- Five Practical Ways to Focus the Mind -
Sunday July 31st, 2022
Helen Richardson: It's a great pleasure to introduce our special guest this morning. Shaila Catherine, an International Teacher and Author based in California. Her most recent book is "Beyond Distraction - Five practical Ways to Focus the Mind", which is the subject of today's talk.
Shaila: Thank you for the introduction and welcome everyone. I think there can be a great deal of benefit to giving a lot of attention to mindfulness of the body in our practice. I've done that for many years and find that mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of the breath have been ongoing, kind of primary features of my own practice. But there's another aspect of working with the mind that probably is going on all the time that we're working with the body and the breath as we're really in a way, looking at the mind, what can we be aware of, but how we know things, how we know anything.
One of the problems that people have when they are developing concentration and mindfulness, of course, is distraction, that we're not so clearly aware sometimes of what we're perceiving, because we are so to speak, lost in thought. Ajahn Buddhadasa was once asked about the state of the world, and he said, the state of the world is that people are lost in thought. And I'm not so sure that's changed very much since he said that several decades ago.
I enjoy teaching meditation retreats, and how for many decades, and for the past about 18 years, I've been teaching quite a lot of jhana practice, the deep concentration states of jhana. And in those retreats, I keep seeing the same hinderance, the same obstacle, which is just that subtle tendency to be in engaged and attracted by, caught by habitual thoughts. And I see this, of course, this pattern of habitual thinking as being an obstacle to concentration, it's one of the clearly most common hindrances, but also to any clear understanding of what's happening, because when we're lost in our interpretations, when we're lost in our various thoughts, when we are entangled in our assumptions about things, our views and opinions about things, then we're really not able to see them clearly.
So, I got inspired to write this book on "Beyond Distraction" primarily because I was seeing the real importance of working with the subtle tendencies of the mind. And I also discovered in the middle length discourses of the Buddha, that the Buddha gave us some very practical strategies for what to do with this tendency to get caught in thoughts, to what to do when our mind is not cooperating with us, he laid out a systematic approach. And there are two discourses that I particularly liked and found to be very practical, which is the middle length discourses number 19 and number 20. The first one is showing two kinds of thoughts where we discern whether a thought is helpful or harmful. And the second discourse goes through five strategies of replacing, examining, avoiding investigating, and the determination and energetic result. So it's not just sort of relaxing and letting the thoughts arise and float away. In this approach, we turn our attention to look at those thoughts and say, what's happening here? Okay, a thought is arising and, and it's a repeating thought. So, we don't jump on every thought that arises, meditation would be exhausting if we did that. But there are thoughts that are disturbing, they arise, and we know that they're toxic, or they keep repeating and keep distracting us in habitual ways. It's those repeating thoughts or particularly strong thoughts, thoughts that are rooted in strong defilements that we want to look at; we want to work with clearly.
So, if you have a thought of anger that develops into hatred or revenge thoughts, we've got to work with that, right? Because it's going down a path we don't want to go. If there's a lot of lustful thoughts that are going to take us into a direction of action that we don't want in our lives that also we need to work with. We need to see the roots of those thoughts. There are lots of kinds of thoughts that may not be so coarsely based on sensual desire or anger, but nevertheless keep us ruminating, worried and keep building up a particular sense of who I am in the world to the point that we keep building our insecurity, we keep reinforcing a sense of who we are in a very fragile sort of way. So, looking at thoughts becomes an important approach in our meditation practice. And so, when I was working with these two discourses, the first one is so simple in the sense that it asks us to look at the thought and ask ourselves the question. Is this helping or hurting? And it's remarkable how that simple reminder can solve a whole lot of problems. But do we always want to ask? I think sometimes that knowing the teaching, helps us remember to ask that very simple question. This thought is arising, is it helping or hurting?
Now of course, the traditional language is kusala or akusala in Pali, wholesome or unwholesome, is it rooted in greed, hate and delusion? Or not rooted in greed, hate and delusion? Is it perpetuating unskilful thoughts and intentions? Or is it removing them? So, we look, and I like to do little games and little exercises sometimes in my practice. Sometimes I might sit and just for a moment count thoughts, just count each thought. It's an interesting exercise. Sometimes it's not an easy thing to do. But it's a fun thing to try, because it asks us to now identify a thought, so we have to turn our attention to the thought. Where do we find a thought? That already is a curious question, where is it located? You know, we're not necessarily turning our attention to a place. But we're still turning our attention to an object arising in the mind. And so we recognize this object arising and being known, that is mental, that is a thought. And sometimes we might notice different thoughts, like one thought, and then another similarto it. Sometimes we might first have a thought, what is the thought? What does she want me to do? Am I doing it right? So we have thoughts about what we're doing even in the meditation, there can be such a difference, sometimes the thoughts are about the past. Sometimes they're about the future. And they're different kinds of thoughts.
So first, sometimes we just need to look and recognize, okay, this is a thought. And by asking you to count them, I'm asking you to try and find them. And the trick of being mindful of a thought is to know that it is a thought. It sounds kind of obvious to mindfulness meditators that a thought is a thought. But most of the time when people are lost in thought, they're not aware that they're thinking, they're not conscious that they're thinking, okay, they think that the thought is not a thought, but that the thought is true, that it's real. And it's real enough to trigger a whole range of emotions, lead to decisions and actions. And people can have these kinds of emotions, and decisions and actions based on thoughts that are not true. Even thoughts or reactions to a memory of something that occurred in a book that was fiction, or in a movie that was just a movie. Because we don't look to realize that this is just a thought arising and passing, we just believe them, invest them, invest our energy in them, and then get entangled in that pattern.
So one of the first steps is just to recognize this is a thought, a thought is a discrete mental event, it's a thought. And I like to use that exercise of just counting because sometimes we can't count the thoughts because we can't quite find them. And we can't quite figure out what is a thought; we're a little bit too murky in the mind. But if you play with it a little bit, no doubt, after a while, you'll be able to sit with quite a bit of stability and just see the arising and the ceasing of discrete thoughts as momentary events in the mind. And that cuts a lot of the clinging out, cuts a lot of the problem out of the experience, because we just see this experience of mental contact arises and passes away, a thought is known, and it doesn't disturb us very much. And when those thoughts don't disturb us very much, we don't need to do anything more with them; we really don't need to apply five strategies to them. Now it's fine, we just continue with our mindfulness or whatever is occurring in the next moment at hand. Sometimes it can be helpful to look very closely at the thoughts at least close enough to recognize ‘Oh this is a planning obsession’. Oh, this is a rumination about the past. This is worrying, oh, this is fantasizing. This is whatever some other judging or criticizing or fault finding whatever our pattern might be, because it can be very helpful to learn something about how our minds work, and what our most habitual patterns are. We don't work wildly differently with the different types of thoughts. But I think it's helpful to know what our patterns are, so that we can recognize them more quickly, and not buy into the storyline.
In the first discourse, where we recognize that there are two kinds of thoughts; that the traditional teaching is to primarily recognize if it's wholesome or unwholesome, helpful or unhelpful. Because once we recognize that, then very naturally, we're going to want to cultivate the helpful thoughts, and we're going to want to diminish the power and free ourselves from the unhelpful thoughts. But what's very interesting is even though some thoughts are wholesome thoughts of generosity, thoughts of compassion, thoughts of loving kindness, they still keep the mind active in the realm of thought, and can obstruct the potential for deeper concentration, or for meditative absorption. So the teaching is not to just move our attention from unwholesome thoughts to wholesome ones, and then busy ourselves all day thinking good thoughts, but to develop more freedom around our thoughts, so that we can think wholesome thoughts when we want to think wholesome thoughts and there are times when we can set them down and let the mind rest in deep concentration and meditative absorption. So we're not just a slave to the habits of mind.
So, working with thoughts has both the skilful/unskilful dynamic and the potential to not be caught in any of the thinking. But it's not about stopping thoughts. It's about developing a flexibility around thoughts so that we can use them most wisely. We're not trying to just cut them off. Some people think meditation is about not thinking. But it's much more about the wise use of the mind. And sometimes the wise use of the mind is to let thoughts rest, let them settle. But very, very often, it's to use them more skilfully, to cultivate the thoughts of loving kindness and compassion, to develop the capacity to reflect deeply, to contemplate the matters that lead to liberation, to contemplate the impermanence of things, to direct our mind so that we can pay attention to the things that we want to attend to.
So once we've learned to recognize the wholesome and the unwholesome thoughts there's another exercise I like to do, which is that once when we're sitting, we are noticing our thoughts. And then I like to imagine that I have two baskets, or two kinds of platforms where I can put piles of things on. And if an unwholesome thought arises, I see it, and I dropped it in that basket, of course, metaphorically, she can't pick up a thought. And then if a wholesome thought arises, you know, like, oh, let me be mindful or whatever, then I put it in the wholesome pile, and I just have these two baskets in my mind, and I just fill them up with the thoughts. It's a simple, it's a fun way of letting them go. Again, identifying the thought recognizing what it is, and then putting it in its category, in its pile, in its basket. Some people like to use three baskets for those neutral thoughts, because they don't want to struggle with is this wholesome; is this unwholesome? Sometimes it's easier just to add a third basket.
But I think that clarity of discernment can be very, very helpful. But then we're stuck, we have this basket filled with unwholesome thoughts, right? What do we do with those? Well, the very next discourse, the middle length discourses, sutta number 20 on the removal of distracting thoughts, teaches us five strategies for doing exactly that. The unwholesome thoughts, the thoughts that are leading us in patterns that will just perpetuate discontent, and suffering. We work more directly with those thoughts. And first we go through a series of strategies. And the first is to still just recognize it is a thought. And then we start the series of strategies. And the first strategy is to replace what's unwholesome with what's wholesome.
Maybe some of you have tried this, maybe you've tried sometimes if there was some resentment towards someone you tried to think of something good about them. Or if there was replacing an angry thought with a thought of loving kindness is sort of the classic way of developing this, but it can be done with any kind of unwholesome thought, you can replace it with something else. If there's a lot of fear and uncertainty, maybe you have to make a decision and you really don't know what you want to do, then you could replace that fear and uncertainty with just a thought that stimulates confidence in your own mindful presence and your capacity to make a decision and meet that moment However it is. You can't control the future; you don't know what's going to happen, but you can be equanimous and mindful with whatever happens and then adjust from there and adjust from there. So you can replace any kind of unwholesome thought with a wholesome thought. And some people think, oh, this is again, just taking away the unwholesome and building up the wholesome, but I think it's about flexibility. I think if we know that we can replace an unwholesome thought with a wholesome one, that we know we're not stuck in any thought pattern. Because if we were stuck, and if it was always true, we wouldn't have been able to replace it. The very fact that we can shift our attention to something else means that that there are alternatives there. And we can start to develop a wider range of alternatives and some skill with flexibility of the mind.
And it may be that we're practicing something like this every time we find that our mind wanders off into some kind of fantasy, or story, and we bring our attention back to being mindful of body breath or present experience, maybe that's a kind of the same kind of replacement, from delusion to mindfulness. And sometimes this works, I think we do this as an initial strategy. And you all probably learn this in your first meditation class, when the mind wanders off into thought, bring it back, right. So you're replacing that restless, deluded thinking with mindfulness of the present moment. But sometimes those thoughts keep reappearing. They keep coming back, and the Buddha recognized that. He said, If this strategy doesn't work, then try the next thing. And the next thing he suggests is to examine the danger in distracting thought. What is the problem? Where will it lead? If we were to indulge that thought, and just dwell on it for the next hour, what is that going to lead to? What is the problem with that? So we can consider for ourselves, what we're conditioning? And what the danger is? What defilements are we reinforcing? Is that really the direction we want our lives to go in? What is the feeling that's going to develop? What are the capacities or the tendencies of mind that we're going to develop? What are the dangers? I think this is particularly important to look at the costs, because some people think, oh, it's not hurting anybody, I'm just sitting here thinking about this. It's just like, in my own head, but actually, we are trading a lot when we engage in distraction, especially if it's fuelled with anger, or fear, or worry, we are actually paying a high price in terms of the quality of our minds, in terms of our capacity to be mindful, present, and, and available to do compassionate and skilful action in the world. We're lost in fantasies; we're paying a high price in the sense that we're not seeing the truth of things. And we're not really observing the changing nature of things. So sometimes we must look and see what way the cost is, see what the price is we're paying to indulge those distractions.
But sometimes, once we see the danger in this, there's what sometimes the next step happens very automatically, because when we see what the danger is, very often we step back from the danger, right? You know, you go to the edge of a cliff, and then you stepped back? Well, I just said that, because that's what I would do. But I also did just see some people doing this bungee jumping thing, where they jump off. And so maybe not everybody would step back from the edge of a cliff. But when we see the harm that something causes, when we see the danger, it's easy to then want to stop fuelling that, stop going in that direction, to step back from it, what I call to withdraw the fuel. Because thoughts only perpetuate when we feed them, when we can turn our attention away, when we can withdraw our attention from something, we are taking the fuel away. So step three is to forget those thoughts, to ignore them, to avoid them. And each of these strategies is associated with a particular simile. And the simile for this one is of somebody who has good eyesight but can open their eyes or close them and we have the capacity to see, to open our eyes, but we also have our capacity to turn away and to recognize that we can give our attention to something, or we can take our attention away from something. And we need the freedom, the freedom implies being able to not just be pulled into whatever is dominant or strong, or whatever is habitual, but to also turn away from it.
So I like this language, although many people react to it, avoid it. That doesn't sound very much like being mindful, aren't we supposed to go directly towards it? Ignore it, aren't we supposed to know what's happening? Forget it. Well, what's this about isn't mindfulness that that remembering. But developing this capacity to be skilful with our thoughts requires the capacity to have the ability to turn our attention both toward and away. There are some dangers, that is why that are wise to avoid. We know that right? There are some things that are just not worth going into. The Buddha talked about, well, it's wise to avoid scorpions, and bears, it's wise to avoid sewers, and cesspits. Okay, so there are some things that are that are wise to avoid, dangerous cliffs he had in his list. There were also some things that are wise to ignore. If we gave our attention to everything that came by without discrimination, well, I think we wouldn't have a very clear path. To develop a clear path in life and in our spiritual practice, we give our attention to some things, and we ignore others. And daily life these days puts a lot of pressure on us, you know, neon lights, flashing, cell phones beeping and things trying to catch our attention, advertisements for this or that, all the myriad relationships we have where people each want something different from us. And we must sort out what we give our attention and our time to and what we don’t and make those decisions with wisdom and with compassion.
There are also some things that are worth forgetting. There are some things that have happened in the past. And we've already ruminated on them and that rumination is not improving the situation of our mind state at all. I know people who sometimes ruminate on things 30 years after the event, 40 years after the event, 50 years after the event. And the other people involved in the event don't even remember it. And the person who's ruminating actually cannot even know for sure how accurate a 30- or 40-year memory is of the event. And sometimes we bear grudges and resentments way too long. And there can be a lot of value in being willing to forget something. It doesn't mean we haven't learned lessons from it. Sometimes the lesson we've learned is that person, you know, betrayed us so deeply we know we should not give them our trust. Okay, let's learn that lesson. But we can still in a sense, set it aside, not keep dwelling on it, effectively forget it. We might have a little caution in the future, but we don't need to keep dwelling on it. And so this strategy of learning to avoid, ignore and forget, can be very helpful. Again, developing a flexibility and a choice bringing wisdom to how we use our mind.
But sometimes after we've gone through these three strategies, and to try to forget it, to try to avoid it, try to ignore it, those thoughts just keep coming up. Well, what do we do then? Usually, we have to understand it more deeply. There's something there that we're not seeing. And so, the traditional language for this in the sutra is stilling the thought formations of those thoughts, which is a little bit of a mouthful, and people don't necessarily know exactly, what does that mean to still the thought formations of those thoughts? Well, the formations are pointing to the causes. We need to look deeply to resolve the deeper issues, the deeper causes that keep giving rise to those habitual and destructive, restless and distracting thoughts. And very often we might need to kind of look at the thoughts and their relationship to the feelings, their relationship to the emotions, how the emotions feel the thoughts, the thoughts feel the emotions, what were the triggers that gave rise to the thoughts? What were our thoughts about the thoughts? How are we feeding the thoughts? What was occurring right before that restless pattern just arose? What is the state that occurs after it? So, in various ways, we need to kind of unravel and tease apart the various experiences that keep that habitual thought pattern in play, that keep hooking us and getting us entangled in it. So, the simile for this one is of somebody who is walking really fast, could walk more slowly, somebody who's walking slowly decides, maybe I will stand, somebody who's standing thinks, why am I standing? Why don't I sit down, somebody who's sitting down, thinks, let me recline. And so one kind of goes gradually, gradually, gradually, gradually to a subtler posture.
And I think that gradual process of moving from the course to the subtle, noticing what is happening at the surface of the mind, in the realm of the story, and the strong emotional reactions to look deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper, occurs in a process of tranquillity, and a process of calmly looking at experience. So we're not getting agitated to trying to figure it all out, we're settling the attention with interest and stability, to look deeply to unwind and unravel the causes for these patterns. And most often, I've found that whatever the pattern is that brings us down to an initial delusion, an initial distortion of perception that perceives a sense of self, a sense of "I", that is being somehow reinforced or defended, or asserted. I am like this, I think it should be like that, my view, my opinion, how is this thought pattern continuing to feed and reinforce a particular construction of self.
And every time I can honestly say this every time, I've looked deeply, it comes down to that. And so, I don't think we necessarily jump right to that. I think there's something for this simile to go from running fast, to slowing down, to standing, to sitting, to reclining. Let's look and see, what can we understand about the causes for these thoughts. But keep looking deeper, keep looking deeper, keep looking deeper, keep looking deeper, until it feels like we're really, because some people stop at Oh, the reason I'm angry about this is because she said that to me. Well, that's not deep enough. We're still at the story level, we're still at the blame level there. Maybe we're still at the running fast level, look deeply. And I think it can bring us to a very deep and profound experience of an insight into how self is constructed and reinforced by how we use our minds and how we think.
In fact, one of the things that I found most intriguing that inspired me to continue to work with this system of distracting thoughts over a period of years, was that I had the opportunity to teach them in a retreat situation. The retreat was an 11- or 12-day retreat. It was a fairly long retreat. And I was quite amazed at how many very natural insights occurred around "not self", even though the retreat was on noticing distracting thoughts. Nevertheless, people were having these incredibly freeing insights into to "not self" and into emptiness. And I started to appreciate more and more the potential depths that can happen of our understanding and insights when we work with this very simple, we could call it a hindrance or a fetter of restlessness. Leads to very profound, not just like a clearing the space for concentration but very profound understanding of insight. But that happens sometimes, that even though we've understood the root causes, and our understanding is so clear, the thoughts sometimes still arise, still arise.
Well, the Buddha gave us a fifth strategy. And that fifth strategy is to apply determined resolve, to really say no to the thought, and mean, no. Sometimes we say no out of a kind of a spiritual obligation, you know, I'm too spiritual person to entertain that anger, but really, I'm enjoying it, or really, I think I'm right. And it's boosting my sense of conceit. So there's no maybe in this, no at this point. And there's also no hatred towards self, no judgment that I'm a horrible person to have had these habitual thoughts. It's just because we've already done all the previous steps, we've developed a flexibility, we know there are alternatives, we've seen the danger and know we don't want to go there. We've learned to pull our attention away, and to understand the root causes of these thoughts. So our mind is in a place of really understanding the causes and the conditions for these patterns. It's not in a place of self-blame. It's not in the thought of, oh, you're such a horrible person this is bad, like push that thought away. No, it's just the clear determination to set a boundary and say, no, I am not going to give even one more minute of my life to encouraging hatred in my mind. No, I am not going to do that. And we all have the capacity to set those boundaries, to set those limits, to say, I will indulge this, and I will not indulge that. It's not worth my time. It's not beneficial to anybody. So no. I call this the sledgehammer approach. Because it's a strong image. It's a really strong kind of no, very, very, very strong, but it's not a no of anger. It's a no of strength. And a sledgehammer maybe is a very powerful tool, but it's very useful for some things, right. If you want to break up some concrete, you don't try and do it with the spoon, you don't try and to do with your pencil. You do it with a sledgehammer. So if you have a persistent unwholesome thought, that has seemed to be relatively immune to all the previous strategies, well, maybe you're dealing with some concrete that needs to be broken up. And try the sledgehammer. And what's the problem with this strategy is, is if people don't use it as strategy number five, and they move it to the front of the line and use it as strategy number one. If people are using this strategy of strong determination and resolve this energetic effort, before they have understood with wisdom, through the investigation of the causes and recognize the dangers and recognize the flexibility of mind, then it will almost inevitably be an act of self-condemnation or judgment, and it will be too harsh. But in the sequence, it has a very important place, very powerful. When we understand the whole system and the whole sequence, we realize that the Buddha actually gave us quite a few tools to fill out our meditators toolkit, so to speak, to actually work with thoughts that arise and deep patterns that we may have unknowingly cultivated for many years, and then they keep coming up. Or they might just have been so you know, our reaction is so strong, or maybe our hurt is so deep, that they keep coming up over many years. And so we need a variety of tools to really work with them, so that we can free our minds.
This discourse suggests that one can be, I love this quote, it says, "One can be the master of one's own mind. And when one is the master of the courses of thought, one will think whatever thought one wants to think, and not think whatever thought one does not wish to think". When I read that, I think I read that back in 1990. I read this the first time and it blew my mind, in the sense that I thought, wow. Because I had already been doing enough mindfulness practice for long enough that I knew I was not the master of my mind. Sometimes it felt like my mind had a mind of its own. And it just did its own thing, not what I wanted it to do. And I thought, wow, what would it be to be the master of one's own mind? And to think what one wants to think and not think what one doesn't want to think? Do I really need to be a slave of my own thoughts? And it was so clear to me that the Buddha's teachings were teaching a way to not be a slave to our habitual patterns. Sure, we all have habitual patterns. Sure, we all have conditioning. That's understood and recognized as we live as human beings, each with histories, each with conditioning. But are we a slave to that conditioning? Are we caught by it? Are we compelled by it? Or do we have options? So I've enjoyed working with this this type of a structure, because it gives us a series of strategies to work with some of those pesky thoughts that keep reoccurring, or the particularly damaging ones. But most of these restless patterns, I find never get to step five, to the strong resolve, what I call the sledgehammer approach.
Although the Buddha used an image of a strong man beating down a weaker man, I prefer the sledgehammer but the strong man beating down a weaker man is also an interesting image if we recognize that the strong man is our strength of our virtues, the strength of our commitment to mindfulness and to freedom, the strength of our spiritual path. And that is stronger. Our commitment to liberation is stronger than the defilement. And I think we can trust sometimes the strength of our wisdom, and our compassion, and our commitment and our virtue, more than we put our trust in those habitual patterns. And I know we won't explicitly say I'm putting my trust in my habitual anger, but each time that reconfirms this subtle sense of who I am and gives us that subtle feeling of a conceit I am, it's almost like there's a sense of being confirmed by it. And it's an unhealthy, unwholesome kind of trust. But when we can really trust that our virtues and our wisdom and our practice is stronger than those defilements then I feel like that image of the strong man who beats down a weaker man makes a lot of sense to me.
So basically, I fell in love with these discourses, used them in my own practice, taught them in retreats and courses, because it's nice to teach what I'm working with in my own practice, found them to be super practical, and decided to write this book "Beyond Distraction, Five Practical Ways to Focus the Mind". And so I hope that it's a useful book for you, I hope you'll get it and enjoy it and read it. I've put a lot of little exercises that one does in meditation, or in daily activities, things to reflect on, things to notice, things to try so that these practices although the Buddha was teaching them, primarily the context is in the sutras is primarily for deepening concentration. I think they're all totally applicable to the way that we think in daily life, how we live our lives. So I've included a lot of these kinds of little daily exercises and stories from students who've been working with this with me in courses and retreats, the stories that they've told me, the ways that they have applied one of these strategies and found it to be insightful. So there's a lot of easily to understand and apply material in the book, which I hope makes it more accessible to people. I hope I've given you a little bit of some kind of overview of both my interest and the structure of the teachings and an overview of the two discourses that this book was based upon. And I'd like to invite any questions, comments, discussion on either any of the things I've said, or how you work with distracting thoughts.
Helen Richardson: Thank you Shaila, that was so helpful, and I felt most practical. Can I ask, do you recommend reading the middle discourses? And if so, do you have a favourite translation?
Shaila: Yes, I do recommend reading the discourses. And I do think that the middle length discourses of the various Sutta collections. That's an ideal one for somebody to begin with, because it's written in a narrative form. So in some other collections have very terse little brief things that are harder to understand. But I think the middle length discourse is very accessible because they're mostly so and so approached the Buddha and asked this question, this was happening, and he responded that way. And then they went there, and they told this story. So it's narrative. Sure there's other verses and things, but it's quite easy to understand. I also find in the middle length discourses that there's a wide range of teachings, some for that are explicitly for laypeople, and some that are for deep meditative experiences, you know, we find the Satipatthana sutta to the establishments of mindfulness discourse. And there we find the one on the 16 steps of mindfulness with breathing, we find that these teachings that I referred to, that are all very practical meditation technique oriented suttas. And we also find many that are our teachings on liberation, on awakening. And I think there's such a beautiful range of practical and going all the way to the goal of the path of freedom of liberation, that I would recommend the middle length discourses, I do think people should have them on paper. I like books I'm a book lover, I suppose you can do it on your electronic versions, but poking just at websites that have them, doesn't work so well for me. Maybe it works for other people, you need to find a way that you can enjoy the reading so that you can do it slowly and let it bring joy. Let it become part of your practice. It's not just an academic study. It's an opportunity to hear what the Buddha taught. And then to contemplate that, dwell with that and see how that can inform your practice. It's like getting a glimpse of an interview with the Buddha. One of my teachers when I was first doing sutta study said that once I went, you know, when you start to read a sutta, maybe so and so approached the Buddha and asked this question, and he said, “Stop, contemplate the question, don't jump to the answer. Go do walking meditation for 20 minutes contemplating the question”. You know, like, really get into the question, then come back and read the next paragraph. How did the Buddha respond to that question? So we don't just try and plough through the discourses like we're doing in a reading a college paper or something. We are instead using them as a resource to support and deepen and inspire our path of liberation.
Anya: Thank you Shaila for this. I have also done your online course. This is a really wonderful refresher of your course. But I was thinking, because I'm a therapist, and my mind is sort of inclined that way, I tend to jump straight to strategy four, looking at the causes of underlying the thoughts. And I just wanted to get your thoughts on the advantages of doing the other three steps first, and what your experience has been with, maybe that more western model of thinking about mental health and looking at the therapeutic causes and your teaching of the Buddhist strategies and looking at the other three first.
Shaila: You know, it does make sense. And, you know, I don't think there's much danger in going to four first, although I do think that there's a lot more depth that can be possible, if one already has some of the initial learnings. And sometimes people can get just a little bit like, investigation is, you know, we look very deeply, but we don't need to look very deeply around everything. But for example, sometimes people are investigating things that, you know, it might actually be better to not investigate it. You know, just see this as an unwholesome direction and move forward in life. And then there are certain things that one knows, okay, yeah, maybe I need to look at the depth of this, I need to look at the root causes. So it depends a little bit on what kind of thought it is, and what kinds of supports somebody has. But I think sometimes somebody will jump to the investigation, or jump there quickly after recognizing, oh, this is an unwholesome thought. And the recognition of the danger is very quick, you know, this is harmful. And then go to let me look at the causes. Let me look at the root causes. But I value these other ones, especially the capacity to withdraw our attention, so that we're not constantly just pulled into having to investigate everything, there's no freedom in that. There's freedom when we can turn our attention toward or away, where we can develop a skilful use of the mind. So they both have a place. Then, with the examining the danger, sometimes that happens so quickly for people, once they see, oh, this is an unwholesome thought, they see the danger very quickly. But there is value for dwelling with it a little bit like taking it as a strategy. And I think of the simile of the fisherman's hook, where a fisherman drops a baited hook into the lake, and some fish bites down on it and of course, they suffer. And with the dangers, recognizing the dangers, we can also recognize the gratification that we get from it. So there's already quite a bit of investigation in that first step to see Oh, there's the bait on the hook, I'm attracted to it. And when I'm attracted to the bait, I'm not seeing the danger of the hook. So let me look at the hook. And that happens many times when we're lost in any kinds of thoughts. We are enthralled in them, we are attracted to them, we're compelled by them, we feel like our mind is obsessed by them. And we are drawn to whatever that thought bait is. And we're not seeing the hook, we're not seeing the danger there. So there is a kind of investigation already at that level. And so sometimes if you jump directly to the investigating the causes you might be including some of the earlier strategies in the way you're investigating. But I do think there's value in teasing them out. Also, because the purpose for this discourse or the context for this discourse is to develop concentration. And if we do a ton of investigation with every thought that arises, and the first thing we do is we go investigating to the causes for every thought, well, we're never going get concentrated. And a lot of our thoughts don't require deep, deep, investigation, they just require recognizing what they are, they're not helping me and we can let them go. So by having the initial strategies, we can be much more efficient at letting go of the thoughts that we don't need that depth of exploration, because that's everything that we do is giving our time to it. And if we're giving a lot of time to the investigation, we have less time to develop the tranquillity and the stability, because we're always heightening that awakening factor of investigation. And we need also the tranquillity factor. So it gives us more flexibility by working with all of the different strategies.
I also find that there's, after a while, we get to know most of our patterns, you know, after you've been meditating for many years, you get to know them. And you get to know which ones you can just recognize, okay, that's that pattern, you let it go and it doesn't come back again in the same sitting. And there are other patterns that once they arise, it's like they've got super glue on them. And they just stick, or they have a magnetic pole, and they're pulling all your attention to it. And you might bring your attention back to something of the body or the breath, but zap the mind goes right back to that worry or that thought or that fear or that whatever that is, that planning of obsession, whatever it might be. It's only those that I think need to be investigated. Because the rest is just a quick recognition. Yeah, I've seen that before. I know it.
Helen: How do you deal with those negative thoughts that you seem to have been dealing with all your life, thoughts somehow become part of your self-image, those negative thoughts? How do you deal with those?
Shaila: Well, I would work I liked, I liked the order, I would work right through the series. But for a thought like that, I would very likely take a thought like that, say you have a negative self-image thought, whatever it might be, I'm this kind of person, I'm not good enough, I can't do that, whatever the thought might be. And then work systematically dwell for a while with replacing it, give yourself options. Because if you believe the thought, if you can replace the thought with something else, a different thought, then already you're weakening the belief in it. So you might want to write down what exactly that thought is that keeps arising and is so intertwined with your self-image, write it down, and then write different thoughts. Ones that oppose it, ones that are different than it. And even if your belief is weak in them, try them out as alternatives. Whenever something arises, use an alternative use an alternative.
So maybe, if there's a thought, I'm a fearful person, maybe there's a thought like that, then you might have an alternative. I have the courage to face this moment, just as it is. And you recite that. So it might sound like a popular approach of just replacing one thought with a positive thinking kind of thing. But it's deeper than that when it's used in the context. Because we're not just focusing on the replacement thought, we're realizing we don't need to be attached to the habitual thought. And we're developing the recognition that thoughts are just thoughts and there are alternatives to thoughts. We're not trying to become attached to the new thought, we're just loosening the grip of the old thought. I'd work with each one for a while then I'd really contemplate the dangers but also the gratification, see what the bait is and where the hook is. And then just gradually work through it. And sometimes these thoughts, maybe we can't avoid them, but maybe we can find that we can pull our attention away from them so that they don't keep proliferating. A thought that arises and passes quickly it doesn't harm the mind at all. It's the thoughts that proliferate, that keep deepening the patterns, those are the ones that will prevent our concentration, and will limit our capacity to see clearly with insight. So I'd just gradually work through it, but I wouldn't jump with a thought like this, I wouldn't jump right to the investigation strategy, because I think we have to recognize, do a little of the loosening up recognizing that they're just thoughts, discrete mental events that have alternatives, and we can even construct them, that there's something we're getting out of it, there's some sense of a reward, there, the bait, but there's a danger behind the bait. And see, well do we really want to take this bait or not. And kind of gradually work through that we have choices, we can put our attention toward it, we can pull our attention away. And when we come to investigate, I think investigation is very powerful, when we know we can also pull our attention away. So if we've worked with the previous strategy, of being able to withdraw the fuel, being able to turn away from it, that allows us to go very deep without fear, because we know we can pull our attention away, we're not going to get sucked into something that we're not going to get out of, because we've developed the earlier mental skills, and we'll be able to go very deep and see the vulnerability of this construction of self and the insecurity that's inherent in it. And how that sense of, of insecurity around a concept of self fuels many kinds of distracting thoughts. And then at some point, we can say no, just no more.
But it's a process. What I like about it is that it gives us something to play with. Because too many meditators just have only two tools. The one that is the tool of Oh, that's a thought, let it go. And then the taking out of some metaphorical baseball bat and then beating ourselves up for thinking. And I don't think that's a good enough toolbox. So I like that we have other things to play with. Because as we're playing with the tools as we're playing with them, we're learning about our minds. We're learning about our habits. And we're continuing to focus our attention and deepening our concentration and understanding.
Helen: Thanks, Shaila, that's so useful and again, so practical. And look, Jenny has reminded us about the fisherman's hook simile.
Jenny: I must have read it before. But I forget and then back up it comes, and that one is so useful for me. I can tell in the next days of my practice to find out what that gratification just to look at it, again. I just had forgotten that again, so thank you.
Helen: Thank you Shaila. I'm sure we're all inspired after that to explore further your teachings.
Shaila: I really appreciate the invitation. And you can find out more about other things on my websites. I have given podcasts about this book and about my other books and about jhana practice. And there I've posted links on my websites to the recordings, and I have many, many talks available online through Dharma seed. And so if you go to my website, you'll find all that material.
Helen: Again, thanks to Shaila for her wonderful, wonderful talk.
A full version of this zoom session which includes meditation can be found on