We can notice fairly easily what our mind does. It reflects and reacts
and it often has fantasies and also moods. Anyone who doesn't meditate
will believe in all of that. Even those who do meditate might still
believe in the reactions of their own mind to the outer stimuli, or
might believe the moods which come into the mind are to be taken
seriously, that whatever the mind is doing is due to an outside
occurrence and not to an inner reaction. This is easily seen if we
watch our thinking process not only in meditation but in daily living.
The Buddha gave very exact instructions how to counteract any
unskillful mind states and produce skillful ones. They can briefly be
expressed as "avoiding," "overcoming," "developing," and
"maintaining," and are called the four supreme efforts, which have
been briefly mentioned before. They are part of the 37 factors of
enlightenment, so must be part of our practice. When perfected they
are part of the enlightenment process.
You may have heard the expression "Nibbana and //Samsara// are both
in the same place." It is not a true saying, because there is no such
"place." But Nibbana, liberation, emancipation, enlightenment, and
//Samsara//, the round of birth and death, how can they be together?
In a way they can, because they are both in the mind, in everybody's
mind. Except that everyone is only aware of one of them, namely that
which makes us continue in the round of birth and death; not only when
this body disappears and it is called death or when a body reappears
and it is called birth. But there is constant birth and death in our
every moment of existence. There is the birth of skillful and
unskillful thoughts and the dying away of them. There is the birth of
feelings, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and the dying away of them.
There is the birth of the arising of this body and its dying away
moment after moment, except that we are not mindful enough to become
aware of that.
We can see this quite clearly when we look at a photo of ourselves
taken 10 or 20 years ago. We look entirely different from what we see
in the mirror now. But it doesn't follow that a body takes a leap of
20 years and then changes itself suddenly. It has changed moment by
moment until after a longer time-span, it is finally noticeable to us.
With more mindfulness we could have known it all along, because there
is constant birth and death in the body, the same as with thoughts and
feelings. This is //Samsara//, the round of birth and death within us,
due to our craving to keep or renew what we think is "me." When there
is liberation, that craving ceases, whatever dies is left to die.
Although we have the potential for liberation, our awareness is not
able to reach it, because we are concerned with what we already know.
We are habit-formed and habit-prone and every meditator becomes aware
of the mind habits with their old and tried reactions to outside
triggers. They have not necessarily been useful in the past, but they
are still repeated out of habit. The same applies to our moods, which
are arising and passing away and have no other significance than a
cloud has in the sky, which only denotes the kind of weather there is,
without any universal truth to that. Our moods only denote the kind of
weather our mind is fabricating, if it believes the mood.
The four supreme efforts are, in the first place, the avoiding of
unwholesome, unskillful thought processes. If we look at them as
unskillful, we can accept the fact of learning a new skill more
easily. Avoiding means we do not let certain thoughts arise, neither
reactions to moods, nor to outside triggers. If we find ourselves
habitually reacting in the same way to the same kind of situation, we
may be forced to avoid such situations, so that we can finally gain
the insight which needs to be culled from it. While we are reacting to
a situation or mood, we can't assess it dispassionately, because our
reactions overpowers the mind.
Avoiding, in a Dhamma sense, means to avoid the unskillful thought;
in a practical sense we may have to avoid whatever arouses such mind
states in us. That, however, must not go to the length of running away
as the slightest provocation, which is a well known, yet unsuccessful
method of getting out of unpleasant reactions. Habitually running away
from situations, which create unwholesome reactions in us, will not
bring about a peaceful mind. Only if there is one particular trigger,
which arouses unskillful responses in us over and over again, we may
have to move away from it without blaming anyone. We just realize that
we have not yet been able to master ourselves under certain
circumstances. Just as we don't blame the unpleasant feeling anywhere
in the body, but realize that we haven't mastered our non-reaction to
//dukkha// yet, and therefore must change our posture.
It amounts to exactly the same thing. One is a physical move, the
other is a mental one. All it means is that we haven't quite mastered
a particular situation yet. It brings us to the realization that there
is still more to be learned about ourselves. Blaming anything in our
outside of ourselves is useless, it only aggravates the situation and
adds more unwholesome thinking to it.
In order to avoid unskillful reactions in the mind, we have to be
attentive and know the way our mind words before we verbalize. We can
learn about that in meditation. Awareness is the prime mover in
meditation. It isn't viable or useful to have calm and peaceful mind
states without being completely aware of how we attained them,
remained in them and came out of them. Having learned this through our
meditative practice, enables us to realize how our mind works in daily
life, before it says anything, such as possibly: "I can't stand this
situation" or "I hate this person." When that happens, and unwholesome
state has already been established.
Before the mind is allowed to fall into this trap, a dense and
unpleasant feeling can be noticed, which acts as a warning that an
unwholesome mind state is approaching, which can be dropped before it
has even established itself. It is much easier to let go before the
negativity has taken hold but it is harder to recognize. When we
notice that a mind state is approaching which does not seem to be
accompanied by peace and happiness, we can be sure it will be
unwholesome. The more we train ourselves to be mindful of our mind
states, the more we realize the unhappiness we cause ourselves and
other through unskillful thinking.
When we have not been able to avoid an unwholesome mind, we have to
practice to overcome it. Because of the difficulty of becoming aware
in time to avoid negativities, we have to be very clear on how to
overcome them. Dropping a thought is an action and not a passive
reaction, yet it is difficult to do, because the mind needs something
to grasp. In meditation we need a subject, such as the breath or the
feelings/sensations to hold onto, before the mind can become calm and
peaceful. When we want to overcome unskillful mind states, it is
easier to substitute with wholesome thinking, than just trying to let
go of unwholesomeness.
If we entertain the negative mind states for any length of time,
they become more and more at home. As they make themselves
comfortable, we are more and more inclined to believe them and finally
come out with thoughts such as "I always hate people who don't agree
with me" or "I always get nervous about thunder." These statements are
designed to show one's own unchanging character, giving our ego an
extra boost. The only reason these states might have become ingrained
in our character is that having entertained negativities for so long,
one can no longer imagine to be without them. Yet these are nothing
but unskillful mind states, which can and need to be changed. The
quicker we substitute, the better it is for our own peace of mind.
If we have dislike or rejection concerning a person, we may remember
something good about that person and be able to substitute the
negative thought with something concretely positive. Everyone is
endowed with both qualities, good and evil, and if we pick on the
negative, then we will constantly be confronted with that aspect,
rather than the opposite. With some people this will be more difficult
that with others. They are our tests, so to say. Nobody gets away in
this life without such tests. Life is an adult education class with
frequent examinations, which are being thrown at us at any time. We
are not told in advance, what is in store for us, so we should be
prepared all the time.
As we learn to skill of substitution and do it successfully once, we
gain confidence in our own ability. There is no reason when why we
cannot repeat this whenever needed. The relief we feel is all the
incentive we need for practice.
When we are confronted with situations which we find difficult to
handle, we can remember that we are faced with a learning experience.
Overcoming unwholesome mind states needs mind power, which we develop
through our meditation practice. If we are not yet able to keep our
attention in meditation where we want it to be, we will not be able
yet to change our mind when we want to do so. The more skill we
develop in meditation, the easier it will be for us to either "avoid"
or "overcome." By the same token, as we practice substitution in daily
living, we assist our meditation. When we realize that our mind is not
a solid entity which has to react in certain ways, but is a movable,
changeable phenomenon, which can be clear and illuminated, then we
will more and more try to protect it from unwholesomeness. It is often
a revelation to a new meditator to find out that the mind is not a
fixed and believable reactor, but can be influenced and changed at
To develop wholesome states of mind means that we try to cultivate
these, when they have not arisen yet. If the mind is neutrally engaged
or has a tendency to weigh, judge and criticize, feel hurt or be
ego-centered, we deliberately counteract these tendencies to develop
skillful mind states. We acknowledge that all negative states are not
conducive to our own happiness, peace and harmony. When we develop
loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, we
experience that these states are conducive to our own inner
well-being. Obviously we will then try again and again to cultivate
the mind states which result in personal contentment. Developing them
from that understanding alone, that the wholesome states are good for
us, is a powerful insight. When our mind is at peace, we realize that
while there are innumerable unwholesome situations in the world, if we
have an unwholesome reaction to them, that only doubles the
//dukkha//. It will neither relieve the situation, nor be helpful to
If we develop a capacity for seeing the positive and using whatever
arises as a learning situation, trying to keep the four supreme
emotions, mentioned above, in mind, then there remains only the last
effort, namely to maintain skillful mind states. Anyone who has not
reached full liberation from all underlying tendencies will not be
able to maintain positive states at all times, but our mindfulness can
be sharp enough to tell us when we are not succeeding. That is the
awareness we need to effect changes. When we are not able to maintain
wholesomeness, we can always try again. Should we start blaming
ourselves or others, however, we are adding a second negative state of
mind and are blocking our progress.
A skill can be learned. We have all learned many skills in this
life. This is the sort of ability well worth cultivating, more
important than proficiencies. This is not a character trait we either
possess or lack. Everybody's mind is capable of developing the
wholesome and letting go of the unwholesome. But that also doesn't
mean that we find everything wonderful and beautiful from now on. That
too is not realistic. That which can be practiced is, that although
there is unwholesomeness within and without, dislike is not an
effective reaction to bring peace and happiness. The pinnacle of all
emotional states is equanimity, even-mindedness, which is developed
through our meditation practice and based on insight. It is our tool
in daily living to develop and maintain wholesome mind states.
It is neither useful to suppress nor to pretend by thinking "I ought
to be" or "I should be." Only awareness of what is happening in our
mind and learning the skill of changing our mind is called for.
Eventually our mind will be a finely tuned instrument, the only one in
the whole of the universe that can liberate us from all //dukkha//.
All of us have that instrument and the guidelines of the Buddha teach
us the skill to use this instrument to the best advantage; not to
believe its moods and reactions to outer stimuli, but to watch and
protect it and realize its potential for compete liberation.
If we want a good tool, we need to look after it in the best
possible manner. This means not letting any dirt particles accumulate,
but to clean it up as quickly as possible. The same criterion applies
to our mind. This is probably the hardest skill to learn, which is the
reason so few people do it. but a meditator is on the right path
towards just that, by realizing that the mind cannot be believed
implicitly, being must too fanciful and fleeting.
The four supreme efforts are called "supreme," not only because they
are supremely difficult, but also supremely beneficial. A serious
meditator wants to transcend the human realm while still in human form
and these efforts are our challenge. They are so well explained by the
Buddha that we can clearly see the difficulties we are faced with and
the reasons why we are still roaming about in //Samsara//. But we
don't have to continue that unendingly. Knowing the path and the way
to tread upon it. we have the opportunity to become free of all
* * * * * * * *