Meditation is Not to Get Anything, But to Understand and Let Go
(This is an edited transcript of a live Dhammatalk by Ajahn Dhammasiha.
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When we sit down to meditate, we're often trying to get something, trying to attain, trying to achieve something. A lot of grasping. Trying to get jhāna, to get samadhī, to get first, second, third, fourth jhāna, and so on. At least attaining upacāra samadhī, neighborhood concentration. Then of course, getting the stages of insight, stream-entry up to Arahant. People trying to get that, to attain that. Or the different vipassanā ñāṇās, the insight knowledges according to the commentaries.
A lot of grasping, trying to get - but actually, you know, meditation's all about letting go. It's about dropping, abandoning, not accumulating or getting. And all these states, which people try to get, to attain, to achieve, are actually expressions of different levels of letting go, basically. So, it can be helpful to remind oneself of that fact, and to try to get into a mood, or a mode, a mental mode of not achieving, not getting, not grasping; but shedding, abandoning, dropping, letting go. Sometimes even just these words can be quite helpful and point the mind in the right direction:
"Letting go, letting go..."
"Cāgo, paṭinissaggo, mutti, anālayo..."
Or whatever other synonyms in the Pali language work for you, to point the mind in the right direction.
So letting go rather than getting;
Abandoning rather than achieving;
Dropping, shedding rather than grasping;
Renouncing and disengaging rather than clinging.
But of course, now the next question is how to do that. And then again, when people try to do it, they often get quite desperate because we cannot just do or will or force letting go. I'm sure we have all tried that as Dhamma practitioners. And if you try to achieve letting go by will power, or by desire, the desire to let go - then there's a bit of a self contradiction. The way the Buddha teaches, letting go is simply a result of seeing with insight. That's the one thing where we can make an effort, we try to see and understand; this is where we put our effort, not so much into getting something, not even actively trying to let go, but we put our effort into seeing and observing, into recognizing, watching with mindfulness and wisdom, applying the wisdom faculty to our experience here and now. In particular, in the areas that the Buddha pointed out.
For example, to see, to notice in our own direct, immediate experience that holding on does not lead to happiness, but it leads to suffering, to disappointment. To notice, to see with proper wisdom that the grasping, clinging, accumulating, is always ending in disappointment.
So my recommendation, my encouragement is to look at that quite extensively in one's meditation. To observe and to see this connection between holding on, grasping; and suffering and disappointment. It's quite easy to notice. For example, look at mind states on the side of aversion and dejection: The moment when we remember some old hurt, an old little trauma. When we recollect what they have done to us, how unfair it was. When we latch onto that, we can actually notice straight away, here and now, that the moment we hold onto that the suffering increases. It's actually quite perverted, isn't it, that we have this tendency of grasping and holding onto things which are immediately and outright painful.
It's the same with 'dukkhā vedanā', painful bodily feeling. Pain and our response to it is another thing that we can directly, immediately observe in our experience here and now, while we are meditating. Unfortunately quite often, particular if you're sick or if you're getting older, there can be various kinds of unpleasant and even painful feelings in the body that give us trouble. And again, for some weird reason, there's a strong tendency in our mind to hold on to that painful feeling, to grasp and cling to that pain, to take it as me and mine. And crucially, if we observe carefully, we can see what's the result of holding on to the pain. As always, the result is more suffering. The result is an immediate increase in discomfort and pain and misery. The more you're holding on, the more you're grasping at the pain, the worse it gets. Whether it's physical pain in the body, or whether it's mental pain, some mental hurt or disappointment. The moment we latch onto it, the pain gets worse.
It's the same with dejection, depression. At the moment we identify, we cling to that:
"I'm really down, why me, poor me!"
That very moment we're going into self-pity, it's all getting so much worse. On the other hand, again, right here, now, in our present experience, we can notice: If we let go, if we're dropping it, if we're not holding on to it, if we're disengaging - straight away, the suffering diminishes. When anger arises, and memories of the incidents which triggered that anger, how we got hurt, or harmed, or offended - our tender feelings being offended! - right there is where we can drop it. Or if we can't completely drop it yet, at least we loosen our attachment. We are holding on not quite so tightly. Even if we can let go only partially, we can still see how the suffering diminishes right away.
This is how we let go: Recognizing that holding on gives me suffering, holding on is the cause of suffering, is the cause of pain. Not just theoretically, but we observe it while it's happening, while we're actually experiencing it. It's not that difficult to see it happening in meditation, because when the heart is calm things tend to be a little bit more subtle. Our mindstates are calmer, and we're able to observe what's happening with our emotions. The mind is more focused. That's why it's important to build up at least a basic level of calmness, some amount of concentration, samādhi, to start off with. And then using that level of calmness and mindfulness to look, carefully watch, what's really going on in our mind. And usually we can find something that we're holding on to.
This is a good one to look out for. Not looking out for attaining Nibbāna, looking out for jhāna, and then being disappointed that we can't attain it. But looking out for what we're actually holding on to. What are we attaching to? How does that clinging manifest in our thinking, in our memories and our emotions, feelings and moods. Usually we cling to all of that: Moods, feelings, emotions, memories, thoughts. We cling, identify, and grasp at that. We try to recognize in which of these the clinging manifests most prominently. We just watch and observe, and analyze and figure it out.
And then the next step is that we observe, notice, and figure out how that clinging is actually causing us suffering. It's a very reliable function of our mind in general, it's deep in the subconscious mind, that we want to be happy. Therefore, it's natural that we're going after what we perceive as happiness. It's natural that we're trying to get rid of what we perceive as painful and suffering. So we can simply make this totally natural tendency our ally, we can utilize that. All we need to do is to watch and observe here and now in our mind what's going on:
"This is clinging, that is grasping, and look, what's the result? - Disappointment, pain is the result."
And as a consequence of that insight letting go happens quite automatically. Perhaps not completely, maybe not every time when we contemplate, as it depends on how clear we can see that relationship of clinging and suffering. But if we work to observe it again and again, to see it with greater clarity, then the result will be some form of letting go. We drop it at least partially. But even the partial loosening of attachment, even a small amount of letting go, usually results in a noticeable reduction of pain and suffering.
And we take note of that as well. Mindfully, with wisdom, we observe how our letting go results immediately in less suffering. We see that, and think to ourselves:
"Wow, exactly as the Buddha has said! I could see that this causes me suffering, and my mind started dropping it. And immediately a big chunk of all that pain went away!"
And as we continue in our practice of vipassanā, that insight becomes more clear. As we repeatedly detect how it's happening in our mind, the letting go is really building up steam. We're really getting into it.
Of course, with some stubborn forms of grasping and clinging, it may not be quite so immediate. We may have to support the process of vipassana with various reflections and skilfull analysis.
On the negative side, on the side of anger and aversion, one can actually quite easily see that clinging to anger causes us suffering straight away. It's a bit more difficult to see with pleasant things. It's easy to get lost in some sensual fantasy, or some beautiful memories, or some sweet imaginations, all the pleasant things I may be doing in the future. That is more difficult to see, that clinging to sensual gratification is also suffering. But if we really look deeply and with wisdom, we can still observe it happening, directly in our meditation. For example, if you are with your meditation object, whether that's the breath or loving kindness or any other meditation object, and then these fantasies come up, you're losing that meditation object. When we lose the mediation object, we usually also lose the calm and happiness. Thus, we can see how clinging to sensually gratifying fantasies does cause us disappointment.
And if you already have a certain level of calm in your samādhi meditation, then you already enjoy quite a refined and wholsome happiness. And hopefully you can notice that allowing yourself to now go into an indulgent, worldly fantasy, or sensual memories, that this is actually an inferior happiness. Ideally we can notice that our mind drops from a superior, more refined and beautiful level of happiness to a coarser level. Which is a form of suffering, caused by holding onto these wordly fantasies, by indulging ourselves with sensual thoughts.
However, very important: We are not letting go of our main meditation object. So if you do ānāpāṇasati (breath meditation), obviously the task is not to let go of the breath. We have to hold on to the breath as our meditation object. Similar, if we contemplate loving kindness ('mettā'), we don't let go of our little mantra: "May all beings be happy and at ease!" One has to keep going with that one, as it's our meditation object. The meditation object is the anchor for our meditation, and thus we have to hold on to it. But there's usually enough other stuff going on in the mind, enough distraction. And that is where we do the investigation, and the letting go. We investigate and let go of the distractions, the sensual fantasies, the day dreaming and thinking and imagening - we don't let go of the meditation object.
That's why it's so helpful if we have some level of samādhi (concentration), of samatha (calm) to start off with our insight practice. Because then you can actually see that these distractions, these memories, fantasies, images, even if they feel pleasant and sweet and gratifying, they're actually a step back. If we already had a certain level of wholesome happiness from samādhi, from calmness, then we can notice that the mind is actually dropping to a lower, inferior level by indulging in sensual thoughts. And although these fantasies may be entertaining and give us some pleasant feelings, we can notice that it's an inferior happiness compared to the spiritual, non-sensual happiness we experienced earlier.
If that's not the case, if we can't see the sensual happiness as inferior, then we have to actively investigate and analyze and apply 'ādīnavasaññā' ('perception of the drawback/danger') We actively contemplate the inevitable dangers and drawbacks, which are always connected with sensual indulgence.
The first one is that it doesn't really provide lasting satisfaction, but is just further stirring up desire, kindling and increasing the fire of craving and desire. And if we spend an hour happily planning some dream holiday in our meditation, or whatever fantasies we may be having, it may feel quite nice, but then the meditation is over, and the fantasy is over as well. And it may be something which you can't do anyhow, something out of our reach. But now, after fantasising about it intensivley, we're really hankering after it, although it's out of our reach. And now the disappointment comes, that we actually can't get it, although it would be so nice. And we contemplate how the sweet fantasies increase our desire, without ever fulfilling it, leading us into ultimate disappointment. Next time you sit down, you wanna go back into the same fantasy, and you have to build it up even stronger to get the same kick.
Curiously all the really nice sensual indulgences always have a big 'ādīnava', a strong drawback, a hangover: The hangover from the party; obesity and ill health from the food indulgence; caries and root canals from the icecream; and so on. You can go through all of that, whatever sensual indulgence it is. It's quite fascinating, literally all sensual indulgences have these inherent drawbacks and dangers. So, although it initially feels good, we can still use the same approach, to notice that clinging to sensually gratifying experiences ultimately leads to suffering and disappointment just the same. In this case, even if we do not experience it directly in the present moment, but instead base our insight on reflection and analysis, it's still effective to abandon and let go.
And if our mindfulness is really sharp, we can observe and see that while it's happening. Right at the moment when we're letting go, we're also mindful of it, we mindfully observe the heart letting go. We see what causes us suffering, and how the letting go leads to less suffering. Now, that is such a crucial insight. That is so important to notice. Although it may not immediately appear to be so mind blowing. But it's these small insights, repeatedly and gradually deepening, that build up to huge results in the end. At some stage we'll have a big break through, when we let go big style, because the insight was deep and clear and profound. And there's a huge feeling of relief and taking away of pain as a result. However, many of our meditative experiences may only occur on a subtle level, as a quiet and refined process of understanding and letting go. But even if it's not very powerful in terms of intensity, these subtle, quiet experiences are still crucially important: They teach us that dual understanding, that twofold insight, that really counts for our Dhamma practice:
Grasping, clinging, holding on results in pain and suffering
Letting go leads to suffering dropping away
Understanding, observing that process again and again, gets us into the mood of letting go. We're getting more and more into the habit of investigating the cause of suffering, to identify the clinging and grasping in order to let go. Rather than habitually grasping and attaching, we're developing the habit of letting go.
We're gradually make letting go the default mode of our mind.