Polishing the Mind


Bhikkhu Thanissaro

(Geoffrey DeGraff)

November 9, 1996

 For free distribution only, as a gift of Dhamma


The Buddha teaches that there are two sides to the path of practice: the side of developing and the side of letting go. And itís important that you see the practice in both perspectives, that your practice contains both sides. If you practice just letting go, youíll throw away the baby with the bath water. Everything good will get thrown out because you let go of everything and leave nothing left. On the other hand, if yours is just a practice of developing and working and doing, you miss the things that happen on their own, that happen when you do let go.

So an important part of the practice is realizing which is which. This is what discernment is all about, realizing which qualities in the mind are skillful, the ones that are your friends, and which qualities are unskillful, the ones that are your enemies. The ones that are your friends are those that help make your knowledge clearer, make you see things more clearlyóthings like mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, together with the qualities they depend on: virtue, morality, persistence. These are the good guys in the mind. These are the ones you have to nurture, the ones you have to work at. If you don't work at them, they wonít come on their own.

Some people think that practice is simply a matter of letting the mind go with its own flow, but the flow of the mind tends to flow down, just as water flows downhill, which is why the mind needs to be trained. In training the mind, weíre not creating the unconditioned or unfabricated in the mind. Itís more like polishing wood. The grain is already there in the wood but, unless you polish it, it doesnít shimmer, it doesnít shine. If you want to see the beauty of the grain, you have to polish it, to work at it. You donít create the grain, but the polishing is what brings out the grain already there. If you don't polish it, it doesnít have the same shimmer, it doesnít have the same beauty as it does when itís polished.

So practicing the Buddhaís path is like polishing away at the mind to see whatís of real value there within the mind. Thatís what the mindfulness, the persistence, the ardency, and all the other terms the Buddha uses that suggest effort and exertion: Thatís what theyíre for. This is why we have rules in the practice: rules in terms of the precepts, rules for the monks to follow. They provide work for the mind, and itís good work. Theyíre not just "make-work" rules. When you hold by the rules, when you hold by the precepts, the result is that you learn an awful lot about the mind at the same time youíre making life a lot easier for yourself and the people around you. In the beginning it may seem harder to have the rules to follow, but once you start living by them, they open up all kinds of possibilities that werenít there before when everything was confined by the riverbanks of your old habits, going along with the flow.

This is why there has to be effort. This is why there has to be work in the practice. As the Buddha said, right effort has four sides. Abandoning is only one of the four. Thereís also preventingópreventing unskillful things from arising. When unskillful things have arisen, those are the things you abandon. Then thereís the effort to give rise to skillful qualities, and the effort to maintain them once they are there. You develop these skillful qualities and then you keep them going so that they develop to higher and higher levels. So sometimes, when youíre reflecting on your practice, itís useful to focus on exactly what youíre developing hereóthe good qualities like mindfulness and alertness. At other times itís helpful to focus on the things you have to let go of, the things you have to work at preventing.

You see right effort very easily when doing concentration practice because you have to focus on where you want the mind to be, to be aware of where you donít want it to be, and also to be ready to fight off anything thatís going to come in to disturb your stillness of mind. When youíre focusing on your meditation topic, you pick it up and say that this is what youíre going to focus on for the next hour. By doing this youíre giving rise to skillful qualities. And then you try to keep your focus there. Youíve got to keep reminding yourself that this is what youíre doing here. Youíre not just sitting; youíre sitting here to develop the mind. So you keep your mind on the topic youíve chosen, like the breath, and then you work at bringing the mind back whenever it slips off, bringing it here, keeping it here, at the same time being aware that any moment it can slip off again. This second level of awareness is what keeps you from drifting off obliviously and then coming back to the surface five minutes later, suddenly realizing that you were off who-knows-where in the mean time. If youíre prepared for the fact that the mind can leave at any point, then you can watch for it. In other words, youíre watching both the breath and the mind, looking for the first sign that itís going to leap off onto something else. This is a heightened level of awareness that allows you to see the subtle stirrings in the mind.

The mind is often like an inchworm standing at the edge of a leaf. Even though the inchwormís back feet may still be on this leaf, its front feet are up in the air, swaying around, searching around for another leaf to land on. As soon as that other leaf comes, boomph, itís off. And so it is with the mind. If youíre not aware of the fact that itís getting ready to leave the breath, it comes as a real surprise when you realize that youíve slipped off someplace else. But when you have a sense of when the mind is beginning to get a little bit antsy and ready to move, you can do something about it.

In other words, you canít be complacent in the practice. Even if the mind seems to be staying with the breath, sometimes itís ready to move on, and youíve got to have that second level of awareness going as well so that you can be aware both of the breath and of the mind togetheróso that you have a sense of when the mind is snug with its object and when itís beginning to get a little bit loose. If you see it loosening its grip, do what you can to make it more snug. Is the breath uncomfortable? Could it be more comfortable? Could it be finer? Could it be longer, shorter, whatever? Explore it. The mind is telling you on its own that it isnít happy there anymore. It wants to move.

So look at the quality of the breath and then turn around and look at the quality of the mindóthis sense of boredom, this wanting to move. Whatís actually causing it? Sometimes it comes from the breath, and sometimes itís just a trait that arises in the mind, a trait that stirs up trouble. Try to be sensitive to whatís going on, to see whether the problem is coming from the mind or the object the mind is focused on. If itís coming from a simple sense of boredom thatís moved in, let the boredom move on. You donít have to latch onto it. You don't have to identify with it, saying that itís your boredom. As soon as you identify with the boredom, the mind has left the breath and is on the boredom. Even though the breath may be there in the background, the boredom has come into the forefront. Your inchworm has moved off to the other leaf.

So if the mind is getting antsy and saying, "Well, move. Find something new," refuse for a while and see what happens. What is the strength lying behind that need to move? Whatís giving it power? Sometimes youíll find that itís actually a physical sensation someplace in the body that youíve overlooked, so work on that. Other times itís more an attitude, the attitude that you picked up someplace that said, "Just sitting here not thinking about anything is the most stupid thing you can do. You arenít learning anything, you arenít picking up anything new. Your mind isnít being exercised." Ask yourself, "Where is that voice coming from?" Itís coming from somebody who never meditated, who didnít understand all the good things that come from being still in the present moment.

Only when the mind is really still right here can it begin to resonate with the body. When thereís a resonance between the breath and the mind, it gives rise to a much greater sense of wholeness and oneness. This is the positive aspect of the practice that you want to focus on, because if the mind is one place and the body someplace else, thereís no resonance. Itís as if they were singing two completely different tunes. But if you get them together, itís like having one chord with lots of overtones. And then you come to appreciate how, when thereís this sense of resonance between the body and mind, you begin to open up. You begin to see things in the mind and in the body that you didnít see before. Itís healing for both the body and the mind. Itís also eye-opening in the sense that the more subtle things that were there suddenly appear. You gain a sense of appreciation for this, that this is a very important thing to do with the mind. The mind needs this for its own sanity, for its own health.

So when the mind starts getting antsy and wants to move around and think about things and analyze things, and it starts telling you that youíre stupid to sit here and not think, remind it that not everything has to be thought through, not everything has to be analyzed. Some things have to be experienced directly. When you analyze things, where does the analysis come from? It comes mostly from your old ignorant ways of thinking. And what weíre doing as we get the mind to settle down is to put those ways of thinking and those ways of dividing up reality aside. For a state of concentration you want to get the mind together with the body and to foster a sense of oneness, a sense of resonance between the two.

Once theyíve had chance to be together, then you can begin to see how things begin to separate out on their own. And this is a totally different way of separating. Itís not the kind of separating that comes from ordinary thinking. Itís actually seeing that even though the body and mind are resonating, they are two separate things, like two tuning forks. You strike one tuning fork and put another one next to it. The second tuning fork picks up the resonance from the first one, but theyíre two separate forks. Once the body and mind have had a chance to resonate for a while, you begin to see that they are two separate things. Knowing is different from the object of knowing. The body is the object; the mind is the knowing. And this way, when they separate out, they don't separate out because you have some preconceived notion of how they should be. You watch it actually happening. Itís a natural occurrence. Itís like the grain of the wood: When you polish it, the grain appears, but not because you designed the grain. Itís been there in the wood all along.

The same with your meditation: Youíre simply giving yourself a chance really to see your experience of body and mind for what it is instead of coming in with preconceived notions about how things should get divided up, how things should be analyzed. Thereís a natural separation line between name and form, body and mind. They come together, but theyíre separate things. When you learn how to allow them to separate out, thatís when real discernment comes in.

This is why the discernment that comes with concentration is a special kind of discernment. Itís not your ordinary mode of thinking. It comes from giving things a chance to settle down. Like a chemical mixture: If everything gets jostled around, the two chemicals are always mixed together and you canít tell that there are two in there. There seems to be just the one mixture. But if you let the mixture sit for a while, the chemicals will separate. The lighter one will rise to the top; the heavier one will settle to the bottom. Youíll see at a glance that there actually are two separate chemicals there. They separate themselves out on their own because youíve created the conditions that allow them to act on their own.

The same with the mind: A lot of things begin to separate out on their own if you simply give the mind a chance to be still enough and youíre watchful enough. If youíre not watchful, the stillness drifts off into drowsiness. So you need the mindfulness together with the stillness for this to happen properly.

With the stillness, youíre letting go of a lot of nervous activity, youíre letting go of a lot of unskillful things in the mind. With the mindfulness youíre developing the skillful qualities you need to see clearly. This is how the letting-go and the knowing coming together. When the Buddha discusses the four noble truths, he talks about the duty appropriate to each. Your duty with regard to craving, the second noble truth, is to let it go. Then thereís a third noble truth, which is the cessation of suffering. And what is that? Itís the letting-go of the craving at the same time youíre aware of whatís happening. So the task appropriate to the cessation of suffering is a double process: knowing together with the letting-go, and this makes all the difference in the world. Most of the time when we let go of craving weíre not aware of whatís happening, so itís nothing special. Itís just the ordinary way of life as we move from one craving to another. But when the mind has been still enough, and the mindfulness well-developed enough, then when the craving gets abandoned youíre aware of it as well, and this opens up something new in the mind.

This is why the factors of the noble eightfold path fall into two types: the ones that develop and the ones that let go. The ones that let go abandon all the mindís unskillful activities that obscure knowledge. The developing ones are the ones that enable you to see clearly: right view, right mindfulness, right concentration. They all work at awareness, so that you can know clearly whatís actually happening in the present moment.

So there are these two sides to the practice, and you want to make sure that youíre engaged in both sides for your practice to be complete. Itís not just a practice of relaxing and letting go, and itís not just a practice of staying up all night and meditating ten hours at a stretch, really pushing, pushing, pushing yourself. You have to find a balance between clear knowing and effort, a balance between developing and letting go, knowing which is which and how to get that balance just right. Thatís the skill of the practice. And when you have both sides of the practice perfectly balanced, they come together and are no longer separate. Youíve got the mind in a perfectly clear state where the knowing and the letting-go become almost the same thing.

But the balance doesn't occur without practice. You may ask, "Why do we keep practicing? When do we get to perform?" Well, weíre practicing for the time when ultimately we can master these things. When the practice gets balanced, the path performs, and thatís when things really open up in the mind.

Sources : http://www.mettaforest.org


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