Meditation isn't a one-way street—you can’t just meditate and your life will get better. You have to change the way you live to improve your meditation. Thanissaro Bhikkhu outlines five principles of the ethical, restrained life conducive to meditation practice.
Often we like to think that simply by adding meditation to our daily schedule, the effects of the meditation will permeate our whole lives without our having to do much of anything else. Simply add the meditation to the mix of your life and it will change all the other ingredients—that's what we'd like to think, but it doesn't really work that way. You have to make your life a good place for the meditation to seep through, because some activities, some states of mind, are really resistant to receiving any influence from the meditation.

This is why, when you're a meditator, you also have to look at the way you live your life, your day-to-day activities. See if you're creating a conducive environment for the meditation to thrive and spread. Otherwise the meditation just gets squeezed into the cracks here and there, and never permeates much of anything at all.

There's a teaching in the Theravada canon on five principles that a new monk should keep in mind. These principles apply not only to new monks, but also to anyone who wants to live a life where the meditation can seep through and permeate everything.

The first principle is virtue. Make sure you stick to your precepts. In the case of monks, of course, this refers to the Patimokkha—the monastic rules. In the case of lay people, it refers to the five precepts, and on occasion the eight precepts. When you're holding to the precepts, you're holding to firm principles in your life. The Buddha described observing the precepts as a gift: a gift both to yourself and to the people around you. You give protection to other people's lives, their property, their knowledge of the truth. You protect them from your being drunk. You protect them from your engaging in illicit sex. And when these principles become precepts—in other words, a promise to yourself that you keep in all circumstances—the Buddha says that you're giving unlimited protection, unlimited safety, to other beings, and you have a share in that safety yourself.

So the precepts create an environment where there's more protection. And when there's more protection it’s easier to meditate. The precepts also foster an attitude of giving. You realize that for the sake of your own happiness, you have to give. When you have that attitude, it gets easier to meditate, because all too often people come to meditation with the question, "What can I get out of this?" But if you're used to giving and seeing the good results that come from giving, you're more likely to ask, "What can I give to the meditation? What needs to be given for the good results to come?" With that attitude you're more willing to give of your time and energy in ways that you might not have been willing to before.

The second principle for creating a good environment for meditation in your life is restraint of the senses. In other words, you're not only careful about what comes out of your mind, you're also careful about what comes in, in terms of the things you look at, listen to, smell, taste, touch and think about. Be careful not to focus on things that will give rise to greed, anger or delusion. If you're careless in your looking, careless in your listening, it's very difficult to be careful about your thoughts, because thoughts are so much subtler.

This doesn't mean that you go around with blinders on your eyes or plugs in your ears; it simply means that you're skillful in how you look at things, skillful in how you listen. If you know that something tends to arouse lust or anger, learn to look at it in a way that counteracts the lust or anger. In other words, if something seems attractive, you look for its unattractive side. If something seems unattractive, you look for its attractive side. As Ajahn Lee, one of the foremost teachers of the Thai forest ascetic tradition, says, be a person with two eyes, not just one.

It’s not that you shouldn’t look at the body; it’s just that you should look more carefully. Look at the parts that aren't attractive. This balances the one-sided view that simply focuses on a few attractive details here and there and tends to blot out everything else in order to give rise to lust. After all, it's not the body that's productive of lust. The mind produces lust. Many times the mind wants to feel lust and so it goes out looking for something to incite the lust. It grabs hold of whatever little details it can find, even when those details are surrounded by all sorts of unclean things.

So keep watch on what comes out of the mind and what comes in. For lay people, this means being careful about the friends you associate with, the magazines you read, the TV you watch, the music you listen to. After a while you find that this is not a case of restricting yourself so much as it is learning to see things more carefully, more fully. Now you're seeing both sides of things that used to seem solely attractive or solely unattractive.

This takes some effort. You have to be more energetic in watching how you look and listen. But the benefit is that the mind is in much better shape to meditate because you're not filling it up with all kinds of stuff that's going to harm it, weaken it or get in the way. So many times when you sit down to meditate, if you've been careless about what's been coming in and out of your mind, you find it's like cleaning out a shed after a year of neglect. There's so much garbage in there that you spend almost the whole hour cleaning it out and then realize you have only five minutes for any real stillness at the end. So keep the mind clean from the beginning, all the time. Don't let any garbage in the door or in the windows. That way you find you have a much nicer place to settle in when you create your meditation home.

The third principle for creating a good environment for meditation is restraint in conversation. When I first went to stay with my teacher, Ajahn Fuang, he said that lesson number one in meditation is keeping control of your mouth. In other words, before you say anything, ask yourself: "Is this necessary? Is this beneficial? Is there a good reason to say this?" If there is, then go ahead and say it. If not, then just keep quiet. As he said, if you can't control your mouth there's no way that you're going to control your mind. And when you make a habit of asking yourself these questions, you find that very little conversation is necessary. If you're at work and you need to talk to your fellow workers in order to create a good atmosphere in the office, O.K., that counts as necessary speech. But so often social-grease speech goes beyond that. You start getting careless, running off at the mouth, and that turns into idle chatter, which is not only a waste of energy but also a source of danger. Often the things people say that cause the most harm are when they're just allowing whatever comes into their mind to go right out their mouth without any restraint at all.

If observing this principle means that you gain a reputation for being a quiet person, well that's fine. You find that your words, if you're more careful about doling them out, start taking on more worth. And at the same time you're creating a better atmosphere for your mind. After all, if you're constantly chattering all day long, how are you going to stop the mental chatter when you sit down to meditate? But if you develop this habit of watching over your mouth, the same habit then comes to apply to the meditation. All those mouths in your mind start going still.

The fourth principle for creating a good environment for meditation in your life is finding some solitude. There you can get a sense of perspective on your life so that what's going on in your mind can stand out in bolder relief. Try to find as much solitude as you can. It's good for you. When people have trouble living in solitude it shows that there's lots of unfinished business inside.

So make a little solitary place in your home. Turn off the TV, turn out the lights, and allow yourself to be alone without a lot of distractions. Tell everyone you need to have a little time alone on a regular basis. When you do this, you find that things submerged in the depths of your mind come up to the surface—and it's only when they come up to the surface that you can deal with them. When you're without a lot of outside input, the mind will tend to stay with the meditation more easily. There may be a lot of mental chatter at first, but after a while you get fed up with it. You prefer just to be quiet. At the same time, you get away from the influence of everybody else's thoughts and everybody else's opinions. You are forced to ask yourself, "What do I really believe? What are my opinions? What's important to me when I'm not swayed by the opinions of others?"

This leads to the fifth principle, which is to develop right view. Right view has two levels. First, there's belief in the principle of karma—that what you do really does have results. And you have to acknowledge that it really is you acting; it's not some outside force acting through you, not the stars or some god. You're making the decisions and you have the ability to make them skillfully or not.

It's important to believe in this principle, because this is what gives more power to your life. It's an empowering belief—but it also involves responsibilities. This is why you have to be so careful in what you do, why you can't be heedless. When you're careful about your actions, when the time comes to meditate it's easier to be careful about your mind.

As for the second level of right view, the transcendent level, that means seeing things in terms of the four noble truths—stress and suffering, the cause of stress and suffering, the cessation of stress and suffering, and the path of practice to that cessation. Just look at the whole range of your experience: instead of dividing it up into its usual patterns of me and not me, simply look to see where there is suffering and stress. Ask, “What am I doing that gives rise to that stress? Can I let go of that activity? And what qualities do I need to develop, what things do I need to let go of, in order to let go of the craving, the ignorance underlying the stress? When I drop craving, can I be aware of what's happening?” All too often when we drop one craving we simply pick up another. “Can I make myself more aware of that space in between the cravings, and expand that space? What's it like to have a mind without craving?”

According to the Buddha, it's important to see things in this way because if you identify everything in terms of yourself, how can you possibly understand anything for what it actually is? If you hold on to suffering as yourself, how can you understand suffering? If you look at it simply as suffering without putting this label of "self" on it, then you can start seeing it for what it is and then learn how to let it go. If it's yourself, if you hold to the belief that it's yourself, you can't let go of it. But looking at things in terms of the four noble truths allows you to solve the whole problem of suffering.

So start looking at your whole life in this light. Instead of blaming your sufferings on people outside, look at what you're doing to create that suffering and focus on dealing with that first. When you develop this attitude in everyday life, it's a lot easier to apply it to the meditation. You create the environment where it makes more and more sense to stick to the noble path.

Whether you're a new monk living in a monastery or a lay person living outside the monastery, these are the factors that create the environment for meditation: you want to stick to the precepts, keep restraint over the senses, practice restraint over your conversation, create quiet, secluded places for yourself, and develop right view. When you follow these principles, they create a conducive environment for concentration, as well as a receptive environment that allows the results of concentration to permeate your surroundings. This way your practice, instead of being forced into the cracks of a hostile, alien environment, has room to grow and to transform everything around it.


Thanissaro Bhikkhu is abbot of the Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, California. He is the author of Wings to Awakening and Mind Like Fire Unbound.

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