No One in Charge
To maintain its health, the mind needs its own place to rest: not just resting in sleep, resting with alertness, awareness. That kind of place requires several skills. One is the skill of just being able to be quiet. Another is the skill of being able to cut away your interest in things outside. Some people find this to be the scary part of the meditation. We’ve been taught to believe that our goodness consists of our being concerned about things outside, and here we are telling ourselves that, for the time being, those things don’t matter. As they say in the forest tradition, the sky could be falling but we’re going to stay right here and not let it get to us, because we need a part of the mind that things don’t get to. That’s our sanity. That’s our safety.
So learn how to find a spot inside where you’re at ease with the breath and learn how to protect it. Learn how to catch your thoughts as they go running out, or at the very least catch your tendency to follow them. They can go, but you don’t have to go with them. You want a spot where you can see them go, but you’re not following along. You’re not getting into them.
For many of us, it’s like a car driving up. The driver stops and says, “Hey! Come on in!” and you jump in the car and you ride off. You very rarely ask, “Who’s driving?” “Where are we going?” The car looks shiny, so you think, “Let’s go,” and you jump right in. But now you want to be in a position where the thoughts may come but you don’t get into them. And that’s not simply a matter of making yourself dull to the world or dull to your thoughts. In fact, you have to be very alert to them, very quick to their nuances to see the various ways in which they might try to catch you, or the ways in which you allow yourself to be caught.
Sometimes, when superficial thoughts don’t get you, the ones that seem more important will: What are you doing with your life? Why are you sitting here not helping other people? Why aren’t you getting on with the big scheme of things? Remind yourself that, as the Buddha said, there really is no big scheme of things. Samsara is just a wandering-on, and it’s rather aimless. In the words of Hölderlin, the German poet, it’s “diverging lines.” The lines of our lives come together and then drift apart. That may sound scary, but it’s actually very liberating. If there were a plan to the universe, we’d have to figure it out so that we could follow it. Yet obviously it’s not written down in clear terms anywhere in nature, so we’re left with a game of guessing.
As the Buddha said, the wandering-on just wanders, but you can give a direction to your life. You’re not obliged to fit into anyone else’s pattern for how your life should go. You get to make the choice. Now, some people take that as a license for all kinds of misbehavior, but as the Buddha said, there is a pattern to the way actions give their results that doesn’t let you simply get away with things. This pattern is built into the nature of action. If you act on motivations based on greed, aversion, or delusion, there’s going to be suffering. If you act on motivations based on renunciation, non-ill will, or harmlessness, it pulls you out of suffering. So it’s not the case that, because there’s no purpose to things, there’s no pattern at all. You’re not totally free to shape things as you like and always get the results you want. But you can master the pattern so that your actions lead to a good purpose.
The question then becomes: What kind of happiness do you want out of this pattern? Where will you find satisfaction? Where will you find fulfillment?
As the Buddha said, fulfillment comes from letting go. Several of the ajaans have said that the practice is basically one thing clear through. It starts with generosity and it ends with total letting go. But you also have to work on developing—in other words, developing the good qualities that will allow you to let go with skill, because if you have nothing at all in the mind, then when you let go of things, you’re a pauper. There’s nothing left that you can use. But if you develop good qualities in the mind, then the things that you don’t need anymore you can put aside, but you’re not poor. You’ll still have those good qualities. In other words, you’re not deprived of them when you let them go. They’re still there for you to use.
It’s actually by finding this strong space inside us—developing it and maintaining it—that we put ourselves in a better position to be giving to ourselves and giving to the world. So this is a pursuit of happiness that’s not irresponsible. In fact, it’s the most responsible way you can find happiness. It allows you to put aside a lot of questions that really don’t have any clear answers—such as the question, “Who am I?” I was reading a book a while back saying that this is the great question of all great religions: “Who am I?” Well, they’re obviously not counting what the Buddha taught as a great religion, because as far as he was concerned, that question simply gets you tied up in a fetter of views. The important question is not “Who am I?” but “What should I do—and what will be the results?” That’s a question that can be answered—and answered in ways that really do make a difference in your life and can get you out of the confines of the world entirely.
But to get out of the world requires that we first give something to it, and each of us will have to decide how and what we want to give. Some people say that if you try to get out of this process of samsara, you’re selfish—and that it’s bad for the world if people think they can get out. But actually it’s very good for the world, because you don’t get out by being selfish. You don’t take anything of the world with you; you have to leave everything worldly behind. Look at the Buddha. He created a lot of goodness and then he left it behind. That was how he was able to enter total nibbana. We don’t get to haul anything along with us into nibbana. We create goodness to leave it behind as our gift. And the leaving behind, when it’s done from a position of strength, becomes a gift to ourselves as well. Everyone benefits.
So when the Buddha says that the world is aimless, it’s actually a liberating thought. It’s not meant to be depressing. It’s meant to tell you that you can choose your aims. You’ve got the choice of how you’re going to look for happiness, with the realization that, in line with the principle of kamma, the quality of your intentions, the quality of your decisions, will determine whether you actually find happiness or not, and what kind of happiness it’ll be: a happiness that just gets thrown away or a happiness that stays with you as something infallibly there.
That opens immense possibilities. If you were defined, say, by your body, by your position in society, or by something else that someone else had imposed on you, there would be huge limitations on what you could do. But the Buddha never defines people by what they are. He says, “This is what a human being can do.” And one of the things a human being can do is find true happiness. And human beings, in the process, can be generous, they can be virtuous, they can find true well-being inside their minds, and they don’t have to wait for that well-being until after they die. It’s right here. The possibility is right here. So be careful not to limit your notion of what’s possible in your human life.
There’s a passage where the Buddha says that if you want to get the most benefit out of a Dhamma talk, 1) you don’t have contempt for the talk, 2) you don’t have contempt for the speaker, and then, what’s really interesting, 3) you don’t have contempt for yourself. In other words, you don’t belittle your potentials or your capabilities.
Think of what this opens up for you. There’s no one out there making a plan for you. As the chant we recited just now said, “There’s no one in charge.” Or as Ajaan Fuang used to say, “When you were born, nobody hired you to be born, so there’s no one who can tell you what you have to do with your life. You’re nobody’s servant.” Now, the principle of kamma creates a pattern of responsibility that you can’t ignore. So taking that into consideration, what do you want out of life? The choice is yours. And here are the tools, the tools of the meditation: developing tranquility, developing insight. These will help you choose well.