When we began the retreat, I asked you to accept the whole of what happens within the next two months. Make your intention not just to have the kind of retreat that you would like, but to open yourself to the possibility of whatever arises. Psychologically, this prepares us for the way life moves and changes. When we set our mind trying to make life into what we want, then we are always feeling frustrated when it does not go quite the way we would like. So try changing the attitude to one of acceptance, and willingness to look at and understand experiences, rather than just trying to get rid of them.
Youre developing this practice of stillness, the stillness which is everywhere, whether you are in a group or alone. In order to be with the silence, we have to realise the stillness, the silence. In other words, be that way - be still and silent.
If one just follows the restless sensations of the body and the proliferations of the mind, then of course, silence is impossible. It can even be a threatening experience because one is so identified with the agitation and restlessness of the sensory realm, and endlessly seeking to get born into it.
The emphasis now is to recognise that restlessness for what it is, to no longer follow, but to train oneself towards calm. It doesnt mean just to suppress the bodily formation and persecute it, but to train it; because these bodies need to be trained with kindness. If you brutalise animals, they are not very nice, are they? They are just frightened, untrustworthy, miserable creatures. To train an animal does not mean you just pamper it, but you guide it. It is the same with your own body. Your body needs to be respected and guided not to follow its restless energy and habits.
But it does not mean you should deny it everything either. A trainer needs to be someone who is both kind and firm, not stubborn or brutal. Not kind in the sense of giving in to everything - because that is not really being kind - but caring, being concerned, having the right amount of interest. The proper attitude towards your own body and mind.
How to calm the body? One way is through sweeping meditation, in which you sweep your attention through the body, concentrating on the sensations in the body as you do so. The body needs to be noticed and accepted for what it is. So we bring into consciousness even the tensions, unpleasant sensations and sensation less parts of the body. By doing that, going from the top of the head to the soles of the feet and back up again, the body will feel relaxed. Its a very healthy meditation, and it will help to train the mind not to be caught up in conceptual proliferation and endless wandering.
Then, as these formations start to calm down, we begin to feel much more aware of the silence of mind. We can abide in that emptiness more and more, where there is no self, just the present moment as it is. The stillness and silence is ever present wherever we are, no matter what condition we happen to be in.
You can abide in emptiness by just standing among the barren trees of winter and looking at them without creating anything onto them. One can feel a sense of perfect calm and contentment with just being still and silent like the trees. Maybe our egos might say: Well I do not want to become like a tree. I want to express my true inner creativity, my unique personality. We listen to the inner voices that complain and grumble, the wanting to become something, that which stands out or exists. But we are not feeding these creatures, we are letting them go and moving towards the stillness, the silence.
This word existence means to stand forth. Something that doesnt exist, doesnt stand forth. So when we say non existing, we are not talking about killing ourselves and no longer being alive but no longer following the desire to stand out to become something, to be separate. Now that sounds like a real nihilistic view: Ajahn Sumedho does not want to exist! Oh, poor man, needs to go to a psychiatrist. But non existence does not mean we do not want to have any personalities, that we just want to become dreary boring people. That is not it. It is the ability to abide in the subtlety of just being aware, open and sensitive without being caught in the delusions of trying to become something else or stand out in some way. It is just realising the peace of non existence - because non existence is peaceful. And when there is non existence and emptiness, there is the knowing, the brightness, the wisdom, awareness, clarity, enlightenment. Things are as they are, the suchness, as is ness.
In Western values, the emphasis is on being special, a unique individual, a child of God. This attitude is very much supported by culture and religion. There are the chosen people of God, the sects that feel that they have been called by Jesus (and all the rest havent); and they are the ones who are going to make it and live in an eternal paradise.
But with all these views of being special, of being an individual, all those self views - what happens to you? From my own experience, the result of all of this was suffering. There seemed to be a tremendous investment in having a sizzling and unique personality. Sometimes I used to think, Wait a minute, maybe I dont a have very nice personality. Maybe I dont have any personality. There was so much anxiety, frustration, jealousy and fear. You didnt want to be a failure, didnt want to be a mediocrity, to be the ordinary guy. It was very painful to be always caught in that desire to become somebody. And as long as one has that desire, then one is always going to fear that youll become something thats not very good - because fear and desire go together.
At first, this path may seem a bit hopeless. Sometimes the tendencies and habits of a lifetime towards becoming and emphasising yourself as an individual personality are so strong that you feel you should not be that way - you should try to be nobody.
But trying to be nobody is still being somebody. What I am suggesting is not to become nobody but to realise the Truth of mind. Then you can abide in Truth, where you feel most at ease and peaceful, rather than in this endless round of existence in which youre always seeking to be reborn again. In all levels of existence youll never find contentment. They never satisfy, not even the best of them. The most blissful conditioned states, the jhanas, are still unsatisfactory for us. The Buddha made it very clear that all forms of human happiness and worldly success are really terribly disappointing because they can only temporarily gratify us. And the moment when that gratification is gone, we are caught in the same process of seeking again to be reborn, to become something else, to find another moment of happiness. Life becomes so wearisome.
To live with a body with the right attitude, begin to accept it as it is, and all that it is might have right and wrong in it, whether it is young or old, male or female, strong or weak. This is the path to true peacefulness. Do not seek to identify with your body or try to make it into something else. When we know Truth, then at the right times we can be special according to time and place, without it becoming an attachment. One feels one can manifest and disappear according to what is needed. I am not saying that one should just stand among the trees for the rest of ones life. One can be something that is useful and helpful to others - but it is not a permanent role one is trying to hold onto and defend anymore. So one begins to feel a sense of freedom and ease.
When I was young I was very self conscious - to say something in public was absolutely terrifying for me. Even when I was in the Navy, just having to raise my voice to say Aye aye sir ! in public in a roll call would have me shaking because of self consciousness. Then I became a schoolteacher. Teaching 8-9 year old Chinese kids in N. Borneo for a couple of years; that wasnt such a threat. But then becoming a monk in Thailand and eventually having to give talks to Thai people in Thai...! All this self consciousness became apparent: the highs youd get when you felt youd given a good talk and everybody says : Youre really good, Sumedho, you can give good Dhamma. Then sometimes I would give a really stupid talk and think, I dont want to give another talk, ever again. I didnt become a monk to give talks.
But the idea was to keep watching this. Luang Por* Chah would always encourage me to keep aware of the pride, the conceit, the embarrassment and the self consciousness that I would feel. And fortunately in Thailand, the people are such that theyre just grateful for a monk giving a talk. Even if its not a very good talk, it doesnt seem to upset them very much. They still seem quite grateful about it. So that made it quite easy. One time, at a Kathina* ceremony where we had to sit up all night, Ajahn Chah said, Sumedho, you have to give a talk for three hours tonight. And up till that time Id only talked for half an hour. That was a strain, three hours !! And he knew.
*Luang Por: The Thai term translates as Venerable Father, although the English does not convey the mixture of affection and respect that it signifies. It is used in addressing an elderly monk.
*Kathina: a ceremony held at the end of a Vassa in which lay people make offerings to the monastery.
With Ajahn Chah I always felt that if he said something, Id do it. So I sat up on the high seat and talked for three hours. And I had to sit there and watch people get up and leave; and I had to sit there and watch people just lie down on the floor and sleep in front of me. And at the end of the three hours, there were still a few polite old ladies sitting up there!
That wasnt Ajahn Chah saying, O.K. Sumedho, go in there and bowl them over with some scintillating stuff. Entertain them, really sock it to them. I began to realise that what he wanted me to do was to be able to look at this self consciousness, the posing, the pride, the conceit, the grumbling, the lazy, the not wanting to be bothered, the wanting to please, the wanting to entertain, the wanting to get approval.
All these have come up during these talks of the past fifteen years. But the meditation is one in which more and more one feels a real understanding of the suffering of a self view. And then through that insight one realises the abiding in emptiness.
Whenever Ajahn Chah used to give a talk, hed sit there and close his eyes and then hed start talking - and what would come out would be appropriate to time and place. He said to never prepare a talk - he didnt care if they were interesting or not - just to let them come. And when theres non existence, no self anymore, there are none of the problems we build out of What do people think of me? What do people say about me? Or the rebellion - They can think what they want, I dont care! (But do you really do? Otherwise you wouldnt have to say that, would you?)
Sometimes personalities manifest, at the appropriate times. As you talk, you manifest your personality. Now maybe you are still caught up in being a person in your own mind. But these are merely conditions that arise and cease and come out of fear and desire. When there is emptiness, personality still operates - it does not mean that we are exactly the same like bees in a hive. There are still the myriad differences of character and personality that can manifest to be charming or whatever. But there is no delusion about them - there is no suffering.
For example, when Ajahn Chah first visited England, he was invited to a certain womans home for a vegetarian meal. She obviously had put a lot of effort into creating the most delicious kinds of food. She was bustling, about offering this food and looking very enthusiastic. Ajahn Chah was sitting there assessing the situation, and then suddenly he said, This is the most delicious and wonderful meal I have ever had!
That comment was really something, because in Thailand monks are not suppose to comment on the food. And yet Luang Por suddenly manifested this charming character that complimented a woman who needed to be complimented because that made her feel so happy. He had a feeling for the time and place, for the person he was with, for what would be kind. So he could step out of the designated role of what is supposed to be according to a tradition, and manifest in ways that are appropriate.
Now that shows wisdom and the ability to respond to a situation; not to be just rigidly bound within a convention that blinds you. That was a manifestation and disappearance, because I have never heard him do that again.
The empty mind is an abiding in ease, where there is no self, no fear or desire to be deluded with. And yet there is the ability to respond out of compassion and kindness to the present situation in a suitable way. It is strange isnt it? Compare the goal of Nibbana, of non existence, with that of becoming the best person in the whole world, the strongest or the most beautiful. Worldly values are about having power, beauty, wealth - but they all have their opposites, dont they? Success is always attached to failure, happiness is always attached to unhappiness, praise is always attached to blame. Good fortune to bad fortune. So if you choose the worldly values of wealth, power, success and praise, you are going to get the others along with them because they are like two sides of the same coin. You cant separate the one from the other. Worldly values are never really going to allow you to feel at ease.
The world is an unsafe place, its not peaceful. And its not where we really belong. You only begin to understand and realise peace through emptiness, non existence, non self. And this is not annihilation, but enlightenment, freedom, true peace, true knowledge.