Forest Sangha Newsletter
July 1998



The Power of Faith; Ajahn Viradhammo
Don't Lose Your Wits; Ajahn Siripañña
Maurice O'Connell Walshe; A Tribute
Mealy Redpolls & on Being Content
The best Wealth; Ajahn Candasiri
Signs of Change:

Don't Loose Your Wits

In this Dhamma talk given at Hartridge Buddhist Monastery in May 1998, Ajahn Siripañña offers some reflections to encourage an attitude of careful discernement in regard to practice.

The practice of meditation can be summed up as bringing a whole-hearted and non-interfering attention to the present reality of each moment. When we enter into a learning relationship with the moment we can come to see clearly how to make a light-hearted peace with our lives.
It can be comforting to hear that in essence the path is just that simple; and yet it is and it isn't. Although we are trying to make our way back home to that pure simplicity of being with life, getting there involves a certain amount of doing. We can have a feeling that we shouldn't have to do anything: "I'll just sit here and open up and gradually everything will become clear." There can be either a kind of passivity, a lack of resourcefulness, or perhaps a fear - doing just increases the sense of self, doesn't it?
So we have to understand how to pick up and use techniques and reflective frameworks - the `doing-ness' of the practice – as a useful vehicle, a raft. We have to gain practical skills in raft making; we have to get on the raft; we have to figure out how to sail it; how to get off the sandbank; how to stop being swept down the river; and finally, hopefully, how to be able to let go of our raft when we get to the other shore.


What are we doing? Are we using practice as a daily sedative? Is it helping us to wake up, or are we using it to put ourselves to sleep and dissociate from experience?

Sometimes we'd like someone else to do it all for us. There is a little bit in most of us that wants some great big Mummy or Daddy to come along and sort us out. A guru perhaps. You go to them and they just emanate, and something happens to you. That would be nice, wouldn't it? Or, maybe you want them to tell you what your problems are and how to solve them. "Please could you tell me what I'm like?" We can get quite excited if somebody we respect tells us something about ourselves. "Oh, thank you! What should I do about it?" They tell you and then you think, "I really know what to do now. Great." There is that inclination in us not to want to bother making the effort to figure it out for ourselves. But what happens if you can't find that all-knowing person? And even if you have found them, what if they've got it wrong? Even if they've got it right, what happens if you're just happy to believe that, and you don't actually find out for yourself if it's true? It is difficult to find someone trustworthy to take that role in our lives, and then there are potential difficulties in using such a relationship in a way which is actually liberating.
The Buddha didn't offer us this option. He offered a very practical Do-It-Yourself path, it requires that we take responsibility for our own practice; we have do the work ourselves. Actually, any teaching that take us to release of the heart requires the same demanding self-inquiry, but the Buddha was particularly up front about it. It's good to know where we stand, because then we're not going to be disappointed or confused if things don't work out. We fully take responsibility for the fact that if we only make a little bit of effort we're only going to get a meagre result; if we make a lot of effort we'll get a better result and if we make a courageous and wholehearted effort we'll get a correspondingly abundant result.
Intelligent, resourceful self-assessment of what we are doing is crucial. Sometimes we might feel that other people see us better than we do – certainly this can be true at times but overall, we're the ones who can know what's going on. We're the ones who have to be honest with ourselves. We are in the best position to be able to understand our own experience, and that understanding arises from our interested and attentive inquiry. It can't arise simply from reading books, or from memorising inspiring poems, or from someone else's Dhamma talks. It's not that we shouldn't read, or memorise poems, or listen to Dhamma talks, but we need to realise that they're only pointing towards the way.
Second-hand knowledge is probably one of the biggest obstacles to the clarity and awareness needed for insight to arise. The Buddha understood this and brilliantly framed his teaching in a way which minimises the opportunity for grasping at ideals. His whole teaching undermines our attempts to hold on to notions of what we should be, and how we should get there. He probably said less about the goal of the spiritual path than any other religious teacher. He realised that as soon as we get an idea about it, then that's something we're ambitious for and struggling to grab hold of. If we do that, all we end up with is second-hand knowledge; we don't have the experience itself. As an ideal, the goal of the Buddha's teaching may not immediately seem uplifting and inspiring. He is pointing to what the truth is not; helping us see beyond all our greed, our aversion and our confusion, until through gradual distillation, the truth shines through.
But we have to keep our wits about us. Now where are our wits? They are in our heart, in our head, in our guts, they're in our very bones. I'm not talking about a kind of cunning, or something that is dependent upon IQ or education, but rather the real understanding and clarity which come from being fully present in the body and in the mind, experiencing it all in a fresh way. We each have to find out for ourselves how to relax back into this natural intelligence which can really assess our experience, and which has an overview of how we're working with what arises. Where is it taking me to? Is this helping me? Is my life getting better? Am I becoming more relaxed? Am I feeling more ease, more confidence? Am I feeling more depressed, more despairing? If so, is it a healthy depression or despair, or is it destructive?
There are obviously times when some people would really benefit from a bit of skilled support from others if it enables them to open constructively to pain which cannot, for whatever reason, be addressed alone. Talking with a good spiritual friend can also be valuable - we all have blind spots which are very difficult to see by ourselves. Nevertheless, a good teacher, guide or friend will eventually fling us back upon our own resources. We might be given some helpful pointers, but then it's a pat on the back, and on we go. If we want our practice to bear fruit we have to realise for ourselves the spacious intelligence of the non-attached mind, where nothing is taken for granted and we begin to see through all the second-hand ideas and habits, the staleness and assumptions which prevent clear vision.
Consider the use of meditation techniques; these, can be very useful. When we first start to practise we discover that our minds are amok with a cascade of thoughts, moods, drives, impulses most people are quite shocked by this. How to make sense of it all? The various techniques can help us feel we know what to do. At first that's very valuable because if we're too confused we can give up, or we just don't know where to put our attention so nothing much comes from our practice. Mindfulness with breathing, body-sweeping and other ways of systematically bringing the attention back to the present moment are very helpful if we understand how to relate to them properly. But we do have to keep our wits about us. What are we doing? Are we using practice as a daily sedative? Is it helping us to wake up, or are we using it to put ourselves to sleep and dissociate from experience? Is it working? Sometimes people plug away numbly for years or decades at some technique: "I've been doing this for 30 years and I don't think I've learned a thing." Why didn't they stop? I've heard somebody say this; they were obviously doing something wrong. They were not applying this kind of assessment: "What am I doing? Why am I doing it? What is the result?"
Then, you get conflicting meditation instructions. One teacher says keep your eyes open; another says keep them closed. "Sister, should I keep my eyes open when I practise or should I keep them closed? Could you just give me your opinion?" Well, why don't you find out for yourself? Keep them open for a while and see what happens; and then try keeping them closed. Find out for yourself what the difference is, and you'll know for sure. If you know for yourself it gives you a confidence - you know why you're doing things, and you know what the result is.
"Should I do body sweeping? Or should I do Mettaa (loving-kindness) practice? Or should I do mindfulness with breathing? And, if I do mindfulness with breathing, should I do it just as a concentration exercise or should try and develop the four tetrads of the Anaapaanasati Sutta? Ajahn so-and-so says you should adjust the breath and make it comfortable, but Ajahn Chah said you should never interfere with the breath. Now, who is right?" At first it's best to follow the advice of the particular teacher or tradition that you're close to. Don't muddle things up too much. But, when you really know what happens when you practise different techniques then have the confidence to experiment.
We can be very unadventurous. It feels safe and easy to snuggle down into a meditation habit, and say, "OK, that's my meditation." To bring new life to our practice it can be good to try different things out, to take the risk of not knowing what we're doing for a while; this can be particularly helpful if we feel stuck. There was one person who always had this pressure in their head when they practised mindfulness with breathing, and they said, "I can't really feel my nose." I asked: "Well, how long have you been doing this?" and they said, "Years and years." I said, "Well, why don't you try focusing somewhere else?" "What! But I thought you had to meditate at your nose." What's the use of that if it's not working? It's just a means to focus the mind; if it makes your head explode, try focusing somewhere else.
Dare to think, could you be your own teacher? Could you be the one who knows best? Could you make up your own MI>mettaa - loving-kindness - meditation? Surely we have to do one that's been printed in a book or given to us by an experienced meditation teacher? But maybe the way I teach mettaa practice is going to be hopeless for you. "I'd better read Ajahn Sumedho's books, I should try his one." Maybe his isn't right for you either. The Buddha didn't actually give many detailed instructions on mettaa. He said: "Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should we cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world, spreading upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths, outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill will." That's about it. He left people to figure it out for themselves. "Oh, how do I do that?" Well, it's good to think that; it's good not to know. That'll get you interested, and help to awaken your own intelligence.
The danger of any religious tradition is that we simply follow the established way of doing things and surrender our natural ability to review and assess what we're doing and to learn from our successes and failures. But we need those resources because there is nobody around who is going to do that for us. Don't surrender your most precious treasure. That doesn't mean that we should be arrogant and conceited, either, and just say "I'm doing it my way, thank you," Because there is often something to be learned from the experience of people who've been practising a long time. We should at least listen with an open mind; but listen with our wits turned on. Then we can try things out and find out for ourselves.
Develop skilful means. What are we trying to do? We're remembering to be awake now at every moment. So we're remembering to be awake in the shower, we're remembering to be awake in bed, we're remembering to be awake when we're eating, when we're cleaning, when we're working, whatever we're doing. Now that's a lot of situations. A lot of different things sweep us away, so ask: "Where do I always fall down? Where am I always going off? Is it when I'm talking? Is it when I'm working? Is it everything?" It's probably everything! But at least we know. Once we've had a really good look and evaluated it, we know where we're starting. We need to get to know our own personal ways, our own personal tape-loops, and the places where we get hooked, and start to blame. There needs to be this freshness, this ability to step back and have a clear look at how we relate to life, to people and to our own mind.
Once we know ourselves a bit better we are able to learn how to counterbalance our own tendencies; what I need to do is going to be totally different to what each of you need to do. One person, for example, might be very uptight and if they go on a retreat, they might want to get up at 2.30 a.m. - one hour of yoga and then sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, and then maybe five minutes of rest and then sit, walk, sit, walk, until night time, and feel great. But actually, maybe it would be better for them just to relax - sit on the balcony and look at the birds. Maybe that would counterbalance the driven-ness and need for structure.
A person who is reflecting would take a look at that. What's the natural tendency? Then you can choose the most skilful response. It is not automatic that one should always go against one's natural inclination, but you have to know what it is so that you're taking it into account; then you can either keep a look out to make sure that it's not obsessing you or, perhaps, try going against it to learn from that experiment. And then another person thinks "Oh, well, you know they always say we should relax. Now, I feel a little tense if I get up before 9.00 a.m. so I'm going to take it easy." You probably need to get up at 2.30 a.m... or at least 8.00 a.m! Know where your edge is, know where you're going to lose your ability to be skilful, to be awake. Find ways of extending that edge just by experimenting, by challenging yourself a little bit, by going against the grain. It's very energising and invigorating if we take our own needs into account. It really helps us to feel that we've got something worth doing that is interesting to us, and it's very personal because it's coming from our own motivation.
In balancing the mind out, the basic frameworks that the Buddha taught are very useful. Just simple frameworks like the Five Spiritual Faculties: Saddhaa is a heart quality - a receptivity, a willingness to be open, to take a leap and to let go of certainty. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Panna - intuitive wisdom or discernment, is the evaluating mind. We have to learn to juggle the two so that the mind is not always stuck onto focusing and picking things apart which is quite a clinical and heartless experience. Another pair to counterbalance is Samaadhi - collectedness or concentration, and Viriya - energy, which, in excess, leads to us being scattered and unfocused. We notice - in our life, in our day, in our formal meditation - how much concentration is there? Does it need to be more emphasised? Or is it getting so close against the window-pane that we can't see the wood for the trees? When our mind is half-concentrated, but without any discernment or energy in it, we can end up feeling like an over-cooked pudding or a tree stump. If we recognise this we can inject some vigour by investigating something. We need to learn to know our tendencies to bring ourselves into balance. The overall balancing faculty is mindfulness. The Spiritual Faculties can help us evaluate ourselves and our practice, to notice where we're going right and where we're going wrong.
Develop skilful means, what we call Upayas - personal means that help you in your determination to be awake. Evaluate the way you relate to the teachings, the way that you relate to techniques, what you're using them for. Try something different if you think that would be good. Give it a good trial though - don't just bounce around doing one thing and then another, never trying anything with enough commitment to produce results. It's like digging a well; you'll never find water by digging 100 little holes. If you find the right place you just need to keep digging and you'll eventually reach the water. If you like, once you've found water in once place you can start digging another well and increase your resources. But remember - keep your wits about you!

Ajahn Siripanna