September 16, 2013
Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu visits Tricycle
The title of your new book is With Each and Every Breath: A Guide to Meditation. Why not the far more popular “mindfulness”? Probably because I’m a contrarian! Really, though, I wanted to put meditation in its larger context, and mindfulness is just one aspect of meditation. It’s not just about getting along better in your daily life; it’s also about your life as a whole. What’s really important to you? What’s not important to you? I’m teaching meditation as way to train the mind to find happiness in all situations and beyond all situations, to think about the higher levels of happiness that meditation can bring.
You’ve written many books and essays that are useful to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. (Using Meditation To Deal With Pain, Illness And Death is one example.) The Meditations series is another. Can you say something about that? Well, the ultimate purpose is to point out to people how they are creating unnecessary stress and suffering in their lives and how they can learn how to reduce that or even to put an end to it entirely. When you’re writing for a non-Buddhist audience in addition to Buddhists, you have to think about where people are coming from in terms of their worldview and their understanding of what suffering is, and why it’s happening. You help them work from where they are toward a more Buddhist approach.
Which is? To see that the suffering that is really weighing down the mind is the suffering that is coming from inside, and that you need to develop a set of skills to deal with it. Meditation is a great way to do that. That part of the book is the same for everybody, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. The Buddhist part is that total freedom from suffering and stress is possible.
You use the word stress a lot, in place of suffering. And in translating the Four Noble Truths from the original Pali, you use the word stress repeatedly. Why do you choose that word? Is suffering less accurate? I use the word “stress” for dukkha [commonly translated as “suffering”] for three reasons. The first is that people can relate to it; this is actually happening in their lives.
I had a friend back in Thailand who was a journalist, and one time he asked me, “Why do you Buddhists talk about suffering all the time? I don’t have any suffering in my life.” And I answered, “Do you have any stress?” “Oh yeah,” he said, “stress, all the time.” So I said, “That’s what we’re talking about.” People can relate to stress.
A second reason is that when you’re getting to very subtle levels of meditation, you’re not going to be seeing any suffering per se, but you will see subtle levels of stress, and I know a lot of people who have missed that. When they get into concentration, they think, “My mind is finally free of suffering, I’m done.” But there are still subtle levels of stress in the mind that you have to work with, and that’s important.
And the third reason? It’s hard to romanticize stress! [Laughs]
You write that when your mind is comfortable in meditation, you have some work to do, which I thought was really interesting. We often hear that the whole point of meditation is to make your mind comfortable, to make yourself blissful and free of stress. It’s important to make a distinction here. Free of stress and comfortable are two very different things. I think a lot of times people come to meditation to get more comfortable, and a lot of teachers are happy to teach them just that. But if you’re looking for deeper levels of happiness, if you’re looking to become totally free from stress, getting the mind comfortable is only the first step. It’s then that you can start looking more closely: Okay, where is there still some stress in there?
One of the reasons you make the mind comfortable in concentration is so that you’re in a good enough mood to deal with your own stupidity, to acknowledge it. That’s what it comes down to, because that’s where a lot of the insights are—“My God, I’ve been a fool!” If you’re going to talk to somebody about what a fool they’ve been, you don’t want to do it when they’re tired and hungry and in a bad mood. You want to get them in a good mood—well fed, rested, comfortable. Then they’re more willing to admit that “Yes, I have been doing these things that cause me suffering, and if I don’t pay attention, I’ll continue doing them. Maybe I should be doing something about it.” Also, when the mind settles into a greater level of ease, you can become more and more sensitive to subtle levels of stress that you otherwise would have missed.
It would be a big mistake, though—and a big waste—to get comfortable and then tell yourself that things don’t really matter, that everything’s just OK. There’s no point in getting comfortable only to return to your old ways.
So getting your mind comfortable is a skillful tool along the path? It’s one of the tools along the way.
In one part of the book you talk about going into a situation that you know will push your buttons. We so often hear about staying with the present moment, but what about using meditation to think about the future and plan for it? Two things. One is that, if you want meditation to be part of your life, there has to be at least part of the meditation that can be devoted to anticipating what’s going to happen. This fits in with an element of what’s called Right Effort. When you see that there’s a risk of an unskillful quality arising, you do what you can to prevent it, and you can’t prevent it by saying, “Well I’ll just be in the present all the time and that will take care of everything.” You’ve got to have a plan, because practice is not just meditation. Buddhist practice is also what you do, what you say, what you think as you go through the day. This is a perfectly legitimate part of Right Effort: to anticipate and have a strategy for, say, the uncle you’re going to see at a family reunion, an uncle who really knows how to push your buttons.
This, I think, is one of the reasons Miss Manners was so popular for so long. She actually had people sit down and think about, if you say or do X, what will the consequences be? You’ve had difficult situations repeat themselves before, so they shouldn’t surprise you. Spend some time to think about how to anticipate and avoid getting yourself tied up in difficulties.
With my teacher Ajaan Fuang, one of my jobs as his attendant was to go up the hill to clean his hut every evening, prepare his bath, and then wash his robes. If I had any questions about my meditation or issues that had come up in the monastery, I could discuss them with him then. I learned pretty quickly that my very first sentence was very important, because if the sentence seemed in any way to be complaining about somebody else or to be putting the burden on him to solve my problem, he would cut me short, and that would be the end of the conversation for that whole day. So as I was going up to his hut, I would plan how to broach a particular topic with him when I got there. It was an important part of my training. I learned an important lesson that’s part of my range of skills as a meditator.
It’s important, as a meditator, not to be limited in the number of skills you have. You can do noting practice when it’s appropriate, but sometimes, when you have to plan, you plan; other times, when you have to adjust your breath, you do that; and yet at other times, you may have to learn how to readjust the way you’re framing an issue for yourself.
I usually compare it to the situation in Singapore during World War II, when the British thought that the Japanese would be coming from the sea. They set all their cannons in concrete facing out to the ocean, and sure enough, the Japanese came down the Malay Peninsula and the cannons were useless. In the same way, if you have one technique that you use all the time, your greed, aversion, and delusion are going to figure out ways around that technique pretty quickly, so it’s good to have a wide range of tools on hand.
You talk a lot about the “committee of the mind,” that we should learn how to listen to the skillful members of the committee and not listen to the unskillful members. How are we supposed to tell which ones are skillful and which ones are just really, really sly? There are a few basic rules. If they’re suggesting that you kill, steal, lie, have illicit sex, or take intoxicants, you can’t trust them. That’s clear. But sometimes it isn’t so clear. If you hear a voice suggesting something that appears harmless, follow it for a while. Then look at the consequences of following it. If you see that you may have made a mistake, talk it over with somebody.
These are the two main checks; these are two ways you learn. This is why we have teachers, reliable people we can talk these things over with. Your own ability to connect cause and effect in your actions will develop over time. You’ll become more skillful.
Can you talk about seeking out admirable friends, who you can talk to? The people you hang around with and the people whose ideas and opinions you absorb become other members of your mind. Knowing that you already have some pretty unskillful members, you don’t want to add any more to the mix, and you have to be very careful about who you’re absorbing influences from. As a meditator, you’re like a recovering addict. You have to avoid certain people and activities until you’re strong enough to stick to skillful principles in all situations.
You are a very traditional teacher and yet you encourage innovation. Can you talk about teaching in a contemporary way? Did you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink? It was billed as a book telling us not to let information get in the way of our gut feelings, but when you actually read the book, it wasn’t about that at all. If you want to solve a problem, the book makes clear, you have to be very careful about what’s really at stake, what is really causing the problem, and get sensitive to that particular issue and learn how to ignore everything that’s irrelevant. For me, the orthodox part of Buddhism is precisely that. You focus on solving the problem of stress and suffering, looking for the causes inside, and learn how to develop the qualities of mind that can deal with that problem. Anything that’s irrelevant to that problem, you can dismiss. I think that’s the orthodox part of the practice.
Now given that different people come to the practice with different ways of framing issues, different ways of looking at their emotions, it’s useful to learn how to be innovative within the traditional framework and be able to think on your feet. Ajaan Fuang’s two most common meditation instructions were, (1) be observant, and (2) use your ingenuity. When you go off into the forest to practice, if a problem comes up, you can’t go running to your teacher and you can’t go running to the text. You have to look inside yourself and figure out what’s going on. You’ve got a certain set of principles that you follow all the time, but within that set of principles you have to learn how to adjust your strategies. This is where the innovation comes in. And learning how to be innovative like that fosters discernment.
Discernment is not just confirming what’s already in the texts. It’s learning to be quick to recognize a problem, to see it from different angles, to figure out the best way to solve it. That’s best for the contemporary sensibility, and yet sometimes it’s useful to be around people who don’t share that sensibility. The first year I was meditating in Thailand, old issues came up in my mind—things from grade school, high school, college, family, those kinds of issues—and some evenings I’d go to Ajaan Fuang to talk these things over, and he’d give some very good advice that helped keep me grounded. And other times I’d come with one of these problems and he’d look at me as if I’d come from the other side of the world—which I had. I began to reflect on how many of my issues were of my time and place in American society, and it’s good to have that sort of blank stare to reorient you. Maybe that problem doesn’t make sense to begin with, you know.
All your books are free. Why? After all, this one might sell. You finally have one here that could really sell. [Laughs] It’s important that the dharma be free. If you’re going to be teaching the principles of the dharma, one of the basic principles is generosity. And how are you going to teach people generosity unless you show it to them? And also, the dharma is not a commodity. This is my big problem with a lot of Western Buddhism. Everything is getting commodified. Mindfulness has been clipped and trimmed so it fits into a box you can sell. But keeping the dharma free reminds people that it’s not a commodity.
There’s a great pleasure that comes when I hand people a pile of books, and they give me this sort of fearful look: “How much is this going to be?” And I say it’s free. The look of disbelief combined with joy that comes over their faces, that’s worth it right there.