How to meditate?
Meditation is commonly described as a
training of mental attention that awakens
us beyond the conditioned mind and habit-
ual thinking, and reveals the nature of real-
ity. In this guide, the process and the fruit of
meditation practice is understood as Natu-
ral Presence. Presence is a mindful, clear
recognition of what is happening—here,
now—and the open, allowing space that
includes all experience. There are many
supportive strategies (called “skillful
means”) that create a conducive atmos-
phere for the deepening of presence. The
art of practice is employing these strate-
gies with curiosity, kindness and a light
touch. The wisdom of practice is remem-
bering that Natural Presence is always and
already here. It is the loving awareness that
is our essence.
Attitude is everything. While there are many meditative strategies,
what makes the difference in terms of spiritual awakening is your qual-
ity of earnestness, or sincerity. Rather than adding another “should” to
your list, choose to practice because you care about connecting with
your innate capacity for love, clarity and inner peace. Let this sincerity
be the atmosphere that nurtures whatever form your practice takes.
A primary aspect of attitude is unconditional friendliness toward the
whole meditative process. When we are friendly towards another per-
son, there is a quality of acceptance. Yet we often enter meditation with
some idea of the kind of inner experience we should be having and
judgment about not “doing it right.” Truly- there is no “right” meditation
and striving to get it right reinforces the sense of an imperfect, striving
self. Rather, give permission for the meditation experience to be what-
ever it is. Trust that if you are sincere in your intention toward being
awake and openhearted, that in time your practice will carry you home
to a sense of wholeness and freedom.
Friendliness also includes an interest in what arises- be it pleasant
sensations or fear, peacefulness or confusion. And the heart expression
of friendliness is kindness — regarding the life within and around us
It helps to have a regular time and space for cultivating a meditation
– Morning is often preferred because the mind may be
calmer than it is later in the day. However, the best time is the time that
you can realistically commit to on a regular basis. Some people choose
to do two or more short sits, perhaps one at the beginning and one at
the end of the day.
Deciding in advance the duration of your sit will help support your
practice. For many, the chosen time is between 15-45 minutes. If you sit
each day, you may experience noticeable benefits (e.g., less reactivity,
more calm) and be able to increase your sitting time.
– If possible, dedicate a space exclusively to your
daily sitting. Choose a relatively protected and quiet space where you
can leave your cushion (or chair) so that it is always there to return to.
You may want to create an altar with a candle, inspiring photos, statues,
flowers, stones, shells and/or whatever arouses a sense of beauty, won-
der and the sacred. These are not necessary, but are beneficial if they
help create a mood and remind you of what you love.
There is a Zen teaching that says “The most important thing is re-
membering the most important thing.” It is helpful to recall at the start
of each sitting what matters to you, what draws you to meditate. Take a
few moments to connect in a sincere way with your heart’s aspiration.
You might sense this as a prayer that in some way dedicates your prac-
tice to your own spiritual freedom, and that of all beings.
Alertness is one of the two essential ingredients in every meditation.
Sit on a chair, cushion, or kneeling bench as upright, tall and balanced
as possible. A sense of openness and receptivity is the second essen-
tial ingredient in every meditation, and it is supported by intentionally re-
laxing obvious and habitual areas of tension. Around an erect posture,
let the rest of your skeleton and muscles hang freely. Let the hands rest
comfortably on your knees or lap. Let the eyes close, or if you prefer,
leave the eyes open, the gaze soft and receptive.
Please don’t skip the step of relaxing/letting go! You might take sev-
eral full deep breaths, and with each exhale, consciously let go, relaxing
the face, shoulders, hands, and stomach area. Or, you may want to
begin with a body scan: start at the scalp and move your attention
slowly downward, methodically relaxing and softening each part of the
body. Consciously releasing body tension will help you open to what-
ever arises during your meditation.
Presence has two interdependent qualities of recognizing, or noticing
what is happening, and allowing whatever is experienced without any
judgment, resistance or grasping. Presence is our deepest nature, and
the essence of meditation is to realize and inhabit this whole and lucid
We practice meditation by receiving all the domains of experience
with a mindful, open attention. These domains include breath and sen-
sations; feelings (pleasant, unpleasant and neutral); sense perceptions,
thoughts and emotions; and awareness itself.
In the essential practice of meditation there is no attempt to manipu-
late or control experience. Natural Presence simply recognizes what is
arising (thoughts, feelings, sounds, emotions) and allows life to unfold,
just as it is. As long as there is a sense of a self making an effort and
doing a practice, there is identification with a separate and limited self.
The open receptivity of Natural Presence dissolves this sense of a self
“doing” the meditation.
Because our minds are often so busy and reactive, it is helpful to de-
velop skillful means that quiet the mind and allow us to come home to
the fullness of Natural Presence. These supports for practice help us to
notice and relax thoughts and physical tension. They involve a wise ef-
fort that un-does our efforting!
You might consider yourself as a contemplative artist, with a palette
of colors (supportive strategies) with which to work in creating the inner
mood that is most conducive for the clarity and openness of presence.
These colors can be applied with a light touch. Experiment and see
what works best for you, and don’t confuse these methods (such as fol-
lowing the breath) with the radical and liberating presence that frees
and awakens our spirit. Regardless of what skillful means you employ,
create some time during each sitting when you let go of all “doings” and
simply rest in Natural Presence. Discover what happens when there is no
controlling or efforting at all, when you simply let life be just as it is. Dis-
cover who you are, when there is no managing of the meditation.
Presence is supported by a calm and collected mind, a mindful aware-
ness and an open heart. The following strategies cultivate these capacities:
You might take a few minutes at the beginning of the sitting (or any-
time during the sitting or day) to intentionally awaken all the senses.
Scan through the body with your attention, softening and becoming
aware of sensations from the inside out. Listen to sounds and also in-
clude the scent and the feel of the space around you in and outside of
the room. While the eyes may be closed, still include the experience of
light and dark, and imagine and sense the space around you. Explore
listening to and feeling the entire moment–to-moment experience, with
your senses totally open.
It is helpful to select a home base (or several anchors) that allow you
to quiet and collect the mind, and to deepen embodied presence. Use-
ful anchors are:
• The breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.
• Other physical changes during breathing, e.g., the-rise and fall
of the chest.
• Other physical sensations as they arise, e.g. the sensations in
the hands, or through the whole body.
• Sounds as they are experienced within or around you.
• Listening to and feeling one’s entire experience, (i.e., receiving
sounds and sensations in awareness).
Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention
on purpose and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of moment- to- mo-
ment experience. We train in mindfulness by establishing an embodied
presence and learning to see clearly and feel fully the changing flow of
sensations, feelings (pleasantness and unpleasantness), emotions and
Imagine your awareness as a great wheel. At the hub of the wheel
is mindful presence, and from this hub, an infinite number of spokes ex-
tend out to the rim. Your attention is conditioned to leave presence,
move out along the spokes and affix itself to one part of the rim after an-
other. Plans for dinner segue into a disturbing conversation, a self-judg-
ment, a song of the radio, a backache, the feeling of fear. Or your
attention gets lost in obsessive thinking circling endlessly around stories
and feelings about what is wrong. If you are not connected to the hub,
if your attention is trapped out on the rim, you are cut off from your
wholeness and living in trance.
Training in mindfulness allows us to return to the hub and live our
moments with full awareness. Through the practice of “coming back”
we notice when we have drifted and become lost in thought, and we re-
call our attention back to a sensory based presence. This important ca-
pacity is developed through the following steps:
• Set your intention to awaken from thoughts—mental commen-
tary, memories, plans, evaluations, stories—and rest in non-con-
• Gently bring attention to your primary anchor, letting it be in the
foreground while still including in the background the whole do-
main of sensory experience. For instance you might be resting
in the inflow and outflow of the breath as your home base, and
also be mindful of the sounds in the room, a feeling of sleepi-
ness, an itch, heat.
• When you notice you have been lost in thought, pause and
gently re-arrive in your anchor, mindful of the changing mo-
ment-to-moment experience of your senses.
It can be helpful to remember that getting distracted is totally natural-
just as the body secretes enzymes, the mind generates thoughts! No
need to make thoughts the enemy; just realize that you have a capacity
to awaken from the trance of thinking. When you recognize that you
have been lost in thought, take your time as you open out of the thought
and relax back into the actual experience of being Here. You might lis-
ten to sounds, re-relax your shoulder, hands and belly, relax your heart.
This will allow you to arrive again in mindful presence at the hub,
senses wide open, letting your home base be in the foreground. Notice
the difference between any thought and the vividness of this Here-ness!
As the mind settles, you will have more moments of “being here,”’ of
resting in the hub and simply recognizing and allowing the changing
flow of experience. Naturally the mind will still sometimes lose itself on
the rim, and at these times, when you notice, you again gently return to
the hub—“coming back,” and “being here” are fluid facets of practice.
The more you inhabit the alert stillness at the center of the wheel and
include in mindfulness whatever is happening, the more the hub of
presence becomes edgeless, warm and bright. In the moments when
there is no controlling of experience—when there is effortless mindful-
ness—you enter the purity of presence. This is “Natural Presence.” The
hub, spokes and rim are all floating in your luminous open awareness.
Metta practice, also called lovingkindness meditation, cultivates both
a loving heart and a collected, settled mind. The practice uses specific
phrases to send loving and kind wishes to yourself, loved ones, neutral
persons, difficult people and to all beings everywhere, without excep-
tion. You might choose three or four of the below, or create whatever
phrases resonate for you:
Spend a few minutes or more offering the phrases to yourself, taking
the time to imagine and directly feel the experience the phrases invoke.
Then do the same as you offer it to the others mentioned above. You
can bring in the metta practice at the beginning, end or during any part
of the meditation. For some people, it can be beneficial to emphasize
metta as a primary practice—especially when there has been trauma
or great self-aversion. This skillful means is a beautiful way to awaken
Bringing attention to a primary subject or anchor can lead to a con-
centrated focus that naturally calms and collects the mind. This concen-
tration can be deepened by intentionally aiming and sustaining a
focused attention with your chosen anchor. When cultivating concen-
tration, the anchor should be one that has a pleasant or at least neutral
Concentration supports mindfulness and requires a relaxed attention.
There is often a subtle (or overt) sense of making an effort to sustain
concentration, of striving to control the mind and make something hap-
pen. It is important to not become caught in a striving effort. It is easy
to be seduced into trying to achieve something, such as staying with
the breath for much of the sitting, and then evaluating what is happen-
ing as a “good’ or “not good” meditation. Mistaking a focus on the
breath for meditation is like fixating on the quality of your hiking boots,
and not really being awake of the natural world you are inhabiting!
Concentration helps quiet the mind and without some quieting,
mindfulness is difficult to sustain. It also can lead to states of rapture
and deep peace. Yet without a mindful presence, concentration bears
no fruit. The key to concentration is remembering your intention to-
wards presence, and then focusing on your chosen subject for medita-
tion with a soft, clear and relaxed attention.
The mindful presence that helps release emotional suffering is sum-
marized by the acronym RAIN.
– notice what is arising (fear, hurt, etc.)
– agree to “be with it,” to “let it be.”
– in a non-analytic way, get to know how the body,
heart and mind experiences these energies. You might in-
quire by asking yourself one or more of the following ques-
tions: “What is happening?” “Where am I feeling this in my
body?” “What wants attention?” “What wants acceptance?”
The “I” is also
experiencing difficult sensations and
emotions with a direct, gentle, kind attention; and offering
compassion to the place of vulnerability.
or not having your sense of Being defined
by, possessed by or linked to any emotion. In other words,
not taking it personally! The “N” is also
homecoming to the loving awareness that is our essence.
Inquiry (questions like “What is happening?”) can bring attention in a
direct way to the changing flow of experience and reveal the truth of im-
permanence and the empty (self-less) nature of sights, sounds,
thoughts, emotions and feelings. Self- inquiry extends this process by
turning awareness back on itself. Classical questions include: “Who am
I?” “What am I?” “Who or what is aware?” “Who or what is listening to
sound” “Who or what is looking out through these eyes?”
Self-Inquiry is best done when the mind is relatively quiet and senses
awake. Ask a question and look back towards awareness, towards that
which is aware. After asking, relax with an embodied presence, open,
not in any way pursuing an answer with your intellect. By enrolling the
natural interest, energy and receptive attention of inquiry, the very na-
ture of awareness is revealed.
At first, you may be surprised at how active and uncontrolled your
mind is. Don’t worry – you are discovering the truth about the state of
most minds! Accept and patiently “sit with” whatever comes up. There
is no need to get rid of thoughts; this is not the purpose of meditation.
Rather, we are learning to recognize when thinking is happening so we
are not lost in a trance—believing thoughts to be reality, becoming iden-
tified with thoughts.
Because we are so often in a thinking trance, it is helpful to quiet
down some. Just like a body of water stirred up by the winds, after
being physically still for a while, your mind will gradually calm down. To
support that quieting, at the beginning of a sitting it can be helpful to
relax and practice Remindfulness—gently bringing your attention back
again and again to your home base in the senses.
It takes practice to distinguish the trance of thinking – fantasy, plan-
ning, commentary, dreamy states – from the presence that directly re-
ceives the changing experience of this moment. Establishing an
embodied awareness and letting your anchor be in the foreground is a
good way to become familiar with the alive, vibrant mystery of Here-
ness, of presence.
: wanting more (or something different) from
what’s present right now.
: fear, anger, any form of pushing away.
: jumpy energy, agitation.
: sleepy, sinking states of mind and body.
: a mind-trap that says, “it’s no use, this will never
work, maybe there’s an easier way”.
These are universal body-mind energies experienced by all humans.
It is important to recognize that they are not a “problem.” The energies
become “hindrances” because our conditioned habit is to ignore, resist,
judge or otherwise try to control them. And yet when met with mindful-
ness and care, these same energies become a gateway to increased
aliveness and spiritual awakening.
During sitting practice, if you encounter one of these challenging en-
ergies, it may be useful to name it silently to yourself, e.g., “grasping,
grasping” or “fear, fear.” If it is strong, rather than pulling away, let your
intention be to bring your full attention to what is arising. Feel what is
happening as sensations in your body, neither getting lost in the experi-
ence nor pushing it away. As indicated through the RAIN acronym, in-
vestigate what is arising and meet the experience with an intimate,
compassionate attention. When it dissipates, return to the primary an-
chor of your meditation, or rest in Natural Presence.
Sometimes the energy is too strong, and it is not wise or compas-
sionate to try to stay present with it. This is particularly true if you have
been traumatized and are experiencing deep fear or anger. If it feels
like “too much,” shift the attention to something that brings a sense of
balance, safety and/or love. You might open your eyes, remind yourself
of where you are, listen to sounds, relax again through your body. You
might bring to mind someone who loves and understands you, and
sense their care surrounding you. You might reflect on the Buddha or
the bodhisattva of compassion, Jesus, Great Spirit, your grandmother,
your dog or a favorite tree. You might offer phrases of lovingkindness to
places of vulnerability. Meditate on any expression of loving presence
that helps you feel less separate or afraid.
If you encounter these kinds of difficult emotional energies regularly
you might ask a teacher or therapist familiar with meditation to accom-
pany you as you learn to navigate what feels most intense.
In addition to mental busyness and emotional challenges, it is in-
evitable that we all experience a certain amount of unpleasant physical
sensations. If you are not used to the posture, there may be some dis-
comfort in simply sitting still. In addition, as your attention deepens, you
might become aware of tensions in the body that were ignored be-
cause of being preoccupied by thought. Or, you might be injured or
sick, and become more directly aware of the natural unpleasant sensa-
tions accompanying that condition.
Meditating with physical discomfort is the same as the process of
presence with emotional difficulty. Let your intention be to meet the un-
pleasantness with a gentle attention, noticing how it is experienced in
the body and how it changes. Allow the unpleasantness to float in
awareness, to be surrounded by soft presence. To establish that open-
ness you might include in your attention sounds, and/or other parts of
the body that are free from pain. Breathe with the experience, offering a
spacious and kind attention. Be aware of not only the physical sensa-
tions, but how you are relating to them. Is there resistance? Fear? If
so, let these energies be included with a forgiving and mindful attention.
If the physical unpleasantness is intense and wearing you out, direct
your attention for a while to something else. It is fine to mindfully shift
your posture, or to use a skillful means like phrases of lovingkindness or
listening to sounds as a way to discover some space and resilience.
You don’t need to “tough it out.” That is just another ego posture that
solidifies the sense of separate self. In a similar vein, you don’t have to
“give up.” Instead, discover what allows you to find a sense of balance
and spaciousness, and when you are able, again allow the immediate
sensations to be received with presence.
Here are a few helpful hints for sustaining your sitting practice:
• Sit every day, even if it’s for a short period. Intentionally dedicate
this time of quieting—it is a gift to the soul!
• A few times during each
day, pause. Establish con-
tact with your body and
breath, feeling the aliveness
that is Here. Pause more
and more—the space of a
pause will allow you to
come home to your heart
• Reflect regularly on your as-
piration for spiritual awak-
ening and freedom—your
own and that of all beings.
• Remember that, like your-
self, everyone wants to be happy and nobody wants to suffer.
• Practice regularly with a group or a friend.
• Use inspiring resources such as books, CD’s or web-accessed
• Study the Buddhist teachings (e.g., the 4 Noble Truths, the
Noble 8-Fold Path).
• Sign up for a retreat—one day, a weekend, or longer. The experi-
ence will deepen your practice and nourish spiritual awakening.
• If you miss practice for a day, a week, or a month, simply begin again.
• If you need guidance, ask for help from an experienced medita-
tor or teacher.
• Don’t judge your practice — rather, accept what unfolds and
trust your capacity to awaken and be free!
• Live with a reverence for life—committed to non-harming, to
seeing, honoring and serving the sacred in all beings.
With each – every breath
s training for the mind, to help it develop the strengths and skills it needs
to solve its problems. Just as there are many different remedies for the various illnesses of
the body, there are many different types of meditation for the various problems of t
The meditation technique taught in this book is a skill aimed at solving the mind’s most
problem: the stress and suffering it brings on itself through its own thoughts and
actions. Even though the mind wants happiness, it still manages to we
igh itself down with
mental pain. In fact, that pain comes from the mind’s misguided efforts to find happiness.
Meditation helps to uncover the reasons for why the mind does this and, in uncovering
them, helps you to cure them. In curing them, it opens you
to the possibility of genuine
happiness, a happiness you can rely on, a happiness that will never change or let you down.
That’s the good news of meditation: Genuine happiness is possible, and you can reach it
gh your own efforts. You don’t have to c
ontent yourself only with pleasures that will
eventually leave you. You don’t have to resign yourself to the idea that temporary
happiness is the best life has to offer. And you don’t have to pin your hopes for happiness
on any person or power outside your
self. You can train the mind to access a totally reliable
happiness, a happiness that causes no harm to you or to anyone else.
Not only is the
meditation good; the
for attaining that goal are good as
well. They’re activities and mental qualit
ies you can be proud to develop: things like
honesty, integrity, compassion, mindfulness, and discernment. Because true happiness
comes from within, it doesn’t require that you take anything from anyone else. Your true
happiness doesn’t conflict with the t
rue happiness of anyone else in the world. And when
you find true happiness inside, you have more to share with others.
This is why the practice of meditation is an act of kindness for others as well as for
elf. When you solve the problem of stress an
d suffering, you, of course, are the person
who will most directly benefit. But you aren’t the only one. This is because when you
create stress and suffering for yourself, you weaken yourself. You place burdens not only
on yourself but also on the people a
round you: both by having to depend on them for help
and support, and also by damaging them with the foolish things you might do or say out of
weakness and fear. At the same time, you’re hampered from helping them with their
problems, for your hands are fi
lled with your own. But if your mind can learn how to stop
causing itself stress and suffering, you’re less of a burden on others and you’re in a better
position to give them a helping hand.
So the practice of meditation teaches you to respect the things w
ou that are
worthy of respect: your desire for a genuine happiness, totally reliable and totally harmless;
and your ability to find that happiness through your own efforts.
To bring a total end to the mind’s self
inflicted stress and suffering requi
res a great deal
of dedication, training, and skill. But the meditation technique taught in this book doesn’t
give its benefits only to people who are ready to follow it all the way to the total cure of
awakening. Even if you simply want help in managing pain or finding a little more peace
and stability in your life, meditation has plenty to offer you. It can also strengthen the
mind to deal with many of the problems of day
day life, because it develops qualities
like mindfulness, alertness, concentratio
n, and discernment that are useful in all activities, at
home, at work, or wherever you are. These qualities are also helpful in dealing with some
of the larger, more difficult issues of life. Addiction, trauma, loss, disappointment, illness,
aging, and ev
en death are a lot easier to handle when the mind has developed the skills
fostered by meditation.
So even if you don’t make it all the way to total freedom from stress and suffering,
meditation can help you to handle your sufferings more skillfully
er words, with
less harm to yourself and the people around you. This, in itself, is a worthwhile use of your
time. If you then decide to pursue the meditation further, to see if it really can lead to total
freedom, so much the better.
WHAT’S IN THIS BOOK
The meditation technique described here is drawn from two sources. The first source is
the Buddha’s set of instructions on how to use the breath in training the mind. These
instructions are found in the Pali Canon, the oldest extant record of the Buddha’s
teachings. As the Canon states, the Buddha found the breath to be a restful meditation
both for body and mind
as well as an ideal topic for developing mindfulness,
concentration, and discernment. In fact, it was the topic he himself used on the path
awakening. That’s why he recommended it to more people and taught it in more detail
than any other topic of meditation.
The second source is a method of breath meditation developed in the last century by
Lee Dhammadharo, a master of a branch
of Buddhism known in Thailand as the
Wilderness Tradition. Ajaan Lee’s method builds on the Buddha’s instructions, explaining
in detail many of the points that the Buddha left in a condensed form. I trained in this
technique for ten years under Ajaan Fuang
Jotiko, one of Ajaan Lee’s students, so some of
the insights here come from my training with Ajaan Fuang as well.
I’ve followed these sources in focusing on the breath as the main topic of meditation
se it’s the safest of all meditation topics. The t
echnique described here brings the
body and mind to a balanced state of well
being. This in turn allows the mind to gain
balanced insights into its own workings, so that it can see the ways in which it’s causing
stress and suffering, and let them go effect
This technique is part of a comprehensive path of mind training that involves not only
ation but also the development of generosity and virtue. The basic approach in each
part of this training is the same: to understand all your actions as part
of a chain of causes
and effects, so that you can direct the causes in a more positive direction. With every
action in thought, word, or deed, you reflect on what you’re doing while you’re doing it.
You look for the motivation leading to your actions, and
the results your actions give rise
to. As you reflect, you learn to question your actions in a specific way:
Do they lead to stress and suffering, or to the end of stress and suffering?
If they lead to stress, are they necessary?
If not, why do them again?
If they lead to the end of stress, how can you master them as skills?
Training in virtue and generosity asks these questions of your words and deeds.
ing in meditation approaches all events in the mind as actions
and questions them in the same way. In other words, it forces you
to look at your thoughts and emotions less in terms of their content, and more in terms of
where they come from and where they lead.
This strategy of observing your actions and prob
em with these questions is
directly related to the problem it’s meant to solve: the stresses and sufferings caused by
your actions. That’s why it underlies the training as a whole. Meditation simply allows you
to observe your actions more carefully,
and to uncover and abandon ever more subtle levels
of stress caused by those actions. It also develops the mental qualities that strengthen your
ability to act in skillful ways.
Although the meditation technique described here is part of a specifically Bud
aining, you don’t have to be Buddhist to follow it. It can help in overcoming problems
that aren’t specific to Buddhists. After all, Buddhists aren’t the only people who cause
themselves stress and suffering, and the qualities of mind developed thr
don’t have a Buddhist copyright. Mindfulness, alertness, concentration, and discernment
benefit everyone who develops them. All that’s asked is that you give these qualities a
The purpose of this book is to present the practice
along with the
larger training of which it’s a part
in a way that’s easy to read and to put into practice.
The book is divided into five parts, each part followed by a list of additional resources
books, articles, and audio files
that will h
elp you explore the issues discussed in that part
in more detail.
The first part of the book contains instructions in the basic steps of how to meditate.
cond part gives advice on how to deal with some of the problems that may come up
as you practice
. The third part deals with issues that arise as you try to make meditation a
part of your life as a whole. The fourth part deals with issues that arise as your meditation
progresses to a higher level of skill. The fifth part deals with how to choose and r
elate to a
meditation teacher who can give you the type of personalized training no book can
HOW TO READ THIS BOOK
I’ve tried to cover most of the issues that a committed meditator will encounter in a
directed practice. For this re
if you’re brand new t o medit at ion
and are not yet ready
to commit to a serious practice, you will find more material in this book than you’ll
immediately need. Still, you can find plenty of useful guidance here if you
read select ively.
h would be to read just what’s necessary to get started meditating and then
put the book down to give it a try.
To get started:
Read the discussion of “Breath” in the following section (pages
), down to
the heading, “Why the breath.”
the section titled, “Focusing on the Breath” in Part One (pages
Read the six steps listed there until you can hold them in mind. Then find a
comfortable place to sit and try following as many of the steps as you feel comfortable
attempting. If t
ps are too detailed for you, read the article, “A Guided
Meditation,” listed at the end of Part One, or sit down and meditate while listening to
any of the audio files with the same title available on www.dhammatalks.org.
If you encounter problems
ou get started, return to Part One and also consult
As for the rest of the book, you can save that till later, when you’re ready to raise the
of your commitment.
Even then, it will be wise to read the book selectively
ially Part T
the advice is again aimed at a fully committed meditator. Some of it may involve more
commitment than you’re ready to make, so take whatever advice seems practical in the
context of your current life and values, and leave the rest for other peo
or for yourself
at a later time.
ng in the practice of meditation is ever forced on you.
The only compulsion
comes from an inner force: your own desire to be free from self
inflicted suffering and
BASI C PR EMI SES
When you want t
o master a meditation technique, it’s good to know the premises
underlying the technique. That way you have a clear idea of what you’re getting into.
Knowing the premises also helps you understand how and why the technique is supposed
to work. If you have
doubts about the premises, you can try them on as working
hypotheses, to see if they really do help in dealing with the problems of stress and
suffering. Meditation doesn’t require that you swear allegiance to anything you can’t fully
understand. But it do
es ask you to give its premises a serious try.
As your meditation progresses, you can apply the basic premises to areas that come up
r meditation that aren’t explained in the book. In this way, the meditation becomes
less of a foreign technique, and
more of your own path in exploring the mind and solving
its problems as they arise.
Because breath meditation is a training in which the mind focuses on the breath, its
premises focus on two topics: the workings of the mind, and the workings of the
The word “mind” here covers not only the intellectual side of the mind, but also
motional side together with its will to act. In other words, the word “mind” covers
what we normally think of as “heart” as well.
The mind is not passive. Be
’s responsible for a body with many needs, it has to
take an active approach to experience. Its actions shape its experience as it looks for food,
both mental and physical, to keep itself and the body nourished. It’s driven by hungers
and mental. We’re all familiar with the need to feed physically. Mentally, the
mind feeds both externally and internally on relationships and emotions. Externally, it
hungers for such things as love, recognition, status, power, wealth, and praise. Interna
feeds off its love for others and its own self
esteem, as well as the pleasures that come from
emotions both healthy and not: honor, gratitude, greed, lust, and anger.
At any given moment, the mind is presented with a wide range of sights, sounds,
smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. From this range, it chooses which things to focus
attention on and which to ignore in its search for food. These choices shape the world of its
experience. This is why, if you and I walk through a store at the
same time, for example,
we will experience different stores to the extent that we’re looking for different things.
The mind’s search for nourishment is constant and never
g, because its food
especially its mental food
is always threatening to run out. Whatever satisfaction it
derives from its food is always short
lived. No sooner has the mind found a place to feed
than it’s already looking for where to feed next. Should it stay here? Should it go
somewhere else? These incessant questions of “What next
?” “Where next?” drive its search
being. But because these questions are the
questions of hunger,
they themselves keep
eating away at the mind. Driven by hunger to keep answering these questions, the mind
often acts compulsively
out of ignorance, misunderstanding what
causes unnecessary stress and what doesn’t. This causes it to create even more suffering and
The purpose of meditation is to end this ignorance, and to root out the questions of
that keep driving it.
An important aspect of this ignorance is the mind’s blindness to its own inner workings
present moment, for the present moment is where choices are made. Although the
mind often acts under the force of habit, it doesn’t have to. It has the option o
new choices with every moment. The more clearly you see what’s happening in the
present, the more likely you are to make skillful choices: ones that will lead to genuine
and, with practice, will bring you closer and closer to total freed
suffering and stress
now and into the future. Meditation focuses your attention on the
present moment because the present moment is where you can watch the workings of the
mind and direct them in a more skillful direction. The present is the only m
oment in time
where you can act and bring about change.
The committee of the mind.
f the first things you learn about the mind as you
get started in meditation is that
it has many minds.
This is because you have many different
ideas about how to satis
fy your hungers and find well
being, and many different desires
based on those ideas. These ideas boil down to different notions about what constitutes
happiness, where it can be found, and what you are as a person: your needs for particular
kinds of pleas
ure, and your abilities to provide those pleasures. Each desire thus acts as a
seed for a particular sense of who you are and the world you live in.
The Buddha had a technical term for this sense of self
ity in a particular world of
experience: He cal
Take note of this term and the concept behind it, for it’s
central to understanding why you cause yourself stress and suffering and what’s involved in
learning how to stop.
If the concept seems foreign to you, think of when you’re drifting
o sleep and an
image of a place appears in the mind. You enter into the image, lose touch with the world
outside, and that’s when you’ve entered the world of a dream. That world of a dream, plus
your sense of having entered into it, is a form of beco
Once you become sensitive to this process, you’ll see that you engage in it even when
you’re awake, and many times in the course of a day. To gain freedom from the stress and
suffering it can cause, you’re going to have to examine the many becomings
you create in
your search for food
the selves spawned by your desires, and the worlds they inhabit
for only when you’ve examined these things thoroughly can you gain release from their
You’ll find that, in some cases, different desires share c
ommon ideas of what happiness
is and who you are (such as your desires for establishing a safe and stable family). In others,
their ideas conflict (as when your desires for your family conflict with your desires for
immediate pleasure regardless of the con
sequences). Some of your desires relate to the same
mental worlds; others to conflicting mental worlds; and still others to mental worlds
totally divorced from one another. The same goes for the different senses of “you”
inhabiting each of those worlds. So
me of your “yous” are in harmony, others are
incompatible, and still others are totally unrelated to one another.
So there are many different ideas of “you” in your mind, each with its own agenda.
f these “yous” is a member of the committee of the mi
nd. This is why the mind is
less like a single mind and more like an unruly throng of people: lots of different voices,
with lots of different opinions about what you should do.
Some members of the committee are open and honest about the assumptions underl
ir central desires. Others are more obscure and devious. This is because each committee
member is like a politician, with its own supporters and strategies for satisfying their
desires. Some committee members are idealistic and honorable. Others ar
e not. So the
mind’s committee is less like a communion of saints planning a charity event, and more like
a corrupt city council, with the balance of power constantly shifting between different
factions, and many deals being made in back rooms.
One of the
es of meditation is to bring these dealings out into the open, so that
you can bring more order to the committee
so that your desires for happiness work less at
cross purposes, and more in harmony as you realize that they don’t always have to be in
onflict. Thinking of these desires as a committee also helps you realize that when the
practice of meditation goes against some of your desires, it doesn’t go against
desires. You’re not being starved. You don’t have to identify with the desire
thwarted through meditation, because you have other, more skillful desires to identify
with. The choice is yours. You can also use the more skillful members of the committee to
train the less skillful ones so that they stop sabotaging your efforts to find a genuine
Always remember that genuine happiness is possible, and the mind can train itself to find that happiness.
are probably the most important premises underlying the practice of breath
meditation. There are many dimensions to
the mind, dimensions often obscured by the
squabbling of the committee members and their fixation with fleeting forms of happiness.
One of those dimensions is totally
. In other words, it’s not dependent on
conditions at all. It’s not affecte
d by space or time. It’s an experience of total, unalloyed
freedom and happiness. This is because it’s free from hunger and from the need to feed.
But even though this dimension is unconditioned, it can be attained by changing the
in the mind: d
eveloping the skillful members of the committee so that your
choices become more and more conducive to genuine happiness.
This is why the path of meditation is called a path: It’s like the path to a mountain.
Even though the path doesn’t cause the mountain
, and your walking on the path doesn’t
cause the mountain, the act of walking along the path can take you to the mountain.
Or you can think of the unconditioned dimension as like the fresh water in salt water.
The ordinary mind is like salt water, which ma
kes you sick when you drink it. If you
simply let the salt water sit still, the fresh water won’t separate out on its own. You have to
make an effort to distill it. The act of distilling doesn’t create fresh water. It simply brings
out the fresh water alre
ady there, providing you with all the nourishment you need to
quench your thirst.
Training the mind.
raining that gets you to the mountain and provides you with
fresh water has three aspects: virtue, concentration, and discernment. Virtue is the skill
with which you interact with other people and living beings at large, based on the
intention to cause no harm to yourself or to others. This is a topic that we will consider in
Part Three, in the discussion of issues that commonly arise when integrating m
into daily life, but it’s important to note here why virtue is related to meditation. If you act
in harmful ways, then when you sit down to meditate, the knowledge of that harm gets in
the way of staying firmly in the present moment. If you react
with regret over the harm
you’ve done, you find it difficult to stay settled in the present moment with confidence. If
you react with denial, you build inner walls in your awareness that create more
opportunities for ignorance and make it harder to look d
irectly at what’s really going on in
The best way to avoid these two reactions is to stick to the intention not to do
ing harmful in the first place, and then make up your mind to follow that intention
with more and more skill. If you’ve see
n that you have acted unskillfully, acknowledge
your mistake, recognize that regret won’t erase the mistake, and resolve not to repeat that
mistake in the future. This is the most that can be asked of a human being living in time,
where our actions aimed a
t shaping the future can be based only on knowledge of the past
The second aspect of the training is concentration. Concentration is the skill of keeping
nd centered on a single object, such as the breath, with a sense of ease, refreshme
equanimity being the ability to watch things without falling under the
sway of likes and dislikes.
Attaining concentration requires developing three qualities of mind:
the ability to know what’s happening in the body and mind
the desire and effort to abandon any unskillful qualities that may arise in
the mind, and to develop skillful qualities in their place.
the ability to keep something in mind. In the case of breath
this means remembering to stay with the breath and to maintain the
qualities of alertness and ardency with every in
When these three qualities become strong, they can bring the mind to a state of strong
tive absorption, which we will discuss in Part Four.
Because jhana is based on desire
the desire to develop skillful qualities in the mind
too, is a form of becoming. But it’s a special form of becoming that allows you to see the
in action. At the same time, the ease and refreshment provided by
jhana are health food for the mind, enabling you to abandon many of the unskillful eating
habits that would pull you off the path. Because the supply of mental food coming from
jhana is stea
dy, it takes some of the pressure off of your need to feed. This allows you to
step back from the questions of hunger, and to look at them through the
seeing where the stress of feeding is unnecessary, and how you can master the
kills to go beyond it. This is why jhana is central to the path of training.
The third aspect of the training is discernment. Discernment is the ability:
to distinguish the skillful processes in the mind from the unskillful ones,
to understand how to a
bandon what’s unskillful and to develop what’s skillful, and
to know how to motivate yourself so that you can abandon unskillful processes
and to develop skillful processes even when you’re not in the mood.
You learn these three abilities by listening to
as when you read a book like this
and by observing your own actions and asking the right questions about them. In the
beginning, you step back from the questions of hunger
which demand an answer
as to where and what to feed on next
d take stock of how you’ve been feeding:
In what ways do your feeding habits lead to stress?
In what ways is that stress unnecessary?
To what extent is it worth it
her words, to what extent does the pleasure
gained from feeding compensate for the stre
In the beginning stages, as you develop virtue and try to master concentration, the
ions of discernment are simply looking for better ways to feed. In other words,
they’re refined versions of the questions of hunger. You come to realize that the p
you gained from carelessly acting in harmful ways or letting the mind wander where it will
isn’t worth the stress it entails. You begin to see where the stress you thought was
unavoidable isn’t really necessary. You have other, better ways of findi
nourishment, feeding on the higher pleasures that virtue and concentration provide.
As your concentration develops, your discernment into the levels of stress in the mind
ore and more refined, so that your sense of what is and isn’t skillful
gets more refined
as well. As you keep applying the questions of discernment even to your practice of jhana,
you begin to wonder if it might be possible to escape the stress that comes even with the
most refined sort of feeding. What sort of skill would t
This is where the questions of discernment are no longer just a refined version of the
ions of hunger. They become
questions in that they take you beyond the need to
feed. They bring dignity to your search for happiness. They help y
ou uncover the
dimension where even feeding on jhana is no longer necessary. And when that dimension is
finally uncovered, all stress comes to an end.
The questions of noble discernment
rning unnecessary stress, the actions that
cause it, and the acti
ons that can help put an end to it
are related to one of the Buddha’s
most famous teachings:
the four noble truths.
The fact of unnecessary stress is the first truth;
the unskillful mental actions that cause it are the second; the fact that it can come to
is the third; and the skillful actions that bring it to an end are the fourth.
These truths are noble for three reasons. One, they’re absolute. They’re true for
ne everywhere, so they’re not just a matter of personal opinion or your cultural
Two, they provide guidance for a noble path of practice. They teach you not to deny
or run away from the stress you’re causing, but to acknowledge it and face it until you
comprehend it. When you comprehend it, you can see the causes of that str
ess in your
actions and abandon them. You develop the skillful actions that put an end to stress so that
you can realize freedom from stress for yourself.
The third reason these truths are noble is that, when you use the questions underlying
them to examin
e and question your actions, they lead ultimately to a noble attainment: a
genuine happiness that puts an end to the need to feed, and so causes no harm to anyone at
Because discernment is aimed at bringing your actions to the highest level of skill,
directly out of the quality of
in your concentration.
However, it also builds
in seeing which actions lead to which results. And it informs
you can remember the lessons you’ve learned from what you’ve obse
rved and can apply
them in the future.
In fact, all three aspects of the training
ue, concentration, and discernment
one another along. Virtue makes it easier to settle down in concentration and to be honest
with yourself in discerning which membe
rs of the mind’s committee are skillful and which
ones are not. Concentration provides the mind with a sense of refreshment that allows it to
resist unskillful urges that would create lapses in virtue, and the stability it needs to discern
clearly what’s actually going on inside. Discernment provides strategies for developing
virtue, along with an understanding of the mind’s workings that allow it to settle down in
stronger states of concentration.
Virtue, concentration, and discernment, in turn, are a
ed on the most fundamental
part of the training: the practice of generosity. In being generous with your belongings,
your time, your energy, your knowledge, and your forgiveness, you create a space of
freedom in the mind. Instead of being driven by y
our various appetites, you can step back
and realize the joy that comes when you’re not a slave to hunger all the time. This
realization provides your basic impetus to look for a happiness where you don’t need to
feed at all. Seeing the good that comes fro
m giving, you can learn to approach the practice
of virtue and meditation not just with an eye to what you can get out of it, but also with
an eye to what you can
to the practice. The training of the mind becomes a gift both
for yourself and for the p
eople around you.
So, all in all, the premises of breath meditation are based on four observations about the
hat the Buddha called
) The mind experiences stress and suffering.
) The stress and suffering come from the way the mind shap
s experience through
its actions driven by ignorance.
) That ignorance can be ended, opening your awareness to an unconditioned
nsion free of stress and suffering.
) That dimension, even though it’s unconditioned, can be reached by training the
the skillful qualities of virtue, concentration, and discernment.
The purpose of breath meditation is to help with that training.
The word “breath” covers a wide range of energies in the body. Most
inently, there’s the energy of the in
out breath. We tend to think of this breath as
the air coming in and out of the lungs, but this air wouldn’t move if it weren’t for an
energy in the body activating the muscles that draw it in and allow it to go out. When you
meditate on the in
t breath, you may start by paying attention to the movement of
the air, but as your sensitivity develops, you become more focused on the energy.
In addition to the energy of the in
out breath, there are subtler flows of energy
that spread through all p
arts of the body. These can be experienced as the mind grows
more still. There are two types: moving energies; and still, steady energies. The moving
energies are directly related to the energy of the in
out breath. For instance, there is
the flow of e
nergy in the nerves, as all the muscles involved in breathing, however subtly,
are activated with each breath. This energy flow also allows you to have sensation in the
different parts of the body and to move them at will. There is also the flow of energy
nourishes the heart with each breath, and then spreads from the heart as it pumps the
blood. This can be felt with the movement of blood through the blood vessels and out to
every pore of the skin.
As for the still, steady energies, these are centered
fferent spots in the body, such as
the tip of the breastbone, the middle of the brain, the palms of the hands, or the soles of the
feet. Once the in
out breath grows calm, these energies can be spread to fill the whole
body with a sense of stilln
ess and fullness that feels solid and secure.
To some people, these energies in the different parts of the body might seem
or even imaginary. But even if the concept of these energies seems foreign to
you, the energies themselves are not. They f
orm the way you directly experience the body
from within. If they weren’t already there, you wouldn’t have any sense of where your
own body is.
So when you try to acquaint yourself with these energies, there are three points to keep
concerned with your breath as it might be observed by a doctor or a machine outside
You’re concerned with your breath as only you can know it: as part of your direct
experience of having a body. If you have trouble thinking of these energies as “breat
see if thinking of them as “breathing sensations” or “body sensations” helps
enables you to get in touch with what’s actually there.
a matter of trying to create sensations that don’t already exist.
more sensitive to sensations that are already there. When you’re told
to let the breath energies flow into one another, ask yourself if the sensations you feel
seem unconnected to one another. If they do, simply hold in mind the possibility that
connect on their own. This is what it means to
them to flow.
These energies are not air.
They’re energy. If, while you’re allowing the breath
energies to spread through the various parts of the body, you sense that you’re trying
to force energy into those parts, stop and remind yourself: Energy doesn’t need to be
forced. There’s plenty of space even in the most solid parts of the body for this energy
to flow, so you don’t have to push it against any resistance. If there’s a sense of
resistance to t
he energy, it’s coming from the way you visualize it. Try to visualize the
energy in a way that can slip around and through everything with ease.
The best way to get in touch with these energies is to close your eyes, notice the
ions that tell you wh
ere the different parts of your body are, and then allow yourself
to view those sensations as a type of energy. As you get more sensitive to those sensations
and see how they interact with the energy of the in
out breath, it will seem more and
ural to regard them as types of breath energy. That allows you to get the most use
out of them.
Why the breath.
There are two reasons why the breath is chosen as a topic of
meditation: It’s a good theme for developing the qualities needed for
All three qualities needed for concentration are easily developed by focusing on the
The only breath you can observe is the breath in the present. When you’re
the breath, your attention has to be in the
present. Only in the present can you
observe what’s going on in the body and mind as it’s actually happening.
The breath is also a meditation theme that goes along with you wherever you go. As
s you’re alive, you’ve got the breath right here to focus
on. This means that you can
meditate on the breath and develop alertness at any time and in any situation.
use the breath is so close to your present awareness, it’s easy to
remember. If you forget to stay with the breath, the simple sens
ation of an in
remind you to come back to it.
The breath is one of the few processes in the body over which you can exert
ous control. An important part of breath meditation is learning how to make skillful
use of this fact. You c
an learn which ways of breathing foster pleasant sensations in the
body, and which ones foster unpleasant ones. You learn a sense of time and place: when
and how to change the breath to make it more comfortable, and when to leave it alone. As
you develop t
his knowledge, you can use it as an aid in developing skillful qualities of
This sort of knowledge comes from experimenting with the breath and learning to
ve the effects of different kinds of breathing on the body and mind. You can call this
rt of experimentation
with the breath, for you’ve got an ardent purpose: the
training of the mind. But you can also call it
with the breath, for it requires that you
use your imagination and ingenuity in thinking of different ways to breath
e and to picture
the breath energy to yourself. At the same time, it can be a lot of fun as you learn to
explore and discover things about your body on your own.
There are many ways in which working and playing with the breath can help foster the
f ardency in your meditation. For instance, when you learn how to breathe in
ways that feel comfortable
to energize the body when you feel tired, or to relax the body
when you feel tense
you make it easier to settle into the present moment and to stay
e with a sense of well
being. You learn to view the meditation not as a chore, but as an
opportunity to develop an immediate sense of well
being. This gives energy to your desire
to stick with the meditation over the long term.
Playing with the breath also
s you stay in the present
and stick with the
meditation over time
because it gives you something interesting and engaging to do that
can show immediate benefits. This keeps you from getting bored with the meditation. As
you see the good results arisin
g from adjusting the breath, you become more motivated to
explore the potentials of the breath in a wide variety of different situations: how to adjust
the breath when you’re sick, how to adjust it when you feel physically or emotionally
threatened, how to
adjust it when you need to tap into reserves of energy to overcome
feelings of exhaustion.
The pleasure and refreshment that can come from working and playing with the breath
provide your ardency with a source of inner food. This inner food helps you deal
obstreperous members of the committee of the mind who won’t back down unless they get
immediate gratification. You learn that simply breathing in a particular way gives rise to an
immediate sense of pleasure. You can relax patterns of tension in
different parts of the
the back of the hands, the feet, in your stomach or chest
that would otherwise
trigger and feed unskillful urges. This alleviates the sense of inner hunger that can drive
you to do things that you know aren’t skillful. So in add
ition to helping with your ardency,
this way of working with the breath can help with your practice of virtue.
Because of the direct connection between ardency and discernment, the act of
working and playing with the breath also helps develop discernmen
The breath is the perfect place from which to watch the mind, for it’s the physical process most responsive
to the mind’s own workings.
As you grow more sensitive to the breath, you’ll come to see that
subtle changes in the breath are often a sign of subtle changes in the mind. This can alert
you to developments in the mind just as they’re starting to happen. And that can help you
to see more quickly through the ignorance that can lead to stress and suffering.
The sense of well
being fostered by work
ing and playing with the breath gives you a solid foundation for
observing stress and suffering.
If you feel threatened by your suffering, you won’t have the
patience and endurance needed to watch and comprehend it. As soon as you encounter it,
you want to
run away. But if you’re dwelling in a sense of well
being in the body and
mind, you don’t feel so threatened by pain or suffering. That enables you to watch pain
and suffering more steadily. You know that you have a safe place in your body where the
h feels comfortable, where you can focus your attention when the stress or suffering
becomes too overwhelming. (For more on this topic, see the discussion of “Pain” in Part
Three.) This gives you confidence to probe more deeply into the pain.
The sense o
f pleasure that comes from concentration, as it gets more refined, allows you to see more subtle
levels of stress in the mind.
It’s like making yourself very quiet so that you can hear subtle
sounds very far away.
Being able to attain this inner level of
pleasure puts the mind in a much better mood,
so that it’s
much more willing to accept the fact that it has been causing itself suffering. Training the
mind to look honestly at its unskillful qualities is like talking to a person about his faults
tcomings. If he’s hungry, tired, and grumpy, he won’t want to hear anything of
what you have to say. You need to wait until he’s well
fed and well
rested. That’s when
he’ll be more willing to admit his faults.
This is the main issue with the mind: It’s cau
tself suffering through its own
stupidity, its own lack of skill, and usually it doesn’t want to admit this fact to itself. So we
use the sense of well
being that comes with playing and working with the breath to put the
mind in a mood where it’s muc
h more willing to admit its shortcomings and to do
something about them.
As you work and play with the breath, you also find that you have strategies for dealing with pain.
Sometimes allowing breath energy to flow right through the pain can help lessen i
t. At the
very least, the pain becomes less of a burden on the mind. This, too, allows you to face the
pain with confidence. You’re less and less likely to feel overwhelmed by it.
Finally, w orking w ith the breath in this w ay show s you the extent to w hich
you shape your present
and how you can learn to shape it more skillfully. As I said above, the mind is
primarily active in its approach to experience. Discernment, too, has to be active in
understanding where the processes of the mind are skill
ful and unskillful in the shape they
give to things. Discernment doesn’t come just from watching passively as things arise and
pass away in your experience. It also has to see
they arise and
they pass away. To
do this, it has to experiment
o make skillful qualities arise and unskillful qualities
to see which causes are connected to which effects.
In particular, discernment comes from engaging with your present intentions, to see the
extent to which those intentions play a role in s
haping the way experiences arise and pass
The Buddhist term for this act of shaping is
in the sense of fabricating a
and fabrication comes in three forms.
fabrication of your sense of the body t
hrough the in
out breath. The way you breathe influences your heart rate, the release of
hormones into the blood stream, and the way you experience the body in general.
This is the way you direct your thoughts to
omething and evaluate it. These two processes of directed thought and evaluation are
the basis of your internal conversation. You bring up topics in the mind to think about,
and then make comments on them.
This consists of perceptions and feelings.
Perceptions are the labels you put on things: the words by which you name them, or
the images the mind associates with them, sending itself subliminal messages about
them. Feelings are the feeling
tones of pleasure, pain, or n
which can be either physical or mental.
These three forms of fabrication shape your every experience. Take an example: Your
as called you into her office for a meeting. As you go to the meeting, you call to
mind some of the
difficult exchanges you’ve had with her in the past. This is perception, a
form of mental fabrication. You think about the possible issues that might be discussed, and
you’re concerned that she’s going to reprimand you. This is verbal fabrication. As a res
of your concerns, your breathing becomes constricted, causing your heart to speed up. This
is bodily fabrication. All these forms of fabrication lead to feelings of mental and physical
ease, which are another form of mental fabrication. As you open
the door to her office,
these forms of fabrication already have you primed to overreact to even the slightest
expressions of dislike or contempt in her words and bodily language
or to see such
expressions even when they’re not there.
This is an example in
h these three forms of fabrication have you primed to enter
into the meeting in a way that will affect not only your experience of the meeting, but also
your boss’s experience of you. Even before the meeting has started, you’re increasing the
that it won’t go well.
But you could also use the power of fabrication to shift the meeting in another
tion. Before opening the door, you stop to take a few deep, relaxing breaths (bodily
fabrication plus feeling as a mental fabrication), and then cal
l to mind the fact that your
boss has been suffering from a lot of stress lately (perception as a mental fabrication).
Putting yourself in her shoes, you think of ways in which to approach the meeting in a
spirit of cooperation (verbal fabrication). You op
en the door to a different meeting.
These three forms of fabrication shape not only your external experiences. They’re
the processes shaping the different members of the mind’s
committee, as well as the means by which the different commi
ttee members interact.
Verbal fabrications are the most obvious way in which these members shout or whisper in
one another’s ears
your many inner ears
but verbal fabrications are not the only way.
For instance, if one of the members is advocating anger, it
will also hijack your breathing,
making it labored and uncomfortable. This leads you to believe that you’ve got to get the
uncomfortable feeling associated with the anger out of your system by saying or doing
something under its influence. Anger will also
flash perceptions and images of danger and
injustice through your mind, in the same way that devious television producers might flash
subliminal messages on your television screen to make you hate and fear the people they
It’s because we’re ig
norant of the many levels on which these fabrications shape our
actions that we suffer from stress. To end that suffering, we have to bring these
fabrications into the light of our alertness and discernment.
Working and playing with the breath is an ideal
way to d
o this, because when you
work with the breath, you bring all three kinds of fabrication together. You’re adjusting
and observing the breath; you’re thinking about the breath and evaluating the breath; you
use the perceptions of the breath to stay w
ith the breath, and you evaluate the feelings that
arise when you work with the breath.
This allows you to be more sensitive to the fabrication of what’s going on in the
nt. You begin to see how the mind’s committee creates pleasure and pain not only
while engaged in meditation, but all of the time. By consciously engaging in this
fabrication with knowledge and discernment, you can change the balance of power in the
mind. You reclaim your breath, your thoughts, your perceptions and feelings so that the
can strengthen the skillful members of the committee, and aren’t under the power of the
unskillful ones. You can actually create new, even more skillful members of the committee,
who help you progress on the path.
In this way, you take one of the problem
s of t
its fragmentation into many
different voices, many different selves
and turn it to your advantage. As you develop new
skills in meditation, you train new members of the committee who can reason with and
convert the more impatient members, sho
wing them how to cooperate in finding a true
happiness. As for the members that can’t be converted, they gradually lose their power
because their promises of happiness are no match for the promises of the new members who
actually deliver. So the blatantly
unskillful members gradually disappear.
As your practice of concentration and discernment develops, you become more
ive to the stresses and sufferings caused by fabrication even in activities that you used
to regard as pleasant. This makes you become
more ardent in looking for a way out. And
when discernment sees that the way you fabricate stress and suffering in the present
moment is unnecessary, you lose your taste for those fabrications and can let them stop.
That’s how the mind becomes free.
e beginning, you gain this freedom step by step, starting from the most blatant
ls of fabrication. As the meditation develops, discernment frees you from progressively
subtler levels until it can drop the subtlest levels that stand in the way of the un
dimension: the unconditioned dimension that constitutes the ultimate happiness.
Your first taste of this dimension shows you that the most important premise
underlying breath meditation is right: An unconditioned happiness is possible. Even
gh, at this stage, your taste of this dimension doesn’t totally put an end to suffering
and stress, it does confirm that you’re on the right path. You’ll be able to reach it for sure.
And at that point, you’ll have no more need for books of this sort.
use the breath is so helpful in developing all three aspects of the path to
virtue, concentration, and discernment
it’s an ideal theme for
training the mind to experience that happiness for itself.
e no author is listed, the writings are mine.)
On the values underlying the practice:
“Affirming the Truths of the Heart”;
“Purity of Heart”
On the committee of the mind:
Selves & Not
“The Wisdom of
On the suffering that the mind creates for itself:
“Life Isn’t Just Suffering”;
On the questions of discernment:
“Questions of Skill”
On the four noble truths:
“Untangling the Present
or a more detailed discussion, see
e Four Noble Truths” and “The First Truth” in
The Wings to Awakening.
On the role of moderation and discernment in the practice:
“The Middles of the Middle
the meaning of mindfulness:
“The Agendas of
On the e
lement of play in the practice:
he Joy of Effort”;
“Joy in Effort” in
It’s often nice to have a few books of short Dhamma passages that you can open at
random to get a Buddhist perspective on things. Some good examples: Ajaan Fuang Jotiko
Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
The Skill of Release;
Ajaan Dune Atulo
Ajahn Chah Subhaddo
In Simple Terms;
and the section,
ika Kee Nanayon
An Unentangled Knowing
e Search for Happiness
Why We Train the Mind
: The Intelligent Heart
: Homeschooling Your Inner Children
: The Open Committee
Organizing Your Inner Committee
: The Karma of Self
The Need for Stillness
: Everybody Suffers
: Why the Breath
: Why Mindfulness
: Concentration Nurtured with Virtue
I : GETTING READY TO MEDITATE
Meditation is something you can do in any situation and in any posture. However,
tuations are more conducive than others to helping the mind settle down. Especially
when you’re just getting
started, it’s wise to look for situations where there’s a minimum of
disturbance, both physical and mental.
Also, some postures are more conducive than others to helping the mind settle down.
andard posture for meditation is sitting, and it’s wise t
o learn how to sit in a way
that allows you to meditate for long periods of time without moving and without at the
same time causing undue pain or harm for the body. Other standard postures for meditating
are walking, standing, and lying down. We’ll focus
here on sitting, and save the other
postures for section IV of Part One, below.
Before you sit to meditate on the breath, it’s wise to look at three things in this order:
hysical situation, your posture, and your mental situation
in other words, the
of your mind.
YOUR PHYSICAL SITUATION
Where to meditate.
Choose a quiet spot, in your home or outside. For a daily
meditation routine, it’s good to choose a spot that you don’t normally use for other
purposes. Tell yourself that the only thing you’
re going to do when you sit in that spot is
to meditate. You’ll begin to develop quiet associations with that spot each time you sit
there. It becomes your special place to settle down and be still. To make it even more
calming, try to keep the area around
it neat and clean.
When to meditate.
se a good time to meditate. Early in the morning, right after
you’ve woken up and washed your face, is often best, for your body is rested and your
mind hasn’t yet become cluttered with issues from the day. Another
good time is in the
evening, after you’ve rested a bit from your daily work. Right before you go to sleep is
the best time to meditate, for the mind will keep telling itself, “As soon as this is over, I’m
going to bed.” You’ll start associating medita
tion with sleep, and, as the Thais say, your
head will start looking for the pillow as soon as you close your eyes.
If you have trouble sleeping, then by all means meditate when you’re lying in bed, for
ation is a useful substitute for sleep. Often it
refreshing than sleep, for it
can dissolve bodily and mental tensions better than sleeping can. It can also calm you down
enough so that worries don’t sap your energy or keep you awake. But make sure that you
also set aside another time of the
day to meditate too, so that you don’t always associate
meditation with sleep. You want to develop it as an exercise in staying alert.
Also, it’s generally not wise to schedule your regular meditation for right after a large
meal. Your body will be direct
ing the blood down to your digestive system, and that will
tend to make you drowsy.
If you’re living with other people, tell them you don’t want
to be disturbed while you’re meditating unless there’s a serious emergency. You’re taki
some time out to be an easier person to live with. If you’re the only adult at home, and
you’re living with children for whom everything is a serious emergency, choose a time
when the children are asleep. If you’re living with older children, explain to
you’ll be meditating for
amount of time and you need privacy during that time. If they
interrupt you with a non
emergency, quietly tell them that you’re still meditating and that
you’ll talk with them when you’re done. If they want to meditate
with you, welcome
them, but establish a few rules for their behavior so that they don’t disturb your time to be
Turn off your cell phone and any other devices that might interrupt your meditation.
Use a watch or a clock with a timer to time your me
ion. In the beginning, twenty
minutes is usually about right, for it gives you enough time to settle down a bit, but not so
much time that you start getting bored or frustrated if things aren’t going well. As you
gain some skill in the meditation, you
can gradually increase your meditation time by five
Once you’ve set your timer, put it behind you or off to your side so that you can’t see
you’re in your meditation position. That will help you to avoid the temptation
peek at the time and to turn your meditation into an exercise in clock
If you have a dog in your home, put it in another room and close the door. If it starts to
nd scratch at the door, let it into the room where you’re sitting, but be
yourself in being unresponsive if it comes to you for attention. Most dogs, after a few days,
will get the message that when you’re sitting there with your eyes closed, you’re not going
to respond. The dog may well lie down and rest along with
you. But if it doesn’t get the
message, put it back in the other room.
Cats are usually less of a problem in this regard, but if you do have an attention
cat, treat it as you would a dog.
An important part of training the mind lies
in training the body to stay still so that you
can focus on the movements of the mind without being disturbed by the movement of the
body. If you’re not used to sitting still for long periods of time, the act of training the body
will have to go along with
training the mind.
If you’re new to meditation, it’s wise not to focus too much on your posture for the
several sessions. That way you can give your full attention to training the mind, saving
the process of training the body for when you’ve had som
e success in focusing on the
So for beginners, simply sit in a comfortable way, spread thoughts of goodwill
for true happiness
to yourself and others, and then follow the steps in the section,
“Focusing on the Breath,” below. If your posture
gets uncomfortable, you may shift
slightly to relieve the discomfort, but try to keep your attention focused on the breath
while you shift position.
good yoga teachers, ask them to recommend some yoga poses that will help limber up
legs and hips. Do those poses before you meditate to speed up the body’s adaptation to the
A somewhat gentler way of sitting cross
legged than the half
lotus is the
Fold your legs, but don’t put the right leg on top
of the left. Place it on the floor in front
of the left, so that your right knee makes a gentler angle, and the left leg isn’t pressed down
by the right. This helps relieve some of the pressure on both legs.
If you have a knee or hip inju
ry that makes it difficult to sit cross
legged, you can try sitting on a meditation bench, to see if that’s easier. Kneel with your
shins on the ground, place the bench over your calves, and then sit back on the bench.
Some benches are designed to force yo
u to sit at a certain angle. Others can rock back and
forth, allowing you to choose your own angle or to change it at will. Some people like this;
others find it unstable. It’s a personal choice.
If none of these three alternatives
ing right on the flo
or, sitting on the floor on top
of a folded blanket, or sitting on a meditation bench
works for you, there are many styles
of meditation cushions available for purchase. They’re usually a waste of money, though,
because an extra folded blanket or firm pill
ow can usually serve the same purpose. Pillows
and blankets may not look as serious as a dedicated meditation cushion, but there’s no need
to pay a lot of extra money just for looks. A good lesson in becoming a meditator is
learning how to improvise with w
hat you’ve got.
Alternatively, you can try sitting on a chair.
Choose a chair with a seat just high enough off the ground so that your feet can rest
n the ground and your knees can bend at a ninety
degree angle. A wooden or other
firm chair, with or
without a folded blanket or thin cushion on the seat, is ideal. Too thick
a cushion is unwise, for it leads you to hunch over.
When you’ve got a good chair, sit slightly away from the back, so that your back
rts itself. Then follow the same steps as w
ith the half
lotus: Place your hands on your
lap, palms up, one on top of the other. Bring your hands close to your stomach. Sit straight,
look straight in front of you, and close your eyes. Pull your shoulders back slightly and
then down, to create a nice
arch in your middle and lower back. Pull your stomach in a bit.
Relax into this posture. In other words, see how many muscles you can relax and still
If you’re too ill or disabled to sit in any of these postures, choose a posture that feels
able for your particular condition.
With any posture, if you discover that you have a tendency over time to slump your
it may be because of the way you breathe out. Pay a little extra attention to your
breaths, reminding yourself to keep yo
ur back straight each time you breathe out. Keep
this up until you’ve established it as a habit.
And whatever your posture, remember that you don’t have to make a vow at the
ning not to move. If you find yourself in extreme pain, wait a minute so that
don’t become a slave to every passing pain, and then very consciously
of anything else
shift your posture to something more comfortable. Then resume your
THE STATE OF YOUR MI ND
Once your body is in position, take a coup
le of deep in
out breaths, and then look
at the state of your mind. Is it staying with the breath, or is a persistent mood getting in
the way? If you’re staying with the breath, keep going. If some of the members of your
mind’s committee are less coope
rative, bring in some other members to counteract them.
The important point is that you don’t let a mood dictate whether you’re going to
ate or not. Remember, a bad meditation session is better than no meditation session at
all. At the very least, you
learn to resist the unskillful members of your mind to at least
some extent. And only through resisting them can you come to understand them
same way that building a dam across a river is a good way to learn how strong the river’s
some of your committee members are getting in the way, there are some standard
emplations to counteract them. The purpose of these contemplations is to cut through
the mind’s usual narratives and to create some new committee members with new
that will help put things into perspective so that you’re more willing to stay with
The sublime attitudes.
ost popular contemplation is to develop attitudes of
goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity for all beings, without l
or sublime attitudes
are so useful that many people make
a standard practice of developing them for a few minutes at the beginning of every
meditation session regardless of whether there’s a conscious need for th
em. This helps to
clear up any buried resentments from your daily interactions with other people, and
reminds you of why you’re meditating: You want to find a happiness that’s secure
means that it has to be harmless. Meditation is one of the few ways
of finding happiness
that harms no one at all. At the same time, you’re creating a new narrative for your life:
Instead of being a person weighed down by resentments, you show yourself that you can
rise above difficult situations and develop a magnanimous
The four sublime attitudes are actually contained in two: goodwill and equanimity.
ill is a wish for true happiness, both for yourself and for all others. Compassion is
the attitude that goodwill develops when it sees people suffering or acti
ng in ways that will
lead to suffering. You want them to stop suffering. Empathetic joy is the attitude that
goodwill develops when it sees people happy or acting in ways that will lead to happiness.
You want them to continue being happy. Equanimity is the
attitude you have to develop
when you realize that certain things are beyond your control. If you let yourself get
worked up over them, you waste the energy you could have applied to areas where you
have an effect. So you try to put your mind on an ev
en keel toward the things you can’t
control, beyond the sway of your likes and dislikes.
Here’s an exercise for developing goodwill and equanimity:
Remind yourself of what goodwill is
sh for true happiness
and that, in
spreading thoughts of goodwill, y
ou’re wishing that you and all others will develop the
for true happiness. You’re also establishing the intention to further true happiness in
any way you can, within your own mind and in your dealings with others. Of course, not
everyone will act i
n line with your wish, which is why it’s important also to develop
thoughts of equanimity to cover the cases where people refuse to act in the interests of true
happiness. That way you won’t suffer so much when people act unskillfully, and you can
used on the cases where you
be of help.
For goodwill, begin by stating in your mind a traditional expression of goodwill for
“May I be happy. May I be free from stress and pain. May I be free from animosity, free from
trouble, free from oppre
ssion. M ay I look after myself with ease.”
Then spread similar thoughts to others, in ever
ing circles: people close to your
heart, people you like, people you’re neutral about, people you don’t like, people you don’t
and not just people: al
l living beings in all directions. In each case, say to
“May you be happy. May you be free from stress and pain. May you be free from animosity, free
from trouble, free from oppression. May you look after yourself with ease.”
Think of this wish a
spreading out in all directions, out to infinity. It helps to enlarge the mind.
To make this a heart
ing practice, ask yourself
when you’re secure in your
goodwill for yourself
if there’s anyone for whom you can’t sincerely spread thoughts of
ll. If a particular person comes to mind, ask yourself: “What would be gained by
this person’s suffering?” Most of the cruelty in the world comes from people who are
suffering and fearful. Only rarely do people who’ve been acting unskillfully react skillfu
to their suffering and change their ways. All too often they do just the opposite: They
hunger to make others suffer even more. So the world would be a better place if we could
all simply follow the path to true happiness by being generous and virtuous
, and by
training the mind.
With these thoughts in mind, see if you can express goodwill for this sort of person:
“May you learn the error of your ways, learn the way to true happiness, and look after yourself with ease.”
In expressing this thought, you’re
ecessarily wishing to love or have continued
relations with this person. You’re simply making the determination not to seek revenge
against those who have acted harmfully, or those whom you have harmed. This is a gift
both to yourself and to those ar
Conclude the session by developing an attitude of equanimity. Remind yourself that all
s will experience happiness or sorrow in line with their actions. In many cases, their
actions lie beyond your control, and your own past actions can’t be
erased. In cases where
these actions place obstacles in the way of the happiness you wish for all beings, you simply
have to accept the fact with equanimity. That way you can focus on areas where you can
make a difference through your present actions. Thi
s is why the traditional formula for
equanimity focuses on the issue of action:
“All living beings are the owners of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, are related
gh their actions, and live dependent on their actions. Whatev
er they do, for good or for evil, to that will
they fall heir.”
Thinking in this way helps you not to get worked up about what you can’t change, so
ou can devote the energy of your goodwill to what you can.
If there are people for whom goodwill is si
oo difficult for you to manage right
now, you might try developing thoughts of compassion instead. Think of the ways that
may be suffering, to see if that softens your attitude toward them, or helps you
understand why they act the way they do. I
f this is too difficult, you can go straight to
thoughts of equanimity about them. In other words, you can remind yourself that you
don’t have to settle accounts. You’re better off freeing yourself from the circle of revenge.
The principle of action and it
s results will take care of the situation.
Just that thought can give the mind some space to settle down and develop some
By spreading thoughts of goodwill and equanimity to all beings, you take your mind
out of its everyday narratives and c
reate a broader perspective for your meditation. It’s
easiest to settle the mind into the present moment, right here and now, when you’ve let it
think for a few moments about the universe as a whole. When you remember that all
beings are looking for happin
sometimes skillfully, more often not
it puts your own
quest for happiness in perspective. You want to do it right.
There are other contemplations to counteract specific unskillful moods that might get
way of your meditation, such as contemplatio
n of your own acts of generosity and
virtue for when you’re feeling low self
esteem, contemplation of death for when you’re
lazy, or contemplation of the unattractive parts of the body for when you’re overcome
with lust. A few of these contemplations are d
escribed in more detail in the Appendix.
II : FOCUSING ON THE BREATH
Now you’re ready to focus on the breath. There are six steps:
Find a comfortable way of breathing.
Start by taking a couple of deep, long in
out breaths. This helps to energize t
body for meditation and makes the breath easier to observe. Deep breathing at the
beginning of meditation is also a good habit to maintain even as you become more skilled
in the practice, for it helps to counteract any tendency to suppress the breath as
you try to
make the mind still.
Notice where you feel the sensations of breathing in the body: the sensations that tell
Now you’re taking an in
breath. Now you’re taking an out
breath.” Notice if they’re
comfortable. If they are, keep breathing in t
hat way. If they’re not, adjust the breath so
that it’s more comfortable. You can do this in any of three ways:
As you continue breathing deep and long, notice where a sense of strain develops in
dy toward the end of the in
breath, or where there’
s a sense of squeezing the breath
out toward the end of the out
breath. Ask yourself if you can relax those sensations with
the next breath as you maintain the same breathing rhythm. In other words, can you
maintain a sense of relaxation in the areas that
have been feeling strained toward the end of
breath? Can you breathe out at the same rate without squeezing it out? If you can,
keep up that rhythm of breathing.
Try changing the rhythm and texture of the breath. Experiment with different ways
thing to see how they feel. You can make the breath shorter or longer. You can try
short in and long out, or long in and short out. You can try faster breathing or slower
breathing. Deeper or more shallow. Heavier or lighter. Broader or more narrow. W
find a rhythm that feels good, stick with it as long as it feels good. If, after a while, it
doesn’t feel good, you can adjust the breath again.
Simply pose the question in the mind each time you breathe in: “What kind of breath
ially gratifying right now?” See how your body responds.
Stay with each in
If your attention slips off to something else, bring it right back to the breath. If it
wanders off again, bring it back again. If it wanders off
g it back
Don’t get discouraged. Don’t get upset with yourself. Each time you come back, reward
yourself with an especially gratifying breath. That way the mind will develop positive
associations with the breath. You’ll find it easier to stay wi
th the breath, and to return to it
quickly the next time you slip off.
If you get discouraged thinking about how many breaths you’re going to have to stay
ed on, tell yourself with each breath: “Just this one in
breath; just this one out
task of staying with the breath will then seem less overwhelming, and your
thoughts will be more precisely focused on the present.
If you want, you can use a meditation word to help fasten your attention to the breath.
(“awake”) is a popular one. Th
with the in
with the out. Or
you can simply think
Keep the meditation word as long as the breath. When you
find that you can stay easily with the breath, drop the meditation word so that you can
observe the breath more c
When the blatant sensations of breathing are comfortable, expand your awareness to
rent parts of the body to observe more subtle breathing sensations.
You can do this section
section, in any order you like, but in the beginning try to be
systematic so that you cover the entire body. Later, when your sensitivity to the body
becomes more automatic, you will quickly sense which parts of the body need most
attention, and you can direct your attention immediately there. But when you’re startin
out, it’s good to have a clear and comprehensive roadmap in mind.
One roadmap is this:
Start with the area around the navel.
Locate that part of the body in your
awareness and watch it for a while as you breathe in and breathe out. See what rhythm
texture of breathing feels best right there. If you notice any sense of tension or
tightness in that part of the body, allow it to relax, so that no tension builds up as you
breathe in, and you don’t hold on to any tension as you breathe out. If you want,
can think of breath energy entering the body right there at the navel, so that you don’t
create a sense of strain by trying to pull it there from somewhere else. Have a sense that
the breath energy is coming in and out freely and easily. There’s nothin
g obstructing it.
When that part of the body feels refreshed, move your attention to different parts
of the front of your torso and repeat the same steps. Survey the parts in this order: the
hand corner of the abdomen, the lower left
hand corner of the abdomen;
the solar plexus (the spot right in front of your stomach), the right flank (the side of the
rib cage), the left flank; the middle of the chest, the spot to the right of that where the
chest and the shoulder meet, the same spot on the l
eft. In other words, you move up
the front of the torso, focusing first on the center, then on the right, then on the left.
Then you move further up the torso and repeat the same pattern.
You may find, as you focus on the different parts of the body, tha
t the rhythm and
texture of the breathing will change to suit that part of the body. This is perfectly fine.
Then move your attention to the base of the throat and follow the same steps as
for the navel.
Then bring your attention to the middle of the h
ead. As you breathe in and out,
think of the breath energy coming in and out not only through the nose, but also
through the eyes, the ears, the back of the neck, the top of the head. Think of the
energy gently working through any patterns of tension you m
ay feel in the head
the jaws, around the eyes, in the forehead
and very gently dissolving those patterns of
tension away. When the patterns of tension feel relaxed, you can think of the breath
energy going deep into the area around the pineal gland, rig
ht behind the eyes, and
allowing that part of the body to absorb all the incoming breath energy it needs. But be
careful not to put too much pressure on the head, because the nerves of the head tend
to be overworked. Apply just enough pressure to maintain
your focus comfortably.
Now move your attention to the back of the neck, right at the base of the skull.
As you breathe in, think of the breath energy entering the body at that spot and then
going down the shoulders, down the arms, out to the tips of the
fingers. As you breathe
out, think of the energy radiating out from those parts of the body into the air. As you
become more sensitive to these parts of the body, notice which side is carrying more
tension: the left shoulder or the right shoulder, the left upper arm or the right upper
arm, and so on. Whichever side is holding more tension, consciously try to relax that
side and keep it relaxed all the way through the in
breath, all the way through the out
If you tend to hold a lot of tension in you
ds, spend a fair amount of time
releasing the tension along the back of each hand and in each finger.
Now, keeping your focus at the back of the neck, breathe in with the thought that
the energy is going down both sides of the spine down to the tail
bone. Repeat the same
steps as for the shoulders and arms. In other words, when you breathe out, think of the
breath energy radiating out from the back into the air. As you become more sensitive to
the back, notice which side is carrying more tension and c
onsciously try to keep that
side relaxed all the way through the in
breath, all the way through the out
Now move your attention down to the tailbone. As you breathe in, think of the
breath energy entering the body there, going down past the hips,
down the legs, and
out to the tips of the toes. Repeat the same steps as for the shoulders and arms. If
necessary, you can spend a fair amount of time releasing the tension in your feet and
That completes one cycle in the survey of the body. If yo
u like, you can go
through the body again, beginning at the navel, to see if you can clear up any patterns
of tension you may have missed the first time around. You can keep this up as many
times as you like until you feel ready to settle down.
e you spend with each section of the body is up to you. In the
beginning, as a general rule of thumb, you might want to spend just a few minutes with
each point or section, giving more time to the points on the central meridian of the body
than to th
e points on the side, and even more time to the shoulders, back, and legs. As you
become more familiar with the energy patterns in your own body, you can adjust the time
spent on each point as you see fit. If one point or section seems to respond especiall
to your attention, releasing tension in a refreshing way, stick with that point as long as it
responds. If a point or section doesn’t respond after several minutes of attention
or if you
find that tension increases when you focus on it
drop it for t
he time being and move on
to the next point.
If your time for meditation is limited, you might want to limit your survey to the
center points on the front of the torso
navel, solar plexus, middle of the chest
to the base of the throat and the midd
le of the head.
If focusing in the head gives you a headache, avoid focusing there until you learn how
ntain focus with a minimum of pressure.
Choose a spot to settle down.
You can choose any spot you like where the breath energy is clear and you
find it easy
to stay focused. A few of the traditional spots are:
the tip of the nose,
the point between the eyebrows,
the middle of the forehead,
the top of the head,
the middle of the head,
the back of the neck at the bas
e of t
the base of the throat,
the breastbone (the tip of the sternum),
the navel (or a point just above it),
the base of the spine.
Over the course of several meditations, you can experiment with different spots to see
the best results. You may also find that other spots not mentioned on this
list are also congenial. Or you may find that keeping track of two spots at once
middle of the head and the base of the spine
helps to keep your attention fixed more
y than focusing just on one spot. Ultimately, you want to be able to keep your
attention focused on any spot in the body. This ability will be useful when you’re suffering
from a disease or injury, as you can sometimes speed healing by focusing on the brea
energy at particular spots in the body.
Spread your awareness from that spot so that it fills the body through every in
Think of a lit candle in the middle of an otherwise dark room. The flame of the candle
is in one spot, but its lig
ht fills the entire room. You want your awareness to be centered
but broad in just the same way.
Your sense of awareness may have a tendency to shrink
especially as you breathe out
so remind yourself with every breath: “whole body
breathing in, whole body breathing out.” This full
body awareness helps to keep you from
getting drowsy when the breath gets comfortable, and from losing focus as the breath gets
Think of the breath energy coursing through the whole body with every in
Let the breath find whatever rhythm or texture feels best. Think of all the breath
energies connecting with one another and flowing in harmony. The more fully they’re
connected, the more effortless your breathing will be. If you have a sense that the br
channels are open during the in
breath but close during the out
breath, adjust your
perception to keep them open throughout the breathing cycle.
Then simply maintain that sense of whole
body breathing throughout the remainder of
your meditation. If th
e breath grows still, don’t worry. The body will breathe if it needs to.
When the mind is still, the brain uses less oxygen, so the oxygen that the body receives
through the lungs and perhaps through the relaxed pores (anatomists have
differing opinions on this)
will be enough to serve its needs. At the same time, however,
don’t force the breath to stop. Let it follow its own rhythm. Your duty is simply to
maintain a broad, centered awareness and to allow the breath to flow freely throughout the
If you find that you lose focus when you spread your awareness through the body, you
turn to the survey of the different parts, try a meditation word, or simply stay
focused on one point until you feel ready to try full
body awareness again.
ou get more familiar with the meditation and with the problems you
encounter while doing it, you can adjust these steps as you see fit. In fact, gaining a sense
of how to adjust things
to learn from your own experimentation
is an important
inciple in using breath meditation to develop discernment.
For example, you may want to
e the order of the steps.
You might find that you can
more easily find a comfortable way of breathing (step one) if you first develop a full
awareness (step f
ive). Or you might find that you need to force the mind to settle down
firmly in a single spot for a while (step four) before you can explore the breath sensations in
the rest of the body (step three). You might find that after you’ve chosen one spot to st
settled in (step four), you want to focus on two spots at once for a while before you move
on to spreading your awareness to the whole body (step five).
Another way of adjusting the steps is to
hat you do within a particular step.
ring the subtle breath sensations in the body
allows for an especially wide
range of variation. You might want to start your survey at the back of the neck, thinking
of the breath energy entering the body there from the back and then going down through
spine, and ultimately out the legs to the tips of the toes and the spaces between the
toes. Then think of the breath coming in the back of the neck going down through the
shoulders and out through the arms to the fingers and the spaces between the fingers
move your attention to the breath sensations in the front of the torso.
Or you might want to go through the body very quickly at first, and then repeat the
y more methodically.
Or you might visualize changing the direction of how the breath sen
through the body. For instance, instead of thinking of the breath flowing down the spine
and out the feet, you might think of it coming up from the feet, going up the spine, and
then either going out the top of the head or over the top of the
head and down through
your throat and out the area in front of the heart.
Or you might sense that there are breath energies surrounding the body like a cocoon.
his happens, try to get a sense of how to tell when these energies are in harmony,
ey’re in conflict, and how to bring them from conflict to harmony in a way that
nourishes the energies inside the body. One way of doing this is to visualize these energies
as all flowing in one direction
say, from the head to the toes
and then, after a wh
visualizing them all flowing in the other direction. Notice which direction feels more
comfortable, and then stick with that. If the cocoon of breath energies feels comfortable,
you can experiment with ways of using that comfortable energy to heal par
ts of the body
that feel tight or in pain.
Another way of adjusting the steps, on certain occasions, is to
focus on only a few of the steps.
There are two main situations in which you might want to try this:
When you’re first getting started
and you find that the more broadly focused steps
are hard to follow without getting distracted, you can skip them for the time
being and focus first on the more narrowly focused steps
until you can
stay with them consistently. Only then should
you expand your practice to include the
other three. However many sessions of meditation this may take doesn’t matter. What
matters is that you’re able to maintain a comfortable center. That will help you add the
remaining steps with a greater sense of sta
When you’re skilled at combining all six steps
and you want to gain practice in bringing
the mind to stillness as quickly as possible, you can focus on steps
. In other
words, once you’ve learned from experience where your mind feels m
centered, try settling down quickly in that spot, allow it to get comfortable, and then
see how quickly you can spread your awareness along with the comfortable breath to
fill the entire body and then keep it filled. This is a useful skill
to develop, not only in
the context of formal meditation, but also in daily life. This point will be discussed
further in Part Three.
se are just a few of the ways you might want to experiment. In general, though, it’s
best to begin with the six
steps, in order, so as to have a clear roadmap in mind each
time you sit down to meditate. That way, when you’ve wandered off, you’ll find it easier
to pick up where you left off. And if a particular stage in the practice goes especially well,
you’ll be b
etter able to remember it because you know where it is on the map.
re are three steps to
Reflect on how your meditation went.
The purpose here is to pick up useful points for the next
time you meditate. Was there
any time during the past session that the mind felt especially calm and centered? If there
was, ask yourself, “Where were you focused? What was the quality of your focus? What
was the quality of your breath? What did you do lea
ding up to that point in your
meditation?” Try to remember these things for the next session. You may find that you can
create that sensation of calm just by repeating the same steps. If you can’t, put that
memory aside and focus totally on what you’re
doing in the present. Try to be more
observant of these things the next time. It’s through being observant that the meditation
develops as a skill and gives more reliable results. It’s like being a good cook: If you notice
which foods please the people you
’re cooking for, you give them more of the same, and
eventually you’ll get a bonus or a raise in pay.
Spread thoughts of goodwill again.
Think of whatever peace and calm you felt for the past session, and dedicate it to other
beings: either specific peo
ple you know who are suffering right now, or all living beings in
all our companions in birth, aging, illness, and death. May we all find peace
being in our hearts.
Try to stay sensitive to the breath energy in the body as you op
r eyes and
leave the meditation posture.
Don’t let your awareness of the visual field crowd out your awareness of the body
field. And don’t let your concern for your next activity cause you to drop your awareness
of the breath energy in the body. Try
to maintain that sense of full
body awareness as
consistently as you can. You may not be able to keep track of the in
out breath as you
engage in other activities, but you can maintain an overall sense of the quality of breath
energy throughout the bo
dy. Keep it relaxed and flowing. Notice when you lose your
awareness of it; notice how you can regain it. Try to keep the sense of awareness of the
breath energy in the body as constant as you can until the next time you sit down to
meditate. This way you maintain a solid, nourishing foundation for the mind as you go
through the day. This gives you a sense of groundedness. That groundedness provides not
only a sense of security and inner ease, but also a basis for observing the movements of the
mind. This i
s one of the ways in which steady mindfulness and alertness form a foundation
In other words, the most skillful way to leave meditation is not to leave it entirely.
t going as much and as long as you can.
IV : MEDITATING IN OTHER POSTU
Walking meditation is a good transition between maintaining a still mind when the
body is still, and maintaining a still mind in the midst of all your activities. As you walk in a
meditative way, you gain practice in protecting the
stillness of the mind in the midst of the
motion of the body, while at the same time dealing with the fewest possible outside
An ideal time to practice walking meditation is right after you’ve been doing sitting
ation, so that you can b
ring a mind already stilled, to at least some extent, to the
Some people, though, find that the mind settles down more quickly while sitting if
ve done a session of walking meditation first. This is a matter of personal
e meditating right after a meal, it’s wise to do walking meditation rather than
sitting meditation, for the motion of the body helps both to digest your food and to ward
There are two ways of practicing walking meditation: walking back and
forth on a set
path, and going for a stroll. The first way is more conducive for helping the mind to settle
down; the second is more convenient when you don’t have access to an undisturbed path
where you can walk back and forth without rousing curiosity or
concerns from other
Walking on a path.
se a level path anywhere from
paces long. Ideally,
it should be a straight path, but if you can’t find a straight path that long, try an L
or a U
shaped path. If you’re going to time yo
ur meditation, set the timer and put it
someplace near the path but facing away so that you won’t be able to see how much time is
left while you’re walking.
Stand at one end of the path for a moment. Gently clasp one hand with the other,
in front of
you or behind you, and let your arms hang down comfortably. If you
have your hands in front of you, have both palms facing your body. If behind you, have
both palms facing away from your body. Close your eyes and check to see if your body
feels properly a
ligned, leaning neither to the left nor to the right. If it feels out of
alignment, relax the muscles that are pulling it out of alignment, so that your body is as
balanced as possible.
Bring your attention to the breath. Take a couple of long, deep in
focus your attention on the breath sensations in one part of the body. It’s usually wise, in
the beginning, to choose a point anywhere on a line drawn down the middle of the front of
your torso. If you focus in your head, you tend to stay
in your head: You don’t get a clear
sense of the body walking, and it’s easy to slip off into thoughts of the past and future. If
you focus on a point on one side of the body, it can pull you out of balance.
However, if in the beginning you find it hard t
p track of a still point in the torso,
you can simply stay aware of the movement of your legs or feet, or of the sensations in
your hands. As your mind settles down, you can then try finding a comfortable place in the
Breathe in a way that allo
ws the sp
ot you’ve chosen to feel comfortable, open, and
Open your eyes and gaze either straight ahead of you, or down at the path several paces
nt of you, but don’t let your head tilt forward. Keep it straight.
Make sure that you’re still
rly aware of the point of your internal focus on the
breath, and then start walking. Walk at a normal pace, or slightly slower than normal.
Don’t gaze around while you walk. Maintain your inner attention at your chosen point in
the body all along the
path. Allow the breath to find a comfortable rhythm. There’s no
need to breathe in sync with your steps.
When you reach the other end of the path, stop for a moment to make sure that your
tion is still with your chosen point. If it’s wandered off, bri
ng it back. Then turn to
face in the opposite direction and walk back to where you started, maintaining focus on
your chosen point. Stop at that end of the path for a moment again, to make sure that your
attention is still with your chosen point. Then turn
to face in the opposite direction and
walk back again. If you find it helpful in calming the mind, you can decide beforehand to
turn either clockwise or counter
clockwise each time you turn.
Repeat these steps until your predetermined time is over.
beginning it’s best to focus on maintaining your attention at your one chosen
t in the body as much as you can, as you would in step
of the sitting meditation. This
is because you’re balancing attention to several things at once: your chosen point,
that you’re walking, and the fact that you have to be aware enough of your surroundings
so that you don’t stray off the path, walk past the designated end, or bump into anything.
That’s enough to keep you fully occupied at first.
As you get more p
ient at this, you can start paying more attention to how the
breath energies flow in the different parts of your body as you walk
while at the same
time maintaining the primary focus at your chosen point
in much the same way that you
maintain a center
ed but broad awareness in step
of the sitting meditation. You can make a
game of seeing how quickly you can move from being focused comfortably on one spot to
spreading your awareness and the sense of comfort throughout the body. Once it’s spread,
w long you can keep it that way as you continue walking. As we’ll see in Part Three,
this is an important skill to develop to maintain a sense of secure well
Some people find that their minds can gather into strong concentratio
But generally, you’ll find that you can get into deeper concentration while sitting than
while walking, because you have more things to keep track of while you’re walking.
However, the fact that your attention has to move between three thi
ngs when you’re
your still point, the motion of your walking, and an awareness of your
means that you get to see clearly the movements of the mind in a restricted
field. This provides a good opportunity for observing them carefully and
insight into their various ways of deceiving you.
For instance, you’ll come to notice how unbidden thoughts try to take advantage of the
hat the mind is moving quickly among three things. These thoughts slip into that
movement and hijack
it, directing it away from your meditation. As soon as you notice this
happening, stop walking for a moment, return your attention to your chosen spot, and then
resume walking. Ultimately you’ll see the movement of those unbidden thoughts but won’t
long with them. When you don’t move with them, they go for just a little way and
then disappear. This is an important skill in gaining insight into the workings of the mind.
Going for a stroll.
u’re going to practice walking meditation by going for a
stroll, you have to lay down a few rules for yourself so that it doesn’t turn into just an
Choose an area that’s relatively quiet and where you won’t run into people who will
ou to stop and chat with them. A park is good, as is a
quiet, backcountry lane. If
you’re walking around your neighborhood, go in a direction you don’t normally go and
where the neighbors won’t try to engage you in conversations. If someone does call out to
you, make it a rule that you’ll nod and smile in resp
onse, but won’t say any more words
than are necessary.
Before you start your walk, stand for a moment to put your body in alignment, and
your attention to your chosen spot for observing the breath. Breathe in a way that
keeps that spot comfortable an
d refreshed. Think of it as a bowl filled to the brim with
water, and you don’t want to spill a drop.
Walk at a normal pace in a manner that’s composed but doesn’t look unnatural. You
want to keep your secret: that you’re doing walking meditation and you d
anyone else to know. Gaze around only as much as is necessary and appropriate to keep
If your thoughts start wandering off, stop for a moment and reestablish your primary
at your chosen point. Take a couple of especially refr
eshing breaths, and then resume
walking. If people are around, and you don’t want to call attention to yourself, pretend
that you’re looking at something to the side of your path while reestablishing your focus.
Whether you practice walking meditation on a
ath or as a stroll, conclude the
session by standing still for a moment and following the three steps for leaving meditation,
as discussed under section III, above.
Standing meditation is rarely done on its own. It’s more often
done as a part of walking
meditation. It’s especially good for five situations while you’re walking:
When your thoughts slip away from the breath, stop and stand for a moment until
n reestablish your focus at your chosen point. Then resume walking
. If your mind is
especially restless, you may want to stand for a while. In this case, take advantage of the
fact that you’re standing still, close your eyes, and see if the body feels aligned. If you’re
slouching, straighten up, pull in your stomach a bi
t, pull your shoulders back and then
down a bit, to create a slight arch in your back. If you’re leaning to one side or the other,
relax whichever muscles are pulling you out of alignment. Then relax into this straightened
posture so that you can maintain
it with a minimum of strain.
When the walking has you fatigued but you aren’t yet ready to stop walking
ation, stand for a few minutes to rest, paying attention to your posture as in step
When you’re trying to master the skill of spreading yo
reness, along with the
comfortable breath, from one spot to fill the entire body, you might find it easier to do this
while you’re standing still. Once it’s spread, resume walking. If you lose that sense of the
entire body, stop and stand still so th
at you can recover it more easily.
When the mind, in spite of the movement of the body, gathers into a strong sense of
tration, stop and stand still to allow it to gather fully. Some meditators arrange a
place next to their meditation path where t
hey can sit down if the mind gathers so strongly
that even standing still is a distraction.
When an interesting insight into the mind comes to you while you’re walking, stop
and so that you can observe it more carefully. In cases like this, you ma
y not want to
devote too much attention to your posture, as that might distract you from what you’re
observing in the mind.
As a general rule, while standing, keep your hands clasped in front of you or behind
you would when walking.
To meditate while lying down is very conducive for attaining strong concentration.
Some people find that it’s actually more conducive for concentration than the sitting
However, it’s also conducive for falling asleep. This is why your mai
meditating while lying down is to stay awake.
It’s generally better to meditate while lying on your right side, rather than on your left
on your back, or on your stomach. If you have to lie down for long periods of time
as when you’re
there’s nothing wrong with shifting your posture among these four
lying postures and meditating all the while.
However, lying on the right side has three advantages. First is that the heart is above
ad, which improves the blood flow to the brain.
(This means that if your physiology
is reversed, with the heart on your right side, you’d do better to meditate while lying on
your left side.) Second, it’s better for digestion. Third
and here lying on the right side
shares this point with lying on the l
you can make a point of placing one foot on top
of the other and keeping it there, not allowing it to slip off. The amount of attention this
requires you to devote to your feet can help keep you awake.
Have your head supported with a pillow at the prop
ht for keeping your spine
relatively straight. If you’re lying on your right side, place your right arm slightly in front
of you so that the body doesn’t weigh on it. Fold your arm so that your right hand is lying
up in front of your face. Allo
w your left arm to lie straight along the body, with your
left palm facing down.
The steps for surveying your mind, focusing on the breath, and leaving meditation are
me as for sitting meditation.
V : BECOMING A MEDITATOR
Meditating is one thing. B
ng a meditator is something else. It means developing a
set of inner identities around the activities of meditation. Ideally, as you meditate, these
identities should take on growing influence within your inner committee.
The activities around which t
dentities grow are the three needed for
concentration: mindfulness, alertness, and ardency. When you focus on the breath in line
with the above instructions, mindfulness is what keeps the instructions in mind, alertness is
what watches what you’re do
ing and the results that come from what you’re doing, while
ardency is what tries to do it well. When you slip off the breath, ardency tries to come
right back to the breath as quickly as possible. While you’re with the breath, ardency tries
to be as sensitive as possible to what’s going well and what isn’t. When things aren’t going
well, it tries to figure out why, so that it can improve them. When they are going well, it
tries to maintain them so that they can grow.
As these qualities get stronger with p
ce, they begin to coalesce into two distinct
identities, two new members of your mind’s committee. The more passive of the two is
, which develops around alertness. This is
the part of the mind that steps back a bit
and simply watches what
’s going on with a minimum of interference. As it develops, it
gives you practice in exercising your patient endurance
your ability to stick with things
even when they’re unpleasant
and in exercising your equanimity, your ability not to react
to things, so
that you can see them clearly for what they are.
The more active of the two identities is
, which develops around mindfulness and
ardency. This is the part that tries to make things go well; that, when they aren’t going
well, asks questions and in
vestigates to understand why, tries to remember what worked in
the past, and then decides how to respond
when it’s best to interfere and when it’s not.
going well, this identity tries to keep them going well. Over the course of
find that the doer can assume many roles, such as the investigator and the
director. This part exercises your ingenuity and imagination, as you try to shape things in
the best possible direction.
These two identities help each other along. The observer pr
the doer with
accurate information on which to base its decisions so that it doesn’t simply try to force its
will on things and deny when it’s done harm. The doer does its best to make sure that the
observer doesn’t lose balance and start providing
as when it’s tempted
to stay focused on one side of an issue and to ignore another side. Sometimes the back
forth between these two identities is fairly quick. At other times
especially when you
can’t figure something out and simply
have to watch what’s going on
you’ll find yourself
identifying with the observer for a fairly long time before gaining enough information to
pass on to the doer.
A large part of the skill in meditating is learning
ssume these identities while
practice. They’re especially helpful in dealing with problems in the mind, as we’ll see in
Part Two. When you’re faced with pain, for instance, they provide you with alternative
identities that you can assume in relation to the pain. Instead of having to b
e the victim of
the pain, you can be the observer of the pain. Or you can take on the role of the
investigator, trying to figure out what the pain is and why the mind is turning it into a
Similarly, when an unskillful emotion comes into the mind, y
have to identify
yourself as the person who feels the emotion or agrees with it. You can be the observer,
stepping back from the emotion. Or, as the doer, you can be the investigator, taking the
emotion apart; or the director, assembling a new emo
tion to replace it.
As your concentration strengthens, the observer and doer will continue to be helpful.
On the l
evel of strong concentration called jhana (see Part Four), they turn into a factor
the discernment factor that helps to set
tle the mind down through
understanding its needs and providing for them. The observer acts as the passive side of
evaluation, the doer acts as the active side. Working together, they can take you far in the
So even though these members of your c
ee are forms of becoming, they’re
useful forms. Don’t throw them away until you reach the point where they have no more
help to offer. In the meantime, get to know them by exercising them. Because your mind’s
committee has a lot of unskillful members
, you’ll need all the inner help you can get.
On meditation as a skill:
e Joy of Effort”;
Joy in Effort”
ning for the Mind”;
A talk by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
od perspective on meditation as a skill.
On the role of desire and imagination in the practice:
“Pushing the Limits”
On the relationship between mindfulness and concentration:
e Path of Mindfulness
For more advanced discussions of mindfulness and concentration:
Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
rames of Reference
On breath meditation: Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo,
g the Breath in Mind,
.” Ajaan Lee’s talks in
Lessons in Samadhi
are very useful for getting a fuller
pective on his approach to breath meditation, as are the talks in the section of
The short fragments in the sections of
The Skill of Release
The Basics of Breathing,”
offer useful tips.
For more useful tips, see the sections of Ajaan Fuang Jotiko
ght at Awarene
On the brahmaviharas: “
tta Means Good Will”;
tations of the Unlimited Attitudes”;
The Sublime Attitudes”
On walking meditation: “
Walking Meditation: Stillness in Motion”
For short tal
ks to read before you meditate: any of the books in the
: In Shape to Meditate
Goodwill and Heedfulness
collection of talks entitled
contains many talks dealing with issues that arise
u start learning how to focus on the breath.
’Round the Breath
: Allowing the Breath to Spread
rahmaviharas at the Breath
urn Off the Automatic Pi
: Choiceful Awareness
Artillery All Around
Training Your Minds
A Mirror for the Mind
entered in the Body
Everyone encounters problems and difficult patches in the course of meditating, so
don’t let them get you upset. Don’t view them as signs that you’re making no progress or
that you’re a hopeless meditator. Probl
ems are an excellent opportunity for figuring out
where you have unskillful habits and learning how to do something about them. This is
what develops your discernment. In fact, the process of learning how to deal with the two
most common problems in medita
tion, pain and wandering thoughts, is what has brought
many people in the past to awakening.
The strategies offered here in Part Two focus on what you might do to deal with these
while you’re meditating.
If you find that they don’t work for you, t
some solutions on your own. This is how you develop your own personal tool kit as a
meditator, so that you have a wide range of strategies for dealing with problems as they
occur. If you stick to only one strategy, the anti
ns of your committee
will quickly find ways to work around that strategy. If you can vary your strategies, you’re
not such an easy mark for their ploys.
If nothing you do while meditating seems to work, the real problem may lie in the way
ve your lif
e as a whole. Suggestions for how you might adjust your life to support
your meditation are given in Part Three.
Pain is something you will encounter, on and off, throughout the course of meditation,
so you have to learn to view it with discernment
and equanimity, as something perfectly
normal. Again, don’t let yourself get upset around the pain. You might find it useful to
drop the word “pain,” and replace it with “pains,” for not all pains are alike. Learning the
differences among them is one of th
e prime ways you’ll develop discernment into the
workings of the mind.
If the pains you encounter while sitting in meditation are connected to an old injury,
y, or structural imbalance, adjust your posture so as not to aggravate your condition.
nstance, if you’re trying to sit cross
legged but have an injured knee, you might place a
folded blanket or small pillow under the knee to help support it. If this doesn’t help, sit in a
A good rule of thumb is that if the pain disappears a few minu
ter getting up from
meditation, you know you aren’t harming your body.
If, as you’re just getting started in the meditation, the pain makes it impossible to keep
ed on the breath, tell yourself that you’ll sit with it for a few minutes so that y
don’t get into the habit of jumping every time it cracks the whip, and then you’ll mindfully
shift your posture.
However, if you encounter pain in the meditation that’s not connected with a
isting condition, and your concentration is a little more developed, you should use the
pain as an opportunity to develop both your concentration and your discernment. There
are three steps in doing this.
Don’t change your posture and don’t focus attention directly on the pain.
attention focused on a
part of the body you can make comfortable by the way you breathe.
Ignore the emergency bulletins that some of the committee members of the mind are
sending to you about the pain: that it’s going to damage you, that you can’t stand it,
whatever. Just tell
yourself that pain is normal, that the pain before you die may well be
worse than this, so it’s good to learn how to deal with pain while you’re still alive and
Also remind yourself that the pain is not
in unless you lay claim to it, so why lay
claim to it? Just let it be there in its part of the body, while you train yourself to stay firmly
in another part of the body. It’s like eating an apple with a rotten spot. Eat just the good
part of the apple and let the rotten spot go.
When the spot where your attention is focused feels really comfortable,
fortable breath sensations to flow from the spot of your focus through the pain,
any feelings of tension or tightness that may have developed around the pain. (T
sometimes has an unconscious habit of trying to contain the pain with a shell of tension so
that it won’t spread, but that just aggravates the pain. Consciously breathing through that
shell can disperse it.) Doing this may make the pain go away, or
it may not. If it does,
you’ve learned that the way you were breathing was aggravating the pain. Take that as a
lesson for the future. If the pain doesn’t go away, remind yourself that the duty with
regard to pain is not to make it go away. Your duty is t
o comprehend it. To that aim, if
you feel ready to investigate it further, go to step three. If you don’t feel ready, you can
either stay here with step two or return to step one.
You may find that pains in particular parts of your body respond best to goo
energy spread from other particular spots. For example, a pain in your stomach may be
alleviated by developing pleasant breath sensations in the area of the back right behind the
stomach. A pain in your right side may be alleviated by developing p
sensations in the corresponding spot on the left. Pains in the legs may be alleviated by
focusing on developing pleasant breath sensations in your spine, starting with the back of
the neck and going down through the tail bone and pelvis. The
re’s a lot to explore in this
area, and it’s something that each person has to learn for him or herself, as we each have
idiosyncratic ways of relating to the breath currents and the pains in the body.
If the pain persists, and your concentration feels
nough to deal directly with it,
focus on the sensation of the pain and ask yourself questions about it.
For example, is the pain aimed at you, or is it just happening?
Are you trying to push it away, or are you content just to watch it so that y
Is the pain a single, solid sensation, or is it composed of a series of rapid sensations,
arising and passing away in quick succession?
How do you visualize the pain to yourself? What happens when you change that
hat happens when you stop labeling it as “pain,” and simply call it “sensation”?
One of the important skills in meditation is learning how to turn the
off and on at will, so that you can think when you need to think, and stop thinking when
you don’t. In this way, the mind’s ability to create thought
worlds won’t cause it harm.
In the beginning stages of meditation, you need a few quick
and easy rules to help you
decide whether a thought is worth following or not. Otherwise, you’ll get sucked into
world that can deceive you into thinking that it deserves your attention. So
while you’re learning to focus on the breath, hold t
o a simple rule:
Any thought connected with
improving your focus on the breath is okay. Any other thought has to be dropped.
If a thought concerning your work or other responsibilities comes to mind while you’re
ating, tell yourself that you’ll deal w
ith it right after you leave meditation. Or you
may decide to set aside a five or ten minute period at the end of meditation specifically to
think about issues in your life that require serious consideration.
If, before you start meditating, you realize th
’re facing an important decision in
life that might interfere with your meditation, tell yourself that you’ll use the meditation
period to clear your mind before contemplating the decision. Before meditating, pose
whatever questions you want to have
answers for, and then drop them. Refuse to pay them
any attention if they pop up during the meditation. Focus your attention exclusively on the
breath. When you emerge from the meditation, see if an answer presents itself to your
awareness. There’s no guarantee that the answer will be correct, but at least it’s coming
from a quiet spot in the mind, and it gives you something to put to the test. If no answer
presents itself, your mind is at any rate clearer and sharper than it was before the
ing you in a better position to contemplate the issues you face. But be sure
that while you’re meditating you don’t have anything to do with thoughts about those
issues at all.
There are five basic strategies in dealing with wandering thoughts. Each of the
ngthen your concentration. But each can also give lessons in discernment.
Return to the breath.
As soon as you realize that you’ve lost your focus on the breath, go right back to the
h. Be prepared for the fact that this will happen
countless times in the course of your
meditation, so be on the lookout for the early warning signs that the mind is about to leave
the breath and go somewhere else. Sometimes the mind is like an inchworm at the edge of a
leaf. One end is standing on the le
af; the other end is waving around, hoping that another
leaf will come its way. As soon as it touches the new leaf, it grabs on and lets go of the old
leaf. In other words, part of your mind may be with the breath, but another part is looking
else to go. The more quickly you can catch sight of the mind at this stage in
the process, the better. Simply remind yourself that you’re getting bored with the breath
because you aren’t paying it careful attention. Give yourself a couple of really refres
breaths, and the front end of the inchworm will get back on the original leaf. As you
develop this skill, you begin to see the stages by which the mind creates thought
which means that you’re less likely to be fooled by them.
It’s like watchin
g a pl
ay from behind the scenes. Ordinarily, when the set crew changes
scenes in a play, they drop a curtain before changing the scenery. Only when the new
scenery is in place do they raise the curtain, so as not to spoil the illusion that the action has
ctually moved to another location. The audience, of course, is happy to play along with
the illusion. But if you’re behind the scenes, you sense the artificiality of it all and you’re
less taken in.
In the same way, as you focus on the process of thought
reation, rather than on the
content of the thoughts, you gain some important insights into how the mind creates
worlds for itself
important, because these thought
worlds are a central feature of
the unnecessary suffering and stress you’re trying to
understand and counteract. By
focusing not on their content, but on the process by which they’re created, you begin to
free yourself from their spell.
Focus on the drawbacks of letting yourself stay distracted.
If simply returning to the breath isn’t e
to keep you from continually returning
to a series of thoughts, you have to look at the drawbacks of those thoughts. This involves
Ask yourself: If you were to follow those thoughts for the next hour or two, where
they take you? T
oward a skillful life or an unskillful one? If they’re relatively
skillful, are they more skillful than a mind well trained in meditation? No. So while you’re
meditating they’re a waste of time. And what about their entertainment value? If they were
e, would you pay to see them? Do you really gain anything by following them?
What exactly attracts you to those thoughts? Is the pay
off worth the trouble they can
cause? Try to find the question that helps you see the thoughts as clearly unworthy of your
attention. When you’ve seen both the allure and the drawbacks of a particular way of
thinking, you’re learning to see your thoughts as part of a causal process. This helps you to
free yourself from their power.
Once you’re clear on the drawbacks of a pa
lar thought, you can think of a topic
that counteracts the emotion or urge lying behind it. For instance, if a thought is motivated
by anger, try countering the anger with thoughts of goodwill
first for yourself, then for
the person you’re angry at. I
f a thought is motivated by lust, think about the unattractive
aspects of the human body
again, starting first with the contents of your own body, then
going to the body you’re attracted to. A few of these alternative topics are discussed in the
Disruptive Emotions, below.
Once the new topic has weakened your desire to return to the wandering thought, you
en turn your attention back to the breath.
Ignore the thoughts.
If the thoughts still keep chattering away, make up your mind that you
y with the
breath and simply let the thoughts chatter away in another part of your mind. They’re like
stray dogs: If you give them any attention, they’ll keep pestering you. They’re like crazy
people: Even if you try to chase them away, they’ll know
that they’ve gotten to you, and
that makes them try to pull you further into their crazy worlds. So you just ignore them.
Remind yourself that even though there may be thoughts in the mind, they’re just other
members of the committee. They haven’t destroy
ed the breath. The breath is still there to
focus on. Eventually, from lack of attention, the distracting thoughts will go away on their
At the same time, you’ve learned a lesson in how the act of attention can strengthen or
n the different poten
tials in your experience.
Relax the tension that keeps the thought going.
As you get more sensitive to the subtle breath energies in the body, you’ll come to
e that the act of holding onto a thought requires that you develop a slight pattern of
nsion somewhere in the body, as a kind of marker. Try to locate that pattern of tension,
dissolve it with a breath, and the thought will go away from lack of support.
As your concentration gets better, you’ll be able to sense these patterns of tension
even before they become conscious thoughts. You’ll come to see the stages by
worlds form. They start as little knots of tension, and then a perception is
applied to them, deciding whether to view the knots as physical or as mental phenome
the decision is to regard them as mental, then a further perception is applied: What is this
When you can see these steps, the mind in concentration becomes like a spider on a
ou stay at your spot, and then the sensitivity of th
web tells you that a knot
of tension is forming at a particular section of the web. You go there, zap the knot with a
shot of good breath energy that dissolves it, and then return to your spot.
This strategy gives important lessons in observing ho
sical and mental phenomena
are related to each other.
Suppress the thought.
If your concentration and discernment aren’t yet good enough for these techniques to
th every distracting thought, then when they’ve all failed with a particularly
ersistent thought, place the tip of your tongue at the roof of your mouth, clench your
teeth, and repeat to yourself over and over that you won’t think that thought. Or you
might repeat a meditation word, like
very quickly in the mind to jam the ci
until the temptation to follow the thought has subsided.
This fifth approach is like a sledgehammer compared to the other approaches, which are
ike scalpels. But just as every handyman needs a sledgehammer in his toolkit, every
a few heavy tools to be prepared for all eventualities. That way unskillful
thoughts won’t be able to bully you around.
This last approach involves less discernment than the other four, but it does teach a
ble lesson: that you shouldn’t overlook a us
eful strategy just because it seems
elementary or crude. Be willing to use whatever works.
Particular types of wandering thoughts
s lust and anger
have their own
counteracting strategies. If you don’t have the energy to apply any of these strategies
wandering thoughts, it’s a sign that the problem is not restlessness. It’s drowsiness.
If you’re feeling sleepy, the first step is not to immediately regard it as a sign that you
need to rest. Often the mind uses drowsiness as a way to avoi
d an issue that’s about to
surface from your inner depths. As a meditator, you want to know about these deeper
issues, so you can’t let yourself be fooled by this sham drowsiness. You have to test it
whenever you encounter it.
The first test is to change y
When you’re with the breath, this can mean
changing the rhythm and texture of the breath, or the spot of your focus. For example:
If short, gentle breathing is making you drowsy, you can try breathing long in and
short out, or breat
hing more heavily.
If staying with a single focal point is making you drowsy, try focusing on two
points at once.
Or you can move your focal point with every three or five breaths. Follow the
roadmap given under step
in the section on Focusing on the Breath, or any other
roadmap you may devise.
Or try evaluating the breath energy in areas you tend to overlook.
Alternatively, you can change your meditation topic to one of the subsidiary topics
in the Appendix. Contemplation of death
could happen at any time
especially useful when drowsiness is coupled with laziness.
Or you can recite to yourself any poem or chanting passage that you may have
The second test is to change your posture.
p from your meditation and rub
with your hands. If it’s night and you can see the night sky, look up at the stars to freshen
the mind. Wash your face. Then return to the sitting position.
The third test is to get up and do walking meditation.
at doesn’t remove the drowsi
walking carefully backwards to see if the fear of running into anything will keep you
If the drowsiness remains, it’s a sign that the body needs to rest. Lie down and meditate
you fall asleep, first promising yourself that you’ll get
up and meditate again as soon
as you wake up. You won’t keep wallowing in the pleasure of lying down.
Closely related to drowsiness is a state of mind called delusion concentration. The mind
is still, but you’re not clearly aware
of where your attention is focused. When you come
out of it, you may wonder whether you were asleep or awake. This can happen when the
breath gets comfortable but you don’t spread your awareness to other parts of the body.
You’re focused on a small area, a
nd when the breath in that area gets very refined and
comfortable, you lose track of it and slip into a pleasant, still, but blurry state of mind.
One way to prevent this is, as soon as the breath gets comfortable, to immediately start
ying the rest o
f the body. Try to notice how the breath energy is flowing in all the
nooks and crannies of the body, even down to the spaces between the fingers and toes.
Alternatively, you can visualize the various parts of the body
the bones, the organs
see if the
breath energy is spreading smoothly to those parts.
The important principle here is that when the mind is comfortable, it needs some work
Otherwise, it will drift off into drowsiness. As long as the work stays within the
confines of the body, it won
’t disturb your concentration. In fact, it will make the
concentration even stronger and more resilient.
The phenomenon of falling into an “air pocket”
itting very still and then
suddenly being awakened by your head falling forward
comes from the sa
me causes and
can be cured in the same ways.
If you find yourself complaining about external noises while you’re meditating, remind
yourself that the noise isn’t bothering you. You’re bothering the noise. Can you let the
noise exist with
out your commenting on it? After all, the noise has no intention to bother
Also, think of your body as a screen on a large window. The noise is like the wind
through the screen. In other words, you offer no resistance to the noise, but you
let yourself be affected by it. It goes right through you without making physical or
TR OUBLES W I TH THE BR EATH I TSELF
Probably one of the most discouraging obstacles to breath meditation is
feel the in
his often comes from an earlier physical or emotional experience
that has caused you to block off your sensation of the body. You may require time to build
up a sensitivity to the felt reality of the breath in the body, or to feel at ease with that
vity. This is an area that requires patience.
There are two possible approaches.
One is to ask yourself where you
feel the breath. It may be only in the head or at
some other isolated part of the body. Still, that gives you something to start with. Fo
that area gently but steadily, with an attitude of goodwill for it, telling yourself that you
belong there. When you find that you can stay there with a sense of ease, gradually try to
expand your sense of awareness right around that spot. What part
of the body is right next
to it? In which direction do you feel that part? (Your inner sense of the parts of your body
may not be in alignment with how the body looks from the outside, but don’t let that
concern you right now. Where do you
the next p
art?) If a sense of fear arises, go back
to the original area. Wait for a day or so, and then try expanding your awareness slightly
again. Keep this up, back and forth, until you can inhabit the enlarged area with a sense of
confidence. Be patient. If any
specific fears or memories come up as you try to expand your
awareness in this way, talk them over with someone whose judgment you trust.
A second approach is to drop the breath for the time being and to develop the
brahmaviharas (see Part One, section I
, above) as your basic meditation exercise until you
feel confident enough to try working with the breath again.
Another problem that can often be discouraging is
ility to find a comfortable breath.
No matter how you adjust the breath, it doesn’t
feel right. There are several ways to
approach this problem.
Ask yourself if you’re being too demanding. Does the breath feel okay? Are you trying
to force it to be better than okay? If that’s what’s happening, be patient. Stick with the
okay breath and
give it some time. Your impatience may be putting too much strain on it.
Allow it some time to relax and develop on its own.
Ask yourself if you’re pinching the end of the out
breath to clearly mark it off from
the following in
breath, or vice versa. Th
is limits the ability of the breath to flow
smoothly. If this is the case, allow the end of each out
breath to meld smoothly with the
beginning of the following in
breath, and vice versa, so that the still moment between the
breaths can have a chance to le
t a sense of ease spread through the body.
Remind yourself that each breath will have at least one part
at the beginning, in the
middle, or near the end
that feels more comfortable than not breathing. Look for that
part of the breath and allow yourself t
o appreciate it. When this calms you down, the other
parts of the breath cycle will be able to relax.
Ask yourself if you’re focusing too hard in one spot. There’s a common tendency,
when you’re focused on a particular part of the body, to put pressure o
blocking or straining the way the blood flows in that part of the body. See if you can
release that pressure but still maintain focus on that spot.
Ask yourself if the way you visualize the breath to yourself is part of the problem. For
ple, do you visualize it as coming into the body only through one tiny spot, such as
the nose? If so, that might be restricting the breath. Try visualizing the body as a sponge,
with breath coming in and out easily through all the pores. Or you can ask you
rself if you
visualize the breath as unwilling to come into the body. If so, you’ll find yourself having to
force it in. Try visualizing it as
to come into the body, and all you have to do is
allow it in.
Ask yourself if you’re unconsciously forc
ing the breath to comply with any cartoon
ideas you might have of what comfortable breathing should feel like. People often assume
that slow, long breathing is more comfortable than short, fast breathing, but that’s not
always the case. Remind yourself tha
t what counts as comfortable breathing is determined
by what the body needs right now, so try to be more sensitive to those needs.
Ask yourself if you’re trying to control the breath too much. You can test this by
focusing attention on a part of the body
where you have no sense of being able to control
the movement of the breath, such as the base of the spine.
If none of these approaches work, switch the topic of your focus to a theme that you
find pleasurable and inspiring, such as goodwill, generosity
(thinking of the times you were
generous of your own free will), gratitude (thinking of people who went out of their way
to help you), or virtue (thinking of cases where you or someone you admire behaved in
ways you find noble and inspiring). Allow yourse
lf to think about that theme for a while
without paying attention to the breath. When the mind feels refreshed, try to notice how
you’re breathing while you’re with that theme. The breath will have found a comfortable
rhythm on its own. That will give you
some ideas about how to breathe comfortably.
A third common problem is
ility to feel breath sensations in different parts of the body.
This is often a problem of perception: The breath sensations are there, but you don’t
recognize them as such. P
art of your mind may think that it’s impossible for there to be
breath energies flowing through the body. If that’s the case, treat this as an exercise in
imagination: Allow yourself to imagine that breathing energy can flow through the nerves,
it flowing in some of the patterns recommended in the basic instructions. Or
imagine it flowing in the opposite directions. At some point, you will actually start to feel
the movement of energy in one part of the body or another, and then this will no lon
an exercise in imagination.
In the meantime, survey the body and relax any patterns of tension you may feel in its
us parts. Start with the hands and work up the arms. Then start with the feet and
work up through the legs, the back, the neck, a
nd into the head. Then do the front of the
torso. The more relaxed the body, the more easily the breath energy will flow, and the
more likely that you’ll be able to sense the flow.
UNUSUAL ENER GI ES
As you release tension or tightne
ss in different parts of the body, it can often
give rise to unusually strong or unbalanced energies or sensations. This is normal, and these
energies, if left alone, can often work themselves out. However, there are two cases where
they can become a probl
The first is when the release is not complete
energy released from one area
gets stuck in another, creating a strong sense of pressure. Two common areas where
pressure tends to build up are in the head and around the heart. If the pressure is i
head, check to see whether the energy needs to drain down the front of the throat or down
the spine. First focus on opening the energy channel down the front of your throat, and
place your attention in the middle of the chest. Think of the energy dra
ining down the
channel in the throat to the area where you’re focused, both during the in
during the out.
If that doesn’t work, consciously trace the energy channels down either side of the
to see if there’s a point of blockage at any poin
t. If you find one, think of it relaxing.
Do this all the way down the spine. Focus your attention at your tailbone. Then visualize
the breath going down the spine
again, both during the in
breath and during the out
and then flowing through your tailbone i
nto the air.
If the pressure is in the middle of the chest, visualize opening the energy channels going
r arms through the palms of your hands. Focus your attention at the palms of your
hands and think of breath energy radiating out from your chest
both during the in
and during the out
and going out through your palms.
You can also try a similar visualization with energy channels going down your legs and
rough the soles of your feet.
As you open these channels, don’t think of pushing the
gy into them. In particular,
don’t think that you’re trying to push air into them. The breath you’re working with is
energy, not air. And energy flows best when it’s not pressured. Simply think, “Allow.” And
be patient. Try to distinguish between the
flow of the blood
which, because it’s liquid,
can build up pressure when it runs up against something solid
and the flow of the breath,
which as an energy doesn’t need to build up pressure, as it can flow right through solids.
If you feel excess pressure i
r parts of the body, try connecting those parts, in
your imagination, with the energy channels going out the arms or legs.
The other main cause of excess pressure in different parts of the body is when, in an
t to speed up the movement of the
breath energy in the body, you push it too much.
Here again, the key word is “allow.” Allow the energy to flow. Don’t push it. A
comfortable energy, when pushed, becomes uncomfortable. Be patient. Visualize a subtle
breath energy that, as soon as you’re a
ware that you’ve started breathing in, has already
spread throughout the body. After a while, you’ll sense that it really is there.
A tightness that doesn’t respond to the breath.
re are islands of tightness in the
body that won’t dissolve no matter
how comfortable the breath, you have to work around
them. The more directly you focus on them, the worse they may get. So breathe gently
around their edges and give them some space. They often represent members of your inner
committee who don’t trust your
good intentions, so you simply have to let them be. Be
patient with them. At some point they’ll dissolve on their own.
Bands of tension running through the body.
Check first to see if the bands of
tension really are bands, or if the mind is playing connect
dots with them. In other
words, there are occasions when the mind notices spots of tension in different parts of the
body and connects them under a single perception of tension. This creates the sensation
that the isolated spots are part of a single s
To test if this is the case, imagine that your awareness is a set of buzz
quickly and repeatedly cutting the bands of tension into isolated pieces wherever it notices
them. If this lightens the sense of tension, then hold that percept
ion in mind. The problem
is not with the tension as much as it was with the perception that labeled the spots of
tension as bands. Keep refusing to believe in that band
perception, replacing it with the
perception of saw blades as long as necessary.
bands of tension are in the head and seem to surround the head, an alternative
f shifting the perception is to hold in mind the image that your head is larger than the
bands of tension, and that the larger part of the head is filled with soft energy
the bands to dissipate.
If the sense of a band of tension remains in spite of the new perceptions, then it’s a sign
nd corresponds to an area of the body that’s starved of breath energy. As you breathe
in, think of the breath energy going
immediately to that part of the body. Allow the in
breath to be as long as it needs to be to give that area a sense of being nourished.
If, after several minutes of trying this approach, the bands of tension don’t respond,
gnore them for a while. Tr
y these various approaches again later when your
concentration has improved.
A lack of sensation.
u survey the various parts of your body, you may find that
there are some parts where you feel no sensation at all: your shoulder, for example, or part
f your back. It seems as if that part of the body is missing. When this is the case, try to be
conscious of the parts that you
sense on either side of the missing part. For example,
with the shoulder: Try to be aware of your neck and your upper arm. Th
en try to see
where the energy in those two parts connects. You may be surprised to see that there is a
connection, but it’s not where your shoulder “should” be
and because it’s not where it
should be, you’ve unconsciously been blocking it. Allow it to ope
n up and over time your
sense of those parts of the body will adjust and the missing part of the body will get more
nourishment from the breath. It’ll reappear in your awareness.
A sense of fullness.
sensation often comes when the breath energy dissol
of its inner blockages, and areas that were starved of energy suddenly fill up. This relates to
one of the factors of jhana: rapture. In strong cases, it can feel as if you’re drowning in the
fullness. Some people find this pleasant, but others fi
nd it threatening. If you’ve ever come
close to drowning, this can easily bring up a sense of fear. The way to counteract the fear is
to remind yourself that you’re surrounded by air, and the body can breathe as much as it
likes. Relax your hands and feet,
and keep them relaxed. Then see if you can find the
aspect of the fullness that’s pleasant. Focus on that. Or simply maintain your focus on your
usual point of focus in the body, and remind yourself that the fullness, if left alone, will
ate into a sense of stillness and ease.
Another group of people who find this sense of fullness threatening are those who fear
ey’re losing control. The solution again is not to focus on the fullness, but to stay
focused on your usual point of focus
, and remember that the fullness will pass.
A feeling of density.
Sometimes, as the mind settles down, the body feels so solid and
dense that breathing becomes a chore. One possible reason for this is that you’re
subconsciously holding onto the perception
of the body as a solid object, and of the breath
as something that has to be pushed through the solidity. The solution is consciously to
change your perception. For instance, you can remind yourself that the breath is actually
your primary sensation of the
body: The energy of the breath is there first, and the sense of
solidity comes later. So you don’t have to push the breath through a wall of solidity. Let it
flow freely wherever it wants. Another useful perception is to think of all the space around
body and in
between the atoms in the body. Even within the atoms, there’s more space
than matter. Everything is permeated by space. As you hold this perception in mind, the
difficulty in breathing will go away.
Another possible reason for the sense that th
e body is too solid to breathe is that the
mind may be so quiet that you don’t
to breathe (see the discussion under The Fourth
Jhana in Part Four.) You keep on trying to push the breath through the body more out of
habit than of need. So tell yourself
, “If the body needs to breathe, it’ll breathe on its own.
You don’t have to force it to breathe.”
If this problem is caused by the meditation, it can come from an imbalance
ur focus or an imbalance in the breath.
An imbalance in your focus
ome from focusing too heavily in the head. Move your
focus lower in the body, lighten up a bit so that you’re not restricting the flow of blood in
the area where you’re focused, and stay away from the head for a while.
An imbalance in the breath migh
e from hyperventilating: breathing heavily too
fast. It can also come from suppressing the breath or spending too much time with refined
breathing. Try breathing in a way that avoids these extremes. If this doesn’t take care of
the dizziness, it wasn’t caused by the meditation. It may be a sign of physical illness.
JUDGING YOUR PROGRESS
As I noted in the Introduction, the basic strategy of training the mind to put an end to
suffering is to reflect on your actions and to question how skillful they are
, so that you can
keep refining your skill. Because meditation is an action, the same strategy applies here. To
develop it as a skill, you have to learn how to evaluate how you’re doing
what’s not working
so that your skill can grow. In fac
t, evaluation is such an important
part of meditation that it’s a factor of jhana, which we will discuss in Part Four. This sort
of evaluation is what turns into the discernment that ultimately leads to release.
So remember: There is such a thing as a good
ion and a not
good session of
meditation. You want to learn how to judge the difference. However, the ability to judge
your actions is, itself, a skill that takes some time to master. If you’ve ever worked toward
mastering a physical skill or craft
such as woodworking, cooking, or playing a sport or
think of how you developed your powers of judgment so that they
actually helped you gain mastery. Then apply the same principles to the meditation. A few
useful principles to keep in m
ind are these:
Useful judgments focus on actions, not on your worth as a person or a meditator.
If you find yourself getting depressed about yourself for not being able to do things
, or conceited when they
go right, remind yourself that that kind
of judgment is a
waste of time. Negative self
judgments sap your ability to stick with the meditation;
even though they may encourage you in the short run
ultimately get in the way of your progress, blinding you to your mistake
s or setting up
false expectations. If you find yourself in the downward spiral of negatively judging
yourself for judging yourself, remember the image of the inner committee. Find a member
who can gently but firmly remind the self
judging voice that it’s
wasting your time. The
natured humor you can bring to the situation, the better. Then focus on your
next breath, and then the next.
The one area where it
useful to evaluate yourself is in reading your tendency to be
overly positive or overly n
egative about your abilities. If you know that you have a
tendency in either of those directions, use that knowledge to temper your judgments. A
friendly, “Oops. There it goes again,” can often help bring you to your senses.
Regard your meditation as a wor
k in p
You’re not here to pass final judgment on yourself or your actions. You’re judging your
ns so that you can perform them more skillfully the next time around. As you make a
judgment, think of yourself not as a judge on a courtroom bench,
passing a verdict on an
accused person, but as a craftsperson on a workbench, judging how your work is going,
and making changes when you see you’ve made a mistake.
Mistakes are normal.
It’s through mistakes that you learn. The people who understand medit
the ones for whom everything goes smoothly. They’re the ones who make mistakes and
then figure out how not to make them again. So view each mistake as an opportunity to
figure things out. Don’t let it get you down. In fact, if you’re goin
g to take pride in
anything, take pride in your willingness to notice and learn from mistakes.
The relation between actions and results is complex, so don’t jump to quick conclusions about what caused
n your meditation.
Sometimes the results you get
now are coming from things you’re doing right
now; sometimes they’re coming from things you did yesterday, or last week, or even
further in the past. This is why an approach that worked yesterday might not work today.
Learn how to reserve judgment un
til you’ve had time to watch your meditation again and
again over time.
And don’t keep harping on about how much better your meditation was in the past
t is today. The extent to which it
good wasn’t caused by thinking about
meditations further in
the past. It was caused by looking at the breath in the present. So
learn from that lesson and look at the breath in the present
Also, the past meditation
may not have been as good as you thought. The fact that things aren’t yet going well
today is c
aused by the fact that you still have more to learn. So to learn some of that
“more,” watch the breath and your mind more carefully right now.
Don’t be surprised by sudden reversals in your meditation.
These, too, are caused by the complexity of how action
their results. When things
are going so well that the mind grows still without any effort on your part, don’t get
careless or overly confident. Keep up your alertness. When your mood is so bad that you
can’t stay with even the first step in the medi
tation instructions, don’t give up. View it as
an opportunity to learn more about how the principle of causality works in the mind.
Something must have caused the sudden change, so look for it. At the same time, this is a
good opportunity to call to mind y
our sense of the inner observer, to be patient in stepping
back and observing bad moods. This way, whether the sudden reversal is for the better or
the worse, you learn a valuable lesson: how to keep your inner observer separate from
whatever else is going
on so that you can watch things more carefully.
Don’t compare yourself with others.
Your mind is your mind; their mind is theirs. It’s like being in a hospital and comparing
elf to other patients in the ward. You don’t gain anything from gloating ove
r the fact
that you’re recovering from your illness faster than they are from theirs. You don’t gain
anything from making yourself miserable because they’re recovering faster than you. You
have to focus total attention on your own recovery.
’t compare your practice to what you’ve read in books, this one included.
The books are there for you to read when you’re not meditating. While you’re
ating, you want to focus on the breath. The books simply give you ideas about what
n. You learn even more from watching what
if it’s called
figuring out on the spot how to make what’s happening go better.
Training the mind is a long
term project. It requires a degree of maturity to keep
ated when the novelty and initial enthusiasm have worn off. Especially when progress
is slow, you may find yourself overcome with boredom, discouragement, impatience, or
doubt. If your motivation is flagging because of any of these emotions, see the
endations given for dealing with them in the following section.
However, there are times when your motivation flags simply because the demands of
ersonal life or work become so pressing that they squeeze away whatever time or
energy you need to medit
ate. If this is happening, you have to keep reminding yourself of
the importance of meditating: that if your mind isn’t trained, it can easily respond to the
demands of your daily life in unskillful ways.
The first point to remember is that “pressing” does
ways mean “important.” Learn
how to distinguish which external demands can be put aside for a while so that you can get
your mind together.
The second point to remember is that the world won’t provide you with time to
ate. You have to make the t
Third, remember that the time you take to meditate isn’t taken away from the people
ve or are responsible for. It’s actually a gift to them in terms of your improved state
Fourth, remember that the improved state of your mind w
help simplify your life
and make it more manageable.
So to make sure that you keep making time on a continuing basis, try adding a few new
s to your inner committee, or strengthening them if they’re already there
that will give you
pep talks and motivate you to stay on course. Which ones will be most
effective for you, you have to observe for yourself. These will vary from person to person,
and even in the same person will vary from time to time.
Here are a few voices that other med
itators have found effective:
The voice of heedfulness:
the one that reminds you of the unnecessary stress and suffering
an untrained mind can cause for
self and for those around you. This is the voice that
also tells you, “If you don’t train your mi
nd, who’s going to train it for you? And if you
don’t do it now, don’t think that it’ll get easier as you get older.”
The voice of compassion
reminds you of the ways in which meditating is an active
goodwill to yourself and to those around you
. You started meditating because
you wanted something better than the life you had. If you really loved yourself
would you let that opportunity slide? This voice is strengthened when you
gain a sense of how to breathe comfortably, for t
hen you can remind yourself, especially
when you feel frazzled, of just how good it feels to spend some time with nourishing
The voice of healthy pride
reminds you of the satisfaction that comes from doing
something well. This is the voice that r
eminds you of how good you feel when you’ve
managed to behave skillfully in areas where you weren’t so skillful before. Don’t you want
to expand your range of skills even further?
The voice of a healthy sense of shame
grows out of healthy pride. It remin
ds you of some of
the ways in which you’ve let the unskillful members of your inner committee take over
even when you knew better. Do you want to keep being their slave? And if there really are
people in the world who can read minds, what would they think
if they read yours? (This
sense of shame is healthy in that it’s directed not at you as a person, but at your actions.)
The voice of inspiration
reminds you of the examples set by other meditators in the past.
They did something noble with their lives; d
on’t you want to live a noble life, too? This
voice is strengthened when you read about others who have overcome difficulties in their
meditation and not only achieved true peace of mind but also left behind a good example
for the world. Your sense of insp
iration can also be strengthened by associating with other
meditators and gaining energy from the group.
The voice of a wise inner parent
promises you a little reward to get you through difficult
patches in the practice: a harmless sensory pleasure you’l
l grant yourself if you stick to your
The voice of good
points out how foolish some of your rationalizations for
not practicing would look if you stepped back from them a bit. Not that you’re more
foolish than the norm
just that the human norm is pretty foolish. Good
about yourself comes from the ability to step back from your actions, just as discernment
does. That’s why famous meditation masters have such sharp senses of humor. Your foibles
and rationalizations, when you can laugh at them, lose a lot of their power.
So try to gain a feel for which of these voices would stir your mind to action, and give
yourself pep talks tailored to your own psychology.
At the same time, listen to recorded Dhamma talks an
d find things to read that will
remind you of the values of the practice. This will help to keep you on course.
If your time really is at a premium, remember that you don’t have to sit with your eyes
closed when training the mind. As many teachers have sai
d, if you have time to breathe,
you have time to meditate even while engaged in other activities.
Also, you might find it helpful to remind yourself that if you’re really busy, you’re not
too busy to meditate. You’re too busy
to meditate. You owe it to yourself and to those
to keep your batteries well charged.
When dealing with disruptive emotions, it’s useful to remember the three types of
fabrication mentioned in the Introduction: bodily fabrication (the in
verbal fabrication (directed thought and evaluation); and mental fabrication (feelings and
perceptions). These are the building blocks from which emotions are fashioned. To get
yourself out of an unskillful emotion, you change the building blocks. Don’t
to be fooled into thinking that the emotion is telling you what you
emotion is a bundle of fabrications, so a skillful emotion you consciously fabricate is no less
really “you” than an unskillful emotion you’ve fabricated
unconsciously out of force of
earn how to experiment with adjusting the various types of fabrication. Sometimes
anging the way you breathe will pull you out of an unskillful emotion; at other
times you have to fiddle with the other forms
of fabrication to see what works for you.
e again the image of the committee is a useful background perception: Whatever
tion, it’s simply one of the committee members
or a disruptive faction
to speak for the whole committee and trying t
o overthrow the members who want to
number one lesson in dealing with disruptive emotions is that you have to identify
with the me
mbers who want to benefit from the meditation. If you don’t, none of these
methods will work for long. If you do
, the battle is half
will have to explore and experiment on your own to see which strategies of
cation work for your particular emotions, but here are a few possibilities to help you
sually comes from not paying
careful attention to what you’re doing.
If you feel that nothing is happening in the meditation, remind yourself that you’re right at
the ideal spot to observe your mind. If you’re not seeing anything, you’re not looking. So
try to look more carefully at t
he breath, or make an effort to see potential distractions more
quickly. Remember that the boredom itself is a distraction. It comes, and then it goes. In
other words, it’s not the case that nothing is happening. Boredom is happening. The fact
identifying with it means that you missed the steps in its formation. Look more
carefully the next time.
seful perception to hold in mind is that you’re like a wildlife observer. You can’t
make a d
ate with the wildlife to come by a particular place at a
particular time. You have
to go to a place where the wildlife tends to pass by
such as a watering hole
and then sit
there: very alert, so that you can hear them coming, but also very still, so that you don’t
scare them away. The breath in the present mome
nt is the mind’s watering hole
the movements of the mind most clearly show themselves
so you’re at the right spot.
Now all you have to do is learn how to master the skill of staying both still and alert.
omes from comparing you
rself unfavorably with your ideas
about how you should be progressing. In addition to rereading the section on Judging Your
, read some of the stories in the Theragatha and Therigatha in the Pali Canon,
which are available at Access to Insight, onl
ine. These are verses of monks and nuns who
tell of their troubles in meditating before finally gaining awakening. Hold in mind the
perception that if they could overcome their problems
which were often severe
Also, don’t be embarra
ssed or afraid to give yourself pep talks as you meditate. A “can
do” attitude is what makes all the difference, so encourage the members of your committee
that can provide that. It may feel artificial at first
especially if the “can’t
g been in charge of the discussion
but after a while you’ll start seeing results, and
positive attitudes won’t seem so artificial anymore.
And always remember: A bad session of meditation is always better than no meditation.
bad session, there’s at
least hope that you’ll come to understand why it’s bad. With
no meditation, there’s no hope at all.
se restless emotions feed on the perception that if you worry
enough about the future, you’re better prepared for whatever dangers it ho
perception is foolish. Remind yourself that the future is highly uncertain. You don’t know
what dangers will come your way, but you
know that strengthened mindfulness,
alertness, and discernment are the best preparation for any unexpected emer
best way to develop those qualities is to get back to the breath. Then try to breathe in as
soothing a way as possible to counteract the irritated breathing that was feeding the
If you’re suffering from a sense of free
ease without knowing
why you’re feeling ill
you may be suffering from a vicious circle, with anxious
feelings causing anxious breathing, and anxious breathing feeding anxious feelings. Try
breaking the circle by very consciously and c
onsistently breathing in a deep, soothing
rhythm that engages all the muscles in your abdomen, all the way down. With the in
breath, breathe as deeply into the abdomen as you can, even to the point where the breath
feels a little too full. Then let the bre
ath out in a smooth way. Relax all the muscles in your
head and shoulders, so that the abdomen is doing all the work. This rhythm may not feel
comfortable at first, but it does cut the circle. After a few minutes, let the breath return to
a rhythm that fee
ls more easeful. Keep this up as long as you can, and the feelings of
anxiety should grow weaker.
This deep abdominal breathing can also help relieve stress
Feelings of grief.
rrow over the loss of a loved one
or of what was a lovin
invades your meditation, the proper way to deal with your grief depends on
whether you’ve had the opportunity elsewhere in your life to give enough expression to it.
The sense of “enough” here will vary from case to case, but if you genuinel
y feel that you
need to give more expression to your grief, find an appropriate time and place to do so.
Then, when you feel ready to meditate, make a resolve to dedicate the merit of the
meditation to the memory of the person you’ve lost. The conviction t
hat this is actually
helpful to the other person
wherever he or she may now be
allows you to benefit from
the inner stability that meditation can provide you during times of need.
Healthy grieving is a complex process, for it requires recognizing what was
about the other person and the relationship, but also recognizing what’s not: the fact that it
ended. Every relationship has to end at some time or another. That’s the story of human
life. You need to build the inner strength that can allow you to
maintain a sense of well
being in spite of the inevitable losses that life throws at everyone. This is one of the reasons
why people meditate.
To find this inner strength doesn’t mean that you’re being disloyal to the other person
or to the love you felt for that person. You’re showing that you can be a stronger person
for having had that relationship. For many people, the difficult part of grief lies in knowing
when to focus less on what was special about the relationship and more on what was not
without feeling disloyal. If you never make the shift, your grief becomes self
indulgent and prevents you from being of use to yourself and those you love. If you have
trouble making the shift, talk it over with someone whose judgment you trust.
If, while you’re meditating, your mind is overwhelmed with the
memory of someone who harmed you, remind yourself that one of the best gifts you can
give yourself is to forgive that person. This doesn’t mean that you have to feel love for that
n, simply that you promise yourself not to seek revenge for what that person did.
You’re better off not trying to settle old scores, for scores in life
as opposed to sports
never come to a final tally. The wisest course is to unburden yourself of the weigh
resentment and cut the cycle of retribution that would otherwise keep you ensnarled in an
ugly back and forth that could go on for years. Express a brief phrase of goodwill for the
“May you mend your ways and follow the path to true happiness”
return to the breath.
If you have memories of people you’ve harmed, remember that remorse doesn’t undo
rm you did, and it can actually weaken your confidence that you can change your
ways. Simply remind yourself that you never want to harm a
nyone ever again, and then
spread goodwill to the person you’ve harmed
wherever that person may be right now
then to yourself, and then to all living beings.
Thinking of all living beings helps to remind you that you’re not the only one who has
rs in the past. We’ve all harmed one another many times through innumerable
lifetimes. However, this type of thinking also reminds you that the opportunities for harm
are many, so you have to make the resolve to treat everyone with care. If you’re ever goi
to get out of the cycle of harm in the world, you have to start with
resolve not to
engage in harm. You can’t wait for the resolve to start in other people first.
Finally, make a promise to yourself that you’ll dedicate the merit of your meditation
e you’ve harmed. Then return to the breath.
The same principle applies if you have memories of times when someone needed your
ut you didn’t give it. If the memory is of a time when you
give help to
someone who needed it, reread the
discussion of equanimity in Part One, section I.
Lust comes from focusing on the attractive perceptions you build around a person
or a r
elationship, and ignoring the unattractive side. It gets aggravated by the type of
breathing that habitually accom
panies your fantasies. So your approach has to be two
First, to weaken the voice that insists on some pleasure
breathe in a way that
relaxes any tension wherever you find it in your body. A good place to start is on the back
of your h
Second, introduce unattractive perceptions into your fantasies. If you’re focusing on
the attractiveness of the other person’s body, focus on the unattractive parts right under
the skin. If you’re focusing on an attractive narrative about the relat
ionship, visualize the
other person doing or saying something that really repels you. For instance, think about the
stupid or demeaning things you’ve done under the power of lust, and visualize the other
person laughing contemptuously about them behind you
r back. If, however, contempt fires
you up, think about something else that you know will turn you off. Think, for instance,
of all the strings that come with a sexual relationship, and how much better off you are not
getting entangled. Then get back to th
These reflections, by the way, are not just for monks or nuns. Laypeople in a
committed relationship need tools to keep their minds from wandering outside of the
relationship. And even within the relationship, there are plenty of times when they
keep lust under control. And if you’re not in a committed relationship, you suffer if you
can’t turn off thoughts of lust at will. Society at large may extol and encourage lust, but
uncontrolled lust has done untold damage. That’s why you need tool
s to counteract it, not
only while meditating, but also as you go through the day. Only when lust can be kept
within bounds do the good qualities that thrive in its absence have a chance to grow.
s a variant of lust in which you
’re focused less on the
other person’s body and more on the stories you can manufacture about how you and the
other person will find happiness and understanding together. Remind yourself of how your
romantic fantasies in the past led to disappointment. Do
you expect your current fantasies
to be any more reliable? Once you can see the danger of falling for these fantasies, inject an
element of reality into them to make them less attractive. Think of the other person doing
something that you find really disap
pointing, such as being unfaithful to you, until the act
of fantasizing no longer holds any appeal.
As with lust, you deal with anger first by looking for where it has created
ers of tightness in your body. The chest and the stomach are good places to start, as are
the hands. Breathe in a way that releases that tightness.
Then try some perceptions that will counteract the anger. Thoughts of goodwill are
recommended as the ideal antidote, but there are times when you’re in no mood for
thoughts of goodwill. So think about the stupid things you do or say under the power of
anger, and visualize the person with whom you’re angry feeling satisfied to see you act
stupidly. Do you want to give that person that sort of satisfaction? This line of thin
can often calm you down to the point where you can think more clearly.
Then reflect on the fact that if you want everything to go the way you like, you’re in
ng realm. You’d have to be in heaven. But here you’re in the human realm. Human
y is filled with people doing disagreeable things. So drop the perception that you or
your loved ones are being especially victimized. Mistreatment is a common thing, and anger
is not going to help you deal with it effectively. You’ve got to clear your hea
d if you want
your response to injustice to have a good effect. So try to develop some equanimity around
the fact that injustice is universal, and then see what you can do most effectively in
response to this particular instance of it.
Another strategy is
k of whatever goodness has been done by the people you’re
angry at. It’s rare that people have no goodness to them at all. If you refuse to see that
goodness, you can’t trust yourself to act in skillful ways around those people, and your
own heart b
A traditional image for this strategy is that you’re crossing a desert
trembling with thirst
and you come across a little water in a cow’s footprint. If you were
to scoop it up with your hand, you’d muddy the water. So you do wh
at you have to do:
Get down on all fours and slurp up the water directly from the footprint. Your posture
while doing this may not look very dignified, but this is not a time to worry about how
you look. You’ve got to give top priority to your survival. In
the same way, if you feel that
it’s beneath you to look for the goodness done by someone you’re angry at, you deprive
yourself of the water you need to keep your own goodness alive. So try looking for that
goodness, to see if it makes it easier to develop
thoughts of goodwill. And remember: It’s
for your own sake as much as for theirs.
If you can’t think of any goodness done by the people you’re angry at, then take pity
on them: They’re digging themselves into a deep hole.
Jealousy is a particula
pe of anger that comes when other people
experience good fortune at what you see is your expense
as when a colleague at work
gets praise that you feel you deserve, or when a person you’re infatuated with falls in love
with someone else. In addition to
the anger, jealousy adds perceptions of disappointment
and wounded pride. In every case it comes from pinning your hopes for happiness on
something under someone else’s control.
One way of dealing with jealousy is to remind yourself that you’re going to be
to it as long as you keep defining your happiness and sense of self
worth by things outside
your control. Isn’t it time to seriously start looking for happiness inside instead? You can
also ask yourself if you want to hoard all the happiness and g
ood fortune in the world for
yourself. If so, what kind of person are you? If there have been times in the past when
you’ve enjoyed making other people jealous, remind yourself that the jealousy you’re
currently experiencing is the inevitable payback. Isn’
t it time to get out of that vicious
Perhaps one of the most useful perceptions in dealing with jealousy is to step back and
larger view of life and the world as a whole, to gain a sense of how petty the things
you’re jealous about really are
. Think of the Buddha’s vision of the human world: people
floundering like fish in small puddles, fighting over water that is drying up. Is it worth
your while to keep fighting over things that are petty and diminishing, or would you rather
find a better s
ource of happiness?
After thinking in these ways, take some time to develop the sublime attitude of
if you’re feeling up for it
throw in a little empathetic joy as well.
he practice isn’t giving results as fast as you’d des
that the problem isn’t with the desire
You’ve simply focused it on the wrong place:
on the results rather than on the causes that will produce those results. It’s like driving a car
to a mountain on the horizon. If you spend all your time looking at the mountain, you’ll
drive off the road. You have to focus your attention on the road and follow it each inch
along the way. That will take you to the mountain.
So when you’re feeling impatient with the meditation, remember that you have to
your desire on staying with the breath, on being mindful and alert, and on all the
other parts of the practice that count as causes. If you focus your desire on developing the
causes well, the results will have to come.
If impatience comes from a de
o get past the meditation so that you can get on
with the rest of your life, remember that the rest of your life has left your mind in need of
some healing medicine. Meditation is just that medicine, like the cream you’d rub on a rash.
You can’t just
rub the cream on and then wash it off. You have to let it stay there so that it
can do its healing work. In the same way, you have to give the breath and all the skillful
qualities that you’re developing around it time to do their work.
And remember that
meditation is not something you “get past.” Just as your body will
need medicine as long as it’s exposed to the ravages of the world, your mind will need the
healing medicine of meditation as long as you live.
This emotion comes in two forms: doubt
about yourself, which is covered
under Discouragement, above; and doubt about the practice. This latter doubt can be
overcome in two ways.
The first is to read about the example of the Buddha and his noble disciples. They
were (and are) people of wisdom
and integrity. They taught for free. They had no reason to
misrepresent the truth to anyone. It’s rare to find teachers like that in the world, so you
should give them the benefit of the doubt.
The second way is to remind yourself that the practice can b
e truly judged only by a
person who is true. Are you true in sticking with the breath? Are you true in observing
when your mind is acting in skillful ways and when it’s not? Could you be more true in
these areas? You’ll be able to overcome your doubt only
if you’re truly observant and give
the teachings a truly fair and earnest try, pushing yourself beyond your normal limits.
Regardless of whether the practice ultimately will pan out to be true, you can only gain by
learning to be more observant and earnest, so the energy you put into developing these
qualities is sure not to be a waste.
OTHER UNCANNY PHENOMENA
When the mind starts to quiet down, unusual intuitions can sometimes appear: visions,
voices, and other uncanny phenomena. Sometimes they
convey true information;
sometimes false. The true information is especially dangerous, because it leads you to trust
whatever pops into your mind, so that you start falling for the things that are false.
Intuitions of this sort can also lead to strong co
nceit, as you begin to feel that you’re
somehow special. This pulls you far off the path.
For this reason, the general rule of thumb with regard to these things is to leave them
Not everything that arises in a still mind is trustworthy.
n’t feel that you’re
missing out on something important if you don’t get involved with these things. Only if
you’re under the personal supervision of a teacher who is skilled in handling them should
you risk getting involved. The best information a book li
ke this can offer is on how to pull
yourself out of them. For instance:
Sometimes when the mind settles down, a light may appear to the mind, or you
ear a high
pitched sound in your ears. Or there may be an unusual sensation related
to any of y
our other senses: a smell, a taste, a tactile sensation. If this happens, don’t leave
the breath. These are simply signs that you’re settling down, so regard them as you would
signs on the side of a road. When you see a sign that you’re entering a city, yo
u don’t leave
the road to drive on the sign. You stay on the road, and that will get you further into the
As the mind begins to settle down
f it leaves the breath in a lapse of
you may see a vision of yourself, another person
, or another place in space or
time. These come to the mind when it’s quiet but not fully established in its object. To get
rid of them, reestablish mindfulness by breathing deeply into the heart three or four times,
and they’ll go away. If the vision is o
f another person, first spread goodwill to that person,
and then breathe deeply into the heart to let the vision disband.
and further away from the breath. If it’s really valuable, it’ll stick in your mind without
your trying to remember it.
Think of concentration as a goose that lays golde
n eggs. If you spend all your time
gathering and storing the eggs, the goose will die from lack of attention. And the gold of
these eggs is like the gold in most fairy tales: If you don’t put it to good use right away,
it’ll turn into feathers and ashes. S
o if the egg can’t be used right away, discard it. Put your
energy into looking after the goose.
This is another area where it’s important to remember: Not everything that pops into a
ind is reliable. Quieting the mind gives you access to many rooms
in the mind that
you might have closed off in the past, but just because the rooms are now open doesn’t
mean that they all contain valuables. Some of them hold nothing but old junk.
If an insight that you put aside during the meditation still comes to min
meditation, ask yourself how it applies to the way you conduct your life. If it seems to
offer a wise perspective on how to act in a particular situation, you might give it a try to
see if it really is helpful. Also, to make sure you don’t get
taken in by a one
ask yourself: To what extent is the opposite true? This is one of the most important
questions to keep on hand to maintain your balance as a meditator.
If the insight is of a more abstract sort
the meaning of the uni
let it go. Remember that the questions of discernment deal not with
abstractions but with actions.
actions. The insights you’re looking for in your
meditation are those dealing with your actions as well.
ling with pain: Ajaan MahaBoowa Ñanasampanno
Straight from the Heart,
icular the talks,
“Feelings of Pain”
The talk, “
A Good Dose of Dhamma,”
in Upasika Kee Nanayon,
also gives good pointers on deal
with pain and illness.
On having the right attitude toward mistakes: “
How to Fall”
contains many talks on ways of dealing with disruptive emotions.
e uses of gratitude as a theme of contemplation:
“The Lessons of Gratit
: Pain is Not the Enemy
: Insight into Pain
Take the One Seat
: Strengthening Conviction
: Perceptions of the Breath
: The Power of Perception
: Judging Your Meditation
: Evaluating Your Practice
: Delusion Concentration
: No Mistakes are Fatal
icating with Awareness
: The Arrow in the Heart
: Unlearning Unskillful Behavior
: The Arrows of Emotion
: A Refuge from Illness, Aging,
: Sober Up
In the M
: Today is Better than Yesterday
: Get Out of the Way
: Purity of Heart
: Feeding on the Breath
: Practicing from Gratitude
There are two main reasons for extending meditation practice into daily life. The first is
that you create a momentum that carries through from one session of formal practice to the
next. If you chop up your life into times when you meditate
and times when you don’t, the
energy built up with each meditation session dissipates in the interim. Each time you sit
down to meditate, you have to start again from scratch.
It’s like keeping a dog on a leash. If the dog is left on a long leash, it tends
leash wound around all sorts of things: lampposts, trees, people’s legs. You’re faced with
the long, laborious process of untangling the leash to bring both the dog and the leash back
to where you are. But if the dog’s on a short leash, then wh
en you sit down, the dog and
the leash are right there. In the same way, if you try to maintain the center of your
meditation throughout the day, then when the time comes to sit down in meditation,
you’re already in your center. You can continue from there
The second reason for extending meditation practice into daily life is that it allows you
ng the skills you’ve developed in the meditation to bear right where they’re most
needed: the mind’s tendency to create stress and suffering for itself throughout the day.
Having a sense of your center as a safe, comfortable place helps keep you grounded in
dst of the turmoil of daily life. You’re not blown away by outside events, for you
have a solid basis inside. It’s like having a post at a rocky beach
at the edge of a sea. If the
post is simply left lying on the beach, the waves will drive it back and forth. It will be a
danger to anyone who plays in the waves. Eventually, the waves will ram the post against
the rocks and smash it to smithereens. But i
f the post is set upright and driven deep into
bedrock, the waves won’t be able to move it. It’ll stay safe and sound, and pose no danger
to anyone at all.
Some people complain that trying to practice meditation in the midst of daily life
y adds one m
ore task to the many tasks they’re already trying to juggle, but don’t see
it in that way. Meditation gives you a solid place to stand so that you can juggle your other
responsibilities with more ease and finesse. As many meditators will tell you, the more
mindfulness and alertness you bring to your responsibilities, the better your performance.
Instead of interfering with your work, the meditation makes you more attentive and alert
in doing it. The fact that you’re staying focused, instead of letting the mind wander all
over the place, helps to husband your energy, so that you can bring more stamina to
whatever you have to do.
At the same time, having a clear sense of a still center helps you to see movements of
nd you otherwise would have missed. It’
s like lying on your back in the middle of a
field. If you look up at the sky without reference to anything on the ground, you can’t tell
how fast the clouds are moving, or in which direction. But if you have a still point of
the top of a roof or
a tall pole
you can clearly sense the clouds’ direction and
speed. In the same way, when you have a still point of reference, you can sense when the
mind is heading in the wrong direction and can bring it back before it gets into trouble.
Meditation in da
ily life is essentially a more complicated version of walking meditation,
in that you’re dealing with three main areas of focus: (
) maintaining your inner focus (
while engaged in activities (
) in the midst of the activities around you. The main
ences of course are that (
) and (
) are more complex and less under your control. But
there are ways to compensate for the added complexity. And you can use what measure of
have over your actions and your environment to create better condit
your practice. All too often people try to push meditation into the cracks of their life as
they’re already living it, which doesn’t give the meditation much room to grow. If you’re
really serious about treating the problem of suffering and stress
, you have to rearrange your
life as best you can to foster the skills you want to develop. Place the training of your mind
high in your list of priorities in everything you do. The higher you can place it, the better.
As I stated in the Introduction, some
e advice given here in Part Three may assume
a greater level of commitment than you’re currently ready to make. So read selectively
but also in a spirit of self
honesty. Try to be clear about which members of your inner
committee are making the selec
I : YOUR INNER FOCUS
You may find that you can’t keep clear watch on the in
reath when you’re
deeply involved in a complicated task, but you can maintain a general sense of the quality
of the breath energy in the body.
This is an area wher
ons you’ve learned from sitting meditation can be of help.
Two skills in particular are helpful here.
Try to notice where the trigger points are in your breath energy field: the points that
tense up or tighten most quickly, leading to patt
erns of tension spreading into other
parts of the body. Typical points are at the throat; around the heart; at the solar plexus,
right in front of the stomach; or the backs of your hands or the tops of your feet.
Once you’ve identified a point of this sort
that as the spot where you center your
attention throughout the day. Make sure above all that the spot stays open and relaxed. If
you do sense that it’s tightened up, stop whatever else you’re doing for a moment and
breathe through it. In other words
, send good breath energy into that area and allow it to
relax as soon as you can. That will help disperse the power of the tension before it takes
over other parts of your body and mind.
In the beginning, you may find yourself wandering away from your spo
you’re staying with it. As with the sitting meditation, you have to be patient but firm with
yourself. Each time you realize that you’ve lost your spot, come right back to it and release
any tension that’s developed in the meantime. You might f
ind it useful to set reminders for
yourself: for instance, that you’ll make a special effort to be in your spot each time you
cross a road or come to a red light. Over time, you can set your goals higher and aim at
longer stretches of time where you’re cen
tered and relaxed.
You’ll be fighting some old subconscious defensive habits as you do this, so it may take
master this skill. But if you persist in keeping your spot relaxed, you’ll find that you
carry less tension throughout the day. You’ll be le
ss burdened with the sense that you’ve
got something you need to get out of your system. At the same time, you’ll gain more
enjoyment out of trying to maintain your center because you feel more stable and at ease.
This helps to keep you with it. If you fin
d yourself in a situation where you’re simply
sitting with nothing much to do
as in a meeting or a doctor’s waiting room
bliss out on the feeling of ease in your center, and no one else will have to know.
Keeping your center spot relaxed also helps
make you more sensitive to the little things
that trigger you. This gives you more insight into the workings of your own mind. You
gain a place where you can step back from your thoughts and watch them simply as
members of the committee. You don’t have to
take up everything the committee proposes.
If something unskillful is brought to the floor, you learn to recognize it as unskillful and
breathe right through it.
As you strengthen your ability to keep your center spot relaxed and full in all
ou’re developing a foundation for your inner observer. Developing this identity
in the mind helps you to go through the day with less emotional expense, and to notice
things in yourself and in your surroundings that you never noticed before. In other words
it’s a good foundation for discernment to arise in the course of your daily activities. It also
strengthens the discernment you bring to your formal meditation.
The second useful breath
as you go through the day is to fill your body with
and awareness when you’re in a difficult situation, and especially when you’re
confronted with a difficult person. Think of the breath as a protective shield, so that the
other person’s energy doesn’t penetrate yours. At the same time, visualize that perso
words and actions as going past you, and not as coming straight at you. This helps you feel
less threatened, and enables you to think more clearly about how to respond in an
appropriate way. And because you’re creating a force field of good solid energ
y, you might
have a calming and stabilizing effect on the people and the situation around you.
This is also a good skill to master when you’re dealing with people who come to tell
eir troubles. All too often, we subconsciously feel that if we don’t a
bsorb some of
their pain, we’re not being empathetic. But our sense of absorbing their energy doesn’t
really lighten their load; it simply weighs us down. You can still be empathetic
see their problems more clearly
if you stay inside a clear cocoo
n of good breath energy.
That way you don’t confuse their pain with yours.
Ideally, you want to combine these two breath
s into one, as you would in walking
meditation. In other words, keep your focus on your chosen spot as your default mode, but
n how to expand the breath and the awareness from that spot to fill the whole body as
quickly as possible whenever you feel the need. That way you’re prepared for whatever
comes up in the course of the day.
II : YOUR ACTIVITIES
You’ll quickly discover th
things disturbing your meditation in daily life don’t all
come from outside. Your own activities
what you do, say, and think
can also throw
balance. This is why the principle of restraint is an essential part of the practice:
You make a poin
t of refraining from doing things and directing your attention in ways that
will undo the work of your meditation.
hink of restraint as confinement, restricting the range of your
activities. Actually, it’s a door to freedom
rom the damage you do to yourself
and the people around you. Although some of the traditional forms of restraint may seem
confining at first, remember that only the unskillful members of the committee are feeling
hemmed in. The skillful ones who have been
trampled underfoot are actually being given
some space and freedom to develop and grow.
At the same time, the practice of restraint doesn’t mean restricting the range of your
awareness. All too often, when we think of doing something or looking at somethin
focus simply on what we like or dislike. Restraint forces you to look at
you like or
dislike things, and at
what happens as a result
when you follow your likes and dislikes. In this
way, you broaden your perspective and gain insight into areas of
the mind that otherwise
would stay hidden behind the scenes. Restraint is thus a way of developing discernment.
Some members of the mind’s committee like to argue that you’ll understand them only
ou give in to them, and that if you don’t give in to
them, they’ll go underground
where you can’t see them. If you fall for that argument, you’ll never be free of their
influence. The only way around it is to be persistent in refusing to believe it, for then you
get to see their next line of defense, and the
n the next. Finally you’ll come to the level
where they reveal themselves, and you’ll see how weak their reasoning really is. So here
again, restraint is a way of developing discernment into areas that indulgence keeps hidden.
Another way of thinking about
raint is to regard meditation as an exercise in
developing a home for the mind
a place inside where you can rest with a sense of
protection and gather nourishment for the mind. If you lack restraint, it’s as if the windows
and doors of your inner home
hours a day. People and animals can come and
go and leave whatever mess they want. If you close your windows and doors only when
you practice formal meditation, you get forced into the role of a janitor each time you start
to meditate. And yo
u’ll find that some of the people or animals that have wandered into
your home won’t be willing to leave. They’ll eat up all the nourishment you’ve gathered,
and you won’t have any left for yourself. So you have to gain a sense of discernment as to
u should open and close your windows and doors. That way your mind will have a
If you’re afraid that restraint will deprive you of your spontaneity, remember the harm
ntrained spontaneity can cause. Think of the things that you said or did
on the spur
of the moment that you then regretted for a long time afterwards. What you thought was
your “natural spontaneity” was simply the force of an unskillful habit, as artificial and
contrived as any other habit. Spontaneity becomes admirable and “i
n the zone” only when
it has been trained to the point where skillful action becomes effortless. This is what we
admire in the greatest artists, performers, and sports stars. Their spontaneity required years
of training. So look at restraint as a way of tr
aining your spontaneity to become effortlessly
skillful. This may take time, but it’s time well spent.
There are three traditional ways of exercising restraint: developing a sense of
ation in your conversation, following precepts, and exercising restr
aint over your
MODERATION IN CONVERSATION
Lesson number one in meditation is keeping control of your mouth. If you can’t control
your mouth there’s no way you’re going to control your mind.
So, before you say anything, ask yourself: (
) “Is this
) “Is this beneficial?” (
“Is this the right time to say this?” If the answer to all three questions is Yes, then go ahead
and say it. If not, then keep quiet.
When you make a habit of asking yourself these questions, you find that very little
onversation is really worthwhile.
This doesn’t mean that you have to become unsociable. If you’re at work and you need
to your fellow workers to create a harmonious atmosphere in the workplace, that
counts as worthwhile speech. Just be careful that
grease speech doesn’t go beyond
that and turn into idle chatter. This is not only a waste of energy but also a source of
danger. Too much grease can gum up the works. Often the words that cause the most harm
are those that, when they pop into the m
ind, are allowed to go unfiltered right out the
If observing the principle of moderation in conversation means that you gain a
ation for being a quiet person, well, that’s fine. You find that your words, if you’re
more careful about doling them
out, start taking on more worth. At the same time, you’re
creating a better atmosphere for your mind. If you’re constantly chattering all day long,
how are you going to stop the mental chatter when you sit down to meditate? But if you
develop the habit of
watching over your mouth, the same habit comes to apply to the
meditation. Your committee members all start learning to watch over their mouths as well.
This doesn’t mean that you have to give up humor, just that you learn to employ
wisely. Humor in
our society tends to fall into the categories of wrong speech:
falsehoods, divisive speech, coarse speech, and idle chatter. There’s a challenge in learning
to use your humor to state things that are true, that lead to harmony, and actually serve a
urpose. But think for a moment of all the great humorists of the past: We remember
their humor because of the clever ways they expressed the truth. You may or may not
aspire to be a great humorist, but the effort spent in trying to use humor wisely is a go
exercise in discernment. If you can learn to laugh wisely and in a good
natured way about
the foibles of the world around you, you can learn to laugh in the same way at your own
foibles. And that’s one of the most essential skills in any meditator’s rep
A precept is a promise you make to yourself to avoid harmful behavior. No one is
forcing it on you, but wise people have found that five precepts in particular are very
helpful in creating a good environment for training the mind. When
you take on these five
precepts, you establish the resolve not to intentionally engage in five activities:
) Killing any person or animal
) Stealing (i.e., taking something belonging to someone else without that person’s
) Having illicit sex
e., with a minor or with an adult who is already in another
relationship or when
already in another relationship)
) Telling falsehoods (i.e., misrepresenting the truth)
) Taking intoxicants
e precepts are designed to counteract some of th
tant ways in which your
actions create disturbances, inside and out, that make it difficult to maintain your inner
focus. Outside, they protect you from the sorts of actions that will lead to retaliation from
others. Inside, they protect you from the
two attitudes with which you can wound yourself
when you know you’ve harmed yourself or others: low self
esteem or defensively high self
These two forms of unhealthy self
esteem relate to the two ways people tend to react
to their own misbehavior:
You either (
) regret the actions or (
) engage in one of two
kinds of denial, either (a) denying that your actions did in fact happen or (b) denying that
they really were wrong. These reactions are like wounds in the mind. Regret is an open
to the touch, whereas denial is like hardened, twisted scar tissue around a
tender spot. When the mind is wounded in these ways, it can’t settle down comfortably in
the present, for it finds itself resting on raw, exposed flesh or calcified knots. When it’
forced to stay in the present, it’s there only in a tensed, contorted, and partial way. The
insights it gains tend to be contorted and partial as well. Only if the mind is free of wounds
and scars can it settle down comfortably and freely in the present,
and give rise to
This is where the five precepts come in: They’re designed to heal these wounds and
hey’re an integral part of the healing process of meditation. Healthy self
comes from living up to a set of standar
ds that are practical, clear
cut, humane, and worthy
of respect. The five precepts are formulated in such a way that they provide just such a set
The standards set by the precepts are simple. You promise yourself not to
tentionally in any of the five kinds of harmful activities, and not to tell anyone
else to engage in them, either. That’s all. You don’t have to worry about controlling more
than that. This means that the precepts don’t require you to focus on indirect or
unintended ways in which your actions may lead to someone else’s breaking the precepts.
You focus first on your own choices to act.
If, after time, you want to expand your promises to yourself to avoid behavior that
indirectly cause others to break t
such as buying meat
up to you. But in the beginning, it’s wisest to focus on what you yourself choose to do, for
that’s an area where you can exert true control.
It’s entirely possible to live in line with these standards
ways easy or
convenient, maybe, but always possible. Some of the precepts may be easier for you to
keep than others, but with time and patience
and a little wisdom in dealing with lapses in
they become more and more manageable. This is especi
ally true when you
start noticing the benefits that come from keeping them, and the harm that’s caused when
Some people translate the precepts into standards that sound more lofty or noble
g the second precept, for example, to mean no abuse
of the planet’s resources
even those who reformulate the precepts in this way admit that it’s impossible to live up to
them. Anyone who has suffered from having to live up to impossible standards can tell you
of the psychological damage such standards
can cause. If you can give yourself standards
that take a little effort and mindfulness but are possible to meet, your self
dramatically as you discover within yourself the ability to meet those standards. You can
then face more demanding tas
ks with confidence.
The precepts are formulated with no ifs, ands, or buts. This means that they
give very clear guidance, with no room for waffling or less
honest rationalizations. An
action either fits in with the precepts or it doesn’t
. Again, standards of this sort are very
healthy to live by. Anyone who has raised children has found that, although children may
complain about hard and fast rules, they actually feel more secure with them than with
rules that are vague and always open to
cut rules don’t allow for
unspoken agendas to come sneaking in the back door of the mind. When, through training
yourself in rules like this, you learn that you can trust your motivations, you gain a
genuinely healthy sense of self
esteem. At the same time, holding to a clear
cut rule saves
you the time you might otherwise waste in trying to blur the line and justify unskillful
behavior to yourself.
The precepts are humane both to the person who observes them and to the
affected by his or her actions. If you observe them, you’re aligning yourself with a
humane principle: that the most important powers shaping your experience of the world
are the intentional thoughts, words, and deeds you choose in the present moment. This
means that you are not insignificant. With every choice you make
at home, at work, at
you are exercising your power in the ongoing fashioning of the world. Keeping the
precepts ensures that your contribution to the world is always positive.
As for yo
ur effect on other people: If you follow the precepts, your contribution to the
d is in line with the principles of goodwill and compassion. This helps you to develop
the brahmaviharas with no fear of hypocrisy or denial.
Worthy of respect:
precepts are called “standards appealing to the noble ones”
people who have gained at least the first taste of awakening. Such people don’t accept
standards simply on the basis of popularity. They’ve put their lives on the line to see what
leads to true ha
ppiness and have seen for themselves, for example, that all lying is
pathological, and that sex in violation of a committed relationship is unsafe at any speed.
Other people may not respect you for living by the five precepts, but noble ones do, and
respect is worth more than that of anyone else in the world.
Some people are afraid of keeping the precepts for fear of becoming proud that their
ior is better than other people’s. This sort of pride, however, is easy to drop when
you remember that yo
u’re observing the precepts not to make yourself better than others,
but simply to cure the problems in your own mind. It’s like taking medicine: If you take
your medicine when other people are not taking theirs, that’s no reason to look down on
may encourage them to take their health more seriously, but if they refuse to
heed your encouragement, you have to drop the matter for the time being and concentrate
on recovering your own health.
The healthy sort of pride that comes from observing the pre
focuses on comparing
yourself with yourself
in other words, on the fact that you’ve learned how to be less
harmful and more thoughtful than you used to be. This sort of pride is much better than
the opposite sort: the conceit that views the precepts
as petty, claiming to be above them.
That sort of pride is doubly damaging: both to your mind and to the happiness of others.
It’s much healthier to respect yourself for submitting to a strict training and mastering it.
That sort of respect is good for you
and for everyone else.
In addition to creating a healthy attitude and peaceful environment conducive to the
ice, the precepts exercise many of the skills you need to get started in meditation.
They give you practice in setting up a skillful intention
and then sticking with it. They also
give you practice in dealing in a mature way with any lapses that may occur. To keep to
them successfully, you have to learn how to recognize and acknowledge a mistake without
getting tied up in remorse and self
ination. You simply reaffirm your intention not to
make that slip again, and then develop the brahmaviharas to help strengthen that intention.
This way you learn both how to take your mistakes in stride and how not to repeat them.
The precepts also develop
the mental qualities needed specifically for concentration:
to keep them in mind,
to keep watch over your actions to make sure that
they stay in line with your precepts, and
to anticipate situations where you might be
to break your precepts, so that you can plan a skillful strategy that will keep your
precepts intact. This then develops your discernment.
For example, there will be situations where telling the truth about a particular topic
be harmful to others. H
ow do you avoid talking about that topic and yet still not tell
a lie? When you promise yourself not to kill, you have to anticipate that pests may invade
your home. How can you keep them out without killing them?
In these ways, the precepts help to foster
ducive environment around the practice
of meditation, at the same time exercising skills you need to develop within the meditation
RESTRAINT OF THE SENSES
The senses here are six:
your senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, alon
the sense of ideation
your mind’s knowledge of ideas. Restraint of these senses doesn’t
mean going around with blinders on your eyes or plugs in your ears. It actually forces you
to see more than you normally might, for it requires you to become sen
sitive to two things:
your motivation for, say, looking at a particular sight; and (
t’s happening to your
mind as a result of looking at that sight. In this way you bring the questions of discernment
to bear in an area where you’re usually driven
by the questions of hunger: the search to see
or hear delicious things. You learn to view your engagement with the senses as part of a
causal process. This is how restraint helps to develop discernment. At the same time, you
learn to counteract causal cur
rents that would disturb the mind. This helps to develop
To resist getting swept away by these currents, you have to maintain your center of
ess within the body. That type of center is like an anchor for securing the mind.
Then make su
re that your center is comfortable. That keeps the mind well fed, so that it
doesn’t abandon its anchor to flow along with those currents in search of food. When the
mind isn’t hungry for pleasure, it’ll be much more willing to exercise restraint over the
currents going out the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Once the mind is firmly
centered, you’re in a good position to step out of the currents and view them in terms of
both aspects of their causal patterns.
Each time you direct your attention
e senses, try to be clear about your
Realize that you’re not a passive receiver of sights, sounds, etc. The mind
actually goes out looking for sensory stimuli. And often it’s looking for trouble. There are
times, for instance, when there’
s nothing in your surroundings to inspire lust, but lust arises
in the mind and goes looking for something to nourish itself. The same thing happens with
anger and all your other emotions.
So when you look at things, what are you looking for? Who’s doing t
king? Is lust
doing the looking? Is anger doing the looking? If you let these emotions direct your eyes,
they get used to ordering your mind around as well. You’re strengthening the very
committee members that you’ll later need to wrestle down during
If you see that unskillful intentions are directing where you focus your attention or
how you look at something, change your focus. Look at something else, or look at the same
thing in a different way. If you’ve been contemplating a beauti
ful body, look for the
aspects that aren’t so beautiful
and they aren’t far away, just under the skin. The same
principle holds for anger. If you’re thinking about someone you really hate, remember that
there’s another side to that person as well, a good s
ide. Be a person with two eyes, and not
just one. Or if you find that when you drop the lust or the anger, you’re no longer
interested in looking at or thinking about those people, you realize that the problem wasn’t
with them. It was with the committee in
your mind. You learn that you can’t really trust
some of its members. This is a good lesson to learn on a daily basis.
A similar principle applies when you take note of the
of your looking. If you
realize that the way you’ve been looking at som
ething has started to aggravate unskillful
mental states, either look away or learn to look at the same thing in a way that counteracts
those mental states. The same applies to what you listen to, what you smell, what you
taste, what you touch, and especia
lly what you think about.
If you can keep your attention focused on the way in which the mind initiates sensory
ct and is affected by sensory contact, you’re staying focused inside even as you look
or listen outside. This helps to keep the center of your focus firm and resilient throughout
III : YOUR SURROUNDINGS
The values of human society, for the most part, fly right in the face of a meditative life.
r they make fun of the idea of a true, unchanging happiness, or they avoid the topic
entirely, or else they say that you can’t reach an unchanging happiness through your own
efforts. This is true even in societies that have traditionally been Buddhist, and it’s
especially so in modern society, where the media exert pressure to look for ha
things that will change. The practice of meditation for the sake of an unconditioned
happiness is always counter
cultural. No one else is going to protect your conviction in the
possibility of true happiness. You have to protect it yourself. So
learn how to skillfully
shelter your practice from the conflicting values of society at large.
There are three basic ways in which you can do this: choosing admirable friends,
ing to live frugally, and finding seclusion as much as you can.
es require a fair amount of renunciation, and renunciation is easiest
when you regard it not as deprivation but as a trade. In trading the pleasures of an ordinary
life for a meditative life, you’re trading candy for gold. Or you may think of yourself
athlete in training. The game of outwitting your unskillful habits is far more worthwhile
than any sport. Just as athletes are willing to live under certain restrictions for the sake of
their performance, you should be willing to live under certain
restrictions for the sake of
true happiness. And just as an athlete restricted to a healthy diet comes to prefer healthy
food to junk food, you often find that the restrictions you place on the way you interact
with your surroundings actually become your p
referred mode of being.
When you associate with a person, you unconsciously pick up that person’s habits and
views. This is why the most important principle in shaping the environment around your
daily meditation is to associate with admirable people.
Admirable people have four qualities: They’re virtuous, generous, wise, and have
ction in the principle that skillful qualities should be developed, and unskillful
qualities abandoned. If you can find people like this, try to associat
e with them. Notice
their good qualities, try to emulate them, and ask them how you might develop more
virtue, generosity, wisdom, and conviction yourself.
So look around you. If you don’t see any people like this, search them out.
The problem is, what to
h the people around you who aren’t admirable, but with
whom you have to spend time at home, at work, or at social occasions. This issue is
especially difficult if they’re people for whom you’re responsible, or to whom you have
debts of gratitude, suc
h as your parents. You have to spend time with these people; you
have to help them. So learn what it means to spend time with people without associating
i.e., without picking up their habits and values. The primary principle is that
you don’t go
to them for advice on moral or spiritual issues. Also, try to excuse yourself
every time they try to pull you into activities that go against your precepts or principles. If
the activities are unavoidable
as when there’s a party at work
take the attitude o
an anthropologist from Mars, observing the strange habits of earthlings in this society at
this point in time.
If there are people or situations that tend to bring out the worst in you, and you can’t
them, sit down and devote a meditation ses
sion to planning how you can survive the
encounter without getting your buttons pushed and with a minimum of unnecessary
conflict. Learning how to prevent unskillful qualities from arising in the mind is an
important part of the path, but all too often it’
s overlooked. Not every meditation has to
focus on the present. Just make sure that planning doesn’t take over your meditation and
go beyond the bounds of what’s really helpful.
In some cases, if a friendship is centered on unskillful activities, you might
putting it on hold. Even though the other person’s feelings might be hurt, you have to ask
yourself which is more precious: that person’s feelings or the state of your mind. (And
remember: Simply hurting another person’s feelings is not the same
thing as causing that
person harm.) You’ll eventually have more to offer that person
if you practice seriously,
you can become that person’s admirable friend
so don’t think of your pulling away as an
If your friends are concerned that you’re be
g less social, talk the issue over with
someone you trust.
The principle of being selective with your friends applies not only to people in the
, but also to the media: newspapers, magazines, television, radio, internet, internet,
internet. Here it’s easier to turn things off without compunction. If you do feel the need to
spend time with the media, ask yourself each time: Why am I doing this? What kind of
people will I be associating with when I do? When they say something, why do they want
believe it? Can I trust them? Who are their sponsors?
Even reading/watching the news has its dangers for someone training the mind. There’s
wrong with trying to stay informed of current events, but you have to be sensitive
to the effect that too m
uch attention to the news can have on your mind. The basic
message of the news is that your time is unimportant, that the important things in the
world are what other people are doing in other places. This is the opposite of the message
of meditation: that
the most important thing happening in your world is what you’re doing
right here, right now.
So exercise moderation even in the amount of news you watch. Instead, watch the
news being made right at your breath. And when you have news of this sort to repor
report it only to people who have earned your trust.
Buddhist monks are encouraged every day to reflect on why they use the four requisites
of life: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. The purpose of this reflection is to see if
een using these things to excess or in ways that will develop unskillful states of
mind. They’re also advised to reflect on the fact that each of the requisites has come about
through the sacrifices of many, many people and other living beings. This reflection
encourages the monks to live simply and to aim ultimately at a truly noble form of
happiness that places no burdens on anyone at all.
Lay meditators benefit from reflecting daily in this way as well, to counteract the way
y at large encourages y
ou to focus your attention on consumption and acquisition
with no thought for the consequences. So stop to think, for example, when you eat: Is it
just to keep yourself strong enough to fulfill your duties? Or are you, in the words of the
Buddhist texts, s
earching out the tip
top tastes with the tip of your tongue? Are you
bulking up just to look good? If so, you’re fostering unskillful states of mind. Are you too
picky about what kinds of food you will and won’t eat? If so, you’re spending too much
d money on your eating
time and money that could be used to develop generosity
or other skillful mental states.
You have to realize that in eating
f it’s vegetarian food
you’re placing a
burden on the world around you, so you want to give some though
t to the purposes served
by the strength you gain from your food. Don’t eat just for the fun of it, because the
human and animal
who provided the food didn’t provide it in fun. Make sure the
energy gets put to good use.
This doesn’t mean, however, t
u should starve yourself. Starving yourself to look
good is also unskillful, in that it drains away the energy you need to practice, and keeps
you inordinately fastened on the appearance of the body. The traditional term for wise
in eating: having a sense of just right, of exactly how much is needed to
keep you healthy and strong enough to stick with the training of the mind.
The same principle holds true for the other requisites. You don’t want to be a miser,
the same time
you don’t want to waste the resources that you or someone you
depend on worked so hard to acquire. Don’t be a slave to style. Don’t take more from the
world than you’re willing to give back. And learn to undo the perceptions
promoted by the med
that shopping is a form of therapy and that a purchase is nothing
but a victory or a gain. Every purchase also entails loss. To begin with, there’s the loss of
money that could be used to develop skillful qualities of mind
such as generosity
unskillful qualities, like greed. Then there’s a loss of freedom. All too often, the things
you own begin to own you. The more things you own, the more you have to fear from the
dangers that can come to things, such as theft, fire, and flood. So learn to
purchases to things that really are useful, and use the money you save to help advance the
higher qualities of life, both for yourself and for those around you. Think of frugality as a
gift both to yourself and to the world.
SE C LUSI O N
sion enables you to look directly at the issues created by your own mind without
the distraction of issues created by other people. It’s a chance to get in touch with yourself
and to reaffirm your true values. This is why the Buddha advised monks to go int
wilderness, and to create a wilderness state of mind even when living in society.
There are several ways you can create that state of mind in your life.
er a sense of seclusion around your daily meditation session, you
might find it
helpful to chant before you meditate. This is especially helpful if you notice
that your mind is carrying a lot of issues from the day. The sound of the chanting is
calming, and the words of the chanting help to put you in a new frame of mind. There are
ny chanting texts available on
line, and many sound files showing how to pronounce the
words. It’s possible to chant in any of the Asian Buddhist languages, in your own language,
or a combination of both. Experiment to see which style of chanting is most e
putting you in the best frame of mind to meditate.
ition to your daily meditation session, it’s helpful to find times at
regular intervals when you can set aside longer periods of time for meditation practice. This
allows you t
o go deeper into your mind and to recharge your practice in general. There are
two ways you can do this, and it’s useful to try both. The first is to find time on a regular
basis every week or two to devote a larger part of the day than you normally do for
practice. The second is to go on an extended retreat once or twice a year.
Traditionally, Buddhists set aside four days out of the month
moon day, the
moon day, and the two half
for more earnest practice. This is called
. The most common way of observing the uposatha
involves taking the eight precepts, listening to the Dhamma (the Buddha’s teachings), and
The eight precepts build on the five. The third precept is changed from no i
no sex at all. With the remaining three precepts you promise yourself that for the duration
of the day you’ll refrain from:
) Eating food during the period from noon until the following dawn
) Watching shows, listening to music, using jewel
osmetics, and scents
) Sitting on high, luxurious seats or lying on high, luxurious beds
e precepts essentially add the principle of restraint of the senses to the five
pts. Because they place limits on the pleasure you try to take from each
of the five
physical senses, they encourage you to examine your attachment to the body and to sensual
pleasures, and to look for pleasure in training your mind instead.
To listen to the Buddha’s teachings, you can read a Dhamma book aloud or listen to
he good Dhamma talks available online.
Of course, you can adjust these observances as fits your schedule. For instance, you can
vary the number of times you attempt them in one month. You can schedule them for days
you’re normally off work. If you can
’t eat before noon, you can simply promise yourself
that you won’t eat food after the mid
If you have friends who are meditators, you might try scheduling an uposatha day
together to see if the energy of the group helps or hinders your practice.
Although it may
seem strange to seek seclusion in the company of others, you may find that it makes the
practice feel less lonely, for you can see that you’re not the only person bucking the values
of society at large. To help foster an atmosphere of seclu
sion in the group, agree on the
amount of conversation you want to engage in. Avoid discussions of politics. Generally, the
more silence, the better. You’re not meeting to teach one another through words. You’re
meeting to teach and support one another thr
As for extended retreats, there are many meditation centers offering retreats
throughout the year. The advantage of centers like these is that they tend to enforce a set
group schedule, which helps to structure your day. This can be importa
nt if you’re just
getting started with meditation and have trouble being a self
starter. Also, the work
schedule tends to be minimal. Your food will be cooked for you, so you’ll have more time
for formal meditation.
However, you have to be careful in choos
ing a g
ood center. Many are run as businesses
with sizable staffs. This drives the fees up and drives the Dhamma away from what the
Buddha taught and in the direction of what pleases a large clientele. Some centers will
apply subtle pressure at the end of
the retreat for you to give a donation to the center or
the teacher(s) of the retreat, claiming that this is an ancient Buddhist custom. The tradition
of giving donations is a Buddhist custom; the tradition of applying pressure for donations is
Dhamma taught on the retreat goes against what you know is true, avoid the
ma talks and meditate someplace else in the center. If you’re not sure, meditate
during the Dhamma talks, giving all your attention to your meditation theme. If anything
talk is relevant or helpful to what you’re doing, it will come right to your attention.
As for everything else, you can let it pass.
Even the centers run on a donation basis can teach very strange versions of the
a. If you sense anything of a cultish
atmosphere at a center, leave immediately. If
they refuse to let you leave, make a scene. Remember, you have to protect your mind.
Meditation monasteries are another alternative. They charge no fees, as everything is
a donation basis. But because y
ou will be expected to help with the daily chores,
you may have less time for formal meditation. Also, meditation monasteries often don’t
have set group schedules, so you’ll have to be more of a self
starter. And even here, you
have to be discriminating in
how you listen to the Dhamma.
You can also search the internet for centers that allow you to rent a small cabin to
ate on your own.
Another alternative is to go camping. In the United States, state and national forests
deral BLM (Bureau of Land
Management) land tend to provide more opportunities for
seclusion than state and national parks, as they don’t force you to stay in campgrounds.
Being in the wilderness also helps to put many of the issues of your daily life into a larger
re’s a reason why the Buddha went into the wilderness to gain awakening.
For some general perspectives on practice in daily life: “Skills to Take with You” in
ditative Life” in
On using the breath in di
fficult social situations: “Social Anxiety” in
On controlling your mouth: “Right Speech”
On examining your intentions: “The Road to Nirvana is Paved with Skillful
etiquette of generosity, both for those who give and for thos
e who receive:
“No Strings Attached”
On renunciation and uposatha practice: “The Dignity of Restraint” in
“Trading Candy for Gold”
giveness: “Reconciliation, Right
On some of the issues encountered in following the precepts: “Ge
tting the Message”;
“Educating Compassion”; “The Healing Power of the Precepts”
: For the Survival of Your Goodness
: A Culture of Self
: A Wilderness Mind at Home
: Skills to Take Home
: New Feeding Habits
: The Skill of Restraint
: Right Speech, Inside
: A Meditator is a Good Friend to Have
: The Ivory Intersection
: Caring Without Clinging
Protecting Your Space
: An Anthropologist from Mars
Breath meditation is an ideal practice for giving rise to strong states of concentration,
called jhana. Jhana then provides an ideal bas
is for fostering the insights that can free the
mind from its habitual ways of causing itself suffering and stress. Those insights can
ultimately lead to an experience of release into the unconditioned dimension
where suffering and str
ess all end. So there are three aspects to advanced
practice: jhana, insight, and release.
The Pali Canon describes four levels of jhana, and five formless attainments
concentration in which there is no experience of the form of the body
that take the
fourth jhana as their point of departure. Texts drawing on the Pali Canon have mapped out
these descriptions, listing the factors that go into each jhana or formless attainment.
It’s important when reading these lists to realize that they’re
cipes. For instance,
you can’t simply take the five factors of the first jhana, combine them, and then expect to
get the first jhana. That would be like hearing that the tropical fruit durian smells like
custard combined with garlic, and that it cont
ains a little cyanide, some vitamin E, and a
large dose of potassium. If you simply combined these ingredients in hopes of getting
durian, you’d actually get a poisonous mess.
The lists of jhana factors are more like restaurant reviews. They tell you what
l version of a particular dish should or shouldn’t taste like, but they don’t give
many clues on how to make that dish yourself.
So to get the most out of the restaurant reviews, you can combine them with a recipe
e you a fuller idea of ho
w the recipe should work. That’s what’s offered here. The
basic recipe for jhana is given in Parts One and Two of this book. When you focus on the
breath following the recipe, and things begin to go well, these are some of the experiences
you can expect.
he first jhana.
ditionally, the first jhana has five factors: directed thought,
evaluation, singleness of preoccupation (the theme you’re focused on), rapture, and
pleasure. The first three factors are the causes; the last two, the results. In other words, you
rapture and pleasure. They come about when you do the first three factors well.
In this case,
means that you keep directing your thoughts to the breath.
You don’t direct them anywhere else. This is the factor that helps yo
u stay concentrated on
is the discernment factor, and it covers several activities. You evaluate how
ortable the breath is, and how well you’re staying with the breath. You think up ways
of improving either your breath or the way
you’re focused on the breath; then you try
them out, evaluating the results of your experiments. If they don’t turn out well, you try to
think up new approaches. If they do turn out well, you try to figure out how to get the
most out of them. This last asp
ect of evaluation includes the act of spreading good breath
energy into different parts of the body, spreading your awareness to fill the body as well,
and then maintaining that sense of full
body breath and full
Evaluation also plays a rol
e in fighting off any wandering thoughts that might arise: It
quickly assesses the damage that would come to your concentration if you followed such
thoughts, and reminds you of why you want to come back on topic. When the meditation
is going well, evaluation has less work to do in this area and can focus more directly on the
breath and the quality of your focus on the breath.
In short, evaluation plays both a passive and an active role in your relation to the
h. Its passive role is simply stepping bac
k to watch how things are going. In this role,
it develops both your alertness and your inner
which I discussed in Part One. The
active role of evaluation is to pass judgment on what you’ve observed and to figure out
what to do with it. If you ju
dge that the results of your mental actions aren’t satisfactory,
you try to find ways to change what you’re doing, and then put your ideas to the test. If
satisfactory, you figure out ways to maintain them and put them to good
use. This dev
elops your inner
so that it can be more skillful in shaping the state of your
Singleness of preoccupation
s two things: First, it refers to the fact that your directed
thought and evaluation both stay with nothing but the breath. In other wo
preoccupation is single in the sense that it’s the one thing you’re focused on. Second, your
preoccupation is single in the sense that one thing
fills your awareness. You
may be able to hear sounds outside the body, but your attention
doesn’t run to them.
They’re totally in the background. (This point applies to all the jhanas, and can even apply
to the formless attainments, although some people, on reaching the formless attainments,
find that they don’t hear sounds.)
When these three f
s are solid and skillful,
arise. The word
“rapture” here is a translation of a Pali word
that can also mean refreshment. It’s
basically a form of energy and can be experienced in many ways: either as a quiet, still
n body and mind; or else as a moving energy, such as a thrill running through the
body or waves washing over you. Sometimes it will cause the body to move. With some
people, the experience is intense; for others, it’s gentler. This can, in part, be determi
how much your body is hungering for the energy. If it’s really hungry, the experience will
be intense. If not, the experience may hardly be noticeable.
As I noted in Part Two, most people find the rapture pleasant, but some find it
asant. In ei
ther case, the important point is not to focus on it, but to stay focused on
the breath. Let the rapture move any way it likes. You don’t have to try to control it.
Otherwise, you drop the causal factors
directed thought, evaluation, and singleness of
and your concentration unravels.
Pleasure is the sense of ease and well
that come when the body feels soothed by
the breath, and the mind is pleasurably interested in the work of the meditation. Here again
it’s important to stay focused on
the breath and not to focus on the pleasure, for that
would lose touch with the causes of the concentration.
Instead, use your awareness of the breath and your powers of evaluation to allow
the operative word:
the feelings of rapture and pleas
ure to fill the body.
The third jhana
has two factors: singleness of preoccupation and pleasure. The sense
of pleasure here feels very still in the body. As it fills the body, there’s no sense that you’re
filling the body with moving breath energy. In
stead, you’re allowing the body to be filled
with a solid, still energy. People have also described this breath as “resilient” or “steely.”
There is still a subtle sense of the flow of the breath around the edges of the body, but it
feels like the movement
of water vapor around an ice cube, surrounding the ice but not
causing it to expand or contract. Because the mind doesn’t have to deal with the movement
of the breath energy, it can grow more settled and still. It too becomes more solid and
the presence of the bodily pleasure.
As the mind gets even more centered and still in this way, it enters the fourth jhana.
The fourth jhana
wo factors: singleness of preoccupation and equanimity. At this
point, even the subtle movement of the in
out breath falls still. There are no waves or
gaps in the breath energy. Because the mind is so still, the brain is converting less oxygen
into carbon dioxide, so the chemical sensors in the brain feel no need to tell the body to
breathe. The oxygen that t
he body absorbs passively is enough to provide for its needs.
Awareness fills the body, breath fills the body, breath fills awareness: This is singleness of
preoccupation in full. It’s also the point in concentration practice where mindfulness
: There are no lapses in your ability to remember to stay with the breath.
Because both the mind and the breath are still, equanimity becomes pure as well. The mind
is at total equilibrium.
When you’ve learned to maintain this sense of balanced stillness i
n the b
reath, you can
focus on balancing the other properties of the body as well. First balance the heat and the
cold. If the body feels too warm, notice where the coolest spot in the body is. Focus on the
coolness there, and then allow it to spread, just
as you’d spread the still breath. Similarly, if
you feel too cold, find the warmest spot in the body. After you can maintain your focus on
the warmth there, allow it to spread. See if you can then bring the coolness and warmth
into balance, so that the bo
dy feels just right.
Similarly with the solidity of the body: Focus on the sensations that seem heaviest or
olid in the body. Then allow that solidity to spread through the body. If the body
feels too heavy, then think of the still breath making it l
ighter. Try to find a balance so that
you feel neither too heavy nor too light.
This exercise not only makes the body more comfortable as a basis for firmer
tration, but also acquaints you with the properties that make up your inner sense of
. As we noted in Part Two, being acquainted with these properties provides you
with a useful set of tools for dealing with pain and out
body experiences. This exercise
also gives you practice in seeing the power of your perceptions: Simply noticing and
labeling a particular sensation can make it stronger.
The four jhanas focus on the same topic
but the way they relate to the
breath grows progressively more refined. Once the mind reaches the fourth jhana, this can
form the basis for the formles
s attainments. Here the relationship among the stages is
reversed: All the formless attainments relate to their themes in the same way
equanimity and singleness of the fourth jhana
but they focus on different themes. Here
we will discuss just the
first four of the formless attainments, as the fifth formless
the cessation of perception and feeling
lies beyond the scope of this book.
The formless attainments.
As the mind in the fourth jhana stays with the stillness of
the breath filling th
e body, it begins to sense that the only reason it feels a boundary or
form to the body is because of the
or mental image of the body’s form that it’s
been holding to. There is no movement of the breath to confirm that perception. Instead,
ody feels like a cloud of mist droplets, each droplet a sensation, but with no clear
boundary to the cloud.
To reach the first formless attainment, allow the perception of the form of the body to
drop away. Then focus, not on the droplets of sensation, but
on the space in
them. This space then goes out beyond the body without limit and can penetrate
everything else. However, you don’t try to trace it out to its limit. You simply hold in
mind the perception of “infinite space” or “unlimited space.” I
f you can stay there solidly,
you reach the first formless attainment,
the dimension of the infinitude of space.
See how long you
can stay with that perception.
To become adept at staying with the perception of infinite space, you can try holding
to it e
n when you’ve left formal meditation. As you go through the day, replace your
inner focus on the breath at a spot in the body with a focus on the perception of “space”
permeating everything: your body, the space around the body, other people, the physical
objects around you. Hold that perception of space in the back of your mind. Whatever’s
happening inside or outside your body, it’s all happening in the context of that perception
of space. This creates a great feeling of lightness as you go through the day
. If you can
maintain this perception in the midst of your daily activities, you’ll have an easier time
accessing it and staying steadily focused on it each time you sit down for formal
After you’ve become adept at staying with the perception o
nite space, you can
pose the question, “What knows infinite space?” Your attention shifts to the
the space, and you realize that the awareness, like the space, has no limits, although again
you don’t try to trace it out to its limits. Yo
u just stay centered where you are. (If you try
asking this question before you’re adept at staying with the perception of infinite space, the
mind will just revert to a lower level of concentration, or may leave concentration entirely.
So go back to the p
erception of space.) If you can stay with that perception of infinite or
or simply, “knowing, knowing, knowing”
you enter the second
the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness.
As with the perception of space,
an train yourself to become adept at the
perception of infinite consciousness by holding to it even when you’ve left formal
meditation. Keep in mind the perception that, whatever is happening inside you or outside
you, it’s all happening within the c
ontext of an all
around awareness. This, too, creates a
great feeling of lightness as you go through the day, and makes it easier to settle back in
with the perception of infinite awareness when you turn the mind to the practice of full
at this stage that your inner observer gets thrown into sharp relief. When you
d the breath for the perception of “space,” you gained a clear sense that your breath
and your awareness of the breath were two separate things, and you could see precise
where and how they were separate. When you dropped the perception of “space,” you
could see that the awareness was separate even from space. As you carry your perception of
“aware” into daily life, you can apply the same principle to everything that com
way: Objects and events are one thing; the knowing awareness is something else.
After you’ve become adept at staying with the perception of infinite awareness or
infinite knowing, then while you’re in formal meditation you can start to take this se
the “knower” or “observer” apart. To do this, there are two questions you can ask yourself.
Either, “W hat is still a disturbance in this knowing?” or “W hat’s maintaining the sense of
oneness in this knowing?” You see that the answer in both cases is
the perception of
“knowing, knowing, knowing,” or “aware, aware, aware.” You drop that perception, and
in so doing you drop the sense of oneness. What’s left is a sense of nothingness. There’s still
awareness, but you’re not labeling it as awareness. You’
re just with the sense of lightness
that comes from replacing the label of “knowing” with something that feels less
burdensome. The label of “knowing” requires that you make an effort to keep knowing.
But the label of “nothing” allows you to put that burde
n down. If you can stay with that
perception of, “There’s nothing” or “Nothing’s happening,” you enter the third formless
the dimension of nothingness.
After you’ve become adept at staying with the perception of “There’s nothing” or
happening,” you can ask yourself if there’s still any disturbance in that sense of
nothingness. When you see that the disturbance is caused by the perception itself, you drop
the perception. If you do this when your focus is not subtle enough, you’ll reve
rt to a
lower stage of concentration. But if you can stay in the mental space left empty by the
perception when it falls away, that’s what you do. You can’t say that there’s another
perception there, but because you have a non
verbal sense that you know wh
ere you are,
you can’t say that there’s no perception, either. If you can continue staying there, you enter
the fourth formless attainment,
the dimension of neither perception nor non
e are several states of concentrati
on that mimic these
levels of concentration in some respects, but they are wrong concentration. This is
unlike the levels of right concentration
their range of awareness is so narrow
that it doesn’t provide a basis for the arising of insight.
f the most common states of wrong concentration are delusion concentration
he state of non
perception. People who are adept at denial or dissociation can be
prone to these states. I have also known people who mistake them for release, which is a
dangerous mistake because it blocks all further progress on the path. So it’s important
to recognize these states for what they are.
ve already discussed in Part Two. It comes about when the
breath gets so comfortable that your
focus drifts from the breath to the sense of comfort
itself, your mindfulness begins to blur, and your sense of the body and your surroundings
gets lost in a pleasant haze. When you emerge, you find it hard to identify where exactly
you were focused.
tate of non
comes about from making your focus extremely one
and so refined that it refuses to settle on or label even the most fleeting mental objects. You
drop into a state in which you lose all sense of the body, of any internal or ex
or of any thoughts or perceptions at all. There’s just enough tiny awareness to let you
know, when you emerge, that you haven’t been asleep. You can stay there for many hours,
and yet time passes very quickly. Two hours can seem like two min
utes. You can also
program yourself to come out at a particular time.
This state does have its uses
en you’re in severe pain and want some respite
from it. As long as you recognize that it’s not right concentration or release, the only
danger is that
you may decide that you like hiding out there so much that you don’t want
to do the work needed to go further in the practice.
How to use th e map of th e jh an as.
Just as discernment requires concentration to grow,
concentration requires discernment. The two
qualities help each other along. So now that
you have a map to the stages of concentration, you need to exercise some discernment in
using it properly so that it doesn’t become an obstacle to the practice. Here are a few
pointers to keep in mind:
ay your concentration develops may fall clearly in line with the map, or it may
ome people find that their concentration goes naturally from one stage to the next
with no planning on their part; others find that they hav
e to make a conscious decision to
move from one stage to the next. Also, you may find that the stages of your practice may
not line up precisely with those on the map. Some people, for instance, experience an extra
stage between the first and the second jh
ana, in which directed thought falls away but
there’s still a modicum of evaluation. Others don’t see clear steps in their progress. The
mind settles down so quickly to one particular stage that they’re not consciously aware of
having gone through the prec
eding steps. It’s like falling suddenly to the bottom of a well:
You don’t notice how many layers of brick line the side of the well. You just know that
you’ve hit bottom.
Some of these variations are perfectly fine. However, if you find that your mind goe
ght to the formless steps without first passing through the jhanas in which you have a
clear sense of the whole body, back up and make an extra effort to stay with the breath and
fully inhabit the body. Work particularly hard at the steps associated
with the first jhana:
making yourself aware of the whole body breathing, and spreading breath energy to areas
where it doesn’t seem to flow. This may seem less restful and quiet than the formless states,
but it’s necessary both for your concentration to b
e well grounded and for insight to arise.
If the mind skips over the steps related to the body, it’s simply blocking out the body and
turns into concentration based on denial. Denial may shut out distractions, but it isn’t
conducive to clear, all
Keep the map in the background of your awareness as you meditate, not in the foreground.
Remember, the theme of your meditation is the breath, not the factors of jhana. The
n be kept in the back of your mind to be pulled out when you’re fa
ced with three
kinds of choices: what to do when you can’t get into a state of stillness, what to do when
you’re in a state of stillness but have trouble maintaining it, and what to do when you’ve
gotten stuck in a state of stillness and don’t know where t
o go next.
Otherwise, don’t even think about the factors of jhana. Pay primary attention to the
h and allow your concentration to develop naturally from your evaluation of the
breath. Try not to be like the person with a tree bearing unripe mangoes wh
ripe mangoes aren’t green and hard, they’re yellow and soft
tries to ripen his mangoes by
painting them yellow and squeezing them until they’re soft. The result, of course, is that
his mangoes never get a chance to ripen. What he should do is t
end to the tree
fertilize it, protect it from bugs
and the mangoes will grow yellow and soft on their own.
Watching and evaluating the breath is the way you tend to the tree of your concentration.
Don’t be too quick to label a state of concentrat
If you attain a level of concentration that seems promising, don’t label it right then and
there. Simply try to maintain it. Then see if you can reproduce it during your next session
of meditation. If you can’t, don’t pay it any further attention. If
you can, then label it with
a mental post
it note, reminding yourself of how it feels, and what level it might
correspond to on the map. Don’t engrave your label in stone. As you get more familiar
with the territory of your mind, you may find that you have
to pull off the post
and rearrange them, but that’s perfectly fine.
Reread the section in Part Two on Judging Your Progress.
Don’t be too quick to push from one stage of concentration to the next.
All too often, as soon as you attain a level of c
tration, the mind asks a question of
hunger: “What’s next?” The best answer is,
is what’s next.” Learn how to master
what you’ve got. Meditation is not an exercise in jumping through jhana hoops. If you
push impatiently from one level of concent
ration to the next, or if you try to analyze a new
state of concentration too quickly after you’ve attained it, you never give it the chance to
show its full potential. And you don’t give yourself the chance to familiarize yourself with
it. To get the most
out of it, you need to keep working at it as a skill. Try to reach it
quickly each time you start meditating. Try tapping into it in all situations. This enables
you to see it from a variety of perspectives and to test it over time
to see if it really is
totally blissful, empty, and relaxed as it may have seemed at first sight.
If moving to a new level of concentration makes you feel unsteady, return to the level
st left and try to make it more firm before trying the new level again at a later tim
If you’re not sure about what to do at any stage in the concentration, simply stay with your sense of the
Don’t be too quick to jump to any conclusions about whether what you’re doing is
or wrong, or whether what you’re experiencing is
true or false. Just watch, watch,
watch. At the very least, you won’t be taken in by false assumptions. And you may gain
some important insights into how the mind can fool itself through its desire to label and
More important than labeli
concentration is learning what to do with it.
Whether your concentration falls into the stages on the map or has a few different
of its own, the proper way to treat any stage of concentration is the same in all cases.
First, learn to maintai
n it as long as you can, in as many postures and activities as you can.
Try to re
enter it as quickly as you can. This allows you to familiarize yourself with it.
When you’re really familiar with it, pull out of it slightly so that you can observe how the
mind is relating to its object
but not so far out that you fully leave that stage of
concentration. Some people experience this as “lifting” the mind slightly above its object.
For others it feels like having your hand snugly in a glove and then pulling it
out slightly so
that it’s not fully snug but still remains in the glove.
Either way, you’re now in a position to observe the movements of the mind around the
t of its concentration. Ask yourself a question of discernment: “Is there still any sense
disturbance or stress
the concentration itself?” The stress might be related to the fact
that the mind is still evaluating its object when it no longer needs to, that it’s holding onto
rapture when the rapture is no longer calming, or that it’s focused
on a perception that’s
not as restful as it could be. If you can’t immediately see any stress, try to notice any
variations in the level of stress or disturbance you feel. This may take a while, but when
you see a variation in the level of stress, try to
see what activity of the mind accompanies
the rises and falls of the stress. Once you identify the activity that accompanies the rises,
If you can’t yet see any variation in the stress, or if your analysis starts getting blurry,
it’s a sign that y
our concentration isn’t yet strong enough to engage in this kind of analysis.
Drop the analysis and plant yourself firmly back in the object of your concentration. Don’t
be impatient. Stay with the object until you feel refreshed and solid enough to try th
If, however, the analysis is getting clear results, keep it up. This will strengthen your
tration at the same time as it strengthens your discernment. You’re learning how to
evaluate your state of mind for yourself, while you’re eng
aged in it, without having to
consult any outside authority. You’re gaining practice in observing how the mind creates
unnecessary stress for itself, and in training it not to continue creating that stress. That’s
what the meditation is all about.
At the s
ame time, you’re mastering a line of questioning that
and discernment grow deeper and subtler
gives rise to the insight leading to release.
As I noted in the Introduction, the basic strategy of the practice is to observe you
along with their motivations and results
and then to question them: Do they
lead to suffering? If so, are they necessary? If not, how can you act in other ways that don’t
lead to suffering? If they don’t lead to suffering, how can you master them
as skills? This
strategy applies not only to your words and deeds, but also to the acts of the mind: its
thoughts and emotions.
And as I noted in the last section, when you develop jhana, you use this strategy of
ving and questioning to abandon any d
istracting thoughts and to develop the factors
of jhana in their place. It’s through this process that the practice of jhana develops your
discernment and insight. When your jhana becomes more stable, you can develop that
insight further by looking for a c
ourse of action that causes even less stress than jhana. Here
again, the important point is to view the factors of jhana as activities and to ask the right
questions about them.
tivities here are the three types of fabrications by which
shapes experience: bodily, verbal, and mental. If you compare the descriptions of jhana and
breath meditation with the descriptions of fabrication in the Introduction, you’ll notice
that jhana makes use of all three. The breath is bodily fabricati
on; the directed thought and
evaluation of the first jhana are verbal fabrications; the perceptions that keep the mind in
the various jhanas and formless attainments are mental fabrications, as are the feelings of
pleasure and equanimity that come from sta
ying in those states of concentration.
This is why jhana is so useful in giving rise to the insight that totally ends the
essary stress that the mind creates through its own fabrications. Jhana gives you a still
vantage point for watching those fabric
ations in action.
You can do this in any of three ways:
while you’re in a particular stage of jhana;
when you move from one stage to another; or
when you come out of concentration and observe what fabrications the mind
takes up as it engages with the
In any of these situations, you can observe that (
rications are actually actions,
arising and passing away; (
) they’re creating stress; (
) what they’re doing is unnecessary;
) the pleasure they give isn’t worth the stress they
entail. Only when you see all four
of these aspects can insight lead to release from unnecessary suffering and stress. And that’s
when you see that the only stress weighing down the mind was the unnecessary sort. Once
that stress is gone, nothing at all c
an weigh the mind down. It’s free.
To watch any of the jhanas as forms of mental action requires
ing them as
say, as a Ground of Being, a True Self, Cosmic Oneness,
Primordial Emptiness, Encounter with God, or any other grand
sounding abstraction. The
metaphysical trap is an easy one to fall into, especially if you’ve primed yourself to think in
those terms. If, for instance, you’ve been thinking in metaphysical terms and then attain the
oneness of the second jhana, it’s easy
assume that you’ve touched Cosmic Oneness or
Interconnection. If you attain the sense of infinite knowing of the dimension of the
infinitude of consciousness, it’s easy to assume that you’ve gained access to a level of
awareness underlying all reality.
You might interpret these experiences as contact with
some sort of ground from which all things come and to which they all return. Or you
might decide that the strengthened sense of “observer” in that state of mind is your True
Self. If you fall for any of
these interpretations, though, you lose sight of the way in which
your actions fashioned the experience to begin with. That way you miss the subtle levels of
stress still present in those experiences. The exalted interpretations you assign to them blind
ou to the fabrications they still contain.
To get around this pitfall, you simply stick with the line of questioning introduced at
d of the last section: Look for any rise or fall in the level of stress within that
experience. Then look for the activ
ity of the mind that accompanies that rise and fall.
When you see the activity in action, drop it.
This is called contemplating inconstancy and the stress in inconstancy. When you see
ess, ask yourself if anything inconstant and stressful is worth c
laiming as you or
yours. When you realize that the answer is No, this is called contemplating not
not taking a stance on whether or not there is a self. You’re simply asking whether you
want to identify with the parts of the committee creating
urpose of these contemplations is to induce a sense of
disenchantment and dispassion for the actions of fabrication. Because passion is what drives
all three kinds of fabrication, dispassion ends any desire to k
eep engaging in them. When
you don’t engage in them, they stop. The result is a total letting go.
The sense of disenchantment
in most cases reaches maturity only after you’ve
approached these contemplations from many angles
is the crucial turning poi
nt in this
process. The Pali term for disenchantment,
, corresponds to the feeling you have
when you’ve eaten enough of a particular food and don’t want any more of it. This is not
aversion. It’s simply a sense that what you used to enjoy eating no
longer holds any interest
for you. You’ve had enough.
You need to develop this sense of disenchantment toward the mind’s fabrications
because they all follow the same pattern we’ve mentioned many times: They’re a form of
eating. The food here may be either
physical or mental, but the dynamic of feeding in
every case is the same. You’re trying to fill a lack, to allay a hunger. Only when you can
counteract the hunger with a sense of enough can you reach disenchantment. Only with
disenchantment can you stop f
eeding and find the dimension where there’s no need to feed.
Insight into becoming.
Think back on the image of the mind’s committee. Each
committee member corresponds to a different desire, a different sense of who you are based
around that desire, and a d
ifferent sense of the world in which you can search for what will
fulfill that desire. Your sense of who you are here is composed of two things: the self that
will experience the happiness of fulfilling that desire, and the self that has the powers to
g that desire to fulfillment. The first self is the self as
the second, the self as
The self as consumer is what needs to be fed; the self as producer is what finds and
fixes the food; and the world of experience connected to the desire
is the area of experience
where you look for food.
As I noted in the Introduction, each individual sense of self in a particular world of
ence is described by the term
Becoming is a type of being
the sense of
what you are and what exists a
based on doing. It’s not static being. It’s being
in action. And as you’ve been meditating, you’ve had plenty of opportunity to see how the
primary action underlying this being is a kind of feeding. Each sense of who you are has to
to take something from the world, in order to survive.
You notice this first with the distracting thoughts that get in the way of your
tration: The mind goes out to nibble on thoughts of lust, to gobble down thoughts
of anger, to sip pleasant memorie
s from the past, to chew on past regrets, or to wolf down
worries about the future.
The basic strategy of concentration is first to see that you don’t have to identify with
different senses of who you are. That’s why we use the image of the committee
help you realize that you won’t be starved of pleasure if you drop a few of these
becomings. You’ve got better ones with which to feed. But then to keep yourself from
sneaking out to chew on your old junk food, you have to nourish the more skillful
members of the committee, the ones who are learning to work together to develop and
maintain your concentration. This is one of the roles of the rapture, pleasure, and refined
equanimity in concentration: to nourish the skillful members of your committee. When
you practice concentration, you’re feeding them good, nourishing food.
As you get less and less inclined to feed in your old ways
ur taste in inner food
grows more refined
you gradually come to a point where you can see that even the
is a kind of becoming. In other words, in jhana you identify with the skillful
members of the committee who can provide the food of concentration (the self as
producer), as well as with the meditator feeding off the pleasure and rapture provided by
itation (the self as consumer). The object of meditation
either the form of the
body or the dimensions of formlessness
is the world from which you feed.
As long as you hold to these identities and these worlds as having solid unity, it’s hard
to go b
eyond them. It’s hard to let go of them. This is why the Buddha’s strategy is to
sidestep this sense of solid unity by regarding the building blocks of identity as actions, for
actions are easier to let go of than a solid sense of who you are.
The five aggregate
Because these actions are primarily related to feeding, the
Buddha’s approach in developing insight is to take the types of fabrication involved in
creating every becoming and gather them under a list of five activities that are basic to
feeding on ever
These activities are called
This is a Pali word that means “heap” or “mass.”
The standard English translation, though, is “aggregate.” This translation apparently comes
from a distinction popular in eighteenth and nineteenth century Euro
conglomerates of things that work together in an organic unity
conglomerates that are just random collections of things, called “aggregates.” The purpose
as “aggregate” was to convey the useful point
that even though we
tend to regard our sense of identity as having organic unity, it’s actually just a random
collection of activities.
The five activities that surround eating on the most basic level are these:
A sense of
both the form of the body that needs to be nourished (and that
will be used to look for food), as well as the physical objects that will be used as food.
When feeding takes place in the imagination, “form” applies to whatever form you
assume for yourself in the imagination, and to
whatever imaginary forms you take
the painful feeling of hunger or lack that drives you to look for food; the
pleasant feeling of satisfaction that comes when you’ve found something to eat; and
the added pleasure when you actuall
y eat it.
the ability to identify the type of hunger you feel, and to identify which
of the things in your world of experience will satisfy that hunger. Perception also plays
a central role in identifying what is and isn’t food. This is the way we first learn to
exercise our perceptions as children. Our first reaction on encountering something is to
put it into our mouth to see if it’s edible. If it is, we label it with the perception of
“food.” If it’s not, we label it as “not food.”
in this context refers primarily to verbal fabrications. These relate to
feeding in the way we have to think about and evaluate strategies for finding food, for
taking possession of it when we find it, and for fixing it if it’s not edible in its raw
state. For example, if you want to enjoy a banana, you have to figure out how to
remove the peel. If your first attempt doesn’t work, you have to evaluate why it didn’t
and to figure out new strategies until you find one that works.
t of being aware of all these activities.
These five activities are so basic to the way we engage with the world in order to feed
ey form the raw material from which we create our various senses of self.
Now, in the practice of developing jhana base
d on t
he breath, they’re also the raw
material from which we’ve learned to create states of concentration. “Form” corresponds to
the breath. “Feeling” corresponds to the feelings of pleasure and equanimity derived from
focusing on the breath. “Perception”
corresponds to the ways we label the breath, the
formless dimensions, and the pleasures we derive from staying focused on these themes.
“Fabrication” corresponds to the thoughts and evaluations that compose the first jhana, and
also the thoughts and evalua
tions by which we ask questions about all the various stages in
our concentration. “Consciousness” is the act of being aware of all these activities.
This is why concentration is such a good laboratory for examining the mind’s habits for
. It contains all the elements that go into the identities we build around
the act of feeding. And it contains them in a controlled context
a clear and stable state of
where you can watch those elements in action and see them clearly for what
When the mind is in a solid enough position to look at even the refined pleasures of
concentration in terms of these activities, there’s no need to focus on all five of them.
Simply focus on any one that seems easiest for you to observe in action. If
you’re not sure
of where to start, try starting with perception, because perception is most central to your
ability to stay focused in concentration, and it’s the aggregate you’re going to need to
work hardest to change. As long as the perception, “worth
the effort,” stays fixed on the
act of feeding on jhana, disenchantment will not be total. Only when the perception, “not
worth the effort,” gets your full approval will disenchantment have a chance.
Still, this is a matter of personal temperament. If anot
gregate seems easier to
focus on, by all means start there, for once the perception of “not worth the effort” gets
firmly established with regard to that aggregate, it will spread to encompass all the other
aggregates because all five of them are so
When examining the activities that create states of concentration, you have to
ber to ask the right questions about them. If you approach the concentration in
hopes that it will answer such questions as “Who am I?” or “What is th
e underlying reality
of the world?”, you simply continue the processes of becoming. If you come across an
especially impressive state of stillness or peace, your committee members who want to feed
on metaphysical absolutes will take that as their food
will be mighty proud of it. This
blinds you to the fact that they’re still just feeding, and that your questions are simply
refined versions of the questions of hunger.
However, if you remember to see the stillness and peace of concentration as coming
e activities of the aggregates, you’ll realize that no matter how well you feed on
them, you’ll never be free of reoccurring hunger. You’ll never be free of having to keep
working for your food. After all, these activities are not constant. When they fa
they produce a split second of concern: “What’s next?” And in that split second, your
committee members are desperate, for the question is a question of hunger. They want an
So these activities can never provide a stable, reliabl
e, or lasting food.
Even when they fabricate a peace that feels cosmic, they still involve stress.
When you pursue these contemplations until they reach a point of disenchantment, the
nclines toward something outside of space and time, something that
subject to the drawbacks of these activities. At this point, it wants nothing to do with any
of the committee members of the mind, even the ones observing and directing its
concentration, or the underlying ones that keep asking and demanding a
n answer to the
questions of hunger: “What’s next? Where next? What to do next?” The mind sees that
even the choice of staying in place or moving forward to another state of concentration
even though it’s a choice between two relatively skillful alternatives
is a choice between
nothing but two stressful alternatives, for both are fabrications. At this point it’s poised for
something that doesn’t involve either alternative, something that involves no fabrication.
When it sees the opening in that poise, it le
ts go and experiences the deathless. That’s the
first stage in experiencing release.
In this way, the mind dis
identifies with all becomings without even thinking about
“self” or “worlds.” It looks simply at actions as actions. It sees them as stressful,
nnecessary, and not worth the effort. That’s what enables it to let go.
There are many dangers in trying to describe release, for people can then easily try to
clone the description without actually going through the steps leading to genuine rele
another case of squeezing and painting the mango to make it ripe.
ul to describe some of the lessons learned from the first taste of
One is that the Buddha was right: There really is a deathless dimension, outside of
time. And it really is free of suffering and stress.
On returning from that dimension into the dimensions of space and time, you realize
our experience of space and time didn’t begin just with this birth. It’s been going on
much longer. You may no
t be able to remember the particulars of previous lifetimes, but
you do know that they’ve been happening for a long, long time.
Because you reached that dimension by abandoning the activities of fabrication, you
t it was through the activities of f
abrication that you have been engaged in space
and time all along. In other words, you’re not just a passive observer of space and time.
Your actions play a crucial role in shaping your experience of space and time. Your actions
are thus of foremost importance. Because you see that unskillful actions simply make it
more difficult to access the deathless, you never want to break the five precepts ever again.
Because none of the aggregates were involved in the experience of the deathless, and
ere was st
ill an awareness of that dimension, you see that the act of identifying with
the aggregates is a choice that places limitations on you. You’ll never again agree with the
view that they constitute what you are.
Because you realize that the deathless dimensi
always available, but that you
missed it because of your own stupidity, the first taste of release is humbling. It’s not a
source of pride.
But above all, you realize that the activities of engaging in space and time are
ently stressful. The only true happiness lies in gaining total release. There is no
activity more worthwhile than that.
It’s important not to mistake a mundane breakthrough for genuine release, for that can
ou heedless and complacent in your practice. One of the touchstone
s for testing the
truth of your release is whether it feels grounding or disorienting. If it’s disorienting, it’s
not the real thing, for the deathless is the safest, most secure dimension there is.
Another touchstone for testing the truth of your release
ther you understood
what you did to get there, for that’s what provides insight into the role of fabrication and
mental action in shaping all experience. If your mind senses a great unburdening but
without understanding how it happened, it’s not rele
ase. It’s just a mundane breakthrough.
So don’t be heedless.
However, even people who have attained their first taste of genuine release can grow
ess, as the safety of their attainment can lower their sense of urgency in the practice.
They can start g
etting complacent. So whether your sense that you’ve tasted release is
genuine or not, the advice is always the same: Don’t be heedless. There’s more work to do.
On jhana: See the section, “Jhana,” in Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo,
he Breath in
.” There are also excellent discussions of jhana in Ajaan Lee’s book,
Path to Peace
Freedom for the Mind,
under the heading, “Right Concentration” and under the
headings of “Virtue,” “Concentration,” and “Discernment” at the end of the book.
See also the article, “Jhana Not by the Numbers,” and the talk, “Oneness” in
For a thorough discussion of the Buddha’s sixteen
structions for using the breath
as a focal point for developing tranquility and insight,
For a more advanced discussion of the role of becoming, both in the practice of jhana
the development of insight, see
The Paradox of Becoming.
On insight: “One Tool Among Many”; “The Integrity of Emptiness”; “All About
On the aggregates: “Five Piles of Bricks”; “De
On the relationship between feeding and stress: “The Weight of Mountains.” For a
dvanced discussion of this topic, see Chapter Two in
The Shape of Suffering.
For further discussions on how
the questions of discernment: Somewhat more
technical than “Questions of Skill,” mentioned at the end of the Introduction, is “The
Arrows of Thinking.”
Skill in Questions
offers a full treatment of this topic, with many
examples from the Pali Canon.
If the size of the book puts you off, you can read just the
discussions in each chapter and leave the readings for another time.
For an anthology of passages from the Pali Canon covering the basic qualities that the
a said were most important for the
The Wings to Awakening.
find the Introduction to this book a little steep, but you can start with Part Three, which is
less intimidating, and then return to the earlier parts of the book when you want a more
nto the Stream
tains passages from the Pali Canon on the first stage of awakening
On release as the essence of the practice: “The Essence of the Dhamma”
On the meaning of the word nirvana: “
Nirvana”; “A Verb for Nirvana.”
The Mind like Fire Unbound
ers a full treatment of this topic, along with a discussion of the
topic of clinging.
For some inspiring accounts of higher stages of the practice, see Ajaan MahaBoowa
Straight from the Heart,
in particular the talks, “At the End of One’s Ro
“The Radiant Mind is Unawareness,” and “An Heir to the Dhamma.” Also inspiring: “From
Ignorance to Emptiness” and “To Be an Inner Millionaire,” both in another book of Ajaan
Things as They Are.
Inspiring in a more calming way are th
lks in Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo,
Wrong”; and “Point Zero.”
: The Four Jhanas
: The Poison Blowfish
: Proactive with Pain
: Heedful of De
: Levels of Truth
: Feeding on Feeding
: Feeding Frenzy
: Good Eating
Cutting New Paths
in the Mind
: Skills of the Dhamma Wheel
: Chewed Up by Your Food
: Isolating the Aggregates
: Transparent Becoming
: Sensitive to the Breath
: Don’t Worry, Be Focused
: Full Attention
: Generating Energy
: Strengthening Disce
: Equanimity Isn’t Everything
: The Essence of the Dhamma
: Freedom through Painful Practice
Talks on the
instructions in breath meditation:
: The Steps of Breath Meditat
: Lessons in Happiness
: On the Path of the Breath
: The Breath All the Way
: Exploring Fabrication
: Breath, Tranquility,
Finding a Teacher
Every earnest meditator needs a teache
r. Because meditation is training in new ways to
act, you learn best when you can watch an experienced meditator in action and at the same
time can let an experienced meditator watch
in action. That way you tap into the
accumulated wisdom of the lineag
e of teachers stretching back to the Buddha, and don’t
have to work through every problem completely on your own. You don’t have to keep
reinventing the Dhamma wheel from scratch.
At the same time, a teacher is often needed to help you see areas of your pr
you may not recognize as problems. This is because, when you’re deluded, you don’t
you’re deluded. So one of the basic principles of the practice is to open your behavior not
only to your own scrutiny but also to the scrutiny of a teacher
whose knowledge and
goodwill you trust. That way you learn how to be open with others
your mistakes, in an environment where you’re most likely to be willing to learn.
This is especially important when you’re learning a skill
at meditation is.
You can learn from books and talks, but when the time comes to practice you’ll encounter
the main issue that no book or talk can cover: knowing how to judge which lesson to apply
to which situation. If you’re not getting results, is it be
cause you’re not putting in enough
effort? Or are you making the wrong sort of effort? In the words of the Pali Canon, are
you squeezing a cow’s horn in the effort to get milk when you should be squeezing the
udder? Only someone who has faced the same prob
lem, and who knows what you’ve been
doing, is in a position to help you answer questions like these.
Also, if you’ve suffered emotional trauma or are dealing with an addiction, you need
nce specifically tailored to your strengths and weaknesses
ing no book can
provide. Even if you don’t suffer from these issues, a teaching tailored to your needs can
save you a lot of wasted time and effort, and can help prevent you from going down some
end roads. This is why the Buddha didn’t write me
ditation guides like this,
and instead set up the monastic training as a form of apprenticeship. Meditation skills are
best passed down person
For these reasons, if you really want to become skillful in your thoughts, words, and
to find a trustworthy teacher to point out your blind spots. And because
those spots are blindest around your unskillful habits, the primary duty of the teacher is to
point out your faults
for only when you see your faults can you correct them; only when
ou correct them are you benefiting from your teacher’s compassion in pointing them out.
This means that the first prerequisite in benefiting from a teacher is being willing to
take criticism, both gentle and harsh. This is why genuine teachers don’t teach
If the teacher must be paid, the person paying is the one determining what’s taught, and
people rarely pay for the criticism they need to hear.
But even if the teacher is teaching for free, you run into an uncomfortable truth:
can’t open you
r heart t o just anyone.
Not everyone who is certified as a teacher is really
qualified to be a teacher. When you listen to a teacher, you’re adding that teacher’s voice
to the committee of your mind, passing judgments on your actions, so you want to make
ure that that voice will be a positive addition. As the Buddha pointed out,
if you can’t find a
trustworthy teacher, you’re better off practicing on your own.
An unqualified teacher can do more
harm than good. You have to take care in choosing a teacher wh
ose judgments will
influence the way you shape your mind.
To take care means not falling into the easy trap of being judgmental or non
judgmental in trusting your knee
jerk likes or dislikes, non
trusting that every meditation teac
her would be equally beneficial as a guide. Instead, be
in choosing the person whose judgments you’re going to take on as your own.
This, of course, sounds like a Catch
u need a good teacher to help develop your
powers of judgment, but well
developed powers of judgment to recognize who a good
teacher might be. And even though there’s no foolproof way out of the catch
you can master a foolproof way and still be a fool
a way if you’re willing to learn
irst step in learning to be judicious is to remember what it means to judge in a
ful way. Think, not of a Supreme Court Justice sitting on her bench, passing a final
verdict of guilt or innocence, but of a piano teacher listening to you play. She’s not
a final verdict on your potential as a pianist. Instead, she’s judging a work in progress:
listening to your intention for the performance, listening to your execution of that
intention, and then deciding whether it works. If it doesn’t, she has t
o figure out if the
problem is with the intention or the execution, make helpful suggestions, and then let you
try again. She keeps this up until she’s satisfied with your performance. The important
principle is that she never direct her judgments at you a
s a person. Instead she has to stay
focused on your actions, to keep looking for better ways to raise them to higher and higher
At the same time, you’re learning from her how to judge your own playing: thinking
arefully about your intentio
n, listening more carefully to your execution, developing
higher standards for what works, and learning to think outside of the box for ways to
improve. Most important of all, you’re learning to focus your judgment on your
on yourself. This way, when there’s less
in your habits, you’re more willing to recognize unskillful habits and to drop them in favor
of more skillful ones.
Of course, when you and your teacher are judging your improvement on a particular
t’s part of a longer process of judging how well the relationship is working. She has
to judge, over time, if you’re benefiting from her guidance, and so do you. But again,
neither of you is judging the worth of the other person.
In the same way, when
e evaluating a potential meditation teacher, look for
someone who will evaluate your actions as a work in progress. And apply the same
standard to him or her. Even teachers who can read minds need to get to know you over
time to sense what might and m
ight not work in your particular case. The best teachers are
those who say, “Try this. If it doesn’t work out, come back and let me know what
happened, so we can figure out what might work for you.” Beware of teachers who tell
you not to think about what y
ou’re doing, or who try to force you into a one
technique. The relationship should be one of trying things out together.
So when judging a teacher, you’re not trying to take on the superhuman role of
evaluating another person’s essential wort
h. After all, the only way we know anything
about other people is through their actions, so that’s as far as our judgments can fairly
At the same time, though, because you’re judging whether you want to internalize
er person’s standards, it’s
not unfair to pass judgment on what that person is doing.
It’s for your own protection. This is why you should look for two qualities in a teacher:
wisdom and integrity.
To gauge these qualities, though, takes time and sensitivity. You have
to be willing t
o spend time with the person and try to be really observant of how that
person acts, because you can’t judge people just by first impressions. Integrity is easy to
talk about, and the appearance of wisdom is easy to fake
especially if the teacher has
ic powers. It’s important to remember that powers of that sort simply come from a
concentrated mind. They’re no guarantee of wisdom and integrity. And if they’re exercised
without wisdom and integrity, you’re better off staying away.
So your search has to
e flashy qualities and focus on qualities that are more plain
earth. To save time and needless pain in the search, there are
four early warning
indicating that potential teachers don’t have the wisdom or integrity to merit your
The warning signs for untrustworthy wisdom are two. The first is when people
for the help they’ve received
and this applies especially to help from their parents
and teachers. If they deprecate their teachers, you have to wonder if they
have anything of
value to pass on to you. People with no gratitude don’t appreciate goodness, don’t value
the effort that goes into being helpful, and so will probably not put out that effort
The second warning sign is that they
the principle of karma.
They either deny
that we have freedom of choice, or else teach that one person can clear away another
person’s bad karma from the past. People of this sort are unlikely to put forth the effort to
be genuinely skillful, and so are un
Lack of integrity also has two warning signs. The first is when people
o shame in
telling a deliberate lie.
The second is when they
don’t conduct arguments in a fair and aboveboard
misrepresenting their opponents, pouncing
on the other side’s minor lapses, not
acknowledging the valid points the other side has made. People of this sort aren’t even
worth talking to, much less taking on as teachers.
As for people who don’t display these early warning signs, there are some ques
can ask yourself about their behavior to gauge the level of wisdom and integrity in their
actions over time.
One question is whether a teacher’s actions betray any of the greed, anger, or delusion
uld inspire him to claim knowledge of something he didn’t know, or to tell another
person to do something that was not in that person’s best interests. To test for a teacher’s
wisdom, notice how he or she responds to questions about what’s skillful and what’s not,
and how well he or she handles ad
versity. To test for integrity, look for virtue in day
day activities, and purity in the teacher’s dealings with others. Does this person make
excuses for breaking the precepts, bringing the precepts down to his level of behavior
rather than lifting his
behavior to theirs? Does he take unfair advantage of other people? If
so, you’d better find another teacher.
This, however, is where another uncomfortable truth comes in:
You can’t be a fair judge
of another person’s integrity until you’ve developed some of your own.
This is probably the most
uncomfortable truth of all, for it requires that you accept responsibility for your judgments.
If you want to test other people’s potential for good guidance, you have to pass a few tests
yourself. Again, it’s like li
stening to a pianist. The better you are as a pianist, the better
your ability to judge the other person’s playing.
Fortunately, there are guidelines for developing integrity, and they don’t require that
art out innately good. All they require is a m
easure of truthfulness and maturity: the
realization that your actions make all the difference in your life, so you have to take care in
how you act, looking carefully at your motivation for acting and at the actual results that
come when you act. Before y
ou act in thought, word, or deed, look at the results you
expect from your action. If it’s going to harm you or anyone else, don’t do it. If you don’t
foresee any harm, go ahead and act. While you’re acting, check to see if you’re causing any
rm. If you are, stop. If not, continue until you’re done. After you’re done,
look at the long
term results of your action. If it caused any harm, talk it over with
someone else on the path, develop a healthy sense of shame around the mistake, and resolve
ot to repeat it. If it caused no harm, take joy in the fact and keep on training.
As you train yourself in this way, you get more sensitive to what is and isn’t skillful,
se you’re more sensitive to the connections between actions and their results. T
helps you become a better judge of a potential teacher in two ways, both in judging the
teacher’s actions and in evaluating the advice the teacher gives you.
For the only way really to evaluate that advice is to see what results it gives when put
ion: your own actions. If acting in that way fosters within you such admirable
qualities as being dispassionate, modest, content, energetic, and unburdensome, the advice
to act that way is the genuine thing. The person who gives you that advice has pass
least that test for being a genuine friend. And you’re learning still more about how to judge
Some people might object that it’s selfish and inhumane to keep testing people to see if
it the bill, but remember: In testing a teacher
you’re also testing yourself. As you
assimilate the qualities of an admirable teacher, you become the sort of person who can
offer admirable help to others. Again, it’s like practicing under a good piano teacher. As
you improve as a pianist, you’re not th
e only one who can enjoy your playing. The better
you get, the more joy you bring to others. The better you understand the process of
playing, the more effectively you can teach anyone who sincerely wants to learn from you.
This is how teaching lineages of
high caliber get established for the benefit of the world.
So when you find an admirable meditation teacher, you’re tapping into a long lineage
irable teachers, stretching back to the Buddha, and helping it to extend into the
future. Joining this li
neage may require accepting some uncomfortable truths, such as the
need to learn from criticism and to take responsibility for your actions. But if you’re up for
the challenge, you learn to take this human power of judgment
which, when untrained,
can so ea
sily cause harm
and train it for the greater good.
On the need for advice in the practice:
“Lost in Quotation”
On the most important external factor in reaching awakening: “Admirable Friendship”
ys of using your powers of judgment, see “Judicious
On the teacher
student relationship: “Think like a Thief”
Passages from the Pali Canon discussing what to look for in a teacher are included in
the study guide,
On the values of the practice: “The Customs of the Noble Ones”
Buddhist values that have shaped the way Dhamma is often taught in the
West: “The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism”
: Admirable Friendship
: To Puri
fy the Heart
: Remembering Ajaan Suwat
: Factors for Stream Entry
: The Brightness of the World
: A Refuge from Modern Values