THE BASIC METHOD OF MEDITATION
(Edited from a talk given by Ajahn Brahmavamso during a 9-day retreat
in North Perth, Western Australia, December 1997)
August 2003 Edition
NAMO TASSA BHAGAVATO ARAHATO SAMMASAMBUDDHASSA
“The goal of this meditation is the beautiful silence, stillness and clarity of mind”
Meditation is the way to achieve letting go. In meditation one lets go of the complex world outside in order to reach the serene world inside. In all types of mysticism, in many traditions, this is known as the path to the pure and powerful mind. The experience of this pure mind, released from the world, is very wonderful and blissful.
Often with meditation, there will be some hard work at the beginning, but be willing to bear that hard work knowing that it will lead you to experience some very beautiful and meaningful states. They will be well worth the effort! It is a law of nature that without effort one does not make progress. Whether one is a layperson or a monk, without effort one gets nowhere, in meditation or in anything.
Effort alone, though, is not sufficient. The effort needs to be skilful. This means directing your energy just at the right places and sustaining it there until its task is completed. Skilful effort neither hinders nor disturbs you, instead it produces the beautiful peace of deep meditation.
In order to know where your effort should be directed, you must have a clear understanding of the goal of meditation. The goal of this meditation is the beautiful silence, stillness and clarity of mind. If you can understand that goal then the place to apply your effort, the means to achieve the goal become very clear.
The effort is directed to letting go, to developing a mind that inclines to abandoning. One of the many simple but profound statements of the Lord Buddha is that “a meditator whose mind inclines to abandoning, easily achieves Samādhi“. Such a meditator gains these states of inner bliss almost automatically. What the Lord Buddha was saying was that the major cause for attaining deep meditation, for reaching these powerful states, is the willingness to abandon, to let go and to renounce.
During meditation, we are not going to develop a mind which accumulates and holds on to things, but instead we develop a mind which is willing to let go of things, to let go of burdens. Outside of meditation we have to carry the burden of our many duties, like so many heavy suitcases, but within the period of meditation so much baggage is unnecessary. So, in meditation, see much baggage you can unload. Think of these things as burdens, heavy weights pressing upon you. Then you have the right attitude for letting go of these things, abandoning them freely without looking back. This effort, this attitude, this movement of mind that inclines to giving up, is what will lead you into deep meditation. Even during the beginning stages of this meditation, see if you can generate the energy of renunciation, the willingness to give things away, and little by little the letting go will occur. As you give things away in your mind you will feel much lighter, unburdened and free. In the way of meditation, this abandoning of things occurs in stages, step by step.
You may go through the initial stages quickly if you wish, but be very careful if you so do. Sometimes, when you pass through the initial steps too quickly, you find that preparatory work has not been completed. It is like trying to build a town house on a very weak and rushed foundation. The structure goes up very quickly, but it comes down very quickly as well! So you are wise to spend a lot of time on the foundations, and on the “first storey” as well, making the groundwork well done, strong and firm. Then when you proceed to the higher storeys, the bliss states of meditation, they too are stable and firm.
In the way that I teach meditation, I like to begin at the very simple stage of giving up the baggage of past and future. Sometimes you may think that this is such an easy thing to do, that it is too basic. However, if you give it your full effort, not running ahead to the higher stages of meditation until you have properly reached the first goal of sustained attention on the present moment, then you will find later on that you have established a very strong foundation on which to build the higher stages.
Abandoning the past means not even thinking about your work, your family, your commitments, your responsibilities, your history, the good or bad times you had as a child…, you abandon all past experiences by showing no interest in them at all. You become someone who has no history during the time that you meditate. You do not even think about where you are from, where you were born, who your parents were or what your upbringing was like. All of that history is renounced in meditation. In this way, everyone here on the retreat becomes equal, just a meditator. It becomes unimportant how many years you have been meditating, whether you are an old hand or a beginner. If you abandon all that history, then, we are all equal and free. We are freeing ourselves of some of these concerns, perceptions and thoughts which limit us and which stop us from developing the peace born of letting go. So every “part” of your history you finally let go of, even the history of what has happened to you so far in this retreat, even the memory of what happened to you just a moment ago! In this way, you carry no burden from the past into the present. Whatever has just happened, you are no longer interested in it and you let it go. You do not allow the past to reverberate in your mind.
I describe this as developing your mind like a padded cell! When any experience, perception or thought hits the wall of the “padded cell”, it does not bounce back again. It just sinks into the padding and stops right there. Thus we do not allow the past to echo in our consciousness, certainly not the past of yesterday and all that time before, because we are developing the mind inclined to letting go, giving away and unburdening.
Some people have the view that if they take up the past for contemplation they can somehow learn from it and solve the problems of the past. However, you should understand that when you gaze at the past, you invariably look through distorted lenses. Whatever you think it was like, in truth it was not quite like that! This is why people have arguments about what actually happened, even a few moments ago. It is well known to police who investigate traffic accidents that even though the accident may have happened only half an hour ago, two different eyewitnesses, both completely honest, will give different accounts. Our memory is untrustworthy. If you consider just how unreliable memory is, then you do not put value on thinking over the past. Then you can let it go. You can bury it, just as you bury a person who has died. You place them in a coffin then bury it, or cremate it, and it is done with, finished. Do not linger on the past. Do not continue to carry the coffins of dead moments on your head! If you do, then you are weighing yourself down with heavy burdens which do not really belong to you. Let all of the past go and you have the ability to be free in the present moment.
As for the future, the anticipations, fears, plans, and expectations — let all of that go too. The Lord Buddha once said about the future “whatever you think it will be, it will always be something different”! This future is known to the wise as uncertain, unknown and so unpredictable. It is often complete stupidity to anticipate the future, and always a great waste of your time to think of the future in meditation.
When you work with your mind, you find that the mind is so strange. It can do some wonderful and unexpected things. It is very common for meditators who are having a difficult time, who are not getting very peaceful, to sit there thinking “Here we go again, another hour of frustration”. Even though they begin thinking like that, anticipating failure, something strange happens and they get into a very peaceful meditation.
Recently I heard of one man on his first ten day retreat. After the first day his body was hurting so much he asked to go home. The teacher said “Stay one more day and the pain will disappear, I promise”. So he stayed another day, the pain got worse so he wanted to go home again. The teacher repeated “just one more day, the pain will go”. He stayed for a third day and the pain was even worse. For each of nine days, in the evening he would go to the teacher and, in great pain, ask to go home and the teacher would say, “just one more day and the pain will disappear”. It went completely beyond his expectations that, on the final day, when he started the first sit of the morning, the pain did disappear! It did not come back. He could sit for long periods with no pain at all! He was amazed at how wonderful is this mind and how it can produce such unexpected results. So, you don’t know about the future. It can be so strange, even weird, completely beyond whatever you expect. Experiences like this give you the wisdom and courage to abandon all thoughts about the future, and all expectation as well.
When you’re meditating and thinking “How many more minutes are there to go? How much longer have I to endure all of this?” then that is just wandering off into the future again. The pain could just disappear in a moment. The next moment might be the free one. You just cannot anticipate what is going to happen.
When on retreat, you have been meditating for many sessions, you may sometimes think that none of those meditations have been any good. In the next meditation session you sit down and everything becomes so peaceful and easy. You think “Wow! Now I can meditate!”, but the next meditation is awful again. What’s going on here?
The first meditation teacher I had told me something which then sounded quite strange. He said that there is no such thing as a bad meditation! He was right. All those meditations which you called bad, frustrating and not meeting your expectations, all those meditations are where you do the hard work for your “pay cheque”…
It is like a person who goes to work all day Monday and gets no money at the end of the day. “What am I doing this for?”, he thinks. He works all day Tuesday and still gets nothing. Another bad day. All day Wednesday, all day Thursday, and still nothing to show for all the hard work. That’s four bad days in a row. Then along comes Friday, he does exactly the same work as before and at the end of the day the boss gives him a pay cheque. “Wow! Why can’t every day be a pay-day?!”
Why can’t every meditation be “pay-day”? Now, do you understand the simile? It is in the difficult meditations that you build up your credit, you build up the causes for success. Working for peace in the hard meditations, you build up your strength, the momentum for peace. Then when there’s enough credit of good qualities, the mind goes into a good meditation and it feels like “pay-day”. It is in the bad meditations that you do the work.
In a recent retreat that I gave in Sydney, during interview time, a lady told me that she had been angry with me all day, but for two different reasons. In her early meditations she was having a difficult time and was angry at me for not ringing the bell to end the meditation early enough. In the later meditations she got into a beautiful peaceful state and was angry at me for ringing the bell too soon. The sessions were all the same length, exactly one hour. You just can’t win as a teacher, ringing the bell!
This is what happens when you go anticipating the future, thinking “How many more minutes until the bell goes?” That is where you torture yourself, where you pick up a heavy burden which is none of your business. So be very careful not to pick up the heavy suitcase of “How many more minutes are there to go?” or “What should I do next?” If that is what you are thinking, then you are not paying attention to what is happening now. You are not doing the meditation. You have lost the plot and are asking for trouble.
In this stage of the meditation keep your attention right in the present moment, to the point where you don’t even know what day it is or what time it is — morning? afternoon? — don’t know! All you know is what moment it is — right now! In this way you arrive at this beautiful monastic time scale where you are just meditating in the moment, not aware of how many minutes have gone or how many remain, not even remembering what day it is.
Once, as a young monk in Thailand, I had actually forgotten what year it was! It is marvelous living in that realm that is timeless, a realm so much more free than the time driven world we usually have to live in. In the timeless realm, you experience this moment, just as all wise beings have been experiencing this same moment for thousands of years. It has always been just like this, no different. You have come into the reality of “now”.
The reality of now is magnificent and awesome. When you have abandoned all past and all future, it is as if you have come alive. You are here, you are mindful. This is the first stage of the meditation, just this mindfulness sustained only in the present. Reaching here, you have done a great deal. You have let go of the first burden which stops deep meditation. So put forth a lot of effort to reach this first stage until it is strong, firm and well established. Next, we will refine the present moment awareness into the second stage of the meditation — silent awareness of the present moment.