Monday, September 20, 2010

Little Distillery in the Boat

Getting the mind settled during meditation is difficult enough. Going about our day, and maintaining  the sense of ease gained during meditation, represents and even greater challenge. This is particularly true in social situations, when our mind becomes exposed to the products of other minds. How to stay centered, and not getting pulled into the toxicity from others' unskillful actions and words? That is the question.

The answer is to be found in Ajaan Lee's simile of the distillery in the boat:
In one of Ajaan Lee's last Dhamma talks he compared life to taking a boat across an ocean. The problem out on the ocean is that there's no fresh water. For most of us meditation is like stopping in a port, picking up some fresh water, and putting it in the boat. Then we go out to sea and discover that we've run out of water, so we have to go back to port. As a result we don't get very far. If we're not careful, the winds will blow us away from the coast, and we'll find ourselves without any water at all.  
In other words, when we meditate we pick up a good sense of ease, a sense of inner refreshment. It's like stocking up on water. But then we take it out and we pour the water out our eyes and ears, all over the place. So we have to come back, meditate some more, get some more water — back and forth like this. We never really stock up on enough water to take us across the ocean. So an important lesson we have to learn is how not to pour the water out. What this means is learning how to maintain your center with the breath, inside the body, even when you go outside and deal with other people. This is one of the big issues in any meditator's life.
. . . 
The trick, as Ajaan Lee says, is to have a little distillery in the boat so that you can take the salt water and put it into the distillery, to turn it into fresh water. Then everywhere you go you've got fresh water. In other words, no matter where you go, you're right here: centered in the body, with your awareness filling the body. You're not leaving the body unprotected and you're not using up all your energy in those false outside defenses. You're creating a sense of energy here in the body, a sense of refreshment, and it's protecting you as well. This way you can travel around the world because there's salt water everywhere. If you've got the skill, you can turn it into fresh water — as much fresh water as you want.
So as you leave meditation, it's important that you watch to see: How does the mind move? How does it go flowing out your eyes and ears into the space outside your body? If you catch it and bring it back in, how is it going to complain? There's going to be a sense of fear, or a sense of uncertainty about trying to stay inside. In the beginning you may feel unprotected. Don't listen to those voices. Those are voices that took over your mind when you were a little child and didn't know anything. That was the best you could do at that time, but now you've got more skills, better skills, more understanding.
Learn how to reason with those voices: "Here's a good solid place, a good safe place, a secure place to be — right here inside the body — and you're operating from a position of strength." And just that much is not only a gift to yourself, but also the people around you. They'll sense the difference as well, and it makes your interaction with them a lot easier.
So learn to have some trust for this sense of being inside the body. The awareness that fills the body, the breath energy that fills the body, can protect you in a lot of ways. It can provide the nourishment and the refreshment you need at all times. At the same time, it develops a momentum in the practice. If you keep on creating all the water you need, when you have more than enough, you can share it with the people around you. Your sense of what it means to interact with people will change — will be a lot less fearful — and your sense of what it means to be refreshed will grow deeper and stronger.
~ from Thanissaro Bikkhu's Dhamma Talk, on Social Anxiety
Staying grounded, in the breath and the body, always, whether walking, standing, sitting, talking, eating . . .

Responding from one's center.


  1. Thank you for sharing this teaching! What a wonderful metaphor.

  2. Thank you for visiting. Love your blog by the way! I just added it to my blogroll.

  3. Thanks for this great and useful metaphor. I find that stability in life - a routine, a sense of order, time - also help in maintaining that sense of ease in one's daily life. Well, they help until my 4-yr-old comes crashing in on me when I am sitting!

    Many thanks for your blog, which is wonderful.

  4. I agree with you about the value of a daily routine. There is a reason why the monastic life is so orderly . . . I have become especially aware of it during the course of family travels, when daily routine is left behind, and is replaced by a packed schedule with too many activities, places to go, and people to see. Finding a place of refuge where I can sit and meditate, like a church, is one of the ways that I cope with that.

    And I do remember those days when it was hard to find quiet, uninterrupted time:) I am also so happy for you that you have the gift of meditation to offer yourself, and your little one.