January  2001   2544   Number 56 

Touching the Meaning; Ajahn Sucitto
Working with Pain; Sister Thanasanti
View from the Hill; Ajahn Munindo
House Builder; Ajahn Candasiri

Touching the Meaning
From a talk given by Ajahn Sucitto at Cittaviveka, January 1st 2000.

New Year's Day: It's been quite a full couple of days... and what about tomorrow? Just notice: when one looks back, or looks forward; is it pleasant? Enjoyable? Tiring? A bit much? Peaceful? Or what? What particular perception does the mind log on to, and what does it make out of that? Such as last night, when we placed those tiny wooden boats with prayers on their sails into the pond: the lovely image of these candlelit boats bobbing around on the black water. The delicate buoyancy of those things -- they're fragile, and yet they represent a stability, an ability to float, to be light among these huge elements of rain, earth, and sky -- a very touching image. When there's something like that, you can recollect it, use it as a treasure.

One of the opportunities in our lives is to be able to create particular perceptions that have meaning in them -- not that meaning is a literal truth. People get very one-dimensional on these things: 'Either it's true, or it's not true!' So we could say: 'Well, it's just bits of wood floating around on a muddy old pond in Sussex; so what?...' The mind can work like that -- not realising that much of meaning is metaphorical, rather than literal. The literal is only one, rather thin, take on reality -- which doesn't take into account the mind of the observer, and the nature of the actual experience. The literal truth is a half-truth -- which excludes the moment of perception, the relational dynamic and the resonance of things. It's sad that people can imagine this eviscerated version of reality to be the bedrock of what reality is: stripped of consciousness, stripped of perceptions, stripped of resonance, stripped of meaning, stripped of anybody who's in it. It becomes some bleak, external world in which nobody belongs, so we don't experience light, flow, coolness, gathering, quiet, celebration, festivity, aspiration, joy -- these things. When there's meaning we're included in something, our living process participates and is involved. Meaninglessness is when it's not involved, or when the sense of being involved is hidden beneath a mind that's unwilling, blinkered, or shut down in some way.
The literal truth is a half-truth which excludes the moment of perception, the relational dynamic and the resonance of things.
The fact of it is that actually we're always involved, only sometimes we bring into such a situation a dismissiveness, or a fear of unknowing, or uncertainties about our capacity. We stay with a blank reality; a reality that is 'out there'-- mostly indifferent, and occasionally hostile -- all flat surfaces and planes: 'But it's real (out there), and I know where I am -- separate from it.'

Of course, the sense of participation -- of play -- is a risky thing because it brings us to our feelings, and we don't really know what they might be. It's an act of trust to allow oneself to really feel what one is feeling, and to know that that is the 'meaning' of that reality right now. But when we understand and are not frightened of meaning, then we can make use of many different things; for example, myths or legends, religious forms, rituals, idols, icons or mysteries... they make sense to us, because they involve us, we feel the meaning. They bring out our sense of awe, our joy, and we're part of something. It goes wrong if we canonise such things, saying that they're true rather than meaningful, that they're something that stands apart 'out there' rather than 'here'.

Puja and ceremonies are meaningful because we can allow ourselves to be part of them. In that willingness to give oneself into something, to not be embarrassed or intense about it, there is a wholeness of heart; we may find ourselves touched in ways that are acute, and even mysterious. It's not always that secure, but it is revealing. We begin to access the core perceptions of our minds -- the joy, the fear, the love, the sense of belonging, the sense of aloneness, the dark, the light -- and how perceptions get assembled; how it is that people can be the loved, the blessed, the company -- or THEM: the nuisance, the impingement, the irritation! Both of those will stand up as truth; both of those can have a meaning: a negative meaning or a positive meaning. But if we acknowledge what occurs and realise that this is perception playing, we don't have to be stuck in them, we don't have to externalise them as facts.

Perception and feeling are what are called the citta-sankhara, or the things that influence or determine the mind. What we take our mind to be at any moment is determined by a perception: an image, a thought fragment, a memory -- and the feeling tone that goes with it: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Anything you focus your mind upon, as an object, is a perception; it's a perceived thing, right? So if you think of yesterday night, or of me, or of home, or of tomorrow -- a perception comes up; and there's the feeling that goes with it: dynamically pleasant, vaguely pleasant or sort of pleasant oscillating into unpleasant with dashes of neutral in it! These two together determine what we seem to be going through; what kind of a day we're having; what our future or past is, and hence -- what we take ourselves to be. This self-image is a conditioned thing, created by perception and feeling. There are the various ways in which we navigate through all that, involving a juggling of different perceptions; so these citta-sankhara are also the measure of how the mind moves, in terms of perceptions and feelings -- from this one to that one. What makes the mind move? It moves because of an underlying volitional choosing, an intending quality, or cetana. There's a seeking and a finding, and that activity 'personalises' or 'internalises' the experience: 'Now, there's something in it for me.'

So what are the boundaries, the range, of that activity?... Its boundary is called attention, manasikara: that is, where the mind lingers. In the immediate moment of that lingering there is the contact impression, which is where the perception and the feeling occur. The mind contacts something and has a take on it; perception, feeling, intention, attention and impression constitute 'naming' -- nama -- which is what defines our presence in each moment of consciousness. However, the Buddha said all this activity of consciousness is dependently arisen, it's not an ultimate truth in itself.

This implies that we can have some flexibility; we can pick up or let go of particular perceptions. We can know how to pick up meanings that lift us up and how to relinquish meanings that bring us down. We can learn how to understand the nature of these things, so that we are no longer mesmerised by perceptions and feelings.
For example, with a concept like 'The Millennium' the whole world can just go into a trance -- or we can make use of it. We can use it as a time for determining to begin anew, say, to be good to one another -- rather than dismiss it as, 'just another day in samsara.' What's the volitional quality that personalises, and makes a meaningful perception out of the concept? We can ask: 'Is it eager, cynical or willing to find a skilful meaning?' and, 'Is the internalisation of that experience something that's worth keeping going?' Perception and intention will reinforce each other. So the mind can create perceptions that externalise as importance, urgency and utter necessity, when actually they are only a result of the volition -- the energy of the mind's mood. Maybe somebody's trying to do something good: 'I think I'll make some nice food and offer it to the Sangha, to the nuns and monks. Oh, that'll be good. Lovely!' and they think of what they'd like to offer: shepherd's pie, pickled gherkins, truffles. That's their perception. But then because they really want to do something nice, maybe the internalisation takes over the situation; the offering has to be pickled gherkins, shepherd's pie and truffles. Then: 'But where do I get truffles in Petersfield!' and they get into a panic over it. Rather than staying with the intention to do something good through generosity, the mind has lost the meaning and externalised its internal perception to a literal unchangeable fact. The participation, the play, is lost. So then I say to them: 'Don't worry, it doesn't really matter...' 'Oh, it doesn't really matter? This was my dana! What do you mean, my dana doesn't really matter?' Or scenes can occur in the monastery kitchen over people trying to make a nice offering to the Sangha: 'We don't want dahl here, they hate dahl.' 'They don't hate dahl' 'Yes, they do hate dahl!' Instead of staying with the participation in goodwill, the meaning has been lost. Doesn't this happen quite a lot in our lives? How many times have we tried to do lovely things, but then lost the attitude of mind and become fixated on the Thing-That-Has-To-Be-Done -- and missed the meaning? In a dependent reality we own our reality, not as something 'out there' or as -- exclusively -- 'in here,' but as a conditioned event that we're part of. So we need to consider: 'How are we participating in that? What is our part in it?' This process really illuminates things in us that may be uncomfortable, but that should be acknowledged. When we're prepared to know about them, what we find is that the thing we do know about them is that they're changing.

The Buddha said we should be mindful and fully aware of mind and mind-states, internally and externally. For example, 'This is a wonderful day' or, 'This is a horrible meal.' Those are mind states that are external; they're saying it's something happening 'out there,' but when you own them you realise: 'No, it's not a wonderful day -- it's a day in which I feel wonderful!', 'It's not “my unpleasant body” -- it's a body that I don't like.' If there is no mindfulness and full awareness, then a mind state that expresses itself in terms of an external reality automatically gives rise to a sense of a person, to someone who's not responsible for that -- and yet can't separate from it. This is confusing, and even dangerous. We're passive, cut off, in an external world -- which includes even our own bodies.

The internal does very much the same. An internal mind says, 'I am. I am happy, I am unhappy, I am bored, I am depressed, I am clear,' and separates from a field of events; it solidifies an internal world, just as the other articulates a solid, external world. And that solid, internal world is just as frustrating as the solid, external world -- because the proper dynamic, the flow of meaning, is inaccessible. Meaning is only true when there is a coming together, a participation. This is why we should contemplate these things.

Contemplate the mind state when it expresses itself internally as: 'I am' -- and when it expresses itself externally as: 'He is, she is, the world is, the day is, my body is, the future is, everybody does...' -- all that. Contemplation means holding your attention on something, with the intention of feeling the resonance, the meaning of it: 'This is dread', 'this is joy', 'this is love;' then we're able to reflect on the volitional quality of the wholesome or unwholesome effects that are arising. When these wholesome or unwholesome effects create the perception of, 'I am in “here”, and that is “out there”', this is called the mundane reality; a mind-state with an attendant object is established. When this is wholesome (I am happy, this is a lovely day, etc.) that's called mundane wholesome; there are also mundane unwholesome states. However, when any of these are attended to in full awareness with the consideration: 'What is the mind state? What is the perception? What's the feeling?' Then what's called the supramundane is approached. When approached with the awareness (not just the phrase!): 'There is' -- 'There is joy', 'there is clarity', 'there is anxiety' -- this is supramundane; there is no seeking and finding that personalises the experience, leaving a perceptual 'person' in there. In fact there are no supramundane unwholesome states, because any unwholesome volition makes it impossible to contemplate things in that way. If awareness is motivated by greed, aversion, attachment or confusion, then it doesn't enter the supramundane.

So there's a path being described here, isn't there? Any unwholesome state will cease when held in full awareness as: 'There is...' At the moment when one recognises with awareness (not memory) the fear or the anger that's occurring, then that falls away. So when we feel fear, hostility or whatever, rather than either: 'I am it' or 'It's that way -- “out there”' just try to touch into: 'There is this.'

The key is the approach. Mind states are impermanent and ephemeral when they are directly approached. If they're indirectly approached -- if we think about them, worry about them, or celebrate them -- there is an engagement, an activation, and an internalisation or externalisation. We get into a long, sustained mood, because the mind has not been able to see that state with right seeing. So maybe we feel: 'I'm depressed. I'm always depressed. I was depressed yesterday; the world is meaningless -- it doesn't seem very impermanent to me!' Here the faculties of mindfulness and full awareness have not been activated -- and the faculties that keep solidifying the mood are continually re-engaged. So it seems to be permanent, because it's re-activated moment after moment.

As I work with some of my habitual mind states (and they're the ones I don't really like), I feel they help me know who I am, they give me a home -- even if it's not a particularly nice home. They give this sense of being, of self-definition -- an easy familiarity. It's certainly not that they're pleasant, but they are the easy, default route, that I have created strategies for. So it can be difficult even to recognise behaviour patterns in an unbiased way because they help 'me' to be 'myself' -- separate from things. But if I can contemplate: 'This is the mind internally' or, 'This is the mind externally,' it starts to free up. When it is: 'This is the mind affected by fear' or, 'This is the agitated mind,' and there's an easeful presence with that, then an effective response can occur. The process becomes one of a participating awareness in something that's more dynamic -- and more meaningful -- than a literal one-dimensional truth that some 'I am' is stuck with. So if the way of focusing is a full giving of awareness, the mind brightens up, the internal voices go quiet, and the re-creation can stop.

Notice, when a particular quality of mind state softens, recedes, goes to stillness... the place it goes to is the same, whatever one has come out of. It's the same place where we started from; there was no going anywhere, no way of going on, really. There is a going on but, at an another level, there's no going on. I find this wonderful because sometimes I feel there are so many things going on, so many things to do, and so many things on the back-burner that the back-burner is brimming over; all these issues pending -- issues I don't -- urghh -- even want to touch into!... It's a lot. But then to get to the end of the day, with the realisation: 'Oh, there's nothing going on!' Or: 'There was nothing “out there” going on.' It was just that nerve ending, that nerve ending of volition; around that, arises 'me' and 'the world'.

Coming back to the 'nothing going on' challenges my self-definition, because I can't really get a boundary around that one. I can't feel myself as separate from things, and that's precarious. I can't have clear plans as to what will be happening for me or what I'm going to do, so I have to trust in mindfulness and full awareness. (Maybe that's why there has to be so much going on!)

In meditation we can allow ourselves the time to follow the quality and meaning of our lives in line with some of these teachings. We can focus on the stream of mind as just that, whether it's a day, a memory, a thought, an idea of oneself -- just as part of the stream of mind states. Then, when we feel ourselves losing balance, we can review the process of mind states: 'What is holding them?' It's not that they're happening to somebody. That 'background identity' is the internalisation that continually seeks and needs to have mental patterns, in order to maintain its existence. This is where the challenge is, and the skill: to be able to gently let go of an identity; to create the conditions of mindfulness to see when one's identity stops. The sense of 'I am' or 'he is' can unfold into openness. It's not that there's nothing there, it's not a meaningless place -- it's a place of peace and warmth.