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With Each and Every Breath - V: BECOMING A MEDITATOR
 
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With Each and Every Breath
A Guide to Meditation
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

V: BECOMING A MEDITATOR

Meditating is one thing. Becoming a meditator is something else. It means developing a set of inner identities around the activities of meditation. Ideally, as you meditate, these identities should take on growing influence within your inner committee.

The activities around which these identities grow are the three needed for concentration: mindfulness, alertness, and ardency. When you focus on the breath in line with the above instructions, mindfulness is what keeps the instructions in mind, alertness is what watches what you’re doing and the results that come from what you’re doing, while ardency is what tries to do it well. When you slip off the breath, ardency tries to come right back to the breath as quickly as possible. While you’re with the breath, ardency tries to be as sensitive as possible to what’s going well and what isn’t. When things aren’t going well, it tries to figure out why, so that it can improve them. When they are going well, it tries to maintain them so that they can grow.

As these qualities get stronger with practice, they begin to coalesce into two distinct identities, two new members of your mind’s committee. The more passive of the two is the observer, which develops around alertness. This is the part of the mind that steps back a bit and simply watches what’s going on with a minimum of interference. As it develops, it gives you practice in exercising your patient endurance—your ability to stick with things even when they’re unpleasant—and in exercising your equanimity, your ability not to react to things, so that you can see them clearly for what they are.

The more active of the two identities is the doer, which develops around mindfulness and ardency. This is the part that tries to make things go well; that, when they aren’t going well, asks questions and investigates to understand why, tries to remember what worked in the past, and then decides how to respond—when it’s best to interfere and when it’s not. When things are going well, this identity tries to keep them going well. Over the course of time, you’ll find that the doer can assume many roles, such as the investigator and the director. This part exercises your ingenuity and imagination, as you try to shape things in the best possible direction.

These two identities help each other along. The observer provides the doer with accurate information on which to base its decisions so that it doesn’t simply try to force its will on things and deny when it’s done harm. The doer does its best to make sure that the observer doesn’t lose balance and start providing biased information—as when it’s tempted to stay focused on one side of an issue and to ignore another side. Sometimes the back-and-forth between these two identities is fairly quick. At other times—especially when you can’t figure something out and simply have to watch what’s going on—you’ll find yourself identifying with the observer for a fairly long time before gaining enough information to pass on to the doer.

A large part of the skill in meditating is learning when to assume these identities while you practice. They’re especially helpful in dealing with problems in the mind, as we’ll see in Part Two. When you’re faced with pain, for instance, they provide you with alternative identities that you can assume in relation to the pain. Instead of having to be the victim of the pain, you can be the observer of the pain. Or you can take on the role of the investigator, trying to figure out what the pain is and why the mind is turning it into a burden.

Similarly, when an unskillful emotion comes into the mind, you don’t have to identify yourself as the person who feels the emotion or agrees with it. You can be the observer, stepping back from the emotion. Or, as the doer, you can be the investigator, taking the emotion apart; or the director, assembling a new emotion to replace it.

As your concentration strengthens, the observer and doer will continue to be helpful. On the level of strong concentration called jhana (see Part Four), they turn into a factor called evaluation: the discernment factor that helps to settle the mind down through understanding its needs and providing for them. The observer acts as the passive side of evaluation, the doer acts as the active side. Working together, they can take you far in the practice.

So even though these members of your committee are forms of becoming, they’re useful forms. Don’t throw them away until you reach the point where they have no more help to offer. In the meantime, get to know them by exercising them. Because your mind’s committee has a lot of unskillful members, you’ll need all the inner help you can get.

Additional readings:
On meditation as a skill: “The Joy of Effort”; “Joy in Effort” in Meditations5; “Strength Training for the Mind”; “Adolescent Practice” in Meditations2
A talk by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo—“Observe & Evaluate” in Inner Strength—also gives a good perspective on meditation as a skill.
On the role of desire and imagination in the practice: “Pushing the Limits”
On the relationship between mindfulness and concentration: “The Path of Mindfulness & Concentration”
For more advanced discussions of mindfulness and concentration: Right Mindfulness; Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo – Frames of Reference
On breath meditation: Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, Keeping the Breath in Mind, in particular “Method 2.” Ajaan Lee’s talks in Lessons in Samadhi are very useful for getting a fuller perspective on his approach to breath meditation, as are the talks in the section of Inner Strength entitled, “Inner Skill.” The short fragments in the sections of The Skill of Release entitled “Beginning Concentration,” “The Basics of Breathing,” and “All-around Discernment” offer useful tips.
For more useful tips, see the sections of Ajaan Fuang Jotiko – Awareness Itself entitled, “Meditation,” “Breathing,” “Visions & Signs,” and “Right at Awareness”
On the brahmaviharas: “Head & Heart Together”; “Metta Means Good Will”; “The Limitations of the Unlimited Attitudes”; “The Sublime Attitudes” in Meditations2
On walking meditation: “Walking Meditation: Stillness in Motion” in Meditations4
For short talks to read before you meditate: any of the books in the Meditations series.

Relevant talks:
2012/2/4: In Shape to Meditate
2004/7/24: Maintaining Goodwill
2005/9/2: Metta Meditation
2011/12/21: Goodwill and Heedfulness
The collection of talks entitled Basics contains many talks dealing with issues that arise as you start learning how to focus on the breath.
2011/8/10: Gather ’Round the Breath
2006/11/3: Allowing the Breath to Spread
2010/2/7: Brahmaviharas at the Breath
2011/12/5: Turn Off the Automatic Pilot
2012/7/21: Choiceful Awareness
2011/8/16: Artillery All Around
2011/12/6: Views, Virtue, & Mindfulness
2005/4/22: Ekaggata
2011/4/10: Training Your Minds
2011/9/27: Equanimity
2012/1/21: A Mirror for the Mind
2007/5/8: Centered in the Body
2010/3/28: Mindful Judgment


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