This is an excerpt from Ayya Khema’s recently re-released book Know Where You’re Going (formerly titled When the Iron Eagle Flies).
Our first difficulty is that although we would like to become peaceful and calm and have no thoughts, our mind does not want to obey. It refuses to do so because then we would appear to have no support for our existence, and because our habits are against it. So instead of trying over and over again to become calm, we can use whatever arises to gain some insight. A little bit of insight brings a little bit of calm, and a little bit of calm brings a little bit of insight. Calm has no purpose other than to change our ordinary, everyday consciousness into a transcendental consciousness that is able to understand and use the teachings of the Buddha to change from an ordinary being into a transcendental being. If calm doesn’t arise it is not a great problem, because whatever else does arise helps us to gain some insight into who we really are. This is the main reason for a meditation retreat. It is an inward journey to give us a little more understanding of who we are. Nothing could be more interesting,
but there are some aspects from which we would like to run at times. We can’t run away, while we are meditating, unless we start fantasizing and making up stories. Everybody is liable to do that, but when it does happen, let us realize that it is simply an escape.
To really further our inner journey, we are going to observe noble silence. Noble silence means not to talk to one another, which may be difficult when we are among friends. Take the difficulty as a challenge, and remember that challenges are steppingstones. Noble silence is one of the most effective tools for an inner journey. Usually we only have the opportunity for noble silence when we go on a retreat. Normally there are people around us with whom we communicate, which is one means of escape from our own suffering. Pain and grief is familiar to everyone even if we use different words for it, such as anger, fear, worry, upset, restlessness, and many others.
It is important to keep in mind that the very first noble truth the Buddha expounded upon enlightenment was that “unsatisfactoriness is.” Unsatisfactoriness is a feature of existence. If we experience it in ourselves, we prove that the Buddha’s teaching is correct. That’s all. We don’t need to start suffering over it, we can just observe it and say, “Evidence.” There are innumerable things that expose us to unsatisfactoriness, but we can remember the first noble truth that “unsatisfactoriness is” and say, “That’s right, that’s what the Buddha taught.”
The Buddha also propounded the second noble truth, namely that the reason for unsatisfactoriness is craving. We may look into ourselves and inquire, “What do I want that I am not getting? What am I getting that I don’t want?” These are the two reasons, which are actually one and the same, for having unsatisfactoriness. There’s only one way of dealing with suffering when it arises, and that’s to drop the wanting; suffering will then disappear. Such insight is only possible when we stop going outward, through communication and through our many activities. We must have quiet times when we can really look inside ourselves.
Perhaps you have meditated before. Nevertheless, I will explain to you various meditation methods and their possible results. Whatever method we use is only valid if it brings results. If a certain method doesn’t work, it’s best to change it. There is nothing to hang on to where a meditation method is concerned. People have different tendencies and different characters, and although our minds may have the same potential and capacities we do need different approaches. Some minds are visual and like pictures; some like words, telling stories; and some prefer numbers, putting everything in neat little boxes. There are minds that delight in attention to detail. We may already know what kind of mind we have, or we can experiment in meditation and see which one of the different methods is most conducive to our becoming calm.
Meditating on the breath is how one practices the first foundation of mindfulness, mindfulness of the body (kayanupassana). Such mindfulness should also extend to everything we do outside the meditation room, which is something we will often forget, but at least we should direct our attention toward that goal. It is pleasant to sit and try to become calm by watching the breath, but if we do not reinforce our practice with mindfulness outside the meditation sessions, it will not have the desired results. We cannot split our mind in two, one part for meditation and one for other activities. We have one mind and we have to train it as a whole, which extends to whatever we do: getting up, walking, opening or closing the door, any kind of work, always being fully attentive to the bodily action. Mindfulness of the body extends to having a shower, going to the toilet, getting up in the morning, taking off and putting on clothes. One of the bodily actions most conducive to mindfulness of the body is eating, because the eating process involves many physical actions.
No one can really teach us to be mindful. We teach ourselves, using landmarks and signposts. In our tradition we don’t have gurus. We have people who reiterate the Buddha’s words from the Pali canon and who may be able to give us some advice. Mindfulness can only be practiced and taught to oneself by oneself. Nobody can help us to be mindful; only we know when we are.
Being mindful means that mind and body are in the same place. “Washing dishes while washing dishes” is a famous phrase of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese meditation teacher. Not thinking “I wish I had finished,” or “Why are they using so many dishes?” or “I’m glad I don’t have to do this tomorrow,” or “Why do I always end up washing dishes?”—nothing like that. Just washing dishes, that’s all. The same applies to eating: not “I like this. I wonder how they made it?” Just eating. This applies to all other physical actions. The Buddha said, “The one way for the purification of beings, for the elimination of pain, grief, and lamentation, for the final ending of all pain and grief, for entering the noble path, for attaining liberation, is mindfulness.” What more do we want? We all have some mindfulness; we just have to cultivate it.
Meditation is the means by which we can practice mindfulness to the point where insight becomes so strong that we can see absolute reality behind the relative. Mindfulness trained in meditation can then continue in every activity. Here we are only considering mindfulness of body action, because we make use of the body constantly. As the body can be touched and seen, we have a chance of really having mind and body in the same place, instead of letting the mind run off into its usual ramifications while the body does something else. If we were to keep mind and body in one place we would have no problem watching the breath, because that is all that is really happening—we are breathing. Nothing else. Everything else is conjecture.