The Way It Is
Stillness and response
When we began the retreat, I asked you to accept the whole of what happens within the next two months. Make your intention not just to have the kind of retreat that you would like, but to open yourself to the possibility of whatever arises. Psychologically, this prepares us for the way life moves and changes. When we set our mind trying to make life into what we want, then we are always feeling frustrated when it does not go quite the way we would like. So try changing the attitude to one of acceptance, and willingness to look at and understand experiences, rather than just trying to get rid of them.
You're developing this practice of stillness, the stillness
which is everywhere, whether you are in a group or alone. In order to
be with the silence, we have to
If one just follows the restless sensations of the body and the proliferations of the mind, then of course, silence is impossible. It can even be a threatening experience because one is so identified with the agitation and restlessness of the sensory realm, and endlessly seeking to get born into it.
The emphasis now is to recognise that restlessness for what it is, to no longer follow, but to train oneself towards calm. It doesn't mean just to suppress the bodily formation and persecute it, but to train it; because these bodies need to be trained with kindness. If you brutalise animals, they are not very nice, are they? They are just frightened, untrustworthy, miserable creatures. To train an animal does not mean you just pamper it, but you guide it. It is the same with your own body. Your body needs to be respected and guided not to follow its restless energy and habits.
But it does not mean you should deny it everything either. A trainer needs to be someone who is both kind and firm, not stubborn or brutal. Not kind in the sense of giving in to everything - because that is not really being kind - but caring, being concerned, having the right amount of interest. The proper attitude towards your own body and mind.
How to calm the body? One way is through 'sweeping meditation', in which you 'sweep' your attention through the body, concentrating on the sensations in the body as you do so. The body needs to be noticed and accepted for what it is. So we bring into consciousness even the tensions, unpleasant sensations and sensation-less parts of the body. By doing that, going from the top of the head to the soles of the feet and back up again, the body will feel relaxed. It's a very healthy meditation, and it will help to train the mind not to be caught up in conceptual proliferation and endless wandering.
Then, as these formations start to calm down, we begin to feel much more aware of the silence of mind. We can abide in that emptiness more and more, where there is no self, just the present moment as it is. The stillness and silence is ever-present wherever we are, no matter what condition we happen to be in.
You can abide in emptiness by just standing among the barren trees of winter and looking at them without creating anything onto them. One can feel a sense of perfect calm and contentment with just being still and silent like the trees. Maybe our egos might say: 'Well I do not want to become like a tree. I want to express my true inner creativity, my unique personality.' We listen to the inner voices that complain and grumble, the wanting-to-become-something, that which stands out or exists. But we are not feeding these creatures, we are letting them go and moving towards the stillness, the silence.
This word 'existence' means 'to stand forth'. Something that doesn't exist, doesn't stand forth. So when we say 'non-existing', we are not talking about killing ourselves and no longer being alive but no longer following the desire to stand out to become something, to be separate. Now that sounds like a real nihilistic view: 'Ajahn Sumedho does not want to exist! Oh, poor man, needs to go to a psychiatrist.' But non-existence does not mean we do not want to have any personalities, that we just want to become dreary boring people. That is not it. It is the ability to abide in the subtlety of just being aware, open and sensitive without being caught in the delusions of trying to become something else or stand out in some way. It is just realising the peace of non-existence - because non-existence is peaceful. And when there is non-existence and emptiness, there is the knowing, the brightness, the wisdom, awareness, clarity, enlightenment. Things are as they are, the suchness, as-is-ness.
In Western values, the emphasis is on being special, a unique individual, a child of God. This attitude is very much supported by culture and religion. There are the 'chosen people of God', the sects that feel that they have been called by Jesus (and all the rest haven't); and they are the ones who are going to make it and live in an eternal paradise.
But with all these views of being special, of being an
individual, all those self-views - what happens to you? From my own experience,
the result of all of this was suffering. There seemed to be a tremendous
investment in having a sizzling and unique personality. Sometimes I used
to think, 'Wait a minute, maybe I don't a have very nice personality.
Maybe I don't have any
At first, this path may seem a bit hopeless. Sometimes the tendencies and habits of a lifetime towards becoming and emphasising yourself as an individual personality are so strong that you feel you should not be that way - you should try to be nobody.
But trying to be nobody is still being somebody. What
I am suggesting is not to become nobody but to realise the Truth of mind.
Then you can abide in Truth, where you feel most at ease and peaceful,
rather than in this endless round of existence in which you're always
seeking to be reborn again. In all levels of existence you'll never find
contentment. They never satisfy, not even the best of them. The most blissful
conditioned states, the jhanas
To live with a body with the right attitude, begin to accept it as it is, and all that it is might have right and wrong in it, whether it is young or old, male or female, strong or weak. This is the path to true peacefulness. Do not seek to identify with your body or try to make it into something else. When we know Truth, then at the right times we can be special according to time and place, without it becoming an attachment. One feels one can manifest and disappear according to what is needed. I am not saying that one should just stand among the trees for the rest of one's life. One can be something that is useful and helpful to others - but it is not a permanent role one is trying to hold onto and defend anymore. So one begins to feel a sense of freedom and ease.
When I was young I was very self-conscious - to say something
in public was absolutely terrifying for me. Even when I was in the Navy,
just having to raise my voice to say 'Aye aye sir !' in public in a roll
call would have me shaking because of self-consciousness. Then I became
a schoolteacher. Teaching 8-9 year old Chinese kids in N. Borneo for a
couple of years; that wasn't such a threat. But then becoming a monk in
Thailand and eventually having to give talks to Thai people in Thai
But the idea was to keep watching this. Luang Por* Chah
would always encourage me to keep aware of the pride, the conceit, the
embarrassment and the self-consciousness that I would feel. And fortunately
in Thailand, the people are such that they're just grateful for a monk
giving a talk. Even if it's not a very good talk, it doesn't seem to upset
them very much. They still seem quite grateful about it. So that made
it quite easy. One time, at a Kathina* ceremony where we had to sit up
all night, Ajahn Chah said, 'Sumedho, you have to give a talk for three
hours tonight.' And up till that time I'd only talked for half an hour.
(*Luang Por: The Thai term translates as 'Venerable Father',
although the English does not convey the mixture of affection and respect
that it signifies. It is used in addressing an elderly monk.
With Ajahn Chah I always felt that if he said something, I'd do it. So I sat up on the high seat and talked for three hours. And I had to sit there and watch people get up and leave; and I had to sit there and watch people just lie down on the floor and sleep in front of me. And at the end of the three hours, there were still a few polite old ladies sitting up there!
That wasn't Ajahn Chah saying, 'O.K. Sumedho, go in there and bowl them over with some scintillating stuff. Entertain them, really sock it to them.' I began to realise that what he wanted me to do was to be able to look at this self-consciousness, the posing, the pride, the conceit, the grumbling, the lazy, the 'not-wanting-to-be-bothered', the wanting to please, the wanting to entertain, the wanting to get approval.
All these have come up during these talks of the past fifteen years. But the meditation is one in which more and more one feels a real understanding of the suffering of a self-view. And then through that insight one realises the abiding in emptiness.
Whenever Ajahn Chah used to give a talk, he'd sit there and close his eyes and then he'd start talking - and what would come out would be appropriate to time and place. He said to never prepare a talk - he didn't care if they were interesting or not - just to let them come. And when there's non-existence, no self anymore, there are none of the problems we build out of 'What do people think of me? What do people say about me?' Or the rebellion - 'They can think what they want, I don't care!' (But do you really do? Otherwise you wouldn't have to say that, would you?)
Sometimes personalities manifest, at the appropriate times. As you talk, you manifest your personality. Now maybe you are still caught up in being a person in your own mind. But these are merely conditions that arise and cease and come out of fear and desire. When there is emptiness, personality still operates - it does not mean that we are exactly the same like bees in a hive. There are still the myriad differences of character and personality that can manifest to be charming or whatever. But there is no delusion about them - there is no suffering.
For example, when Ajahn Chah first visited England, he was invited to a certain woman's home for a vegetarian meal. She obviously had put a lot of effort into creating the most delicious kinds of food. She was bustling, about offering this food and looking very enthusiastic. Ajahn Chah was sitting there assessing the situation, and then suddenly he said, 'This is the most delicious and wonderful meal I have ever had!'
That comment was really something, because in Thailand monks are not suppose to comment on the food. And yet Luang Por suddenly manifested this charming character that complimented a woman who needed to be complimented because that made her feel so happy. He had a feeling for the time and place, for the person he was with, for what would be kind. So he could step out of the designated role of what is supposed to be according to a tradition, and manifest in ways that are appropriate.
Now that shows wisdom and the ability to respond to a situation; not to be just rigidly bound within a convention that blinds you. That was a manifestation and disappearance, because I have never heard him do that again.
The empty mind is an abiding in ease, where there is no self, no fear or desire to be deluded with. And yet there is the ability to respond out of compassion and kindness to the present situation in a suitable way. It is strange isn't it? Compare the goal of Nibbana, of non-existence, with that of becoming the best person in the whole world, the strongest or the most beautiful. Worldly values are about having power, beauty, wealth - but they all have their opposites, don't they? Success is always attached to failure, happiness is always attached to unhappiness, praise is always attached to blame. Good fortune to bad fortune. So if you choose the worldly values of wealth, power, success and praise, you are going to get the others along with them because they are like two sides of the same coin. You can't separate the one from the other. Worldly values are never really going to allow you to feel at ease.
The world is an unsafe place, it's not peaceful. And it's not where we really belong. You only begin to understand and realise peace through emptiness, non-existence, non-self. And this is not annihilation, but enlightenment, freedom, true peace, true knowledge.