The Art of Concentration (Samatha Meditation)
August 10, 2008
So, tonight, what I want to go into a little bit is wise effort and wise attachment. I want to explore this a little bit with you, and particularly this question of wise effort. That has a lot of different kind of levels or sizes to it. So both on a micro level in our practice, like moment to moment, how are we doing with that effort? What's happening in relationship to effort and trying, etc.? Really, really crucial. But equally crucial is a kind of a macro-level, big-picture question: "How am I in my life in relationship to effort, in relationship to goals, to progress, etc., notions like that?" -- which I touched on very briefly last night, but I want to explore more fully tonight. So I think starting with the macro, the big picture, and working towards the more micro level.
This question, I feel, is really, really key: what is my relationship to concepts, notions of goals in the spiritual path, progress on the spiritual path? It's actually really, really fundamental for us to -- well, it turns out, to actually grapple with that question, because it turns out not to be an easy question for most people nowadays in the West. We can have a notion, "It's about just being," whatever on earth that means -- "just being" or "just being with what is." But like I said last night, the Buddha didn't actually say that, or speak that way, or really point to that. A notion like that can be very useful. It can be very useful at times, as sort of one approach within our buffet of approaches. But if that's exclusively how we're approaching the spiritual life, then our spiritual practice ends up bearing very limited similarity to the rest of our life, because our life is actually full of goals. It's full of goals.
[2:30] So I gave the example of driving a car: I'm getting from here to there, and I'm going to negotiate in a way that gets there. When I go to the toilet, I need to have a goal to get the stuff in the bowl. [laughter] And others are thankful that I have that goal when I go. If you're in a relationship or even a friendship, we may be conscious of this or not, but a goal is for it to work, to move towards more harmony. And if there's a fracture or disharmony or dis-ease among two people, the goal is to heal that, to move towards something that's harmonious and working. We may not frame it that way, but that's actually important that that aspiration is there in the heart, in the mind.
Goals in themselves are not a problem. Aspirations are certainly not a problem. Where we trip up, where get ensnared, where we suffer is in the self-view that forms around our relationship with goals. The problem of self-measurement -- "Am I good enough, not good enough? How do I compare?" -- all this brings pain. 'I,' and 'I' and measuring, and 'I' and comparing go together in a way that's oftentimes not very healthy. They actually go together anyway. It's when the 'I' is wrapping around a self-view and creating a problem out of it in relationship to the goal -- "I'm not there yet. He's there. She's there. They're further towards it, and I am not." And I create a self-view around failure, around being slow, around being stupid, around being spiritually inept, or whatever it is.
So the question is, if I'm throwing this out, this whole notion, is then my conceiving of the path, the spiritual path, is then that atrophied in some way? Do I then have a kind of shrunken and atrophied relationship and version of spirituality? Often that's actually quite common for us in the West to actually do that. We may be conscious of the reasons why we're doing it. We may be less conscious of the reasons why we're doing it. But this is very common, for us to just sweep that whole aspect, those whole notions aside, and have a different -- you know, it's easy to get into a different kind of image of what a spiritual person is or what the spiritual path involves.
Even teachers can do this. One teacher was telling me she was teaching in a city in Europe where she lives, and it's a very affluent city. I don't know what they do there. Something that makes a lot of money. [laughs] She had an evening class, and the first time it met, arrived about twenty sort of corporate executives straight from work, with briefcases and suits, etc., and went around introducing, "What do you do?" And they were all like really high-flying executives. And just vaguely, in the back of her mind, she thought, "Well, this is different. I wonder if these people are going to get it," kind of thing. It wasn't even a fully formed thought. She said as soon as the class started, what they did -- all of them just plugged in the same kind of get-down-to-it, gung-ho kind of that they do in their corporate whatever. And she said it was fantastic! Absolutely fantastic! [laughter] And she hadn't even realized she had this image of what spiritual people, whatever, they live in Totnes, and they wear, you know, it's like ... [laughter] Sorry. Apologies to [inaudible].
[6:55] If you read the original suttas, the word 'striving' -- the Buddha uses that a lot. It's a word which has disappeared from the modern Western Dharma culture. Now, there are really understandable reasons for that, and I said this kind of pain, I'm going to go into some of this tonight. But the Buddha originally uses this word a tremendous amount. All the time he uses it: striving, striving, strive towards the goal, etc. And at the same time, he's not dumb about this. He acknowledges that in the process of yearning for something beautiful, aspiring to something, wanting to move towards a goal, that there will be what he sometimes called 'the distress of the renunciate' or 'the distress of the practitioner.' There's an acknowledgment that there's going to be some dissatisfaction: "I want to be over there, and I'm over here." And it's like, "Ugh." And just the acknowledgment: that will be there from time to time. And you know what? It's okay. It's really okay. It can be embraced, included.
So what we really need, I feel, is a healthy attitude, a deeply healthy attitude towards moving towards our aspirations and our goals, towards effort. In a way, our aspirations, our goals, they're what give our life direction. And in so doing, they align us with what is beautiful, and they give our life a kind of nobility.
One of my teachers says a life without that kind of aspiration or goals is just -- this is not a very nice image; it's a little harsh -- but he said it's just like being a fish flopping around in a puddle. Nothing's really happening there. Just a lot of flopping, and it's not really going anywhere. It's a little harsh. But it's part of the art. This really, yeah, grappling with it, working with this relationship to effort is part of the art of meditation. There's no question about it. So why do we back away sometimes from the notion of goals, from the notion of really clear aspirations? Well, as I mentioned, there's that pain of self-view. The self gets wrapped around the whole concept. As I said, I think it was last night, the notion of success implies the notion of failure. And we fear that end of things, that if I entertain the notion of possible success, I'm inviting the notion of failure. Which is true. But out of my fear of the self defining itself around failure, I throw out the whole thing, and there's a cost to that. There's a deep cost to that.
[10:00] Sometimes we're just tired. We're just tired from life. You know, we're just tired, and we don't want another thing to aspire to. We don't want another goal. Sometimes -- and this is important, too -- we're tired from having goals in our life that are not meaningful to us. They're just kind of stuff that somehow we're caught up in working towards. And maybe at one level, we really want that, but at a deep level, this isn't even important to us. And somehow our life has become kind of on this locomotive towards something that's actually, on a relative level, kind of meaningless to us. And of course then we're turned off the whole notion of goals.
Sometimes even a noble goal, a beautiful goal -- you know, awakening, enlightenment, whatever, wanting to develop a boundless, loving heart, etc., that kind of thing -- even a noble goal can come to feel meaningless to us. If we slip into a relationship with it -- which is quite easy, unfortunately, to slip into a relationship with it that's unhelpful or distorted in some way, then even what's noble comes to feel like ugh, meaningless. It's lost its beauty, if somehow in the way of seeing it, we're distorting, we're distorting something there.
Buddha said once, "It is by relying on craving that craving is to be abandoned." So the goal of the path is to abandon craving. That's sort of one other way of summarizing what awakening is, enlightenment is. He said, "It is by relying on craving that craving is to be abandoned." There's something in actually using this desire, using this aspiration and craving to move beyond it.
[12:07] Sometimes I wonder if our problem is not that we have too much desire, it's actually that we don't have enough. We don't have enough desire. Somehow we haven't let it burn deep in the being, sink deep in the being, that passion, that fire, somehow. Or we're not selective enough with our desires. We're not, in a way, picky enough with our desires. Want a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a little bit of pleasure, and it's almost like not asking quite enough. We demonize desire, but sometimes, maybe, we don't have enough. It doesn't run deep enough.
So what might be wise effort? What might be wise effort? This a really important question. And I do feel that that word, 'grapple,' is appropriate at times. We really need to go into this in our life, and we'll go through different relationships with this, etc. So just reflecting a little bit what wise effort might involve, you could break it down into three aspects.
(1) One is the question of, "Effort towards what? Where is it directed? Where am I directing my effort? Towards what?" I'm going to go into this. (2) Second one is the question, "What's involved in wise effort, and what's not involved in wise effort?" In other words, "What's a part of wise effort, and what's not a part of wise effort?" Second part. (3) And the third part is a question of balance. So I'm going to go into these.
(1) So the first one -- where is my effort directed? This is actually really important. When the Buddha talked about what's called 'Right Effort,' he summarized it as part of the eightfold path, the path that leads to liberation, to awakening. He said Right Effort involves four right efforts. And they are (i) the effort to give rise to wholesome, beautiful, skilful qualities of the mind and heart, that we actually -- like we're doing here -- we're trying to nourish and cultivate a state of calm, of energized calm, of samatha, samādhi. That's Right Effort, to give rise to what's wholesome and beautiful -- so including mettā, generosity, all of the things that I've mentioned here and there.
Giving rise to, and then (ii) once it's arisen, to maintain it. So here, in the practice, we're working with the breath. And that feels good, and the mind and the body begin to feel unified in the open awareness. It feels good and steady. Can we just encourage that to sustain a little bit, to maintain? That's the second of the right efforts. (iii) The third is to abandon the qualities that are the opposite of that: the unskilful, unhelpful, unwholesome, not so beautiful qualities. Not that they're not going to arise, not that they're not part of being human, but we're interested in letting them go -- when there's irritation, when there's jealousy, when there's anger, when there are things that aren't helpful. I don't want to get into this, but some of these are more interesting. So anger, sometimes there may be aspects of that that are actually helpful. That's a whole other talk. Abandoning what's not helpful.
(iv) And the last one -- preventing the future arising of what's not helpful. So what am I doing now that I'm, in a way, setting the soil, taking care of the soil, so that the weeds don't arise? Now, I know nothing about gardening. I don't even know if that's possible. But ... [laughter] I'm assuming it is. Probably you just spray it with a bunch of chemicals! I don't know. Something we're doing that's preventing the future arising of states that are not so helpful.
These make up the four right efforts. And so, where is it directed? It's directed towards that -- and awakening. It's directed towards awakening, liberation, nirvāṇa, enlightenment, whatever word you want to use. Now, interestingly, that's really not that interesting to some people. And that's totally fine, and I totally accept that. But for some people it really is. That, again, would be a whole other subject. Or the whole idea of, there is perhaps something Deathless to be realized, something that is beyond death, that as human beings it's possible for us to know, and the knowing of that is profoundly liberating, indescribably liberating. And so, in a way, the Right Effort is also towards that. And again, this will be interesting to some people and not to others. But always the Buddha said the four right efforts are this (i) giving rise to what's beautiful, what's helpful, (ii) maintaining what's helpful, (iii) abandoning and (iv) preventing what's not so helpful.
[18:07] Just as a little thing, sometimes I know that in mentioning things like the Deathless, etc., that that doesn't resonate at all with some people. But I still feel it's important to mention it, because in a way, not to mention it would be doing a bit of a disservice to what the possibilities and what the aspirations might be, for some.
(2) What's a part of this wise effort? I feel (and I feel the Buddha also) that wise attachment is actually needed. What does that mean, wise attachment? So we actually need to get attached to our care about our ethics, care about what we're putting out in the world, the sīla. We actually need to get attached to samādhi, to samatha. We actually need to get attached to our understanding, our insight. So getting attached to sīla, samādhi, paññā, these Pali words for that. And we tend to think that we shouldn't get attached to anything, but I don't know if that's the most skilful way of seeing things. That doesn't seem to be the way the Buddha taught either.
A baby, a newborn baby needs to get attached to its mother. It absolutely needs that. It's getting attached to a good thing there. It's healthy for the baby to be attached to the mother, and for the mother to be attached to the baby. Modern psychologists talk about attachment theory, and it's that whole theory of, like, how that happens, and how to take care of that, and what happens to the baby and the growth of the baby when that isn't there. So attachment is actually important for something to grow. And it's the same spiritually. It's the same on the path. So the baby is nourished by attachment to the mother -- with a sense of balance. If the mother is unable to, you know, when the baby starts toddling, unable to tolerate the baby going twenty yards away or whatever, ten yards away, then the mother has an over-grasping, unhealthy kind of attachment, and that's too much.
[20:39] It's the same with attachment to what's beautiful in the path. What's healthy, and when is it too much? And eventually, we begin to wean ourselves off that attachment, off our attachment to ethics -- which doesn't mean we act unethically. It just means that we're not attached to it. We wean ourselves off our attachment to the pleasure of samatha and samādhi. It doesn't mean that we don't keep practising samādhi. We wean ourselves off the attachment. And even we wean ourselves off the attachment to insight. So insight also is not the goal of the path. It's actually just a stage. It's a stage towards liberation. And one can wean oneself off these things, but only when you've had enough of them, only when you've caught on to them in a good way.
So the Buddha didn't say, "Let go of everything, right now. Just let go." He didn't teach that way. What happens if we try and do that is that one just falls back on the kind of hidden attachments that one has, or one is even, as I think I said yesterday, unaware of a whole stratum, a whole festering forest of attachments that are actually operating. We haven't developed the subtlety enough, the depth of wisdom enough. One just falls back on default assumptions, and sometimes one just falls back on obvious attachments.
Without, in a way, attaching to ethics, to samādhi, to insight, we don't have the leverage. We don't have the ... yeah, the leverage to pry ourselves loose of the less helpful things that we're attached to. If you think of an image of a ladder, and climbing the ladder, climbing towards liberation, whatever, that in a way, you hold on to this rung up here. And that very holding on up here is what allows you to let go with your feet down there. Or you push with one foot on the lower rung. So there's a leaning on, an attachment, a relying on something to reach something else.
[23:15] Oftentimes, especially around samatha and samādhi, people often raise the objection, "Won't I get attached to this if it's pleasant? Won't I get attached to it?" Sometimes we're more worried about the possibility that we might get attached to the pleasantness of samādhi, when actually our life is full of all kinds of attachments: attached to where we live and what we eat, and all kinds of stuff. Why are we more worried about one, necessarily, than the other?
So the Buddha has this image of a raft, and the image of liberation being the other shore. We're moving from this shore, where there's suffering, to the other shore. It's a poetic image. And you use the raft to get across. But you don't abandon the raft on this side or even in the middle. You don't chop up the raft to make firewood before you've set out, and then jump up and down triumphantly that you've let go of the raft and you've let go of attachment. You're still on this shore.
Or a more modern image, perhaps: I've got a car, and I want to drive to, I don't know, Inverness or something. Is my car going to last forever? Well, certainly not my car, but that's not the point. No, the car is not going to last forever. Maybe it can still get me to Inverness, which is where I want to go. Is the car going to break down? Maybe. Maybe it'll break down. I can fix it. Am I going to run out of fuel? Maybe, but I can refuel.
Okay, so where is it directed? The second aspect. What's involved in Right Effort, in wise effort, and what's not involved? Well, one really important energy, constellation, that's not involved in wise effort is the whole kind of structure of the inner critic. Now, we could easily spend a whole Dharma talk just on this. It's so prevalent and so endemic to our culture, this kind of inner voice that's constantly commenting in negative ways, constantly judging what we're doing: "It's not good enough. You're not there yet. Didn't do that right, da-da-da-da-da." Always blaming, always criticizing, always judging, always comparing in a negative way.
[26:12] This is, I think, absolutely huge in our culture in the West. It's massive. And in a way, it has massive, massive clout, both internally -- how much power does that kind of constellation have in our lives? So for each of us to really reflect on this. How much is that structure of what I'm calling the 'inner critic' pulling the strings? It's not there for everyone, but for a lot, a lot of people, it's there. Maybe not all the time, but a lot. How much is that directing my choices, pulling the strings? How much clout and power does that have?
And how much clout and power does it have in the Dharma culture? So, in the wider culture, but also in the Dharma culture. Are there things that perhaps we're not talking about as teachers because somehow the inner critic, in many people, will get hold of them, and it will be painful? And is that affecting the Dharma culture as a whole? That because I might, I feel, if I might say something, or when I say something, I feel some pain in response to that, do I then back off saying that thing? And if I do, how much is that affecting the Dharma culture? Am I not talking about certain things, whatever that is -- nibbāna, the Deathless, etc., samādhi, even -- because it's painful for me to feel the pain coming back? I think this is a huge, huge question in the West, as a Dharma culture, that collectively, together, we need to really look at and address. There's so much pain bound up in this structure. There's so much suffering bound up in this structure, and it has so much power because of that.
[28:22] And it's possible, it's very possible to be totally free from it. No matter how bad it is now, it's possible to be completely free from it. And that could happen gradually. Or I know, from some students I worked with over quite some period of time, it can happen [snaps fingers] like that, very, very suddenly. Either way, gradual or sudden, it's totally possible to be totally free of it.
I just want to spend a little time talking about this structure of the inner critic and how to work with it. So we could, as I said, spend a whole talk on this. I'm not going to. I want to throw out a few possible strategies of working with it.
(i) The first is to turn around and actually speak to it and ask it, if I achieved whatever it's saying I'm not good enough for not achieving, "If I achieved X, would you be satisfied then?" Now, what might happen when you do that is it will just go, "Yes. I will." [laughter] But don't move too quickly. Stay there with it, and just see if that yes is a genuine yes. Say, "Really? Really?" [laughter] "Are you telling me the truth?" [laughter] Hang out with it. And what you'll see is that it's full of baloney, basically. It's full of hot air. You'll see that whatever stage you get to, whatever you achieve, it will never be enough to satisfy that inner critic. It's never going to be enough. You begin to see that it's a totally unreasonable, irrational kind of structure that's going on. And in a way, that begins to just ... You can't take it so seriously. You see that this isn't even anything reasonable or intelligent or rational. Sometimes you see this kind of, it blips up, this irrational comment of "not good enough, not good enough." And it's just a blip of something irrational.
(ii) Now, we can also kind of put that in complement with something else which, in a way, you could say, it's good to not be satisfied on the path. It's good to not be satisfied until one's a Buddha, until one's totally finished with the path. And there's a kind of healthy dissatisfaction. You know, to see that I can develop more. I can understand deeper. I can do that. That's possible. And in a way, I'm not quite satisfied until I'm there. There's another part that's not quite satisfied until it's got that deeper development, deeper understanding. And there's a way that that can actually be healthy.
Again, what makes it unhealthy is, when does it become a self-evaluation, a self-value judgment? When are we defining the self, binding the self with conclusions about ourselves based on this dissatisfaction? It's turned into something that's just, like -- about the path and about our aspirations, it's moved from that into a kind of self-definition. And we're wrapping that around ourselves, and it's painful, and we're constricted in something that's burning the skin.
(iii) Third possibility. Judging the self is usually just not helpful outright. But if we're going to judge anything, how about judging our intentions? We are a little bit more in control, so to speak, of our intentions. We have the intention for samādhi. We have the intention for kindness. We have the intention for goodness, etc. We have less control over the results. There are too many other factors that are at play that govern the result. [33:16] In other words, I have the intention for samādhi, but I might have just had some really bad news. I might have a cold. I might have this or that. I'm not in control enough of the flow of past conditions and present conditions that are affecting the result. If I judge myself based on the result, it's not wise. If one is going to judge oneself, to judge oneself based on the intentions.
Can we respect ourselves for the right kind of things? So oftentimes self-respect, in our culture, gets measured in different ways: how beautiful we are, how rich, how this or that, what kind of status we have in society, etc. And then our actual sense of self-respect gets measured along those lines. Can we actually have it run along more healthy lines? That we're respecting ourselves for our ethical care, for instance, that we're respecting the beauty of our intentions, the beauty of our aspirations, the fact that we're actually engaging in a process to work towards what we really care about, that we're really doing that. That's something to respect.
And sometimes it's worth actually inclining the mind again towards the positive, and actually dwelling, sitting, in the sense of our goodness, the sense of what we really value and respect about ourselves, actually cherishing that beauty of ourselves. This is not a very popular notion in the culture. That sounds very egoic, very kind of self-obsessed, etc. What would it be to really just remind oneself of one's nobility, of one's beautiful aspirations, etc., of one's care for ethics? And really, as a meditation, sit with that. Bring the mind back to that. Dwell in that. See what happens.
[35:38] Most of the time we dwell in the exact opposite: [mumbling] "I'm not good enough." [mumbling] [laughter] It becomes a habit, unfortunately, and we're suspicious of the wrong thing. Instead of being suspicious of that, we're suspicious of dwelling in a sense of our own beauty and cherishing our self and respect for our self. So it's all upside down.
(iv) The Buddha makes a very important distinction between actions and essence. So, instead of judging people, it's assessing, it's discerning whether an action is helpful or not. This thing that I do, this response that I gave, or that way that I was in that situation -- was that helpful or not? Not judging the self for that, just judging, "Ah, that wasn't that skilful, how I said that to that person. In the future I want to do it differently." It's a very subtle shift, but it's actually -- you know what? It was the stroke of genius, one of the strokes of genius that the Buddha introduced: shifting from actions to essence, and not making conclusions about the essence of oneself or the essence of another person, but just discerning, "What action is helpful? What action is not helpful?" So it might sound a little abstract, but trying to put this into effect in our being, that actually is -- its implications are massive and run very deep.
(v) Fifth one: what exactly am I criticizing when I criticize myself? What exactly am I criticizing? I usually feel like I'm ending up criticizing myself -- whatever that is, 'myself.' But that's a kind of big, abstract picture, this self. If I dissect it a little bit, what I find is what I'm actually judging is a moment of something. And that moment, when I really look at it, I can't find a self in it. I'm sitting in meditation. The mind wanders off. What am I judging there, exactly? Judging a moment of forgetfulness? A moment where I didn't have mindfulness? Is that moment of not being mindful, is that myself? Somehow we don't see that. We're taking this micro-moment and blowing it up to be a self. And then we judge that self, and we get into a pain. We get into pain around the self.
(vi) This is the sixth one now. What one sees, the more one practises samādhi, the more one goes into this, is that when it feels good, when things kind of come together and unify, and the mind feels good, and the body feels good, and things seem, "Mm, that's going well," that's not really dependent on this self. It's dependent on the conditions coming together. And when the conditions are there, and they come together, samādhi is there. When the conditions are not there, samādhi is not there, and it actually has very little to do with self. It takes time to see that, but it takes away either feeling pumped up or "Aren't I a great meditator?", or the opposite, "I'm a failure." It actually has very little to do with the self. It's just, when the conditions are there, it's going to be there. When they're not, it's not.
(vii) The seventh one is mettā, loving-kindness meditation. What a huge resource and a tool this is for us! So, long-term loving-kindness practice makes a big difference to this inner critic. Long-term, really just over and over, directing loving-kindness towards the self and others, especially towards the self, washing the being, bathing the being in loving-kindness. Over a long period, it begins to just soften, open, crack open that inner critic. But also in the short term. So when you're here on the cushion, in this context of this retreat, we're working on the breath, and the mind has got very tight, and a lot of harshness and judgment -- maybe just go to the loving-kindness practice, and actually just direct some loving-kindness towards yourself for a few minutes, for the rest of the session, whatever it needs. So both long-term and short-term -- really, really helpful.
(viii) And just lastly (I mentioned this, I think, in the opening talk), shifting the emphasis away from a kind of self-preoccupation in practice, and realizing that we're practising for all beings. Just reminding oneself of that. We get too tight around the self and, "How am I doing?", etc. And just opening it out can really help.
Attitude is really, really important with all of this. I heard that Michelangelo at 87 years old, he'd done David, and he'd done the Sistine Chapel and everything, and he said, "I'm still learning how to sculpt." Still with that process of learning, discovering. And even someone who's fully enlightened is actually still learning. So to expect waves is also a really important part of our attitude. It's not going to feel good all the time. It's going to be a real up and down, and really expecting those up and downs. And there are going to be hindrances. There are going to be times when the body feels constricted, etc. When there's agitation, "What can I learn here about working with what's difficult?" That question, if that question can be there: "What can I learn here?" So samatha practice is not just about things feeling good. It's also about, "What can I learn when it doesn't feel so good?"
[42:16] Sometimes in this kind of practice, you know, we talk a lot about the mind settling down, etc. We actually need to not get too fixated on how concentrated we are, and actually just step back and see a bigger picture. What else am I encouraging, nurturing, cultivating, in this process, even when it doesn't feel good? So it may be that the mind keeps going off, and I keep coming back, and it keeps going off, and I keep coming back, and I'm actually developing patience there. Do I see that I'm developing patience? Because that makes a difference, if I see a bigger picture of what's happening here. I see more usefulness to this time. Even though the mind is off, I'm still developing patience. Maybe the development of patience is as significant as the development of concentration.
If the mind goes off many times, and I'm trying not to get involved in the judgmentalism, I'm just stopping the judgmentalism and coming back, I'm also weakening judgmentalism. That's also immensely significant. There's a bigger picture of what's going on here than just, "Can I stay with the breath?" And if I can, I get a tick, and if I can't, I get a red dot: "Please see the teacher," or whatever. Patience, non-judgmentalism. We're developing the muscle of the mind, every time it goes and bring it back, and every time it goes and bring back, and every time it goes and bring back. Soon, the muscle gets big. Or when it's not going well, bringing some questioning in. What's the reason it's not going so well? What can I do? The spirit of questioning is also something we can cultivate. That's also going on in the bigger picture. That's also helpful. That's not wasted time. This is really, really important. It's not wasted time.
Sometimes, in our relationship with a goal, we get too focused on the result, and we lose the focus on what we need to do in the moment to move towards that goal. And this can be quite subtle. We're just in the meditation with a bit of like, "Hmm, it's just not good enough." We want something. Maybe we've had a taste of it before, and it's a kind of leaning forward in the moment. So watch out for this.
And the question, "Is that there? Am I skipping over paying attention to taking care of the causes right now? Am I engaging with the practice?" This is really important. Am I engaging? Or have I gone to the future or just kind of given up? So, am I taking care of the wide body awareness? Am I playing with the breath? Am I playing with, as I'll talk about now, effort levels, etc.?
[45:15] One of the Buddha's lists is what's called 'the four bases of success.' It's not a list you hear much. The four bases of success. If you want to succeed at something, including meditation, four qualities need to be there, and you need to check that they're there: (a) desire, (b) persistence, (c) intentness, or kind of focus, full attentiveness, and (d) the last one is sort of ingenuity.
(a) But to check sometimes -- is the desire there? Desire is actually a factor of succeeding. We need to have desire. We need to want it to work.
(b) Persistence is just, keep trying. You just keep trying. You fall off the saddle, and you get back in. It's like this persistence is actually a factor needed for success.
(c) Intentness, that you're with the breath, and you're really with the body, and there's something ... you're giving it your whole attention. You're really, as I said, engaging with the process. How's the breath? What feels best? Where shall I breathe from, in my whole body? You're really there, with a fullness of being. That has to be there.
So this is the same for anything. If you want to write a novel or write a symphony, or whatever it is, some big project, these four things -- desire, persistence, intentness, and kind of responsive ingenuity -- they all need to be there. Otherwise this project is not going to happen.
(d) So this last one, vīmaṃsā, is a strange word -- a kind of active intelligence, that we're really using our ingenuity. We're creative in the moment. We're responding, and sometimes that might be, as I've touched on, that might be going into another approach, doing some loving-kindness. Or if we feel really like completely uninspired, reflecting on death. [laughter] That always makes them laugh. [laughter] It's good for you! [laughter] You know, we can get lazy, and it's because we don't realize, we don't have our priorities straight.
[47:51] So, factors of wise effort. What's involved in wise effort? Wise effort -- it needs a sense of juice. It needs some juiciness. So often -- this is so common -- people are approaching practice from a should. There's a sense of, "Oh, I should practice. I should should should, or I should be doing this practice, or I really should get my samādhi together, or I should be a better concentrator. I should have more loving-kindness." How much of our effort is coming from should? This is so, so crucial.
Sometimes we don't even realize how much is coming from should, and then with that should, the question, "Am I doing it right, or am I doing it wrong?" And there's fear behind that question. There's so much fear behind that question. When practice is coming from should and this "Am I doing it right?", eventually, and probably in not too long a time, it will dry up. It will crack or it will hit a wall. Can we have some juice in our effort, in our aspiration? We're actually approaching practice out of interest, out of love, out of passion, even, desire. We want something. Not that we think we should be somehow, that we actually really want.
So, wise effort -- it also needs faith, and I think it needs a sense of possibility. We really need to feel that something is possible for us. Without that, there's not going to be a kind of balance and wisdom in the effort. But with this practice, particularly this kind of practice we're doing, we begin to see, begin to get a kind of experiential faith that we're never too far away from a pleasant feeling. Even in this moment -- constriction, pain, this emotion, whatever -- actually, you begin to get a sense over time, you're never too far away from some kind of pleasant abiding.
(3) Okay, I'm hopelessly ridiculous with time tonight. Let's skip to the third one. Balancing, okay? Third aspect of wise effort, and I'm using it as a -- I don't know what it's called -- present participle. Balancing, as a verb. So, what that implies is that there's a responsiveness there. There's a responsiveness to our effort. It's not a static thing. This is really important.
[50:41] Sometimes we get the image, "Oh, I'll just kind of find the right ... you know, I'll put the dial on 'five' and kind of go into cruise control with the effort." It's not that at all. There's a real ... yeah, real fluidity and responsiveness with effort that's important. So actually, it's always a question: am I too much right now? Am I too little? Am I too tight? Am I too loose? It's part of the art, playing with that effort, playing with the effort.
And as we deepen in the meditation, this gets subtler and subtler. So our awareness of when it's too much and when it's not enough, when we're a little bit too tight, we develop more. It's part of the sensitivity I've been talking about. We develop more and more subtlety to that, more and more awareness of subtlety with that. And that's very gradual. It's a big part of what I mean when I say sensitivity.
The Buddha has an image of Right Effort: it's like holding a little bird. If you squeeze too tight, you're going to kill the bird. If you're too loose, the bird just flies away. With the mind, if we squeeze too tight, it has a funny effect. First of all, you actually feel it in the body. If you squeeze too tight with your effort, trying to hold on to the breath in the moment, in the body, you actually feel the tightness in the body. So let this whole-body awareness actually reflect that back to you when it's too tight.
What you also notice is when you squeeze too tight, it's almost like you're putting pressure on the mind. It actually causes the mind to produce more thoughts, funnily enough. It has the opposite effect of what we want. So to notice this. Sometimes when you feel, "Gosh, there's so much thought going on," sometimes it's because we're actually too tight with the mind.
[52:47] You can think also of the image of a potter, like a master potter, with the pottery wheel, of clay, and is it too much pressure to curve the jug, or whatever they're making? Or is it too little? There's a real sensitivity. And for a master potter, there's a real refinement of that ability to feel when, what's just the right pressure.
Some of that, the master potter will be able to explain to the apprentice in words: "Oh, it's like this, and you feel for this." Another aspect of it, a kind of more subtle aspect, is almost not verbalizable, and it's the same with practice. There are adjustments that we make that we can barely put into language. They're so subtle, the way we're responding to the pressure or the tightness, or shaping things, or encouraging things.
So as I mentioned at some point, maybe this morning, the mind will rebel. From time to time, the mind absolutely will rebel, no question about it. You say, "Stay with the breath. Stay with the body." It says, "I don't want to stay with the breath." What can really help is softening, relaxing the effort, the approach there, and using the sense of well-being. So whatever sense of well-being there is, just bathing that sense of well-being with the breath. It's a much more relaxed approach. You're bathing the sense of well-being with the breath. And this can be very, very light and very gentle. So even the breath becomes very gentle. The effort becomes very gentle, very light. It's almost like, the image I have right now is, when you bathe a newborn baby, and you just hold the baby's head, and just, you know, a little bit of water you're splashing over the baby. And even more gentle than that -- you're just bathing the sense of well-being with the breath.
[55:04] So the comfort and the pleasure is actually important for the effort. If we're connected and nourishing that sense of comfort, it makes the effort easier. It makes it easier, rather than just a kind of dry striving. It's actually very important. And over time, gradually, not in a linear way, we get more and more skilful, and we develop more and more subtlety in kind of smoothing out the places of constriction, the kind of places that don't feel so good, in dissolving them, in evaporating them in the body, using the breath, using the touch of the mind, using the way we're conceiving of the breath. We develop more and more subtlety of skill there.
I'm almost finished. I think people are tired. But I'm going to throw out three things that I'm going to pick up on tomorrow morning in the instructions. But I'll put them out now so it's not completely new tomorrow morning. [56:21]
(1) To be aware of how heavy, how forceful the mind is, in relationship to the body and the breath -- to be aware of that, and sometimes to see: can the mind and the attention be really, really light? Really light, so like a feather, light as a feather, kind of just touching the body, just touching the body with the attention. And so, aware of this heaviness, lightness, and actually experimenting with a very, very light touch of attention, especially if it's to the whole area of the whole body -- very, very skilful. Something to play with, another thing to play with, to experiment with.
(2) Second thing that I'll pick up on tomorrow: the breath comes in and out. We have the in- and out-breathing, and obviously that's been crucial to what we've been talking about so far. But there's also a kind of (what to say?) more subtle level of breath energy that is not so much about it moving in and out. It's almost like the background energy of the body, the background kind of tone of this bubble, this balloon, this egg shape, and tuning into that as an energy field, as a texture, as a vibration. And in a way, that becomes 'the breath,' 'the subtle breath,' or what we could call 'the body.' The body and the breath kind of fuse at that point when there's that kind of awareness.
And the in- and out-breathing might be still going on, but it's sort of just one aspect of what's going on. And maybe it's bathing that sense a little bit, or maybe it's just a bit to one side. But there's a whole kind of subtler, quieter level of background breath energy -- what we call 'background body energy' -- that we actually want to begin getting interested in.
(3) Last piece: in the guided meditation this morning, I was moving a little quickly through it. One other option, I said -- I think one of the last things -- was the breath in the middle of the body, and kind of expanding out and filling the body like that. Could it be also that breath energy surrounds the whole body? Here's the body, and you're actually surrounded by breath energy, and one's conceiving of the breath as breathing in and out through every pore of the whole body. It's just moving in and out to this egg, this bubble. It's just doing this, very, very skilful. And in a way then we can also melt into that breath energy that surrounds. This also has a lot to do with the effort, because it's more of a melting movement. It's more of a melting movement, an opening movement. So I'll bring this up again tomorrow, but there's a way of conceiving the breath that it's all around the body.
Okay. So this idea of balancing the effort is always -- from here on out, from here until the day one dies, it's going to be part of practice, subtler and subtler levels. It's going to be part of practice. Balancing the effort levels. It's okay that that's part of it. We want to get familiar with it.
But if we're engaged in that kind of balancing, if our effort is Right Effort, if we're taking care of what's involved in that effort, if we're -- those words -- playing, if we're patient, if we're sensitive, if we're steady, if all that is there, that's half of the battle for us. It's half the battle, right there. And then we're not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which is the danger if we just sideline this whole question of effort and goals and aspiration, just that we'll end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We're not, if we take care of all this, if we grapple with it, if we give it some subtle attention and care, we're not closing doors for ourselves. We're not closing the doors for what might be really, really beautiful.
MN 137. ↩︎
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu writes, for instance: "Without goals, life would just be floundering around, like fish flopping around in a puddle." See Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "A Good Dose of Medicine" (13 Nov. 1996), https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/Meditations1/Section0022.html, accessed 6 Mar. 2021. For the canonical version of this image, see Sn 4:15. ↩︎
Ven. Ānanda makes a statement to this effect at AN 4:159. ↩︎
MN 22. ↩︎