Where to look

If you want to know the Dhamma where should you look? You must look within the body and the mind. You won’t find it in the shelves of a bookcase. To really see the Dhamma you have to look within your own body and mind. There are only these two things. The mind is not visible to the physical eye, it must be seen with the ‘mind’s eye’. Before the Dhamma can be realized you must know where to look. The Dhamma that is in the body must be seen in the body. And with what do we look at the body? We look at the body with the mind. You won’t find the Dhamma looking anywhere else, because both happiness and suffering arise right here. Have you seen happiness arising in the trees? Or from the rivers, or the weather? Happiness and suffering are feelings which arise in our own bodies and minds.
from a talk by Ajahn Chah titled “The Four Noble Truths”

This passage summarizes how to practice, according to the Buddha’s teachings, for freedom from our self-created suffering. At one level, it is so simple an instruction that it’s very easy to overlook. Our attention is easily caught by the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it (usually at the very center). But Ajahn Chah points out that liberation is not possible through external phenomena, including our stories. It is only by monitoring and investigating, NOW, as it is happening, how our mind is behaving: What is it focusing on? How is it reacting? Which of the various inconsistent commentaries in our thinking do we believe and act on? Are understanding and compassion present in this mind? If not, how can we soften or re-direct our thoughts?

A more challenging aspect of this teaching is recognizing our thoughts as passing phenomena and not as our very existence. This is an essential, freeing step, but one that is not obvious unless we observe very closely.

Once I was on retreat and having a hard time. Joseph Goldstein said to me in an interview: “It’s only a thought”, and I went ballistic. I was so identified with the thought that I’d never escape the prison of my mind, I just couldn’t cope. Eventually I calmed down and started over, but it was an illuminating moment.

There is a difference between a passing thought that we can grab onto (or not), and knowing something so thoroughly that we don’t even question it. We know that if we touch fire, we’ll get burned. We know that if we act on a generous impulse, a pleasant feeling will appear in its wake. We know, from experience, that if we act in anger, there will be regrets. We know or learn, from experience, that given the choice between a gentle word and a critical one, the gentle word will yield a better result. This is how wisdom appears in the world.

It has to start with our own awareness of what our mind is doing NOW. Is our attention collected in the present? If we can learn to look with enough clarity and consistency, our understanding will grow.

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