Bear Awareness - Selections

Questions and Answers on Taming Your Wild Mind

The bestselling author of Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? and one of the world’s most beloved Buddhist monks answers meditators’ questions.

 

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1.

The Hahayana Approach to Meditation 


Why it’s a good idea to lighten up.

What’s mettā? I’m just a beginner.

That’s such a wonderful question. Whoever wrote that question is so kind and lovely. You must be close to enlightenment.

The way I’m treating you is called mettā. Mettā is “loving-kindness”—it’s care, it’s compassion, it’s acceptance, it’s respect. When you have mettā toward someone, you respect him, you’re kind to her, you give him the benefit of the doubt—even when he snores loudly in the middle of the night. If you have loving-kindness toward other people, they’re no longer a problem. With loving-kindness toward yourself, you’re no longer a problem to yourself. And when you have loving-kindness toward every moment, beautiful mettā to this moment, you’re on the highway to enlightenment. The path becomes so easy.

One reason people don’t feel peace is that they’re not kind enough to their minds. With mettā you give yourself a break—you don’t force yourself. You look upon your body and mind as good friends, and you then work together in a kind and compassionate way.

In my book Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? I explained that mettā is the ability to open the door of your heart no matter what you’re experiencing, no matter what’s happening. It’s beautiful, unconditional goodwill. For example, you may have been lazy, and perhaps you think you need to be punished. That’s not mettā. Be kind to yourself even when you’ve been lazy or slack or have, say, broken retreat precepts in the afternoon by munching on some cookies. Whatever you’ve been up to, give yourself a break. And as for other people, it doesn’t matter if they’ve been making all sorts of disturbing noises while you’re trying to meditate: “May they have happiness and well-being also.”

This beautiful sense of mettā does not depend on what people have done or what you’ve done. Give mettā to every moment. Be kind to yourself in every moment, no matter what the moment is like and how you’re experiencing it—whether you’re dull, restless, or frustrated. In other words, wish every moment well.

How do I increase mettā?

Mettā meditation is a way of deliberately generating goodwill toward all beings. We learn how to recognize it and how to develop it further. In mettā meditation people usually say a few words to themselves over and over again: “May all beings be happy and well. May all beings be free from suffering. May I be happy. May I be at peace.” But you can use whatever words you like. The important thing is to pay attention to the spaces between the words. Say, “May I be happy and well,” and then pause to give the words a chance to work.

You will find that the words have power. If you pause to connect to that power, you’ll understand the true meaning of “May all beings be free from suffering,” and the mind will start to generate mettā. The words just light the match that ignites the mettā. The feelings that come after the words, that’s mettā. It’s incredibly pleasant.

Repeat the words only until you feel the mettā. Every time you give an instruction to your mind, your mind starts looking in that direction. The words point the mind toward mettā. When your mind is full of mettā, you no longer need the words. You’ve followed the signposts and reached the destination—you’re at mettā. If you really cultivate that feeling—become familiar and at ease with it—it becomes very powerful. You can take it all the way into profound meditative states.

So ride the words until you feel them. What if I say, “Peace . . . peace . . . peace . . .”? Do you feel any peace? Do you experience its meaning? Once you get your head around what it means, once you have peace in your mind, you no longer need to say the word. Only when the experience fades do you say the word again. Keep on saying it until there’s no need, until you have peace.

This is how we practice loving-kindness. We use the words to generate an emotion, and when that emotion is strong, we turn toward the emotion and let go of the words. The words have done their job. If you wish, you can visualize it like a golden light in your heart. Sometimes visualization helps.

Once it gets to a certain point, it’s self-sustaining. You don’t need to say anything anymore; you just feel mettā—you are mettā—and it extends to all beings. If you develop the mettā even further, you’ll get so much happiness and joy, so much pīti-sukha, that a beautiful light appears in the mind—a nimitta. You’re just sitting there, blissing out. A proper mettā nimitta is beautiful, lovely, and easy to focus on, and it takes you into the absorptions, the jhānas. I kept repeating these words of the Buddha to the monks during one three-month retreat: Sukhino cittaṁ samādhiyati—“From happiness, from bliss, the mind becomes very still.” From the bliss and happiness of mettā, the mind gets incredibly still, and then nimittas and jhānas just happen.

So feel the resonance after you say, “May all beings be happy and well.” Keep on saying the words (and really mean them!), and dwell on those feelings until they get very, very strong and self-sustaining. It’s just like when you’re lighting a fire and you need to strike the match several times. But once the fire gets going, it just takes off. That’s mettā meditation, and it’s very powerful.

One of my favorite mettā stories is about one of the famous Thai forest monks. He was wandering through the jungle one afternoon when he arrived at a certain village. He announced to the headman that he was going to stay there for the night. The headman was very pleased to have a forest monk there. He arranged for the villagers to come out to listen to the monk give a Dhamma talk that evening and then feed him the following morning.

And what did the monk do for two hours until the evening talk? He sat down under a tree to meditate. But after a couple of minutes, he realized that he was sitting under the wrong tree: a big ants’ nest was close by. The first ant crawled up his foot and then up his leg and bit him. Ouch! And then a second, a third, a tenth, and a twentieth, all biting him! He was a tough monk, so he just sat there.

Before he knew it, however, he was standing up and running away. But he caught himself, stopped, and thought: “I’m a forest monk. I shouldn’t be running away like this.”

He turned around. The spot where he had been sitting was swarming with thousands of red ants. He decided he was going to sit right in the middle of them. (They don’t make monks like that these days!) As he sat, the ants started to crawl up and bite him again, but this time he changed the object of his meditation from the breath to mettā: “May all beings be happy and well, especially these red ants. If you are really hungry, try my arms and knock yourself out!” (He didn’t really say that—I made that up.) After he had done mettā meditation for a couple of minutes, the ants stopped biting him. They were still crawling over and irritating him, but they had stopped biting. After another few minutes he had an amazing sensation: Instead of the ants crawling up, they were crawling down, until the last ant crawled off his foot. All he had done was to give loving-kindness to all beings. It was a wonderfully deep meditation.

After two hours had passed he heard the villagers coming. They were making strange noises, as if they were dancing. He thought, “What a strange custom they have in this village—when they come to visit a monk they dance on the way!” But then he realized why they were dancing—they were being bitten by the red ants! The area all around was carpeted with red ants except for a one-meter circle around him, which was like a no-man’s land. He realized that the red ants were protecting him!

That’s how powerful loving-kindness, or mettā, meditation is. The animals look after you and protect you.

Can you send mettā magic to the dishwasher? The one here has stopped working.

Why do you need the dishwasher? You’ve got two hands! You’ve got a sponge. People these days have got all these electronic things and just have to press buttons. It’s wonderful when things go wrong. It means you get a chance to make good kamma. This is actually a deep teaching. When you volunteer—it’s not your job, you just want to help others— it’s amazing how much joy you get.

One of my seminal experiences as a young monk took place in northeast Thailand just before the ordination of three novices. When you ordained as a monk, you had to make your own set of three robes, starting with plain white pieces of cloth. It took about two or three days. You had to sew them together and then dye them with jackfruit dye. To do this you had to haul water from the well and gather wood to start a fire. You had to get branches from a jackfruit tree, chop them up into little chips, boil those chips to extract the dye, concentrate the dye, and then use that to dye the cloth brown. It was hard work.

The three novices were in the process of making their robes. They hadn’t slept for ages, because to make the dye you had to keep the fire going and keep working. After the evening chanting I went to the dyeing shed. Seeing that the poor novices were very tired, I said: “Look, you go and have a few hours’ sleep. I’ll stay up tonight to look after your dyeing. But don’t tell anybody, because it’s breaking the rules.” They went off to bed, and I looked after the dye pot all night. At three o’clock in the morning the bell rang. The three novices came out and carried on with the dyeing while I went to the morning chanting and meditation. I was bright and clear and wasn’t sleepy at all. I was full of energy!

Later, when we were on almsround, I said to the senior monk: “This is really strange. I haven’t slept all night, but I have all this wonderful energy, and I am not at all tired. I haven’t the slightest trace of sloth and torpor. Why is that?”

“It’s because you’ve made good kamma, because you’ve helped others,” he said. “You’ve sacrificed your sleep for others. The result is that you get special energy.”

I’ve made use of this lesson throughout my monastic life. Any opportunity I have for doing good kamma, even though I don’t need to, even though I’m a senior monk, I’ll take it. Why? Because of the joy and energy I get from it.

So it doesn’t matter whose turn it is to wash the dishes: “Get out of the way, I’m going to do it!”

Compared with just doing your duties, it’s much more fun when you want to give, when you want to help, and you get much more energy that way. So it’s a great blessing when the dishwasher breaks down. It gives you more opportunity to make merit, to make good kamma. Brilliant!

BEAUTY AND THE BREATH

Can you please explain how to make the breath beautiful, how to get to that sustained attention on the breath that is natural and imbued with peace?

To achieve a beautiful, sustained attention on the breath, try to incline toward the beautiful. When you go outside, look at the beautiful flowers, not at the spiders. Look at the beautiful sky, but don’t feel the cold. Whatever it is, just incline toward the beauty in life. There are problems and difficulties in life, but instead of looking at that, look at the opposite.

For instance, even if you’re sick with cancer, the cancer is only one part of the body; the rest is all right. Or you may have a motorcycle accident and lose a leg, but you’ve got another leg. That’s called a spare! Whatever happens in life, there are always good things to focus on. Beauty is always there if you look for it.

However, some people are so negative that they can find faults in anything. For them even a beautiful retreat center sucks. The afternoons are too hot; the cushions are too hard. If there’s no schedule, they want more structure. If there’s a schedule, oh, it’s too strict! Regardless of what happens, they can always find something to complain about. If you look at things that way, you’ll never get to the beautiful breath.

Instead, say you are in retreat: think how wonderful it is just to be there, to watch the breath and have nothing else to do in the whole world. If you’ve got nothing to do except be with this body and mind, isn’t that bliss? When you think like that, the perception of the beautiful arises naturally throughout the day, and then it’s easy to get to the beautiful breath.

After a short time of meditation my breath became very quiet and effortless. It remained like this for two or three hours. Please enlighten me on this.

Stay like that for another couple of hours, and you’ll enlighten yourself! Watching the breath effortlessly and peacefully for two to three hours is exactly what’s supposed to happen.

How many things should we watch in an in-breath and out-breath? Should we watch the beginning, the middle, and the end of the breath—and the space in between the in-breath and the out-breath, as well as the space in between the out-breath and the in-breath? 

The breath is continuous and so is watching it. You don’t just watch the beginning, the middle, and the end of the breath—that’s only three spots. There are probably thousands of spots to watch for each breath. Close your eyes and just watch one breath. See how many sensations you can notice. There are heaps of them! Little by little, you learn to see more and more of each breath. Eventually you see the whole lot without any interruption, right from the beginning all the way to the end. That’s what we’re supposed to watch.

All things follow from the stillness of the mind, and the way to keep the mind still is by observing the breath. Most of the time we think, because we’re not really happy. Thinking usually comes from discontent. If you’re really happy and at peace and everything is OK, you don’t want to be distracted by thinking. Why would you want to spoil your happiness by thinking? When you’re really happy, thinking just disappears. And that’s how the mind gets still.

Sound is the last thing to disappear as your meditation deepens, so don’t be discouraged if, say, you’re doing a group meditation and you hear coughs and sneezes even though you feel calm and your attention on your breath is beautiful. As your meditation progresses, you will experience the coughs and sneezes as being a long way away. You will hear the sounds but as if they’re a hundred miles away. Eventually they will disappear, and you don’t want to get out of that state.

WALK THIS WAY

If I am uncomfortable doing breath meditation, should I learn walking meditation? Can you explain how walking meditation is done? 

Walking meditation can be an alternative to breath meditation. There are so many places where you can do walking meditation. At the retreat center we’ve got walking paths, or you can go out into the forest. Choose a path that is neither too long nor too short. Use a straight path, not a circular one.

Walk naturally. Start at the beginning of the path and put your gaze six feet in front of you (roughly—you don’t need to get a tape measure). In this way you can see what’s ahead of you and feel quite safe that you’re not going to walk over a cliff or tread on anything. Then you just walk. As you’re walking, don’t think about the future or the past—stop all this thinking business. Don’t be concerned about the stock market or the football or about what’s happening at home. Instead, put your full awareness on the feelings in your feet and legs as they move. Know the left foot as it moves. Know the right foot.

First of all, get into the present moment. Secondly, be silent. Thirdly, put your attention on whichever foot is moving. Fourthly, bring full awareness to all of the walking, which means from the very beginning of the left foot moving to the very end of the left foot moving, and then from the very beginning of the right foot moving to the very end of the right foot moving.

What part of the foot leaves the ground first? What part leaves the ground last? Once the foot leaves the ground, does it go straight up? Does it go forward a bit? How does it move through the air? Feel all the sensations that tell you what your foot is doing. What part meets the ground first? What’s that sensation like? Feel it as fully as possible. What’s the last part of your foot that meets the ground? Then feel the weight of your body as it transfers onto that foot. Just walking, you experience all these wonderful sensations.

Don’t try to force your gait—just walk naturally. Be like a passenger observing all the amazing feelings in your legs as they carry you along. When you get to the end of the path, stop and feel all the sensations of turning around.

The benefit of focusing on the feelings in the body is that you can’t think too much about them. You can’t have much of a conversation about the feeling in the foot when it meets the ground. It keeps you in the present moment. After a while you get very still and peaceful because the feelings become delightful and absorb your attention.

Another advantage of walking meditation is that you don’t have to worry about an aching knee or back, which often happens while sitting. You’re moving, and it’s very comfortable for your body. Do it as long as you feel happy. Get as peaceful and go as deep as you possibly can. You can get very peaceful in walking meditation.

These are very simple instructions. Nothing in meditation is complicated.

Some people prefer walking to sitting meditation. That’s one reason we have three big walking meditation halls at the retreat center—to encourage it. So experiment with walking meditation. Sometimes when you get peaceful in walking meditation, it enhances your sitting meditation—it gets much deeper. So make use of it.

When I reach the wall in my walking meditation, I feel disrupted and experience a break in the smooth walking. How can I overcome this? Surely I can’t walk through the wall yet!

How do you know you can’t walk through a wall? Don’t just follow beliefs—give it a try! If you really want to, you can walk a marathon’s distance. You don’t have to stop. That way you won’t be disturbed!

The reason it’s good to turn around in walking meditation is that sometimes you lose your mindfulness—you start to fantasize, to dream, to plan, or whatever. Walking on a short path makes you stop and turn around quite frequently, which brings you back to the present moment.

I also like the idea of turning around and coming back: You end up where you started, and that’s a good metaphor for life. We always think we’re getting somewhere. But where do we really get? Most of the time we just get back to where we started. How many times have you gone on retreat, said goodbye to your new friends, and then gone home? This is what happens. Things just go round and round in the circles of life.

You can also do walking meditation with a mantra. It’s fun and it can give you great insight. I learned this mantra in Thailand many years ago. When you’re walking on the path, as the left foot moves forward, you silently say, “I will die,” and as the other foot moves forward, “That’s for sure.” “I will die . . . that’s for sure.”

When people start that, they sometimes think it’s a joke. After a while, they realize it’s not a joke. This is one thing that is so true you can’t deny it. You may get frightened: “My God, it’s true!” Keep on walking, and keep on saying “I will die, that’s for sure.” Eventually you get through the fear, and because you know it’s true, all your attachments and all your worries—about emails, your business, your spouse, your kids, even your health—all of them just vanish.

Since it is true that “I will die, that’s for sure,” what am I worrying about all this other stuff for? You get really peaceful. And you get some very deep insights in how to be free. “I will die, that’s for sure.” What a relief! Walking meditation creates a deep sense of stillness, happiness, and insight.

When I was in Malaysia once, people were getting a bit bored with just sitting down and watching their breath or doing walking meditation. I said that in Buddhism we sometimes have to adapt to the country we’re in, and so I encouraged people to do the Australian walking meditation method, which is inspired by the kangaroos. I explained that you start at one end of the path, curl your hands like the paws of a kangaroo . . . and hop, which I also demonstrated, much to their amusement. When you get to the other end, you turn around and hop back. It’s Australian walking meditation! Try it. At the very least it will make anyone watching you burst out laughing, and it will make you happy too! That will make meditation less serious—we can have some fun.

BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY 

In one of your books you mention watching a wall. When we’re bored watching the inside of our eyes, can we watch a wall instead? And what are we supposed to do if the wall disappears?

Yes, often we begin meditation by closing our eyes, but you can watch a wall if you like. But to get the wall to disappear, your mind has to be pretty still, without thoughts. A lot of the time people watch the wall with only 10 percent of their attention, while 90 percent is given to fantasizing and dreaming—thinking about dinner, remembering the past, remembering a favorite movie. If your mind isn’t still and most of your attention is elsewhere, the wall doesn’t disappear. Only when your mind is still will the wall vanish. It’s weird when it happens. You can try it, but it’s much better to watch your body disappear.

Is it OK to meditate wearing noise-canceling headphones or ear-plugs? I live on a somewhat noisy street.

I can’t see why not. You can wear big headphones or just noise-canceling ones. You can use an iPod to play “I will die, that’s for sure” right into your ears! Make it interesting.

Don’t get caught up in what you think meditation looks like. You don’t have to be able to sit in perfect lotus to have a good meditation—the Buddha didn’t always. There are statues of the Buddha sitting in chairs, and many monks meditate in chairs. Ajahn Sujato normally meditates in a chair because he’s got very bad knees. When I’m on an aircraft, I meditate in a chair. If I ask if I can sit in the aisle to meditate, they won’t let me, so I have to do it in the chair.

Please explain how to meditate when you are in pain. How do you concentrate on the source of the pain?

If you’re uncomfortable sitting on the floor but really want to sit on the floor, do yoga or stretching exercises. Otherwise, sit in a chair if you have to. Or lie down on your bed if need be. It’s just stupid to subject yourself to pain unnecessarily. And if you’re in great pain regardless of your sitting position, take a painkiller! Really. Pain is distracting. But sometimes pain will not go away whether you sit in a chair or on the ground or lie down on your bed—even if you take a painkiller.

One way of overcoming such pain is to put your attention in the center of it—which is a tough thing to do—and then do relaxation with compassion. At the very least you’ll relax a few tense muscles, which is likely to be part of the problem. Some pains are just the body overreacting to an infection or a wound. By relaxing, you’re overcoming that overreaction.

I know this because I sometimes suffer from hay fever. It’s just an overreaction to a tiny bit of pollen. When I focus my mind on my nose and relax that area, it does help quite considerably.

Another way of dealing with pain is by using mindfulness with insight. This technique is based on the fact that intense pain is normally confined to a small area of the body. Imagine drawing a box around the pain—the pain is inside and the rest of your body is outside. Then use your imagination to expand that box. As you’re expanding the box, you’re expanding the pain. Instead of making the pain worse, this actually dilutes it. Expand it to twice its size in all directions—twice the width, twice the height, twice the depth. Can you see that if you use your imagination in this way it actually helps to relax the pain? Contraction creates more pain; expansion tends to alleviate it. If that doesn’t work, try the Buddha’s simile, retold in my book Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? about the monster that came into the emperor’s palace (SN 11:22).

A demon came into the emperor’s palace and sat down on the emperor’s throne, and everyone said: “Get out of here! You don’t belong! Who do you think you are?!”

And the demon grew bigger, uglier, smellier, and more offensive. How do you get rid of a demon? Not with anger.

Then the emperor returned and said: “Welcome, demon. Thank you for coming to visit me. Please, can I get you something to eat?”

With every act of kindness it became smaller, less ugly, less smelly, and less offensive. The problem grew smaller and smaller until a last act of kindness made it vanish completely.

That’s a wonderful teaching of the Buddha’s. We call that an anger-eating demon, one that feeds on anger and ill will. The more anger and ill will you give it, the worse it gets. Pain is a classic example of an anger-eating demon. If you have pain in the body and say, “Get out of here, you don’t belong,” it gets worse. But if you’re kind to the pain—“Welcome! I will look after you”—the pain diminishes. Every act of kindness, every moment of unconditionally opening the door of your heart, relaxes and reduces the pain.

A lot of energy builds up in my head and around my eyes. Should I continue meditating? How do I get rid of the pressure?

You don’t need to get rid of anything. Let the energy build up. Whatever it’s doing, it’s probably doing it for a good purpose. As long as you’re nice and peaceful and the meditation is going well, it’s probably just healing going on. If you have hot spots in your body when you’re meditating, it’s because your body knows it needs energy there.

A woman came to me during a retreat complaining that her shoulders and neck were so hot, it was almost like a fever.

She said, “What’s going on? It’s weird.”

I said, “When did you have your whiplash?”

She said, “I never told you that, Ajahn Brahm. You’ve got psychic powers! You know my past!”

I said, “No, I was just adding one and one and getting two.”

It was obvious. When you have a hot spot, it means there’s an injury there that’s healing. And the most common injury to the neck and shoulders is whiplash from a car accident. I surmised that she must have had that injury a while ago, but now that she was letting go and getting out of the way, her body was able to heal itself. She was freeing the energy channels, and the energy could go where it was needed.

She felt really good afterward. She said that she’d never been so relaxed since the accident.

As long as you’re nice and peaceful and the meditation is going well, if you have hot spots or energy building up in your body, it’s probably just healing going on—your body needs energy there. So if that’s what you have, excellent. Just carry on and let go.

WHAT RUSSIAN DOLLS HAVE TO DO WITH IT

What’s your opinion on using kasiṇas instead of the breath as an object of meditation?

A nimitta is a mental object, and because the visual sense predominates for most people, it’s natural for most to perceive the nimitta as a light. It’s possible to have feeling nimittas, but they can easily deceive you. They could just be normal feelings in the mind. So be careful with the feeling nimittas. To be sure you have a real nimitta, it’s much better to develop the perception of a light. Most meditation traditions use the light nimitta. Don’t try to find a shortcut.

Using a kasiṇa (a visualized colored disk) is one way of generating a nimitta. It is usually much more difficult to focus on than the breath, unless you have a very visual mind. If you can visualize things clearly, like an artist who can draw and paint, then kasiṇas may be useful for you.

It’s very rare for people to teach the kasiṇas. The basic idea is to visualize a colored disk so clearly that whether your eyes are open or closed it appears just the same. Not many people can do that.

How long should you watch a nimitta?

A nimitta lasts for just a moment. That’s all there ever is. Remember that if you’re thinking of how long, you’ve lost the present moment; you’re caught up in time again, you’re measuring, and you’ve lost the plot. Watch the nimitta for one moment, the moment called “now.”

A real nimitta is so bright that you won’t feel your body anymore, and you won’t know what you’re doing. If you’re walking outside, you’ll keep walking, walking, walking, and we might have to go deep into the forest to find you! All you’re seeing is this bright light—you might end up in the ocean! A proper nimitta is so bright that you lose all awareness of the body. If you do see a nimitta, just sit down and close your eyes. In this way you’ll go even deeper.

If the nimitta disappears and you go into jhāna, you haven’t got any choice but to carry on enjoying yourself. It should be fun. The second jhāna is within the first one, right in the center of it. This means that you always have to go through the first jhāna to get to the second. And to get the third one, you have to go through the second, because the third jhāna is right in the center of the second one. And the fourth one is right in the center of the third. You always go in . . . in . . . in. That’s an important point about meditation: You never go on to the next stage but always deeper in.

Think of Russian dolls: One is inside another, which in turn is inside another, which in turn is inside another. That’s meditation. You start off with the mind. Inside the mind, with all of its thinking about the past and future, you find the present moment. In the center of the present moment, you find silence. In the center of the silence, you find the breath. In the center of the breath, you find the full awareness of the breath. In the middle of the full awareness of the breath, you find the delightful breath. In the middle of the delightful breath comes the nimitta. In the middle of the nimitta, you get the first jhāna. You then go through all the jhānas. Finally, in the center of the fourth immaterial attainment, you find the end of everything. This is the jewel in the heart of the lotus.

Do you know what’s there? Would you believe me if I told you? If you did, you’d be gullible! How can you know that what I’m saying is correct? Anyone who believes simply because they’re told is stupid. So don’t believe what I’m saying. And if you don’t believe me, what’s the point of my telling you?

Well, there’s nothing there.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND VIPASSANA

You’ve taught us how to meditate by visualizing our good actions, our good speech, and so on. It’s all about ourselves.

It’s hard to visualize other people’s stuff. Yes, you can fantasize about it, but you don’t really know it. All you’ve got to work on is your own stuff. So work on that first of all, especially the good things. With the bad things, just assume it wasn’t you.

There was once a Sufi teacher who, at the end of a retreat, took his students to a fair. At one booth, a teddy bear was the prize for hitting a target with an arrow. The teacher said: “I’m a good archer. I know how to use a bow.” So he paid for three arrows.

He loaded the first arrow and quickly released it. It went only halfway to the target.

His students raised their eyebrows, saying, “Have you ever used a bow before?”

“That was the shot of a hasty man,” he said.

He loaded the next arrow. Pulling the bow back farther and steadying himself, he shot again. It went about a mile to the side of the target and nearly killed someone!

The students said: “Give up! People are laughing at you. You’re a well-known teacher—you’ll ruin your reputation.”

“No, no,” he said. “That was the shot of a proud man.”

And so came the third arrow. The students started to walk away, muttering, “You don’t know how to use a bow.” But then, of course, the third arrow went straight through the middle of the target.

As the teacher was collecting his teddy bear, the students asked him, “If the first shot was that of a hasty man, and the second that of a proud man, whose shot was the third one?”

And he said, “Oh, that was me.”

Some days you’re not in your right mind, a bit grumpy, not feeling too good, a bit off your game. Whenever things aren’t quite right or you make mistakes, pass it over. But whenever you do something successful, take that as the real you. Why not? That’s letting go of the failures of the past and retaining the happiness.

You learn much more from happiness and success than from mistakes. If you keep on focusing on the happiness, on the goodness, on your successes, you tend to learn the secret of happiness and success. This means you repeat it. On the other hand, people who keep on thinking about their mistakes and try to analyze their failed meditations get depressed. You’re reinforcing your failures instead of just letting them go. You may think you’re going to learn from your mistakes, but instead you just get upset, depressed, and angry. However, if you remember your successes, what worked, and why you were happy, then you learn the secret of happiness. It’s not what we’ve got but how we work with it.

I get confused by the names of different meditation techniques. What are ānāpānasati, vipassanā, and samatha?

Ānāpānasati is “breath meditation,” vipassanā is “insight,” and samatha is “calm.” But there’s no difference between them—they’re all the same. Here’s a story I tell on every retreat.

Once there was a married couple. The guy’s name was Sam (samatha), and his wife was called Vi (vipassanā). After lunch one day Sam and Vi decided to go for a walk up Meditation Mountain with their two dogs. One dog was called Mettā and the other dog was called Ānāpāna (ānāpānasati).

Sam wanted to go to the top because it was so peaceful there, and he just loved the stillness. Vi went up for the view. She took her new camera, which could take incredible insight shots over great distances. Mettā went because it’s good fun walking up Meditation Mountain. And Ānāpāna went for a breath of fresh air.

Halfway up it started to become peaceful and still, and Sam was delighted. But because he had eyes, he also enjoyed the view. Vi was already snapping photos because she could see so far. But she was also enjoying the peace. Mettā was wagging her tail, because even halfway up there was so much love and kindness. And Ānāpāna was breathing calmly—the air was so good and rich that he only needed to breathe very softly. But the two dogs enjoyed the peace and the view as well.

When they got to the top, it was utterly still. Nothing moved on top of Meditation Mountain, and Sam had reached his goal. But he also enjoyed the view—he could see forever, the whole universe spread out before him. Vi hadn’t seen such amazing views before—the insights were all around her. But she also enjoyed the peace. And Mettā was incredibly happy, because in addition to peace and views, there was also the sheer joy and love of deep meditation. As for Ānāpāna, he had disappeared! They didn’t know where he was. This is because the breath disappears on the top of Meditation Mountain.

That’s how all these techniques work together. There’s no difference between vipassanā, samatha, mettā, and ānāpānasati. There’s only one type of meditation, and that’s “letting go.” The various names for meditation are just different ways of saying the same thing.

So let go however you want. The only meditation I don’t teach is ānā-pain-a-sati—mindfulness along with pain. It was not taught by the Buddha. If it hurts, do something about it.

Could you provide some instructions on doing vipassanā meditation?

You don’t do vipassanā; you just sit there, and the insight just comes by itself, like a meal served by a flight attendant. Or, to use another simile, you sit there under the mango tree and do nothing. You don’t throw sticks up to make the fruit fall or shake the tree or climb it. You just sit underneath the tree and open your hand, and the mangoes, or insights, fall. That’s how it works.

But you’ve got to be patient. You can’t sit under the mango tree for a few days and expect results. That’s nothing. Carry on, keeping your hand open and sitting still. If you move, even just slightly, that’s when the mango will fall, and it’ll miss your hand. Be very patient.

There are two types of patience: waiting in the future and waiting in the present. Waiting in the future isn’t patience—it’s waiting for something to happen, for the mango to fall; it’s a state of expecting something, and it takes you out of the present moment. When you’re practicing letting go, you’re waiting in the present. Insights can happen only in the present moment.

During vipassanā retreats, the teachers normally suggest labeling or noting each action, thereby cultivating mindfulness. Do you recommend this?

No. Here’s a story I invented to illustrate why not (with apologies for inadvertently offending any vipassanā teachers—it’s meant in good fun).

One evening a rich woman was going to a talk at the local Buddhist temple. She told her security guard: “There are burglars around who know that I go to the temple, and they may try to break in. I have lots of expensive stuff, so please be mindful.”

The guard said, “OK, madam, I’ve done many vipassanā retreats—I know how to be mindful.”

“Very good,” she replied, and off she went.

But when she returned home, she discovered that the robbers had torn through her house and stolen everything!

She was very upset and went to scold the guard: “I told you to be mindful! You learned about mindfulness at those retreats. Why did you allow me to be robbed?”

The guard said: “Madam, I was mindful. I saw the burglars going in and I noted, ‘Burglars going in, burglars going in, burglars going in.’ I saw them taking out all your expensive jewelry and I noted, ‘Expensive jewelry going out, expensive jewelry going out, expensive jewelry going out.’ I saw them drive their truck next to the house and I noted, ‘Truck coming, truck coming.’ I saw them taking your safe and putting it in the back of the truck, and I noted, ‘Safe going in the back of the truck, safe going in the back of the truck.’ I was very mindful; I noted everything, madam.”

Of course, that’s stupid; you’re not supposed to just note. If you see burglars going in, you’re supposed to do something, like call the police. Just noting is not enough. The same is true for meditation. Learning unconditional love is the same as learning how to meditate—it’s about opening the door of your heart. You practice by sitting, in the present moment, with all of its stupidity, its tiredness, its restlessness, and everything else that’s going on in your mind, not wanting the moment to be any different from what it is. Loving-kindness and letting go are the same thing. As you learn how to meditate, your unconditional love grows and grows.