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Only One Breath
morning I was talking to Venerable Subbato and he was saying he never has
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
The attitude is most important. To
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  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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
And let go of that.
 kuti: a very simple unfurnished wooden hut that serves as a dwelling for a Buddhist monk or nun
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last updated: 10-05-2005