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Building Your Mental Muscles

Meditators and musclemen don’t seem to have much in common, but THANISSARO BHIKKHU says meditators can learn a lot from the techniques of strength training.

Meditation is the most useful skill you can master. It can bring the mind to the end of suffering, something no other skill can do. But it’s also the subtlest and most demanding skill there is. It requires all the mental qualities involved in mastering a physi­cal skill—mindfulness and alertness, persistence and patience, discipline and ingenuity—but to an extraordinary degree. This is why, when you come to meditation, it’s good to reflect on any skills, crafts, or disciplines you’ve already mastered so that you can apply the lessons they’ve taught you to training of mind.

As a meditation teacher, I’ve found it helpful to illustrate my points with analogies drawn from physical skills, and that a par­ticularly useful comparison is strength training. Meditation is more like a good workout than you might have thought.

The Buddha himself noticed the parallels here. He defined the practice as a path of five strengths: conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment. He likened the mind’s ability to beat down its most stubborn thoughts to that of a strong man beating down a weaker man. The agility of a well-trained mind, he said, is like that of a strong man who can easily flex his arm when it’s extended or extend it when it’s flexed. And he often compared the higher skills of concentration and discernment to the skills of archery, which—given the massive bows of ancient India—was strength training for the noble war­riors of his day. These skills included the ability to shoot great distances, to fire arrows in rapid succession, and to pierce great masses—the great mass standing here for the mass of ignorance enveloping the untrained mind.

So even if you’ve been pumping great masses instead of pierc­ing them, you’ve been learning some important lessons that will stand you in good stead as a meditator. Here are a few of the more important ones.


If want to strengthen a muscle, you need to know where it is and what it moves if you’re going to understand the exercises that target it. Only then can you perform them efficiently.

In the same way, you have to understand the anatomy of the mind’s suffering if you want to understand how medita­tion is supposed to work. Read up on what the Buddha had to say on the topic and don’t settle for books that put you at the end of a game of telephone. Go straight to the source, the words of the Buddha himself. You’ll find, for instance, that the Buddha explained how ignorance shapes the way you breathe, and how that in turn can add to your suffering. This is why most meditation regimens start with the breath, and why the Buddha’s own regimen takes it all the way to nirvana. So read up to understand why.


Too many meditators get discouraged at the beginning because their minds won’t settle down. But just as you can’t wait until you’re big and strong before you start strength training, you can’t wait until your concentration is strong before you start sitting. Only by exercising what little concentration you have will you make it solid and steady. So even though you feel scrawny when everyone around you seems big, or fat when everyone else seems fit, remem­ber that you’re not here to compete with them or with the perfect meditators you see in magazines. You’re here to work on yourself. Establish that as your focus and keep it strong.


You’re in this for the long haul. We all like the stories of sudden enlightenment, but even the most lightning-like insights have to be primed by a long, steady discipline of daily practice. That’s because the discipline is what makes you observant, and being observant is what enables insight to see.

Don’t get taken in by promises of quick and easy shortcuts. Set aside a time to medi­tate every day and then stick to your sched­ule, whether you feel like meditating or not. Sometimes the best insights come on the days you least feel like meditating. Even when they don’t, you’re establishing strength of discipline, patience, and resilience that will see you through the even greater dif­ficulties of aging, illness, and death. That’s why it’s called practice.


The “muscle groups” of the path are threefold: virtue, concentration, and dis­cernment. If any one of these gets over­developed at the expense of the others, it throws you out of alignment, and your extra strength turns into a liability.


You can’t fix a deadline for your enlight­enment, but you can keep aiming for a little more sitting or walking time, a little more consistency in your mindfulness, a little more speed in recovering from dis­traction, a little more understanding of what you’re doing. If you’re approaching meditation as a lifetime activity, you’ve got to have goals. You’ve got to want re­sults. Otherwise the whole thing turns into mush, and you start wondering why you’re sitting here when you could be sit­ting at the beach.

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