When I run Mahasi retreats, I tend to give a short talk in the morning.
In autumn 2004, I was invited to teach for two months at the Forest
Refuge, in Mass, USA. I gave little pointers in the morning and
then wrote them up. Five years on, they have matured into this collection.
These ‘Encouragements’ will hopefully be of use to
people on retreat, especially a long retreat. Several pieces would
also be good reminders in daily practice.
Many thanks to meditators who have read these pieces and special
thanks to Ashin U Ottama and Ven. Ariyanyani, Noirin Sheehan and
Marjo Oosterhoff for reading the script, all of whom gave me valuable
feedback. And last, but by no means least, Therese Caherty who edited
the work and helped me clarify the writing.
Should you, the present reader, also wish to give feedback, especially
where you think I may be mistaken or unclear, please do so. And
since this is by no means an exhaustive list, if you see a topic
I haven’t covered, again please email me.
I trust you will find these pieces of some benefit.
May you attain liberation sooner rather than later!
01 Jan 2010
In these essays, aimed at the general reader and meditator, I felt
it necessary to introduce some Pali words. Translations may often
contain inaccuracies since cultures see things differently. Also,
individual writers / translators can use different words for the
same foreign word. All of which can lead to confusion!
For example, translating dukkha (variously read as suffering, unsatisfactoriness,
stress) is problematic since its meaning includes the suffering
that arises out of indulgence and attachment. I tend to use all
at different times.
Citta (pronounced chitta) is mostly translated as mind, but also
heart-mind. This is because unlike the English word mind (generally
confined to intellect and imagination), citta includes our emotional
life. The old word soul, the Latin animus and the Greek psyche encompass
this combined meaning but, of course, are loaded with Western traditions.
Rather than use the clumsy ‘heart-mind’, here I use
the citta by which I mean the whole complex of thought, imagination,
moods and emotions as opposed to the body where the citta knows
only sensations. So in this instance, ‘mind’ refers
to that which perceives, thinks and knows. ‘Heart’ refers
to the emotional, mood life. And where I use ‘citta’
I mean both.
Then there is vedana – or feeling. The Buddha talks of pleasant,
unpleasant and neutral physical and mental feelings. And the English
word feeling just about covers all of this in that we talk of feeling
angry or feeling unwell. We have to understand, though, that it
is the citta that perceives, feels and knows. The body as such ‘knows’
nothing. In this sense all vedana are mental.
I have not highlighted Pali words so that they sit as part of the
text. They are also spelt phonetically for easy reading but you
may find their dictionary spelling in the glossary.
Finally, in the pure vipassana path of insight, jhana, the absorption
into various levels of ecstatic states, is avoided. The Mahasi Sayadaw
taught in the tradition of the Satipatthana Sutta, The Discourse
on How to Establish Right Awareness, often referred to as the ‘jewel
of the collection’, which begins with the words, ekayano maggo,
‘This is the direct path …’
I think it is important that lay practitioners in particular know
that this was taught to the ordinary folk of Kurusaddhamma, who
were too busy to find the time to develop the jhana. For further
clarification about the jhana and how they appear in vipassana see
my essay, ‘Vipassana as taught by the Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma’.
Some basic reading:
Practical Vipassana Exercises by the Mahasi Sayadaw is the best
In This Very Life by Sayadaw U Pandita remains the classic for those
practising in the Mahasi method.
The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera is also the
classic introduction to vipassana.
7. Right Posture
8. The Breath
10. Noting Intention
11. Noting Daily Activities
12. Standing Meditation
13. The Importance Of Walking Meditation
14. Walking Like Sitting
16. Being In The Moment
17. Achieving Nothing, Going Nowhere, Being Nobody
18. To Do Or Not To Do
19. Tips On Maintaining Mindfulness
Undermining Unwholesome Qualities
20. Riding The Dragon – Taming The Ox
21. Catching Mara
22. Too Much Effort
23. Thinking … Thinking … Thinking ...
24. Eating! Taking The Indulgence Out Of Pleasure (Renunciation)
25. The Knees! Taking The Suffering Out Of Pain (Endurance)
26. When The Storm Comes
27. Sex, Romance And Celibacy
28. Guilt, Shame And Remorse
29. Laziness And Hierarchy
30. Beware Of Expectation
31. Refuse To Be Annihilated
32. Feed The Need! Starve The Greed!
33. Judging … Judging … Judging
34. Fear, Fear … Anxiety, Anxiety …
35. Envy And Jealousy
36. Thank Heavens For Those Little Annoyances
38. Boredom … Boredom … Boredom …
39. Wonder And Doubt
40. Delicious, Delicious, Delicious …
41. Pain … Pain … Pain …
43. Transformation Not Destruction
Developing Wholesome Qualities
45. Sati: Awareness
46. Panya: Intuitive Intelligence
47. Interest And Investigation Of The Dhamma
48. Mudita: Sympathetic Joy
49. Upekkha: Equanimity
50. Adhitthana: Determination
51. Concentration? Relax!
52. Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off And Start All Over Again
53. Rejoice! We’re On The Path
54. Turning Inward The Stream Of Love And Compassion
55. Honesty Is The Best Policy
56. You’ve Got To Laugh
57. Death, Where Is Thy Sting?
58. Homage To The Body
59. Samsara Is Nibbana
60. The Dhamma Works In Mysterious Ways!
61. Really Saying Thank You
62. Is Anything Not In A Process Of Change?
63. We Have Contact!
64. Anatta: Not-Self
65. Time Still: Time Flux
66. Dependent Origination
1. Aims And Objectives
When I trained to be a teacher, I was taught to differentiate aims
from objectives. Aims were those distant objectives one hoped students
might achieve and objectives were their immediate goals. This holds
for most of our aspirations in life, whether it’s a skill,
a profession or relationship – or, in our case, spiritual
When we come into a retreat situation or start our daily practice,
naturally we want to have some psychological benefit, even physical
benefits and assuredly to make spiritual headway. But if these become
our objectives rather than our aims then we load the present moment
with goals that cannot be achieved. And they cannot be achieved
because it’s that old rascal, the self, that wants to achieve.
It is one thing to go to a doctor for a cure or to a counsellor
or therapist for help, but when we try to medicate ourselves, or
worse psychoanalyse ourselves, then we are in dangerous waters.
Spiritually, it’s a disaster to try to achieve anything because
the whole definition of a spiritual goal is that it is outside the
realm of self, beyond the power of self.
Our immediate objectives, therefore, cannot be the same as our
long-term aims. And here is where the Buddha shows his genius as
a teacher. Indeed our aim is to achieve liberation from all psychological
suffering and unsatifactoriness and to experience Nibbana. But to
get to those ends, we need to establish Right Awareness. That’s
our immediate objective.
Think of an archer. When they point towards the target, it is never
at the bullseye itself, but at some imaginary point in the air.
They know if the arrow passes through that point at the right speed,
it will surely hit bullseye. It is the same in our practice. If
we make our sole objective the establishment of moment-to-moment
attentiveness, then as surely as that arrow, we shall be heading
towards the end of suffering and the experience of the deathless,
Now such is our nature we will unwittingly try to achieve the impossible.
That’s why it is so important to reflect on what we are doing.
And what we are doing is simply honing the skills of meditation.
Just as the archer must practise and practise until they become
perfect, so we in our meditation, must practise and practise so
that mindfulness becomes more and more our second nature. Never
mind second nature – first nature!
A recurring phrase in the Buddha’s Discourses is yoniso manasikara,
meaning to reflect wisely. There is nothing wrong, indeed it is
very skilful, to stop every so often in the sitting and remind ourselves
of our task, especially so when the Hindrances seem to be getting
the better of us. For instance, if the mind is forever wandering,
then stop. Reflect on why this is happening. Are we doing all we
can? Is what we are doing skilful? It may just be that the mind
is restless and we must patiently bring it back to mindfulness.
And so on.
So let us be clear about our present objectives. Our work is to
hone the skills of meditation and establish moment-to-moment awareness.
Let us rest in the faith that such distant aims as final liberation
will arise as a matter of course. In this way, our practice is greatly
simplified and, perhaps more importantly, greatly clarified. Indeed
all that is necessary for all our spiritual aspirations to manifest
is to watch, to observe, to experience fully every event that arises
and passes away within the focus of our attention.
2. Confidence And The Refuges
Confidence is a spiritual faculty, the absolutely necessary first
step to spiritual practice. The word saddha is often translated
as faith but becomes confused with belief. Confidence tells us that
we trust. When we see a doctor for diagnosis and medicine there
is an implicit trust, a confidence in their ability. If not, we
will probably go elsewhere and certainly not take the medicine until
we have another test. And this is why confidence in the Buddha,
Dhamma and Sangha is a prerequisite, for without trust we simply
won’t do the practice.
This confidence is gained first through knowing the teaching. Newcomers
want to know what they are letting themselves in for and ask early
on: ‘What is vipassana? What does it do? What’s the
reasoning behind it?’ That we are now sitting means we have
got beyond that stage and have the confidence to try it out. Even
so it is good practice to ‘take the Refuges’.
Taking refuge in the Buddha is a declaration that you trust him
as a spiritual teacher and that at least for the purpose of this
retreat you will put aside any doubts. But it has a deeper significance
also because the Buddha is not only the teacher and exemplar, but
also an archetype. There is that within is that also seeks liberation.
We also take refuge in the ‘Buddha within’.
The Dhamma is the teaching which includes all the development after
the Buddha’s passing into parinibbana, total Nibbana, which
are in accord with his teaching. Here it is the practice and teachings
on this particular retreat. By putting our confidence in the present
teacher and teaching we can allay any doubts. Allow ourselves to
do the course and then when it’s completed we can reflect
on that experience. Not that we need to close down our critical
faculties on retreat, more that we don’t let a sceptical doubt
undermine our confidence. Usually all doubts are dealt with in the
interview with the teacher.
The greatest lack of confidence often arises towards ourselves.
This can be because we expected a result that has not come about.
It can arise because we are comparing ourselves with others. Both
lead to deep pits. It’s good to remind ourselves in such times
that each of us has our path and we will accomplish our liberation
in our own time. That’s the Buddhadhamma.
The Sangha is the community of those who have entered into the
paths and fruits, the Noble Ones. They are witness to the Buddha’s
teachings by their own personal experience of the various levels
of awakening. This is not to be confused with the ordained sangha.
Taking the Refuges does not make you a ‘Buddhist’.
To become a follower of the Buddha is a deeper commitment in the
heart. It is if and when a person comes to accept the Buddhadhamma
as the primary source of spiritual life. It is the point where everything
in their lives has to fit in with that central commitment. In the
early days Buddhists called themselves sadhammika – followers
of the true law.
In this way you can take the ‘refuge in the triple gem’
for whatever length of time you determine. Eventually, you may want
to make it a full year to see how it feels when you commit yourself
to this path wholeheartedly.
Bowing, taking the Refuges and the training rules is a small ceremony
that can even be done privately and which sets the heart in the
right mode. It’s an entrance, a gate which then opens out
into our retreat. And in the same way to take this into daily practice,
to start the day with these commitments and intentions will also
have its wholesome effects throughout the day.
3. Sila: Training Rules
1. Aims And Objectives
When I travelled to the east and started Buddhist practice in the
seventies, there was still a hippie atmosphere and it was all ‘love’.
The Dhamma offered an exciting exploration of meditation and occasional
talk of morality. Morality! We’d all had enough that. We just
wanted the enlightenment, thank you very much. Unfortunately I don’t
ever remember morality being explained. It was presented more like
the Ten Commandments. But in fact the translation of sikkhapada
is footsteps of training.
The Five Training Rules are:
• not to take the life of any living being
• not to take what is not freely given
• not to misuse our sexual energy
• not to speak untruths
• not to take drink or drugs that cloud the mind.
Most of us have no problem with these as guidelines for an ethical
life, though the advice on sexual behaviour and alcohol and drugs
is not what we really want to hear. But to divorce our ethical life
from the process of liberation is a profound error.
The growth of insight and wisdom and the development of a moral
and virtuous life depend on each other for advancement. Not to realise
this is not to have understood Dependent Origination, the Law of
Kamma and the Eightfold Path.
Our everyday life runs on the basis of ignorance which manifests
in our attitudes of acquisitiveness and aversion. Our ethical life
is a measure of our wisdom or lack of it. And this is stated as
the first two steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right Understanding
manifests as right attitude. Right Attitude will reinforce and deepen
our right understanding.
When this Right Understanding and Attitude move out into the world
they manifest in right speech, right action and right livelihood.
The ethical life is expressed in the definition of Right Attitude
as a move from selfishness to generosity, from hatred to love and
from cruelty to compassion. But take any unwholesome trait and its
transformation into the opposite is the purpose of developing Right
So when we start a retreat it is always good practice to purify
the heart of any unwholesome residue of past unwholesome action.
This calls for an examination of our behaviour, an expression of
remorse and determination to make reparation where possible.
Then we set a firm resolution to behave absolutely ethically throughout
the retreat. So taking the Five Training Rules is a prerequisite
of any retreat.
Observing the further three rules of the anagarika can strengthen
this resolve. This is often called a lay ordination and brings lay
people into harmony with monastics when they stay at a monastery.
The rules are:
• not to eat after the midday meal
• not to sleep on high and luxurious beds (not to indulge
• not to indulge in entertainment or self-beautification.
These training rules allow our energies to be centred on the task
in hand. They also create a protective shield around the basic five
moral training rules. Together, these eight rules are taken after
the Refuges and put one in the right frame of mind and heart.
Because our ethical behaviour is a measure of our wisdom and also
deepens our wisdom, we obviously have to take these basic training
rules with us into daily life.
Even the three more monastic ones can be used to act as restraints.
For example, we may limit ourselves to one good meal, or perhaps
more realistically to just three good meals without the in-between
grazing. We may sleep only when we know we need it and not use sleep
as an escape. We may be careful what we put into the citta and make
our entertainment wholesome. We may choose to limit our compulsion
to follow fashion and depend on retail therapy for relief.
There can be no final liberation without the utter purification
of the heart. When we begin a retreat or any day by confessing to
ourselves our shortcomings, by making apology and firm commitment
to ethical behaviour we set our spiritual work on a firm foundation.
We won’t get very far if we build on sand. And we need also
to remind ourselves of our goodness. We have developed our sila
and in that we should have confidence and congratulate ourselves.
1. Aims And Objectives
It is difficult for us to bow. It is against our very individualistic
culture. It’s all tied in with personal freedoms and equal
rights. These are all hard won. But there is also a downside to
much of this. And one is a loss of the quality of surrender.
Surrender is now the more popular word – the old one was
‘obedience’ which can really rub us up the wrong way.
Whatever word you care to use, it means following the Dhamma. And
the reason we have to obey or surrender to the Dhamma is because
that part of us which does not want to is the self. And the Dhamma
will always ask the self to do what it does not want to do. Right
up to its own final extinction.
This demand of the Dhamma – that we go against the flow of
our conditioning – is symbolised in the story of the Buddha.
Before he went to sit under the Bodhi Tree he put his bowl in the
river and it flowed upstream. Someone once sent me a card with a
dead fish in the river. The caption read: ‘Only dead fish
go with the flow.’
The flow of the Dhamma is not for dead fish. We need to develop
that attitude which puts its commands before the insistent demands
of the self. And one way to remind ourselves of this is through
the act of bowing.
There are many ways we can bow. In the Tibetan tradition, meditators
prostrate themselves fully. In the Theravada tradition, we kneel
back onto our ankles, bow forward to put both hands on the floor
and then touch the floor with our heads. In the Zen tradition, the
bow is from the waist. Perhaps we proud Westerners can bring ourselves
to bow the head? If not that, then perhaps an anjali, where we join
our hands at the chest. Failing that a blink and an ever-so subtle
bow of the head.
Unless that attitude of surrender is expressed through the body
in some way, no matter how subtle, I believe it lacks force. There’s
something holding back, something that does not want to give. And
the Dhamma rewards only those who give. In the spiritual life you
receive nothing until you’ve given. There are no credit cards.
However we choose to express our willingness to follow the Dhamma,
it can also be turned into an open willingness to receive the gift
of Dhamma and then an offering of whatever merit we may gain for
the benefit of all beings. You will know the normal way of bowing,
but you may also make bowing more meaningful to yourself. I was
introduced to this way of expressing attitudes by the use of hands.
At first, they are flat on the ground to express surrender. Then,
the palms face upwards to express the willingness to receive whatever
the Dhamma offer us, no matter how demanding. Then the hands are
raised to express the desire to be of benefit to all beings.
When I first came into Buddhism it was through the school of Zen
and there we were asked to bow from the waist – to everything.
This meant when entering the Zendo, or any room for that matter,
bowing to the food on your plate and the toilet you were about to
and then used. And this gives us other reasons to bow – out
of gratitude, out of respect, in awe and in praise. Whatever inspires
the heart will want to express itself bodily. So if you’ve
never tried bowing, give it a go. Fill the heart with a beautiful
attitude and bow with that. See how it feels.
So bowing to the path, let’s await the fruits. And that also
expresses itself in our devotion to the practice. Just today. A
day devoted to mindfulness.
5. Samvega : Raising Enthusiasm
1. Aims And Objectives
Samvega is a word that suggests enthusiasm with a sense of urgency:
Got to get the job done! This does not mean getting flustered, rushed
and anxious. It’s a quiet energy which realises there is no
deadline. So long as there is a self, there will be some form of
existence. Time is not the problem. How we use it might be.
To help raise this urgent enthusiasm, the Buddha recommends the
contemplation of the four devaduta – the four messengers from
the gods. It refers to the incidents in his youth when he came across
a sick person, an aged person, a corpse and an ascetic sitting under
a tree. The first three awoke him to the inevitable consequences
of life and the fourth suggested the possibility of escape.
So the following phrases are meant to be reflections. They are
not wishing ourselves to be sick, grow old and die. They are repeated
gently in the heart and their truth value is accepted. We may notice
also any reaction of aversion or fear that may arise as we repeat
them. In so doing, we dissolve our obsession and enchantment with
health, youth and life itself and crumble our anxieties and aversions
around sickness, ageing and death.
Then after these contemplations, we must remind ourselves of the
goal. Otherwise we might become a little gloomy. I have chosen some
quotations from the Buddha concerning our glorious end.
So let us repeat these phrases in our hearts:
This body is subject to disease.
This body is of a nature to fall ill.
This body has not gone beyond sickness.
This body is subject to ageing.
This body has not gone beyond ageing.
This body is now in a process of ageing.
This body is subject to death.
This body has not gone beyond death.
This body will die.
Life is uncertain. Death is certain.
There is that which is not born, does not die, is not created,
is not conditioned. If this were not so, there would be no escape
from the conditioned, the created, birth, sickness, ageing and death.
There is a consciousness that is not coloured or in any way touched
by the five senses or the citta It has no boundary and in all directions
it is full of light.
There is an end to all suffering and unsatisfactoriness.
The highest bliss is Nibbana.
6. Climbing A Mountain
1. Aims And Objectives
The similarities between climbing a mountain and the spiritual
life are referred to a lot in spiritual literature. Interestingly,
the Buddha does this rarely, to my knowledge.
When we climb up, all we can see in front of us is where the next
footstep will land. We need to be particularly attentive when the
path is slippery or uneven. If we want to look around and see where
we are, it is better to stop and do so. Sometimes we stop and we
can see the view.
So it is with our practice. There are times we have to look around
and reflect on what we are doing and why. But the purpose is not
to get stuck and carry on thinking and worrying. Stopping too long
on a mountain makes us feel cold and before long we want to go back
down. So once we’ve got our bearings, we proceed step by step.
Every so often in our lives we can look at the view, look at the
past and see what progress we have made. Sometimes it might feel
we have not come very far while at others we can see just how much
we have changed. If we see no progress, it could be that we’re
doing something wrong or perhaps we have spent a long period working
through stuff and are still in the midst of it. But when we look
back over a good stretch of time – four or five years –
if we’ve been constant in our practice, we should certainly
see improvement both in our interior life and our lives in society.
Now, no mountain is an easy climb. There are hard bits and easy
bits, but all the way it is against gravity. Similarly with the
spiritual path. The Buddha warned us it would be gradual and difficult.
After all, just as we have to work against gravity to go up a mountain,
so we must work against the mountainous drag of unskilful conditioning.
There is a conversation with a doubting practitioner. He complains
that the path is hard. The Buddha replies that it is, but people
work at it and achieve Nibbana. ‘Nibbana! So what?’
replies the complainant. ‘Well,’ says the Buddha, ‘once
you get through all this work, you will be contented and with it
happy.’ So, just as that feeling of conquest and joyful arrival
greets us at the top of a mountain – especially if there’s
a café there – so when we finally get through all our
work, we can drink of the fruit – contentedness (which means
no longer harassed by sensual desires) and a heart that rests in
But to bring us back down to ground level, this is our work. The
nitty-gritty of the spiritual life. Just that commitment –
against all the negativity within us that wants us to stop and go
and have a coffee – to establishing moment-to-moment mindfulness.
Let’s do it! Let’s devote this day to developing a bright
and constant awareness.
7. Right Posture
In the Theravada tradition, posture gets little emphasis. Indeed,
I don’t remember any of my teachers instructing me on how
to sit. It was through the earlier experience in Zen, where right
posture is greatly stressed, that I learned to sit properly for
For right posture, the legs can be crossed in the so-called Burmese
posture in front of you, or in semi- or full lotus. To sit kneeling
on a cushion is also viable as is sitting on a chair. You may change
from one posture to another even within a sitting when necessary,
but this is not conducive to deepening mindfulness and concentration.
It is important, however, to have both knees at the same height
to protect the spine. And with the three types of crossed legged
posture, it is good practice to change the inner or under leg from
left to right with every sitting.
The spine is the most important thing, however. Hold it erect without
strain. In whatever posture you adopt, the knees should be below
the hips. This ensures that the spine will retain its natural curvature.
This may take effort at first. You may have to keep lifting it up.
But once the muscles have been trained, the spine will stay erect
seemingly without effort.
Imagine a puppet’s string running from the base of the spine
and pulling you up from the top of the head. As you lift up from
the top of the head, you’ll feel the chin go in a little.
Once you’ve established this energised spine, it’s
good practice to spend a little time relaxing everything. Pass your
attention over your face and where you feel tension, relax it as
best you can. Notice especially any tension around the jaw. This
is where tension most frequently manifests. If after a quick scan
and relaxing, the tension remains, screw up the face, then relax
it. Do this until you feel all the muscles are truly relaxed.
It’s the same with the shoulders. What you cannot relax by
an act of will, you can help to relax by tightening the shoulders,
holding them tight for a while, then slowly releasing them.
Deep breathing is effective for tension in the body. Take a deep
breath, hold it, then just let the rib cage fall. This can be done
as often as it takes to make you feel relaxed.
In this way the body is prepared for meditation – and we
are also going a long way to preparing the citta. For the two are
intimately linked. Indeed, the Buddha likens the relationship of
the citta to the body to that of milk in water.
You can bring this awareness to the posture even while sitting.
If the spine slumps, has lost energy or is even bent over, then
make that mental intention to straighten it and slowly pull it up
through the top of the head.
If there is tension in the jaw or shoulders, release it in the
same way as before. But here it is often more skilful to put your
attention on the sensations and allow them to dissipate in their
own time. Scan and comb the sensations and catch any reaction. For
tension in the body frequently has a mental component and by sitting
with it patiently it allows the hidden mental tensions to release
Remember the body holds mental stuff that expresses itself in posture
such as hunched shoulders. So straightening up the body is one way
of releasing these tensions.
So however the legs are positioned, the spine should be energised
and pulled up through the top of the head without tension. The rest
of the body should be relaxed and the head should be poised on top,
expressing the balance in the body of energy with relaxation. A
good Buddha statue should demonstrate this exemplary posture. After
all, this is the body language of the Awakened One.
8. The Breath
The breath. The body breathing. It’s always with us. If it
ever stopped, that would be worrying. So as a meditation object
upon which to develop our skills, the breath is simply there waiting
for us to use it.
The sensations of the breath are neutral. They don’t excite
us, don’t depress us or make us anxious. Because of this,
they are perceived as calm and gentle. This helps the mind to develop
the same qualities.
So the constant gentle rising and falling of the abdomen lull the
citta into a peaceful state. But here there is the danger of losing
our sense of investigation. So we need also to keep that attitude
of watching, investigating and experiencing.
For these reasons the breath is called the primary object and is
referred to sometimes as our anchor, for it steadies our attention.
We have no need to try to become concentrated. The citta will naturally
gather around the awareness. All we have to do is look. Pay attention.
Easier said than done! This is where patience is called for. Patient
persistence. Just acknowledge what the mind is doing when it wanders
off and bring the attention gently back to the breath.
Think of training a puppy to sit. If you smack it, it won’t
want to come near you. You have to pat its head gently and talk
to it and praise it when it sits. So should we cajole ourselves.
Dullness and lethargy may visit but again we raise the effort.
Of course, if these states prove too strong, then we must deal with
Not surprisingly, the breath is intimately connected to our emotional
life. Just catch your breathing when you’re angry for instance.
So it may be that certain emotional states are held there. Many
people feel anxiety around the breath. Not that the sensations of
the breath are causing the anxiety. Others find a constant feeling
of control. This is linked to fear. In such a case, it’s an
opportunity to get in touch with those feelings. Don’t do
anything. Just see it as an opportunity to allow those feelings
to release themselves. Our job is to feel and observe.
As the steadiness of attention grows and the concentration strengthens,
the thought life and emotional life quieten. This affects the body
and the breath becomes finer, sometimes so fine we seem unable to
feel it any more. The body has become calmer than the citta and
our discernment is too weak. When this happens, we continue to place
attention on the area where we felt the breath, no matter how delicate
the signals. Slowly, the strength of our attention grows with gathering
concentration and the sensations become obvious once more.. The
cycle may repeat again and again, the body and citta tumbling over
each other into ever deepening states of awareness.
It may be that the breath becomes a soft, then a bright light. These
are called nimitta, mental images. The procedure is just the same.
We watch them in the same way. They are all signs to the meditator
that the practice is progressing. Such moments may not come often
in our meditation and it isn’t necessary for them to. Insights
can be had observing anything that arises and passes away within
the field of awareness. Even so there are times when all is quiet
and the meditation centres entirely on the sensation caused by the
breath. When this happens, take full advantage and keep the practice
Labelling or noting is something the mind does automatically. It
is part of the perceptual process we began to learn as toddlers.
We cannot see, hear, touch, smell or feel anything without giving
it a label, even when that label is ‘don’t know’.
At its base, it is a word that encapsulates all the history and
accumulated knowledge we have on a given experience. We may not
be conscious of it, but it’s there running like a background
programme to everything we do. So noting is bringing that process
But if the practice were just that, then we would still be locked
into the intellect when we know that spiritual truths can be experienced
only outside the intellect. They are direct intuitive grasps of
reality. So we need to remind ourselves that noting is just a skilful
way to begin releasing the intuitive intelligence – panya–
from its confusion with thought.
If the word seems very loud in the mind, even to the point of being
unable to feel a sensation perhaps, this shows the meditator how
embedded they are in thinking and intellectual processes. When this
happens, we need to keep focusing the attention on the present sensation
or emotional feelings and slowly we will coax the intuitive intelligence
to leave thought behind and experience sensations as just sensations,
feelings as just feelings. In fact this is how the Buddha expresses
it in the Discourse on How to Establish Right Mindfulness –vedanasu-vedana-nupassi
– to see or experience feelings ‘in’ feelings.
This can take a lot of work, especially if the mind is wandering,
so patience and perseverance are called for.
To maintain that energy in the practice the noting has to be deliberate
as when a child who is beginning to delight in words points and
shouts: ‘Birdie, birdie.’ The Mahasi Sayadaw describes
it as throwing a stone at a wall. We are using the word not simply
to contain the thinking mind, but also to help us focus on the object.
If done with earnest intent, it is a powerful tool to get us focused.
Especially when this is taken into everything we do throughout the
day. When we really devote ourselves to moment-to-moment noting
from the time we wake up to the time we fall asleep, by the day’s
end we will see a very great increase in the sharpness of our discernment.
But the noting has to be done calmly and persistently and we must
guard against errors – for instance, worrying whether we’ve
got the right word or not. When a word fails to arise, any word
will do that generally hits the mark. In the end you may end up
using – thinking and feeling.
Another is concern at how many notes to make. Two, three or as
many as you can as quick as you can. If we remember that the purpose
is only to point the attention at the object, then we will note
appropriately. Sometimes it can be slow. But it helps to note at
a quicker speed when we are sleepy. And for the restless mind it
is effective to note quickly. This channels that energy and allow
us to find the emotion or feelings that are empowering the agitation.
Then, when we can just experience those feelings, they will eventually
exhaust themselves and we can return to more gentle noting. As with
all techniques, we need to gauge the situation and use them as skilful
So let’s do just that. Just today. One day at a time. A complete
devotion to the practice of establishing an unbroken line to attentiveness.
10. Noting Intention
What is the role of intention? What does it mean to note our intention?
Isn’t it to catch that moment before we do something? And
in that moment, if we are fully aware of it, we have a choice. We
can discriminate between a wholesome and an unwholesome intention.
For at that point no kamma, no act has been committed. We haven’t
empowered intent into thinking, speaking or doing. Once it moves
into action, then we have conditioned an intention to manifest its
desire again. If, on the other hand, we resist it, then it fades.
And thus the conditioning that gives rise to such intentions is
So you can see how important it is to note and acknowledge our
intentions in the process of ‘deconditioning’ those
states that lead us towards samsara, the world of unsatisfactoriness,
and those states that lead us out of samsara towards Nibbana.
To catch them we have to go slow because they arise so fast and
because our conditioning is to translate them quickly into action.
So we need to establish a habit of noting our intentions. Let’s
begin right here in the sitting. Let’s note that intention
to maintain mindfulness and let’s really empower it. A real
commitment, an adhitthana, a resolute resolution. If during the
sitting, we want to move, note the intention. In that way, we can
really question whether it is skilful to move. If so, then move.
And know that we have done so skilfully. In other words, it will
enhance our meditation. When we want to get up from the sitting,
note that. When we are standing, note the intention to go to the
walking place. At the walking place note the intention to walk.
And so on.
We need to do this especially in daily activities where we can
lose our attentiveness so easily. If we go slowly and note the intentions,
we find a greater alertness comes to our awareness. Before climbing
the stairs, note the intention. Note the intention when we want
to open the door. All the different activities in the toilet, let’s
note them. Especially, around food and drink – note our intentions.
And acknowledge them. Really know this is an intention. And in that
moment, recognise it as virtuous or not virtuous, skilful or unskilful.
To be aware of our intentions is to be aware of the smallest movements
of desire in the citta. The more we begin to notice them, the more
we realise that this is the core of the citta: it desires. It desires
to become, to be happy, to enjoy the pleasures of life and it also
desires to get rid of anything that frustrates it. To be aware of
these intentions is to put us in charge rather than leave us a servant
to our desires.
Finally, a little exercise. During walking meditation, when you
are standing and noting your intention to walk, keep up the intention
but don’t move. Then decide to do so. What is it that brings
that intention into the actual, that potential into manifestation?
So now let’s really raise up that intention to devote this
day, just this one day, to an unbroken continuous mindfulness.
11. Noting Daily Activities
When we are on retreat, the Mahasi Sayadaw has asked us to note
from the moment we get up to the moment we fall asleep – a
whole day without break. At first it might seem impossible. But
it’s only a habit, after all. Practice makes perfect. If you
ever had piano or tennis lessons you will remember doing the same
thing over and over again, be it the scales or the backhand volley,
over and over again. Every so often, it really was perfect! How
satisfying and encouraging that was. Of course, we’re not
talking here about perfection. More, excellence – just right
in the moment.
We have to make that firm determination to note every action from
the moment we wake to the moment we fall asleep. It doesn’t
matter when we make the resolution. And if we’re standing
outside our room or moving out of the hall and we can’t remember
making any intention or even noticing how we moved, never mind.
Stop. Make the resolution and start again.
So to begin at the beginning, let’s make it simple and let’s
take our time. After all what else is there to do? Try to split
the day into smaller and smaller segments. For instance, going from
the bedroom to the corridor outside.
Let us suppose you are sitting in a chair. As soon as the idea is
acknowledged, we make the intention – intending to rise. We
stay with all the movements till we are standing – rising,
rising. Then stop! Note – standing, standing. The next idea
is to move to the door. Intending to walk. Walking, walking. Stop!
Standing, standing. Intending to open the door. Lifting (the arm)
lifting (feeling all the sensations of movement in the arm); touching
(feeling the metal of the handle), turning, turning (feeling the
pressure and communicating with the resistance; pulling, pulling
(feeling all the sensation in the arm), (if it is necessary to take
a step back) stepping, stepping (noting all the sensations in the
leg and foot); releasing, releasing (or letting go, letting go –
always choosing the phrase that comes the easiest.) Stop! Intending
to walk. Walking, walking (feeling all the sensations in the leg
and foot as we move through the door) Stop! Intending to turn. Turning,
turning (again staying with the feelings of movement and the sensations
in the foot); intending to close the door, stretching, stretching
(feeling the hand and arm moving through the air); touching, touching
(as we again contact the metal) and so on.
Yes, it can be this precise. I was taught that we need such precision
if we want to build up a sharp moment-to-moment attentiveness. I
have had people work with me for a few years and then finally, they
actually try this. They come back and tell me: ‘You know it
really works.’ Noting can come in useful in ordinary life
when we are doing something physical like toiletry, washing the
pots, walking from here to there, just to keep the mind on what
we are doing.
As a teacher I have stopped expecting anyone to follow my instructions.
This frees me from sadness and frustration when I see a meditator
not practising properly. But it does mean I am really joyful when
meditators do actually follow these sorts of instructions.
So please, give it a go. Just one day. This day. A continual effort
at moment-to-moment noting and see if it really does work. You’ll
never know till you’ve given it 101 per cent.
12. Standing Meditation
Standing meditation, also part of our practice, is one of the four
classical postures which include sitting, walking and lying down.
Normally we use it as a break from sitting or before we start walking
Remember that if you want to stand during the sitting meditation,
note it and make it a conscious decision. Experience all the movements
it takes to get into the standing posture. Make the same noted,
conscious decision when we want to sit again.
Standing like this, we can do exactly what we do when sitting:
note and watch the breath and anything that arises and passes away
which draws our attention. We can stand ordinarily or we could use
a chi kung posture which helps to raise energy. This is useful when
we stand not to give the legs a break but because we feel dull and
lethargic. We stand with feet shoulder width apart. We bend the
knees, pull the stomach in so the lower back feels straight and
lift up through the top of the head.
The etiquette of a meditation hall asks us to stand with our arms
by our side rather than up in the air. We can raise a little more
energy by imagining two small balloons under the arm pits and holding
the arms out a few inches from the body.
Before starting the walking meditation, it’s good to stand
a while and ground ourselves in the feelings of the feet. With a
still focus on them, we can make the intention to walk. Even as
we walk, if the mind has wandered, we can stop, stand a while, collect
ourselves and then carry on. So the standing meditation is a place
where we come to a halt, recollect what we are doing, establish
that focus and make the commitment to stay focused till the end
of the set walk.
When we come to the end, it is good to stop and do the same thing.
Then there is the intention to turn and the action of turning. And
then stop, stand and start all over again. This is a powerful way
to build moment-to-moment awareness. Don’t forget while returning
to the sitting posture to go at a speed that can maintain that collectedness
and the benefit of our work in walking will carry into the sitting.
How long should we stand? I’ve heard of meditators standing
for an hour, two hours and more. One meditator began to worry us
at Gaia House because he stood out on the lawn, absolutely still,
virtually all day. He was standing on the edge of a bank where the
grass suddenly gave way to a lower level. I was out there looking
at him and turned away. When I looked back, he was scrambling up
the side of the bank! I was once on a meditation retreat and a big
man got up to practice standing meditation right next to me. Suddenly
there was a great crash and we all got up to help him. He was too
embarrassed and annoyed to receive our helping hands. I just felt
lucky he’d fallen forward. There’s a limit to everything,
it seems. But I offer one small warning; long standing meditation
is not good if you suffer from varicose veins.
I hope I have convinced you that standing meditation is an important
part of our practice. And again something we can take into daily
life where we often find ourselves standing in queues, in lifts
and so on.
So now let us slowly build up our moment-to-moment awareness by
joining up all the parts of our practice into the one continual
unbroken line of awareness. Let’s make that act of devotion.
A complete self-emptying into the practice of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
13. The Importance Of Walking Meditation
Do not underestimate the importance of walking meditation. Even
though we often relegate it to a pastime – ‘we can’t
sit all day, so let’s walk’ – it is a continuation
First, the body needs exercise and it’s alright to walk fast
for the first five or ten minutes. If we did this every session,
we would have walked quickly for at least an hour a day –
or three to four miles. Probably more than we would normally do
in ordinary daily life. In this way the body keeps fit which is
important for us, because through our education and sports class
(dreaded for some, a delight to others), our bodies have become
accustomed to exercise. The Greeks stressed it – a healthy
mind in a healthy body. And lack of exercise is one cause of the
obesity we see today. The other, of course, is eating too much.
If you put on weight during a retreat, something is wrong!
Once we feel loosened up and a little exercised, start the slow
walking, perhaps lifting and placing. Gradually slow down till you
can see at least the three portions of the step clearly: lifting,
moving and placing. You can even slow down enough to see the six
parts: lifting (the heel), rising, moving, lowering, touching (as
the foot touches the ground) and placing.
Feel the foot peeling off the floor, rising, moving forward, lowering
to the ground and then that pressure into the foot as we place it.
The more slowly we go, the more we see and feel.
Second, walking continues our awareness of sensations. As we feel
and watch the abdomen rising and falling, so we feel and observe
the sensations caused by the foot’s rising and falling. In
other words we are constantly observing anicca, impermanence. Walking
meditation is a powerful way to develop insight into this quality.
Alongside this, our concentration is developing, our ability to
keep the mind still upon the object so that it can focus in. A loud
object, such as pain, makes it easy to develop – the attention
cannot resist a throbbing knee, after all. Even the most hyperactive,
hyper-restless person can be brought to a locked focus by a stinging
ache in the knees. Concentration built up on neutral feeling is
strong and lasting. Walking is especially good for this. It is neutral
in its feelings and because the action is more gross than breathing,
it can be followed more easily.
On returning to the sitting posture, we need not go so slowly but
at a speed where we hold our moment-to-moment concentration. In
this way a seamless line of awareness can be developed throughout
So let’s give walking meditation a lot of kudos. Let’s
devote ourselves to it as energetically as we devote ourselves to
sitting. Let’s do that. Just this day, devoted to establishing
a seamless moment-to-moment attentiveness.
14. Walking Like Sitting
Walking meditation can be used to practise just as we do when we
are sitting. In the Fearless Discourse the Buddha tells us that
while engaged in walking meditation in the jungle – before
his awakening, of course – he felt great fear, probably caused
by the roar of a tiger. But he kept walking. We have to infer here
that he did not force the attention onto his feet, but stayed with
the mental state that had arisen.
Similarly, we can use walking meditation to continue our investigation
of mental states, especially when they are loud. It may be that
we have some depression or worry in the heart. In this case, we
walk gently up and down with our attention on those emotional states.
Our awareness of the feet will be in the background only. This is
a good way to work with heavy states. It relieves a lot of the pressure
and creates a sense of ease around them, whereas with sitting, we
may have a tendency to tighten up.
Then there is dullness in the mind and lethargy in the body. Rather
than struggling with these on the cushion, bobbing up and down,
it is often more skilful to walk with them. Up and down. Up and
down. Scanning the body and head. Getting in touch with sensations.
Walking means we won’t fall asleep. More than that, it gently
raises energy which helps to purify those states. Our job, remember,
is not to get rid of slothful and torpid feeling, but to allow it
to express and thus exhaust itself. I usually have an image of taking
a great big reluctant St Bernard out for a walk.
It works well for restlessness, too. Paradoxically if you go around
gently when restless rather than fast which often turns into rushing,
such feelings often evaporate quickly. Again we simply walk up and
down, up and down, focusing on the feelings, perhaps scanning the
In these ways walking meditation can complement our experiences
in sitting. If there is turbulence in the sitting which disappears
when we get up, then we should practise slow walking.
So remember, walking meditation is integral to practice and complements
sitting perfectly. The balance between them is up to the meditator.
Some sit and walk for equal lengths of time. Others prefer to sit
longer, perhaps an hour or hour-and-a-half and walk for forty-five
minutes. Others vary it throughout the day. Whatever works. If our
sitting practice is deteriorating, I would bet it is because we
are not doing enough walking meditation.
So making sure we bring a proper balance to our practice, let us
now commit ourselves today, just this day, to moment-to-moment mindfulness.
15. In-Between Times
It’s the in-between times that often let our practice down.
Something in us thinks they are not important. We allow the mind
to wander. A pity, because it undermines the good work we are putting
When we rise from sitting, let’s stand briefly and realise
that it is necessary to keep at least general mindfulness of our
actions until we find the place to do walking meditation. And then
make it a resolution.
Or perhaps we are going to visit the toilet. So why rush there?
Indeed, why wait till we have to rush? Why not make the trip a walking
meditation? We need not go so slowly, but we can turn it into a
There are all those things we do in the bathroom from washing our
faces to using the toilet. Focus on these to detect any aversion
around the calls of nature. Perhaps we see them as perfunctory:
Let’s just get them over with. If we catch ourselves rushing
through these necessary actions, stop. Reflect on that. All this
is part of our practice.
Then there’s going up and down stairs. In itself, that can
be a complete walking meditation. Why not take our time and note
the various actions it takes to get us to the top of the stairs
and back down again. We may find ourselves wandering into the bedroom
and hanging around the bed wondering whether to have a kip. Having
decided against such unskilful action, bring attention to bear and
recommit to the practice.
Little occasions are opportunities too. For instance, the opportunity
to communicate with a door. Rather than crash through, feel the
metal. Feel the spring’s resistance. Use just sufficient pressure
to open it. Experience the actions it takes to do this. Close it
with the same mindfulness. The fridge too. Recall old habits of
slamming the door shut. Instead, treat it with care and attention.
When handling an object such as a plate, regard it as a Ming vase.
Show it respect. The same with cutlery. Or putting on our shoes.
Why rush the job? Let’s take our time and turn it into a meditative
Acquiring the habit of making each action a precious moment will
lift the whole of our practice. Often, we must beware being hijacked
by a mood. We may rise from the posture and suddenly restlessness,
like a wind, carries us from the hall. We need to stop and gauge
where we are. Just stand and wait for the mood to die down or pass
and then move. Much the same with aversion: ‘Don’t want
to do this now!’ Stop. Acknowledge it and wait for it to ease.
So let’s devote the whole of this day – not just the
formal practice – to moment-to-moment mindfulness and make
sure it is all joined up. Not a moment lost. Building up the habit.
For that’s all it is. Let’s commit ourselves to that.
Just this day. One day dedicated to the practice of unbroken mindfulness.
Back to Contents
16. Being In The Moment
What does it all mean – being in the moment? Being present?
Being in the now? Every teacher worth their salt tries to find a
new way of expressing this experience. Perhaps the best approach
is to state first what it is not.
It is not mindlessness or being unaware of what we are doing. Often
we may be precise and mindful when making tea. We mindfully walk
to a seat. We mindfully sit down and mindfully raise the cup to
our lips. Next minute we realise the tea is all drunk! What happened
to it? Who drank it? We must have! But where have we been? On holiday
probably or planning the great things we’ll do once the course
So that’s pretty clear. Whenever the mind wanders into a
dream, for sure we are not present. We are not aware of what we
are doing or thinking. The thinking, dreaming, fantasising have
hijacked us and taken us on a ride. In fact, we have been taken
for a ride!
But is that all there is? Surely a thief in the night, carefully
wandering about a house, ever so mindfully opening drawers, shutting
doors – surely they must be mindful! They are – but
as we know such activity does not lead to the end of suffering.
It leads instead to grief, one way or the other.
So being mindful in the moment presupposes a view, a way of being
mindful. That is to train the knowing to become aware of the Three
Characteristics. It is a good habit to start meditation, or any
activity, reflecting on the impermanence of everything; that without
vigilance we can get caught up in greed and aversion – the
unwholesome propensities; and that this psychophysical organism
does not constitute a ‘self’. It’s not me. Once
we’ve set the view right, we can as it were ‘forget’
it. Trust that the knowing is seeing correctly and we devote ourselves
to the vipassana or to whatever we are engaged in doing.
The following small exercise can elicit that sense of being in the
Stand still and note standing. Remember that we are standing for
standing’s sake. We’re not waiting for a bus or friend.
We’re just standing. When that is established we remind ourselves
that we are not going anywhere, we’ve already arrived –
here. We’re not trying to achieve anything. That means doing
something now for a future result. The result is already here –
just standing. Since we are not communicating, not performing, we
don’t have to be a personality. We can be nobody. Keep up
the quiet gentle noting and let the awareness spread out to become
aware of anything that strikes at any of the sense doors –
a sound, a smell, some feeling or sensation arising in the body,
the colours and shapes in the carpet we are looking at. When we
are steady like this – in the moment – we make the intention
to walk keeping this same spacious awareness. Here we are experiencing
‘being in the moment’ in a large broad, open-spaced
Once this feels fairly established, start narrowing the focus into
the feet. Once we feel focused in the particular, we can open up
to the all again. We keep doing this till we are sure of our awareness
of the particular and/or of the general – that it’s
all the same ‘being in the moment’.
It is so important to take this out into ordinary daily life too
so that being on retreat and being active in the world become a
So let’s not lose that because that is the path. Let’s
devote ourselves to establishing this sort of moment-to-moment awareness
throughout the whole day. Just today. It’s enough.
17. Achieving Nothing, Going Nowhere, Being Nobody
My own experience is that standing still connects me in some way
with time. Sitting, walking or lying still helps me contact the
body, but standing makes the experience of time more obvious for
When we stand, it is usually because we are waiting for something
to happen: for service at a supermarket counter or for the bus to
come. We adopt a posture of waiting – which is perhaps why
standing makes us become aware of time.
Noting the intention and coming to a standstill after walking concludes
an action. Right there we can experience the ‘death’
of an event. Yet something arises immediately afterwards. Just standing.
A moment of stillness and then the mind starts up again. Noting
the standing posture and keeping our attention on the whole body,
brings us again and again into the present moment.
We can then relax into the spaciousness of all the senses. What
is it we hear or see or smell? Can we feel the room’s atmosphere
or the ‘touch’ of other people? Becoming sensitive to
the whole of our present experience, we can suddenly meld into the
immediate experience and all sense of time is lost.
It helps to repeat ‘achieving nothing’ for when we
are ‘achieving’, we are doing something for a future
result. In this mode there is no future, just the abiding present
Repeat also ‘going nowhere’ for being in the present
we have already arrived.
But there is more than this – because we are standing in
this receptive mode, we are not communicating. We are not becoming
anybody. Not being someone. A nobody. In a crowd, we may feel anonymous
but this feeling occurs in relation to others. Here, we experience
a relationship to ourselves. The mind silent without expression.
The heart calm without turbulence. The body still without movement.
And yet there we are standing. Ready as it were. For what?
If we can capture all this in one moment, we experience a loss
of time. An absorption into the immediate present. And there without
time, the self cannot exist. For we have entered this moment from
a position of Right Awareness.
This is not the same as when we lose time and self into a pleasurable
experience with the intent to indulge ourselves. That’s easy
– how often do we get ‘lost’ in a film, in a conversation,
in nature? But then we are reinforcing that old habit of seeking
happiness in the sensual, pleasurable world. This brings only momentary
gratification before the thirst arises again.
But just standing doesn’t do that. Contentment does not bring
a thirst for the object. But it does bring a thirst for itself.
This growing thirst that turns to yearning is the heart’s
desire to seek an everlasting happiness.
So here’s our goal. To seek out here in this moment the contentment
that prefigures our final liberation. It’s right here in front
of our noses. That’s why we must devote ourselves to this
practice of moment-to-moment mindfulness!
18. To Do Or Not To Do
To do or not to do – that is the question. We shall see,
hopefully, that this is really a problem of language.
When we sit in meditation, our work is to watch and experience.
That’s all. But such is our conditioning that we forever want
to do something about the interior situations we find ourselves
in, never mind the exterior ones.
The mind wanders. It wanders a lot. And we wonder what to do about
it. The heart emotes and emotes a lot. And we wonder what to do
about it. The body fidgets and hurts. We wonder what to do about
it. This wondering comes from the self which doesn’t like
the conditions it finds itself in and, worse, dislikes being in
a position where it is not in control. So it feels it needs to ‘do’
It’s been thus since time began. The self has wanted to manipulate
the environment, wanted to be in control. And it has got us into
a fine mess. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here now struggling
with all this stuff.
So the instruction is – don’t do anything. But this
‘don’t do anything’ means only that. That is,
don’t react to these internal conditions. Just stay put and
watch. This also means we have to be patient. We have to bear with
things just as they are.
Now this ‘don’t do anything’ doesn’t mean
we should lie on a beach. This was a problem that arose out of Zen’s
paradoxical way of expressing things. Yogis took it the wrong way.
Zen talks of the effortless effort which does not mean idleness.
It doesn’t mean we can go and lie on a beach and the awakening
will arise simply because we are finally doing nothing at all. Far
from it. Behind the scenes, as it were, there is a lot of activity
of a different sort.
This activity is akin to that of a naturalist. If we want to discover
the way nature is, we don’t interfere, we watch. The nature
programmes on TV are wonderful in that they just watch animals in
the wild. When we say in the wild we mean just watching animals
as they are themselves when left alone. Left alone by us!
We can say that when we sit in meditation we are watching the body-citta
complex in the wild. We just leave it alone and observe. And this
observation is intimate. We actually experience what is happening.
We feel sensations and feelings, moods and emotions and we know
thoughts and images. That’s the ‘doing’ in vipassana.
So, perhaps instead of telling ourselves not to do anything and
get ourselves into all sorts of contradictions, let’s say
we are ‘doing vipassana’ and know what we mean by that.
We are watching and experiencing anything that arises and passes
away within the scope of our attention – without any interference
Now, let’s do some vipassana.
19. Tips On Maintaining Mindfulness
All teachers will share with their students the little tips they’ve
picked up on the way from other teachers, by hearsay and through
their own experimentation.
Here are some that you may find useful:
A few moments of reflection before sitting or walking. Take stock
of the mood you are in. Recall your weaknesses. Make a firm commitment
to make this sitting/walking count.
A few moments of reflection after sitting or walking. You have
to be careful this doesn’t turn into a critical self-judgmental
or self-praising inner dialogue. You are reflecting on the past
sitting and asking yourself:
• How well did I maintain my commitment to moment-to-moment
• Was I really committed to bringing myself back into this
present moment or not?
• What hindrances came up and how did I deal with them?
• Did I do OK or could I have been more skilful?
• Which of the three characteristics was I most aware of:
impermanence, unsatisfactoriness or not-self?
• Did I use times of peacefulness skilfully?
And then make a resolution for the next sitting/walking period.
Of course, you must remember to remind yourself!
You can stop anytime during a sitting if things are not going well,
for instance if thoughts are racing away or if some state, such
as dullness, has arisen. Reflect in a similar way. You don’t
have to go hell for leather. Meditate, meditate, meditate!
For instance, if you feel you need to raise interest, you can ask:
am I clinging onto anything at this moment in time? Am I averse
to anything at the moment? Is there something I’m not aware
There are times in the day when your practice tends to slacken.
It’s an individual thing. But once you realise, for instance,
that 11am is a drowsy period for you, then that’s where you
need to put in a little energy. The outcome of this action can be
to raise your energy for the whole day.
Remember doing your corrections at school? Your teacher would tell
you to do it again and do it right. Similarly now, if you find you
have done something mindlessly, such as opening a door and walking
from here to there, go back and do it again. Make the intention
and the going back a mindfulness exercise.
On a long retreat, you need to exercise. A good twenty to thirty
minutes of strong walking every day can be a walking period. Other
exercises are also useful in toning the body such as t’ai
chi or yoga. Take care of the body.
Sleep is necessary. Depending on age, you may feel the need for
a siesta after lunch. This is a healthy thing to do but don’t
do more than the old ‘40 winks’. After forty minutes,
research shows that sleep deepens and you will wake up groggy. Relaxing
in a sitting posture for ten to twenty minutes can be sufficient.
So you don’t have to feel guilty about taking a post-prandial
If during the practice you notice you are getting lazy with noting,
devote a certain time to vigorous noting and it will lift your practice.
It can be as short as five minutes. The more often we do it, the
more it brightens up the practice.
If you are sitting with ease, try to extend the period. But be
careful to give yourself at least forty minutes walking time to
separate periods or sitting fatigue may set in.
Undermining Unwholesome Qualities
20. Riding The Dragon – Taming The Ox
In a film I saw, a drug addict was introducing someone to heroin.
She told him it was called ‘chasing the dragon’ and
that he would spend the rest of his time trying to chase this one
experience. I thought this to be a most wonderful metaphor.
The Buddha talks about tanha, desire that can turn to craving for
sensual pleasure, seeking satisfaction here, now there. It is a
quest to repeat former delights and to find new ones that are even
more pleasurable. The primary experience of anything pleasurable
or enjoyable becomes unforgettable, for example the first time we
fall in love or the first time we make love. Or our first job. Perhaps
the first time we travel abroad. In my case, the first time I ate
a curry! These first times have an extra zap we are forever trying
to recreate. Yes, we were happy then, really happy.
Through our practice we begin to see these moments as riding the
dragon. Once we are saddled and strapped to its back, how hard it
is to get off – even when we know it is ruining the body.
Addiction is not suffered only by those who take class A drugs.
We are all addicted to something or other which we feel compelled
to obey, especially in times of stress – food, work, drink,
sex. There are lots of them. For as always these pleasure palaces
are also refuges.
Contrast this with the image of taming the ox from the ox-herding
pictures of Zen. Here the seeker must first find the ox by following
its footprints. Once found, they have to train the ox until it becomes
docile and they can ride it. Our work can be seen as transforming
the wild dragon into the obedient ox.
We need to take this out into our daily lives, but on retreat we
have to make special effort to avoid our Shangri-Las. The Buddha
uses the word appamado which translates as earnest, diligent but,
in this case, I prefer the word vigilant. As soon as the dragon
appears we need to be right there to note and acknowledge it. We
can waste so much time in futile fantasy. We need to be especially
vigilant when concentration is developed but not steady. The mind
then has a lot of power. One moment of slippage and the seductive
dragon will appear and away we go. The whole sitting, the whole
day. It is then such a struggle to regain our composure.
Why let this happen? There is no need so long as we keep up that
effort to be mindful and that mindfulness will be the more empowered
if we continually raise interest, curiosity – the wholesome
desire to see things as they really are. Then no matter how much
the dragon tries to kindle our desires with its fiery breaths of
craving, our vigilance shields us and turns them back onto the dragon
itself. Since all fire is but transformation, so dragon turns ox.
Now wary of all dragons, let us raise our devotion to be vigilant.
That wide-awake attentiveness to anything that arises and passes
away within the field of awareness. Just for today. Just one day
at a time and all dragons will become oxen – eventually.
21. Catching Mara
The central piece of the Buddha’s psychology is the Wheel
of Dependent Origination which shows how we create suffering for
ourselves. No one can cause us psychological pain – we do
that to ourselves. We must face this fact squarely. The answer,
therefore, to our dukkha – our dissatisfaction and suffering
– lies entirely within us. Although this denies us the relief
of blaming others, it compensates by empowering us to take charge
of our citta and begin the arduous task of cleaning up the mess.
And that’s one of the gifts of vipassana.
For our job is just to observe and experience whatever the citta
offers us, especially at the feeling level – those feelings
coming from the heart. When these arise at the heart centre in the
middle of the chest, they can be recognised as felt emotions –
anger, sadness, craving and so on. But when they appear in the rest
of the body, for instance as tightness in the abdomen or heat in
the stomach or restlessness in the body, then we know them as feelings.
And we need to treat them as we would a grumpy child. We want these
little Maras to express themselves in their rawness. When we allow
this, just like any natural turbulence such as a hurricane, they
exhaust themselves. They burn out.
To do this we need to be at that observation post, sharp, awake
and interested – interested in experiencing these feelings
as not me, not mine. When we note them, point at them, that ‘distance’
we experience between the knowing and the feeling is a not-self
insight. It allows us stay aloof and outside the emotion. If we
fail here, the energy slips along its usual pathway into the mind
and off we go – nasty fantasies and beautiful daydreams. Whether
we meant to or not, we reinforce an old habit of indulging these
emotions when this happens.
No matter. As soon as we wake from them, we must note, recognise
and acknowledge them and bring the attention back to the feeling.
Slowly we cut off that avenue of indulgence and the feeling has
no option but to blow itself out as feeling-sensation. Once our
position is steady, we can, as it were, close in on the feelings
and become more intimate with them. The Buddha instructs us to experience
‘feelings in feelings’, that is, to really open up to
them. Slowly but surely this is the way old unwholesome mental habits
are undermined and eventually rooted out of the system.
That position we acquire through vipassana sits between the feeling
as it arises and the natural reaction we have learnt towards it.
So when a lusty feeling arises and perhaps an image appears in the
mind, the reaction is to indulge it. That indulgence empowers that
habit to develop the same old theme. In so doing it reinforces the
root habit of seeking happiness in sensual pleasure. If we are not
vigilant and persistent in coming off the fantasies, they will simply
grow and take over our meditation, our daily lives. The same happens
with any emotion we care to name.
When we practise like this, we purify the heart of its unwholesome
and unvirtuous desires. These energies are then released to be transformed
into those virtues that will help us on the path. But more important,
by working in this way and seeing clearly how we create suffering,
we gain more and more motivation to end that suffering. It is within
our power to do so.
So let’s not waste time. Let’s get on with the practice.
Just today, this whole day devoted to the practice of purifying
the heart by way of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
22. Too Much Effort
There are three words which appear together and are repeated through
out the Discourse on How to Establish Mindfulness: atapi sampajanno
satima. This phrase translates directly as ‘with ardent energy,
with intuitive intelligence, mindfully’ – to dwell in
the moment with that energetic mindfulness and intuitive intelligence.
This word atapi comes from the word tapos meaning heavy ascetic
practices. That’s the sort of energy it refers to. A real
commitment and devotion to establishing sati, mindfulness.
If we just had to put our backs into the practice, it would be
simple, but as usual, wherever the self turns up complication and
difficulty follow. There are, as I’m sure you have experienced,
two types of wrong effort: too much and too little. Here I deal
with the former.
When we practise with too much energy, wrong attitude has crept
in. We’re trying too hard and when we stand back and reflect
on the attitude it’s invariably trying to achieve or get something.
This can often be saturated with anxiety. We’re trying to
be very concentrated. Or we’re trying to see some thing, trying
to have insight. When this happens, we can sometimes hold the attention
steady for a considerable time, but then when the mind flies off,
it can really fly off. At times it can feel as though we have lost
control. This is because all the wrong effort, that energy we’ve
poured into the practice, suddenly switches to the fantasy and off
So when we suffer from the restless, wandering mind, it may not
be just the hindrance of restlessness. Perhaps we are trying too
hard. And we’re doing this because a wrong attitude has slipped
Similarly, with this wrong effort everything may seem to be going
all right and suddenly the whole meditation collapses. It’s
as if we can’t sit any more. The mind just won’t stay
put at all. When this happens, take a break. Go for a long walk
and have a cup of tea – keeping a relaxed, open and spacious
mindfulness. Wait till the feeling of wanting to sit arises again
and go back to the meditation with a clear intention to go easy,
to just observe. It will be easier for us to regain the meditation
if we can reflect on what has happened and realise it has been a
case of too much effort.
When we come to understand what is happening, even there in the
sitting we can stop and reflect on our practice. Perhaps we catch
the attaining, achieving mind in action. Perhaps we catch the subliminal
dialogue pushing us to achieve something. Perhaps we get in touch
with that anxiety – fear of failure? Perhaps we’ve listened
to a talk that has raised enthusiasm in us, but we’ve then
taken a wrong turn. Perhaps we’ve seen someone who on the
outside seems to be doing excellent practice and out of unacknowledged
jealousy we’ve pushed ourselves to practise. All sorts of
strange and nefarious reasons can steal up on us so we must keep
a sharp look out for these little devils!
So Right Effort is just enough energy to keep the attention on
the object. That’s all. As simple as that. Let’s gather
our strength and draw it around our practice. Let’s commit
ourselves to this day, this one day, to establishing a moment-to-moment
23. Thinking … Thinking … Thinking …
What is a thought? What is an image? There are so many and there
are all sorts. The mind is so busy. Apart from when those little
spaces of no thought appear is there ever a time of no thinking,
no image making – apart from deep sleep?
Now we don’t want to destroy the faculty of thought or imagination.
Far from it. We want to be its master, rather than its uncomplaining
servant. So at first it does seem we are trying to ‘kill thought’,
but the noting serves only to give us back control.
When we find we’re caught up in an inner movie and we note
‘thinking, thinking’ or ‘worrying, worrying’,
at least we are aware of what we were thinking. After we have noted,
of course, the other thinking stops momentarily, for the mind cannot
think two thoughts at the same time. So although we note ‘thinking,
thinking’ it is good practice to stay looking at that same
spot where the last thought arose and hold it there, till we can
see it has quietened down. Then we re-enter the body, either to
the breath or to the presenting emotional state which is empowering
If the emotional state has a lot of energy, we stay feeling it
while watching the incipient intention to return to the fantasy.
As the emotion begins to lose energy, the force of that intention
also begins to diminish.
If an image comes to the mind and we pay attention to it, it may
very well grow. So when it comes to colours, shapes, figures in
the imagination, it is best to note them and turn away. It’s
not just images but also sounds, such as a tune that keeps repeating.
Note ‘hearing, hearing’ and turn away from it. It’s
a bit like not taking notice of an unruly child. They stop acting
out when they see no one is paying them the attention they crave.
For the mind seems to have its own little energy source and will
often create scatty thoughts – useless inconsequential words
and ideas jumbled up with images. By turning away from them and
drawing our attention into the breath, such energy is brought to
the service of vipassana. Such restlessness in the mind is a sign
telling us we lack concentration and effort. So by really making
a commitment to observe and experience the breath, we can still
It is important to remind ourselves that we are trying to disentangle
this wonderful intuitive intelligence we have from its confusion
with thought. We need to remind ourselves that thoughts make us
view the world in a particular way. They carry history and attitude.
One only has to think of a concrete word like ‘car’,
or a value word like ‘beauty’ or a philosophical word
like ‘freedom’ to realise how our ways of experiencing
the world and ourselves in the world is determined and distorted
by them. Never mind that deepest of all distortions, the great delusion
of believing that I am a ‘me’, a substantial entity,
a continuous being, an uncompounded person, a self.
That’s where our real task is – to dissolve the delusion
of self. We can’t do this without releasing our intuitive
intelligence from thought. So let’s devote this day to that,
just this one day, to developing awareness of our thought patterns.
Of how thoughts are manufactured as expressions of mental states.
Just this inquiry will release us from dukkha.
24. Eating! Taking The Indulgence Out Of Enjoyment (Renunciation)
Of the two unwholesome roots, acquisitiveness and aversion, the
latter is easier to work with for it distances us from the object.
Paradoxically, we remain attached to it until we have rid ourselves
of it. But acquisitiveness – greed – is too subtle to
tell from pure enjoyment for it dissolves into the experience and
is virtually impossible to distinguish from appreciative joy.
Eating gives us a chance to begin discriminating between these
two. We eat a few times every day so there’s never a lack
of opportunity for this investigation. On retreat we can really
get down to the nitty-gritty of indulgence psychology and we can
also always find time in daily life – even if it’s just
First, it’s most important to get in contact with the body
and feel the hunger. Some will be the natural appetite proper to
the body and some of it greed which is seeking happiness and comfort
in food, toast, chips and other delights. Then once we have the
plate before us, as with all actions, start with the Right Intention.
When monastics chant the food requisite verse, part of it says:
‘I eat this food only to nourish the body. I will allay hunger
without overeating so that I may continue to live blamelessly and
Then having set the right attitude we take our first mouthful with
our attention firmly on the palate and experience directly the sensual
delight of tasting … tasting ... tasting. When we are clear
what tasting is, a purely physical sensation, we may then detect
the mental atmosphere that has arisen around it – delight.
We know that it has arisen dependent on the sensations of taste.
Notice that after each mouthful, especially as the hunger lessens,
there is a feeling of gratification.
After each mouthful, we put down the cutlery and begin again with
the intention to eat. Staying with that intention for a while, we
capture its power. The wanting, the craving. Again part of it is
natural and part unwholesome. We keep eating. Then, there will come
a moment in the meal when the body begins to signal enough –
hopefully. Attending to that bodily feeling, we may be aware that
another part of us hasn’t had enough at all. Okay. We sit
with that – greed … greed … until it passes. When
all desire for eating has passed, what is the state of mind? I am
hoping you will be able to call it contentment.
The distinction between contentment (the mind without desire) and
gratification (desire satisfied) is crucial because one leads to
liberation and the other to rebirth as a Hungry Ghost – and
I mean rebirth in this very life!
But there is a more profound reason for this exercise. It engages
the same psychology we find in any form of worldly pleasure or happiness
from basic sensual pleasure to aesthetic delights to the joys of
relationship and even spiritual ecstasy. All of it is to be enjoyed
– this is our human birthright. But once the experience is
corrupted by a wrong relation of grasping and at worse identifying
then we are on our way to unsatisfactoriness, a continual gnawing
sense of lack.
When pleasure and joy are denied, frustration follows. There is
always that underlying anxiety of loss and if something is lost,
grief. Let’s save ourselves a lot of suffering and discover
how to take the indulgence out of enjoyment. As Blake puts it so
exquisitely ‘to kiss a joy as it flies is to live in eternity’s
sunrise’. And we can do it – today.
25. The Knees! Taking The Suffering Out Of Pain (Endurance)
If you have not suffered a lot of physical pain in your life other
than ordinary headaches and bumps, the body’s capacity to
offer pain can come as quite a surprise. Those who have sat in retreats
know it is part of the course.
There are the physical pains that arise from the posture itself.
Even those with a daily practice of an hour or so, still go through
sore knees. And if the body is not in correct posture then pain
in the neck or back arises. Correcting the posture can alleviate
this and, in my experience, Zen and yoga understand best its importance.
But knees! We simply have to wait till they get used to it. The
important thing here is to sit on a chair and wait for the soreness
In terms of spiritual insight, throbbing knees are a great friend.
First of all they teach us to develop patient endurance and the
sensations are so loud problems with concentration dissolve. They
also teach us that they are not me or mine. Whether we like it or
not, want it or not, they will express their unsatisfactoriness.
Our usual reaction to pain is to get rid of it, as in take an aspirin.
In meditation trying to clear pain out of aversion is a non-starter.
We have pitted ourselves against an enemy that is much stronger
than we are and using sheer force of will to ‘overcome’
pain often leads to damage. In my early Zen practice, I began to
dislocate my knee. Others I know can no longer sit cross-legged
because of knee damage. But let’s not frighten ourselves.
Let’s be compassionate to the body. Frankly, so long as the
posture is right, the only susceptible parts seem to be the knees
– and here we are called to investigate pain. As soon as the
pain overwhelms and the investigation cannot continue calmly, then
move. The Buddha found suffering for suffering’s sake, ignoble,
unprofitable and – painful!
What is the exploration around physical pain? First, we are interested
in the reaction of aversion. We observe the pain and the feelings
of aversion towards it. The distinction here is that the pain belongs
to the body; the noting of it as ‘pain’ belongs to the
mind. The aversion that arises belongs to the mind as does the noting
of aversion. Here we are distinguishing between pain and suffering,
what the Buddha called dukkha dukkhata, the suffering of ordinary
pain. This distinction is important because it is suffering that
liberation annihilates. The pain, natural to the body, may arise
so long as we have a body. When the aversion begins to disappear
a new relationship to pain emerges. We feel perfectly at ease and
calm with it. This equanimity will prove to us that pain does not
make us suffer – rather the mind with its attitudes does that.
Once this ease emerges we can dissect the pain to determine what
qualities it is composed of. There may be a variety, usually around
heat and pressure. As we do this we refine our noting – no
longer ‘pain, pain’, but ‘tightness’, ‘prickliness’,
‘heat’ and so on. In this way we realise that pain is
also a mental construct. It doesn’t actually exist. What does
physically exist is just these sensations. When we experience pain
like this, even the feeling of ‘painful’ disappears.
At this level of investigation, we begin to see impermanence very
clearly. These various sensations truly arise and pass away moment
after moment. They are nothing but a series of fleeting energies.
In these various ways, physical pain comes as a blessing –
not that we should seek it.
So let’s then make the most of whatever pain or discomfort
arises. Just today. That’s enough!
26. When The Storm Comes
When we practise vipassana, we open ourselves up to the deepest
recesses of our hearts. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore,
to find things that we never thought were there or things that we
knew were there but had no idea how big they were. After all, for
most of our lives we have been developing strategies to escape emotional
discomfort. With vipassana, these are set aside. We say to the heart:
‘Come on. Show me what you have!’
And, inevitably, what arrives first is the dukkha, the unresolved
emotional states. They’ve waited impatiently and for a long
time to express themselves, but we’ve held them down, kept
them out of conscious awareness. We’ve either suppressed them
with aversion and fear or ignored them by diving into a pastime
or other delightful way to distract the mind.
So now that we are sitting, as it were, open-hearted, it may be
that these unresolved emotions erupt like volcanoes and completely
hijack us. Our thought patterns, images, fantasies sweep us up into
a whirlwind and we think we’ve lost our minds. We’ve
This can be very frightening, a living nightmare. These unwholesome
states can range from uncontrollable grief to unforgivable guilt,
from raging hatred to abject fear. At first we have to steady ourselves.
Find a way of relaxing the system. Take time out. Go for a walk.
Have a cup of tea. And during that time talk to ourselves. Reflect
on the situation. Remind ourselves that this is all part and parcel
of purifying the citta. Remind ourselves of the Buddha’s psychology
– the Wheel of Dependent Origination. Comfort ourselves with
the knowledge that the Bodhisatta himself had to struggle with these
demons – Mara and his hoards – before he could sit victorious
beneath the Bodhi Tree. Remind ourselves constantly that all conditions
pass away. Then when we’ve regained our courage and resolve
to continue the process, we determine to go back to the cushion.
Now the real trick to getting the better of these states is to
descend into the body, to their feeling content. Remember that whenever
the mind wanders into fantasy, it is actually developing these states
even though it was not our conscious intention to do so. It’s
just the way an emotion finds relief or perhaps false release –
by finding a way to express itself first in the mind with its amazing
ability to create film-like scenarios and second, to deposit it
all on an unsuspecting world though speech and action.
We have to intercept that process. That’s why it is so important
to note clearly what the mind is doing and return to the body, to
sensations in the body caused by the emotional state. Right there
in the body, these turbulences have a perfect route of escape. They
can just blow themselves out and no harm is done – no matter
how bad we feel. They tend to rise towards a crisis and then either
disappear or slowly die away. All we have to do is acknowledge them,
feel them, experience them. And by putting our attention on one
of the Three Characteristics: their transient nature, how we are
relating to them and how we are experiencing them as not me, not
mine, we can detach ourselves from them and thereby increase our
And here’s the wonder of it. The psychotherapy takes care
of itself! The heart heals itself just as a cut finger mends itself.
So our commitment is to stay steady even within the greatest of
storms, to tie ourselves to the mast of awareness. Let’s then
commit this day, just this one day, to developing this steadfast
fearlessness in our awareness.
27. Sex, Romance And Celibacy
I’d be surprised if anyone passed through any retreat without
being assailed at some point by erotic and romantic feelings and
fantasies. Why should we expect otherwise when these two represent
probably the most delightful of human experiences? On top of that,
our culture is especially saturated with sex. Unfortunately, they
take us off the Path, for the Path is one of renunciation.
Romance and sex, of course, are beautiful in themselves and obviously
have a serious role to play in most lives. Indeed, a principal function
of them is to help other beings be reborn into this human realm
which the Buddha called the best place to achieve liberation. So
within the context of procreation, these delights are made sacred.
But they also play a role in a certain type of intimate relation.
On retreat, however, our task is to see how attached we are to
these two mental states and how easily we are carried away in indulgent
daydream. We must be vigilant to catch the first signs and stay
within the body. Every time the habitual mind shoots off, it is
unwittingly developing indulgence and attachment. So what to do?
First, stop looking around. We need to close our eyes to other
retreatants. We need to be alone in a crowd and keep the attention
inward as best we can. Should we find with a glance an attraction,
acknowledge the danger. Resist getting caught up. Gently turn away,
keeping the attention within bodily sensations.
The method taught by the Buddha in the Discourse on How to Establish
Right Mindfulness to develop a more balanced relationship to the
body, is to contemplate the undesirable parts. Erotic and romantic
beauty is notoriously skin deep. Take the object of desire –
for that’s all it is – and imagine it without the skin.
Or see the skeleton, even the digestive system. This is an immediate
When this practice is offered, the meditator fears losing sexual
appetite. If only it were that easy for such desires do not leave
us till we arrive at the third stage of liberation, that of the
non-returner. And for most of us that’s a way off yet. These
are meant as balancing acts. The exercise on the Repulsiveness of
the Body is to put our sexual and romantic desires into perspective.
We should not do this practice until instead of such pleasant desires
we are overwhelmed with disgust
If the practice is done correctly as soon as an erotic image arises
it transforms into an unpleasant image and they both fade away,
for the unpleasant image drains the desire attached to the erotic
image, yet does not itself increase. Should the unpleasant image
continue to linger then all we need – as usual – is
to turn away from the object and return to the breath. In this way
we condition the mind to see the other side as soon as the erotic
or romantic desires arise – like a cancelling out, and it’s
a very skilful practice on retreat.
When then should we allow erotic and romantic desire to manifest?
Surely when we have seriously decided to look for a spouse or partner.
If not, such desires fester in the mind. And what a loss of time
and energy they are. This is where we might consider the benefits
of celibacy. For the passive side of celibacy is that we stop indulging
romantic and sexual desires.
The active side is to sublimate those desires into more creative
wholesome activities such as art, voluntary work, the day job, a
hobby and so on. The energy we devote to sex and romance is not
labelled ‘sex and romance’. It’s just energy.
It’s up to us to use our life’s energy in ways that
lead us out of suffering into happiness and fulfilment.
To coin a phrase Churchill used for greatness, ‘some are
born celibate, some grow into celibacy and some have celibacy thrust
upon them!’ If you find you are without a partner and have
no real desire to form a lasting relationship, then take this opportunity
to sublimate your desires.
And the best thing you can do is – meditate and develop Right
Mindfulness. Right now. Today.
28. Guilt, Shame and Remorse
Shame, dread and remorse are the consequence of harmful actions.
They are a second tier of mental states that arise out of the three
roots – greed (meaning all forms of acquisitiveness), aversion
(which is both hatred and fear) and, underpinning these two and
always concurrent, delusion. These three mental states are universal,
part of the package that comes with ignorance.
Shame is an early emotion, seemingly experienced by three year
olds and perhaps even younger. It has to do with our self esteem,
the way we see and judge ourselves and presume other people see
us in the same way. So it is not just unwholesome deeds but social
gaffes also that can be acutely embarrassing. A story concerning
Sir Walter Raleigh is a good example. He was at the court of Queen
Elizabeth before Her Majesty when he happened to fart. He disappeared
from court for a whole year. Upon return the queen welcomed him
back, assuring him: ‘We have forgot the fart.’
On a more serious note, I am reminded of a famous TV personality
who in old age was caught shop lifting. The public humiliation was
too much to bear and she committed suicide.
Shame is a nasty state to have to deal with, but deal with it we
must and in the usual way, by coming off the mind with its thoughts
and memories and into the heart/body, where we experience the emotional/sensation
value and endure. Of course, it becomes insight practice when we
can investigate the Three Characteristics there.
The knowledge of having done something unwholesome is guilt: I
am guilty! Dread is the fear of consequences. And the law of kamma
states definitely that as we sow so we reap. Of course, we should
do what we can to limit the damage. If we have spoken out of turn
and cruelly to a superior at work, it may cost us our job if we
don’t put it right. But on retreat, we come face to face with
the inner turmoil that guilt and dread can create. As always the
mind is adept at building huge scenarios. But we must turn from
the thinking, imagining proliferation and bear with the feeling
tone. In all cases, this is allowing the system to cool. When we
settle into an equanimous, calm state we can see more clearly and
often a solution arises.
There is also what we could call an existential guilt, that we
are essentially bad. This may have been instilled through our Judeo-Christian
upbringing. It is not the Buddha’s understanding. He taught
that we are essentially not-knowing of the way things really are
and so we make mistakes about who or what we really are. This is
our delusion. And all the unskilful, unvirtuous behaviour that follows
is secondary. That is why when the heart is purified this not-knowing
becomes the knowing, the Buddho.
Whereas shame and dread fall into the category of aversion in the
Five Hindrances, remorse has its own place along with restlessness.
Unpleasant though it feels, remorse is a healing state, a coming
to terms with the fullness of what we have done and the way we really
are. It takes humility and sometimes a lot of courage to say sorry.
We try to do what we can in our ordinary lives to apologise and
make amends, but in the meditation hall it has to be gladly suffered.
Of course, we may write a note to remember to put things right once
we leave the retreat. But sometimes it’s an old memory and
we have lost contact with the person or they may have died, in which
case we need to speak to them in our hearts and offer metta.
All this is part and parcel of the purification process that proceeds
of its own accord. No need to ‘do something’. Just observe,
feel, experience. That’s enough. And just today. That’s
29. Laziness And Hierarchy
We don’t normally think of ourselves as lazy. Our usual problem
is too much energy. But if we really investigate the way we behave
during the day, we will find there is much to be said for guarding
against habits of laziness.
By laziness, I don’t mean real conscious decisions to be
lazy. If that were so, we would be more aware of them. And, of course,
I’m taking for granted that we aren’t making such decisions:
‘I’m not going to do anything now. I’m just going
to loll about the place and waste the time of day.’ For most
of us that would be so against our deeply ingrained Protestant ethic
– work is good and you can tell those who are spiritually
advanced by how much good they accomplish – that such thoughts
arise rarely if at all. Such an attitude is definitely working for
us so long as we define the good in a skilful way.
What I’m referring to is the habit of not caring for or not
taking care of something we think is unimportant. We can make the
error of placing the different practices we do into a hierarchy.
Sitting is obviously the core of the practice and is very important
indeed. Walking meditation is important, but it’s only there
to support the sitting. Eating? Well, I should try to be mindful.
And all the other little activities of the day such as walking from
the meditation place to the walking place, walking upstairs, using
the bathroom – these are instrumental and in a sense get in
the way of the real practice which is sitting. And so on.
This thinking can be corrosive for the practice since it means
our effort is not constant. It keeps dropping. It is not a sustained
input, but patchy. Every time we dip, we have to make that extra
effort to get the effort to where we had it before. The effect on
concentration is immediate. We end up feeling we’re blowing
up a balloon, letting some or all of the air out and then having
to blow it up again.
If we are quick, we will catch the attitude that makes us behave
like this. As soon as we are aware it, we need to acknowledge it
clearly and decide to do the opposite.
One of those danger times may come after a sitting. We make a conscious
decision to stop and then suddenly we find ourselves walking out
of the meditation hall. Another is when we get ourselves a cup of
tea. We make it with great attention and then sit down, only to
wake up minutes later, the tea drunk and we haven’t tasted
a drop. No wonder – we’ve been planning that holiday
We say: ‘Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take
care of themselves.’ How true! If we can bring our attention
to those points of the day that seem insignificant, then the habit
of continual mindfulness will be greatly supported.
So beware of taking time off. Don’t be lazy now, says the
Buddha, and be remorseful later.
Let’s take his advice to heart. Let’s devote this day
to a real effort at a continual mindfulness. The old conditioning
may get the better of us occasionally, but it won’t be for
lack of effort. At least we’ll be liberated from those remorseful
afterthoughts: ‘If only I’d put more effort into the
practice.’ And berating ourselves: ‘You’ll never
get anywhere behaving like this! You’re useless.’
So that’s our task. A gentle, persistent effort. Moment upon
moment without a single break. Let’s devote ourselves to that.
30. Beware Of Expectation
The self always wants to control the present and the future. It
makes itself feel comfortable that way. If we know what’s
going to ha ppen, we feel safe. Even if it is imminent death, at
least we feel we’ll be able to have some measure of control.
But life, unfortunately, does not organise itself alongside our
expectations. Even when it appears to, it is better to see it as
serendipity – a fortunate meeting!
In spiritual practice, expectation is a dangerous poison. When
we fail to get what we expect, we are disappointed, humiliated,
depressed. It leads us to feel the practice is doing us no good
or is not for us and so on. And when we do get what we expect, we
can be assured it is a delusion, for whatever spiritual insight
is, it is not within the realm of thought and imagination.
A friend of mine told me that when he first came to a meditation
course, he thought it would be like all the other courses he had
been on: you work hard on the course material and at the end you
receive your certificate. When he joined a week-long vipassana retreat,
he presumed he would have the experience of Nibbana at the end.
It is possible, of course, but sadly didn’t happen. He took
quite a while to get over his disappointment. Then he began to realise
that so-called ‘spiritual attainments’ cannot be ‘attained’
at all, but that all we can do is work on the conditions in which
such insights might arise. And here, of course, is the genius of
the Buddha’s teaching. Yes, Nibbana is our goal, but our aim
is simply to establish mindfulness.
Beware of expectation. It is not always apparent to us. So long
as there is a self, expectation will lurk somewhere. Even though
we may sit and recollect the uselessness of expectation, we should
not be surprised to find it has crept into our practice. Subtle
feelings of disappointment that express themselves as irritations
are signs. Or fed-upness. Or wanting to seek distraction. Then there’s
boredom – a real sign that we have presumed. We must constantly
take a weather check of our attitude. Through wise reflection we
can keep correcting our view and undermine the self.
Should we still find ourselves going through the disappointment,
then let that be our teacher. Acknowledge the suffering that expectation
causes. Right here in our meditation we can see how it works against
our better interests. And we will become aware of how it can corrupt
our daily lives. To recognise our expectations of the work we do,
of the people we know, of the society we live in – rarely
will anything live up to our expectations. Whenever it does, we
expect more so that in time the fall can be greater. Take, for example,
the stock markets.
So let’s gather ourselves around receiving the present moment
in its fullness. If we can just see the way things really are and
accept that, then the danger of being deluded is lessened. Every
moment offers us the occasion to move spiritually. Why should we
need expectation? There’s the hope we live in. Hope arises
out of our trust in the practice, the hope that we will one day
be fully liberated. Hope is not expectation but expectation is hope
with a date on it.
So let’s devote ourselves to making this a day of moment-to-moment
mindfulness with no expectations whatsoever. Just a continuous relaxed
investigation of conditions as they arise and as they pass away.
31. Refuse To Be Annihilated
Like the Greek horse that so fooled the Trojans, dullness and lethargy
come bearing false gifts. They tell us that we deserve a rest. We’ve
worked too hard and a little power nap will do us the world of good.
But all the time these sugary friends are in the payroll of Mara,
the Great Seducer. For that is what Mara is, that tendency to seek
happiness in the sensual world. And dozing is an inviting pastime.
But if we have had a good sleep and for those of a certain age
who may have need of a small nap after lunch (the siesta has good
science), then all feelings of dullness and lethargy must be seen
for what they are – unwholesome conditionings.
Consider how many times we have taken to sleep on the couch through
boredom or depression, seeking relief in oblivion! By and large
it brings relief, but at a heavy cost for we use such sleep to suppress
Then there are those times when we indulge in sleep because it
is so pleasant. How many Sundays or days in the garden or holidays
on the beach have we delivered ourselves to its exquisite pleasure?
In oblivion, there is no suffering,
But the Buddha is clear – oblivion does not constitute Nibbana.
Indeed the problem with it is that it does not last and we often
wake to the horrors we have been trying to escape.
All this behaviour has produced in us a great conditioning which
arises in our practice as feelings of dullness in the mind and lethargy
in the body. And I think it is often the case that we do not treat
such conditions with the importance we give to states such as depression
and anxiety. This is mainly, I suppose, because they are not painful.
But they are two of our biggest hindrances, sapping us of all energy
so that our practice withers away.
We must be vigilant and know the strategies that can prevent us
being overcome by such tendencies. Lift the spine and make such
feelings the object to be observed. Still nodding off? Open the
eyes and let light in, continuing to investigate the feelings. Still
troubled? Stand and continue. Failing that, take the big, fat dog
for a walk. And walk gently up and down, keeping that attention
on the feelings in the body or in the head. We can be as awake within
these conditions as we are when the citta is in a peaceful energetic
state. Such states can hang around for days, but we still continue
to work with them. We must refuse to be annihilated.
Then suddenly the energy turns and we are incredibly restless.
This shows us that dullness and lethargy are but forces –
forces that drag us down, inward, causing the citta to close down.
Such energy can suddenly reverse and burst outward. Like the universe,
we seem to have the capacity to create black holes and exploding
stars within. Or, perhaps not so suddenly this heavy force irons
itself out and we are sailing along. From this we can tell some
of that conditioning has been exhausted. Whatever happens, let us
congratulate ourselves that we did not fall for the lie. There is
no permanent happiness to be found in sleep.
Forewarned is forearmed. So let us devote ourselves to this practice
that liberates us from such deluded states. Just today. One day
at a time. An unbroken thread of moment-to-moment fully awake mindfulness.
32. Feed The Need, Starve The Greed
A main technique the Buddha uses to awaken us is to ask us to deconstruct
an event, to see its constituent parts and thereby undermine the
notion of a self. We have an intimate attachment to the body, especially
because it gives us pleasure and allows us to do what we want to
do whether it’s going for a walk or, in this instance, eating.
We have to eat and for the most part we eat three times a day with
lots of snacks and a multitude of beverages. The Buddha, realising
the dangers of indulgence especially for monastics, made a rule
for them that only certain pick-me-ups could be eaten after noon.
So this is the task when it comes to life’s pleasures. It
is not to destroy them in misguided mortification, believing they
themselves are to blame for our suffering. Instead, it is to see
the process of attaching, to realise that therein lie our problems.
If we want to retain life’s pleasures and not suffer the consequences,
indulgence must be removed from our experience.
Eating offers a wonderful opportunity to deconstruct a pleasurable
event, to see its constituent parts, to let the greed arise and
pass away and to come to experience pleasure in a non-indulgent
way. To do this we must be in contact with the body. So as we approach
our food, be aware of hungry feelings. Some are the body’s
natural appetite but others are greed. As we take the food, let
us remind ourselves we can always have seconds.
Once we have served ourselves and are sitting before the food, again
contact the body for feelings of hunger and as the food reaches
our tongue, stay with the explosion of delight. Just there on the
three square centimetres of skin is all the pleasure to be had of
food – chemicals reacting on touching, chemicals we experience
as taste. Stay there. Chew slowly and contact as clearly as possible
all the different tastes. Salty, sweet, sour, astringent, bitter,
and so on. When this is clear after a few bites, open out and be
aware of the state of mind that is accompanying them. Hopefully,
it will be one of delight and satisfaction. That is the mental,
emotional atmosphere we have created around the sensual taste of
food. Make sure you can experience the difference between these
two forms of energy. Once that is clear, notice that pull, that
magnet, the energy that wants us to get lost in the food. That’s
the greed! We need to be able to separate that out from the heart’s
delight. Of course, all the while there’s the noting and if
we fail to do that, the mind may chatter on about the food.
Perhaps we can separate all these different components fairly quickly
or it may take us time to discern the different layers of our experience.
No matter. The important thing is to keep rediscovering these elements.
If we keep working in this way, we will stay in contact with the
body and a time will come when the body signals fairly clearly that
it has had enough. Here the overdrive may kick in – just that
extra piece of cake! Greed displays its firework glory and of course
we must resist. This is the practice of renunciation. We keep our
attention on that feeling, fully feeling the greed, yet not obeying
its demands. From this vantage point, we can investigate its properties.
And because we are not indulging, the energy of greed will simply
What then is the state of mind without greed? Can we tell the difference
between the mental state of gratification that arises when we have
sated a desire from the mental state of contentment when the mind
is empty of desire. If we can do that then we are beginning to know
the difference between being caught up in samsara and being in Nibbana,
the state of non-compulsive desire.
So let’s make that effort. The effort to maintain that continuous
investigative awareness. Just today. That’s enough.
33. Judging … Judging … Judging …
When we have a self, we take a position – which aims to support
the self. The self wants always to feel safe and, from that basis,
collects objects and people to make it feel even more secure. These
basic positions are the views and opinions in which we invest a
lot of emotion because the self is so identified with them. This
is the vicious circle that exists between mana (conceit), ditthi
(view) and tanha (attachment).
The self delights in taking positions – mostly critical:
‘How could he do such a thing?’ ‘She shouldn’t
be doing that.’ ‘This place isn’t quiet enough.’
Occasionally it praises: ‘She’s a good meditator.’
‘He’s so good at keeping to the schedule.’ ‘The
food here is wonderful.’ But we only praise when it suits
Behind this lies self-judging: ‘I shouldn’t be thinking
these thoughts. I am so bad. I am so judgmental.’ The conflict
turns inward and before long we are caught up in a war with the
world and a war with ourselves.
When we find ourselves getting hot in this way, we are not catching
thoughts quickly enough. Or if we think we are, then we are not
making that determination to avoid indulging them. Whenever we catch
the mind judging, stop it in its tracks. Recognise it – judging.
Acknowledge it – judging. And turn inward to the feeling,
the tanha, which surrounds the mental activity. Stay with the feelings
there, usually irritation. Feel its wish to launch into self-righteous
thought. Wait for that desire to die down.
Sounds easy enough. But, as we know, it is difficult. The judgmental
mind is one of our most exercised skills. With patience it will
die down and after each dying, it is good practice to offer metta
to the person or object that so upset this strict judge. And that
definitely includes ourselves.
However, there is a judging that is not judgmental. Here we have
the word judicious, meaning wise and sensible. Sometimes a person
is doing what ought not to be done. Sometimes an institution might
benefit greatly from a person’s experience. But to be judicious
means to see the whole situation even from the other person’s
or institution’s point of view. To do that we must drop our
own little opinion and see it in a wider perspective. These are
the virtues we expect in a judge – not to be hijacked by a
crowd baying for blood or duped by the clever arguments of lawyers.
So as always in the spiritual life, nothing is destroyed. Everything,
once purified of the self, is put to the service of the Dhamma.
We don’t want to lose our ability to make judgments. But we
do want to know how to make our judgments wise.
Vipassana, centred on the Three Characteristics, has a unique vantage
point to see how the self manifests in all its forms. On retreat,
where we hesitate before engaging in anything, we are ideally situated
to pick up on this harmful habit and slowly undermine its power
This is all part of our practice of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
How important it is to develop this sort of awareness. When we really
see this, we have no problem devoting ourselves to it. Just one
day at a time. It’s enough.
34. Fear, Fear … Anxiety, Anxiety …
Ours has been called the Age of Anxiety and it’s fair to
say that the emotions our modern society most raises in us are fear
and anxiety. The speed and range at which technology, politics and
society are changing is, I believe, new to history. And the economic
system that is now beginning to dismantle itself has had little
respect for community or environment. Many of us don’t know
if we’ll have a job tomorrow and our secular and individualist
and so relativist ethics have undermined the former general stability
When fear and anxiety present themselves, we must first ask: ‘Have
they any foundation?’ This isn’t always easy to know,
but at least we can undermine their power by considering what if
… What if I lost my job? What if my relationship broke up?
What if I fell seriously ill? Our creative imagination can show
us that it is not the end of the world, and a great deal of the
unrealistic fear and anxiety created through the imagination evaporates.
We must continually remind ourselves that emotions do not have
their root in events, but in the wrong view of self. When a fear
or anxiety arises it will always seek to express and develop itself
through some idea, some metaphor. If we persistently imagine we
are sick, we can slowly turn ourselves into hypochondriacs.
It may be that these emotions are rooted in our childhood. But
again, that root is not embedded in what has happened to us but
rather in how we reacted to what happened to us. So the answer lies
not in trawling through past events but right here and now in the
presenting emotion as emotion. That’s why in the Discourse
on How to Establish Mindfulness, the Buddha expresses this by instructing
us to see, understand and experience feelings in feelings, states
of mind in states of mind. So as always we note the thinking mind,
we note what it is doing, not caring for the subject matter. Fearing,
fearing … Anxious, anxious … And then we turn away from
the mind into the heart, into the body. We contact and feel the
emotional value of those thoughts. In so doing, we give them the
time and space to express and exhaust themselves.
When we turn on these feelings, fear arises. Indeed, we are afraid
of fear. And such reactions whirl into panic. We lose it! If panic
should set in, hold steady. Remember it is the fear of fear that
is causing it. Breathe deeply. Put the attention on a part of the
body that feels neutral. Wait for composure to return and access
the fear again. If this fails, follow the example of the Buddha
when he was still a Bodhisatta. When fear arose while doing walking
meditation in the jungle, he did not stop. Slowly we will lose our
fear of fear. We will feel more comfortable with those feelings.
Remember it is upon our defilements that our virtues grow. What
is courage other than the ability not to be moved by fear or anxiety?
Once calmed we can begin to observe and experience them at a more
visceral level. The hot agitation of anxiety. The cold tightness
of fear. The nausea. Going beyond the word, we see their simple
sensation quality. At that level, the reaction of fear to both fear
and anxiety disappears. We realise all fear is mind made.
Finally, since fear is the last resort of self, here we train ourselves
to face the mother of all fears – the fear of death.
With this reflection on death, that sense of urgency may arise.
A job to be done and life is short. So let’s get on with it!
Just this day, one day at time, devoted to this liberating practice
of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
35. Envy And Jealousy
When it comes to envy and jealousy, I make a distinction. Envy
is just wanting what another has – their car, their laptop
and so on; or wanting to be like someone else – to be clever,
beautiful, successful. Jealousy is the same, laced with a dislike,
even a hatred of the person. In Shakespeare’s play Othello,
these themes are explored to the point of murder.
Normally we are comfortable with accepting that envy arises, especially
of the things people have, but jealousy is normally denied. It is
too much for our pride and self-esteem. So skilled mindfulness is
needed to catch this fleeting attitude which can flame outward for
barely a moment.
If we have not accepted such attitudes, they will express themselves
in wish-fulfilling daydreams in which everything, including cruel
thoughts, is someway justified. Every time this happens, the underlying
attitudes of envy and jealousy are fortified. When we realise how
destructive they can be to our relationships and indeed to our own
hearts, we’ll want to do something about it. Envy can make
us obsess about bettering the Joneses. Jealousy can make a cold
heart even colder. So that effort is called for to note, recognise
and acknowledge what is going on. Once identified as envy or jealousy,
we return to the body and contact whatever feelings we can discern
there. In this way, a conditioning exhausts itself. It is the process
of purifying the heart.
As these states begin to dissipate, do not be surprised to find
another layer they have concealed. Perhaps there’s that old
feeling of unworthiness, or being treated unfairly and all the usual
rubbish we find swilling around the heart. No matter, it’s
all grist to the mill – to be noted, recognised, acknowledged,
felt, experienced and understood.
While on retreat, as we wander around and catch people at their
walking and sitting meditations, envy and jealousy can arise. Indeed
a meditation centre is often a hot-house in which all our subterranean
conditionings can sprout. Greet these states with that willingness
to explore and endure. See them as friends – the enemy. Give
them the time and space to express their grudges. That’s all
they want to do.
The antidote is mudita, sympathetic joy. When such feelings die
away, it is good practice to think of the person’s good qualities,
their achievements and their karmic good fortune. And wish that
no harm comes to them and that they live in joy and continue to
So with this Dhamma attitude, let us devote this day to the practice
of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
36: Thank Heavens For Those Little Annoyances
Have you noticed those little moments of irritation? At times they
may blow up into a full-time rage – but I’m thinking
more of those little annoyances that crop up, sometimes all day.
We are settling into our meditation – and someone comes bustling
into the hall late. So inconsiderate! We take a deep breath and
settle down again. We slowly build up a good steady concentration
– and someone coughs. Really, that is so annoying! Worse,
we are about to perceive through the veil of ignorance into the
depths of reality itself – and there’s a mighty sneeze.
Surely that is the limit. I mean, don’t these ‘meditators’
When such little annoyances arise, we need to be quick to remind
ourselves that no one can make us angry. Thank the ‘disturber’
with all our heart, because unknowingly, they are showing us where
we are getting stuck. So long as we are deluded we will persistently
fall into the error that what we are trying to create is a state
of mind. Or worse that we are trying to have spiritual insight,
believing such insights can only come with a particular state of
But the fact is we are working to establish a level of consciousness.
And by that we mean we are constantly rediscovering and working
to make steady that position within us from which we can calmly
observe and experience whatever arises within the psychophysical
organism. In other words, we want to be aware of any sensation,
feeling or thought that draws our attention. So if we are truly
doing the practice properly, nothing should be able to ‘disturb’
us. For a so-called ‘disturbance’ is but another object
to observe and experience.
Whenever irritation arises because something has ‘disturbed’
our meditation, we should be quick to acknowledge that we are getting
tight around the practice. We are falling into some ‘ideal’
of how the practice should be, how people should behave, how a meditation
hall should be run.
It’s those words – ‘should’, ‘ought
to’. They are arising out of an ideal we have formed. From
this tight position we try to control the world around us. If we
are perceptive enough, we will probably catch ourselves doing it
virtually all the time. For it’s not something that just happens
in the meditation hall, but during other times too and, of course,
in our daily lives.
We need to loosen up. Take a deep breath. Squeeze the tension out
of the shoulders. Reflect on the practice of vipassana and what
it is about. Acknowledge that it is this very attitude of ‘should’
and ought to’ that is disturbing our practice.
We need to lighten up too, cultivate the ability to smile at ourselves
when we get caught out like this. Or else just reflect on how when
we fall into wrong practice we can end up with self-blame and self-doubt.
So abandoning all ‘should’s’ and ‘ought
to’s’, let’s devote this day to pellucid awareness
of everything that arises and passes away that draws our attention.
Just moment to moment through this one day. That’s enough!
The causes of restlessness are dual. We live in a fast society
and have to get things done. Pushing us is the craving for wealth,
position and so on. This indulgence creates that energy within us
that we feel as restlessness simply because now it has nowhere to
go. Then there is the restlessness that results from our resisting
and running away from whatever we are experiencing as unpleasant
– boredom, worry, frustration.
There is an even deeper restlessness that comes from delusion of
self. The self knows it is heading towards its own annihilation.
Death looms slowly on the horizon. Fear of death pushes self to
seek even harder to prove that it can live and it does so by seeking
refuge in the pleasures and joys of life. Restlessness is the last
of the Ten Fetters that travel with conceit. The fetters bind us
to this existence. Only when the ‘I am’ has gone, can
restlessness come to its final resting place. So, when we sit with
restlessness we are also preparing ourselves for death. For at the
closing of our lives, the self will get very agitated indeed and
we need to be able to sit still, maintain our composure and pass
through the experience of death wide awake, fully mindful. There
is a case in Scripture where a monk, despairing of his practice,
commits suicide – seemingly fully knowing and mindful. For
when the Buddha is asked what realm he had been reborn into, he
said he had become liberated, such is the power of mindfulness.
This whirlwind energy can come through the body or mind or both.
When restlessness manifests in the mind, we seem unable to control
it. The crazy thoughts and obsessive thinking won’t stop.
If we pit ourselves against them, this wrong effort feeds that energy
and we end up exhausted. So we must patiently note and acknowledge
the thought and return to the body. Let’s remind ourselves
that were we to do this all day, all week, the whole retreat, that’s
the practice and it is good practice.
When restlessness manifests in the body, the strong impulse is
to move. But that we must not do! Let the restlessness throw us
off the seat rather than we should get up. It helps to move around
the body, noting where the restlessness is and where it isn’t.
Does the big toe feel restless? Or the end of the nose? Sometimes
we can rest at these places to gather our composure and resolve,
then return to feelings of restlessness.
When we work with restlessness, the energy can begin to manifest
as an emotion such as anxiety, anger, guilt and so on. Or it may
transform into such sensations as heat and pressure. Since it is
the other side of the coin to dullness and lethargy, we may one
minute feel restless and the next fall asleep. We support restlessness
should we move for relief’s sake or resist it by getting tight
around it. So again all we need do is sit up, sit still and experience
whatever is manifesting. It’s all part of the course. Our
job, then, is to let restlessness do what it wants. Just like any
storm, it will blow itself out once supporting conditions go.
Should we decide to do walking meditation, it is best not to force
ourselves to do intensive slow walking, but rather walk up and down
at a gentle pace all the while staying in touch with the agitation.
We must not make the mistake of walking it off. Go for a run. That
just spins the whirlwind. We will feel relieved by giving the energy
an outlet, but we have in fact indulged it and it will return –
with a vengeance.
So, realising how deep this restlessness goes within us, let us
raise that steely determination – in a gentle way! And let
us devote ourselves to this practice. Just one day of moment-to-moment
38: Boredom … Boredom … Boredom …
After his awakening, the Buddha was still stalked by Mara. The
faint conditionings of the past continued to lurk and it took seven
years for them to finally die away completely.
When Mara realised his power to tease the Buddha had gone, he gave
up. He recalled his three daughters, whom he had sent to tempt him,
Sensual Desire, Sexual Desire and Boredom. They pleaded with their
father to give them more time but Mara replied it was useless: ‘The
Buddha sees me! The Buddha sees me!’
On retreat when we go into an atmosphere of sensory deprivation,
where there are no longer the usual enticements of a busy life,
the mind can go a little berserk. It chases around looking for something
to get excited about. As we keep training the attention to stay
with the breath, the mood turns to boredom. After all what could
be less exciting than watching the breath?
That’s when we understand why Mara sent his daughter, Boredom,
for it is simply the obverse to excitement. The more excited we
become, the more the potential for boredom grows. Since all life’s
pleasure and joys have an inbuilt redundancy, repetition is experienced
as ‘been there, seen that, done it, got the T-shirt’.
Excitement persistently seeks the new and the latest. When it finds
no satisfaction, it becomes boredom.
The meditator not sharp enough to catch its first stirring might
mistake it for tiredness. But worse they might agree with it and
say to themselves: ‘Yes, I must find something interesting
to motivate me.’ At that moment, they fall into the lap of
The search is on for some interesting meditation object. If the
abdomen is boring, then why not try the nose? Or touch points. Why
not open up to the great here and now and stand within the all?
No, perhaps a concentration exercise. Counting the breath. Or metta.
That’s it! Loving kindness will cure it. After doing the rounds
and each time, ‘it gets boring’, despair and doubt may
arise. And the meditator gives up and goes for a cup of tea or a
walk. But even that won’t satisfy the lure of excitement.
So the furtive mobile call. The tempting conversation. Before they
know it, they are packing!
Boredom is a liar. It tells us that all we need is a little change,
something else, something other. After all, variety is the spice
of life, of vipassana! And so we fail to investigate boredom itself.
Just sitting there amid the heavy, dark, sometimes despairing feelings
of boredom. Despairing because if indeed the pleasures and joys
of life cannot deliver, then what? And when we cannot be satisfied
by them, then there is this sameness, tedium, monotony, dreariness,
deadliness – boredom.
Yet once we’ve seen through the lie, we turn on boredom itself.
What is it? What are the feelings and sensations involved? What
is the dialogue? Just feeling, listening and giving it the space
to express itself cause it to fade away. Now that was interesting!
Then back to the meditation object. Boredom arises again. Again
boredom is the object to investigate. Slowly we come to realise
that the path out of boredom is that which it most dreads –
repetition. Keep on keeping on with patience and diligence. After
all, this was the final exhortation of the Buddha.
So let’s do just that. Moment to moment. Dogged perseverance.
39: Wondering And Doubt
There is doubt and there is doubt. Honest doubt is saying: ‘I
don’t know’ or ‘I’m not sure’ –
especially when a part of us thinks it does. This is the wondering
of the philosopher – the right attitude which will make us
look and investigate again and again, until we can say through our
own personal experience: ‘Yes. I know. Yes, I am sure.’
But doubt as a hindrance is a lack of confidence which prevents
us from this investigation or from making a choice. It comes in
all walks of life: should I take this job? Is this the right person
to marry? Of course, these may also be true, honest questions, but
when they keep stopping us from making a decision then there is
cause to worry, because this sort of doubt undermines our life and
we can become very stuck. At worst this sceptical doubt can lead
to meaninglessness and despair. In the spiritual life it is equally
pernicious. A person suffering from this sceptical doubt never gets
down to business.
The cause of sceptical doubt lies in fear: fear of being fooled,
fear of failure, fear of commitment – especially any long-term
commitment – again in all walks of life. And it manifests
most obviously as a lack of trust, a lack of confidence. If this
isn’t acknowledged, such doubt is suppressed and manifests
in such defence mechanisms as boredom, laziness ‘not bothering’
and even aversion.
In the spiritual life it shows up in three ways: a lack of trust
in Buddhadhamma (the teachings of the Buddha), in the teacher and
in oneself. The first of these can be undermined by reading and
discussing the teachings. Remember, we don’t have to ‘believe’
a word of it. All teachings are pointers to our own personal experience
through practice. This the Buddha makes clear in the often alluded
to Kalama Sutta where he tells the Kalamas not to believe anything
because it was the oral tradition, lineage of teaching, hearsay,
scriptures and so on, until they came to know for themselves what
was wholesome or unwholesome.
Doubt in the teacher is also a case of not ‘believing’
in what the teacher is asking us to do, but in trying it out. Then
we’ll know by our own personal experience whether their instructions
are right for us or not. We shouldn’t turn our teachers into
Doubt in oneself is probably the most common and the cause may
also be an inverted conceit. Remember the Buddha taught three conceits:
the usual ‘I am better’, the more subtle ‘I am
equal’ which translates as ‘We are better/worse’
for this conceit takes on a group identity; and the inverted conceit,
‘I am worse’: ‘Everyone else can meditate, can
make progress – but not me.’ We need to be careful not
to believe this internal dialogue, but to use it to get in touch
with our feelings about ourselves.
It’s important also to undermine these self-defeating attitudes
with contemplating the universality of the Dhamma. All beings are
irrevocably moving towards awakening. Indeed there are mistakes
to be made, hell realms to suffer, heavenly realms to delay our
progress, but eventually, all beings seek escape from suffering
– and they will find it. That includes – me.
So taking this to heart, should we be hounded by self-doubt or
any other doubt, let’s see them as another manifestation of
Mara, the defilements. And like the Bodhisatta, assailed by the
Great Doubt beneath the Bodhi Tree, call upon the Earth Goddess,
the ground of our true nature, to witness our right to the happiness
and freedom of Nibbana. He didn’t move. He persevered.
Let’s persevere and devote this day to our own liberation.
40: Delicious … Delicious … Delicious …
When the Buddha in the Second Noble Truth tells us that desire
is the cause of suffering, he talks of a craving, a persistent seeking
to slake its thirst for sensual pleasure. By sensual he meant not
only the five senses, but also the sixth sense of the citta itself.
So we include not only bodily delicious experiences, but also those
to do with heart and mind.
First, we must acknowledge that such delight is in itself natural
to the world, is part of our heritage as human beings and is good
and beautiful in itself. We need to remind ourselves that what goes
wrong is our relationship to such delightful experiences.
Let us centre on romance and eroticism. (You’ll notice I don’t
talk about lust. Lust is our relationship to the erotic.) In the
happiest of intimate sexual relationships, these two factors play
their role of expressing this intimacy and deepening it and often
they produce a child. Running at a deeper layer is love. When love
is confused with sex or romance, then the relationship runs into
trouble for neither can bring deep satisfaction. Remember that love
in this sense is not an emotion, but an attitude: two people have
made an act of will to share their lives.
When we come on retreat we take a vow of chastity. We become celibate.
In so doing we are acknowledging that true happiness cannot be found
in erotic or romantic behaviour. But, of course, our conditioning
doesn’t know that. We are surprised at how powerful lustful
fantasies and romantic tales are and how they fill the hours of
meditation. But we should not be so surprised for, I think you will
agree, these are the most delightful sensual experiences we can
have as human beings.
The more delightful the object, the more awake must we remain.
The greater has to be our vigilance. As soon as we wake from the
fantasy, we need to note and acknowledge – lust, lust; romance,
romance. Be careful not to use the noting to get rid of these fantasies.
It is a case simply of acknowledging. Then we return to the body
and get in touch with physical or emotional feelings and sensations.
We stay right there, feeling their fabric, investigating the Three
Characteristics. As they die away, so the thoughts will stop.
If we fail to be vigilant, the mind will run away and we will have
to struggle to regain our steadiness in meditation. Every time the
mind unwittingly rushes off, an element of empowerment is there.
Some will-power has entered the action and is reinforcing that conditioning.
After we have settled into a retreat and our feeling of being present
grows and grows and we become increasingly still and concentrated,
we may also fall into over-confidence. We think the Spiritual Faculties
are established. This is a dangerous time for if we allow the mind
to slip into fantasy, the power of our concentration will support
it and really take us for a ride.
So keeping in mind the danger of indulgence, lifting our wholesome
desire to investigate, let us devote ourselves to the practice of
mindfulness for the whole day. Just today. That’s enough.
41: Pain … Pain … Pain …
Pain is a pain and a part of our nature. It is also a godsend –
how else could we know there was something wrong with the body or
in the body? And here we have the two types of pain that arise for
us: that which comes from the body itself and that which is the
mind’s turbulences in the body. We’ll deal here with
‘just’ physical pain.
Pain from our sitting posture may tell us one of two things: the
body isn’t used to sitting this way and we need to get used
to it; or that our posture is not good and will do harm. Either
way we need to acknowledge this and make sure we are not over-stressing
the body in any way.
Even so this is a good time for us to investigate the phenomenon
of pain. What is pain? We know we don’t like it and that we
are afraid of it. So that’s the first thing to make very clear
to ourselves – our relationship to pain. When it arises, that
aversion or fear has to be noted, clearly acknowledged and experienced
until it passes away. Only when such reactions lessen or disappear
can we really begin to investigate pain as such.
Once we are steady enough to sit unmoving with pain – and
it doesn’t have to be severe – we can approach it, get
into it, see what it’s made up of. We will then be surprised
to find that the definition of unpleasant, unlikeable, painful begins
to disappear. Instead of feelings of pain or discomfort, we begin
to experience just tightness and/or just heat or some such sensations.
All sorts of sensations co-operate to create a feeling of pain.
But the important thing to notice and acknowledge is that when we
experience ‘pain’ in this way, there is no suffering.
We must keep reminding ourselves of this. Pain as such is not what
the Buddha refers to as dukkha in the First Noble Truth of Suffering.
The suffering in pain is our relationship to it.
There is a famous simile. The Buddha says that even if bandits
were to come and saw us limb from limb with a double-handed saw
and we felt any anger or hatred, then we would not be following
his teachings. Tall order! But as we begin to see pain by way of
sensations, we can glimpse how it might be that we could experience
such pain without hatred or fear. And the happy by-product of such
practice is patience and forbearance.
The danger in this approach is that we might develop a macho attitude
to pain, for example ‘I am bigger than pain’. As far
as I am concerned, as soon as I have stopped learning from pain
or as soon as I can no longer maintain my equanimity, then I know
it̵#8217;s time to move. Here, in the moving, there is more to be
learnt. Having made clear to ourselves our intention to move, we
need to move slowly, very slowly, to see how the feeling changes
from unpleasant to pleasant. And how the heart moves from disquiet
to peacefulness. We need to separate these two processes and realise
that they have different centres – the one coming from the
body, the other from the citta. And we need to see how the one arises
dependent on the other.
So physical pain has a lot to teach us and there is this small
advantage: concentration is not a problem. Unfortunately, one-pointedness
built up on such a loud object is not very strong. For strong concentration
we need more neutral objects such as the breath.
So seeing pain as but another helper on the road to liberation,
let us devote ourselves to the task in hand. Just today, one day,
of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
42: Shhh …
Meditation centres in the West tend to be so silent you can hear
a pin drop. In the East, it’s the opposite. The atmosphere
is full of sound. In the country it’s the wild life and in
the town it’s the incessant traffic or – dogs barking
loudly! Interestingly, as I saw it, sounds are only a problem in
There’s no such thing as perfect silence anywhere on earth,
no matter what we think. In fact, it seems the note throughout the
universe is a B flat some octaves below our hearing – ’twas
always my favourite note! So the more quickly we accept that zero
sound is non-existent the more quickly we develop an attitude that
allows us to maintain equanimity. Luckily in English we have three
words that show us our relationship to sound: music, noise and sound.
The word sound itself is neutral, telling us that stimuli, concerned
with hearing, are being received. We would normally have to define
the sound with an adjective –beautiful or terrible. When the
sound is beautiful, it’s music to our ears. When it’s
not, we call it noise. There is music, noise and then there are
neutral sounds. These are not the problem. The problem as always
is our relationship to them: liking music, disliking noise, ignoring
neutral sounds. The one we indulge. The second we reject. The third
we are simply not aware of. Hence some form and some degree of dissatisfaction
arise. In our meditation, we need to let go of these attachments.
We welcome beautiful sounds such as bird song, but to see how we
want to indulge and how indulgence always has a ‘hangover’.
We welcome so-called disturbing noises. They show up how we often
want things to be different, want everything to be ‘my way’.
We brighten our minds to be aware of neutral sounds and see their
transient nature. When all is very still and equanimous, we might
become aware of the high pitch sound from the body’s electrical
system, even the swish of blood pumping through the ears.
Seeing sounds as just another object to investigate can be a blessing
in daily life – especially with noisy neighbours. Of course,
there is a limit to what we should accept of next-door’s behaviour,
but sometimes the walls or the floor above just aren’t thick
enough to stop the mumble of a TV programme. The aversion we feel
which wants to annihilate the sound paradoxically nails our ears
to the wall or ceiling! But if we then remember the meditation hall
practice of just hearing and continue to put our attention on what
we are doing, the noise disappears. It folds into the other white
noise that surrounds us.
Sounds, therefore, present to us the possibilities of insight.
We can investigate the characteristic of unsatisfactoriness by seeing
how we relate to sound as noise or not hearing the sounds we want.
I remember feeling a disappointment and even a slight fear about
the meaning of it when I woke one morning at Pian Dei Ciliegi, a
meditation centre where I teach in Italy, for there were no birds
because of the long drought and so no early morning chorus. We can
investigate the characteristic of impermanence by experiencing sounds
as process. We can investigate the characteristic of not-self by
seeing the process of hearing as arising out of a set of conditions.
At the deepest level we may see there is only the hearing and no
person as such who is hearing! In fact, it is possible to experience
the first knocking of airwaves on the ear drum.
It was while listening to the crackling of bread baking in the
oven that a laywoman intuited the quality of transience and so broke
through the delusion of self to become a stream-entrant. A good
exercise is to choose a period of time when you give all your attention
to what you hear. Just listening. That would be enough. Just for
43: Transformation Not Destruction
When reading certain writers who discuss killing the kilesa, the
defilements, we might believe we are in the business of destruction
– which can shift us into an aggressive attitude.
In the scriptures, the Buddha is accused of teaching annihilation
theory because of his understanding of not-self. The only things
to be annihilated are greed, aversion and delusion, he says.
But in our practice we find that if our attitude is one of not
wanting defilements to be around, or seeing them as enemies, then
we are into struggle. That struggle contains an element of aversion
and so unwittingly we are creating even more kilesa!
On the other hand when we make friends with our defilements (as
in love your enemies) our attitude is radically different. Indeed
we greet them as long lost friends. ‘Come in,’ we say.
‘Let’s look at you. Now what have you to say for yourself
today?’ We sit listening and feeling and patiently bearing
their tales: this anxiety and that worry; this upset and that let-down;
this frustration and that craving; this sadness and that guilt.
In fact, the whole gamut of human misery.
Of course, we don’t indulge their fantasies, but remain steadfast
at the door of feeling and sensation so that we can experience their
rawness. After all what is an emotion at root but a turbulence of
feeling and sensation? That’s all it is. But once it has a
story, it has an ‘I’. Once personalised, feelings become
monsters. Perhaps rather than ‘say for yourself’, we
should ask: ‘So what have you to “feel for yourself”
Nor are we concerned with origins, with why they are there or where
they have come from. That plays right into their hands. The Buddha’s
metaphor was of a soldier shot by an arrow. When people came to
remove it and bandage the wound, he wouldn’t let them do so
until he knew who had made the arrow, who had fired it and so on.
Our concern is to investigate defilements from one of the three
vantage points. We want to be sure of their impermanent, changing
nature; of their insubstantiality, lack of real existence; and how
we relate to them, our reactions of indulging and aversion or wanting
not to acknowledge them, ignoring them. In this way these very defilements
become our teachers.
Then we see that they exhaust themselves, they evanesce, fade away.
But what has happened to that energy? Is it lost? Far from it. It
is now released from its attachment to an unwholesome attitude and
so can be put to the service of a wholesome attitude. This is why
Right Attitude, the second of the Noble Eightfold Path, is described
as transforming selfishness into generosity, hatred into love and
cruelty into compassion. Similarly with our unskilful habits –
they will be transformed into their opposite virtue.
So nothing is lost. Nothing is destroyed save phantasms. Everything
And all through this simple practice of mindfulness. Just being
attentive to whatever arises and passes away that draws our attention
within the field of awareness. So let’s devote ourselves to
that today. One day of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
Attachment is the love excluded from metta, goodwill. Our relationships
can assail us while on retreat and indeed in daily life. So we need
to get ‘love’ in its proper perspective.
Whether our attachments are between parent and child and vice versa,
between family members and friends, what we need to grasp is that
the real love we have for them has a warp in it. That warp says,
what’s in it for me. It is often an unspoken need. The other
is filling a gap in one’s citta. And, hard though it is to
accept, it turns the loved one into an object. It may be that children
are there to fulfil the parents’ dreams. Children may fail
to grow up and become independent then later project this onto their
spouses and partners. Friends cling out of fear of loneliness or
some other need.
When we are on retreat, especially a long one, these attachments
can arise strongly. Although I have talked about the positive side,
remember that attachments can be negative too: wishing a grown child
to get a life and stop asking for money; hating one’s duty
to look after one’s ageing parents; angry and frustrated with
a friend who didn’t help when asked.
Once we wake up to this sort of behaviour, we mustn’t beat
ourselves up and find ourselves wracked by guilt. At ordinary levels,
attachments are ‘natural’ because we have a self. So
long as the self persists, there will be attachment. It’s
not evil in the sense of moral law. For example, the attachment
a mother has to her child could never be considered ‘evil’!
Most actions arising from attachments are misguided efforts to do
The important thing is to become aware when attachment is manifesting.
To be aware when we are acting from that position. On retreat when
memories overwhelm us – old worn-out arguments and tattered
worries sputter on, this is the time to see them as manifestations
of attachments. As always we come off the fantasy and sit with the
feeling tone. Then there may be a moment of reflection and an acknowledgement
that when we behave like this, it is manifesting attachment. When
we move out of that position the person becomes an object –
which does neither of us any good.
The antidote, no surprise, is metta. Metta puts ‘the other’
first. It wants to know where the other person is coming from. The
Buddha, when approached by a questioner, invariably asked them what
they thought about their own question. Knowing their position meant
he could offer a critique and then lead them to a truer understanding.
Metta does not impose our view or our desires on the other. Metta
experiences itself more as companionship, wise elderly or wise equal
depending on the relationship.
This ability to step into another’s shoes, to see the world
from their perspective and to offer comment and advice when called
on is for me the key to true friendship. A companionship that can
grow more trusting with each contact whether with children or fellow
In this, vipassana excels. It makes us see these attachments in
the very fantasies of the mind. Once we are aware of this, we take
it with us into the world of relationships. Of course, when we change,
lo and behold, the other changes too. Such is the mechanism of inter-relationship
– everything arises dependent on something else.
This is another very good reason why we should devote this day
to the practice of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
45. Sati: Awareness
If I was to encapsulate the Buddha’s entire teaching in one
word, that word would have to be sati. Sati has its root meaning
in remembrance, but the Buddha uses it to mean a moment-to-moment
remembering, a continuous awareness, mindfulness, an unbroken act
of knowing. It has been translated in many ways: attention, being
in the moment, being present to whatever is happening, attentiveness
and so on. But whatever word we use, we shall never capture the
essence of it. The only way to do that is by personal experience
It’s the simplicity of it that foxes us most. In the sitting,
we just observe. We just look, just hear, just feel. Sometimes a
touchstone is useful – a memory or occasion that reminds us
of the simplicity of the practice.
One simple exercise is to look into the palm of the hand, not for
fortune telling, of course, but to get the idea of what it is to
look. By repeating a simple word such as ‘looking’,
we can stop the mind from thinking about what it is seeing. And
then just notice what the eye is perceiving. When we go outside
and look at a leaf or flower or even a stone, look in the same way.
We may have the impression that the leaf, flower or stone, is disclosing
itself to us. All we are doing is watching. We can look at clouds
like this, watch them pass and change shape.
Similarly, we can contact this simple awareness through hearing.
Just listen to the sounds in the room or outside. By repeating a
simple word such as ‘hearing’, we stop the mind thinking
about the sounds. When our attention is on sounds alone, it’s
as if the world is disclosing its musical qualities to us.
So we have to make a distinction between looking at and looking
for, between hearing/listening and listening out for something.
Whenever our purpose is other than just looking, just hearing, then
we are getting in the way. This ‘just looking’ has been
called choiceless awareness. In other words, we are not choosing
what to experience. Instead we are entirely open to what is happening.
The closest image I have is that of a very young child, less than
seven years old. Their enrapture is visible. Thinking has stopped.
Their eyes are fixed on the object. The jaw drops and hangs loose.
Adults think they look gormless and often tell them to close their
mouths and so ruin the whole experience for the child. For the mouth
and thought are intimately connected. That’s why when we sit,
our lips are together but the teeth are apart. The jaw should be
The clearest explanation of the practice of sati is described best
in the Discourse on How to Establish Right Awareness. This was delivered
to the lay people of a town called Kurusadhamma. This is significant,
because it doesn’t entail the development of jhana, absorption
meditation. Not everyone can develop the jhana – it takes
most people a long and sustained effort, the sort of time most lay
people don’t have. So the Discourse begins with the words
– ekayano maggo: ‘This is the direct path.’ In
other words, it’s the simplest and most straightforward. All
we have to do, insists the Buddha, is establish moment-to-moment
So let’s do just that. Let’s devote this day, one day
at a time, to devoting ourselves to establishing a moment-to-moment
46. Panya: Intuitive Intelligence
There is within us that ability – or power – to see
things as they really are. A regular phrase in the scriptures is
to ‘see and understand the way things really are’ or,
perhaps a closer translation, ‘the way things have come to
be’ – nyanadassana yathabhutam. This simply means to
see the Three Characteristics of Existence – impermanence,
unsatisfactoriness and not-self.
But what is this ability, this intuitive intelligence – panya?
Is it different from sati awareness? Or is it the same?
When we place our attention on an object, that’s looking
– just looking, just observing, just experiencing. Within
that looking lie the abilities to see and understand. But these
are really the same faculty in two modes – the first passive
and receptive, the second active and perceptive. The one encompasses
the present level of Right Understanding and the second is that
spark within it that extends that understanding. In other words,
one is our wisdom and the other our intuitive intelligence. To separate
them is a way of pointing to two different functions of the same
quality within us. This is what in later traditions of Buddhism
is referred to as our Buddha nature.
The ability to see, however, won’t develop without the intent
to do so. It is like everything else within conditions. It has to
be exercised. We cannot have insight just for the wanting otherwise
we would all be immediately awakened just sitting here and desiring
it. The conditions for insight to arise must be there and that is
what we can develop. We can create the conditions so that this panya,
this intuitive intelligence, can spark and perceive the way things
The first condition is to be attentive. That’s the establishment
of awareness, sati. The second is to raise that sense of curiosity,
wanting to see, wanting to know. Otherwise the awareness will be
sterile. It can sit very quietly and peacefully, thank you very
much. And please don’t disturb my wonderful sitting! But nothing
will ever happen. We’ve got to have the intention to see the
Three Characteristics. That’s why the Buddha says that after
we have established a basic contact with the breath, knowing its
feeling and movement, we then need to place the focus of our attention
on the quality of transience. Only after this when we become concentrated
into the present moment will awareness and intuitive intelligence,
sati-panya, be strong enough to make insight.
These insights are not cataclysmic, world shaking, mind boggling
experiences. It may be that on occasion, a meditator may have quite
an extraordinary vision of the way things are, but for most of us
it is just a gentle, slow turning within consciousness. Our understanding,
say of anicca (impermanence), simply gets deeper and deeper, more
and more refined.
So our task then is to train ourselves to be attentive and to look
with a desire to see clearly. That’s enough. ‘Trying
to have an insight’ is not what it’s about. Just look
with interest, with curiosity. The seeing will arise naturally.
That’s what the Buddha tells us. First we have to look and
then we see. Unless we look, we won’t see. Just be diligent
in establishing moment-to-moment mindfulness and the rest will follow
So let’s commit ourselves to that. Just today. This one day.
A 101 per cent devotion to a day of mindfulness.
47. Interest and Investigation of the Dhamma
Piti, one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, is translated
as joy. The same word is used for the blissful states of jhana,
the absorption meditations. Piti refers to the joy of investigation
and is best translated as interest. To be interested in something
is to be involved in it. And with this interest we don’t a
have a problem with concentration, for instance work we really enjoy
or a hobby or an avocation.
My introduction to vipassana and my continued involvement in it
was through the Burmese teachers, especially Sayadaw U Janaka. The
stress was on continuous mindfulness, concentration and effort.
Try harder! It works for some, but for most it undermines their
practice. And the reason is that we Westerners have enough if not
too much effort. It’s a qualified gift from a society bent
on achievement. I say qualified because it is so attached to achieving.
But the energy itself is what we need to meditate. When this attitude
is put to ‘gaining’ the vipassana insight knowledges,
then more often than not it leads to spiritual exhaustion, a sense
of failure, self-doubt and at worse leaving the practice and the
This can also happen with interest if our sense of investigation
has this achieving attached to it, an expectation of breakthrough.
For this means that all the time we are looking, we are looking
for something. And that obviously gets in the way of seeing things
as they are. Just observe how we enter a place for the first time,
say a café, to meet someone. Our attention is focused on
seeing our friend. We scan the area and everything that our eyes
see is ignored. If we had to leave the place fairly quickly, we
would probably find it hard to describe that particular café.
So to raise the pure interest we need, it’s good practice
to remind ourselves before a sit and even during a sit or walking
period what it is we are actually doing. We are observing, feeling
and experiencing anything which arises within the field of awareness
that draws our attention. That’s it! We are not ‘trying’
to see anything. We are not ‘trying’ to have an insight.
Find an image for yourself which reminds you of this Right Awareness
imbued with interest. I have a bird feeder near my window and I
watch the birds feeding. At first I was teaching myself to recognise
the different birds that visited. After a while I came to know the
visitors so I could let the intellect rest. I began just to watch
them feed – for no reason whatsoever. I had no intention of
writing a book about birds or making a photo album. There is now
just the joy of watching these light creatures flitting to and from
the feeder. After watching like this, a reflection usually follows:
‘The bottom of the Great Spotted Woodpecker really is red’;
‘The Nuthatch seems to feel more comfortable upside down.’
This tells me that even though while I’m ‘just watching’
there are no thoughts. When ‘just watching’ stops, the
intuitive intelligence tells itself what it has seen. And of course
it has to use the intellect.
So it is with vipassana. We enter into the process with the conscious
intention of seeing the Three Characteristics – impermanence,
unsatisfactoriness and not-self. We then just observe, feel, experience
whatever offers itself to this intuitive knowing. When we stop,
there will almost invariably be some reflection. Each reflection
is a small turning in the way we see and understand things. Each
turning is a turning towards liberation.
So let’s raise the interest and just watch, just feel, just
experience. Just today!
48. Mudita: Sympathetic Joy
Mudita – sympathetic or reciprocal joy – is most often
defined as rejoicing in another’s good fortune, good qualities,
success. Unlike metta – loving kindness, which classically
is always offered to oneself first – it is hardly ever mentioned
that mudita can also be offered to oneself. And there is much to
Consider how fortunate we are to be healthy enough to practise.
How fortunate it is to have the financial wherewithal. How wonderful
it is to have this time to devote to our practice. How fortunate
we are to have spiritual friends who support our practice. It is
support enough just to be there practising with us. Then there is
this centre with all the people working here. Not so long ago, maybe
thirty or so years, there were no centres in this country. Let’s
not forget that we also have teachers to guide us.
So we have much to rejoice in and when we bring these things to
mind, it lifts our hearts. This attitude makes us want to take advantage
of our good fortune. Such contemplation is especially useful when
we are down, feeling low, with little energy.
What about rejoicing in ourselves? We are doing the practice! Isn’t
that something to be joyful about? Of course, the practice is no
easy thing. At times it is downright horrible, but it’s all
part of the course that leads us out of suffering. We are engaged
in a process of healing. There will be an end – a glorious
moment for us, when all our work is done. Completed. Finished. There
will be nothing more to do. We enter that continuous state of Nibbanic
happiness. That’s the merit, punya, we will receive at the
end of all this blood, sweat and tears. It’s worth working
for. Here we are on that very path. Surely, we should rejoice!
So at the end of the day, especially a hard day, don’t look
back at the awfulness only. Let’s remind ourselves that we
got through it. Congratulations! Well done! An achievement worthy
of praise. We should rest in that quiet joy of having done what
It may be that we remember times when we were lazy, when we let
go of the practice. It happens. We accept that there will be kammic
consequences. Fine! But all in all we kept at it. It’s a case
of seeing the proverbial bottle as half full not half empty!
We shouldn’t be afraid to do this, afraid we may be indulging
ourselves and falling into the error of conceit. Those dangers,
of course, are always there. But to reflect like this, to lift our
hearts and develop in ourselves an appreciation for our practice,
goes a long way to ridding us of the criticising mind. Let’s
counter the judging that tells us we should have done better, we’re
not good enough, we’re useless.
So there is a place every day for a little rejoicing, a rejoicing
in one’s own good fortune and good work. And when we practise
this – even in ordinary daily life – it comes so naturally
to rejoice in the good fortune and good qualities of others.
So, let’s fill our hearts with this quiet joy and commit
ourselves to this day. One day at a time. It’s enough. A day
devoted entirely to establishing moment-to-moment mindfulness.
49. Equanimity: Upekkha
Equanimity – not a word we come across very often. As a Factor
of Enlightenment, though, equanimity is the necessary support to
clear comprehension and discriminative inquiry so we can see things
as they really are.
With this understanding, upekkha refers to a disposition of the
heart where it is clear of prejudicial feelings and likewise the
mind clear of prejudicial thought. It demands those qualities we
expect of judges at law. They advise juries and pass sentence without
fear or favour, aversion or prejudice. You’ll notice these
are the same unwholesome roots of greed, aversion (hatred and fear)
Equanimity arises more easily if we start our every sitting from
the position of ‘don’t know’ or ‘not sure’
and if we develop an attitude that wants to see things without prior
perceptions, concepts and experience. It’s like seeing things
anew, for the first time, and is a necessary condition for a clear
One way to establish equanimity is this: Take a standing position
and place the attention on the soles of our feet. Discriminate between
the sensations there – some will be temperature sensitive,
others pressure – the elements of fire and earth. There will
also be neutral areas. We will be aware of how they are constantly
changing as the body rebalances itself.
Once the attention is steady on these sensations, scan the body
from the feet up, feeling as many sensations as possible inside
and on the surface of the body till we finally reach the scalp.
Here, discriminate as we did with the soles of the feet.
Once the attention has scanned the scalp, throw it outwards and
become aware of the outside. Keeping the eyes lowered, becoming
aware of the colours and shapes, of sounds, of the atmosphere of
the room, of the sense of other people.
When this outer awareness is stabilised, bring into awareness the
breath, the feet, the body and so on so that the distinction between
inner and outer loses its sharpness. It’s all one mass of
sensations and feelings. At this point we are totally present to
conditions as they are.
Relax into this present moment, wide awake.
Then remember that in this moment there is no need to achieve anything.
When we are in achieving mode we try to do something now for a future
result. But here we have already achieved – our moment-to-moment
mindfulness. Remind ourselves that the present moment is always
here, it’s not going anywhere. There’s no need to plan.
Remind ourselves that in this passive mode of pure open receptiveness,
there’s no need to perform, to be someone, a personality.
Repeating: ‘Abiding in the present moment, wide awake. Achieving
nothing, going nowhere, being nobody.’ And when this has been
truly digested, just to stand right in the here and now.
Of course, we also live in the flowing present and we shall see
the next intention rising. Time to sit. Being open like this we
can see an intention as it arises. This gives us the time to decide
whether it is wholesome or unwholesome. To act from this point puts
us in charge of our lives rather than acting out of habit and compulsion.
To take this practice of equanimity into our daily lives is a powerful
practice. It becomes our default position.
In retreat, to start a sitting like this gives us a foundation.
We can come back to it whenever we feel lost or overpowered by a
mental state. It’s all so simple!
Let me now just relax into this presenting moment, wide awake.
Let me now just abide a while, fully aware.
50. Adhitthana: Determination
Determination, resolution – a resolute determination, a determined
resolution or simply perseverance – this is adhitthana. However
we phrase it, it is a devotion to the practice, a complete giving
of oneself to the task in hand.
Now we may say to ourselves that we are devoted to the practice,
but how easy it is to relax, to be lazy, to avoid that effort just
when it is needed and then wake up at the end of the day feeling
disappointed. We know full well that if we had stopped and determined
to continue, the day would have lifted and we would not now be reproaching
The fact is we need to constantly re-make our affirmation. It has
to become habitual. The resolution has to have a life of its own.
As soon as we slack, the resolution speaks itself.
When a person joins the monastic order, the time to be spent in
robes is not determined. The ceremony does not ask the aspirant
how long they mean to stay. Such determination to do something for
so long can be undermining since we can over-determine or we can
sit back and think it’s enough to have made that public declaration.
It’s the same with partnerships and especially marriages
where a couple make a public commitment to live and love each other
and then they leave thinking, well, that’s that. Everything
should be fine till death do us part. Perhaps these days few people
would be so deluded but nevertheless if it should all break up,
then that inevitable question will emerge: where did it all go wrong?
There may be many reasons but I’d hazard that at some time
the original vows were never reinforced and quietly slipped away.
Indeed, this holds for any area of our lives from the commitment
to our job, a friend, even a hobby. It is when times get a little
rough that we need especially to reflect on why we are doing what
we are doing and then, presuming that it is right to carry on, make
When it comes to how long we make the determination for, it is
wise to keep it manageable. Of course we are committed to a life
of contemplation, meditation and good works. But that’s a
long time. Who knows what might happen? Even a year feels hard and
a week not much better, so difficult is it to maintain that commitment
to the spiritual life. So a lifetime commitment can feel depressingly
impossible. But when we think of a day, just a day – that
definitely feels manageable.
Now if, during the day, we find ourselves slacking or falling into
lazy ways, then we stop and recall our purpose and again recommit
ourselves. In this way we can build up the determination, the adhitthana,
we need to follow the path. As with all habits, the more we develop
it, the more it is instilled within us until it becomes second nature.
We need a phrase, a mantra, to help us do that. And a time of day
when we make that resolution. To repeat it three times is also skilful.
To drum it in as it were:
This day, just this day, I devote myself unreservedly to the practice
of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
51. Concentration? Relax!
Concentrate – will you please concentrate! Concentrate on
what you are doing! Stop fidgeting about and concentrate! We all
have such phrases from childhood, from home or school or both, whizzing
about the head every time we start to worry about our concentration.
So whenever we think of concentrating, it is accompanied by a feeling
of tension, unwilling work and negativity. We may have had a hard
time concentrating as children, in which case we already start with
the thought: ‘I can’t do this.’
In the Abhidhamma, The Collection of Higher Teachings, the word
ekagata is used – eka meaning one or one way and gata going.
In other words, the mind all going in one way. Perhaps we can conjure
up the images of all the beings who people our mind, all walking
in the same direction. It has the notion of focusing, think more
of focusing a camera.
If you watch a golfer preparing for a swing or a footballer getting
ready to take a penalty, the feeling about them is one of relaxing.
Musicians and actors and other performers will often prepare themselves
with relaxation exercises. The tensions they feel are tied up with
achieving. So it can be for us. We are trying to achieve concentration.
‘Trying to achieve’ puts unnecessary energy and stress
into the act. So when we think concentrate, think rather of calmly
training a camera on an interesting object.
Concentration, then, is built up best by simply making that continuous
effort to place the attention on the object. We need to be very
patient with the mind. Sometimes the little doggie just won’t
stop still. We have to pat it and gently talk it down. We just keep
doing the practice and wait for the mind to settle.
I find it is always best to start with the body. Make sure the
body is comfortable and relaxed. If there’s tension, say in
the shoulders, tense them up and relax them. Deep breathing can
also be very relaxing for the body. Since the body and mind are
so intimately entwined, as the body relaxes it has the effect of
relaxing the mind.
When the attention can remain more and more on the object, this
is known as developing vitakka. It’s likened to a bee flying
towards a flower. The noting helps us to keep that bee going in
the right direction. We can sometimes get that feeling of falling
inward. Then hopefully the bee will land and suck on the nectar.
This is called vicara. Even so there’s lots more developing
to do. If, for instance, a sound such as a cough or the click of
door suddenly shakes us – it can sometimes feel like a shock
– this is a good sign to the meditator that they are becoming
one-pointed, but there is still more work to be done.
Finally, there is a true settling and here we feel very still and
calm. Here another danger pops up. We love it like a hot bath after
a cold mountain walk. We marinate in it. Great! But gone is our
investigation, the intuitive intelligence has closed down and we
have entered a ‘heavenly realm’. Unfortunately we have
entered with the desire to enjoy and so created within a thirst
for such joys. It’s fool’s gold! Sometimes we can rest
there intending to refresh ourselves, but then we must continue
our vipassana – to see things as they really are. After all,
it was just one of those ice-cream mental states.
So let’s not worry about concentration. Relax. Take it easy.
Just keep placing that attention on the object. Let the mind gather
around that intention. Should we arrive at a heavenly place, what
better time to investigate the process of breathing. Right there
we can see beginning and ending and not-self!
So let’s commit ourselves to this wonderful practice! Just
one day, that’s all. Just today. Complete devotion to moment-to-moment
52: Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off And Start All Over Again
Resilience – such an important quality. Children have it
in abundance so long as the situation is not crushing. They fall
over, hurt themselves, scream at the pain – and next minute
it’s as if nothing happened.
So it should be with our practice. No matter how many times we
fall off the rails, we get back on and continue. It is part of the
quality of resolution, adhitthana, one of the Perfections. And it
is so much easier to do this if we stop striving in the wrong way,
if we abandon all expectation, expect nothing. When success comes
into the equation, note and acknowledge it clearly and wait for
it to pass. If there’s no success to go for, then there will
be no failure. Our spiritual life is a process of trial and error.
All our techniques are skilful means, little tricks to help stay
on the straight and narrow.
There are times when we feel we are getting nowhere, when we feel
we simply cannot stay present. The mind will wander, career madly.
Slowly we yield and before we know it, hours spent in dreamland.
A meditator once told me they spent six months of a six-month retreat
planning a trip to South America – and never went. Sometimes
we seem unable to summon up energy – so tired, exhausted –
and we give in. Hours later we stumble out of bed as groggy as a
drunk. We want so much to be mindful around food and we start with
good intention only to find an empty plate in front of us, without
a single recollection of how the food disappeared. The only proof
of eating is a heavy stomach. We feel so depressed, but we manage
to stay with it until that moment of weakness where we give in and
go to sleep. We wake feeling even more depressed – and angry
with ourselves. And so on. At times the whole of the meditation
just doesn’t seem to be going right. No matter how much we
continue to put in effort we seem to be overcome by this hindrance
or that. And of course, this is true in our daily life too.
This is when a true trainee manifests resilience. No matter how
many times we fall, we get up again. Remember those two glamorous
idols of the silver screen – Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
There they are, singing: ‘Pick yourself up, dust yourself
off and start all over again.’ And tap dancing at the same
time! Surely the sign of highly developed spiritual beings. Now
if Fred and Ginger can do it, so can we!
So let’s make that commitment never to abandon the Path,
no matter how hard it may be. And it doesn’t seem that hard
if we keep our focus on just this day. That’s enough. Tomorrow
will take care of itself. Today no matter how many times I fall,
I will pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again.
53. Rejoice! We’re On The Path
The story of the Bodhisatta Siddhartha Gotama begins in a distant
previous rebirth where he met the Buddha Dipankara and made the
vow to become a self-enlightened Buddha. From then on, birth after
birth, he strove to develop those qualities, the Perfections, which
he needed to fulfil that vow within one lifetime.
What was it that drove his quest?
When he finally took his last birth in Northern India, in a place
saturated with religion, he still had to struggle. First he passed
through the training of the absorptions, the jhanas. And when that
failed, he undertook the difficult practice of mortifications meant
to subdue the body and so liberate the mind. But this he found simply
painful and led nowhere. Then despairing that there was a way, there
came the inspiration from a moment in childhood when he was watching
his father performing the Ploughing Ceremony. That childlike looking,
that easy absorbed state of receptive watching that adults mistake
for senseless gawping, was the memory that made him sit just that
once more beneath a tree. And such were his Perfections, those qualities
that take us to the Other Shore, the parami, that he was able to
make a resolution either to find the answer to his quest or die.
We can conceive through the medium of time, deep time that began
at some beginningless moment from which the Buddha Within began
to come into being. Or we can bring that into the present moment
and conceive rather through the medium of space, deep space. There
is ‘something’ within us that, like the Buddha, seeks
the end of suffering, the end of alienation or meaninglessness.
The Buddha Within is seeking home. It secretly rejoices in having
found the Path to that place of perfect contentment and joy.
Now that Path is not easy and the Buddha did not say it was easy.
In fact, he warned us it was gradual. Our practice tends to centre
on the difficulties, the hardships. The constant bombardment of
the hindrances and the lack of any real maturity in the Spiritual
Factors of Awakening can lead us into feeling it is always going
to be an uphill struggle. So it is important to stop occasionally
and consider our good fortune, rest for a moment and congratulate
ourselves on work completed.
Most of all we allow that lovely religious feeling of gratitude
to arise within. Thankfulness for this Dhamma. Thankfulness for
the sangha around us who support our practice. And we rejoice in
our ability to be a support also to them.
We reflect on the Buddha’s life – his Perfections and
on the work he accomplished. We pause to reflect on our good fortune
to have found the Path. We reflect on the good fortune of finding
teachers and fellow meditators. Thankful for this opportunity to
practice and progress. All this develops that warm underbelly of
religious emotion that can so nurture our practice of vipassana.
It can give us that sense of joy in hardship as when a mountaineer
struggles towards the joy of victory that can only be realised at
So with that sense of being on a path leading to the summit of
happiness, let us devote ourselves to this day of practice. Just
this one day offered to moment-to-moment mindfulness.
54. Turning Inward The Stream Of Love And Compassion
When we practise pure vipassana, it may sometimes become a little
too hardened. In fact, the vipassana-only path, or the direct path
as the Buddha calls it (ekayano maggo), is also called the ‘dry
Now, that’s fine so long as all the spiritual faculties are
balanced. But often we veer towards too much detachment. So much
so that when the body feels pain, for instance, we forget it is
signalling that something is wrong. The vipassana meditator is so
engrossed in seeing the Three Characteristics or the Four Primary
Elements. The practice becomes so hard we begin to tighten up around
it and make it even more miserable.
Love and compassion practice softens the detachment and loosens
the tightness. How then should we practice metta-karuna?
Most often this practice is taught for the benefit all beings.
Classically, we begin with ourselves, then move to a person who
naturally warms the heart, to friends and family, to a neutral person
and then out to all beings. But some may find it more skilful to
begin first with someone who warms the heart or someone who has
shown compassion towards us and then to turn that attitude towards
ourselves. For this is what we need to learn most of all in a vipassana
course: how to comfort ourselves, be a friend to ourselves and how
to encourage ourselves.
The phrases we use can be anything that develops this attitude
towards ourselves. ‘May I be kind to myself, gentle to myself,
sympathetic to myself and benevolent towards myself. May I forgive
myself. May I be free of pain and suffering. May I be resolute,
courageous and steadfast. May I be happy.’ We can be as creative
as we want, but we need to find that phrase which has a special
or particular meaning for us. All we are trying to do is cultivate
metta-karuna towards ourselves. Then we can offer this to others
and all beings. For our purposes, I think it best not to include
those people whom we have difficulties with and those who have difficulties
with us, save perhaps in passing. For this can bring up negative
feelings and undermine the very qualities we are trying develop.
We can always do this towards the end of a course. So, in this way
we bring calmness and softness to the heart.
We can practise it in many ways. Some of us like it to start a sitting,
others to end a sitting, others both. Some like to give one whole
sitting to metta. On one retreat where I was having a hard time
I would practice metta in walking meditation and go sit in purgatory.
I found this particularly powerful. It is a case of experimenting
and, of course, every retreat is different.
The Buddha also points out that metta, loving-kindness, has the
benefit of making us sleep better. So if we are having problems
falling asleep at night, this practice brings to the mind a soft
concentration and the heart into a gentle delight. To do this we
need to keep it very simple. A phrase or two towards ourselves and
to one or to others whom we have an easy, loving relationship with,
though not romantic or erotic – that can take us somewhere
else. This will, in turn, create the relaxation needed to ‘fall’
So remembering that all these skilful means are meant only for
one purpose: to establish Right Awareness. So let us devote this
day to the practice of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
55. Honesty Is The Best Policy
It’s a cliché and it’s true – honesty’s
the best policy. Even when it gets you into trouble, it’s
always the best course of action. So honesty can be kind, but also
In our practice, self-honesty is of utmost importance. We can so
easily fool ourselves in so many ways. We can kid ourselves we’re
doing alright and then we can trick ourselves into believing we’re
not doing alright.
It is especially around the hindrances that brutal honesty is needed.
Hurting our feelings? We must not worry about that. We must be clear
to ourselves. Do we really need that drink, that snack? Or do we
shy away from these questions because we really want to distract
ourselves rather than do walking meditation. Do we say: ‘I
need to refresh the mind, so I’ll have a cup of tea’
– when in truth we want to avoid the aversion we feel to continued
sitting. Or do we acknowledge these thoughts as indulgence and refuse
to obey them?
And what of tiredness? Do we slink off to bed after breakfast,
after lunch, after tea and convince ourselves that it must be tiredness,
because we never normally feel this tired in daily life. Or are
we uncertain about the genuineness of the dullness and lethargy
so we give it the benefit of the doubt and call it ‘need to
rest’ or ‘powernap’? In the morning when the bell
goes and we wake up sluggish, do we say to ourselves that we mustn’t
have slept well and should stay in bed? Or do we acknowledge these
thoughts for what they truly are and refuse to give in to them?
And restlessness – that need to move. A walk is what we need
and off we go. For we don’t want to sit still with it, to
feel its discomfort. Walking wears it off, we say, knowing full
well it can also suppress and even excite it more.
Are we still like children, gladly confusing ‘can't’
with ‘won’t’? ‘Can’t’ sleep
because they want to stay up. ‘Can’t’ go out because
they want to play video games.
Being honest with ourselves can be humbling, humiliating even.
But it is our only path.
How we enact our honest discernment depends on our personality
type. If we tend to indulge ourselves, then be honest but firm,
even brutal. We have to make ourselves do exactly what we don’t
want to do. Not in an aggressive way, mind, but in the way a good
parent demands obedience of the child. Those of us who are already
harsh – hard task masters – then our approach should
be soft and cajoling. As a good parent might offer treats to a recalcitrant
child. Of course, we tend to go from one extreme to another, so
we have to vary approaches depending on whether we are harsh or
indulgent with ourselves.
It is all part of coming to know ourselves and we cannot do this
without being truthful with ourselves. So from time to time, we
need to sit and listen to the interior dialogue. What are we saying
to ourselves? Are we fully aware of the little voices saying ‘need
to sleep, need a drink, need a walk’? If we don’t acknowledge
these subliminal voices they have enormous power over us. Acknowledging
them is not enough. We have to decide if they are wholesome or not.
And there’s more. We then have to act in way to undermine
their power – by doing exactly what they don’t want
So we need to make truthfulness to ourselves a prime virtue for
self-deception is at the root of our condition. And that’s
what vipassana is all about. To see things as they really are! So
let’s do just that. Just for today. One day, moment after
moment, devoted to really seeing things as they really are.
56. You’ve Got To Laugh
We’ve got to laugh at ourselves – but perhaps ‘laugh’
is too strong a way of putting it. Making fun of ourselves can be
cruel and we don’t want that. So perhaps smile at ourselves
is a better expression. We need to see the funny side because undermining
self-judgment, both negative and positive, can stop us getting ‘serious’.
Some jokes help us see the funny side of life, such as the doctor
who said the operation was a success but the patient died. Or the
man who fell off a tower block and was heard to say as he passed
every floor: ‘So far so good.’ We laugh when we see
a dog chasing its tail or a toddler persistently tumbling as it
tries to walk.
I once saw what I still believe to be a remarkable thing. We normally
think only humans are capable of playing with other species. I was
standing by the office at Kanduboda Meditation Centre in Sri Lanka.
To my right was a place where unwanted food was thrown, replenished
every day. Crows and dogs jostled with each other for a place at
it. And among them all was a puppy. A crow hopped up behind the
puppy, who was lost in eating, and pecked its tail. The puppy turned
and gave a squeaky bark. The crow hopped away. The pup began again
to eat. The crow returned, pecked at the puppy’s tail and
the scenario replayed. Again, the puppy turned, barked and the crow
hopped away. After a few such rude interruptions, the pup, fed up
and hopefully fed, trotted off. I thought what a clever crow, now
it has all the food to itself. But not at all. It hopped after the
puppy, as if to say: ‘Oh, come on! I was only joking.’
Then it flew off, no doubt disappointed. That pup just had no sense
When we catch ourselves falling into the same old patterns –
the over-sleep, the over-eat, the erotic and romantic tales, the
indulgence in future plans and so on, rather then start all that
self-reproaching and recrimination, why not smile? There we go again!
We can view our personality as an unruly child, always wanting
its own way even though that leads to dissatisfaction of some sort.
It just won’t learn. I often call it by my lay name: ‘There
you go again, Pete! When will you ever learn?’ It’s
a skilful way to distance ourselves from our unskilful habits and
take the position of benign teacher. For indeed, our practice should
be leading us to be our own guides.
When Ananda asked the Buddha who would lead the order when he died,
the Buddha answered that he should take the Dhamma as a lamp and
be a lamp unto himself.
In the Chinese and Japanese traditions there is the great cosmic
laugh upon the enlightenment. And what would make us laugh on full
awakening? Surely it is the realisation that all this suffering
we have born age upon age, every last drop of it, has been caused
by ourselves. And worse, it’s all due to a mistake –
well, if we can’t see the funny side of that when we are liberated...
When we relax the face entirely, we can feel the face brighten into
a gentle smile – the smile of serene equanimity. From here
we will see the sunny side of life. So with a smile on our faces,
let us delve into the mystery of our being.
How better to develop a deeper understanding than by watching and
experiencing fully whatever is offered to us. This we can do by
patiently building up the habit of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
Let’s commit ourselves to that today, just this one day.
57. Death, Where Is Thy Sting!
Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kübler Ross was the seminal work
in studying dying. She worked with terminally ill patients and came
to unravel the process into five distinct parts. Not that they ran
sequentially, but more that one went through these stages over and
over during the process of dying.
First comes denial – and in our practice we do this when
we ignore anything. Our conditioning tells us to turn away as we
sense something unpleasant is arising. We pretend it isn’t
there and thus compound our delusion. So we are preparing for our
death whenever we openly accept what is arising within us and go
towards it to investigate.
Then there is anger which comes once the truth of an illness pushes
into consciousness. Should we be surprised by that? The Buddha points
out that the two root conditions arising out of the deluded self
is grasping-greed-acquisition and aversion-hatred-fear. Indeed fear
is simply the other face of aversion. So as we deal with anger and
fear in our practice, we also prepare ourselves for death.
When anger fails to shift the disease, the process of bargaining
begins. We do deals with God and with the Devil. We seek magic potions.
Do pujas. Visit healers – all aspects of false hope driven
by fear, a pleading for mercy stoked by dread. How many times in
our practice do we seek an easy way out? How many times do we fail
to turn round and face the beasts within us and instead take a tablet?
Or go for a walk. Any excuse for not doing the practice, anything
to make things feel better. When we can truly sit still in the swirling
storms, roast at the stake of our own burning and accept our kamma,
then we are again preparing ourselves for the day of our death.
When amulets and blessings fail, what is left but depression and
despair? Here dying meets existential reality. Death demands we
give up everything, everything we have acquired with such hard labour,
all the relationships that have brought such happiness, even our
own very selves. We must make a complete renunciation. Is this not
what our meditation is leading us to? To perceive impermanence means
realising that there is ‘nothing in this world worth holding
onto’. If we can develop this understanding before we die
then as Dylan Thomas says, ‘… death shall have no dominion’.
So now when the dying can finally let go, they enter a state of
acceptance, equanimity – a Factor of Enlightenment which is
that open-hearted, clear-minded ability to receive. Again isn’t
this what we are developing in our practice?
So the deeper meaning of our work is to be found in death. Indeed
it is to be found in the death of each moment. The self can only
think in terms of opposites. Either we live on or we are annihilated.
But the Buddha pointed to something more subtle – the Unnameable.
Nibbana is beyond conventional conditioning. When we are mindful,
fully aware, the Buddha tells us we are in the vicinity, in the
presence of Nibbana.
So reflecting on the ultimate importance of our practice, we can
raise that effort to establish a moment-to-moment mindfulness. All
day. Just this day, mind. That’s enough.
58. Homage To The Body
The Buddha said this human birth was the most advantageous for
awakening. Here we have joy and woe and the intelligence to identify
the escape from samsara, forever being reborn in a state of delusion.
Other places or possible rebirth have only the mental body. Here
that mind is saturated with heavy matter for the body and mind are
like ‘milk in water’. For those of us who find such
ideas incompatible with their own, remember that belief is not a
necessary prerequisite for attaining liberation.
The fact remains that when we turn inward a once unknown world
opens up. Our development has taken us to the point of objectifying
the world outside the body. Although we have a relationship with
that world of possessiveness, some of it is mine, some shared and
lot is not mine. But we don’t say it is ‘me’.
‘Me’ refers to what I experience in the body or through
the body. Before we came to vipassana, it probably never occurred
to us that we could objectify the inner world as we have done the
Just as this outer world has limitation (the walls of a room),
so the ‘inner me’ has the special limitation of the
body. A room has windows to let in the light and air, so the body
has the senses. As a room has an atmosphere, so the body has an
atmosphere (our emotional life). As a room has meaning (a waiting
room, a concert hall), so the body is filled with inner dialogue.
When we step up to that inner ‘observation post’, everything
we experience becomes other. There is a distance, a space, between
the observer and the observed. Making the inner world an object
is an experience of not-self. For that is all the Buddha is saying:
If it’s an object it cannot be the subject. This is the vantage
point from which we can investigate and begin to understand how
this psychophysical organism works.
But equally important we are at a place where even the sense of
the observer can be questioned. For that observer feeling, the feeling
and recognition that ‘I am observing, feeling and experiencing’,
is also an object and therefore part of the delusion that distorts
a true experience of beyond the ‘I am’. Turning our
attention onto that feeling, onto that inner image objectifies it
even more and opens the door to spiritual realisation.
But let’s return to the body, the grosser feeling level where
it all begins. It becomes clear that the body has a life of its
own that we know nothing about. They tell us that carbon dioxide
is replaced by oxygen in the lungs. Have we ever experienced this?
Have we experienced white blood corpuscles being made in the marrow
of our bones? Have we ever experienced a white corpuscle devouring
bacteria? Do we know that is happening in the liver? Beginning such
exploration may make us feel an alien bound within the body. It
need not be a pleasant experience, this not-self business. But at
least there is the satisfaction of know that whatever I am, I am
not the body.
The body also acts like a sounding board for mental feeling –
emotions, moods. It makes our feeling emotional life more obvious
to us and so easier for us to investigate. It may be that these
two energies will separate for you so you come to know the body
is one form and the citta another form of energy.
So, turn into the body. Let your ear become a stethoscope, your
inner eye a microscope. Let your inner sense of touch explore texture.
A world within a world constantly presenting itself to us. So why
not use this gift of the body to liberate ourselves from the delusion
of self’? Today! Now!
59. Samsara is Nibbana
Samsara is Nibbana – this saying in Mahayana points out that
samsara is not a place but a relationship. Of course, there are
realms and rebirthing from this realm to that but this is just the
process of rebirth. The word samsara carries with it all the sufferings,
the dukkha, that we associate with life. We have to remember, though,
that the Buddha on awakening no longer found life suffering. Bodily
aches and pains, yes, but even here there was no suffering. In other
words, he had brought to an end that moment-to-moment rebirthing
into unsatisfactoriness. Instead, the form of Siddhartha Gotama
was simply arising and passing and was being used as a vehicle to
express the Dhamma. There was no dukkha, no unsatisfactoriness.
Samsara had become Nibbana.
So when we talk of samsara in a spiritual sense, we are referring
to a relationship, one that arises out of the delusion of self and
turns our lives into vales of tears, whirlwinds of pleasure, but
which never can find a permanent resting place of contentment and
happiness. Nibbana, then, is how an awakened person experiences
this so-called samsara without the self, without the desire to seek
happiness in the ephemeral world.
When we are on retreat, we can experience this ever-turning samsara,
day-in day-out. The same old routine, up early, down to the meditation
room, sit, then walking meditation, then sit, then breakfast –
same old breakfast – then work period, then sit, then walk,
then sit and so on till lunch (thank heavens that’s a little
different), then rest, then sit, then walk and so on and so on till
sleep. Then we wake up and off we go again, yet again. Working with
painful states of mind for extended periods to boot!
When I joined the order I went to live with my teacher in Birmingham
for two years. Every morning we chanted together for half an hour.
The same chant. It never changed. At first it was honeymoon! I loved
the experience of living as a monastic and chanting was a little
of the icing on the cake. Then after a while, as with all honeymoons,
this sense began to wane. Things got repetitive and dull and soon
I was asking – why don’t we chant something different?
Why don’t we bring a guitar in or a band? I mean, let’s
make it interesting. Luckily, I had enough training by then to see
this was the old Mara seeking happiness in sensual pleasure. So
I kept at it punctiliously. Then came this morning chant, the same
as all the others, when something was remarkably different. I just
chanted. There was no particular pleasure and no aversion to be
indulged. There was just chanting. It was wonderful! Right there
and then I had a taste of samsara as nibbana (small ‘n’).
So as always, we just do the practice. We expect nothing from it.
We desire nothing from it. The wholesome habit of our routine keeps
us at the job. We keep raising the interest to investigate this
experience we are having now. We don’t want it to be any other
way. A choiceless awareness inspired with curiosity.
That’s it. Just for today. One day at a time. Turning samsara
into Nibbana. Let’s devote ourselves to that.
60. The Dhamma Works In Mysterious Ways
I dare say you’ve never heard a Buddhist monk talk about
God working in mysterious ways. Well, of course, I’m not suggesting
such a being exists, but mystery does. If we transplant awareness
and intuitive intelligence, satipanya for God, then we come to see
the process of liberation as quite mysterious and beyond our control.
This is a big problem for us. We think we are in control of vipassana,
that if we get the right technique and do it perfectly, then Nibbana
is bound to pop up. This attitude turns the technique into a mystique,
a lucky charm, a ‘powerful mantra’ or worse. But a technique
is only there to help us maintain mindfulness and cannot go beyond
Then we think we can do something about our unwholesome conditioning.
But as soon as we do that we have formed a relationship with it
which has as its underlying disposition that we don’t want
it. So there we are thinking we are going to do something about
our depressions, anxieties, guilt and so on and all the time we
are unwittingly fuelling our aversion. Or we half consciously decide
that such things are not worth looking at and we ignore them. Again
the underlying disposition will be aversion or fear.
Even with pleasant states, we either unwittingly indulge them by
failing to resolve not to indulge or we see them as a danger. We
may be ‘consciously’ observing them, but we are subtly
pushing them away. There’s that old fear again.
So every time the self tries to do something it compounds its own
Worse, we then ‘try’ to have an insight. But the fact
is, a spiritual insight is beyond our control. If it were even an
iota under our control, we would all surely be liberated in no time
When we understand – and it’s an understanding that
has to be driven home time and time again – that delusion
is within the knowing, how we see things is deluded. This delusion
hardens around the self, the feeling of ‘me’ and ‘mine’.
Since the self is the delusion and the knowing is the deluded, you
can see we are in one hell of a double bind. Which is why we have
to opt out of this relationship to the self and let the knowing
And the Buddha is very clear how we can do that. He says just attend
open-mindedly and open-heartedly to whatever arises and passes away
within the field of awareness that draws our attention. Be completely
open to whatever arises and all reactions to whatever arises and,
of course, to raise that interest to see their true nature, the
Three Characteristics of Existence. They are impermanent and impersonal.
Then it happens. The knowing is now free to begin to ‘see
things as they really are’. Change takes place within the
knowing – and we won’t know it. Then suddenly, there
is a deeper ‘seeing’ of one of the Three Characteristics
or we realise we are behaving differently from before. Sometimes
we feel a change within us – what it is, we don’t know.
Often, other people tell us.
We need to put faith in that within us which seeks liberation.
The Buddha Within, the knowing, Buddha Nature – call it what
you will – pursues its own liberation and will arrive more
quickly if it can get the ‘meditator’ out of the way.
So let’s do that. Just one day. This day. Now. Let’s
get out of the way. Let this mysterious process unfold. All we need
do is to attend. What could be simpler?
61. Really Saying Thank You
Receiving a present can be difficult for us. We feel obliged to
pay the person back or we feel unworthy or we can be suspicious
of the person’s motives. All this stops us from enjoying the
present. We are unable to receive the gift fully.
The same may be true for our practice. A lovely, beautiful state
of mind arises, a wash of peace or the gentle sprinkling of refreshing
joy. It might be a soft love or gratitude that blossoms. It could
be the hammock of contentment. It might be the stillness and silence
of a sacred night.
What do we do? Is it such a rare occurrence that we think it must
be Mara, the Evil One, trying to ensnare us in desire? Do we fear
our reaction is the dread indulgence? Or do we feel unworthy? We
haven’t worked hard enough. We cannot allow ourselves to enjoy
it. Are we confused? Can we enjoy something without indulgence?
Is all enjoyment indulgence?
When such states arise within us that are not attached to any sensual
or worldly pleasures such as dreams of fame, riches, power and romance,
then it comes under the definition of wholesomeness. Indeed they
are the products of a purifying heart. We must remind ourselves
that the Hindrances of lust, aversion and so on are not being simply
destroyed but transformed.
So when the heart fills with beatific states we must accept them
as merit, punya. Punya is our reward for a hard day’s work,
our wages. What would we think if someone worked their socks off
and then threw their wages away? So we must learn to receive these
states as well-earned wages although it is perhaps more skilful
to see them as gifts. For indeed we never know how much we have
earned nor when the pay-packet will arrive. But for sure all of
us once liberated will have our cup, each to our own size, brimming
with contentment and happiness.
The danger, of course, is that we spoil the gift by indulging in
it. How can we to tell the difference between enjoying and indulging?
Surely it is to be found in our attitude. As the state arises, receive
it openly, wanting no more than it is giving. It came unbidden and
will disappear of its own accord. Let our attitude towards it be
one of allowing it to express itself to us – as we might watch
a little girl who wants to dance for us.
Now we could continue to practise insight. There’s obviously
no harm in that. We could indeed continue to investigate its characteristics.
But it may also be a time to rest, a time to be with the experience.
For often, even in a day, our investigative faculty, panya, needs
time off. If we can stay with such an experience, enjoying, appreciating
what it has to offer as it passes and sometimes before it passes,
the desire to continue vipassana arises, refreshed.
In the meantime we have learnt how to receive a gift, to say thank
So let’s hope – not expect – that our hearts
will manifest the delights of our practice. They will naturally
arise when we give ourselves to our just-for-today practice.
62. Is Anything Not In A Process Of Change?
The Buddha means ‘the One Who Knows’. ‘Something’
in us knows. An intuitive intelligence that has the power to understand
things as they really are, but is incapable of doing so. The mists
of delusion cloud its vision. Vipassana’s purpose is to dispel
But this quality needs to be primed. As the kerosene stoves had
to be cleaned and primed before they would burn properly, so too
with this intuitive intelligence, panya. The Buddha asked us to
do this by becoming aware of the Three Characteristics of Existence.
All compounded things arise and pass away, they have no substance
and if we attach to anything some form of suffering will arise.
These characteristics, he taught, are universal to all sentient
It is good practice to reflect on them every day of our lives and
especially so when we are on retreat. Here we shall consider the
quality of impermanence, anicca.
Is anything of this world that we have seen, heard, smelt, tasted
or touched without the quality of change? Everything is in process.
Nothing is permanent. As we say, variety is the spice of life.
But that’s only when we see the arising of things, the ever-new.
In fact, for us the new is good: new fashion, new pop star, new
job, new relationship and so on. Newness carries the idea of freshness,
brightness and with it excitement. We want life to change. This
sort of change is welcomed. When the philosopher in us gets hold
of it, suddenly we are convinced of eternal arising, everlasting
existence and the meaningfulness of life.
But when we begin instead to focus more on the ending of things,
the cessation, the disappearance, life is not so enticing. End of
the day. End of the year. End of life. Yes, death –not so
pleasant at all. And the philosopher in us that sees all things
must end can only argue for annihilation and the meaninglessness
The Buddha insists he taught neither of these two extreme understandings,
but that all things are arising and passing away in dependence on
something else. If we look closely enough, we see that there isn’t
actually any ‘thing’ arising or passing away. It’s
just continual change of prevailing conditions. Yet we won’t
be clear about this without keen investigation.
So when we sit, we need to prime our intelligence, raise curiosity
and look with interest. Starting with the breath we get close and
feel the process of the rising of the abdomen. Try to be there exactly
when the sensation of the rising starts and to stay steady with
the process of sensation till the in-breath comes to a stop. Then
again hold that attention and feel the first sensations of the abdomen
falling and stay with those till the very last. During the pause
(if there is one) till the next in-breath starts, stay steady on
that spot feeling, the delicate neutral sensations rising and passing
away right there, and catch the first sensations of the rising again.
In this way we become more and more aware of the quality of impermanence,
of process, of radical change. And it’s not good enough to
prime ourselves at the beginning of a course, or at the beginning
of the day, but at any time we feel our attention has become flabby.
Stop. Contemplate the quality of anicca and plunge once more into
This is our task. It should be calm and fascinating. Our meditation
should be fuelled by the quality of wonder. So let’s devote
ourselves to that. To a day devoted to clear, calm, interesting
investigation of phenomena. Just for today. A complete dedication.
63. We Have Contact
The Four Great Elements with their metaphorical names earth, water,
fire and wind point to the four ways in which the senses ‘touch’
or are ‘touched’ by the world – the point of contact.
Contact is the sixth link in Dependent Origination and comes when
consciousness, a sense faculty and an object meet. So to see a bird
there must be an awareness of the bird and that can only come into
consciousness through the eye. This is contact at the level of the
five senses. It points to the very basic stimuli upon which the
mind works to create a whole picture. If you have seen a picture
which shows you the eye movements made by someone viewing it, you
will see the eye darts about, picking up pixels, unbeknown to the
viewer. The mind is that quick in creating a whole canvas and solidifying
it into an external experience. It’s magic.
But for the meditator this is another way to experience impermanence
and not-self. We may be able to deconstruct the process of hearing
which really does begin with waves of air pressure (earth element)
knocking against the ear drum. It is given a ‘sound’
– alarm – and then recognised as the ‘clock alarm’.
It is then given an understanding – its function, what it
is supposed to do. Only then does the ‘I’ appear and
acknowledge that it’s time to get up.
Dependent Origination is not a theory, it is an experience to be
had. We can make that point of contact something to explore. When
doing walking meditation, we can distinguish the sensations of pressure
from heat and cold (the fire element). We can distinguish these
from the sensations of movement (the wind element). In the lifting
especially, we may feel the sense of elasticity which can give also
give a sense of lightness (water element or cohesion). Even in simple
tasks we can bring attention to bear on the sensation of touch such
as when opening a door. What elements make up the touching sensation
that enables us to distinguish between wood, metal and plastic?
The mind also creates its own internal contacts through memory
by way of images and sensations that belong to the senses. It is
again possible to see an initial fuzzy object slowly develop into
the face of a friend.
The deeper we see this point of contact, the more we see how ‘things’
are manufactured and how they become solid. The impermanence in
the changing object is all too obvious. But all this is happening
beyond our control which points to all being not-me, not-mine and
not-a-self. The senses sense and the mind makes sense of it. When
we look at something, we don’t have to try to see. The eye
sees. We don’t have to renew our understanding because it
simply arises out of perception and experiential memory. In daily
life we have to engage with this process so it is difficult to see
that it is not a ‘me’ who is seeing or who recognises
what it is that is seen. Our involvement in the process disguises
that it is just that, a process of which we are aware and now actively
engaged in. Typing this piece on the computer – I type the
thoughts and the words arise naturally. Once it is written I reflect
and correct. Because ‘I’ am doing this, I presume it’s
all me. But all these processes arise upon the intention. As soon
as ‘I’ want to control the process, it grinds to a stop.
In meditation, because we are not so engaged we can see process
more clearly and see it happen without ‘me’ directing
it. At first this can be a little unnerving, but eventually we come
to trust it. We do so when we realise that the body and mind are
instruments that we have developed. The more we develop from wisdom
the more they will play music. Otherwise we are moving towards cacophony.
Who wants cacophony when music is available? Right here, right
64. Anatta: Not-self
The doctrine of anatta, not-self, is the most confusing of the
Buddha’s teachings. It seems to be counter-intuitive since
the one thing I am certain of is this feeling I have of ‘me’.
But that certainty doesn’t mean it is not a delusion. A lot
of fear surrounds this doctrine because it seems to teach annihilation,
which the Buddha expressly said he didn’t.
The Buddha suggests two approaches we can use to get to grips with
this subtle teaching, one concerning control and the other compoundedness.
In his second discourse which he gave to his former five companions,
he centres on the quality of control. A treasured definition of
self is that it has control. But how much control do we have over
the body? We can make it go left and right, but can we stop it falling
ill, growing, dying? What about perception and feelings? Emotions
and thoughts? How much control do we have over them. An eye-opener
to a new meditator is exactly that lack of control. Indeed once
liberated there is a certain control over the emotional and thought
life, but it is going to arise dependent on conditions. The Arahat
feels compassion when the need arises, for instance, but in the
liberated heart there are no more negative, unwholesome states.
The self likes to think it can do its own thing, in its own way,
in its own time. But this psychophysical organism and the world
simply don’t work along our self’s desires.
The final words of the Buddha capture the main thrust of his teachings:
‘All compounded things arise and pass away.’ Compounded
here refers to every ‘thing’ being composed of parts
and when we unravel it, we find nothing substantial – a bit
like peeling the layers of an onion. What is more, every ‘thing’
arises in relationship to something else. Nothing in the phenomenal
world, in the universe, exists on its own, has its own existence,
apart from the universe. Everything is dependent on something else
for its existence. In other words, it is compounded also by its
relationships. Earth remains where it is because of its relationship
to the sun. So the feeling and concept we have of ‘me’
which creates this singularity, this feeling of transcending the
world, is the essential delusion. Of course, the fact that everything
arises and passes away undermines the idea of ‘continuous
existence’. And yet things keep on appearing!
Vipassana is concerned with seeing these truths. We can do it in
a momentary way or through process. Here we shall discuss the momentary
way. By momentary, I mean deconstructing present experience into
its components to see its compoundedness. The Buddha does this through
the teaching of the Five Aggregates: physicality, perception, feeling,
conditionings created by will and cognition.
When we observe the breath, the feelings are bodily, physical sensations,
the notings are mental acts of perception. When we watch an emotion,
say anxiety, there is a physical feeling, an emotional tone and
thoughts arising because of them and the noting which is the act
of cognising. So with emotions we can experience physicality, feeling
(both physical and mental), perception, volitional conditioning
(which here is the presenting mental state) and cognising. By separating
out these elements we begin to experience the self as a ‘composite’.
The feeling of substance is removed yet everything continues to
arise and pass away. It’s not annihilation. The Buddha upon
awakening did not disappear, nor did he turn into a mute blob. He
turned into a compassionate teacher and trainer of the Path.
It’s a fascinating investigation, but one tempered with apprehension.
Who or what am I, if I’m not ‘me’? That’s
what Zen would call a basic koan. In fact it’s the koan used
by Zen schools in Korea – Who am I? The investigation of ‘self’
leads to the loss of ‘self’. This is a major gateway
into Nibbana. So let’s raise the courage of the intrepid explorer
and find out who or what we really are. And why not start right
65. Time Still: Time Flux
What is time? Does it exist or is it mind-made? Space seems more
tangible. Objects and their relationships are distanced in space
which we can measure. If there were no objects, would there still
Time also is a measure – a measure of events. Objective time
we all agree on: minutes, hours, days, years and so on. Science
also has an idea of a time moment which seems to be ever decreasing
the closer scientists inspect what is going on.
For the Buddha, the concept of impermanence – anicca –
was radical. There is a moment of an event, a beginning, an arising,
a moment of stasis, a falling and a disappearance – like a
ball thrown into the air. Time, then, is more like a series of billiard
balls. Each moment arises anew, immediately following on from the
previous and flowing immediately towards but before the next. To
see this, to catch the radical appearance and disappearance of a
sensation, is to experience this non-continuity. When we take that
to our experience of self moment to moment, we touch into the insubstantiality,
the lack of solidity of the self. This can be experienced in any
phenomena. And to see anicca, moment to moment, is also to grasp
anatta – not-self.
Then, there is psychological time. Our time is inflamed and inflated
here and there with emotional value. We remember an event from years
ago more clearly than the tea we have just drunk, because it was
painful or pleasurable, a shock or a delight. Our psychological
time is a compendium of happenings we tie together to form our autobiography.
Like all plots that have a beginning and a middle, they move irrevocably
to an end. By noting and acknowledging these memories, by taking
our attention away from them into the presenting emotion or mood,
we allow that emotion or mood to exhaust itself. In this way, we
drain history of emotional value, but do not forget the story or
its lessons. By doing so our future history will no longer be driven
by unresolved events from the past. Indeed, to drain the past of
emotional content is to liberate ourselves from compulsive history
making. So along with insights into anicca and anatta there comes
insight into dukkha.
Our effort in vipassana is to keep bringing that attention into
the present moment. We access that observation post where we experience
ourselves as onlooker, the objective observer. Even though this
is not the purest of insight states for there is still that feeling
of a self, we are better off than the body-self, emotional-self
By continuously making that effort to be in the present moment,
there comes that occasional fusion with the present moment and with
it the disappearance of self, of the observer. There is just the
looking, seeing, knowing – a place where psychological time
stands still. We are in the ever-presenting moment. These are moments
of acute clarity, of ‘seeing things as they really are’.
They may not be cataclysmic life-turning events, but they are moments
of truth. The more they come, the more there is a turning in the
way the knowing understands the world. It is an un-selfconscious
process for the most part. Then comes a sudden realisation and we
really do see the true transient and insubstantial nature of time.
So we must persist in our search, keep raising that interest, that
curiosity. A gentle persistence. Let’s devote ourselves to
that. Just this day. One day at a time. A devotion to the practice
of ‘in-the-present mindfulness’.
66. Dependent Origination
The main feature of the Buddha’s teaching in trying to help
us break through our delusion of self is to deconstruct our experience.
This he does in present moment experience and he points to the Five
Aggregates or the Six Sense Bases. In the procession in time he
deconstructs our experience with the teaching of Dependent Origination.
I’ll be as succinct as I can. We enter every moment in the
delusion of self. We also enter every moment with our past conditioning.
This colours consciousness, the way we see things, and the psychophysical
organism with its senses is employed to service this view. We make
‘contact’ with present experience this way. These momentary
experiences are felt as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral again dependent
on past conditioning.
The conditioning with which we enter this moment has been passive
until now when it reacts to this experience by way of attachment
and greed, aversion and fear or by simply ignoring it. This reaction
solidifies through identity. What was previously ‘want’/‘not
want’ now be becomes ‘I want!/I don’t want!’
This desire is then empowered and becomes an action of thought,
word or deed which in turn develops the original conditioning. In
this way we spiral into deeper and deeper suffering.
One aim of vipassana is to uncover this process and to see it is
to see how we create suffering for ourselves. It is also to see
the escape. To do this we have to experience the reaction of wanting/not
wanting and to allow it to arise and pass away. By not identifying
with those reactions we no longer reinforce unwholesome conditioning.
Eventually unwholesome, unskilful conditioning – whatever
it may be – diminishes and will eventually die away altogether.
The fully liberated person no longer has such tendencies.
On retreat and in daily life, if we remain alert, we can easily
see this process. First in the passive mode, we can be aware of
how a room looks and feels as we enter. We can be aware of our feelings
as someone approaches us or we them. We can be aware of how the
weather is affecting our mood. It is catching the process at the
outset, the start of an experience. When we do this we can either
investigate that mental state which is what we do on retreat or
we can set it to one side as it were and remind ourselves to investigate
it later and replace it with a right attitude or view.
The active mode, the mode of reaction, is harder to be with because
it is so habitual. It simply hijacks us. But even so we must try.
It demands a sharp yet spacious attentiveness. The more we come
to know our habits the more we are prepared. Forewarned is fore-armed!
Look out for it in such situations when irritation with someone
arises or greed flares around food. Or we unwittingly indulge our
mood of depression.
For instance, we may enter a room knowing someone we find difficult
is there – even a teacher in a retreat interview. We feel
a tightening. By putting that to the side, we engender an attitude
of friendliness and openness to that person. Thus as we enter the
room so too does a possibility of a fresh start. While we are with
the person, we may feel the same old negative reactions rising,
so we continue to set them aside and engender openness and kindness.
Even if the relationship doesn’t improve we will have done
our own hearts a powerful amount of good by not indulging aversion.
Later in the evening when we come to sit, we can recall the experience
and deal with whatever left-over emotions there may be.
It’s not an easy practice because it demands renouncing our
desires. But it leads to contentment and happiness. Fair recompense,
it seems to me. So let's devote ourselves to this practice. Just
one day at a time. That’s all.
Towards the End
67. Metta And Vipassana
Vipassana, being concerned with seeing things as they really are,
generally involves focusing on the Three Characteristics of Existence:
impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self. A spinoff of this
process of spiritual understanding is purification of the heart.
For this to happen the quality of equanimity, the ability to be
objective and calm, must be highly developed. The danger here is
that such calm objectivity may turn into indifference. It becomes
callous, draining empathy from the system. It is here that the practice
of metta steps in.
Metta is re-establishing a relationship with oneself and the world.
But instead of the former ‘what’s in for me?’
acquisitive relationship, what arises is one concerned with communication
at all levels of human existence. This relationship is attitudinal
and not based on transient emotional likes and dislikes, no matter
how insistent. The late Ven Dr Vajiragnana, chief monk at the London
Buddhist Vihara, expressed metta’s meaning clearly and elegantly:
universal, unconditional love ‘is not an evanescent exhibition
of emotion, but a sustained habitual mental attitude of service,
goodwill and friendship that finds expression in deed, word and
Indeed, we could say that whatever spiritual understanding we develop
is of little use if not translated into an attitude. Of course,
these are the first two steps of the Eightfold Path – Right
Understanding and Right Attitude. From these two, Right Speech,
Right Action and Right Livelihood follow naturally. Furthermore
this translation of understanding into attitude signals a transformation
from negative unwholesome states into positive wholesome ones. The
usual examples are connected with the Three Unwholesome Roots of
greed, aversion and delusion, and we find selfishness is transformed
into generosity, hatred into love and cruelty into compassion.
So we definitely have to end our retreat with some metta. How much
depends on the length of the retreat. At a rough calculation an
hour or two for every week you practice. But it can also be practised
daily on retreat. Indeed some start or/and finish each sitting with
a little metta. And you can do metta during walking meditation.
We can play with it until we find our own balance. The important
thing is to remember that we’re practising metta for the benefit
There are many ways to develop metta, one is indicated below. Needless
to say this is very much part of our spiritual portfolio and should
accompany us into daily life. To quote from the Metta Discourse:
Let your thoughts of love go through the whole world with no ill-will
and no hate.
Whether you are standing, walking, sitting or lying down,
So long as you are awake you should develop this mindfulness.
This, they say, is the noblest way to live.
And if you do not fall into bad ways, but live well and develop
And are no longer attached to all the desires of the senses,
Then truly you will never need to be reborn in this world again.
68. Metta, the Development of Goodwill
First a few pointers.
Metta is all important since it is the basic relationship we develop
towards all beings. (Even material things can be handled with care.)
Basic because out of metta, compassion and joy arise naturally.
As we wish to help a friend who falls into bad misfortune, or rejoice
and wish their increase of joy when they enjoy good fortune, so
we can develop this attitude towards all beings.
Metta, along with equanimity, compassion and joy, is one of the
Brahma-vihara, the Dwelling Place of the Highest Gods. In other
words one of the most sublime mental states we can develop. These
states are also known as the Illimitables since the limit of their
development is indefinite. The heart can be as big as you want it
or rather develop it.
Metta is love impartial. It does not matter whether we like the
person or not. Because of this it develops into a love universal.
Whether our metta has an effect on those whom we direct it towards,
is not relevant to the practice although it may do so. For the practice
is essentially about developing an attitude which will manifest
in the transactions of ordinary daily life.
And it is an attitude not an emotion. We are not doing it to feel
good. That is why we can develop metta even when we feel down. Not
that heart will not eventually resonate attitudes with delightful
feelings, but they are to be received as one receives a gift.
Therefore we need to repeat such phrases as these with deliberate
The traditional blessings can be whittled down to four:
May you be safe (from dangers outside and within ourselves)
May you be well (free from all sickness and disease).
May you be happy (free of all mental distress).
May you enjoy ease of living.
(May you live contented and in harmony with the world – alternative.)
The sequence of offering starts with :
our benefactors (with gratitude goodwill arises naturally)
those who are near and dear
friends and co-workers, whomever we wish
a neutral person (someone we see, but don’t know)
a difficult person
those around us
those in the neighbourhood (you can ‘relocate’ to where
all in our country
all in our continent
all people on earth
all beings in all directions
69. The World Begins To Knock
I’ve always found the ending of a course interesting. For
the few days and weeks before, sometimes months, we have been able
to shut out the ‘world’, the outside. Or rather the
outside has been limited to the immediate atmosphere and goings-on
of the centre or monastery.
As we approach the conclusion of our retreat, this outside world
begins to impinge strongly on us. It has surely intervened at times
during our retreat, but now it begins to insist on being acknowledged
The planning really starts: What are we going to do? Who will we
meet? The mind, so creative, spins off into delightful scenarios.
But while we’ve been sitting here, as our inner world has
changed and moved on, so too the outer world has changed and moved
So, for instance, the job we’re planning to make a career
out of is being axed. The friend we were going to go on holiday
with is seriously ill or, worse, dead. The partner or spouse with
whom we anticipated a joyous, succulent reunion has run off with
the window cleaner or the barmaid! Who knows what other disasters
might await us?
On the other hand, we may be worrying about our job and planning
to get another one. The firm we are working for, meanwhile, is planning
our promotion. Perhaps we are finally coming to a difficult decision
to end a relationship because we see no solution while our partner
or spouse has been moving towards reconciliation.
Of course, what we are planning may be in tune with the world.
We can hope – but we’d be foolish to expect it.
Then there’s the enthusiast who is planning how they will
live in the now. How they will organise their lives around a six-hour
meditation day and work for a living.
If we allow these fantasies to overwhelm us, we enter the world
with preconceived ideas and try to manipulate the world to fit around
them. We will most probably find ourselves in a state of conflict.
Worse, in so doing we may miss the opportunity to be creative. To
be creative we need to clear the heart of attachments and desires
so that as we enter the outside world, we are open to what it has
to offer us and can respond in wise and creative ways, for our own
benefit and for the benefit of others.
One frequent retreat experience is the vipassana romance. Suddenly
the person of your dreams is right there meditating with you. Oh
what dreams! Then the crash of reality upon meeting. We all have
such tales to tell, not just in retreats, but also in our daily
lives. A great benefit of this work is learning how to live a life
not driven by self-serving desires or self-obsessed worries.
So let’s spend this day as we mean to carry on for the rest
of our lives. That constant effort to be present to ourselves. To
catch the mind before it whirls us away. To attend to the heart
before we are drowned in its floods. If we can make that effort
today, we can do it tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It’s
enough to devote ourselves to this day. So let’s give our
hearts to the practice.
70. Up, Down – But Not Out
Once we are settled meditators and we start counting up the hours
we have sat and the efforts we have made in ordinary daily life,
it is often the case that ‘progress’ is not all that
obvious. We seem to keep making the same old mistakes, suffering
the same old mental states, having the same old problems in meditation.
For some this can become a real crisis and I know others who have
left the practice because of it.
First, taking for granted that our understanding and basic practice
on retreat and in daily life is skilful and correct, then it’s
good to remind ourselves that the Buddha did not say this was easy
or that we would quickly advance to liberation. He said the Path
was gradual and that we had to put effort into it. His final words
are appamadena sampadetha. Appamado is a favourite word of his,
meaning diligence and devotion to the task. Sampadetha means to
strive, to try to accomplish one’s aims. This last phrase
is variously translated, but its meaning is ‘strive diligently
for your own liberation’.
Second is the presumption itself of progress, so natural to the
self. The self invariably wants more than it gets. We have to see
disappointment as a measure of that expectation. But the Buddha
didn’t say sit in order to achieve Nibbana. He said sit in
order to establish Right Awareness. Live daily with Right Mindfulness
and in the Metta Sutta he advises us to saturate this with unconditional
love. We shall do this only when we really understand that the processes
of insight and purification take care of themselves. We need to
trust our own Buddha Nature, that intuitive awareness that manifests
when we are in the mode of Right Awareness.
Third, there are the vipassana insights and the four levels of
Noble Attainment. But the danger here is that they can become aims
and that old achieving rascal, the self, takes over. It’s
good to know there is a well-delineated Path, but it’s best
then to put it on the back burner and have confidence that the practice
will lead us along.
Fourth, things get harder as we progress until there is a breakthrough.
When we bend a branch to break it in two, the closer it is to splitting,
the greater is the pressure that has to be applied. Then snap! We
have another state. We have two sticks. This is how spiritual practice
works. It gets harder the more we reach the breakthrough point,
the point of transition and transformation. This is signified in
the Great Doubt that beset the Buddha just before his own breakthrough
when ‘Mara’ questioned the righteousness of his very
effort. Once the storm had passed, the gate was opened wide. It
is often right there, at the testing point that meditators tend
to give up.
Fifth, like any task we undertake things will go well and then
they go wrong. These are the ups and downs we find in all nature.
We have to be careful it’s not up, down and out. It is better
to look back over the whole period of time since we started out
on the Path of Dhamma and compare it to how it was before. Our progress
may be more obvious than thinking about what have we gained in a
week or three months on retreat.
Sixth, we do not live in a spiritually supportive society so when
we leave the special conditions of a retreat, we invariably fall
back. It really is a bit of an up-down-hill struggle. But hopefully
the long-term trend is up. Better to be content with little, than
discouraged by lack of a lot.
And finally, when we bring the most important question into the
present moment, the only living one we actually have: ‘Would
I want to be alive now without Right Mindfulness?’ As far
as I am concerned, that beats all doubt, right here and now.