This morning I was
talking to Venerable Subbato and he was saying he never has
anapanasati, mindfulness of the breath. So I said,
'Can you be mindful of one inhalation?' And he said, 'Oh yes.'
'And of one exhalation?' And he said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'Got
There's nothing more to it than that.
However, one tends to expect to develop some special kind of
ability to go into some special state. And because we don't do
that, then we think we can't do it.
But the way of the spiritual life is through
renunciation, relinquishment, letting go
not through attaining or acquiring. Even the
jhanas  are relinquishments rather than
attainments. If we relinquish more and more, letting go more and
more, then the jhanic states are natural.
The attitude is most important. To practise
anapanasati, one brings the attention onto one
inhalation, being mindful from the beginning to the end. One
inhalation, that's it; and then the same goes for the
exhalation. That's the perfect attainment of
anapanasati. The awareness of just that
much, is the result of concentration of the mind through
sustained attention on the breath. From the beginning to the end
of the inhalation, from the beginning to the end of the
exhalation. The attitude is always one of letting go, not
attaching to any ideas or feelings that arise from that, so that
you're always fresh with the next inhalation, the next
exhalation, completely as it is. You're not carrying over
anything. So it's a way of relinquishment, of letting go, rather
than of attaining and achieving.
The dangers in meditation practice is the
habit of grasping at things, grasping at states; so the concept
that's most useful is the concept of letting go, rather than of
attaining and achieving. If you say today that yesterday you had
a really super meditation, absolutely fantastic, just what
you've always dreamed of, and then today you try to get the same
wonderful experience as yesterday, but you get more restless and
more agitated than ever before - now why is that? Why can't we
get what we want? It's because we're trying to attain something
that we remember; rather than really working with the way things
are, as they happen to be now. So the correct way is one of
mindfulness, of looking at the way it is now, rather than
remembering yesterday and trying to get to that state again.
The first year I meditated I didn't have a
teacher. I was in this little kuti  in Nong Khai for
about ten months, and I had all kinds of blazing insights. Being
alone for ten months, not having to talk, not having to go
anywhere, everything calmed down after several months, and then
I thought I was a fully enlightened person, an arahant. I was
sure of it. I found out later that I wasn't.
I remember we went through a famine in Nong
Khai that year and we didn't get very much to eat. I had
malnutrition, so I thought, 'Maybe malnutrition's the answer. If
I just starve myself....' I remember being so weak with
malnutrition at Nong Khai that my earlobes started cracking
open. When I'd fall asleep I'd have to pry my eyelids open;
they'd be stuck shut with the stuff that comes out of your
eyelids when you're not feeling very well.
Then one day this Canadian monk brought me
three cans of tinned milk. In Asia they have tinned sweetened
milk and it's very very delicious. And he also brought me some
instant coffee, and a flask of hot water. So I made a cup of
this: put in a bit of coffee, poured in some of this milk,
poured hot water and started drinking it. And I just went crazy.
It was so utterly delicious, the first time I had anything sweet
in weeks, or anything stimulating. And being malnourished and
being in a very dull tired apathetic state, this was like
high-octane petrol - whoomph! Immediately I gulped that down - I
couldn't stop myself - and I managed to consume all three tins
of milk and a good portion of that coffee. And my mind actually
went flying into outer space, or it seemed like it, and I
thought, 'Maybe that's the secret. If I can just get somebody to
buy me tinned milk.'
When I went to Wat Pah Pong the following
year I kept thinking, 'Oh, I had all those wonderful experiences
in Nong Khai. I had all those wonderful kind of beautiful
visions, and all those fantastic kind of floating experiences
and blazing insights, and it seemed like I understood
everything. And you even thought you were an arahant.' At Wat
Pah Pong, that first year there, I didn't have much of anything.
I just kept trying to do all the things I'd done in Nong Khai to
get these things. But after a while, even using strong cups of
coffee didn't work any more. I didn't seem to get those
exhilarations, those fantastic highs and blazing insights, that
I had the first year. So after the first
Vassa  at Wat Pah Pong, I thought, 'This
place is not for me. I think I'll go and try to do repeat what
happened in Nong Khai.' And I left Ajahn Chah and went to live
on Pupek mountain in Sakorn Nakorn province.
There, at last, I was in an idyllic spot.
However, for the alms-round there you had to leave before dawn
and go down this mountain, which was quite a climb, and wait for
the villagers to come. They'd bring you food, and then you had
to climb all the way back up, and eat this food before twelve
noon. That was quite a problem.
I was with one other monk, a Thai monk, and I
thought, 'He's really very good,' and I was quite impressed with
him. But when we were on this mountain, he wanted me to teach
him English - so I was really angry with him and wanted to
It was in an area where there was a lot of
terrorists and communists, in North-East Thailand. There were
helicopters flying overhead sometimes checking us out. Once they
came and took me down to the provincial town, wondering whether
I was a communist spy.
Then I got violently ill, so ill that they
had to carry me down the mountain. I was stuck in a wretched
place by a reservoir under a tin roof in the hot season with
insects buzzing in and out of my ears and orifices. With
horrible food. I nearly died, come to think of it. I almost
didn't make it.
But it was during that time in that tin-roof
lean-to that a real change took place. I was really despairing
and sick and weak and totally depressed, and my mind would fall
into these hellish realms, with the terrible heat and
discomfort. I felt like I was being cooked; it was like torture.
Then a change came. Suddenly, I just stopped
my mind; I refused to get caught in that negativity and I
started to practise
anapanasati. I used the breath to concentrate my mind and
things changed very quickly. After that, I recovered my health
and it was time to enter the next
Vassa, so I went back - I'd promised Ajahn Chah
I'd go back to Wat Pah Pong for the Vassa - and my robes
were all tattered and torn and patched. I looked terrible. When
Ajahn Chah saw me, he just burst out laughing. And I was so glad
to get back after all that!
I had been trying to practise and what I had
wanted were the memories of these insights. I'd forgotten what
the insights really were. I was so attached to the idea of
working in some kind of ascetic way, like I did the first year,
when asceticism really worked. At that time being malnourished
and being alone had seemed to provide me with insight, so that
for the following several years I kept trying to create the
conditions where I would be able to have these fantastic
But the following two or three years seemed
to be years of just getting by. Nothing much seemed to happen. I
was six months on this mountain before I returned to Wat Pah
Pong, just deciding to stay on and follow the insights I had.
One of the insights the first year was that I should find a
teacher, and that I should learn how to live under a discipline
imposed on me by that teacher. So I did that. I realised Ajahn
Chah was a good teacher and had a good standard of monastic
discipline, so I stayed with him. Those insights that I had were
right, but I'd become attached to the memory.
People get very attached to all these special
things, like meditation retreats and courses where everything is
under control, and everything is organised and there is total
silence. Then, even though you do have insight, reflectiveness
is not always there, because one is assuming that to have these
insights you need those conditions.
Actually, insight is more and more a matter
living insightfully. It's not just that you have insight
sometimes, but more and more as you reflect on Dhamma,
then everything is insightful. You see insightfully into life as
it's happening to you. As soon as you think you have to have
special conditions for it, and you're not aware of that, then
you're going to create all sorts of complexities about your
So I developed letting go: to not concern
myself with attaining or achieving anything. I decided to make
little achievements possible by learning to be a little more
patient, a little more humble, and a little more generous. I
decided to develop this: rather than go out of my way to control
and manipulate the environment with the intention of setting
myself up in the hope of getting high. It became apparent,
through reflection, that the attachment to the insights was the
problem. The insights were valid insights, but there was
attachment to the memory.
Then the insight came that you let go of all
your insights. You don't attach to them. You just keep letting
go of all the insights you have, because otherwise they become
memories, and then memories are conditions of the mind and, if
you attach to them, they can only take you to despair.
In each moment it's as it is. With
anapanasati, one inhalation, at this moment, is
this way. It's not like yesterday's inhalation was.
You're not thinking of yesterday's inhalation and yesterday's
exhalation while you're doing the one now. You're with it
completely, as it is; so you establish that. The reflective
ability is based on establishing your awareness in the way it is
now, rather than having some idea of what you'd like to
get, and then trying to get it in the here and now. Trying to
get yesterday's blissful feeling in the here and now means
you're not aware of the way it is now. You're not with it. Even
anapanasatiif you're doing it with the hope of getting
the result that you had yesterday, that will make it impossible
for that result to ever happen.
Last winter, Venerable Vipassi was meditating
in the shrine room and someone was making quite distracting
noises. Talking to Venerable Vipassi about it, I was quite
impressed, because he said first he felt annoyed and then he
decided the noises would be part of the practice. So, he opened
his mind to the meditation hall with everything in it - the
noises, the silence, the whole thing. That's wisdom, isn't it?
If the noise is something you can stop - like a door banging in
the wind - go close the door. If there's something you have
control over, you can do that.
But much of life you have no control over.
You have no right to ask everything to be silent for 'my'
meditation. When there is reflectiveness, instead of having a
little mind that has to have total silence and special
conditions, you have a big mind that can contain the whole of
it: the noises, the disruptions, the silence, the bliss, the
restlessness, the pain. The mind is all-embracing rather than
specialising on a certain refinement in consciousness. Then you
develop flexibility, because you can concentrate your mind.
This is where wisdom is needed for real
development. It's through wisdom that we develop it, not through
willpower or controlling or manipulating environmental
conditions; getting rid of the things we don't want and trying
to set ourselves up so that we can follow this desire to achieve
Desire is insidious. When we are aware that
our intention is to attain some state, that's a desire, isn't
it? So we let it go. If we are sitting here, even with a desire
to attain the first
jhana, we recognise that that desire is going to be the
very thing that's going to prevent the fulfilment. So we let of
the desire, which doesn't mean not to do
anapanasati, but to change the attitude to it.
So what can we do now? Develop mindfulness of
one inhalation. Most of us can do that; most human beings have
enough concentration to be concentrated from the beginning of an
inhalation to the end of it. But even if your concentration span
is so weak you can't even make it to the end, that's all right.
At least you can get to the middle, maybe. That's better than if
you gave up totally or never tried at all, isn't it? Because at
least you're composing the mind for one second, and that's the
beginning: to learn to compose and collect the mind around one
thing, like the breath, and sustain it just for the length of
one inhalation; if not, then half an inhalation, or a quarter,
or whatever. At least you have started, and you must try to
develop a mind that's glad at just being able to do that much,
rather than being critical because you haven't attained the
jhana, or the fourth.
If meditation becomes another thing you have
to do, and you feel guilty if you don't live up to your
resolutions, then you start pushing yourself without an
awareness of what you're doing. Then life does get quite dreary
and depressing. But if you are putting that skilful kind of
attention into your daily life, you'll find so much of daily
life very pleasant - which you may not notice if you are caught
in your compulsions and obsessions. If we act with
compulsiveness it becomes a burden, a grind. Then we drag
ourselves around doing what we have to do in a heedless and
negative way. But being able to be in the countryside - the
trees, the fields. However we have this time for a retreat - we
can sit and walk; we don't have a lot to do. The morning
chanting, the evening chanting can be extremely pleasant for us,
when we're open to it. People are offering the food. The meal is
quite a lovely thing. People are eating mindfully and quietly.
When we're doing it out of habit and compulsion then it gets to
be a drag. And a lot of things that are quite pleasant in
themselves are no longer pleasant. We can't enjoy them when
we're coming from compulsiveness, heedlessness, and ambition.
Those are the kinds of driving forces that destroy the joy and
the wonder of our lives.
Sustaining your attention on the breathing
really develops awareness but when you get lost in thought or
restlessness, that's all right too. Don't drive yourself. Don't
be a slave driver or beat yourself with a whip and drive
yourself in a nasty way. Lead, guide and train yourself; leading
onward, guide yourself rather than driving and forcing yourself.
Nibbana is a subtle realisation of non-grasping. You can't drive
yourself to Nibbana. That's the sure way of never realising it.
It's here and now, so if you're driving yourself to Nibbana,
you're always going far away from it, driving right over it.
It's pretty heavy, sometimes, to burn up
attachments in our mind. The Holy Life is a holocaust, a total
burning, a burning up of self, of ignorance. A diamond is a
symbol of the purity that comes from the holocaust; something
that went through such fires that what was left was purity. And
so that's why in our life here there has to be this willingness
to burn away the self-views, the opinions, the desires, the
restlessness, the greed, all of it, the whole of it, so that
there's nothing but purity remaining. Then when there is purity,
there is nobody, no thing, there's that, the 'suchness'.
And let go of that. More and more the path
is just the simple being here and now, being with the way things
are. There's nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to become,
nothing to get rid of. Because of the holocaust, there is no
ignorance remaining; there is purity, clarity and intelligence.
 jhanas: these are
refined states of mind-consciousness experienced through
 kuti: a very simple unfurnished
wooden hut that serves as a dwelling for a Buddhist monk or nun
 Vassa: the
traditional three-month Rains Retreat undertaken each year in
Buddhist monasteries. It is generally a time of heightened
attention to matters of training and spiritual instruction.