Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps

Last week I touched on the subject of techniques that help us to develop equanimity and there are many techniques of a similar kind that help us to loosen the grip of self-view, to see through our mistaken sense of permanence, and to understand dukkha. The Thai Forest lineage of Ajahn Chah is particularly rich in these kinds of techniques, no doubt in no small part due to Chah’s own unique gift for deconstructing experience to reveal a hidden reality.

Ajahn Chah’s famous question – ‘is that a sure thing?’  captures Chah’s predominant focus on the nature of impermanence and the uncertainty it created. This was one of the unique elements in his teachings. He was masterful at finding ways to take the principle of impermanence, which can sometimes seem like a dry, technical point, and make it a very tangible teaching out of it.

Asking yourself ‘is that a sure thing?’ in response to anything that comes up in your mind  is a deceptively simple practice, but it is incredibly effective; even spending just a few minutes doing this will unravel layers of concepts and assumptions that you might not even have been aware of.

Now it’s pretty easy to embrace the idea of uncertainty when you are dealing with something like  the British weather, it is so changeable that even when the forecast looks fair you automatically think ‘yeah but that’s never a sure thing’ and you still pack a waterproof anyway. But Ajahn Chah wasn’t aiming for superficial points like this where it was obvious you were dealing with something that wasn’t certain, he was aiming  much, much deeper than this, right into the heart of every assumption we make and right into the foundations of our way of understanding the world.:

“No matter how sure the mind wants to be, just tell it, ”Not sure!” Whenever the mind wants to grab on to something as a sure thing, just say, ”It’s not sure, it’s transient.”” [1]

By asking this question over and over again, we quickly find that most things are not as certain as we thought they were. Nothing is to pass through the mind without this challenge, not even things that seem unquestionably certain, such as whether food tastes good or not:

“Some kinds of food seem so delicious, but still you should reflect that it’s not a sure thing. It may seem so sure, it’s so delicious, but still you must tell yourself, “not sure!” If you want to test out whether it’s sure or not, try eating your favorite food every day. Every single day, mind you. Eventually you’ll complain, “This doesn’t taste so good anymore.”” [2]

You might think ‘I like cake’, but is that really a sure thing? Do you like all cakes? Made of every possible permutation of ingredients? Such as garlic sausage and chocolate cake? Would you still like cake if the only thing you had available to eat at every meal was cake? Clearly a statement like ‘I like cake’ has a lot of exceptions to it. But the point of this questioning isn’t to get you to noodle about every scenario where you would like cake and every one where you wouldn’t, it is to get you to see that the thought you were so certain about  wasn’t actually a certainty at all.

This approach challenges the process of thinking and believing those thoughts,  it isn’t so much about the content of the thought really because in Ajahn Chah’s words ‘everything you think is garbage’. [3] It is also challenge to that feeling of certainty we attach to when there is actually no reasonable basis for being so sure; it is just an artefact of the thinking process that our thoughts take on the appearance of being real or correct.

Ajahn Chah’s teachings are  unusual among Theravadan teachers in putting a lot of emphasis on deconstructing the actions of the conceptual mind, taking an approach that is reminiscent of Zen at times, asking people questions like ‘have you ever seen still flowing water?’, or his famous statement to a young Ajahn Brahm where he cryptically told him ‘if anyone asks why, the answer is – there is nothing’. [4]

The academic Dipti Mahanta gives a scholarly account of his approach which reveals just how penetrating his approaches are at unseating our suppositions about experience:

“Interspersed by thought-provoking similes and metaphors, the dhamma talks demonstrate to what extent Ajahn Chah strategically aimed at deconstructing dichotomous thought-processes by mindfully defying reification of all mental formations, conditioned states and conventional linguistic signs – be it the written word or the verbal utterance.” [5]

Reification means making real, or making solid, and using ‘not a sure thing’ is a perfect example of how his teachings would disrupt the process of a thought becoming a real or solid thing, which is what we normally do with our thoughts.

 In Ajahn Chah’s approach nothing was to be left unchallenged, even the seemingly incontrovertible. While this  ‘not a sure thing’ approach appears to be focused simply around the impermanent and uncertain nature of phenomena, the impact of this went much deeper than that:

“… what is deconstructed in … the simple yet profound teachings of Ajahn Chah is not just language, but the human Ego itself in all its kammic dimensions – linguistic, psychological, social, ethical, cultural and conceptual orientations.” [5]

Of course the contemplation of impermanence  has always been a crucial element in practice, and it is noteworthy that in the list of the three characteristics anicca is always first, before anatta and dukkha. There is a short sutta that underlines why the practice of perceiving impermanence is so important, and supports why Ajahn Chah’s use of it has such far reaching effects:

“Mendicants, seeing six benefits is quite enough to establish the perception of impermanence in all conditions without qualification. What six? ‘All conditions will appear to me as transient.’ ‘My mind will not delight anywhere in the world.’ ‘My mind will rise above the whole world.’ ‘My mind will incline to extinguishment.’ ‘My fetters will be given up.’ ‘I will achieve the ultimate goal of the ascetic life.’ Seeing these six benefits is quite enough to establish the perception of impermanence in all conditions without qualification.” [6]

Reading these six benefits makes sense of why Ajahn Chah put so much emphasis on the constant search for impermanence because it helps to create a state of equanimity towards everything experienced, which creates the conditions that allow for a true relinquishment of the world.

But this wasn’t the only approach that Chah took. Ajahn Amaro often talks about another variation that Ajahn Chah suggested which has a similarly far-reaching impact on our relationships to our thoughts. It is  on the same theme as ‘not a sure thing’, which is simply to respond to any thought with the question “so?” He describes it like this:

“This is great, ‘so?’ This is awful, ‘so?’ This is exactly what I wanted, ‘so?’ This is exactly what I didn’t want, ‘so?’ I don’t know what I’m going to do today, ‘so?’ I know exactly what I’m going to do today, ‘so?’

It’s a kind of automatic deflator, it pulls the plug on our plans or our ideas or our enthusiasms – and also our anxieties and aversions. It  repeatedly, continually puts them in perspective and whereas the assumption of our patterns of thinking is “it’s a good thing” or …[it’s something] “I need to get away from”, just by reflecting ‘so?’  it dissolves the habits of self-view around liking and disliking, about taking action and attitudes, all of that, and it’s a sort of practice you only get a real sense for how it works if you apply it.” [7]

Inspired by these approaches, and they are ones that I have used over the years, I have my own twist that I like to use which is to respond to insistent thoughts that burst into my mind with ‘yes, perhaps.’ What I like about this phrase is that it reminds me that the contents of my thinking mind are all just possibilities, probabilities calculated based on the information I have to hand and in my memories. I find it a useful reminder that none of my thoughts are actually  connected to any real-world certainties, they are all just possibilities. Some of these possibilities are more probable than others, but that doesn’t take away the fact that they are still just possibilities.

My mind is quite prone to imperative statements starting with ‘I need to …!’ and it helps me to be reminded that I don’t ‘need to’ do anything, everything is optional because ultimately everything is uncertain. That doesn’t mean that there are no consequences to my not doing something, there will be of course, but ‘need to’ isn’t fully accurate.

‘I need to make dinner’ sounds like quite a reasonable way to use ‘need to’, especially when you are hungry, but when we break it down a bit there are a lot more possibilities than we have brought to mind. I don’t really need to make dinner; I carry enough spare calories around my middle to survive unscathed without one dinner, that’s one option. I could just scavenge whatever is in my snack cupboard instead of dinner, that’s another option. I could get a takeaway, that’s another option too. Making dinner isn’t the only way to supply my body with calories, there are plenty of other ways to do that and of course I could just go hungry instead, so to say ‘I need to’ therefore isn’t fully accurate.

But when I respond to the mind with ‘yes… perhaps,’ that works to knock everything back into perspective. Yes, I am hungry, and dinner is the usual way to deal with this. This part of my thought is accurate, and I find it useful to acknowledge that there was a reason for the thought popping up – the  function of the thinking mind is to calculate possibilities after all.

But also, as well as being a ‘yes’ this is still just a ‘perhaps’, the thought that flashed into my mind wasn’t really an imperative, it was just a possibility, just one possible outcome out of millions. When I give the thought a ‘yes… perhaps’ treatment it reminds me to let go of it as  being anything more than just a thought, and one option among many.

Where some of the other phrases I’ve mentioned here have hit a sticking point for me is where I recognise that there is some logic in the point I am pondering, such as ‘what will happen if I miss the plane?’ I might miss the plane, I might not, it is just a thought, but that thought is serving a practical purpose and while I can just dismiss it as not pointing to anything certain, it doesn’t change the fact that if I do actually miss the plane this will create a significant disruption to my plans. The disrupted plans can just be as they are of course, life just happens like that sometimes, but it sometimes it is pretty hard to persuade yourself that your query is unimportant when it clearly has some consequences.

For me the ‘yes’ part of ‘yes, perhaps’ serves to acknowledge the reality that while the mind does churn out an inordinate amount of nonsensical junk, sometimes it does pull a rabbit out of the hat and it does actually have a point that is worth giving a little consideration to. Yes, I might miss the plane, that might actually happen, I don’t need to pretend that it won’t. But it is also a ‘…perhaps’ because it might also not happen. We need to find a way to be equanimous with the outcome regardless of whether we took efforts to stop it from happening or not.

Treating our thoughts with equanimity doesn’t mean we therefore need to not try to catch the plane, or not try to do anything that would increase our chances of not missing the plane just because we will be okay with whatever the eventuality is, that’s just stupid. Why would you not try to catch a plane that you have booked and paid for? That makes no sense.

Equanimity doesn’t mean not trying, not putting any effort in, or not putting any planning in. Equanimity means not attaching to any of your actions or to any of your outcomes. Which means that you don’t pretend that it doesn’t matter if you miss your plane, because on some level it will, it will change yours and possibly other people’s plans. It doesn’t matter to your peace of mind whether you catch the plane or not, that is what equanimity is, but it does matter in other ways and so you make an appropriate effort to be where you had planned to be. So I find the ‘yes’ part of ‘yes, perhaps’ useful because it still engages with the fact that sometimes there is an action that it would be better if it  did happen, regardless of whether it is certain or not.

On a different theme, Ajahn Sumedho’s famous phrase ‘it’s like this’ can also act in a disruptive role much in the same way that these other approaches do. It pulls us out of our thoughts of how something should be and sets our focus on how things really are, right now, in this particular moment. You could say it is a counterpoint to Ajahn Chah’s ‘not a sure thing’ approach because when we see that something is uncertain, seeing the lack of reality in our thoughts breaks the spell, whereas when Ajahn Sumedho says ‘it’s like this’, it is seeing of reality – the reality of what is actually going on in the moment -that bursts the bubble of our misperception.

If we take my ‘need to’ example, when we get caught up in a train of thinking like ‘I need to make dinner,’ Ajahn Sumedho would say ‘right now, it’s like this’. When you stop to examine what is it like right now, you suddenly realise that your thought about needing to make dinner is only one component of your experience. There are sights, sounds, smells, feelings, all sorts of other things going on, but all you have focused on as ‘reality’ is that one though about needing to make dinner.

It also works as a reminder to not resist experiences, to not be so reactive. For instance if I am feeling sleepy but I want to write a blog post, I can say to myself ‘it’s like this’, and that reminds me to stop fighting that or trying to figure out how to change it. Maybe I should sleep, maybe I should drink coffee, maybe I should write another time, maybe I should just crack on. There are lots of possibilities going through my mind at that point, when the reality of it is much simpler – there are feelings of tiredness right now and there is a wish to write a blog post at the same time too, this moment is like this.

It helps us too to bring up a possibility that we rarely ever consider – maybe I will just have to be tired while I am writing, maybe that’s just how it is this time. It is a useful phrase to call on because it can show us how strong the habit of wanting everything to be comfortable all the time is. Just because it is harder to write when you are tired is that really a good reason to not do it?

It reminds me of the Singala Sutta where the Buddha gives a comprehensive list of advice for lay life, giving this advice about why wanting everything to be just so all the time gets in the way of us doing anything:

 “… saying, ‘It’s too cold,’ one does not work; saying, ‘It’s too hot,’ one does not work; saying, ‘It’s too late,’ one does not work; saying, ‘It’s too early,’ one does not work; saying, ‘I’m too hungry,’ one does not work; saying, ‘I’m too full,’ one does not work. With an abundance of excuses for not working, new wealth does not accrue and existing wealth goes to waste.” [8]

This passage from the sutta always makes me chuckle a little because I recognise those excuses all too well. My mind is always very quick to call on one of these excuses for not doing something, but if I say ‘it’s like this’ when I am tired, or hot, or cold, I remember that it is possible to do my task and just be uncomfortable while I’m doing it – the resistance to doing it is just a feeling of aversion.

Despite the different approaches what seems to be a key feature to all of these techniques is that they interrupt the usual flow of our thinking or behavioural patterns; the effectiveness of these techniques is that they work on one level as being disruptors to our habitual tendencies.

They simplify our current experience down to just one or two salient pieces of information, and that  helps to stop the mind from generating possibilities and from getting drawn into speculations about things that aren’t relevant. This creates a bit of breathing space because the mind stops speculating for a moment.

In the break between our usual way of doing things and whatever we choose to do next instead is a moment where we are not reacting, our latent tendencies have been intercepted and we have a neutral space that we can move in any direction from.

Because our reactions are so fleeting, if we can delay our reaction even by a split second, we can often find that the urge to react has been and gone and we no longer feel like we need to respond. This is one of the most basic trainings in equanimity, learning that we don’t have to respond to everything the split second we make contact with it.

But in that delay to responding, we also have the opportunity to call on other pieces of information that weren’t going to be consulted if we responded immediately. Those other pieces of information could be memories, alternative view points, lines from the teachings, a change of mind state,  a reflection on the impact of our response, and so on. Once we include those, we might be able to take a more considered response which could be very different to our habitual one.

So these disruptive techniques open up several possibilities for us that we don’t normally access because we are working on automatic pilot, just reacting to everything the way we normally do. That they aren’t found in the suttas isn’t terribly important to me, because I know they are working on the same principles as reminding ourselves that everything is just comprised of the elements, or that every feeling is just the result of a sensory contact for example. They are all breaking down our attachment to the thinking process and inviting us to understand our experience in different ways.

The only real short fall of these kinds of techniques is that they are still somewhat reliant on thoughts and thinking processes, in that you need to use a  bit of logic to be able to apply them. Western practitioners tend to put an awful lot of emphasis on thinking, and the further I get into my practice the more of a problem I can see not properly uprooting the attachment to thinking can cause. Thinking isn’t the problem though, thinking is just the symptom of misunderstanding experience, but we tend to put all of our attention on the thoughts and thinking part of the process.

When we are fit and healthy, we take for granted our ability to use our intellect to help us out of a jam, but if we get ill, or when we become elderly, we can’t be sure that our mental faculties will be good enough to rely on. As training exercises these disruptive and deconstructive approaches are very good, but we need to remember that at some point we shouldn’t need to use them anymore because somewhere down the line our skilful reactions should become our new habit.

So we need to strike a bit of a balance because we can’t ignore our tendency to pay attention to our thoughts, but we also, at some point, have to find a way to move beyond thinking about everything all the time. These disruptor techniques are useful because they acknowledge that we do think, and they use those thoughts to open up new ways of understanding our experience. They don’t encourage us to just beat our thoughts down like a game of whack-a-mole, or to try to crush our mind into a state of silence, which can be stressful and often counterproductive.

They challenge our habit of thinking in particular ways, and perhaps most importantly they challenge our habit of believing our thoughts unquestioningly. Our thoughts aren’t the cause of our stresses and sufferings, but they do make a significant contribution towards them, so anything we can do that breaks the hold our thoughts have over us is unquestionably a good thing.

Photo by Itay Peer on Unsplash

References

1.      Chah A. ”Not Sure!” – The Standard of the Noble Ones1. 03/09/2021. https://www.ajahnchah.org/book/Not_Sure_Standard.php . Accessed 3 Sep 2021.

2.     Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah – Living Dhamma – 08. 22/10/2016. https://www.budsas.org/ebud/livdhamma/livdham08.htm. Accessed 3 Sep 2021.

3.     Ajahn Amaro. Anecdote often recounted by Ajahn Amaro.

4.     Ajahn Brahmavamso. ANATTA (Non-Self). 07/01/2015. https://www.dhammatalks.net/Books3/Ajahn_Brahm_ANATTA.htm. Accessed 9 Sep 2021.

5.     Dipti Mahanta. From Nāgārjuna to Ajahn Chah: Buddhist deconstruction in theory and practice. 2013. http://www.undv.org/vesak2013/book/unifying_buddhist_philosophical_views.pdf#page=271. Accessed 9 Mar 2021.

6.     Bhikkhu Sujato. Anavatthitasutta AN6.102: Transience. 30/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/an6.102/en/sujato. Accessed 3 Sep 2021.

7.     Ajahn Amaro. Is the Buddha Alive Today? | Ajahn Amaro | 29.08.2021. 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWIOaVwqbS8. Accessed 3 Sep 2021.

8.     Kelly, Sawyer, Yareham. Siṅgālasutta DN31. 30/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/dn31/en/kelly-sawyer-yareham. Accessed 3 Sep 2021.

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