This is an excerpt from Ayya Khema’s recently re-released book Know Where You’re Going (formerly titled When the Iron Eagle Flies).
There is very little doubt that those of us who want to meditate are looking for something other than what we are used to in the world. We are already wise enough to know that the world hasn’t fulfilled our expectations, and maybe we already know that it may never do so. That is a big step in itself.
When we sit down to meditate, we are trying to transcend our everyday consciousness, the consciousness used to transact ordinary business, the one used in the world’s marketplace as we go shopping, bring up our children, work in an office or in our business, clean the house, check our bank statements, and all the rest of daily living. Everyone knows that kind of consciousness, and without it we can’t function. It is our survival consciousness, and we need it for that. It cannot reach far enough or deep enough into the Buddha’s teachings, because these are unique and profound; our everyday consciousness is neither unique nor profound, just utilitarian.
In order to attain the kind of consciousness that is capable of going deeply enough into the teachings to make them our own and thereby change our whole inner view, we need a mind with the ability to remove itself from the ordinary thinking process. Attaining this sort of mind is only possible through meditation. There is no other way. Meditation is therefore a means, and not an end in itself. It is a means to change the mind’s capacity in such a way that it can perceive entirely different realities from the ones we are used to. The recognition that meditation is a tool is important, because it is often wrongly considered to be an end in itself. In Pali, meditation is called bhāvanā, “mind training,” to be used for honing the mind until it becomes such a sharp tool that it cuts through everyday realities.
Most people sit down to meditate in order to make their minds peaceful. But a calm mind is only one of the two essential aspects of meditation. Insight (vipassanā) is the other. The goal of meditation is insight, and tranquility (samatha) is the means to that end. According to the Pali canon, the Buddha taught forty different methods of meditation, some used strictly for achieving calm and others for attaining insight. We do not need to practice that many.
Everybody is looking for some calm, some peace, and the ability to stop the mind from continuing its usual chatter. While it is necessary to cultivate the calm aspect of meditation, most people find it impossible to sit down and immediately become tranquil. Unfortunately, our minds are used to being exactly the opposite. They are thinking, evaluating, and judging from morning to night, and then dreaming from night to morning, so that they don’t get a moment’s rest. If we were to treat our bodies in that way we would soon be out of commission. The body can’t handle that for more than a few days, never having a moment’s rest, working all the time. When we ask this of our mind we are surprised that things don’t turn out the way we hoped, and that the world doesn’t work the way we thought it would. It would be even more surprising if it were otherwise, because what we see in our own mind is exactly what is going on in everybody else’s. That, too, is an important aspect of the meditative mind—to realize that we are not individually burdened with all this unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). It is a universal aspect of existence, comprising the first noble truth of the Buddha’s teaching.
Unsatisfactoriness is universal. It doesn’t belong to any one of us but to all of us. Because our minds are not yet trained, the world is the way it is, and meditation is a struggle. We need to learn to halt the habit patterns of the mind. Our minds are used to thinking, but when we want to become calm and peaceful, that is exactly what we have to stop doing. It is easier said than done, because the mind will continue to do what it is used to doing. There is another reason why the mind finds it difficult to refrain from its habits: thinking is the only ego support we have while we are meditating, and particularly when we keep noble silence. “I think, therefore I am”—some Western philosophy accepts that as an absolute. Actually, it is a relative truth that all of us experience.
When we are thinking, we know that we are here; when there is no chattering in the mind, we believe we have lost control. But actually, it’s exactly the other way around. As long as we can’t stop thinking, we have no control. We are in control of our mind only when we are able to stop thinking when we want to. The difficulty arising for most, if not all, meditators is this aspect of letting go. To let go of the only ego support we have while we are meditating, namely our thinking, has to be a deliberate act. When we go about our daily business we deliberately direct our mind toward what we want to do. If we want to work in the kitchen we deliberately go there and turn our attention to what needs to be done. If we have work to do in an office we deliberately turn our mind to letters, files, and other office business. It’s the same in meditation.