Our minds become agitated when we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or just think about something that we really like or really dislike. Those are called thought objects (ārammana in Pāli or aramuna in Sinhala). If the thought object is to our liking, our mind starts the “wheeling process” on how to own it or at least to enjoy it for a while; if the thought object is something we dislike, the same “wheeling process” takes off on trying to figure out how to get rid of it; see, “Nibbāna – Is It Difficult to Understand?“.
Living in a busy society, we are bombarded with multiple thought objects continuously. Of course, it can be reduced by going to a quiet place, where there are fewer EXTERNAL objects that could give rise to multiple thoughts; many people do that to find a “bit of peace”. Better yet, we can go to a meditation retreat where we focus the mind on the breath for example, and get a wonderful calmness.
- But the problem is that peacefulness, the calmness of the mind goes away when we get back to the “normal life” with normal distractions (multiple thought objects). Is it possible to have a “peace of mind” without going to seclusion?
To understand what actually happens in our minds, let us think about the following case:
1. If you go to a stream, disturb the sediment at the bottom until the water gets dirty, you can fill a glass with that dirty water. It looks brown when stirred well.
2. Now if you set the glass on a table and let it sit there undisturbed, in a little while the dirt will drop to the bottom and the water will become clear.
3. If you stir it again with a stick, the water will be brown again; this is analogous to a thought object that is of great interest to us. BUT if you try to stir it with a thread, it will not get stirred; the thread is too weak to stir it. Similarly, we are not disturbed by a thought object that is of no interest to us.
4. If you now take a fine strainer, remove the dirt from that water, and put it back in the same glass, it will now be clear. Now, if you stir it as much as you want even with a stick, the water will never become brown.
5. We all have “sediments” (or deep-seated cravings or “āsavas“) in our minds that have been brewing/accumulating due to samsāric habits (“gati“); see, “Habits and Goals“. Each one has a set of different “sediments” or different habits, i.e., one tends to like certain things AND also dislikes certain other things.
6. So, what happens is when we see something that we like OR dislike, our “sediments” get disturbed. How much it gets disturbed depends on how strongly we like OR dislike it.
- A strong disturbance may be the sight of a person you really like OR really dislike. But if it is something that does not interest you, it will be like stirring with a thread.
7. During the day, we have innumerable “inputs” coming in through the six senses; these stir up the sediments (“āsavas“) inside us and bring out the five hindrances.
- Our minds are constantly agitated, but we may not even realize it because this is the “baseline state” that we have been used to. But we can at least suppress these five hindrances and make the mind calm; see, “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances“.
8. What you are doing in Samatha meditation (focusing the mind on the breath) is to let those sediments settle down. You feel peaceful. This is why you don’t get the same results consistently. Some days your mind may be especially perturbed by something.
9. This is why people feel great at the end of a long meditation retreat. All the sediments are well-settled.
- But after coming back and getting back to regular routine, all external disturbances are back and the quality of that experience slowly wears out. It may not be lost completely if one keeps practicing at home.
10. However, an Arahant has removed all the sediments. Even if an Arahant is exposed to any type of sensual/hateful situation, his/her mind will not be disturbed:
- A male Arahant will not be seduced by the most beautiful woman in the world; he will not have any hateful feelings towards a person who just cut off his arm.
- So, an Arahant is like a pure glass of water that does not have any sediments at the bottom.
11. We don’t have to become Arahants to improve the quality of our lives. What we can do is to try to get rid of some of the bad habits that are not good in the long term anyway:
- For example, if we really dislike someone, we can start cultivating Metta (loving-kindness) for that person in our mind first. Whenever angry thoughts about the person come to the mind, try to counter that; think about something wonderful or peaceful instead.
- If we have a craving for alcohol, tasty but unhealthy food, etc, think about the possible bad results, and again try to steer the mind to something else, some other activity.
Of course, this needs to be done gradually. People who make New Year’s resolutions sometimes abandon them because they try to just “give up” something in one big step. The mind does not like that; it likes to change only when it actually experiences the benefits of changing the habit.
12. Finally, living a simple, moral life (following the five precepts), goes a long way to reduce such bad habits, and to have a peaceful mind in the midst of all “possible distractions”.
- Simple yet powerful guidelines to achieve a peaceful state of mind are discussed in a step-by-step process in “Living Dhamma“.
Thus, it is all about cleaning up one’s defilements (bad habits) INSIDE, i.e., in one’s mind; see, “Introduction to Buddhist Meditation“. Once that is done for all defilements, no outside influence can affect one’s composure (see #10 above). One CAN even attain that ultimate stage while staying in the real world.