Is there an end?

Do you ever wonder how far you’ve got in terms of Awakening? Maybe, when you review it, you see it like this: ‘Well I live with a sense of conscience and concern for the welfare of others. I do meditate, and from time to time my mind gets quite peaceful. The thinking stops; there’s a sense of wonder and ease. Then I come out of that, but in the flow of events of people and things and ups and downs, I get jangled and tense. Is there an end to this?’ It’s good to remember one of Ajahn Chah’s sayings: ‘The only thing that has to end is the desire that it all end.’ Kamma, the restless search of the self: that’s what has to end for Awakening.

Me,myself and I

Awakening is not that easy to assess, because our old un-Awakened habits can keep getting triggered by events in life. This is because we’re living in the field of kamma, of mental patterns and psychological programs that have been established in us from what we’ve participated in.  This is ‘resultant kamma’ or ‘vipaka’; and it is what gets referred to as ‘myself.’ And as long as we’re centred in, feeding on, or attached to, that field of kamma, we participate in the ups and downs of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. This is how consciousness is conditioned: to experience of birth, which is the basis for the arising of the sense of ‘me and other.’ Internally that duality is experienced as ‘I and myself’ – in which ‘I’ becomes the agent, the cause and ‘me’ is the mind-state that I refer to at any given time.  These two breed the notion of ‘myself’ an ongoing accumulation of what I’ve done or what has happened to me. And right there is conflict. Because sometimes ‘I’ don’t like ‘myself’: I don’t feel in harmony with myself, or I don’t know how to support myself, or what to do about myself.

Another twist is that the mind, through this ongoing impression of ‘myself’, projects how my self could be; and on that basis there arises a range of possibles and desirables. Consciousness seeks further becoming and further birth. Through our creative minds, it creates plenty of possibles to get, to get away, to become: the impulse is to act. Hence there is food for the agent ‘I’ to create more kamma, dependent on how good or bad myself seems to be. Sometimes myself is having a good time, so I want to have or do more of that. Other times, I’m not getting the results I want, so I want to get out of that scenario. However, win or lose, any resultant states change and are undependable. We don’t get, or get away, for very long – whatever state we’ve arrived at shifts, ends, changes, and ‘myself’ changes with that. We can move the scenario – from materialism to spirituality – yet we remain in the game of winning and losing unless we wake up to cause and effect. That is, at best, the agency of cause and effect can only bring ‘not-quite enough’ as a result.

Now if we intepret the action as ‘I do’ and based on that there is an assessment of ‘myself,’ the residual sense of what I am is just that sense of ‘ I’m not getting enough, not getting away from enough.’ The Buddha called it ‘dukkha’, the ‘unsatisfied’ sense. ‘All that arises is of the nature of dukkha, and all that ceases is dukkha.’ That’s the nature of the game of cause and effect. But the ‘I’ sense can’t get out of the game (even with death, there is re-birth): so maybe I’m fairly OK, or OK for a while, but not completely OK. What’s wrong with me ? However, when you reflect on it, the ‘me’ sense can never be OK, because holding on to anything changeable and unstable must give rise to dukkha. I keep looking for the ultimate, lasting, supreme effect – and there isn’t one.

We can find specific conditions to tag on to this sometimes subtle unsatisfied sense: ‘I’m not OK because he said this or he didn’t say that or I did this or I didn’t do enough of that, or this is like this or it’s not like that. This is why I am not OK.’  We can attribute this dukkha to domestic situations or cosmic laws, but when we are looking for the ending of dukkha, we need to look at the mental basis on which it arises. Isn’t the basis of dukkha in any situation the ‘me’ sense that tags onto it? If the ‘me’ sense is not involved, things are just the way they are: the restlessness, the hurt feeling, the thirst can cease. Which may sound like a cop-out – but ‘non-involvement’ in this instance doesn’t happen through denial or shrugging off: there’s a lot of ‘me’ in that! No, it comes around through a mindful and compassionate holding of present conditions, holding past reactions and hopes and assumptions, to be with how things really are. Only then action can occur that is free and resourceful.

Contact and interpretation create kamma

Where I’ve lived for the past of couple of years, there was building work going on. There was always the sound of stone saws and tile saws and people banging and crashing. So I had the opportunity to work with that. The sound itself is doing what sound is supposed to do. Sounds make sound. They have no malice in them, they have no aim or project, they just do that, it’s their nature. Yet they impinge on my mindfulness of breathing in a random and incisive way. And when they do, they get interpreted as improper, inappropriate, invasive, intrusive, and agitating. And that perception can create a cloud that covers the heart. What is simply a sound becomes a perception, a felt meaning; the meaning generates a feeling, a feeling of annoyance or depression. Then the fresh kamma impulse is: ‘Get me out of here. Let me go somewhere else.’ However, I watch and check my reactions, because following the agitation of the mind gives agitated results. So I work with the perception instead; I listen to the sound and reflect on how my mind is interpreting it. Actually the sound is not aimed at me. They aren’t sitting outside my window piping it in through the window in order to do something to me. The sound doesn’t do anything more than arise in the listening and pass away. Maybe the problem is my hearing. The sound doesn’t do any damage. If it was 140 decibels it might do some damage, but a few stone-saws at 25 metres is not harmful or malicious. Reflecting on it this way I can begin working on it, going back to the sound, listening to the sound, making the sound a meditation object. Taking it a moment at a time. Then it becomes something that is neutral – just the sound – and the mind can leave it alone. The mind can sense the awareness of the sound, then as the awareness extends and strengthens, abide in that awareness. There’s no need to defend the mind  against the sound, and there doesn’t have to be conflict.

However, if I let the mind play on the sound, I notice how attention forms it up, and interprets it. The interpretation is that it’s a stone saw; there’s some person out there operating a stone saw. Then because it’s a person I think that they should be able to do something else. If it were a waterfall, I wouldn’t make anything out of it because a waterfall has no choice. But if it’s a person doing something, then I can think, ‘Why don’t they do it somewhere else? Why don’t they do it another time? Don’t they realise I’m meditating? They should be more considerate.’  So the mental feeling arises from the meaning. Then if I follow that irritated feeling, I can become the object of it and really develop the picture.  ‘Why me? It was like this last year. In fact I’ve been involved in building monasteries for 25 years. I’ve had enough of all this. When is it ever going to stop. Is this what bringing Buddhism to the West is about!’ ‘I’ll never get enlightened this way!’ Of course, it could play another way. I could be pleased at the progress that’s being made towards completing our Dhamma Hall. I could very well think: ‘Those guys are working really hard…’ And in those cases feel some appreciation. But you know what? Linger in those impressions for a while and the mind comes up with: ‘ I wonder when it’ll be finished; it’s been years now….But then maybe we should redesign the porch…and after this there’s the Shrine Room for the nuns.’ Or: ‘All that work and I’m just sitting here…I should get out there and give them a hand.’ This is what I mean by dukkha. When the mind makes a state, the moment is never complete … one state generates another and so there is kamma. Kamma is born from contact, and its result, vipaka, is stored as ‘myself’.

Review attitudes and assumptions

This is why I reckon that one sign that the practice is ripening is when one doesn’t hang on to contact-impressions; and one doesn’t hang on to any of the ‘me’ positions. The mind  can open its awareness of a state, and slip into that awareness rather than any of the perceptions and interpretations that arise. Then mind-states don’t have to arise; to that extent we’re out of the loop of kamma. Of course, not creating a state is easier said than done, and there are all kinds of triggers of kamma, but they teach us that suffering and stress only stop with letting go. So it’s good when one has the simple opportunity to focus on having one’s buttons pushed: we can notice where the hanging on is occurring and bring a focus to that.

Say I start off with a perception that meditation that equals quiet, equals things happening in a very steady way. Although there’s a lot of truth to the idea that meditation is about tranquillity and clarity and calm, often we can’t start from that place. We’re going to start in the jungle of the heart. Our challenge is to find a wise foundation in that jungle of the heart without going into, ‘Oh I can’t. My mind’s a mess. Oh, I’m terrible. No, no, this isn’t it. I can’t do it.’ If we set up the perception of meditation as something serene, then it’s very difficult to start meditating at all. The wise way is to begin where you are: with hindrances, defilements, past kamma, confusion, wondering how to get it right, getting it wrong – and work with being able to witness and let go of those mind-states. You  find support in the simplicity of the body’s presence, or the aspiration and spacious kindness of the mind that meets these challenges. Otherwise the mind lingers and generates a self-view: ‘I am an inadequate person’ or ‘I am a failure’ or ‘I am someone who is inherently lacking in something.’ Or it might generate a view: ‘Buddhism is too difficult’ or ‘Meditation is impossible.’ Such impressions are difficult and haunting.

The trick is to cultivate non-reactive attention, mindfulness – to know the mood as a mood, as a condition that arises in the mind. Whether it’s me, the way I am, past kamma, or whatever, right now it’s an impression, a perception full of felt meaning. With that understanding as a support, mindfulness and full awareness can stand apart from the mood. We can say, ‘This is the mood. Let it be what it has to be. Moods feel like this.’ It’s the same as saying, ‘Hammers sound like this. Stone saws sound like this. Bells ring like this.’ A mood is not a person. It’s not something whose nature is fixed. Any fixing comes from the lingering bias of wanting to figure it out, control and change it; to be an ‘I’ who can get out of the mood, and a self who has done so. If that bias isn’t relinquished, there is the arising of an ‘I’ who can’t control or get out of, and this ‘I’ creates myself as a failure. So however it operates this bias, called ‘conceit’, gives the potential ‘I am’ view its foothold: ‘I am a dumped-on being’, ‘I am an angry person’, or whatever. Then based upon this entity, the process continues: ‘Because I am this, well, I’ll do that’ or ‘Because I am this, I need some of that,’ and so forth. And so fresh kamma gets triggered based upon that fundamental inclination.

However, rather than generate conceit and views in our meditation, the encouragement is to attend to the confusion or passion or regret or doubt as it’s happening, so that we handle it, acknowledge its energies, its effects on the body. That disengagement from making anything out of it is what lets it pass.

Preparing the Meeting Place

This disengagement from self-view is a skill that seems modest and yet is liberating. It comes with the skill of fully meeting experience, rather than half meeting, half avoiding, or meeting it in order to do something to it or glean information, happiness, or enlightenment from it. Developing it takes time. It takes capacity as well as willingness, because our system isn’t always strong enough, clear enough, or balanced enough to meet things directly. It’s like when you’re sick, and your energies are low, the body’s not capable of carrying what it can when its healthy. And when the mind is tense, or undernourished, then it can’t handle stress so well as when its in balance. And sometimes it’s simply the case that an edgy mental state arises because of stressed physical condition. It’s not all inner demons!

Consequently we need to prepare a meeting place, an awareness that can meet what arises without contracting.  Doing just this is the ‘kamma that leads to the end of kamma.’ The basis of this is training in mindfulness: staying with contact without formulating a self and a reaction. This means that for a moment you can not know how things should be, or what to do. If you allow yourself this mindful uncertainty, that opens the essential space for a response rather than a reaction to arise. So when the feeling and the impression or ‘meaning’ come up, just wait right there. Don’t work from previous models. Don’t blink. Don’t try to change it. Don’t make a ‘me’ out of it. Then hold your awareness where it subsides. This is the place where kamma can end: in that place where there’s no laying down of more residues. So we practise handling attention, contact and volition, the will to do. And with skill in that, the world of ‘me and it’ changes by itself.

The best place to meet impressions is in  mindfulness of the body. That is, if I sense the mind in terms of bodily as well as emotive results, or in terms of shifts of energy – say I feel a shrinking, or a flaring or a hardening – then that steadier meeting place has more capacity to receive rather than react than if I just take it all through the heart. The body doesn’t conceive; it doesn’t generate the historical person who will and shouldn’t and all the rest of it. All that is the creation of the mind. Therefore, preparing the meeting place is about being embodied, staying very much with that bodily presence as we go about our lives. We already know this: we suggest someone sits down before we give them bad news; we take a deep breath before we embark on a challenge. But in Dhamma-practice we develop just this. It’s a matter of letting the entire system digest the experience, rather than the heart or head alone.

Another way in which we prepare the meeting place is in terms of the mode of attention. Attention can be reaching out to have and hold an agreeable experience. It can be contracted and withdrawn in order to minimise the impact of a disagreeable experience. ‘Now what will the next moment bring…I don’t want to miss the goodies, but on the other hand…’ Have you ever had the ‘custard-pie effect’ of just having had a very pleasant experience, being wide open with attention, only to then receive a kick in the pants? To me the best place is to have attention aware of the space around things; so that I’m not drawn in or drawn out, nor quivering between the two. Impressions don’t have to crystallise. So – attention to the space as well as the thing, and the ‘me,’ helps the meeting to be more spacious and less impacting. And finally there’s volition, motivation: the ‘how’ I attend; so that the aim is for whatever is met to come to its place of rest. This ‘how’ motivates inquiry into direct experience. Then I notice when I stop making a big ‘I am’ and ‘I want’ and ‘I can’t stand this’ at the meeting place where contact and impressions arise. So kamma doesn’t keep getting created. Someone gets angry with me, there’s the affect, which has to be met to allow it to pass. Then there’s no the mood, and no person lingering on in the heart.

This purity of mind is of non-attachment and non-pushing away. When the meeting place is prepared with body, heart and mind it inspires a ‘this world’ form of devotion. There is the willingness to be here and receive the uncomfortable and the frightening without tightening up around then. And in the present one can feel more spacious.

All that rests on good kamma. So we honour the clear boundaries of morality, the present moment objectivity of mindfulness, the strength that comes from samadhi, the wisdom that comes with contemplating kamma and self. These are assets. We can benefit from developing them. And they are to be developed by working on them with the sensations and moods of our lives, from the coarse to the refined and sublime. The field of kamma is the best place to find the ending of kamma. And it’s the ending of that – the ceasing of habitual impressions and reactions – that comprises Awakening.

Talks, Essays, Reflections