By John Lee Pendall
The news seems to scream one thing: everything’s out of control, and we’re all going to die.
That second part is most definitely the case. If we believe in birth, then we experience death; if we believe in gain, then we experience loss. If we pick something up, then we have to set it down. One of Buddhism’s responses to that is, “Stop picking shit up.” That’s what samatha—or tranquil abiding—practice points to. It gradually takes us to that point by untangling us from destructive views, actions and emotions.
If you Google samatha, you’ll probably find dozens of pages about concentrating on the breath, but that’s only one aspect of it. Tranquil abiding isn’t just breath-work, it’s a way of life based on three principles and three methods.
The principles are:
1) Pay attention
2) Remember the teachings and methods
3) Use them
The methods involve tending to and regulating the body, breath, and mind and actually fit nicely with the three pillars of Buddhism: morality, concentration, and wisdom.
The teachings are basically the Four Noble Truths. If something exists by virtue of something else, then it’s powerless and unstable; it’s at the mercy of whatever it is that it depends on. It’s like everything’s both an infant and a parent, caring for and being cared for by other things. Buddhism doesn’t ask us to just accept that, but to grow up, to not be infants anymore—to just be the parent.
“Waking up” is growing up.
To grow up, we start by practicing self-control (aka, the Noble Eightfold Path). Suffering is caused by trying to control something that doesn’t belong to us, that belongs to time. We can’t really control the coming and going of things. It might seem like we have a little control over that—because we can always decide to remove something from our lives—but did we have control over that decision, or did our uncontrolled thoughts, feelings, and impulses make that choice for us? If we answer, “Yes, I controlled that,” then did we have control over whether we had control?
See, we fall into an infinite regress which means that there’s samsaric bullshit afoot.
Instead of trying to control the world, tranquil abiding asks us to step back and control ourselves. That spilled milk might be what causes our anger, but our own minds are the condition behind it. If you don’t control your mind, then the world will control it for you. You’ll be triggered by everything, letting other people and the situation pull your strings. It’s impossible to alleviate suffering when we’re stuck in that state, so we cut those strings by forgetting the world.
That doesn’t mean running off to the mountains or being totally apathetic. It means ditching the notion that anything in the world can make us truly happy, abandoning the idea that there’s such a thing as peace without strings or passion without pain. We can’t find true peace or happiness in the world because we can’t really control the world or the people in it.
The only thing we can—nominally—control is ourselves.
Tranquil abiding involves controlling our need to control everything. Instead, we turn around and take responsibility for the way we feel, think, and respond to things.
We slowly reel back. First, we learn to control the body by regulating and focusing on the breath. That gives us an anchor to go back to whenever we get lost. Then we can extend that to paying attention to all the little things we do in day-to-day life. Whether we’re walking, talking, eating, drinking, or fucking, we can focus on and regulate our words and actions. We learn to appreciate basic presence by being attentive and handling things with dignity and care.
Instead of walking absent-mindedly, we can walk with care, focusing on each movement, finding a stride that seems to flow. We can see how each action turns into the next without interruption. From walking to standing, to reaching, to lifting, to setting down, to walking, to sitting—a stream of stillness and motion. Just regulating the breath and body alone can alleviate a lot of tension.
The more satisfied we feel just concentrating on the breath and doing ordinary things, the less we’re going to rely on the world to make us happy.
That means we find fewer reasons to control others or bother with little things that don’t need bothering. You might also notice how angry and stressed out everyone is, and you can see that it’s all caused by the same need for control that you have.
Now that body and breath are under control, we can move to the tough part: our minds.
Some people try to skip the bodily, action-focused part of practice. That’s a mistake, because the mind is just the body’s interactions with itself and the world. It doesn’t exist without those interactions (and neither does the body). There’s an old Chinese proverb that basically says, “If you’re off by an inch, then you’ll be off by a mile.” If we don’t start the practice just so, then we’ll run into a lot of roadblocks later on.
“How do I know when it’s time to move onto the mind?” Great question, Harvey. You’ll notice a sense of stillness and cleanliness that has nothing to do with anything. When you sit, it’ll feel like your body’s poised on a pinhead, spacious and balanced. That’s the kind of environment we need for working with the mind.
Controlling the mind means expanding attention from the body and breath to our thoughts, feelings, impulses and attention itself. Then, the same way we re-learned how to carefully eat, drink, and walk, we learn to carefully think, feel, and want. Whenever we feel like we’re getting carried away by something, we can make a short pit-stop by abiding the body and breath before going back to the mind.
We’re mainly just sitting and watching the mind move, watching the birth and death of each thought. And instead of storytelling, we work with what’s available: this thought, this feeling, this sight or sound. As we do that, we can watch our minds settle into place, into their true nature: unborn.
Suddenly, the things that used to stress, depress, or enrage us, don’t seem like such a big deal. If there’s a problem, we use logic to solve it. If there isn’t a problem, we don’t go running around trying to make one. We’re satisfied for no reason, and that’s the only type of satisfaction that can last. While focusing on the body, we learned to appreciate presence. Now, with the mind, we can appreciate absence, the absence of our need to rule the world.
If we really want to save the world, endorsing self-control is one of our best options.
Going the other way, and trying to control others or the situation, ends up making even more of a mess of things in time. Putting it bluntly, until we can control our own words, thoughts, and actions, then we’re not gonna be able to manage anything appropriately, regardless of how noble our intentions are.
It all starts with the kids. Kids are taught to let the world control them via reward and punishment. They aren’t taught how to control themselves, because the only way to teach that is to teach them how to teach themselves (which is what Buddhism is).
A kid who isn’t taught self-control grows up to be an erratic, delusional adult who’s so susceptible to the world’s bullshit that they pick up a gun and shoot people. Or they hear about a shooting and feel so hurt and enraged that they get online and scream for blood. This might offend you, but I see them both as the same. Because rage is rage. An angry word is, in the long, just as harmful as a bullet, because the angry words we put out into the world are what eventually turn into bullets.
We can’t see the reach of our actions. One rude word to a stranger on social media could be a little more gasoline on an already raging fire. People don’t go nuclear for no reason, they’re letting other people and circumstances control them—including us.
How much violence have we contributed to just by bothering people; by being run-of-the-mill assholes? How many people have you indirectly harmed or killed by not controlling yourself? That’s a heavy question, but practice is full of heavy questions.
By letting go of our need to control the world, by turning back and controlling ourselves, we actually end up being able to control the world. We can remove ourselves from being the cause of suffering in another person’s life. By not being moved by the world, we’re able to see how we move the world.
That’s where the bodhisattva path begins.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Were you inspired by this post? You might also like:
- A Buddhist Stuck in the Wheel: Can We Be Buddhists without Leaving Home? - July 19, 2021
- Perspective and Morality: Sometimes It’s all Relative - July 13, 2021
- Death of A Question Mark: Living Without Understanding - June 29, 2021