I am doing physical therapy for chronic and worsening back pain. I go in and the therapist gives me different exercises to do, and then watches to make sure I’m doing them correctly. The PT exercises I’m given are intended to increase the strength and flexibility of certain muscles in order to help offset and change certain postural habits I’ve acquired that cause me physical suffering. The exercises aren’t done for their own sake, but as a skillful means to change physical habits in my daily life. For example, I do side planks as part of the PT routine, but I don’t do them so that I can more easily do side planks in daily life. I never do side planks in daily life. I do side planks in my regimen because they strengthen certain muscles that will encourage different physical habits in daily life so that I have less physical suffering. This is also how we should look at our formal meditation practice, when we carve out time, and sit on the cushion or chair, and do our practice. If the meditation instruction is to observe mental phenomena without judgment and without following any specific thought no matter how compelling, the reason behind this instruction is not that there is an expectation that you should go through your daily life in this way, anymore than the PT therapist expects me to spontaneously break into a side plank during the day. The point of the meditation instruction is to strengthen different muscles in the mind so that long-held mental habits that cause suffering in daily life can be shifted.
There is a sound meditation that I learned from Chan Master Sheng Yen many years ago. The practice is to set up the mind to attend to all sound as it is happening – the sounds that are obvious and call for your attention, as well as the very soft sounds that are barely audible – without worrying about whether you like them or not. There is generally a plethora of sound happening. There are sounds emanating from within the building you’re in, sounds coming from outside (both natural and manmade), and even sounds coming from your own body including the very faint internal background sound that Ajahn Sumedho called the “sound of silence.” One’s intention in this particular practice is to attend to all the sound. Of course, what tends to occur is that the mind quickly starts selecting certain sounds to follow, and once that happens, you are no longer aware of all the other sounds. When you recognize that you’re doing that, or that you’re caught in a thought, you return to registering all the sound that is happening.
I found this sound meditation helpful for a couple of reasons. One is that it really strengthens our concentration ability, but it strengthens concentration in way that is open and receptive, and thus suited to insight practice. Another benefit from this practice is that it clearly shows the deeply ingrained habit the mind has to single out certain sensory phenomena and follow after them. And, it’s not always because we like what we’re perceiving. Sometimes there is an unpleasant sound, and the mind decides to follow that, complaining about it all the way. This is what the mind does with all types of sensory contact, including mental phenomena like thoughts and feelings, which are considered sensory phenomena in Buddhist psychology. Just as there is a constant stream of many different types of sounds – external, internal, pleasant, unpleasant, very soft and very loud – there is a continuous stream of mental phenomena arising in the mind – memories, worries, judgments, anticipations, longings, etc. Just as the mind likes to pick out certain sounds to follow, it also picks out certain mental phenomena to follow. However, unlike sound, when the mind follows an arisen mental phenomenon, it begins to proliferate, and it becomes more and more difficult to disengage from. This is how mental suffering or stress becomes established, and also how we construct a particular self-view for ourselves. We single out certain mental phenomena out of what’s arising, and follow and develop it.
When we are at our meditation center (which is our gym), or you are in your workout space at home, the mental PT exercise that is most helpful, is to practice observing the continual flow of mental phenomena that is arising in the mind, without privileging and following any particular one. It is not that you are expected to go through your life in this way. It is in order to strengthen faculties that will enable different mental habits to naturally develop, and ultimately encourage a shift in one’s perception of self and the world. To further illuminate this, we can consider the simile of thoughts as trains that we can choose to either get on, or allow to pass by. We are all already very skilled at jumping on the trains. We are extremely proficient at that, and don’t need to practice that skill anymore. We are much less adept at watching all the trains passing through the station, while withholding ourselves from jumping on board. It’s not that you shouldn’t ride a mental train in daily life. You can, and sometimes need to, but there are obvious benefits to also being able to observe what’s coming through the station without leaping onboard. Exercising this skill can quickly bring about a reduction in our suffering in daily life. A lot of suffering comes from jumping onboard the wrong train, so strengthening this muscle is very important. Furthermore, when one diligently sets aside time for observing the flow of trains through the station, the emptiness of the trains eventually becomes apparent. Knowing this can change us in a very deep way.