“If we don’t grasp hold of the snake, it won’t bite us. If we don’t grasp onto the moods, the feelings, the thoughts, they won’t bite us.” I would like to use these two sentences from Ajahn Jayasaro’s book Seen in Their True Light to start my discussion about achieving mindfulness and the cessation of sufferings through meditation, at least in my understanding of the Buddha’s teaching.
Growing up in a Buddhist household, I have seen my father practicing meditation, but I did not know the sense of deep peacefulness that could come with meditation until I practiced myself. I received formal ordination as a Buddhist when I was 15 years old. Since then, I have attended multiple meditation retreats in Buddhist monasteries in China and Thailand and keep pursuing my passion for the teachings of the Buddha’s Dharma (what the Buddha proclaims is the universal truth common to all individuals at all times). Buddha put great emphasis on the practice of meditation as the vehicle to achieve enlightenment.
There are two types of peacefulness that can be achieved through meditation–one is the peace that comes through samādhi (a Pali word connoting unification of mind and mental stability), the other is the peace that comes through paññā (wisdom) which consists in “seeing things as they are,” that is, observing the anicca (impermanent), dukkha (unsatisfactory), and not-self nature (anattā) nature of all conditioned phenomena. Anattā is the idea that humans have no soul or self because nothing is permanent and people are subject to anicca because of dukkha. The Buddha clarifies further: we experience dukkha because we are “separated from things we like, exposed to things we dislike, [and don’t] get the things we want,” along with other sources of suffering like birth, death, decay, and human disease.
These ideas always hit my heart and never fail to enlighten me. As brutal and pessimistic as this all may sound, it is nonetheless the reality of human nature. People go through emotional and physical pain because we are attached to many different things, including people, material possessions, and feelings. When we lose these things, we suffer. If we understand and accept the impermanent nature of things, we become closer to enlightenment.
What does enlightenment look like? Whether you experience the pleasant or unpleasant, you will remain at ease and your mind will remain peaceful in this way. You will no longer feel disturbed by the sound of traffic or other noises. Whether it’s forms, sounds, or whatever, they won’t be a source of disturbance, because the mind won’t be paying attention to them. Let me give you an example. Growing up, I was often distracted and annoyed by surrounding noise when trying to study. My father has always been my role model, and whenever I have questions in life, I turn to him for insights. He told me it was not the environment that was affecting me but my response to the environment that disturbed me. Having tried this myself, I learned that if the mind is agitated in this way, try taking an extra-deep breath until the lungs are completely full, and then release all the air until there is none left inside. Do this several times, then reestablish awareness and continue to develop concentration, no matter whether you are trying to focus on meditation or other activities. This method of achieving peacefulness is helpful as it can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
In my practice, it’s also important to maintain mindfulness and awareness. It shouldn’t be limited to the time when you practice meditation in the sitting posture. After you get up from the formal sitting practice and go about your business – walking, doing chores, and so on – make the mind firm and steady and maintain this sense of steadiness at all times. Just going for a walk and seeing dead leaves on the ground will be a great opportunity to contemplate impermanence. Both we and the leaves are the same: when we get old, we shrivel up and die. This is raising the mind to the level of vipassanā, contemplating the truth of the way things are, the whole time. Once there’s clear comprehension of the way things truly are, the conditions which give rise to the Path (composed of three elements–virtue, samādhi, wisdom) may occur. When they have attained full strength, the Path of Dharma will become unstoppable, and this is the point where suffering ceases.