The Way It Is
Try to note the cessation or the ending of things in little ways such as by paying special attention to the ending of the outbreath. This way in your daily life you're noticing the ordinary endings that no-one ever pays attention to. I've found this practice very useful because it's a way of noticing the changing nature of the conditioned realm as one is living one's daily life. As I understand it, it was to these ordinary states of mind that the Buddha was pointing, not to the special highly-developed concentrated states.
The first year that I practised I was on my own and I could get into highly-developed concentrated states of mind, which I really enjoyed. Then I went to Wat Pah Pong, where the emphasis was on the way of life, in accordance with Vinaya discipline and a routine. There one always had to go out on alms-round every morning, and do the morning chanting and evening chanting. If you were young and healthy you were expected to go on these very long alms-rounds - they had shorter ones that the old feeble monks could go on. In those days I was very vigorous so I was always going on these long, long alms-rounds and then I'd come back tired, then there would be the meal and then in the afternoon we all had chores to do. It was not possible under those conditions to stay in a concentrated state. Most of the day was taken up by daily life routine.
So I got fed up with all this and went to see Luang Por Chah and said, 'I can't meditate here', and he started laughing at me and telling everyone that, 'Sumedho can't meditate here!' I was seeing meditation as this very special experience that I'd had and quite enjoyed and then Luang Por Chah was obviously pointing to the ordinariness of daily life, the getting up, the alms-rounds, the routine work, the chores: the whole thing was for mindfulness. And he didn't seem at all eager to support me in my desires to have strong sensory deprivation experience by not having to do all these little daily tasks. He didn't seem to go along with that; so I ended up having to conform and learn to meditate in the ordinariness of daily life. And in the long run that has been the most helpful.
It has not always been what I wanted,
But reflecting on life in this human form: it is just like this, it's being able to sit peacefully and get up peacefully and be content with what you have; it's that which makes our life as a daily experience something that is joyful and not suffering. And this is how most of our life can be lived - you can't live in ecstatic states of rapture and bliss and do the dishes, can you? I used to read about the lives of saints that were so caught up in ecstasies they couldn't do anything on any practical level. Even though the blood would flow from their palms and they could do feats that the faithful would rush to look at, when it came to anything practical or realistic they were quite incapable.
And yet when you contemplate the Vinaya discipline itself, it is a training in being mindful. It's about mindfulness with regard to making robes, collecting alms food, eating food, taking care of your kuti; what to do in this situation or that situation. It's all very practical advice about the daily life of a Bhikkhu. An ordinary day in the life of bhikkhu Sumedho isn't about exploding into rapture but getting up and going to the toilet and putting on a robe and bathing and doing this or that; it's just about being mindful while one is living in this form and learning and awake to the way things are, to the Dhamma.
That's why whenever we contemplate cessation we're not looking for the end of the universe but just the exhalation of the breath or the end of the day or the end of the thought or the end of the feeling. To notice that means that we have to pay attention to the flow of life - we have to really notice the way it is rather than wait for some kind of fantastic experience of marvellous light descending on us, zapping us or whatever.
Now just contemplate the ordinary breathing of your body. You notice if you're inhaling that's easy to concentrate. When you're filling your lungs you feel a sense of growth and development and strength. When you say somebody's 'puffed up' then they're probably inhaling. It's hard to feel puffed-up while you're exhaling. Expand your chest and you have a sense of being somebody big and powerful. However, when I first started paying attention to exhaling my mind would wander; exhaling didn't seem as important as inhaling - you were just doing it so that you could get on to the next inhalation.
Now reflect: one can observe breathing, so what is it that can observe? What is it that observes and knows the inhalation and the exhalation - that's not the breathing, is it? You can also observe the panic that comes if you want to catch a breath and you can't; but the observer, that which knows, is not an emotion, not panic-stricken, is not an exhalation or an inhalation. So our refuge in Buddha is being that knowing; being the witness rather than the emotion or the breath or the body.
With the sound of silence, some people hear fluctuations of sound or a continuous background of sound. So you can contemplate it, you notice that - can you notice it if you put your fingers in you ears? Or can you hear it in a place where they are using the chain saw? Or when you're doing exercises or when you're in a fraught emotional state? You're using this sound of silence as something to remember to turn to and notice - because it's always present here and now. And there's that which notices it.
There is the desire of the mind to call it something, to have a name for it or have it listed as some kind of attainment or project something on to it. Notice that, the tendency of wanting to make it into something. Somebody said it's probably just the sound of your blood circulating in your ears, or somebody else called it 'the cosmic sound', 'the bridge to the Divine'. That sounds nicer than the blood in your ears. It might be the sound of the Cosmos, or it might be that you've got an ear disease. But it doesn't have to be anything; it's what it is, it's 'as that'. Whatever it is, it can be used as reflection because when you're with that, there is no sense of self, there is mindfulness, there is the ability to reflect.
So it is more like a straight edge that you can go to to keep you from going all wobbly. It is something you can use to compose yourself in daily life, when you're putting on your robes, when you're brushing your teeth, when you're closing a door, when you're coming into the meditation hall, when you're sitting down. So much of daily life is just habitual because we aim at what we consider to be the important things of life - like the meditation. So, walking from where you live to the Meditation Hall can be a totally heedless experience, just a habit - clump, clump, clump, slam bang! Then you sit here for an hour trying to be mindful.
This way you begin to see a way of being mindful, of bringing
mindfulness to the ordinary routine things, experiences of life. I have
a nice little picture in my room that I'm very found of - of this old
man with a coffee mug in his hand, looking out of the window into an English
garden with the rain coming down. The title of the picture is 'Waiting'
- that's how I think of myself; an old man with my coffee mug sitting
there at the window, waiting, waiting.
Now how many of you feel you have a mission in life to
perform? It's something you've got to do and some kind of important task
that's been assigned to you by God or fate or something. People frequently
get caught up in that view of being somebody who has a mission. Who can
be just with the way things are, so that it is just the body grows up,
gets old and dies, breathes and is conscious. We can practise, live within
the moral precepts, do good, respond to the needs and experiences of life
with mindfulness and wisdom - but there's nobody that has to do
Views arise and cease, don't they? 'I'm somebody, an important
person who has a mission in life': that arises and ceases in the mind.
Notice the ending of being somebody important or being nobody or whatever
- it all ceases, doesn't it? Everything that arises, ceases, so there's
a non-grasping of the view of being somebody with a mission, or of being
nobody. There's the end of that whole mass of suffering - of having to
develop something, become somebody, change something, set everything right,
get rid of all your defilements or save the world. Even the best ideals,
the best thoughts can be seen as dhammas
Now, you might think that this is a barren philosophy
of life because there's a lot more heart and feeling in being somebody
who's going to save all sentient beings. People with self-sacrifice who
have missions and help others and have something important to do are an
inspiration. But when you notice that as dhamma,
Can you trust that? Can you trust in just letting everything go and cease and not being anybody and not having any mission, not having to becomes anything? Can you really trust in that or do you find it frightening or barren or depressing? Maybe you really want inspiration. 'Tell me everything is all right; tell me you really love me; what I'm doing is right and Buddhism is not just a selfish religion where you get enlightened for your own sake; tell me that Buddhism is here to save all sentient beings. Is that what you're going to do Venerable Sumedho? Are you really Mahayana or Hinayana?'
What I'm pointing to is what inspiration is as an experience. Idealism: not trying to dismiss it or to judge it in any way but to reflect on it, to know what that is in the mind and how easily we can be deluded by our own ideas and high-minded views. And to see how insensitive, cruel and unkind we can be by the attachment we have to views about being kind and sensitive. This is where it is a real investigation into Dhamma.
I remember in my own experience, I always had the view
that I was somebody special in some way; I used to think, 'Well I must
But consider this as a reflection: no matter how many
signs of being special, or previous lives you can remember or voices from
God or messages from the Cosmos, whatever - not to deny that or say that
those things aren't real - but they're impermanent. They're anicca, dukkha,
anatta. We're reflecting on them as they really are - what arises ceases:
a message from God is something that comes and ceases in your mind, doesn't
it? God isn't always
Then the missions we have are responses, not to experiences that we have in our lives - they're not personal anymore, it's no longer me, Sumedho Bhikkhu with a mission as if I'm specially chosen from above, more-so than any of you. It's not that anymore. That whole manner of thinking and perceiving is relinquished. And whether or not I do save the world and thousands of beings or help the poor in the slums of Calcutta or help to cure all lepers and do all kinds of good works - it's not from the delusion of being a person anymore, it's a natural response from wisdom.
This I trust; this is what saddha
But it's not a mission, it's not me