be this willingness to burn away the self-views, the opinions, the desires, the restlessness, the greed, and the hankering. All of it, the whole of it has to be relinquished so that there's nothing but purity remaining.
Then when there is purity, there is nobody, no thing, there's that, the "suchness." And let go of that, too.
More and more the Path is just as simple as being here and now, being with the way things are. There's nowhere to go, nothing on has to do, nothing to become, nothing to get rid of. Because of the personal holocaust, there is no ignorance remaining. There is purity, clarity, and intelligence.