July  1990   2533   Number 13 

Consciousness and Sensitivity; Ajahn Sumedho
Making Our Minds Up; Anagarika
Self-Training; Ajahn Chah
Living with Luang Por; Several Reflections

Consciousness and Sensitivity

Extracts from a talk given to the Theravada Class at the Buddhist Society in London, September 1989 by Venerable Ajahn Sumedho.

Sometimes we approach meditation too much from an ideal of trying to control the mind, and get rid of unwanted mental states. It can become an obsession. Meditation can be just another thing we have to do; and this worldly attitude tends to affect what we're doing. See meditation, not as something to measure yourself as a person with, but as an opportunity to be mindful and at peace with yourself and with whatever mood or state you happen to be in at this moment. Learn to be one who's at peace with the way things are, rather than trying to become something, or to achieve a state that you'd like to have.

That whole way of thinking is based on delusion. I remember when I started meditation in Thailand, all my ambitious and aggressive tendencies would start taking over. The way I'd lived my life affected how I would approach meditation. So I began to notice that I began to let go of things and to accept even those tendencies, and to be attentive to the way it is. The more you trust in that, the more quickly you will understand the Dhamma, or the way out of suffering.

Notice how things affect your mind. If you've just come from your work or from your home, notice what that does to your mind. Don't criticise it - we're not here to blame, or to think that there's something wrong with our profession if our mind isn't tranquil and pure and serene when we come here. But notice the busyness of life: having to talk to people, having to answer telephones, having to type, or to travel across London in the rush hour. Maybe we're having to work with people that we don't like in difficult, aggravating situations. Just notice - not to criticise, but just to accept that these things do have an effect on us.

Recognise that this is the experience of consciousness and sensitivity. That's what being born as a human being amounts to, isn't it? You're born, and you have to live a lifetime as a conscious being in a very sensitive form. So what impinges on you, what comes to you from the objective world is going to affect you. It's just the way it is, there's noting wrong with it. But then as ignorant human beings we take it all personally, we tend to make everything very personal. It's as if I shouldn't be affected by these things that impinge on me. I shouldn't feel anger, or aversion, or greed, or irritation and frustration, envy, jealousy, fear, anxiety - I shouldn't be feeling these things. If I were a normal, healthy man I wouldn't have any of these problems. If I were a normal, healthy man I wouldn't be sensitive at all - like a rhinoceros, with a tough hide that nothing could ever get through!

I got quite irritated, and wanted to throw that person out of the meditation hall. But then reflecting on it, I realise that the fault was in me, not in the person.
But recognise that being human, we have these extremely sensitive forms. So then you realise there's nothing really wrong with you. It's just the way it is. Life is like this. We live in a society that is just the way it is. Living in London or in suburbia, or in villages or whatever, we can spend our time grumbling because it's not perfect, or there are many things that are irritating, or not very nice about may aspects of our lives. But then being sensitive is like this, isn't it? Sensitivity means that we're going to, whatever it is - whether it's pleasant or unpleasant, pleasurable, painful, beautiful, ugly - we're going to feel it.

And so the way out of suffering is through mindfulness. When you're truly mindful, there's no self. You're not taking life's experiences from the assumptions of being a person. You can try to make yourself insensitive - close your eyes, put ear plugs in your ears, try to be totally insensitive, shut everything out. That's one type of meditation, sensory deprivation. If you stay that way for a while then you feel very calm, because nothing is demanded of you at that time. There's no kind of harsh or stimulating, exciting or frustrating, impingement.

If you're mindful, you have an awareness of the purity of your mind which is blissful. Your true nature is blissful and serene and pure. But then, if you still have the wrong view about it you think, 'I have to have a sensory deprivation experience all the time. I can't live in London any more - even the Buddhist Society is too noisy!'

If our peace and serenity depend upon conditions being a certain way, then we get very attached. We become enslaved, we want to control, and then we become even more angry and upset if anything disrupts or gets in the way of our peace. 'I've got to find some place, a cave. I've got to get my own sensory deprivation tank and find the ideal situation - set up all the conditions where I can keep everything at bay, so I can just abide in the blissful serenity of the purity of the mind.' But then you see, that's coming from desire, isn't it? A self-view - wanting to have that experience because you remember it, liked it and want it again.

I remember one time on a retreat I got so attached to being peaceful that I heard this person - some person was having trouble swallowing. So I was sitting there, and that person would go 'gulp, gulp.' They weren't very loud, but when you're attached to total silence, even a gulp can upset you. So I got quite irritated, and wanted to throw that person out of the meditation hall. But then reflecting on it, I realise that the fault was in me, not in the person.

But mindfulness and understanding the Dhamma allow you to adapt and accept life - the total life experience - without having to control it. With mindfulness you don't have to hold on to bits and pieces that you like, and then feel very threatened by the possibility of being separated from them. Right meditation really allows you to be very brave and adaptable, to be flexible with your life and all that that implies.

We don't have all that much control, do we? Much as we would like to be able to control our lives, we recognise we really don't have that much control. Some things just get out of our control. Things happen and Mother Nature has her ways of letting us know that She's not just going to follow our desires. Then there are fashions and revolutions, changing conditions, population problems, and airplanes, televisions, technology, pollution. How can we control it, and make it so that we are not being affected by any of it - or only affected in the ways we like?

If we spend our lives trying to control everything, then we just increase the suffering. Even if we get a measure of control over things, we're still going to be like me with the person gulping in the meditation hall; getting very angry when the neighbour turns on the radio too loud, or the airplane flies low, or the fire engine goes by.

Now one thing you can recognise is that when you have a body, you have to live with your body for a lifetime. And these bodies are conscious and sensitive forms. This is just the way it is, this is what being born means. Bodies grow up, then they start getting old, then there's old age, sicknesses, diseases - this is a part of our human experience - and then death. We have to accept the death and separation of loved ones. This happens to all of us. Most of us will see our parents die, or even our children, or spouse or friends, loved ones. Part of all human experience is the experience of being separated from the loved.

Where is mindfulness?

Amongst all this space

and conditions to be embraced,

A breeze sweeps across my


Yet the heartbeat

cannot be traced.

By knowing the way it is, then you find yourself quite capable of accepting life and not being depressed and bewildered by the way life happens to be. Once you understand it and you see it in the right way, then you're not going to create any wrong views about it. You're not going to add to it with fears, and desires, and bitterness, and resentments and blame. We have the ability to accept the way life happens to us as individual beings. Even though we're terribly sensitive, we're also tough survivors in this universe.

You look at where human beings manage to live, like Eskimos up in the Arctic and people in deserts. In the most uninviting places on this planet there's usually human habitation. When forced to, we can survive anywhere.

Understanding Dhamma then allows us also to have a fearless attitude. We being to realise that we can accept whatever happens. There's really nothing to be afraid of. Then you can let go of life; you can follow it, because you're not expecting anything out of it, and you're not trying to control it. You have the wisdom, the mindfulness, the ability to roll with the flow, rather than to be drowned by the tidal waves of life.

When you learn to take time to be silent, listen to yourself. Just use the breathing and the body, just the natural rhythm, the feeling - the way your body feels now. Put your attention onto the body, because the body is a condition in nature - it's not really you. It's not 'my' breathing any more, it's not personal. You breathe even if you're crazy, or sick - and if you're asleep you're still breathing. The body breathes. From birth to death it will be breathing. So breath is something that we use as an object to focus on, to turn to. If we think too much, our thoughts get very convoluted and complicated, but if we bring attention just to the ordinary breathing of the body at this moment, at that moment you're actually not thinking - you're attentive to a natural rhythm.

Then you might start making problems out of it, 'Oh, I can't concentrate on my breath, blah, blah, blah .' Then it becomes 'me' again, trying to be mindful of my breath. But actually in any one moment where you're just with the breath, there's no self. Your self will arise when you start thinking. When you're not thinking, there's no self; and when you're mindful, then the thought isn't coming from the wrong view that 'I am a self.' So thought can be a way of reflection, a way of focussing attention on Dhamma, rather than creating problems, criticism or anxiety about myself and humanity.

Just contemplate, when you get angry you have to think, don't you? If you stop thinking, the anger will go away. To be angry you have to think, 'He said that to me, how dare he. That dirty so and so!'' But if you should stop thinking and just use the breath, eventually the feeling of the body that comes with anger will fade out, and then there is no anger. So if you feel angry, just reflect on what it feels like as a physical feeling. It's the same with any mood: contemplate, reflect on the mood that you're in. Just work with it - not to analyse it or criticise it - but merely to reflect on it how it is.

Sometimes people say, 'I get very confused when I meditate - how can I get rid of confusion?' Wanting to get rid of confusion is the problem. Being confused and not wanting it is just creating confusion. So what does confusion feel like? Some of the more stimulating passions that we can have are quite obvious. What we tend to not pay any attention to or dismiss are the more subtle states like slight confusion, or hesitation, or doubt, insecurity and anxiety. And of course, one side of us just wants to get rid of it, just stomp it out - how do I get rid of it? If I meditate, how can I get rid of my fears, anxiety?

With the right understanding, we see that the very desire-to-get-rid-of is suffering. We can bear with the feeling of insecurity if we know what it is, and that it changes, it's impermanent. So you begin to feel more and more confident in just being aware and mindful, rather than trying to develop your practice in order to become an enlightened person. The assumption is that right now you're not enlightened, you've got a lot of problems, you've got to change your life, you've got to make yourself different. You're good enough the way you are right now, so you have to meditate, and hopefully some time in the future you'll become something that you'd like to become.

If you never see the delusion of that way of thinking, then it just carries on. You never really become what you should be, no matter how much effort you put into your meditations. After years of trying to become enlightened, you always feel like a failure, because you've still got the wrong attitude about it all.