How to Read Your Own Mind

 

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

 

 

Instructions on meditation techniques tend to fall into two camps. The first camp tells you what to do—how to think, to visualize, to breathe—to create a certain state in body and mind: a sense of spaciousness, compassion, or solid concentration. The second camp tells you not to do anything at all. Simply be, accept, or watch what’s already there.

The reason for these two camps is that the mind has two sorts of problems: those that go away only when you actively work them out, and those that go away when you simply watch them patiently. Anger, for instance, sometimes goes away only when you sit down and reason with yourself. Other times it simply withers away under your steady gaze.

What this means in practice is that if you want to become a well-rounded meditator, you have to make use of both approaches. You need to master a well-rounded repertoire of meditation techniques. Not only that—and this is where it gets tricky—you need to gain a sense of which approach to apply to which problem, and how best to combine them. This is tricky for two reasons. One is that there are no hard and fast rules on how to do this. Even the Buddha, so adept with checklists, saw that this area didn’t lend itself to clear and easy maps. This means that you have to explore on your own, to experiment, to read the results, and learn from your mistakes. You need to learn how to read your own mind.

This is what makes meditation challenging, but also interesting, something you can stick with, for there’s always plenty to learn. As you keep exploring, you find that the mind yields up its issues in ever more subtle forms.

Which is where things get tricky again. The mind often lies to itself and tries to avoid its biggest problems. If you’re not careful, meditation can simply become another means of avoidance. You may have a complicated family issue you’ve got to work through, but you convince yourself that if you simply sit with it, it’ll go away on its own. Or you may have an embarrassing addiction that festers simply because you won’t look at it, but you busy yourself with something else: visualizations, full-body breathing—anything but the problem at hand.

That’s why the Buddha didn’t simply teach meditation techniques. He also taught the skills you need to be a reliable mind-reader: how to understand the workings of the mind so that you’ll know what to look for, and how to develop the personal qualities you’ll need so that you can trust yourself as an observer.

Only within that context did he teach meditation techniques, and even then he didn‘t spell everything out. He simply raised questions and suggested areas for experimentation. Instead of trying to spoon-feed you the answers, or forcing you into a meditation straitjacket where you aren’t allowed to think, he wanted you to pique your curiosity so that you’d develop your own discernment and gain your own insights. Only when you experiment and try to figure out what’s working and what’s not do you understand cause and effect. And only through understanding cause and effect can you eliminate the causes of suffering and stress, and foster the path to true Awakening. It’s a path you have to walk for yourself. The Buddha simply shows you how to get in shape for the journey, gives pointers as to what signposts to look for, and offers encouragement all along the way.

Once you’re motivated to take up the journey, it’s useful to look at the Buddha’s instructions in three areas: understanding, attitude, and technique.

Understanding. To understand the workings of the mind, you have to understand the Buddha’s teachings on karma, or action, for karma is what the mind is doing all the time. It’s through reading the mind’s actions that you can read the mind in the first place. The causes of suffering are a form of karma, and so is the path to suffering’s end.

The two most important points in the Buddha’s teaching on karma—the two that set it apart from every other version of karma taught in his time—are that karma is intention, and that present experience results from two kinds of intentions: past and present. Past intentions that are ready to ripen establish the range of possibilities that you could experience right now. Your present intentions pick and choose from those possibilities to shape what you actually experience. Even the intention simply to be or to observe is still an intention, and so it’s a form of karma shaping what you see.

This means that the past doesn’t totally determine the present. If it did, there would be no point in trying to meditate, because everything would have already been decided back in the deep mists of time. At the same time, though, your range of choices in the present isn’t infinite. The past can impose its limitations.

As you meditate, these points alert you to the fact that some things you experience in the present come from your present intentions—and so can be tested and understood through one or two meditation experiments—and some don’t. This is one of the reasons why meditation takes time. You have to keep experimenting in different conditions where you can’t be totally sure of what the current input from past intentions might be. And it takes repeated observation to figure out which parts of your present experience come from present intentions, and which ones come from past.

But a few general principles hold across the board. Some intentions are skillful—leading to happiness—and some are not. And regardless of what your past karma might be, it’s always possible to choose a skillful intention in any given moment. These points are so important that the Buddha identified the distinction between skillful and unskillful as his central teaching. Meditation is simply the effort to develop skillful intentions at all times.

And it’s from the distinction between skillful and unskillful that the Buddha derived the four noble truths. Suffering is the result of an unskillful set of mental actions—including craving, clinging, and ignorance—whereas the end of suffering is found through developing skillful ones: virtue, concentration, and discernment. These truths apply to meditation in that each carries its own duty: suffering is to be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. This means that, at any given moment, you as a meditator have to figure out which truth to focus on, and which duty to follow. Meditation isn’t simply a matter of abandoning or letting go, for there are also things you have to develop or comprehend before you can realize the goal. And again, it’s through experimentation that you figure out which duty is appropriate at any given time.

It’s like learning how to play the guitar. You strum and listen; if you don’t like what you hear, you strum something different, dropping some notes and adding others, until you hear what you like. You won’t learn about the guitar from just strumming without listening, or listening without strumming. The same is true with the mind. You learn what causes suffering and what leads to its end by encouraging certain states in body and mind, and then reading what you’ve got. This is why doing and watching are both necessary in meditation, and have to work together to get results.  

Attitude. Just as you need to train your ear to become a better judge of your playing, you need to develop trustworthy qualities of mind so that you can trust what you see as you read your mind. The most basic of these qualities are four: honesty, harmlessness, integrity, and patient equanimity. These are qualities you have to develop off the cushion as well if you’re going to apply them in meditation, for the mind off the cushion and the mind on the cushion are both the same mind.

First make a practice of being truthful, because if you’re not honest with others, you get so that you can’t be honest with yourself. Then make up your mind never to act on any intention that will cause harm to yourself or others, so that you don’t later get tied up in remorse or denial. Test your truthfulness and harmlessness by looking at the actual results of your actions, while you’re doing them and after you’re done. If they actually cause harm, develop the integrity to admit your mistakes to someone you respect and make up your mind not to repeat them. If they cause no harm, take joy in that fact, and keep on practicing. In this way you develop qualities in your daily life that make you a reliable meditator. You’re in a better position to see what’s actually going on in your mind.

Then there’s patient equanimity. Before teaching breath meditation to his son, Rahula, the Buddha taught him this as a preliminary step. Meditate, he said, so that your mind is like earth. Disgusting things get thrown on the earth, but the earth isn’t horrified by them. When you make your mind like earth, agreeable and disagreeable sensory impressions won’t take charge of your mind.

Now, the Buddha wasn’t telling Rahula to become a passive clod of dirt. He was simply teaching him to be grounded, to develop his powers of endurance, so that he could observe both agreeable and disagreeable things without getting carried away by either. Only then would he be in a position to observe accurately agreeable and disagreeable events in his own body and mind without jumping to hasty conclusions.

Technique. The Buddha taught dozens of topics for meditation, to deal with a wide variety of problems, but one topic, he said, was home base for his mind: the breath. This may have been because the breath is something you can simply watch or actively fashion. It’s a topic that belongs to both camps of meditation. You may sometimes need other topics to deal with specific problems—like anger, complacency, or lust—but the breath is so close to the mind that it’s a good place to take your stance when you want to read what the mind needs. Many times the breath itself can be used to get the mind back in shape.

This is where the active, experimental side of breath meditation comes in. The Buddha recommended sixteen steps in dealing with the breath, but only a few of them involve straightforward instructions. The rest raise questions, suggesting areas for exploration. In this way the breath becomes a means for exercising your ingenuity in solving the problems of the mind.

To begin with, you notice when the breath is long and when it’s short. That much is simple. In the remaining steps, though, you train yourself. In other words, you have to figure out for yourself how to do what the Buddha recommends. First you train yourself to breathe in and out sensitive to the entire body, then to calm the effect that the breath has on the body. How do you do that? You experiment. What rhythm of breathing, what way of conceiving the breath calms its effect on the body? Try thinking of the breath, not as the air coming in and out of the lungs, but as the energy flow throughout the body that draws the air in and out. Where do you feel that energy flow? Think of it as flowing in and out the back of your neck, in your feet and hands, along the nerves, the blood vessels, in your bones, coming in and out every pore of your skin. Where is it blocked? How do you dissolve the blockages? Breathe through them? Around them? Straight into them? See what works.

As you play around with the breath in this way, you’ll make some mistakes, but if you have the right attitude they become lessons in learning how the power of perception shapes the way you breathe. You’ll also catch yourself getting impatient or frustrated, but then you’ll see that you can breathe through these emotions, and they go away. You’re beginning to see the impact of the breath on the mind.

The next steps are to breathe in and out with a sense of ease and refreshing fullness. Again, to do this, you have to experiment both with the way you breathe and with the way you conceive of the breath. Then you notice how these feelings and conceptions have an impact on the mind. How do you calm that impact so that the mind feels most at ease?

Then—when the breath is calm, and you’ve been refreshed by feelings of ease and stillness—you’re ready to look at the mind itself. You don’t leave the breath, though. You simply adjust your attention slightly so that you’re watching the mind as it stays with the breath. Here the Buddha recommends three areas for experimentation: Notice how to gladden the mind when it needs gladdening; how to steady it when it needs steadying; and how to release it from its attachments and burdens when it’s ready for release. Sometimes the gladdening and steadying will require bringing in other topics of meditation; sometimes you can accomplish them by the way you focus on the breath itself. The important point is that you’ve now put yourself in a position where you can experiment with the mind and read the results of your experiments with greater and greater accuracy. You can try exploring these skills off the cushion as well. How do you gladden the mind when you’re sick? How do you steady the mind when dealing with a difficult person?

As you extend your skills in this way, the issues of intention become more and more transparent. This is where the Buddha has you breathe while watching the inconstancy of all intentional events in body and mind. That induces a sense of dispassion for all intentions. And when you figure out how to let intentions cease, you watch as everything gets let go, including the path. This is how the breath takes you all the way to nirvana. When that happens, you know that you’ve read the mind rightly.

In the mean time, though, it’s important to understand the general pattern of the practice. You watch to see where there’s stress in the breath or the mind; you try a few experiments—playing with this, exploring with that—to see what will alleviate that stress; and then you watch again, to see what’s worked and what hasn’t. Then you experiment some more. You keep on playing, keep on exploring. But you’re not just playing around. You’re trying to find what’s skillful and harmless; you’re bringing qualities of honesty, integrity, and patience to the task, so you learn as you play. You gain both the pleasure of making beguiling sounds with your guitar and—even when someday you put the guitar down—the satisfaction of having mastered a skill.