Why am I not Getting Anywhere in my Practice?

From Boddhinaya by Ajahn Chah

The following were questions raised by a group of western monks to Ajahn Chah.

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Q: I’m trying very hard in my practice but don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

A: This is very important. Don’t try to get anywhere in the practice. The very desire to be free or to be enlightened will be the desire that prevents your freedom. You can try as hard as you wish, practise ardently night and day, but if it is still with the desire to achieve in mind, you will never find peace. The energy from this desire will be a cause for doubt and restlessness. No matter how long or how hard you practise, wisdom will not arise from desire. So, simply let go. Watch the mind and body mindfully but don’t try to achieve anything. Don’t cling even to the practice of enlightenment.

Q: Is it advisable to read a lot or study the scriptures as a part of practice?

A: The Dhamma (Spiritual Truths) of the Buddha is not found in books. If you want to really see for yourself what the Buddha was talking about, you don’t need to bother with books. Watch your own mind. Examine it to see how feelings come and go, how thoughts come and go. Don’t be attached to anything. Just be mindful of whatever there is to see. This is the way to the truths of the Buddha. Be natural. Everything you do in your life, here is a chance to practise. It is all Dhamma. When you do your chores, try to be mindful. If you are emptying a spittoon or cleaning a toilet, don’t feel you are doing it as a favour for anyone else. There is Dhamma in emptying spittoons. Don’t feel you are practising only when sitting still, cross-legged. Some of you have complained that there is not enough time to meditate. Is there enough time to breathe? This is your meditation: mindfulness, naturalness in whatever you do.

Q: What can I do about doubts? Some days I’m plagued with doubts about the practice or my own progress, or the teacher.

A: Doubting is natural. Everyone starts out with doubts. You can learn a great deal from them. What is important is that you don’t identify with your doubts: that is, don’t get caught up in them. This will spin your mind in endless circles. Instead, watch the whole process of doubting; of wondering. See who it is that doubts. See how doubts come and go. Then you will no longer be victimized by your doubts. You will step outside of them and your mind will be quiet. You can see how all things come and go. Just let go of what you are attached to. Let go of your doubts and simply watch. This is how to end doubting.

Q: What about other methods of practice? These days there seem to be so many teachers and so many different systems of meditation that it is confusing.

A: It is like going into town. One can approach from the north, from the south-east, from many roads. Often these systems just differ outwardly. Whether you walk one way or another, fast or slow, if you are mindful, it is all the same. There is one essential point that all good practice must eventually come to – not clinging. In the end, all meditation systems must be let go of. Neither can one cling to the teacher. If a system leads to relinquishment, to not clinging, then it is correct practice.

You may wish to travel, to visit other teachers and try other systems. Some of you have already done so. This is a natural desire. You will find out that a thousand questions asked and knowledge of many systems will not bring you to the truth.

Eventually you will get bored. You will see that only by stopping and examining your own mind can you find out what the Buddha talked about. No need to go searching outside yourself. Eventually you must return to face your own true nature. Here is where you can understand the Dhamma.

Q: Is it necessary to sit for very long stretches?

A: No, sitting for hours on end is not necessary. Some people think that the longer you can sit, the wiser you must be. I have seen chickens sit on their nests for days on end! Wisdom comes from being mindful in all postures. Your practice should begin as you awaken in the morning. It should continue until you fall asleep. Don’t be concerned about how long you can sit. What is important is only that you keep watchful whether you are working or sitting or going to the bathroom.

Each person has his own natural pace. Some of you will die at age fifty, some at age sixty-five, and some at age ninety. So, too, your practices will not all be identical. Don’t think or worry about this. Try to be mindful and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become quieter and quieter in any surroundings. It will become still like a clear forest pool. Then all kinds of wonderful and rare animals will come to drink at the pool. You will see clearly the nature of all things in the world. You will see many wonderful and strange things come and go. But you will be still. Problems will arise and you will see through them immediately. This is the happiness of the Buddha.

Q: I still have very many thoughts. My mind wanders a lot even though I am trying to be mindful.

A: Don’t worry about this. Try to keep your mind in the present. Whatever there is that arises in the mind, just watch it. Let go of it. Don’t even wish to be rid of thoughts. Then the mind will reach its natural state. No discriminating between good and bad, hot and cold, fast and slow. No me and no you, no self at all. Just what there is.

When you walk on alms round, no need to do anything special. Simply walk and see what there is. No need to cling to isolation or seclusion. Wherever you are, know yourself by being natural and watching. If doubts arise, watch them come and go. It’s very simple. Hold on to nothing.

It is as though you are walking down a road. Periodically, you will run into obstacles. When you meet defilements, just see them and just overcome them by letting go of them. Don’t think about the obstacles you have passed already. Don’t worry about those you have not yet seen. Stick to the present. Don’t be concerned about the length of the road or about the destination.

Everything is changing. Whatever you pass, do not cling to it. Eventually the mind will reach its natural balance where practice is automatic. All things will come and go of themselves.

Q: How about anger? What should I do when I feel anger arising?

A: You must use loving-kindness. When angry states of mind arise in meditation, balance them by developing feelings of loving-kindness. If someone does something bad or gets angry, don’t get angry yourself. If you do, you are being more ignorant than they. Be wise. Keep in mind compassion, for that person is suffering. Fill your mind with loving-kindness as if he were a dear brother. Concentrate on the feeling of loving-kindness as a meditation subject. Spread it to all beings in the world. Only through loving-kindness is hatred overcome.

Sometimes you may see other monks behaving badly. You may get annoyed. This is suffering unnecessarily. You may think like this: ‘he is not as strict as I am. They are not serious meditators like us. Those monks are not good monks.’ This is a great defilement on your part. Do not make comparisons. Do not discriminate. Let go of your opinions, watch your opinions and watch yourself. You can’t possibly make everyone act as you wish or be like you. This wish will only make you suffer. It is a common mistake for meditators to make, but watching other people won’t develop wisdom. Simply examine yourself, your feelings. This is how you will understand.

Q: What is the biggest problem of your new disciples?

A: Opinions. Views and ideas about all things: about themselves, about practice, about the teachings of the Buddha. Many of those who come here have a high rank in the community. There are wealthy merchants or college graduates, teachers and government officials. Their minds are filled with opinions about things. They are too clever to listen to others. It is like water in a cup. If a cup is filled with dirty, stale water, it is useless. Only after the old water is thrown out can the cup become useful.

You must empty your minds of opinions, then you will see. Our practice goes beyond cleverness and beyond stupidity. If you think, ‘I am clever, I am wealthy, I am important, I understand all about Buddhism’, you cover up the truth of anattā or no-self. All you will see is self, I, mine. But Buddhism is letting go of self. Voidness, emptiness, Nibbāna (enlightenment).

Q: I have been developing very peaceful states of mind from meditation. What should I do now?

A: This is good. Make the mind peaceful, concentrated. Use this concentration to examine the mind and body. When the mind is not peaceful, you should also watch. Then you will know true peace. Why? Because you will see impermanence. Even peace must be seen as impermanent. If you are attached to peaceful states of mind you will suffer when you do not have them. Give up everything, even peace.

Q: Did I hear you say that you are afraid of very diligent disciples?

A: Yes, that’s right, I am afraid. I am afraid that they are too serious. They try too hard, but without wisdom. They push themselves into unnecessary suffering. Some of you are determined to become enlightened. You grit your teeth and struggle all the time. This is trying too hard. People are all the same. They don’t know the nature of things. All formations, mind and body, are impermanent. Simply watch and don’t cling.

car on road

Others think they know. They criticize, they watch, they judge. That’s OK. Leave their opinions to them. This discrimination is dangerous. It is like a road with a very sharp curve. If we think others are worse or better or the same as us, we go off the curve. If we discriminate, we will only suffer.

Q: I have been meditating many years now. My mind is open and peaceful in almost all circumstances. Now I would like to try to backtrack and practise high states of concentration or mind absorption.

A: This is fine. It is a beneficial mental exercise. If you have wisdom, you will not get hung up on concentrated states of mind. It is the same as wanting to sit for long periods. This is fine for training, but really, practice is separate from any posture. It is a matter of directly looking at the mind. This is wisdom. When you have examined and understood the mind, then you have the wisdom to know the limitations of concentration, or of books.

If you have practised and understand not clinging, you can then return to the books. They will be like a sweet dessert. They can help you to teach others. Or you can go back to practise absorption. You have the wisdom to know not to hold on to anything.

 

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