by Patrick Quanten MD
After his enlightenment the Buddha delivered his sermon on the Four Noble Truths to five of his former companions when they met up again in the Deer Park of Varanasi. He said: “There is suffering. There is the origin of suffering. There is the cessation of suffering. There is the path out of suffering.” He offered something to reflect on instead of something people just had to believe in.
The First Noble Truth
Suffering is the common bond we all share. Everybody everywhere suffers. Human beings suffered in the past, in ancient India; they suffer in modern Britain; and in the future, human beings will also suffer. When we talk about our human suffering it brings out our compassionate tendencies. But when we talk about our opinions, about what I think and what you think about politics and religion, then we can get into wars.
The First Noble Truth is not a dismal metaphysical statement saying that everything is suffering. Notice that there is a difference between a metaphysical doctrine in which you are making a statement about The Absolute and a Noble Truth, which is a reflection. A Noble Truth is a truth to reflect upon. You can see that the First Noble Truth is not an absolute statement because of the Fourth Noble truth, which is the way of non-suffering. You cannot have absolute suffering and then have a way out of it, can you?
It is important to reflect upon the phrasing of the First Noble Truth. ‘There is suffering’, rather than, ‘I suffer’. We tend to interpret our suffering as ‘I am really suffering. I suffer a lot.’ This is the way our thinking mind is conditioned. ‘I am suffering’ always conveys the sense of ‘I am somebody who is suffering a lot. This suffering is mine.’ But note, it is not personal suffering anymore when we see it as ‘There is suffering’. This kind of thinking comes from ignorance which complicates everything and results in personality problems.
To let go of suffering, we have to admit it into consciousness. But the Buddhist meditation is not from a position of ‘I am suffering’ but rather, ‘There is the presence of suffering’, because we are not trying to identify with the problem but simply acknowledge that there is one. We tend to grasp and identify rather than observe, witness and understand things as they are.
So do not grasp these things as personal faults but keep contemplating these conditions as impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self. Keep reflecting, seeing them as they are. The tendency is to view life from the sense that these are my problems, and that one is being very honest and forthright in admitting this. Then our life tends to reaffirm that because we keep operating from that wrong assumption. But that very viewpoint is impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self.
As soon as there is any inconvenience or annoyance, the tendency of an unawakened human being is to get rid of it or suppress it. One can see why modern society is so caught up in seeking pleasures and delights in what is new, exciting or romantic. We tend to emphasise the beauties and pleasures of youth whilst the ugly side of life – old age, sickness, death, boredom, despair and depression – are pushed aside. This is a perfectly natural thing to do. We are associated with that pleasure/pain principle of being attracted and repelled.
You should try to understand suffering: to really look at, stand under and accept your suffering. Try to understand it when you are feeling physical pain or despair and anguish or hatred and aversion – whatever form it takes, whatever quality it has, whether it is extreme or slight. This teaching does not mean that to get enlightened you have to be utterly and totally miserable. You do not have to have everything taken away from you or be tortured on the rack; it means being able to look at suffering, even if it is just a mild feeling of discontent, and understand it.
It is easy to find a scapegoat for our problems. This is really silly! Yet that is how some people actually look at the world, thinking that they are confused and miserable because they did not get a fair deal. But with this formula of the First Noble Truth, even if we have had a pretty miserable life, what we are looking at is not that suffering which comes from out there, but what we create in our own minds around it. This is an awakening in a person, an awakening to the Truth of suffering. The emphasis is on the way out of suffering through wisdom, freedom from all delusion, rather than the attainment of some blissful state or union with the Ultimate.
If somebody is being nasty to you or deliberately and malevolently trying to cause you to suffer, you still have not understand this First Noble Truth. To understand suffering is to see clearly that it is our reaction to the pain inflicted that is suffering. There are many times in daily life when we can be offended or upset. We can feel annoyed or irritated just by the way somebody walks or looks. The person has not really harmed you or done anything to you, but you still suffer. We work with the little dissatisfactions in the ordinariness of life. We look at the way we can be hurt and offended or annoyed and irritated by the neighbours, by the people we live with, by the Prime Minister, by the way things are or by ourselves. We know that this suffering should be understood.
With mindfulness, we are willing to bear with the whole of life; with the excitement and the boredom, the hope and the despair, the pleasure and the pain, the fascination and the weariness, the beginning and the ending, the birth and the death. We are willing to accept the whole of it in the mind rather than absorb into just the pleasant and suppress the unpleasant. The process of insight is the going to suffering, looking at suffering, admitting suffering, recognising suffering in all its forms. Then you are no longer just reaching in the habitual way of indulgence or suppression. And because of that, you can bear with suffering more; you can be more patient with it.
So these are the three aspects of the First Noble Truth. This is the formula that we must use and apply in reflection on our lives. Whenever you feel suffering, first make the recognition: “There is suffering”. Then: “It should be understood”, and finally: “It has been understood”.
The Second Noble Truth
The Second Noble Truth states that there is an origin of suffering and that the origin of suffering is attachment to the three kinds of desire: desire to sense pleasure, desire to become, and desire to get rid of.
The first desire is wanting sense pleasures through the body or the other senses and always seeking things to excite or please your senses. When you are eating, if you are hungry and the food tastes delicious, you can be aware of wanting to take another bite. Notice that feeling when you are tasting something pleasant; and notice how you want more of it.
We also contemplate the feeling of wanting to become something. But if there is ignorance, then when we are not seeking something delicious to eat or some beautiful music to listen to, we can be caught in a realm of ambition and attainment – the desire to become. We get caught in that movement of striving to become happy, seeking to become wealthy; or we might attempt to make our life feel important by endeavouring to make the world right. So note this sense of wanting to become something other rather than what you are right now.
When we get disillusioned with trying to become something, then there is the desire to get rid of things. ‘I want to get rid of my suffering; I want to get rid of my anger; I want to get rid of jealousy, fear and anxiety.’ We are actually contemplating that within ourselves, which wants to get rid of things. We should be just reflecting, ‘It is like this.’ We should not be taking a stand against the desire, nor should we be encouraging the desire.
Letting go of the desire should not become another desire. You have an insight that desire should be let go of, but that insight is not a desire to let go of anything. It is not about identifying with desire in any way; it is about recognising desire. This is not about hating oneself for having such thoughts and desires, but really about seeing that these are conditioned into the mind. They are impermanent. Desire is not what we are but it is a way we tend to react out of ignorance when we have not understood these Four Noble Truths.
Usually we equate suffering with feeling, but feeling is not suffering. It is the grasping of desire that is suffering. Desire does not cause suffering; the cause of suffering is the grasping of desire. You really have to investigate desire and know it for what it is. You have to know what is natural and necessary for survival and what is not necessary for survival. Once there is that clarity and seeing in the right way, then there is no suffering. You may still feel hunger. You can still need food without it becoming a desire. Food is a natural need of the body. The body is not self; it needs food otherwise it will get very weak and die. That is the nature of the body; there is nothing wrong with that.
When you really see the origin of suffering, you realise that the problem is the grasping of desire, not the desire itself. Grasping means being deluded by it, thinking it’s really ‘me’ and ‘mine’. These desires are me and there is something wrong with me for having them. So, listen to it with bare attention, not saying it’s good or bad, but merely recognising it for what it is.
If we contemplate desires and listen to them, we are actually no longer attaching to them; we are just allowing them to be the way they are. Then we come to the realisation that the origin of suffering, desire, can be laid aside and let go of. This means you leave them as they are. It does not mean you annihilate them or throw them away. It is more like setting them down and letting them be.
The way to do this is always working with the movement of daily life. When you are feeling depressed and negative, just the moment that you refuse to indulge in that feeling is an enlightenment experience. When you see that, you need not sink into the sea of depression and despair and wallow in it. You can actually stop by learning not to give things a second thought. You have to find this out through practice so that you will know for yourself how to let go of the origin of suffering. You have to contemplate the experience of letting go and really examine and investigate until the insight comes. Keep with it until that insight comes. This does not mean that you are going to let go of desire forever but, at that one moment, you actually have let go and you have done it in full conscious awareness. There is an insight then. This is what we call insight knowledge.
It is not a matter of analysing and endlessly making more of a problem about them, but of practising that state of leaving things alone, letting go of them. At first, you let go but then you pick them up again because the habit of grasping is so strong. But at least you have the idea. The more you begin to see how to do it, then the more you are able to sustain the state of non-attachment.
It is important to know when you have let go of desire; when you no longer judge or try to get rid of it; when you recognise that it’s just the way it is. When you are really calm and peaceful, then you will find that there is no attachment to anything. You are not caught up trying to get something or trying to get rid of something. Well-being is just knowing things as they are without feeling the necessity to pass judgement upon them.
Our suffering comes from the attachment that we have to ideals, and the complexities we create about the way things are. We are never what we should be according to our highest ideals. Life, others, the country we are in, the world we live in – things never seem to be what they should be. Listen to all the ‘shoulds’ and should nots’ and the desires. It is like listening to somebody talking over the fence complaining about anything and everything. Really take time to listen to the complaining mind; bring it into consciousness.
The more we contemplate and investigate grasping, the more insight arises: “Desire should be let go of”. Then, through the practice and understanding of what letting go really is, we have the third insight into the Second Noble Truth, which is: “Desire has been let go of”. We actually know letting go.
The Third Noble Truth
The whole aim of the Buddhist teaching is to develop the reflective mind in order to let go of delusions. We reflect as we see suffering, as we see the nature of desire, as we recognise that attachment to desire is suffering. Then we have the insight of allowing desire to go and the realisation of non-suffering, the cessation of suffering. These insights can only come through reflection; they cannot come through belief. You cannot make yourself believe or realise an insight as a wilful act. Through really contemplating and pondering these truths, the insights come to you. They come only through the mind being open and receptive to the teaching. Blind belief is certainly not advised or expected of anyone. Instead, the mind should be willing to be receptive, pondering and considering.
This mental state is very important – it is the way out of suffering. It is not the mind which has fixed views and prejudices and thinks it knows it all or which just takes what other people say is the truth. It is the mind that is open to these Four Noble Truths and can reflect upon something that we can see within our own mind.
People rarely realise non-suffering because it takes a special kind of willingness in order to ponder and investigate and get beyond the gross and the obvious. It takes a willingness to actually look at your own reactions, to be able to see the attachments and to contemplate; “What does attachment feel like?”
‘All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.’ Apply it to life in general, to your own experience. Then you will understand. Just note: beginning …. ending. Contemplate how things are. This sensory realm is all about arising and ceasing, beginning and ending, there can be perfect understanding in this lifetime.
Rather than just developing a method of tranquillising your mind, which certainly is one part of the practice, really see that proper meditation is a commitment to wise investigation. It involves a courageous effort to look deeply into things, not analysing yourself and making judgements about why you suffer on a personal level, but resolving to really follow the path until you have profound understanding. Such perfect understanding is based upon the pattern of arising and ceasing. If you profoundly understand and know that all that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing, then you will realise the ultimate reality, the deathless, immortal truths.
Sense pleasures are all mortal pleasures. So when we attach to the mortal senses, we attach to death. If we have not contemplated or understood it, we just attach blindly to mortality hoping we can stave it off for a while. At best, we might succeed in becoming what we want, but that too is mortal.
Death of the mind is despair; depression is a kind of death experience of the mind. Mental states and mental conditions die; we call it despair, boredom, depression and anguish. We are blinded, caught in this becoming process on the sensual plane. But through knowing desire without judging the beauty or ugliness of the sensual plane, we come to see desire as it is. There is knowing. Then, by laying aside these desires rather than grasping at them, we experience the cessation of suffering.
Before you can let things go you have to admit them into full consciousness. In meditation, our aim is to skilfully allow the subconscious to arise into consciousness. All the despair, fears, anguish, suppression and anger is allowed to become conscious. There is a tendency in people to hold to very high-minded ideals. We can become very disappointed in ourselves because sometimes we feel we are not as good as we should be or we should not feel angry – all the shoulds and shouldn’ts. Then we create desire to get rid of the bad things, and this desire has a righteous quality. It seems right to get rid of bad thoughts, anger and jealousy because a good person ‘should not be like that’. Thus we create guilt.
In reflecting on this, we bring into consciousness the desire to become this ideal and the desire to get rid of these bad things. And by doing that, we can let go, so that rather than becoming the perfect person, you let go of the desire. What is left is the pure mind. There is no need to become the perfect person because the pure mind is where perfect people arise and cease.
Cessation is easy to understand on an intellectual level, but to realise it may be quite difficult because this entails abiding with what we think we cannot bear. To allow this process of cessation to work, we must be willing to suffer. This is why I stress the importance of patience. We have to open our minds to suffering because it is in embracing suffering that suffering ceases. When we find that we are suffering, physically or mentally, then we go to the actual suffering that is present. We open completely to it, welcome it, concentrate on it, allowing it to be what it is. That means we must be patient and bear with the unpleasantness of a particular condition. We have to endure boredom, despair, doubt and fear in order to understand that they cease rather than running away from them.
As long as we do not allow things to cease, we just create new karma that just reinforces our habits. When something arises, we grasp it and proliferate around it, and this complicates everything. Then these things will be repeated and repeated throughout our lives. We cannot go around following our desires and fears and expect to realise peace. We contemplate fear and desire so that these do not delude us anymore. We have to know what is deluding us before we can let go of it. Desire and fear are to be known as impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self.
It is very important here to differentiate between cessation and annihilation, the desire that comes into the mind to get rid of something. Cessation is the natural ending of any condition that has arisen. So it is not desire! It is not something that we create in the mind but it is the end of that which began, the death of that which is born. Therefore, cessation is not a self; it does not come about from a sense of ‘I have to get rid of things’ but when we allow that which has arisen to cease. To do that one has to abandon craving. Let it go. It does not mean rejecting or throwing away but abandoning means letting go of it.
Then, when it has ceased, you experience cessation, emptiness, non-attachment. When you have let something go and allowed it to cease, then what is left is peace.
If we do not allow cessation, then we tend to operate from assumptions we make about ourselves without even knowing what we are doing. Sometimes, it is not until we start meditating that we begin to realise how in our lives so much fear and lack of confidence come from childhood experiences. The rational mind knows that it is ridiculous to go around thinking about the tragedies of childhood. But if they keep coming up into consciousness when you are middle-aged, maybe they are trying to tell you something about assumptions that were formed when you were a child. When you feel memories or obsessive fears coming up in meditation, rather than becoming frustrated or upset by them, see them as something to be accepted into consciousness so that you can let them go. You can arrange your daily life so that you never have to look at these things, then the conditions for them to actually arise are minimal. You dedicate yourself to a lot of important causes and keep busy; then these anxieties and nameless fears never become conscious. But when you let go, the desire or obsession moves to cessation. It ends! And then you have the insight that there is the cessation of desire.
Don’t think of it as something remote or beyond your ability. We can pay attention to the way it is, here and now, at this time and this place. That’s mindfulness, being alert and bringing attention to the way it is. Through mindfulness, we investigate the sense of self, this sense of me and mine.
When there is arrogance, conceit or self-disparagement, examine it, listen inwardly. Be aware and attentive to the space before you think it. Then think it and notice the space that follows. Sustain your attention on that emptiness at the end and see how long you can hold your attention on it. See if you can hear a kind of ringing sound in the mind, the sound of silence, the primordial sound. When you concentrate your attention on that, you can reflect: “Is there any sense in self?” You see that when you are really empty – when there’s just clarity, alertness and attention – there’s no self. There’s no sense of me and mine.
In emptiness, things are just what they are. When we are aware in this way, it doesn’t mean that we are indifferent to success or failure and that we don’t bother to do anything. We can apply ourselves. We know what we can do; we know what has to be done and we can do it in the right way. We do things because that is the right thing to be doing at this time and in this place rather than out of a sense of personal ambition or fear of failure.
The path to cessation of suffering is the path of perfection. Perfection can be a rather daunting word because we feel very imperfect. As personalities, we wonder how we can dare to even entertain the possibility of being perfect. Human perfection is something no one ever talks about. It doesn’t seem at all possible to think of perfection in regard to being human. There is, however, no need to know everything about everything; it is only necessary to know and fully understand the basic law of life. People may arise and cease in the emptiness, but there is no person. There is just clarity, awareness, peacefulness and purity.
The Fourth Noble Truth
These are the elements of the Eightfold Path, grouped in three sections:
The fact that we list them in order does not mean that they happen in a linear way, in sequence. They arise together.
The first element of the Eightfold Path is Right Understanding, which arises through insights into the first three Noble Truths. If you have those insights, then there is perfect understanding. Insight is really gut knowledge; it’s not just from ideas. Insight knowledge is not from the brain, it is profound.
With Right Understanding, you have given up the illusion of a self that is connected to mortal conditions. There is still the body, there are still feelings and thoughts, but they simply are what they are. There is no longer the belief that you are your body or your feelings or your thoughts.
When we reflect, we contemplate our own humanity as it is. We don’t take it on a personal level anymore or blame anyone because things are not exactly as we like or want. It is the way it is and we are the way we are. You might ask why we can’t all be exactly the same, with the same anger, the same greed and the same ignorance, without all the variations and permutations. However, even though you can trace human experience to basic things, each one of us has our own karma to deal with, our own obsessions and tendencies, which are always different in quality and quantity to those of someone else.
We are conscious, intelligent beings with retentive memory. What we need to do is figure out how to use our capacities as tools for realisation rather than as personal acquisitions or personal problems. People who develop their discriminative intelligence often end up turning it upon themselves. They become very self-critical and even begin to hate themselves. This is because our discriminative faculties tend to focus upon what is wrong with everything. That is what discrimination is about; seeing how this is different from that. When you do that to yourself, what do you end up with? Just a whole list of flaws and faults that make you sound absolutely hopeless.
When we are developing Right Understanding, we use our intelligence for reflection and contemplation of things. We also use our mindfulness, being open to the way it is. When we reflect in this way, we are using mindfulness and wisdom together. So now we are using our ability to discriminate with wisdom rather than with ignorance.
Sometimes this is translated as ‘Right Thought’, thinking in the right way. However, it actually has more of a dynamic quality, like ‘intention’, ‘attitude’, or ‘aspiration’.
It is important to see that aspiration is not desire. Aspiration might seem like a kind of desire to us because in English we use the word ‘desire’ for everything of that nature, either aspiring or wanting. It is not wanting to become anything. It is not the desire to become an enlightened person.
Aspiration is a feeling, intention, attitude or movement within us. Our spirit rises, it does not sink downwards; it is not desperation. When there is Right Understanding, we aspire to truth, beauty and goodness.
If we were content, we would not wonder about things. Yet we do recognise that there is something more than just the ground under our feet. There is something above us that we cannot quite understand. We have the ability to wonder and ponder about life, to contemplate its meaning. If you want to know the meaning of your life, you cannot be content with material wealth, comfort and security alone.
So we aspire to know the truth. You might think that that is a kind of presumptuous desire or aspiration. Why do we have it if it is not possible? Consider the concept of ultimate reality. An absolute or ultimate truth is a very refined concept; the idea of God, the Deathless or the immortal, is actually a very refined thought. We aspire to know that ultimate reality. The animal side of us does not aspire; it does not know anything about such aspirations. But there is in each of us an intuitive intelligence that wants to know; it is always with us but we tend to not notice it. We do not understand it. We tend to discard or mistrust it, especially modern materialists.
When you are innocent, your mind is very intuitive. The mind of a child is more intuitively in touch with mysterious forces than most adult minds are. As we grow up we become conditioned to think in very set ways and to have fixed ideas about what is real and what is not. As we develop our egos, society dictates what is real and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, and we begin to interpret the world through those fixed perceptions.
Meditation is a way to deconditioning the mind, which helps us to let go of all the hard-line views and fixed ideas we have. Ordinarily, what is real is dismissed while what is not real is given all our attention. This is what ignorance is.
The contemplation of our human aspiration connects us to something higher than just the animal kingdom or the plant earth. When we ponder and wonder about this universe we are living in, we see that it is very vast, mysterious and incomprehensible to us. However, when we trust more in our intuitive mind, we can be receptive to things that we may have forgotten or have never been open to before. We are even willing to kill each other over fixed conditioned views that we hold and believe in and never question. Without Right Aspiration and Right Understanding we never see the true nature of these views.
RIGHT SPEECH, RIGHT ACTION, RIGHT LIVELIHOOD
This means taking responsibility for our speech and being careful about what we do with our bodies.
If you do or say things that are unkind or cruel there is always an immediate result. In the past, you might have been able to get away with lying by distracting yourself, going on to something else so that you didn’t have to think about it. You could forget all about things for a while until eventually they’d come back to your consciousness, but when we practise the moral aspect of the Eightfold Path, things seem to come back right away. When you are aware, the effect of even the slightest lie or gossip is immediate because you are completely open, vulnerable and sensitive. So then you are careful about what you do. You realise that it’s important to be responsible for what you do and say.
The impulse to help someone is a natural universal phenomenon. If you do it with an empty mind, not out of any personal desire for gain but just out of compassion and because it’s the right thing to do, then it is simple and natural. But if you do it out of a desire to gain merit and to impress other people or because the person is rich and you expect some reward for your action, then you’re making a personal connection to it, and this reinforces the sense of self. When we do good works out of mindfulness and wisdom rather than out of ignorance, they are part of the universe without personal karma.
Right Livelihood is something that is developed as you come to know your intentions for what you do. You can try to avoid deliberately harming other creatures or earning a living in a harmful, unkind way. You can also try to avoid livelihood which may cause other people to become addicted to drugs or drink or which might endanger the ecological balance of the planet. We begin to feel that we want to live in a way that is a blessing to this planet or, at least, that does not harm it.
RIGHT EFFORT, RIGHT MINDFULNESS, RIGHT CONCENTRATION
When we think of the spirit, we point to the centre of the chest, to the heart. We have Wisdom (the head), Morality (the body) and Concentration (the heart). These three are integrated, working together for realisation and supporting each other like a tripod. One is not dominating the other and exploiting or rejecting anything.
Serenity is where the emotions are balanced, supporting each other. They are not going up and down. There’s a sense of bliss, of serenity; there is perfect harmony between the intellect, the instincts and the emotions. They’re mutually supportive, helping each other. They’re no longer conflicting or taking us to extremes and, because of that, we begin to feel a tremendous peacefulness in our minds. There is a sense of ease and fearlessness coming from the Eightfold Path, a sense of equanimity and emotional balance. We feel at ease rather than that sense of anxiety, that tension and emotional conflict. There is clarity, there is peacefulness, stillness, knowing.
Aspects of Meditation
This reflectiveness of mind or emotional balance is developed as a result of practising concentration and mindfulness meditation. Concentrate your mind on one object, say the sensation of breathing. Keep bringing it into consciousness and sustain it so that it actually has a continuity of presence in the mid. In this way, you are moving towards what is going on in your own body rather than being pulled out into objects of the senses. If you do not have any refuge within, then you are constantly going out, being absorbed into books, food and all sorts of distractions. But this endless movement of the mind is very exhausting. So instead, the practice becomes one of observing the breath, which means that you have to withdraw or not follow the tendency to find something outside of yourself. You have to bring your attention to the breathing of your own body and concentrate the mind on that sensation. Whatever you absorb into, you become that for a period of time. When you really concentrate, you have become that very tranquilised condition. You have become tranquil.
But that tranquillity, if you investigate it, is not satisfactory tranquillity. There is something missing in it because it is dependent on a technique, on being attached and holding on, on something that still begins and ends. What you become, you can only become temporarily because becoming is a changing thing. It is not a permanent condition. So whatever you become, you will unbecome. It is not ultimate reality. No matter how high you might go in concentration, it will always be an unsatisfactory condition.
Then, if you practise vipassana meditation for another hour by just being mindful and letting go of everything and accepting the uncertainty, the silence and the cessation of conditions, the result is that you will feel peaceful rather than tranquil. And that peacefulness is a perfect peacefulness. It is complete. It is not the tranquillity of the imperfect or unsatisfactory state. The realisation of cessation, as you develop that and understand that more and more, brings you true peacefulness, non-attachment, Nirvana.
Rationality and Emotion
If you love rational thought and are attached to ideas and perceptions, then you tend to despise the emotions. You don’t like to be feeling anything because you can get into a kind of high from the purity of intelligence and the pleasure of rational thinking. The mind relishes the way it is logical and controllable, the way it makes sense. It is just so clean and neat and precise like mathematics, but the emotions are all over the place, aren’t they? They are not precise; they are not neat and they can easily get out of control.
If you are very attached to rational thought, then you tend to dismiss emotions with logic, but emotions do not respond to logic. Often they react to logic, but they do not respond. Emotion is a very sensitive thing and it works in a way that we sometimes do not comprehend. If we have never really studied or tried to understand what it is to feel life, and really opened and allowed ourselves to be sensitive, then emotional things are very frightening and embarrassing to us. We don’t know what they are all about because we have rejected that side of ourselves.
Western society does not allow you to develop emotionally, to mature. It does not understand that need at all, so it does not provide any rites of passage for men. The society does not provide that kind of introduction into a mature world; you are expected to be immature your whole life. You are supposed to act mature, but you are not expected to be mature. Therefore, very few people are. Emotions are not really understood or resolved. Their childhood tendencies are merely suppressed rather than developed into maturity.
What meditation does is to offer a chance to mature on the emotional plane. Perfect emotional maturity comprises Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. It’s present when one is caught in fluctuations and vicissitudes, where one has balance and clarity and is able to be receptive and sensitive.
Things as They are
With Right Effort, there can be a cool kind of acceptance of a situation rather than the panic that comes from thinking that it’s up to me to set everybody straight, make everything right and solve everybody’s problems. We do the best we can, but we also realise that it’s not up to us to do everything and make everything right.
Sometimes situations in our life are just the way they are. There’s nothing one can do so we allow them to be that way; even if they get worse, we allow them to get worse. But it’s not a fatalistic or negative thing we’re doing; it’s a kind of patience, being willing to bear with something, allowing it to change naturally rather than egotistically trying to prop everything up and cleaning it all up out of our aversion and distaste for a mess.
Then, when people push out buttons, we’re not always offended, hurt or upset by the things that happen, or shattered and destroyed by the things that people say or do. With reflection, you can see that the world is like this; it’s a sensitive place. It is not always going to soothe you and make you feel happy, secure and positive. Life is full of things that can offend, hurt, wound or shatter. This is life. It is this way.
When you contemplate this way, it is not that you are trying not to feel. When someone talks to you in an unkind tone of voice, it’s not that you don’t feel it at all. We are not trying to be insensitive. Rather, we are trying not to give it the wrong interpretation, not to take it on a personal level. Having balanced emotions means that people can say things that are offensive and you can take it. You have the balance and emotional strength not to be offended, wounded or shattered by what happens in life.
When there is Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, then one is fearless.
There is fearlessness because there is nothing to be frightened of. One has the guts to look at things and not take them the wrong way. One has the wisdom to contemplate and reflect upon life. One has the security and confidence of morality, the strength of one’s moral commitment and the determination to do good and refrain from doing evil with body and speech. In this way, the whole thing holds together as a path for development. It is a perfect path because everything is helping and supporting; the body, the emotional nature (the sensitivity of feeling), and the intelligence. They are all in perfect harmony, supporting each other.
Without that harmony, our instinctual nature can go all over the place. If we have no moral commitment, then our instincts can take control. For example, if we just follow sexual desire without any reference to morality, then we become caught up in all kinds of things that cause self-aversion. There is adultery, promiscuity and disease, and all the disruption and confusion that come from not reining in our instinctual nature through the limitations of morality.
We can use our intelligence to cheat and lie. But when we have a moral foundation, we are guided by wisdom, leading to emotional balance and emotional strength. Yet, we don’t use wisdom to suppress sensitivity. We don’t dominate our emotions by thinking and by suppressing our emotional nature.
However, in the practice of mindfulness through vipassana meditation, the mind is totally receptive and open so that it has this fullness and an all-embracing quality. And because it is open, your mind is also reflective. When you concentrate on a point, your mind is no longer reflective; it is absorbed into the quality of that object. The reflective ability of the mind comes through mindfulness, whole-mindedness. You are not filtering out or selecting. You are just noting whatever arises ceases. You contemplate that if you are attached to anything that arises, it ceases. You have the experience that even though it might be attractive while it is arising, it changes towards cessation. Then its attractiveness diminishes and we have to find something else to absorb into.
The thing about being human is that we have to touch the earth. We have to accept the limitations of this human form and planetary life. And just by doing that, then the way out of suffering isn’t through getting out of our human experience by living in refined conscious states, but by embracing the totality of all human and God-like realms through mindfulness. In this way, the Buddha pointed to a total realisation rather than a temporary escape through refinement and beauty. This is what the Buddha means when he is pointing the way to Nirvana.
Based on the Teachings of Venerable Ajahn Sumedho