It is interesting that there are now all kinds of stress reduction programmes; people are aware of stress and tension in society. A modern life is a very stressful one and things move too quickly for us, actually. We’re propelled through high technology and a fast-lane type of life whether we like it or not, and this does affect us. We get a sense of this kind of driven quality, this quality that makes us very restless, and we tend to distract ourselves endlessly. This then creates tension and stress and when we do this to the body, the body stops. It can’t take it any more and starts creating problems for us. Relaxation is therefore something that is encouraged now very much in our society, just on a popular, worldly level.
I was listening to a tape of a woman teaching relaxation. She says that now you can’t even use the word ‘relaxation’ because people try to relax, so she uses a tone of voice more to convey that, ‘Soothing . . .’ But these are just expedient methods. Words and techniques are meant to help us; they are not commands or things that we obsess ourselves with. Any kind of meditation technique or even the words that we use are not to be taken as commandments, like commanding us to relax: RELAX! In terms of stress reduction that doesn’t help very much. In terms of a word that gives a message, what does ‘relaxation’ mean? Not that I can tell you how you should translate this word or what it can be for you, but it is pointing to our ability to let go and let life be—let go of these attitudes, let go of these compulsive obsessive tendencies of feeling we’ve got to do something, ‘I’ve got to get something I don’t have. I’ve got to get rid of things that I shouldn’t have.’ These are subconscious influences. Geshe-la [Geshe Tashi Tsering] was saying last night that these underlying influences are so deep that we don’t even notice them. That is why the word ‘relax’ can be taken as, ‘He says I have to relax. I should be able to relax, but I can’t. So what’s wrong with me?’
We can just allow things to be the way they are, allow tension to be. Even if you are stressed out, you can allow it, you can let it be the way it is. You can allow whatever mental states you have, even your compulsive, obsessive tendencies, to be what they are, not in order to see them as something wrong with you, something that you should do something about, but in order to allow even the bad habits, the bad thoughts, the tensions, the pain, the sadness, the loneliness, or whatever, to be at this moment, with a sense of letting go, with a sense of allowing life to be what it is.
In the Western world we have a lot of problems around guilt. We can feel guilty all the time, and this of course is very much a cultural tendency that we have. In Thailand, where I lived for many years, not many people seem to have this obsessive guilt. They know when they’ve done something they shouldn’t, and they feel a sense of a shame when they tell a lie or something like that, but it becomes guilt when it’s taken so personally. We tend to hold onto this sense of shame and it becomes a kind of obsession, feeling guilty about just breathing the air or being alive, and it becomes neurotic tendencies. This is just a reflection of it, my particular reflection. In Asian countries like Thailand, and in the case of the Tibetans, even, the Dalai Lama has said that basically Tibetans like themselves; they have a sense of self-respect. One of the attractive things I think that many of us find in living in an Asian country is that people seem somehow happier there or more accepting of life; they don’t seem to be so complicated in the way they look at things. I found I really enjoyed living in Thailand because somehow life became easier for me, even though in some ways it was more complicated. On the one hand, I had to learn a whole new culture and a new language, but on an emotional level I found it easier because there is a basic acceptance. With Ajahn Chah, for example, there was an unquestioned acceptance of life as it was and of me as I was. I never felt that in the United States; I never felt accepted or acceptable as I was. I felt I should be better than me. If I’m in a good place right now as I am, I should think, ‘Well, I can be better than this.’ Because of guilt and tendencies towards negativity, you feel you are never good enough no matter how hard you try, and there is this kind of depressing feeling. When you look at the cultural attitude in America, it is highly competitive. You are brought up from the beginning with high-minded role models, images and ideals that you should live up to. Comparing oneself with the realities of what you are, you are going to come off feeling inferior. How can it be otherwise? There is no way out from that one if you compare yourself to an ideal. We are not ideals. This is not an ideal. This is the reality of flesh and blood and nerves and senses; it is all sensitivity. It is not like a Greek statue sculpted in marble, perfect in form. That doesn’t have to deal with nerve endings or toothaches, old age, or anything like that. But that is an icon, it’s perfect like the Buddha image; it’s an ideal.
In the Theravada school, the Arahant is an ideal. They also do this in Thailand. You have this sense of taking this word ‘Arahant’ and putting it on this pedestal of idealism so it remains remote and far from us, so far we can’t relate to it. You can worship it from down here, and maybe feel better for that. Looking up and worshipping an ideal is inspiring; it can make you feel good. But then when you come back to yourself again, the way you are, what happens? You experience your life in a family, with the children, with relatives, with husbands, wives, neighbours, governments . . . Living in a religious community, a monastic community, like in Amaravati, is basically living with very good people. It’s a very nice life, it’s well supported, and yet the suffering just on a personal level, personality conflicts, is endless—this personality doesn’t get along with that personality. If we try to solve all these problems on the level of everyone developing the same personality, then I can’t imagine that ever being possible. So, allowing things to be what they are is an attitude I have found helpful. I can allow my own mental states, the way I am on a personal level, my emotional habits, my personality in any of its aspects good or bad. I can have this attitude of allowing things to be what they are. This also allows me to accept other people to be what they are. If I can’t do it here with myself, then I won’t be able to do it with others. Sometimes the way we criticise others is really a reflection of how we look upon ourselves.
Ajahn Chah used to call meditation a holiday for the heart. We have a tendency to think that meditation is something we’ve got to achieve, another thing we‘ve got to do and get, but Ajahn Chah would put it in terms of a holiday. Try that, try seeing meditation in that way. This is our holiday here at the Summer School. Put that word ‘holiday’ into your meditation. You don’t have to achieve anything or get any great insights, attain high stages, purify yourself, get rid of your evil thoughts, or whatever. Evil thoughts are allowable. We’re not judging, so we’re not trying to judge thoughts in terms of their quality, but just noting they are like this. If there are evil thoughts saying, ‘Go and kill Ajahn Sumedho!’ just don’t do it, refrain from acting. But this is just another thought, it is what it is, and it will go away.
Also, notice that we like challenges. Some people want to go to extremes, especially younger people. Young monks sometimes want to go to a cave and really fast and starve themselves. That is part of youth, really, testing yourself out by taking on difficult things that most people can’t do. But you can’t do that your whole life, you cannot always think that meditation is some kind of striving challenge for you. The real challenge lies in just being able to integrate this awareness into the most ordinary things, into the mundane realities of daily life, the most unimpressive aspects of what we do every day, integrating awareness or being aware as a continuum. Being aware of special situations is one thing, but to have that connected awareness, the continuum of awareness, is not an easy thing. It does take patience. When we grasp the idea of awareness being a continuum, we want to do it, but the realities are we get distracted and fall back into old habits. A sense of humility helps, and simplicity. There was a monk in Amaravati who tended to go through a process of striving too hard, then failing, then getting depressed, and then feeling frustrated thinking he needed more solitude, more isolation and a different environment because he felt there were too many distractions at Amaravati, too many people.
One way I have handled this is to have a sense of gratitude for the moments I am mindful. If I get caught up in the life of the monastery, pulled this way and that so that I’m not really very mindful, and then suddenly I remember, I feel a sense of, ‘Thank you!’ I treasure that, value that rather than think, ‘Oh, I’m trying to be mindful but I can’t do it,’ and start beating myself up because I vowed in the morning to be mindful the whole day and immediately failed, or go into these states of, ‘Oh, there I go again. I shouldn’t have done that,’ and start nagging myself and criticising or feeling like a failure. Even if there is only one moment in the whole twenty-four hours when I am suddenly mindful, to feel this, ‘Thank you!’ to me is more helpful. The alternative isn’t helpful, actually. Beating yourself up doesn’t help you in any way because meditation is not a matter of success—being able to achieve your goals and prove yourself. It isn’t like that. That might be how your thinking process works; your emotional habits are built around success and failure.
Emotionally, we are elated at success and depressed at failure; that is the emotional habit-pattern we have. The way to transcend that is through awareness, just in this present moment, this simple act of attention, this listening and allowing. You don’t have to control, you don’t have to prove, get something, or get rid of anything. This is such a relief.
More articles by Ajahn Sumedho here.
[The above is from a talk given by him on 31 July 2001 at the Leicester Buddhist Summer School, England. ]