From a talk called “Right Restraint” by Ajahn Chah:
In the ordinary way of experiencing things, when something good appears, we have a positive reaction, and when something bad appears, we have a negative reaction…Even though we can’t yet let go, we are aware of these states continuously. Being continuously aware of ourselves and our attachments, we will come to see that such grasping is not the path. Knowing is fifty percent, even if we are unable to let go. [Emphasis mine] Though we can’t let go, we do understand that letting go of these things will bring peace. We see the danger in the things we like and dislike. We see the danger in praise and blame.
So whether we are being praised or criticized, we are continuously aware. When worldly people are criticized and slandered, they can’t bear it; it hurts their hearts. When they are praised, they are pleased and excited. This is what is natural in the world. But for those who are practising, when there is praise, they know there is danger. When there is blame, they know the danger. They know that being attached to either of these brings ill results. They are all harmful if we grasp at them and give them meaning.
When we have this kind of awareness, we know phenomena as they occur. We know that if we form attachments to phenomena, there really will be suffering. If we are not aware, then grasping at what we conceive of as good or bad gives rise to suffering. When we pay attention, we see this grasping; we see how we catch hold of the good and the bad and how this causes suffering. So at first we grasp hold of things and with awareness see the fault in that. How is that? It’s because we grasp tightly and experience suffering. We will then start to seek a way to let go and be free. We ponder, ‘What should I do to be free?’
In order to follow this advice from Ajahn Chah, we have to make an effort to know what’s going on inside of us, continuously — in spite of our inclination to have our primary focus be directed outwards.
Let’s say we’re in a beautiful park and we see another person dropping litter on the ground. We think, “she shouldn’t do that!”, and we get upset. Do we notice that we’ve gotten upset, or do we keep thinking about what a terrible person the litterbug is? Do we notice that we have grasped the thought of injustice or outrage or “shouldn’t!” and let it run away with us?
We can cultivate a meta-awareness, that is, an awareness of the quality of our awareness. When we are calm, we can know that we’re calm; when we’re distressed, we can know that we are distressed; when we’re elated, we can know this state, too. It is possible to be aware of every sort of mind state, as it comes up. In this way, we can observe how grasping and suffering arise and pass away in our experience. Slowly, wisdom can develop from these repeated observations.