Stop, Look, and Let Go
July 28, 1965
Upasika Kee Nanayon
translated from the Thai by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

We discuss the practice for the sake of reminding ourselves to keep getting better and better results. Otherwise, if we don't discuss these matters, we tend to weaken in the face of thought fabrications, as we're so accustomed to doing. Training the mind to be quiet and still is something that requires a lot of circumspection, because the mind is so unruly and wayward by its basic nature. It won't easily stay under the supervision of mindfulness and discernment. This is why we have to develop the knowledge that will keep it under control in an appropriate way.

To get the mind to stay under the control of mindfulness and discernment, we have to stop and watch it, stop and know it. The ways it gets fashioned, the ways it can be sensed in and of itself: these things aren't easy to know, because it likes to travel around to know other things in line with whatever its thoughts may fabricate. If we want to sense it in and of itself, we have to subject it to a lot of training. To be able to supervise it or to have it stay more and more under the control of mindfulness and discernment: all of this takes time.

And it requires that you use your powers of observation and evaluation. If you don't keep on observing and evaluating as part of your practice, the mind will slip off quickly and easily to travel along with its preoccupations. The way it keeps traveling brings you nothing but suffering and stress. You don't gain anything good out of it at all. The mind simply goes out looking for all kinds of trouble. Regardless of whether you like things or dislike them, you grasp onto them and turn them into suffering. The eyes, ears, and so forth are the bridges out which the mind goes traveling the moment you see sights or hear sounds. How can you exercise care and restraint over the sensory doors so that they lie under the power of your mindfulness? This is something you have to watch and observe, to see the results that come from looking and listening in a mindful way. If you don't use your powers of observation and evaluation, you tend to latch onto the sensations of what you've seen or heard. Then you label them, fabricate things out of them, and keep on latching onto things every step of the way until you have the mind all in a turmoil through the power of its loves and hatreds.

Observe the sensations that arise at each of the sense doors to see that they're just sensations happening, pure and simple. It's not the case that we're sensing these things. For instance, the eye sees forms. It's not us that's seeing them. There's simply the seeing of forms by means of eye-consciousness, pure and simple. At that point, there's not yet any labeling of the sight as good or bad. There's not yet any thought fabrication following on the sensation of contact. We simply watch the simple sensation and the stop right there, to see the characteristics of the sensation as it passes away or as it's replaced by a new sensation. We keep watching the passing away of sensations, keep watching until we see that this is simply the nature of the eyes and ears: to register sensations. That way we don't latch onto them to the point where we give rise to suffering and stress the way we used to.

If we don't watch carefully to see this natural arising and passing away, we tend to mix everything up. For instance, when the eye sees, we assume that we see. The things we see either please us or don't, they give pleasure or pain, and we latch onto them to the point where they defile the mind. If you're not careful and observant, everything coming in through the sense doors develops into mental fabrication and has an affect on the mind. This gives rise to suffering, as you're not aware of how these things arise, stay, and pass away every time that the eye sees sights, the ear hears sounds, and so forth, under the power of your attachments.

How can we begin to unravel ourselves from these things so that we don't stay attached? How should we be mindful in our looking and listening? We have to keep observing the mind to see that, when there's mindfulness at the moment of seeing a sight, the mind can stay neutral. It doesn't have to be pleased or displeased. If we're mindful when the ear hears sounds, we can make sure that the mind isn't pleased or displeased with the sounds. The same holds true with smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. We have to focus on the mind, which is the factor in charge, the stem point. If we exercise restraint over the mind, then that, in and of itself, keeps all the sense doors restrained. The eye will be restrained in seeing sights: involvement in seeing will get shorter. When the ear hears sounds, the mind can stay neutral as it focuses on being alert to the arising and passing away of sounds or on the sensation of sound as it constantly comes and goes. This all depends on which approach helps you stay observant of sensory contact. Otherwise, if you don't develop these approaches, everything gets thrown into confusion. The mind has nothing but attachments and feelings of self, giving rise to all sorts of suffering simply from its lack of restraint. This is something we've all experienced.

The virtue of restraining the senses (indriya-samvara-sila) is a very refined level of virtue — and a very useful one, too. If you develop this level of virtue, the other levels become more and more pure. If you don't exercise restraint over the eyes, ears, nose, etc., then your five, eight, or ten precepts can't stay firm. They're sure to become easily soiled. If the eye, which is the bridge, isn't restrained, then it focuses its attention outside. And when this happens, overstepping your precepts becomes the easiest thing in the world. If you allow the mind to get accustomed to running out after outside preoccupations, everything gets thrown into a turmoil. The turmoil starts there in the mind, and then it spreads out to your words and deeds, so that you speak and act in wrong ways.

If we try to observe the precepts without restraining the senses, our precepts can't become pure. This is because we aren't careful about how we look and listen, so we aren't able to see how desire, craving, and defilement arise at the moment the eye sees sights or the ear hears sounds. This lack of restraint is what puts holes in our precepts. We create issues outside, and this soils our words and deeds. For this reason, the virtue of restraining the senses is a level of virtue that closes off the leaks in the mind. If you develop this level of virtue, your words and deeds will be beautiful and admirable — just like monks who are strict in their restraint of the senses, who don't gaze far away, who don't look at things that are enemies to the mind, who aren't addicted to the flavors of contact by means of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind, who are observant to see the passing away of physical and mental phenomena, so that their minds aren't thrown into a turmoil because of their likes and dislikes.

For the most part, we aren't interested in exercising restraint and so we fall victim to sensual pleasures. We let ourselves get pleased and displeased with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations; and so the mind gets defiled as it deludedly falls for the savor of these things. No matter how deluded we get, we don't realize what's happening because the savor of these pleasures makes us keep on wanting more. Our discernment hasn't yet seen the drawbacks of these things. To let go of anything, you first have to see its drawbacks. If you simply tell yourself to let go, let go, let go, you can't really let go. You have to see the drawbacks of the things you're holding onto, and then you'll let go automatically — as when you grab hold of fire and realize how hot it is, you'll automatically let go and never dare touch it again. We haven't yet realized the heat of sensual passions, which is why we still like them so much. Even though every attachment is stressful by its very nature, we see it as good. No matter what comes our way, we keep latching on. This has become our second nature. We're not aware that we're grabbing hold of fire and so we keep wanting more of it. This is why the mind never wearies of its clinging attachments.

When we can't see the drawbacks of sensual passions, there's no way we can see the drawbacks of more subtle things that lie deeper still, like our sense of self. We're still lured by external baits by way of the eye and ear, and yet we're not aware of what's happening. These things are like sugar coating a pill of poison, and so we still find them delicious. We swallow the poison so that it nourishes cravings and defilements that are so painful and seering, and yet we don't see them as painful. We're still relishing the sugar. We want more. This is because the mind has never grown weary of sensuality, hasn't developed any sense of renunciation, any desire to be free from sensuality. It still likes to lie soaking in sensuality. If it gains sensual pleasure it's satisfied. If it doesn't, it gets angry and resentful.

Even these external lures still delude us. If we get what we want, we're happy. If we don't, we're thrown into a turmoil. If we don't get enough of these lures, we go around complaining that other people don't sympathize with us, don't care about us. We keep on wanting to get these things, with no sense of enough — like worms that feel such relish for foul and smelly things and have no sense of disgust. The savor of sensual passion excites the hearts of all beings so that they want more. The noble ones feel disgust for it. They don't want to go near it. But ordinary beings want to go right for it and eat their fill. The Buddha compared people like this to worms that relish filth, or to a snake that's fallen into a cesspool, so covered with excrement that you can't find any part to grab hold of to get it out without soiling yourself. The Buddha liked to make comparisons like this so that we'll come to our senses.

The Buddha had a whole long list of comparisons for the drawbacks of sensual pleasures. If you want to know them, go look in a good anthology from the suttas. Some of the Buddha's teachings are attractive and appealing, but others are really castigating. We meditators should take an interest in reading his teachings and reflecting on them, so that we don't misunderstand things. The type of Dhamma that pokes at our sore points is something that goes against the grain with all of us. This is because we don't like criticism. We don't like being reprimanded. We want nothing but praise and admiration, to the point where we swell up with air. But people with real mindfulness and discernment don't want any of that. They want to hear helpful criticism, helpful reprimands. This is what it means to have discernment and intelligence. You know how to take criticism in an intelligent way.

When you read the Buddha's teachings, you should reflect on them. The Buddha castigates his disciples more than he praises them. Is our attitude in line with his? We like to hear praise. If people criticize us, we get angry and accuse them of having bad motives. This is really stupid and sad. We get teachings that are meant to help us, but we don't use them to reflect on ourselves. Instead, we criticize the criticism as being too harsh. As a result, we don't get any use out of well-meaning criticisms. As for people with mindfulness and discernment, they feel just the other way around. They realize that they benefit from their teachers' criticisms more than from anything else.

Children have no appreciation for the teachers who have been strict with them because they hate strict treatment. But as they become more intelligent and mature, they begin to realize that strict treatment can be an excellent way of building character, of making them come to their senses. The old saying, "If you love your ox you can't let it roam wild; if you love your child you have to spank it," reminds us not to cater to our children's whims, or else they'll become careless and irresponsible. If we're strict with them and scold them when they do wrong, they'll develop a greater and greater sense of responsibility. This is why people who are intelligent and discerning prefer criticism to praise. Stupid people prefer praise to criticism. As soon as you criticize them, they get so angry. They don't realize the great value of criticism. Suppose someone criticizes us when we do wrong: the wrong we're doing is unskillful and causes suffering. If we're warned against doing something unskillful, that's greatly to our benefit. It's as if that person has pulled us out of suffering, out of a fire, out of hell.

But stupid people will attack the person who gives them the well-intentioned warning. If they were intelligent, they'd have to thank the person who gave them the warning, for that person has helped them come to their senses. They'd have to take that warning to heart to the point where they couldn't forget it. If you don't feel this way about criticism, you'll never be able to outgrow your old habits. You'll have to stick stubbornly to your old ways, more concerned with winning out over others than with taming your own rebelliousness. If you're the sort of person who can't tame your own rebelliousness, then the more you're taught, the more you go out of control — and the more you simply end up burning yourself. You take valuable teachings and use them to harm yourself. This is why we have to listen well to criticism, so that we can get the most benefit from it.

Think of how harmful defilement, craving, and attachment can be! We're so full of our sense of self. What can we do to weaken it? We have to focus on our own minds in a way that gives results, that doesn't defile it, that doesn't stir it up into a turmoil. We have to use our own intelligence — our own mindfulness and discernment — to keep looking inward at all times. No one else can do our looking for us. We're the ones who have to know ourselves in an all-around way.

This practice of ridding ourselves of defilements: think of it as digging into a tall termites' nest to get at a vicious animal — like a snake — hiding inside. You have to use the sharpest possible picks and shovels to reach the snake. In the same way, our sense of self lies deep. We have to use mindfulness and discernment, which are like the sharpest picks and shovels, to penetrate into it. Wherever there's a sense of self, try digging on in to catch it. Turn it over and look at its face, to see where exactly it's your self. Try examining your body, or feeling, perception, thought fabrications, and consciousness — all the things you're so attached to that you're not willing to let them go. How can you examine them so that you'll know them? Only through seeing the inconstancy of form, feeling, perception, thought fabrications, and consciousness. If you don't know in this way, there's no way you can let go of these things, for you'll keep on seeing them in the wrong way, thinking that they're constant, easeful, and self.

This is an important point. Don't pass over it casually. The affairs of inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness are deep and refined. As we start from the outer levels and work into the inner levels, we have to contemplate in a way that grows continually deeper and deeper, more and more refined. Don't get by with knowing inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness only on a superficial level, for that'll have no impact on the roots of your delusion and foolishness. Observe to see which ways of contemplating get results in producing knowledge of inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness with genuine mindfulness and discernment. If you really know with mindfulness and discernment, the mind has to develop a sense of samvega, of dismay and dispassion for the inconstancy, stressfulness, and not-selfness of physical and mental phenomena, of the five aggregates — in other words, of our body and mind. It'll then unravel its attachments. But if our knowledge isn't yet true, we'll keep on holding on blindly, trying to make these things constant, easeful, and self.

I ask that all of you contemplate so you can come to really know and clearly see these matters for what they are. The whole reason we're trying to quiet our minds or practice meditation is nothing other than this: to see the inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness of the aggregates, the properties, the sense media. We're not practicing simply for the ease and pleasure that come when the mind is still. We have to observe and evaluate things so as to see them clearly in a way that allows us to let them go. The mind will then be empty of any sense of self. Even if you can experience this emptiness only momentarily, it's still very worthwhile. Keep your awareness of that experience in mind as capital for giving you continued strength in the practice — better than wandering off to be aware of other things.

When we keep on training the mind day after day, as we're doing here, we find that when we go to sleep and then wake up in the morning, our awareness has become continuous — more and more continuous, to the point where the mind doesn't go wandering off the way it used to. It stays more and more with the body in the present. Whatever arises, we can investigate it to see if any part of it is constant or stable. Regardless of whether it's a physical phenomenon or a mental phenomenon: is there any part of it that's constant or stable? When we see that there's nothing constant or stable to these things, that they keep on changing relentlessly, we'll realize that this inconstancy is inherently stressful in and of itself — and that within this inconstancy that's inherently stressful, there's no self anywhere at all.

You have to investigate to see things clearly in this way. It's not the case that inconstancy is one thing, stress another, and not-self still another. That's not the case at all. You have to investigate to see clearly that they're all aspects of the same thing. If you don't see clearly in this way with your own mindfulness and discernment, your knowledge isn't true. Even though you may be able to explain things correctly, the mind still doesn't know. It keeps its eyes closed and stays in the dark. When your knowledge is true, there has to be a sense of dispassion, of letting go. The mind will be able to abandon its attachments.

Then watch the mind at that moment. You'll see that it's empty.

Look at your mind right now. When it's at a state of normalcy, free from any turmoil, it's empty on one level. When you turn to observe the mind at a state of normalcy, when it's not latching onto anything, it's free from any sense of self. There's simply awareness, pure and simple, without any labels of "me" or "mine." Notice how the mind is empty right now because it doesn't have any attachments for "me" or "mine."

If you don't understand this point, you won't be able to find the deeper levels of emptiness — or you may go and make it empty in other ways, all of which are off the mark. The emptiness we're looking for comes from letting things go through seeing their inconstancy, stressfulness, and not-selfness. And then you have to keep hammering away at this point, over and over again. There's no need to pay attention to any other matters, for the more things you take on, the more the mind is thrown into a turmoil. Focus on one matter, one thing, and keep observing it until it's clear to the mind. The moment it's clear to the mind is when the mind will be able to loosen its grip. It'll be able to let go. To be empty. Even just this is enough for extinguishing the suffering and stress of your day-to-day life. You don't have to go reading or studying a lot of things. Simply study the mind from this angle — its arising, remaining, and passing away. Observe this until it's clear, and the mind will become firmly centered in this awareness. When it's aware, it lets go. It'll then be empty.

So this all boils down to one point: Try to be intent on observing and evaluating the mind carefully, and it will become empty in the easiest possible way. I hope that this simple point will help you see the truths within your own mind, and that you'll reap benefits fully correct with each and every moment.