Happiness Is In The Middle


Happiness Is in the Middle: Exchanging the Attitude of the Mind from Suffering to Happiness

Transcript of a keynote address presented by Bhikkhu Sopako Bodhi (Achan Sobin Namto), Cynthia Thatcher, and Carola Andujo, to the International Association of Lions Clubs, April, 1998.


What Is the Meaning of Meditation?/Why Do We Meditate?
Conventional and Ultimate Truth/Benefits of Practicing Vipassana Meditation
Rupa and Nama
Meditation Instructions
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness/The Eight Fold Path
The Middle Way/Mindfulness in Your Daily Activities

Everyone born on this earth wants to find happiness. No one likes pain; no one wants to suffer.

All human beings, no matter what religion or nationality, ask themselves the same question: how can I be happy?

Two-thousand and five-hundred years ago, the Buddha asked this question and devoted his life to finding an answer for himself and others. The path that he discovered thousands of years ago in India he called, "The Middle Way."

People usually practice meditation because they want happiness. However, the real purpose of practicing meditation is to dilute ignorance in the mind until we have wisdom to see the truth and destroy greed, hatred and delusion. It is most important, however, to understand the correct way of practicing. It is very common for mediators to go the wrong way when they let desire guide their practice, or when they practice according to what they only believe to be correct.

We have to practice to know the truth or to understand the mind. People often pursue meditation in order to control the mind and suppress emotions. When they succeed in doing so, they think that they have attained happiness when in fact they have not. When they realize that their minds have the defilements greed, hatred and delusion, they will understand the need to practice. They will do so not because they want to, but because they acknowledge their mental sickness. Their intentions will be like those of people who are ill: they will understand that they have to take medicine, whether or not they want to.

What Is the Meaning of Meditation?

Meditation is the task of training the mind in order to cultivate wisdom, concentration and knowledge. There are two types of meditation: the first is tranquility or concentration; the second is insight or mindfulness. By training the mind through tranquility meditation one develops sufficient concentration to suppress emotions. With this technique the meditator fixes the mind on one object only until he or she goes into a trance; psychic powers may develop.

The practice of vipassana or insight meditation, on the other hand, develops mindfulness and clear comprehension in order to clearly see the three characteristics of existence: unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and non-self. The activities of daily life are the objects of mindfulness: bodily actions, feelings, thoughts and emotions. Why Do We Meditate?

We meditate because we need to find out where unhappiness comes from. If we don't know why we are unhappy, how can we find happiness? So before we get happiness we have to know why we are unhappy. People make the mistake of thinking that they have happiness when actually they are still dissatisfied. Through meditation we can discover the cause of unhappiness, which enables us to eradicate it.

Desire or attachment is the cause of all dissatisfaction. What is suffering? Suffering is that which is unsatisfactory or unstable; whatever cannot stay long. Suffering means conditional existence. That which is conditioned is only temporary, existing only for one moment at a time.

For example, when we feel relaxed, the feeling itself doesn't last long. Relaxation changes to tension, and then changes back again. Therefore, we have to find out why the thing that we call "happiness" is not permanent. That's very important to understand.

The Difference between Conventional and Ultimate Truth

There are two kinds of truth: one, conventional truth, i.e., the name of a thing, which is permanent. The name "Buddha," or the name "Jesus," or the name of some other well-known person in the world never changes. But the person is already dead, already gone; only the name is still there. The name of the object is conventional truth. But ultimate truth is without a name; it is just the truth.

What Are the Benefits of Practicing Vipassana Meditation?

The word "vipassana" is a Pali word meaning "clear seeing" or "seeing through" to the characteristics of the truth. Vipassana is concerned with seeing directly, in the present moment. When we see the truth directly, rather than by means of the intellect, we will see the characteristics of the mind and body as they really are.

We practice vipassana meditation in order to see the mind; to know the mind rather than control the mind. Vipassana is a technique used to dust the mirror of the mind until it becomes clear and we can see the reflection. It is a way to become the boss of our mind so that the mind is working for us instead of us working for it. The usual habit of the mind is to be lost every moment in desire, hatred, and delusion; but through vipassana we can overcome this habit and free the mind.

Whether it's smoking cigarettes or biting the nails, everyone has some bad habit that he or she would like to get rid of because it is unproductive, unhealthy or causes discomfort. When you give up one habit you substitute a more healthy one for it; when you give up smoking you might begin an exercise routine, for example.

The habit that all of us share is the mental habit of liking or disliking every object that contacts the mind. The Buddhist name for this habit is "attachment." Attachment makes the mind constantly agitated because it cannot let go of anything. Whenever the mind touches an object it either tries to get it or it tries to get rid of it, rather than understanding that the object must change by itself, according to the law of impermanence. Attachment is the cause of unhappiness. The constant mental push and pull of attachment creates more pollution to cloud the mirror of the mind until we can't see the reflection.

The Buddha taught a way to change this habit: the Middle Way, or mindfulness. When we cultivate the habit of mindfulness, our minds become healthy.

Just observe the body and mind that you have; observe the postures of the body, the motion of the body. When I raise my hand - what makes this hand move? The mind does. Moving comes from the mind, not from the body, not from the hand. Everyone has feeling in the body. Because we have a body, everyone has pain or numbness. In meditation we just observe the feeling from moment-to-moment, in the present moment only.

Also, because we have consciousness we're always thinking. Usually we think about the past or the future. The process of thinking never stops because thinking is the duty of consciousness. So we have to observe thinking without attachment, without saying that it belongs to us. It just belongs to the universe, to the truth.

Emotions come from the mind. When the mind receives an object or remembers something from the past and recalls it over and over, we feel anxiety or doubt or fear. We call these obsessions "mental objects," or "mental formations." Everyone has the same things; everyone has a body for sitting, standing, walking, and speaking. Everyone also has feelings: physical and mental pain, and physical and mental happiness. And everyone always has consciousness. Just observe what you are doing now. You are sitting here now. Can you separate sitting from the physical body and just watch the objects of the mind?

Sitting is an object of the mind. The mind causes sitting to arise in the present moment. The physical body doesn't know that it's sitting. It's the mind that knows that the body is sitting here now. Sitting is rupa [material form], not you. Sitting is neither male nor female; it's only an object of the mind. That's why, when practicing mindfulness, we have to observe only that sitting is rupa; or we have to concentrate on the mind, on nama, the "one who knows" the object.

Rupa and Nama

"Nama" is a Pali word used to refer to the mind. The mind includes consciousness and mental factors. "Rupa" is a Pali word that refers to the body. In the practice of insight meditation we give up the name of the thing. When we give up the name, we only have two objects of mindfulness: rupa and nama. When observing the body, for instance, we do not think, "my leg," "my back," "my hand," or "I feel a pain in my left arm." We do not repeat the name. It doesn't matter which part of the body we observe; they are all rupa. Every rupa or object of the mind is, by ultimate truth, no different from any other object because they are all just form. The only difference between one mind object, or rupa, and another is that they occur in different moments.

The "subject," (as opposed to the object), the one who knows or receives the object, is nama, consciousness. What or who is it that knows, "I am sitting here now"? It is the mind, consciousness, nama. "Body" or "rupa" is the object known by consciousness. Ultimate truth consists of just the following two things: rupa and nama.

If we think, "I am sitting," that's delusion or wrong view. That's more ignorance, more pollution to cover the truth, just as smog hides the mountains from view sometimes. It is the same thing in the mind: when there's a lot of pollution - delusion or desire or hatred - we cannot see the truth. We cannot separate what is merely conventionally true from ultimate truth.

To say, "the man is sitting," or, "the woman is sitting," is conventional truth. But ultimate truth is: rupa is sitting, or simply, knowing sitting; just the mind knowing the bare phenomenon.

We practice insight meditation in order to separate conventional truth from ultimate truth. We then follow ultimate truth in order to see the three characteristics of existence: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self. We see that everything, even sitting, is just arising and passing away right away, again and again.

When you observe "sitting, sitting, sitting," you see that sitting arises in the present moment. The object in the present moment is "knowing sitting." (the object to observe is: the mind knowing sitting.) Then the object disappears, and we observe it again, again in the present moment. The cycle keeps repeating. Sitting is never permanent; it's unstable, unsatisfactory and non-self.

When there is only the object and the knowing of the object, we have separated from attachment with the ego already. During a moment when there is only nama-knowing-rupa, ego and attachment don't have a chance to occur. How could you find an easier technique than this one? You only have to raise your hand [referring to the hand motions exercise. See "How to Meditate."] This technique is easy to follow because it uses the activities of daily life as meditation objects.

Consider my hand for example: the hand itself is an object for developing concentration. But if I observe the moving of the hand, that is an object for mindfulness, because the action is happening in the present moment. Everyone, from childhood until this moment, has always been either sitting, walking, standing or lying down. The body is never without one of these four postures.

In order to follow this technique you have to understand the difference between a correct and an incorrect object for mindfulness. If you do not separate the objects from moment to moment you will find yourself practicing concentration. So you have to separate the physical body from the activity of the body. Go back to the moment. Observe yourself now. Make yourself comfortable and relaxed. Give up everything in the past and in the future. Practicing is not hard; what is difficult is to separate the right object of mindfulness. The activity of daily life can be used to feed either attachment or mindfulness. The sitting posture, for example, can feed the habit of attachment when the thing you observe during meditation practice is, "I am sitting." Observing "I am sitting," is wrong view, because the sitting posture has become an object for developing concentration rather than mindfulness.

In order for posture to become a foundation for mindfulness rather than attachment, we have to give up our accustomed way of thinking. Normally, we attach with our own physical body and believe that it belongs to us. But matter is not aware of itself. We have to separate the body from its posture in the present moment, observing the position of sitting without attachment to "I am."

Doing so constitutes a correct object for mindfulness. If you know the difference between the sitting posture and the physical body, you will be able to observe only sitting. Sitting does not belong to anyone. If meditators do not separate posture from the body, they might think that all types of meditation are the same. They will not find the right object with which to develop mindfulness. Sometimes, students try to follow the instructions without knowing whether they're practicing correctly or not. Sometimes a teacher gives wrong instructions. And even when the teacher gives the correct instruction and the students try to follow it, if they don't understand the correct object they may end up practicing concentration rather than Vipassana.

Walking Meditation Instructions

We practice insight meditation in all four postures: sitting, walking, standing, and lying down. Furthermore, we have six different steps for walking meditation. These are for training mindfulness in the same way that people use weights for muscle training. By increasing the number of movements or moments per step, we give mindfulness more "work" to do.

After mindfulness becomes stronger the meditator returns to the most basic step, which is the same as natural walking but a little slower. Unlike most of our daily walking, however, the meditator has to be aware of the moment-to-moment experience of walking.

The second step has two parts; lifting the heel, stopping, then placing the foot. Heel up, placing, heel up, placing. Third step: lifting the whole foot, stopping; moving forward, stopping; and, finally, placing. Lifting, moving forward, placing. Fourth step: heel up, lifting, moving forward, placing.

Keep observing from moment-to-moment. First of all you have to stand up slowly, keeping your hands in front of you. When you're finished standing observe, "standing is rupa. Standing, standing." After that observe, "intending to walk." Concentrate on the intention to do; after that, begin walking.

Lift the heel; stop; lifting, moving, placing. That's the fourth step; heel up, lifting, moving, placing. When you stop, just stop and observe standing, standing, and intending to turn. Then a right turn; turn as the left foot lifts from the floor. Turning, second turn, until turning is finished. Observe standing and then continue walking: heel up, lifting, moving, placing; heel up, lifting, moving, placing. Continue walking for at least twenty minutes; don't give a chance for delusion to take place during the step-by-step, moment-to-moment process of walking. When you're finished walking, return to sitting.

Sitting Meditation Instructions

Most teachers will give any one of the following four instructions for sitting meditation:

1) Observe the sensation of air contacting the nostrils when breathing in and breathing out.

2) Follow the air coming in and coming out.

3) Count from one to five when breathing in, and from one to five when breathing out.

4) Focus on a single point over the abdomen and observe the movement of the abdomen when breathing in and when breathing out.

In insight meditation, however, there are only two ways to focus on the breathing:

1) Focus on the air contacting the nostrils.

2) Observe the movement of the abdomen when breathing in and out.

You have to observe the rising of the abdomen when you are breathing in. When breathing out, observe the falling of the abdomen. When breathing in, the abdomen expands again, rising. Observe in order to know that the movement of the abdomen comes from the mind. The rising and falling of the abdomen comes from the mind. It is the mind which causes the life process to continue. According to ultimate truth, life is only the duration of a single breath. But we don't die because the mind continues to cause the respiration process to happen over and over. Life continues because of the supporting conditions.

Observe: how you feel when the abdomen is expanding? Does it appear clear or unclear? When you breathe out, how do you experience the abdomen falling? Can you observe it? You have to observe one point on the abdomen. When you breathe out, air starts from the abdomen to go out, and then you breathe in, then out again, over and over, continuing the life process.

Just observe the abdomen rising and falling. Who is it that knows that the abdomen is rising? The one who knows (i.e., the mind, nama) is disappearing, too. When the abdomen falls, the one who knows can see impermanence; the one who knows can see arising and passing away with each breath.

Observing in this way loosens the attachment which results from wrong view. It's a mistake to think that because you still breathe in and out you have a long life. You can only know one breath at a time. When you know that the abdomen is expanding with an inhalation, you know only that you have life at that moment. When the abdomen stops rising, that means that your life is gone. But you still breathe out again; that means that conditions continue the life process. Please try to observe for one minute, to find out the truth for yourself. [Audience meditates for one minute.] From the moment of your birth until today, perhaps, you have never paid attention to see yourself; but at this moment you can see the process of breathing in and out.

While observing the in and out breath, if a feeling appears, the mind wanders, or an emotion arises, just observe the mind and then return once more to observing the principal object, the rising and falling of the abdomen. In vipassana you should always be concerned with observing your own mind. Don't observe someone else; that is not the meaning of practicing insight meditation. We have to see ourselves, have to know ourselves. We have to clean the pollution of our own minds because we need to destroy greed, hatred and delusion in ourselves, not in somebody else.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Lord Buddha taught in the Satipatthana discourse how to use the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and the eight-fold path to develop the mind. He called this method the Middle Way.

We use four kinds of objects for developing mindfulness:

1) Body  2) Feelings  3) Consciousness  4) Dhamma objects

Any one of these objects has to appear in the mind at the present moment in order to become a foundation of mindfulness. When all the conditions are complete, wisdom will appear. It is similar to the foundation of a building. If you want to build a building you need to lay the foundation first. If the builder is smart and the materials are of good quality, the foundation will be strong. We need four types of material, four objects with which to build the foundations of mindfulness in order to get wisdom.

These four objects can be used only to develop wisdom; they are not for developing concentration or the temporary happiness that results from it. If the foundations are not built correctly, wisdom cannot appear, cannot grow. As I mentioned before, everybody already has these four objects within him- or herself.

You do not have to go and find them; they are always right here.

The Eight-Fold Path

We can follow the technique and use these four materials to lay the foundations of mindfulness. The tool we use is the eight-fold path. But the eight-fold path is not really the path; in practical terms, the path is just our own bodies and minds. Because we have bodies, we have to sit and stand and walk. Because we have minds, we have to think and feel and receive mental objects. That's how the body and mind become the path, become the way.

The eight-fold path is: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

The eight-fold path supports our practice with the right object in the present, moment-to-moment. We start with right effort: making effort to observe the object of the mind in the present moment. Right mindfulness means that we try to separate ultimate truth from conventional truth. We try to see ultimate truth only.

For example, when I make the effort to move my hand, that's right effort; I observe moving as the object of the mind. I pay attention to the moving, not to the hand. That is right mindfulness. The hand is conventional truth but moving is ultimate truth.

Ultimate truth is: mindfulness observing rupa and nama correctly in the present moment. When I continue sitting, standing, walking, and when I keep observing those postures with moment-to-moment mindfulness, that is right concentration. Right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration make up the factors of the concentration (samadhi) group.

If I continue to see each moment as it is arising and passing away, that is right understanding. When the mind is mindful of arising and passing away, I will see that the moment is impermanent; it is unstable or unsatisfactory. Moving is unstable; it cannot stay permanently as the hand does. We say that the hand is self or stable; but moving is unstable, unsatisfactory. Moving is non-self. It doesn't belong to anyone. That is right thought. Right understanding and right thought complete the factors of wisdom, panna.

Nama, or the one who knows, is mind imbued with knowledge. At each moment, mind and rupa are passing away together all the time. It is wisdom that sees this truth.

We have to separate ultimate truth from conventional truth, just as we separate moving from the hand or sitting from the body. When we can see the truth of rupa and nama, or body and mind, in the present, moment-to-moment, that is correct practice. We are walking on the right path.

Right speech during meditation practice means talking mindfully; observing the physical movement of speech, the moving of the jaw, from moment to moment. But usually, when we practice mindfulness meditation during a retreat, we keep silent.

Right action: observing the body's activities - walking, moving, sitting, eating - is right action. Right livelihood means: living with mindfulness all the time, in every moment, in every activity, while going to the bathroom, brushing the teeth or eating. It means eating slowly, observing chewing and swallowing, not attaching with a delicious taste or disliking a bad taste. We eat to live rather than live to eat.

Right livelihood means using every daily action for practicing mindfulness. We don't just meditate while sitting on a cushion in the meditation hall. Right speech, right action and right livelihood belong to the group of sila, morality. When all of these eight factors come together in one moment, in that very moment the eight-fold path is complete, and we approve this way for ourselves, by ourselves. That is correct practice, from which we will get real happiness and reach the end of suffering. That is why we try to find the right path; so that we can find ultimate happiness. That's why we have to practice mindfulness. That's why we practice the Middle Way.

Happiness is in the middle. By following the Middle Way we exchange the attitude of the mind from suffering to happiness.

If we cannot exchange the attitude of the mind from suffering to happiness, it is because the mind doesn't stay in the middle between good and bad. We are victims of the habit we have formed, the habit of not keeping the mind in the present, of letting it wander back to the past or forward into the future. Everyone has this same mental habit which causes un-ease, or dis-ease in the mind. The antidote for this disease is mindfulness; it is the tool which prevents us from becoming slaves to desire and aversion.

The Middle Way

The Buddha explained the Middle Way with the example of a log. He asked a disciple, "if you put a log in the river and it stays in the middle, not getting stuck on the left bank or the right; if it doesn't sink, and if no one plucks it from the water, where does it go?" The disciple answered, "It goes to the ocean." "Absolutely," the Buddha said. It will go all the way to the ocean; it's impossible for it not to.

The log is analogous to meditation practice. If meditators aren't pulled to the left or right, if they don't sink, and if someone doesn't remove them from the path, without question they will have to reach supreme happiness, nibbana, non-attachment, where there is no suffering, forever.

But some of the Buddha's disciples wanted to know, "What do you mean by the right side?" Or, "What do you mean by the left side? And what's the meaning of sinking in the middle?" The Buddha answered that the right bank means eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. The left bank means color, sound, smell, taste, contact, and the object of the mind. Sinking in the water means ego. If someone removes the log to build a raft, that means that he is following desire. Or it means that a friend tells the meditator that he's following the wrong path, that another teacher or technique or meditation center will be better.

How to Apply Mindfulness in Your Daily Activities.

When we cultivate the habit of mindfulness our minds become healthy.

So the question is, where is happiness? Happiness is in the middle, between the good object and the bad object. For instance, the eye is always seeing a picture. When the picture is a beautiful one, such as a sunset, you attach with it because you like it. You want to get it in order to keep looking at it. On the other hand, when you see something ugly, you try to avoid it because you don't like it.

When the ear hears a sound, the same process operates. The sound causes you to react from desire. When you hear good words, you are happy and your mind reacts by attaching to that sound and wanting to hear more; when you hear bad words, the mind reacts by getting angry or feeling hateful.

It is the same for the senses of smell and taste. Everyone has the same feelings, either liking or disliking. You like eating a piece of blueberry pie, for instance. But you dislike eating a moldy crust. You feel attachment to good food; all day you think about how good the pie was. But instead of satisfying your desire, the delicious food causes you to want more.

It is the same with the sense of touch. Your body makes contact with something cold or hot. If it's too hot, it makes you suffer; if too cold it makes you suffer, too, and you dislike it. But if it's too good, you attach with the feeling. You follow desire or hatred with the sense of touch.

At some time or another all human beings ask themselves: how can my mind be calm or stable, not agitated, not up and down? How can I find happiness when all life ends in sickness, old age, and death? The mind is like a runaway train which we can't stop. It's out of control, always wandering off and dragging us along with it. Even right now, at this moment, isn't your mind wandering?

So just go back to the moment and observe the object when the eye sees, the ear hears, the nose smells, the body contacts something and the mind thinks. Then let the object go, regardless of whether the object is good or bad. Only mindfulness can keep us in the middle. In ordinary life people can't be truly happy because they can't stay in the middle between good and bad, between liking and disliking, between attachment and aversion. By practicing mindfulness, we can change the habit of the mind and find a different way to live. When we cultivate mindfulness, or, in the beginning, awareness or clear comprehension, the mind is more poised and balanced. It is less likely to be pulled to the left or the right by liking or disliking.

Eventually the mind will be able to stay centered. The purpose of meditation is to stop the process of the mind whereby it constantly generates new defilements. If you can't see defilements as they arise in the mind, how can you stop them? That is the reason we need to know the mind - to stop the defilements. That is why we observe the mind from moment-to-moment.

Only mindfulness is fast enough to catch anger or another defilement as soon as it arises and thereby prevent it from continuing.

When you don't stay in the middle, how can you have peace of mind? It's impossible. Happiness doesn't belong to desire; it does not come from the cycle of wanting and trying to get what you want.

If we stay in the middle we won't be thrown off balance whenever a strong emotion such as anger arises. We'll be able to observe it without trying to repress it, without letting it control us, and without indulging it, which is the other extreme. Just observe, that's all. Watch everything arise in turn and then let it go. Focus and forget it. No one can control the arising of emotion, but if we just observe and let it go, it will not grow bigger. Mindfulness will check the growth of any emotion.

The practice of Vipassana meditation gives us tools to help us follow the Middle Way. When the eight-fold path is complete the meditator can see suffering clearly. After that he or she will destroy the cause of suffering and arrive at the end of suffering. That is the meaning of enlightenment according to the Four Noble Truths. That is how we'll be able to get supramundane happiness forever.

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