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Starting Out Small - A Collection of Talks for Beginning Meditators
Phra Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
Translated from the Thai by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Three Strands of a Rope

August 19, 1959

If you've never meditated, these two easy principles are all you have to understand: (1) Think of the qualities of the Buddha; and (2) think of bringing them into your mind. What this means is, be mindful to make the mind firmly established solely in the breath, without forgetting it or letting yourself get distracted.

Not forgetting the breath means being mindful of the in-and-out breath at all times. Not getting distracted means that you don't grab hold of anything else to think about. If the mind is focused but you're thinking about something else, it's not called Right Concentration. Your mindfulness has to keep within the bounds of the work you're doing, in other words, staying with the breath.

Don't put pressure on the breath, tense it up, or hold it. Let it flow easily and comfortably, as when you put a fresh egg in cotton batting. If you don't throw it or push it down, the egg won't get dented or cracked. This way your meditation will progress smoothly.

The breath is one thing, mindfulness is another, and your awareness, still another. You have to twist these three strands together so that they don't break away from one another. In other words, your awareness has to stay with the act of mindfulness, thinking about the breath. And both your awareness and mindfulness have to stay with the breath. Only then can you say that these things are factors of meditation.

When you can twist these three strands into a single rope, focus your awareness on observing the in-and-out breath to see whether it's comfortable or not, expansive or confined, broad or narrow. Whichever way of breathing feels comfortable, keep breathing in that way. If the breath isn't comfortable, keep changing it until it is.

If you force the mind too much, it's bound to pop away. If you loosen your grip too much, it's going to get lost. So try to tend to it in a way that's just right. The important point is that your mindfulness and alertness be circumspect, making adjustments throughout the breath. Don't let the mind go flowing out after other preoccupations.

Mindfulness is like a person who's awake and alive. If the mind lacks mindfulness, it's like we're sleeping with dead bodies in a cemetery. There's nothing but foul smells and fear. This is why we're taught to be mindful of ourselves in the present moment at all times. Cut away all thoughts of past and future without grabbing onto them to think about, for these things are deceitful and illusory, like spirits and demons. They waste your time and pull you down. So be aware simply of the breath, for the breath is what gives life and leads you to higher happiness.

Mindfulness is like a magic soap that scrubs the breath. Alertness is another bar of magic soap for scrubbing the mind. If you constantly have mindfulness and alertness in conjunction with the breath and the mind, your body and mind will be valuable and pure, so that as long as you live in the world you'll be at your ease; when you die, you won't be put to difficulties.

If the mind is focused but forgets the breath and goes thinking about other things, that's called Wrong Concentration. If the mind drops some of its Hindrances, such as sensual desire, by falling asleep, that's called Wrong Release. Only if the mind is firmly focused on mindfulness and the breath is it in Right Concentration. Only if it drops its Hindrances by being wise to their tricks is it called Right Release.

If mindfulness and alertness are constantly established in the mind, our views will become straight, our concentration will become right, just as when two beams of light meet: they give rise to the bright light of discernment. There are times when discernment arises for only a tiny moment in the mind, and yet it can kill off enormous defilements. For example, it can let go of all the aggregates of clinging. It can abandon self-identity views by letting go of the body; it can abandon attachment to practices and precepts by letting go of feeling; and it can abandon uncertainty by letting go of perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness.

We're taught to develop this sort of discernment by practicing Right Concentration. Even if it arises only for the flash of an eye, it can bring us many, many benefits. Just like an atomic bomb: even though it's only a tiny thing, it can bring destruction to the world in an awesome way.

The discernment arising from within the mind is something that can't be described. It's a tiny, little thing, not like the knowledge that comes from studying and memorizing in school. That's why we can't talk about it. The Buddha even laid down training rules for the monks, forbidding them from talking about their spiritual attainments. This is why we can't know if other people are noble disciples. It's something that each noble disciple can know only for him or herself alone.



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