|Taken from a talk given by Ben Riggs at the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA|
This week I wish to speak about placing the mind. Once we have taken our seat by placing the body, as outlined above, we can begin to place the mind. Our current state of consciousness is totally unstable. Our relationship with our thought life is one of total dependence, and this dependence arises out of complete confusion. There seems to be a big misunderstanding as to the nature of thoughts and emotions, we see them as though they are solid, seperate, and real. Our dependence is absolute in that our conception of self arises from the collection of these thoughts and emotions. For the purpose of tonight's discussion I wish to speak only in a general way about our relationship with thought and emotion. Once we begin to discuss the nature of samsara we will discuss in greater detail the development of ego, how it maintains itself, and why all of this gives rise to our sense of discontentment or dissatisfaction.
As I said earlier we experience our thoughts and emotions as though they are solid and real. Some thoughts appear to be more fleeting, while others can turn into complex story lines complete with characters, plot twist, the works. Lets say we are sitting at a red light around lunch time. We are caught in traffic, and then our stomach starts to growl. We think to ourselves, "Man I am hungry!" This thought turns into, "What would I like to eat?" We consider this question for a while, "Pizza Hut, Jason's Deli, Posadas, no I know, Taco Bell!" The idea to eat at Taco Bell then transforms into some dream world where we are at the king of all Taco Bells and can order whatever we want. "I will have 2 Chalupas, 2 Baja Gorditas, definitely an apple empanada, and the biggest coke you can give me!" It all tastes so good. The next thing you know we are waking up to the sound of horns honking and people shouting at us that the light is green. We wipe the drool from our face and drive off to the nearest Taco Bell. However our visit to Taco Bell leaves us disappointed, because there is no way that pathetic little drive through was ever going to be able to meet the expectation we just manufactured in our head. We get mad at the poor girl behind the counter, because their grade Z Carne Asada beef did not taste like the heavenly beef we conjured up moments ago at the red light. To top it off we spend the rest of our day at work, school or where ever doubled up with a gut ache! This whole process takes place in seconds.
We have some thought, we grasp at it or cultivate it, next thing you know we have created a fantasy world which revolves around the original thought, and finally we project that fantasy onto the external world. We often find ourselves very disappointed when our fantasy and reality do not agree. However we are so confused we usually end up spending even more energy trying to get the rest of the world to conform to our fantasy.
Through simple meditation practice we can begin to change this whole process. It would be a mistake to think that through meditation we teach ourselves to stop thinking. If that were the case, enlightenment would be similar to becoming catatonic! We wouldn't be able to communicate or help others. Instead through meditation we unlearn all the confused habits we have taught ourselves throughout the years. We do this by becoming aware of our thoughts and remembering the breath, or the present moment.
The word shamatha can be translated into English as "calm abiding". Calm abiding is unshakeable peace, but it doesn't mean absence of thought. Our mental activity may decrease, but we still think. Rather thoughts no longer have the same type of effect on our state of mind, they simply come and go. This happens because we change the way in which we relate to thought, once we see into the nature of thought. Right now it is common practice to cling to a thought and simply not let go as I explained earlier with the Taco Bell analogy. In calm abiding we merely let the thought pass. As thoughts arise we allow them to pass by simply by returning to the breath. This is done by awareness and mindfulness working together.
After taking our seat we place our awareness on the breath by saying, "I will now focus on the breath." We focus on the sensation of the breath, the air entering and leaving our nostrils, the rise and fall of the abdomen, etc. When thoughts arise we become aware of them and just remember the breath. There is no need to become frustrated thinking, "I can not stay focused there are too many thoughts!" It may seem as though you have more thoughts than normal when you sit down to meditate, but this isn't so. Actually you have just become much more aware of how active the mind has always been. When we become aware of our grasping tendency towards thought, and remember the breath we begin to cut through this dependence to thought. Just return to the breath; that is the practice! Place your attention on the object, when thoughts arise become aware of the thinking, then return to the breath. This is how we employ awareness and mindfulness.
Calm Abiding can be likened to the relationship between the sky and clouds. Just as the sky doesn't cling to clouds as they pass by, in it's natural state the mind simply lets thoughts pass through without grasping at them. Sometimes meditators think they have achieved enlightenment when the stage of calm abiding is reached, but that is not the case. Calm abiding is just a beginning, but a necessary beginning. Once we develop calm abiding we can begin to investigate the nature of mind. This can be easily understood with an analogy. Pond water can appear very polluted or murky when the dirt at the bottom has been disturbed. However if we allow all of the mud and what not to settle, at it's own pace, the mind just like the pond water will become clear & calm again. There is no need to force it, as forcing it just continues to stir up the mind. Simply return to the breath, and by practicing this way the mind's true nature will rise to the surface.