Just as we're capable of changing the body at will, the same applies to the mind. Changing the body can occur when we eat less and get thin, eat more and get fat, drink too much alcohol and spoil our liver, smoke too much and sicken our lungs. We can exercise to get muscles, or train to run fast or jump high, or to become very efficient at tennis or cricket. The body is able to do many things which ordinary people usually cannot do, because they haven't trained for that. We know, for example, of people who can jump two or three times further than is common, or run ten times faster than anyone else. We may have seen people doing stunts with their bodies, which look miraculous. There are also people who can use their minds in seemingly miraculous ways, which are really just due to training.
Meditation is the only training there is for the mind. Physical training is usually connected with physical discipline. The mind needs mental discipline, practice in meditation.
First we can change our mind from unwholesome to wholesome thinking. Just like a person who wants to be an athlete has to start at the beginning of body training, the same needs to be done for mind training. First we cope with the ordinary, later with the extraordinary. The recollection of our own death brings us the realization that all that is happening will be finished very soon, because all of us are going to die. Even though we may not know the exact date, it is guaranteed to happen. With the death contemplation in mind, it doesn't matter so much any more what goes on around us, since all is only important for a very limited time.
We may be able to see that only our kamma-making matters, doing the best we can every single day, every single moment. Helping others takes pride of place. There is no substitute for that. Someone else can benefit from our skills and possessions since we cannot keep them and cannot take them with us. We might as well give all away as quickly as possible.
One of the laws of the universe is the more one gives away, the more one gets. Nobody believes it, that's why everyone is trying to make more money and own more things, yet it is a law of cause and effect. If we would believe it and act accordingly we would soon find out. However it will only be effective if the giving is done in purity. We can give our time, our caring, our concern for others' well-being. We have the immediate benefit of happiness in our own heart, when we see the joy we have given to someone else. This is about the only satisfaction we can expect in this life which is of a nature that does not disappear quickly, because we can recollect the deed and our own happiness.
If we really believe in our impending death, not just use the words, our attitude towards people and situations changes completely. We are no longer the same person then. The one we have been until now hasn't brought us complete satisfaction, contentment and peacefulness. We might as well become a different person, with a new outlook. We no longer try to make anything last, because we know the temporary nature of our involvement. Consequently nothing has the same significance anymore.
It could be compared to inviting people to our home for a meal. We are worried and anxious whether the food will taste just right, whether all the comforts are there and nothing missing. The house should be immaculate for the guests. While they're visiting we are extremely concerned that they're getting everything they could possibly want. Afterwards we are concerned whether they like it at our house, were happy there, are going to tell other friends that it was a pleasant visit. These are our attitudes because we own the place. If we are a guest we don't care what food is being served, because that's up to the hostess. We don't worry whether everything is in apple-pie order because it's not our house.
This body is not our house, no matter how long we live. It's a temporary arrangement of no significance. Nothing belongs to us, we're guests here. Maybe we'll be present for another week or year, or ten or twenty years. But being a guest, what can it matter how everything works? The only thing we can do when we are guest in someone's house, is trying to be pleasant and helpful to the people we're with. All else is totally insignificant, otherwise our consciousness will remain in the marketplace.
Doesn't it only matter to elevate our consciousness and awareness to where we can see beyond our immediate concerns? There is always the same thing going on: getting up, eating breakfast, washing, dressing, thinking and planning, cooking, buying things, talking to people, going to work, going to bed, getting up... over and over again. Is that enough for a lifetime? All of us are trying to find something within that daily grind which will give us joy. But nothing lasts and moreover all are connected with reaching out to get something. If we were to remember each morning that death is certain, but now have another day to live, gratitude and determination can arise to do something useful with that day.
Our second recollection may concern how to change our mind from enmity, hurtfulness and unhappiness, to their opposites. Repeated remembering makes it possible to change the mind gradually. The body doesn't change overnight, to become athletic, and neither does the mind change instantly. But if we don't continually train it, it's just going to stay the same it has always been, which is not conductive to a harmonious and peaceful life. Most people find a lot of unpleasantness, anxiety and fear in their lives. Fear is a human condition, based on our ego delusion. We are afraid that our ego will be destroyed and annihilated.
This willingness to change our mind should make it possible to live each day meaningfully, which is the difference between just being alive and living. We would do at least one thing each day, which either entails spiritual growth for ourselves or helpfulness and consideration for others, preferably both. If we add one meaningful day to the next, we wind up with a meaningful life. Otherwise we have an egocentric life, which can never be satisfying. If we forget about our own desires and rejections and are just concerned with spiritual growth and eventual emancipation, and being helpful to other people, then our dukkha is greatly reduced. It reaches a point where it is only the underlying movement in all of existence and no longer personal suffering and unhappiness. As long as we suffer and are unhappy, our lives are not very useful. Having grief, pain and lamentation does not mean we are very sensitive, but rather that we haven't been able to find a solution.
We spend hours and hours, buying food, preparing it, eating it, washing up afterwards, and thinking about the next meal. Twenty minutes of recollection on how we should live, should not be taxing our time. Naturally, we can also spend much more time on such contemplations, which are a way to give the mind a new direction. Without training, the mind is heavy and not very skillful, but when we give the mind a new direction, then we learn to protect our own happiness. This is not connected with getting what we want and getting rid of what we don't want. It's a skill in the mind to realize what is helpful and happiness producing.
This new direction, which arises from contemplation can be put into action. What can we actually do? We have all heard far too many words which sound right, but words alone won't accomplish anything. There has to be an underlying realization that these words require mental or physical action. The Buddha mentioned that if we hear a Dhamma discourse and have confidence in its truth, first we must remember the words. Then we can see whether we are able to do what is required of us.
If we contemplate to be free of enmity, we can recollect such a determination again and again. Now comes the next step: How can we actualize that? When going about our daily life we have to be very attentive whether any enmity is arising, and if so, to substitute with love and compassion. That is the training of the mind. The mind doesn't feel so burdened then, so bogged down in its own pre-determined course because we realize change is possible. When the mind feels lighter and clearer, it can expand. Activating the teachings of the Buddha changes the awareness of the mind, so that the everyday, ordinary activities are no longer so significant. They are seen to be necessary to keep the body alive and the mind interested in the manifold proliferations that exist in the world.
The realization arises that if we have been able to change our mind even that much, there may be more to the universe than we have ever been able to touch upon with the ordinary mind. The determination may come to make the mind extraordinary. Just as in an athlete, enormous feats of balance, discipline and strength of the body are possible, just so it is feasible for the mind. The Buddha talked about expanded awareness as a result of proper concentration, time and time again. Right concentration means a change of consciousness because we are then not connected to the usual, relative knowing.
Being able to change our mind's direction, we are no longer so enmeshed in the ordinary affairs, but know that there must be more. Through having been disciplined, strengthened and balanced, a mind can perform feats of mental awareness which seem quite extraordinary, but are just a result of training. It means getting out of the mental rut. If we have a wet driveway and drive a truck over it time and time again, the ruts get deeper and deeper and in the end the truck may be stuck fast. Such are our habitual responses that we have in our everyday affairs. Practicing meditation lifts us out of those ruts because the mind gets a new dimension. Contemplation and resulting action make a new pathway in our lives, where the old ruts are left behind... Those were a constant reaction to our sense stimuli, of hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. It's a great pity to use a good human life just to be a reactor. It is much more useful and helpful to become an actor, which means deliberate thinking, saying and doing.
It is possible to eventually have the kind of concentration where the meditation subject is no longer needed. The meditation subject is nothing but a key, or we can also call it a hook to hang the mind on, so that it will not attend to worldly affairs. When concentration has arisen, it can be likened to the key having finally found the keyhole and the door being unlocked. When we unlock the door of true samadhi we find a house with eight rooms, which are the eight meditative absorptions (jhanas). Having been able to enter the first room, there is no reason why, with practice, determination and diligence, we cannot gradually enter into all of them. Here the mind actually lets go of the thinking process as we know it and reverts to a state of experiencing.
The first thing that happens when concentration has come together is a sense of well being. Unfortunately there is a mistaken view prevalent that the meditative absorptions are neither possible nor necessary. This view is contrary to the Buddha's teaching. Any instructions he has ever given for the pathway to liberation always included the meditative absorptions. They are the eight steps on the noble eightfold path (samma-samadhi). It is also incorrect to believe that it is no longer possible to attain true concentration; many people do so without even realizing it, and need support and direction to further their efforts. Meditation needs to include the meditative absorptions because they are the expansion of consciousness providing access to a totally different universe than we have ever realized.
The mental states that arise through the meditative absorptions make it possible to live one's daily life with a sense of what is significant and what is not. Having seen, for instance, that it is possible to grow large trees, one no longer believes that trees are always small, even though the trees in one's own backyard may be tiny, because the soil is poor. If one has seen large trees, one knows they exist, and one may even try to find a place where they grow. The same applies to our mental states. Having seen the possibility of expanded consciousness, one no longer believes that ordinary consciousness is all there is, or that the breath is all there is to meditation.
The breathe is the hook that we hang the mind on, so that we can open the door to true meditation. Having opened the door, we experience physical well-being, manifesting in many different ways. It may be a strong or a mild sensation, but it is always connected with a pleasant feeling. Of that pleasure the Buddha said: "This is a pleasure I will allow myself." Unless one experiences the joy of the meditative state, which is independent of the world, one will never resign from the world, but will continue to see the world as one's home. Only when one realizes that the joy in the meditative state is independent of all worldly conditions, will one finally be able to say: "The world and its manifold attractions are not interesting any more" so that dispassion will set in. Otherwise why should one resign from that which occasionally does give pleasure and joy, if one has nothing else? How can one do that? It is impossible to let go of all the joys and pleasures which the world offers, if one has nothing to replace them. This is the first reason why in the Buddha's teaching the meditative absorptions are of the essence. We can't let go when we are still under the impression that with this body and these senses we can get what we're looking for, namely happiness.
The Buddha encourages us to look for happiness, but we need to look in the right place. He said we would be able to protect our own happiness. Even the very first instance of gaining physical pleasure in meditation already illuminates the fact that something inside ourselves gives joy and happiness. The physical well-being also arouses pleasurable interest which helps to keep us on the meditation pillow. Although it is a physical sensation, it is not the same sort of feeling that we are familiar with. It is different because it has arisen from a different source. Ordinary pleasant physical feelings come from touch contact. This one comes from concentration. Obviously, having different causes, they must also be different in their results. Touch is gross, concentration is subtle. Therefore the meditative feeling has a more subtle spiritual quality than the pleasant feeling one can get through touch. Knowing clearly that the only condition necessary for happiness is concentration, we will refrain from our usual pursuits of seeking pleasant people, tasty food, better weather, more wealth and not squander our mental energy on those. This is, therefore, a necessary first step towards emancipation.
We are now entering mind states that go beyond the everyday, worldly affairs... We all know the mind that is connected with ordinary matters. Such a mind worries about all sorts of things, is anxious, has plans, memories, hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes and reactions. It's a very busy mind. For the first time we may become acquainted with a mind which doesn't contain all these aspects. Pleasurable well-being has no thinking attached to it, it's an experience. Here we finally realize that the kind of thinking we're aware of will not give us the results we had hoped for. It is just good enough to project a willingness to meditate. We learn, even from that very first step, that the world cannot do for us what concentration can do. Happiness independent of outer conditions is far more satisfying than anything to be found in the world. We are also shown that the mind has the ability to expand into a different consciousness with which we had no previous contact, so that we gain first-hand experience of the fact that meditation is the means for spiritual emancipation.
Because of having had this pleasurable feeling, an inner joy arises. This gives the meditator the assurance that the pathway towards "non-self" is a pathway of joy and not of dukkha. Thereby the natural resistance to "non-self" is greatly lessened. Most people resist the idea that they are "nobody," even after they have understood it intellectually. But being able to experience these first two aspects of meditation, gives a clear indication that this is only possible when the "self," which is always thinking, is temporarily buried. Because when the self is active, it immediately says "Oh, isn't that nice," and the concentration is finished. It has to be and experience where nothing says "I am experiencing." The explanation and understanding of what one has experienced comes later.
This is a clear realization that, without "self," the inner joy is a much greater and more profound nature than any happiness one has known in this life. Therefore the determination to really come to grips with the Buddha's teachings will come to fruition. Until then, most people pick out a few aspects of the Dhamma, which they've heard about, and think that is sufficient. It may devotion, chanting, festivals, doing good works, moral behavior, all of which is fine, but the reality of the teaching is a great mosaic in which all these different pieces fall together into one huge, all encompassing whole. And the central core is "non-self" (anatta). If we use only a few of these mosaic pieces we will never get the whole picture. But being able to meditate makes a great deal of difference in one's approach to that whole conglomerate of teaching, which encompasses body and mind and completely changes the person who practices like that.
We have to base our meditative ability on our daily practice. We cannot hope to sit down and meditate successfully, if all we can think about are worldly affairs, and if we do not try to reduce anger, envy, jealousy, pride, greed, hate, rejection in daily life. If we use mindfulness, clear comprehension and a calming of sensual desires, we have a foundation for meditation. As we practice in everyday affairs in conjunction with meditation, we see a slow and gradual change, as if an athlete has been training. The mind becomes strong and attends to the important issues in life. It doesn't get thrown about by everything that happens.
If we can give some time for contemplation and meditation each day and not forget mindfulness, we have a very good beginning for an expansion of consciousness. Eventually the universe and we ourselves look quite different, based on our changed viewpoint. There is a Zen saying: "First the mountain is a mountain, then the mountain is no longer a mountain and in the end, the mountain is a mountain again." First we see everything in its relative reality; every person is a different individual, every tree is a particular kind, everything has some significance to our own lives. Then we start practicing, and suddenly we see everything in its relative reality; every person is a different individual, every tree is a particular kind, everything has some significance to our own lives. Then we start practicing, and suddenly we see a different reality, which is universal and expansive. We become very involved with our own meditation and do not pay much attention to what is going on around us. We see an expansion and elevation of our consciousness, know that our everyday reactions are not important. For a while, we may pay attention to just that and to living in a different reality. In the end, we come right back to where we were, doing all the same things as before, but no longer being touched by them. A mountain is just a mountain again. Everything returns to the same ordinary aspect it used to have, except it's no longer significant, or separate.
A description of an Arahant in the Discourse on Blessings (Maha-mangala Sutta) is: "...although touched by worldly circumstance, never the mind is wavering." The Enlightened One is touched by worldly circumstances, he acts like everybody else, he eats, sleeps, washes and talks to people, but the mind does not waver. The mind stays cool and peaceful at all times.
Back to Ayya Khema index page
Giving Dignity to Life by Bhikkhu Bodhi