Noticing Nibbana

It might seem like a strange time to suggest we go looking for Nibbana; you might wonder just how likely anyone is to notice it amongst the chaos of our current situation. But I’m not talking about trying to achieve enlightenment, the nibbana I am talking about are those occasional moments of peace that we experience long before enlightenment ever comes into view, the sweet moments of quiet and stillness.

What got me working on this topic was a short section in Small Boat, Great Mountain by Ajahn Amaro where he says:

“… the Third Noble Truth, dukkha-nirodha, the ending of dukkha, is “to be realized.” That means when the dukkha stops, notice it. Notice: “Oh! Everything is okay.” … we can just be, without becoming.”

Small Boat, Great Mountain by Amaro Bhikkhu p46

In this part of the book he discusses how easy it is to not notice that we have managed to stop all the noise, and to completely overlook this as an achievement. This was something of a light bulb moment for me because I realised this was something I was doing all the time.

“We practice to end suffering, yet we get so attached to working with things in the mind that when the dukkha stops and the heart becomes spacious and empty, we can find ourselves feeling lost. We don’t know how to leave that experience alone: “Oh – whoom – everything is open, clear, spacious… so now what do i do?”. Our conditioning says, “I am supposed to be doing something. This isn’t what it means to be progressing on the path.” We don’t know how to be awake and yet to leave that spaciousness alone.
When that space in the mind appears, it can bewilder us or we can easily overlook it… We miss the realization that when we let go, dukhha ceases. Instead, we ignore that still, open, clear quality and go looking for the next thing, and then the next and the next… It looks like there is nothing here. Everything looks kind of boring: no lust or fear or other issues to deal with… When grasping ceases, the ultimate truth appears. It’s that simple.”

Small Boat, Great Mountain by Amaro Bhikkhu p44 – 45

For a long time I thought that when my mind was quiet it was because it was empty; and it was empty because I had managed to shoo all the thoughts out of my mind and slammed the door behind them.

Because I thought my mind was empty, I thought to keep it nice and quiet I had to stop any new thoughts from getting into my mind. So even though everything was calm and peaceful in there, my attention stayed at the door of my mind watching out for marauding thoughts. I was like a villager at the fortifications trying to repel invaders, standing with a pitchfork shouting “get back!” to those errant thoughts.

I was so used to looking for something, arising thoughts mostly, that even when they were gone I continued to look for them; and of course whatever you look for you will see, so I kept finding more thoughts.

Being so busy with chasing all these thoughts away I failed to notice any of the peace and quiet; and I didn’t really appreciate what an important oversight this was until I read that passage in Ajahn Amaro’s book. I had dismissed this quiet as just the absence of noise, always thinking that nibbana was somewhere else, somewhere far, far away in a distant future, perhaps even a future life time.

But actually those moments of peace are nibbana; they are the ending of suffering, albeit it very briefly sometimes. What Ajahn Amaro had written brought me to see that those moments of peace and quiet are exactly what we are working towards. Nibbana when fully realised is being able to maintain that peace in the face of every circumstance; on the path leading up to it we are able to maintain peace under some circumstances, and we keep working on the rest.

Simply noticing is only part of the story though, we need some peacefulness to notice in the first place. Peacefulness doesn’t just happen, it requires careful cultivation, and my attention being in the wrong place was part of the problem.

Bhikkhus, whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind. trans. Ajahn Sujato

So watching out for thoughts meant that I kept creating the tendency to have more of them, because I paid so much attention to them! Watching thoughts became the inclination of my mind, so unsurprisingly I didn’t notice the peace very often.

You might not realise it, but the noise in your mind has been cultivated by you. Every time you pay attention to a thought you cultivate the conditions to keep paying attention to thoughts. I hadn’t realised this was what I was doing; I thought I was ‘being mindful’ by standing guard watching for thoughts so I could push them out. I was being mindful, but what I didn’t realise was that I was cultivating mindfulness of thoughts, they had essentially become my meditation object.

Thoughts are not peaceful, watch them long enough and you will realise that they do not have a calming effect on you. Really what I should have been doing was taking peacefulness as my meditation object, and paid attention to the peace and not the noise.

It was also a mistake on my part to think that my mind was empty when it was quiet. In Buddhist psychology, our minds are never empty, there is always something there. The trouble for us is that if we don’t look closely enough we can fail to notice what is there, and assume there is nothing.
Peace and quiet isn’t the mere absence of thoughts or unsettling feelings, it is the presence of the things that create feelings of peace and quiet. In a continuation of MN 19, the Buddha explains that to think about unskillful things we have to stop thinking about the skillful:

If he frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of sensual desire, he has abandoned the thought of renunciation to cultivate the thought of sensual desire, and then his mind inclines to thoughts of sensual desire. If he frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of ill will…upon thoughts of cruelty, he has abandoned the thought of non-cruelty to cultivate the thought of cruelty, and then his mind inclines to thoughts of cruelty. trans. Ajahn Sujato

This shows us, therefore, that a positive state of mind isn’t merely the absence of negativity, it is the presence of positive thoughts and attitudes. So the negative states can only be present when the wholesome ones are absent, and likewise wholesome ones can only be present if the negative ones are absent.

We can fall into a meditation trap where we create a void in our mind by over-focusing on shifting out the things we don’t want to be in our minds. But without cultivating anything better to fill the space, the negative things we just pushed out come straight back in again; and eventually we end up wondering why our minds are still so full of rubbish when we meditate.

The Buddha talks about this in his description of the four right efforts, which when mastered fulfil the Right Effort step of the Eightfold Path:
Trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu SN45.8

“And what, monks, is right effort?
[i] “There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
[ii] “He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen.
[iii] “He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
[iv] “He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This, monks, is called right effort.”
Trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu SN45.8

He points to the fact that it isn’t enough to just work on getting rid of the negative, we also have to actively cultivate the positive. The first two of the right efforts are about getting rid of the unskillful qualities, but the last two are about skillful qualities.

Number 3 says that we must use our effort to create skillful qualities that currently aren’t here, and number 4 says we must use our effort to maintain any skillful qualities that are already here. In meditation that means for number 3 we should try to create skillful states like peace, calm, metta etc. And once they have arisen we should use our effort to maintain them.

So I was making two mistakes; I was noticing the wrong thing (thoughts instead of peace), and I believed that peace was the the absence of something (thoughts mostly). Of course it’s easy to be frustrated with yourself when you realise you have been doing something wrong, but in this case I was left with a bit of a silver lining.

The aim of concentration meditation is to absorb with your meditation object, and without realising it I was doing this by becoming absorbed into thoughts. I got absorbed into thoughts because I was putting all of my attention on them to make sure they didn’t come into my mind. I had always thought my concentration was bad, because when I meditated I kept getting drawn into thoughts, but actually my concentration was pretty good – I was just concentrating on the wrong thing!

Speaking of concentration, it is worth talking about concentration meditation too, because concentration is also not just the absence of distractions but the presence of the things that make concentration possible too.

We can often just focus on the five hindrances when we meditate, because we frequently get taught that they are what is stopping us from having nice, peaceful meditations. So we go looking for them to dig them up, and of course we keep finding them because that is where we have put our mindfulness. We think the absence of the five hindrances will lead to concentration, but this isn’t the whole story.

Concentration doesn’t just require the absence of the five hindrances, it also needs the presence of the five factors of jhana. The five factors of jhana directly counter the five hindrances:

Vitakka - initial thought - counters sloth and torpor                                                                                     Vicara - sustained thought - counters doubt
Piti - rapture or zest - counters ill will
Sukha - happiness - counters restlessness and worry
Ekaggata - one pointedness - counters sensual desire

(A comprehensive manual of Abhidhamma gen. ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi

So at times when my mind had become quiet it wasn’t because the thoughts had gone away, it was because these factors of jhana were present. This was the something I had failed to notice, and that’s unsurprising because they aren’t all very obvious.

Although the initial surge of piti and sukkha when you get into first jhana is obvious, the other factors are quite subtle. Such things as initial thought – putting your mind onto your meditation object, and sustained thought – keeping your mind on the meditation object, can feel more like effort. When you feel like you are working really hard to keep your attention in one place it doesn’t feel like an indication of peacefulness.

But if you have had a meditation where you can’t even get your attention onto your meditation object for more than a second then you can appreciate that there must be something present that allows you to keep your attention in place on other occasions. Rather than consider initial thought and sustained thought as effort, you can look on them as good signs- you wouldn’t be able to do them if negative states were around.

On some level we have to retrain our expectations of what the fruits of meditation are going to feel like. The sudden rush of piti in first jhana can be exhilarating, but it is a very short lived feeling. As you become more absorbed into your meditation object, the thrill is the first thing to go.
Similarly the peace of a quiet mind can feel empty unless we really pay attention to it, and recognise it as one of the key aims of meditation.

Peace, strangely enough, is a bit of an acquired taste. Its unfamiliarity can even be frightening; getting into a quiet mind for the first time can be scary, and sometimes feels like step into the unknown. We take our ordinary ways of being for granted but we don’t realise that they too are an acquired taste. You might think it is normal to want to be busy and active, and thinking about things all the time, but it isn’t really.

It’s just one of many potential ways of being, and for most of us it is the one we were brought up into, so we don’t know anything different. We’ve got used to it, and we don’t think about doing anything different until we encounter practice, and different options for being. So to incline towards peace means we have to lose our taste for the fast life, and learn to appreciate that somewhere within the quiet is a calmer, cooler, way to be.

Noticing Nibbana then isn’t just a case of looking, but a combination of looking in the right place, cultivating the conditions for it, and acquiring a taste for it. But those moments of peace, no matter how short, are a blessed relief. And we all need more of those moments right now

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