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IV. Supreme Efforts

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 works 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, an 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 others 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 the 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 will.

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 anyone.

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 complete 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 much 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 fetters.

Back to Ayya Khema index page

Dhamma Essay:
Renunciation by Ayya Khema


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