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Creating a Good Ground for Meditation

Meditation isn't a one-way street—you can’t just meditate and your life will get better. You have to change the way you live to improve your meditation. THANISSARO BHIKKHU outlines five principles of the ethical, restrained life conducive to meditation practice.

Often we like to think that simply by adding meditation to our daily schedule, the effects of the meditation will permeate our whole lives without our having to do much of anything else. Simply add the meditation to the mix of your life and it will change all the other ingredients—that's what we'd like to think, but it doesn't really work that way. You have to make your life a good place for the meditation to seep through, because some activities, some states of mind, are really resistant to receiving any influence from the meditation.

This is why, when you're a meditator, you also have to look at the way you live your life, your day-to-day activities. See if you're creating a conducive environment for the meditation to thrive and spread. Otherwise the meditation just gets squeezed into the cracks here and there, and never permeates much of anything at all.

There's a teaching in the Theravada canon on five principles that a new monk should keep in mind. These principles apply not only to new monks, but also to anyone who wants to live a life where the meditation can seep through and permeate everything.

The first principle is virtue. Make sure you stick to your precepts. In the case of monks, of course, this refers to the Patimokkha—the monastic rules. In the case of lay people, it refers to the five precepts, and on occasion the eight precepts. When you're holding to the precepts, you're holding to firm principles in your life. The Buddha described observing the precepts as a gift: a gift both to yourself and to the people around you. You give protection to other people's lives, their property, their knowledge of the truth. You protect them from your being drunk. You protect them from your engaging in illicit sex. And when these principles become precepts—in other words, a promise to yourself that you keep in all circumstances—the Buddha says that you're giving unlimited protection, unlimited safety, to other beings, and you have a share in that safety yourself.

So the precepts create an environment where there's more protection. And when there's more protection it’s easier to meditate. The precepts also foster an attitude of giving. You realize that for the sake of your own happiness, you have to give. When you have that attitude, it gets easier to meditate, because all too often people come to meditation with the question, "What can I get out of this?" But if you're used to giving and seeing the good results that come from giving, you're more likely to ask, "What can I give to the meditation? What needs to be given for the good results to come?" With that attitude you're more willing to give of your time and energy in ways that you might not have been willing to before.

The second principle for creating a good environment for meditation in your life is restraint of the senses. In other words, you're not only careful about what comes out of your mind, you're also careful about what comes in, in terms of the things you look at, listen to, smell, taste, touch and think about. Be careful not to focus on things that will give rise to greed, anger or delusion. If you're careless in your looking, careless in your listening, it's very difficult to be careful about your thoughts, because thoughts are so much subtler.

This doesn't mean that you go around with blinders on your eyes or plugs in your ears; it simply means that you're skillful in how you look at things, skillful in how you listen. If you know that something tends to arouse lust or anger, learn to look at it in a way that counteracts the lust or anger. In other words, if something seems attractive, you look for its unattractive side. If something seems unattractive, you look for its attractive side. As Ajahn Lee, one of the foremost teachers of the Thai forest ascetic tradition, says, be a person with two eyes, not just one.

It’s not that you shouldn’t look at the body; it’s just that you should look more carefully. Look at the parts that aren't attractive. This balances the one-sided view that simply focuses on a few attractive details here and there and tends to blot out everything else in order to give rise to lust. After all, it's not the body that's productive of lust. The mind produces lust. Many times the mind wants to feel lust and so it goes out looking for something to incite the lust. It grabs hold of whatever little details it can find, even when those details are surrounded by all sorts of unclean things.

So keep watch on what comes out of the mind and what comes in. For lay people, this means being careful about the friends you associate with, the magazines you read, the TV you watch, the music you listen to. After a while you find that this is not a case of restricting yourself so much as it is learning to see things more carefully, more fully. Now you're seeing both sides of things that used to seem solely attractive or solely unattractive.

This takes some effort. You have to be more energetic in watching how you look and listen. But the benefit is that the mind is in much better shape to meditate because you're not filling it up with all kinds of stuff that's going to harm it, weaken it or get in the way. So many times when you sit down to meditate, if you've been careless about what's been coming in and out of your mind, you find it's like cleaning out a shed after a year of neglect. There's so much garbage in there that you spend almost the whole hour cleaning it out and then realize you have only five minutes for any real stillness at the end. So keep the mind clean from the beginning, all the time. Don't let any garbage in the door or in the windows. That way you find you have a much nicer place to settle in when you create your meditation home.

The third principle for creating a good environment for meditation is restraint in conversation. When I first went to stay with my teacher, Ajahn Fuang, he said that lesson number one in meditation is keeping control of your mouth. In other words, before you say anything, ask yourself: "Is this necessary? Is this beneficial? Is there a good reason to say this?" If there is, then go ahead and say it. If not, then just keep quiet. As he said, if you can't control your mouth there's no way that you're going to control your mind. And when you make a habit of asking yourself these questions, you find that very little conversation is necessary. If you're at work and you need to talk to your fellow workers in order to create a good atmosphere in the office, O.K., that counts as necessary speech. But so often social-grease speech goes beyond that. You start getting careless, running off at the mouth, and that turns into idle chatter, which is not only a waste of energy but also a source of danger. Often the things people say that cause the most harm are when they're just allowing whatever comes into their mind to go right out their mouth without any restraint at all.

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