The Way It Is

Turning towards emptiness

By reflecting, you bring into consciousness the state of conditions as they happen to be now. Having been born we're now at this age, feeling this way, at this time and in this place. That's the way it is. That cannot be changed by us. It's just the inevitability of birth that this is the way it is now.

And with that reflection, you get a perspective on the way it is rather than the reaction to the way it is. If you don't reflect, then you react to the way it is.

If you're feeling happy you get high, 'I want to be a monk for the rest of my life and devote myself to the Dhamma. Dhamma is the way for me. The only way, the true way...' and you go out and bore people with a harangue on the importance of Buddhism in the world because you're high and you feel positive and confident. Even that feeling of being inspired and confident and full of faith and devotion and all these kinds of things - that's the way it is. One can feel a lot of faith, confidence in what one is doing.

Or one can feel the opposite: one loses faith, one feels that it is a waste of time, 'I've wasted my life. It's of no value, I haven't gotten anywhere. It hasn't done anything for me. I don't believe in it anymore, I'm fed up with it.' Or one can feel indifference: 'It's all right, don't know what else to do. Better than working in a factory.' If that's the way you're feeling now - either extreme or just indifference - that's the way it is.

So just notice when you're feeling tremendous energy and feeling positive, or when there's a lack of it and you're too critical. When you're depressed and when you're not feeling very well, you're tired; it's hard to arouse the inspired feeling. In those circumstances, you tend to pick up what's wrong with things very quickly. The way somebody walks across a room can really irritate you. Somebody blows their nose too hard - and oh, that's disgusting! But when you are feeling full of inspiration and devotion, you just don't care about the faults of this or that, you're just caught up in this feeling of devotion and faith. These perceptions are to be reflected on as the way it is now. It has to be this way, because it can't be any other way at this moment. We feel like this, we feel tired or invigorated or whatever - this is the way it is.

These are the results of having been born and living our lives and being subject to changing conditions of sensuality. Then note, really note what you add to the existing conditions. In all-night sittings you may feel sleepy or tired; note what you put on to that feeling. Note the feeling itself, but maintain a posture, rather than just react to feeling tired with the attempt to annihilate the feeling by following it and sinking into lethargy.

When you're really convinced that you're so tired there's nothing you can do about it, and even pulling your body straight is something that seems totally impossible, hold it up straight for a length of time. Observe, and learn how much energy it takes to hold a body up.

How much energy does it take to stop the thinking process? Have you ever noticed that? 'Just can't stop thinking' - the mind goes on and on. 'Can't stop, what can I do?' 'I don't know how to stop thinking - it keeps going. I can't stop it....' I know the problem because I've always had a problem with a mind that just seemed to be endlessly thinking about something. And desire to stop thinking and the effort to get rid of it creates the conditions for more thinking!

It takes effort to do it, not just to thinking about. I remember one time an Australian Abhidhamma fanatic came to Wat Pah Pong. This man had a mission - when Westerners get into Abhidhamma they become like born-again Christians - but he didn't know how to meditate; he didn't believe that meditation worked, and he figured it all out with his Abhidhamma concepts. He felt that you couldn't stop thinking. He said, 'You're always thinking and you can't stop thinking'. And I said, 'But you can stop thinking'. And he said, 'No you can't...', and I said, 'I've just stopped thinking...', and he said, 'No you haven't'!

Pointless to go on talking to someone like that. You have to be alert to know when you are not thinking, so you take an actual thought like 'I can't stop thinking' and you deliberately think that. This is what I did, because I was a habitual, obsessive thinker.

So instead of trying to stop thinking, if you are averse to it, then go to the other extreme and deliberately think something. And watch yourself deliberately thinking so that it's not just a wandering thought process in which your mind goes round and round in circles.

Use your wisdom faculty; deliberately think something, some thought that is completely neutral and uninteresting, like 'I am a human being'. Then deliberately think it, but observe the space before you're thinking, and then deliberately say 'I am a human being'. Then you note the end of it the moment when you stop thinking. Pay attention to before and after the thought rather than to the thought itself, just hold that attention to where there is no thought. Investigate the space around the thought, the space where the thought comes and goes, rather than thinking.

Then you're aware of an empty mind, where there's just awareness but no thought. That may last just for a second, because you start grasping, so you just have to keep being more aware by again thinking something. With practice you can use even very unpleasant thoughts. For example, you might have strong emotional feelings of 'I'm no good, I'm worthless' and this can be an obsession. In some people's minds it can become a background to their lives. So you try thinking: 'I shouldn't think that. Venerable Sumedho says I'm good. But I know I'm no good.' However, if you take that obsession and use it as a conscious thought: 'I am no good', you start seeing the space around it. And it no longer sounds so absolute, does it? When it becomes obsessive it sounds absolute, it's infallible, the honest truth, the real truth: 'This is what I really am, I'm no good.' But when you actually take it out of the context of obsession - and deliberately intentionally think it - you're seeing it objectively.

That sense of 'me' and 'mine' is just a habit of the mind; it's not the truth. If you really take the 'I/I am' and look at it objectively, that feeling created by that 'I am' and 'I am this way' or 'I should be/should not be' is very different than when you're just reacting.

In contemplating the Four Noble Truths, you have the truth of suffering; its arising; its cessation and then the Path. You can't know the Path and the way out of suffering until you are aware of where everything ceases - in the mind itself. The mind is still vital and alert even when there is no thought in it; but if you don't notice that, then you believe you are always thinking. That's the way it seems.

You only conceive of yourself when you're thinking, because you're identified with memory and the sense of 'I am' or 'I am not'. That 'yourself' is very much a conditioned, programmed perception in the mind. As long as you believe in that perception and never question it, then you will always believe that you are an obsessive thinker... and you shouldn't be this way or shouldn't feel that way and you shouldn't worry - but you do, and you're a hopeless case and so it goes on from one thing to another.

So the 'I am' is just a perception really - it arises in the mind and it ceases in the mind. When it ceases, note that cessation of thought. Make that cessation, that empty mind, a 'sign' rather than just creating more things in the emptiness. You can get refined states of consciousness fixing on refined objects - as in samatha meditation practices that emphasise calming the mind - but with the contemplation of the Noble Truths you're using the wisdom faculty to note where everything ceases.

And yet when the mind is empty, the senses are still all right. It's not like being in a trance, totally oblivious to everything; your mind is open, empty - or you might call it whole, complete, bright. Then you can take anything: a fearful thought. You can take that and deliberately think it and see it as just another condition of the mind, rather than as a psychological problem. It arises, it ceases; there's nothing in it, nothing in any thought. It's just a movement in the mind and therefore it's not a person. You make it personal by attaching to it, believing it: 'And I'm such a hopeless case, I know I can never be enlightened, after all the things I've done; the stupid things. And I'm so selfish and I've made so many mistakes. I know there's no hope for me.' All that arises and ceases in the mind!

Believing is grasping, isn't it? 'I know what I am and I know I'm no good.' You believe that, and that's what grasping is. You create that belief, so the mind goes on in that way. And you can find all kinds of proof that you're no good - you can even start getting paranoid: 'Everybody knows that I'm no good, too. Venerable Sucitto yesterday, he walked by and I just knew that he knows I'm no good. Then this morning I came in the hall and Sister Rocana looked at me a little bit strange - she knows!'

So through belief you can see and interpret everything that people do in a personal way, as if they've all been condemning and judging you - that's paranoia, isn't it?

Even the most beautiful thoughts, aspirations as well as the most evil and nasty, arise and cease in the mind. Now don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying good and evil thoughts are the same. They have the same characteristic of arising and ceasing, that's all. In other respects they're different. Good thoughts are good thoughts, evil thoughts are evil thoughts! So I'm not saying it's all right to think evil thoughts, but I am pointing beyond the quality of the thought: love and hate arise and cease in the mind. In this perspective you're going to the reflective mind, where most people are totally unaware. People are generally only aware of themselves as a personality or an emotion or a thought - in other words, as a condition.

For practice, don't worry about the qualities that go through the mind: how wonderful, interesting, beautiful, ugly, nasty or neutral they might be. We're not investigating qualities, or denying the quality of any thought, but just noting the way it is. Then you just leave it alone so it ceases. You create a thought, put it into the mind deliberately, and let it go. To let go doesn't mean you push it away: you leave the thought alone, you're aware of it during the whole time; the moment before the thought and the interstices and the ending.

The space around thought - we don't notice that very much, do we? It is just like the space in this room, I have to call your attention to it. Now what does it take to be aware of the space in this room? You have to be alert. With the objects in the room you don't have to be alert, you can just be attracted or repelled: 'I don't like that, I like this.' You can just react to the quality of beauty and ugliness, whether it pleases or displeases you. It's our habit, isn't it? Our life tends to be reaction to pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness. So we see beauty and we say, 'Oh, look at that! Isn't it absolutely fantastic?' or you think 'Oh, disgusting!'

But the beautiful objects and the ugly ones are all in the space and to notice space you withdraw your attention from the objects of beauty and ugliness. Of course they're still there, you needn't throw them out; you don't have to tear down the building so that we can have a space here. But if you don't concentrate with love or hate on what's in that room, if you don't make anything out of it, your attention withdraws from the objects and you notice the space.

So we have a perspective on space in a room like this. You can reflect on that. Anyone can come and go in this space. The most beautiful, the most ugly, saint and sinner, can come and go in this space and the space is never harmed or ruined or destroyed by the objects that come and go in this space.

The mind works on the same principle. But if you're not used to seeing the spaciousness of your mind you are not aware of the space that the mind really is. So you're unaware of the emptiness of the mind, because you're always attached to an idea or an opinion or mood.

With insight meditation you're reflecting on the five khandhas - on the body rupa, feelings vedana, perception saņņa, mind formations sankhara and sense consciousness viņņana. We may want to get rid of them, but that is another condition, another sankhara that we create. So we investigate them until they no longer delude us, and allow them to cease in the empty mind. When you think 'My body's still here - how does it cease? It's still here, isn't it?' Consider that the body will live its lifespan, since it's been born and it will disappear when its karmic force ends.

What happened to Napoleon? What happened to the Queen of Sheba? And Confucius and Lao Tzu and Marie Antoinette, Beethoven and Bach? They're memories in our minds; they're just perceptions in people's minds now. But that's all they ever were anyway, even when their bodies were alive!

'Venerable Sumedho' is a perception in the mind - in my mind it's a perception, in your mind it's a perception. Right now the perception of it is, 'Venerable Sumedho is alive and kicking.' When the body dies then the perception changes to, 'Venerable Sumedho is dead.' That's all, isn't it? The perception of death is there along with the name Sumedho, where now it is alive and kicking. So as you experience it, the body is a perception in the mind that arises - and ceases in the empty mind.

With this realisation of the empty mind, you can develop the Eightfold Path very skilfully. The Eightfold Path is based on right understanding, and that is the understanding of cessation.