Only One Breath

Ajahn Sumedho



This morning I was talking to Venerable Subbato and he was saying he never has developed anapanasati, mindfulness of the breath. So I said, 'Can you be mindful of one inhalation?' And he said, 'Oh yes.' 'And of one exhalation?' And he said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'Got it!'

There's nothing more to it than that. However, one tends to expect to develop some special kind of ability to go into some special state. And because we don't do that, then we think we can't do it.

But the way of the spiritual life is through renunciation, relinquishment, letting go not through attaining or acquiring. Even the jhanas [1] are relinquishments rather than attainments. If we relinquish more and more, letting go more and more, then the jhanic states are natural.

The attitude is most important. To practise anapanasati, one brings the attention onto one inhalation, being mindful from the beginning to the end. One inhalation, that's it; and then the same goes for the exhalation. That's the perfect attainment of anapanasati. The awareness of just that much, is the result of concentration of the mind through sustained attention on the breath. From the beginning to the end of the inhalation, from the beginning to the end of the exhalation. The attitude is always one of letting go, not attaching to any ideas or feelings that arise from that, so that you're always fresh with the next inhalation, the next exhalation, completely as it is. You're not carrying over anything. So it's a way of relinquishment, of letting go, rather than of attaining and achieving.

The dangers in meditation practice is the habit of grasping at things, grasping at states; so the concept that's most useful is the concept of letting go, rather than of attaining and achieving. If you say today that yesterday you had a really super meditation, absolutely fantastic, just what you've always dreamed of, and then today you try to get the same wonderful experience as yesterday, but you get more restless and more agitated than ever before - now why is that? Why can't we get what we want? It's because we're trying to attain something that we remember; rather than really working with the way things are, as they happen to be now. So the correct way is one of mindfulness, of looking at the way it is now, rather than remembering yesterday and trying to get to that state again.

The first year I meditated I didn't have a teacher. I was in this little kuti [2] in Nong Khai for about ten months, and I had all kinds of blazing insights. Being alone for ten months, not having to talk, not having to go anywhere, everything calmed down after several months, and then I thought I was a fully enlightened person, an arahant. I was sure of it. I found out later that I wasn't.

I remember we went through a famine in Nong Khai that year and we didn't get very much to eat. I had malnutrition, so I thought, 'Maybe malnutrition's the answer. If I just starve myself....' I remember being so weak with malnutrition at Nong Khai that my earlobes started cracking open. When I'd fall asleep I'd have to pry my eyelids open; they'd be stuck shut with the stuff that comes out of your eyelids when you're not feeling very well.

Then one day this Canadian monk brought me three cans of tinned milk. In Asia they have tinned sweetened milk and it's very very delicious. And he also brought me some instant coffee, and a flask of hot water. So I made a cup of this: put in a bit of coffee, poured in some of this milk, poured hot water and started drinking it. And I just went crazy. It was so utterly delicious, the first time I had anything sweet in weeks, or anything stimulating. And being malnourished and being in a very dull tired apathetic state, this was like high-octane petrol - whoomph! Immediately I gulped that down - I couldn't stop myself - and I managed to consume all three tins of milk and a good portion of that coffee. And my mind actually went flying into outer space, or it seemed like it, and I thought, 'Maybe that's the secret. If I can just get somebody to buy me tinned milk.'

When I went to Wat Pah Pong the following year I kept thinking, 'Oh, I had all those wonderful experiences in Nong Khai. I had all those wonderful kind of beautiful visions, and all those fantastic kind of floating experiences and blazing insights, and it seemed like I understood everything. And you even thought you were an arahant.' At Wat Pah Pong, that first year there, I didn't have much of anything. I just kept trying to do all the things I'd done in Nong Khai to get these things. But after a while, even using strong cups of coffee didn't work any more. I didn't seem to get those exhilarations, those fantastic highs and blazing insights, that I had the first year. So after the first Vassa [3] at Wat Pah Pong, I thought, 'This place is not for me. I think I'll go and try to do repeat what happened in Nong Khai.' And I left Ajahn Chah and went to live on Pupek mountain in Sakorn Nakorn province.

There, at last, I was in an idyllic spot. However, for the alms-round there you had to leave before dawn and go down this mountain, which was quite a climb, and wait for the villagers to come. They'd bring you food, and then you had to climb all the way back up, and eat this food before twelve noon. That was quite a problem.

I was with one other monk, a Thai monk, and I thought, 'He's really very good,' and I was quite impressed with him. But when we were on this mountain, he wanted me to teach him English - so I was really angry with him and wanted to murder him.

It was in an area where there was a lot of terrorists and communists, in North-East Thailand. There were helicopters flying overhead sometimes checking us out. Once they came and took me down to the provincial town, wondering whether I was a communist spy.

Then I got violently ill, so ill that they had to carry me down the mountain. I was stuck in a wretched place by a reservoir under a tin roof in the hot season with insects buzzing in and out of my ears and orifices. With horrible food. I nearly died, come to think of it. I almost didn't make it.

But it was during that time in that tin-roof lean-to that a real change took place. I was really despairing and sick and weak and totally depressed, and my mind would fall into these hellish realms, with the terrible heat and discomfort. I felt like I was being cooked; it was like torture.

Then a change came. Suddenly, I just stopped my mind; I refused to get caught in that negativity and I started to practise anapanasati. I used the breath to concentrate my mind and things changed very quickly. After that, I recovered my health and it was time to enter the next Vassa, so I went back - I'd promised Ajahn Chah I'd go back to Wat Pah Pong for the Vassa - and my robes were all tattered and torn and patched. I looked terrible. When Ajahn Chah saw me, he just burst out laughing. And I was so glad to get back after all that!

I had been trying to practise and what I had wanted were the memories of these insights. I'd forgotten what the insights really were. I was so attached to the idea of working in some kind of ascetic way, like I did the first year, when asceticism really worked. At that time being malnourished and being alone had seemed to provide me with insight, so that for the following several years I kept trying to create the conditions where I would be able to have these fantastic insights.

But the following two or three years seemed to be years of just getting by. Nothing much seemed to happen. I was six months on this mountain before I returned to Wat Pah Pong, just deciding to stay on and follow the insights I had. One of the insights the first year was that I should find a teacher, and that I should learn how to live under a discipline imposed on me by that teacher. So I did that. I realised Ajahn Chah was a good teacher and had a good standard of monastic discipline, so I stayed with him. Those insights that I had were right, but I'd become attached to the memory.

People get very attached to all these special things, like meditation retreats and courses where everything is under control, and everything is organised and there is total silence. Then, even though you do have insight, reflectiveness is not always there, because one is assuming that to have these insights you need those conditions.

Actually, insight is more and more a matter of living insightfully. It's not just that you have insight sometimes, but more and more as you reflect on Dhamma, then everything is insightful. You see insightfully into life as it's happening to you. As soon as you think you have to have special conditions for it, and you're not aware of that, then you're going to create all sorts of complexities about your practice.

So I developed letting go: to not concern myself with attaining or achieving anything. I decided to make little achievements possible by learning to be a little more patient, a little more humble, and a little more generous. I decided to develop this: rather than go out of my way to control and manipulate the environment with the intention of setting myself up in the hope of getting high. It became apparent, through reflection, that the attachment to the insights was the problem. The insights were valid insights, but there was attachment to the memory.

Then the insight came that you let go of all your insights. You don't attach to them. You just keep letting go of all the insights you have, because otherwise they become memories, and then memories are conditions of the mind and, if you attach to them, they can only take you to despair.

In each moment it's as it is. With anapanasati, one inhalation, at this moment, is this way. It's not like yesterday's inhalation was. You're not thinking of yesterday's inhalation and yesterday's exhalation while you're doing the one now. You're with it completely, as it is; so you establish that. The reflective ability is based on establishing your awareness in the way it is now, rather than having some idea of what you'd like to get, and then trying to get it in the here and now. Trying to get yesterday's blissful feeling in the here and now means you're not aware of the way it is now. You're not with it. Even with anapanasatiif you're doing it with the hope of getting the result that you had yesterday, that will make it impossible for that result to ever happen.

Last winter, Venerable Vipassi was meditating in the shrine room and someone was making quite distracting noises. Talking to Venerable Vipassi about it, I was quite impressed, because he said first he felt annoyed and then he decided the noises would be part of the practice. So, he opened his mind to the meditation hall with everything in it - the noises, the silence, the whole thing. That's wisdom, isn't it? If the noise is something you can stop - like a door banging in the wind - go close the door. If there's something you have control over, you can do that.

But much of life you have no control over. You have no right to ask everything to be silent for 'my' meditation. When there is reflectiveness, instead of having a little mind that has to have total silence and special conditions, you have a big mind that can contain the whole of it: the noises, the disruptions, the silence, the bliss, the restlessness, the pain. The mind is all-embracing rather than specialising on a certain refinement in consciousness. Then you develop flexibility, because you can concentrate your mind.

This is where wisdom is needed for real development. It's through wisdom that we develop it, not through willpower or controlling or manipulating environmental conditions; getting rid of the things we don't want and trying to set ourselves up so that we can follow this desire to achieve and attain.

Desire is insidious. When we are aware that our intention is to attain some state, that's a desire, isn't it? So we let it go. If we are sitting here, even with a desire to attain the first jhana, we recognise that that desire is going to be the very thing that's going to prevent the fulfilment. So we let of the desire, which doesn't mean not to do anapanasati, but to change the attitude to it.

So what can we do now? Develop mindfulness of one inhalation. Most of us can do that; most human beings have enough concentration to be concentrated from the beginning of an inhalation to the end of it. But even if your concentration span is so weak you can't even make it to the end, that's all right. At least you can get to the middle, maybe. That's better than if you gave up totally or never tried at all, isn't it? Because at least you're composing the mind for one second, and that's the beginning: to learn to compose and collect the mind around one thing, like the breath, and sustain it just for the length of one inhalation; if not, then half an inhalation, or a quarter, or whatever. At least you have started, and you must try to develop a mind that's glad at just being able to do that much, rather than being critical because you haven't attained the first jhana, or the fourth.

If meditation becomes another thing you have to do, and you feel guilty if you don't live up to your resolutions, then you start pushing yourself without an awareness of what you're doing. Then life does get quite dreary and depressing. But if you are putting that skilful kind of attention into your daily life, you'll find so much of daily life very pleasant - which you may not notice if you are caught in your compulsions and obsessions. If we act with compulsiveness it becomes a burden, a grind. Then we drag ourselves around doing what we have to do in a heedless and negative way. But being able to be in the countryside - the trees, the fields. However we have this time for a retreat - we can sit and walk; we don't have a lot to do. The morning chanting, the evening chanting can be extremely pleasant for us, when we're open to it. People are offering the food. The meal is quite a lovely thing. People are eating mindfully and quietly. When we're doing it out of habit and compulsion then it gets to be a drag. And a lot of things that are quite pleasant in themselves are no longer pleasant. We can't enjoy them when we're coming from compulsiveness, heedlessness, and ambition. Those are the kinds of driving forces that destroy the joy and the wonder of our lives.

Sustaining your attention on the breathing really develops awareness but when you get lost in thought or restlessness, that's all right too. Don't drive yourself. Don't be a slave driver or beat yourself with a whip and drive yourself in a nasty way. Lead, guide and train yourself; leading onward, guide yourself rather than driving and forcing yourself. Nibbana is a subtle realisation of non-grasping. You can't drive yourself to Nibbana. That's the sure way of never realising it. It's here and now, so if you're driving yourself to Nibbana, you're always going far away from it, driving right over it.

It's pretty heavy, sometimes, to burn up attachments in our mind. The Holy Life is a holocaust, a total burning, a burning up of self, of ignorance. A diamond is a symbol of the purity that comes from the holocaust; something that went through such fires that what was left was purity. And so that's why in our life here there has to be this willingness to burn away the self-views, the opinions, the desires, the restlessness, the greed, all of it, the whole of it, so that there's nothing but purity remaining. Then when there is purity, there is nobody, no thing, there's that, the 'suchness'.

And let go of that. More and more the path is just the simple being here and now, being with the way things are. There's nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to become, nothing to get rid of. Because of the holocaust, there is no ignorance remaining; there is purity, clarity and intelligence.


[1] jhanas: these are refined states of mind-consciousness experienced through meditative absorption.

[2] kuti: a very simple unfurnished wooden hut that serves as a dwelling for a Buddhist monk or nun

[3] Vassa: the traditional three-month Rains Retreat undertaken each year in Buddhist monasteries. It is generally a time of heightened attention to matters of training and spiritual instruction.



Source: http://www.budsas.org/ebud/ebmed087.htm


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