The important stages of meditation is
when you discover within the mind a knowing core that
does not die at the death of the body.
If you can reach this point in your meditation, then
death poses no problem at all.
Excerpts of talk given by Ven.
Thanissaro at a conference on AIDS, HIV and other immuno-deficiency
disorders - Part II
As the mind settles more and more solidly into the
present, it gains strength. You feel as if all the
scattered fragments of your attention worrying about
this, remembering that, anticipating, whatever come
gathering together and the mind takes on a sense of
wholeness and unification. This gives the mind a sense
of power. As you let this sense of wholeness develop,
you find that it becomes more and more solid in all your
activities, regardless of whether you’re formally
meditating or not, and this is what leads to the third
As you become more and more single-minded in protecting
this sense of wholeness, you become more and more
sensitive, and gain more and more insight into the
things that can knock it off balance. On the first
level, you notice that if you do anything hurtful to
yourself or others, that destroys it.
Then you start noticing how the simple occurrence in the
mind of such things as greed, lust, anger, delusion and
fear can also knock it off balance. You begin to discern
ways to reduce the power that these things have over the
mind, until you can reach a level of awareness that is
untouched by these things or by anything at all and you
can be free from them.
It’s these higher stages in meditation that can be the
most beneficial. If you practise meditation simply as a
form of relaxation, that’s okay for dealing with the
element of your disease that comes from stress, but
there’s a lot more going on in AIDS, physically and
mentally, than simply stress, and if you limit yourself
to relaxation or visualization, you’re not getting the
full benefits that meditation has to offer.
Now we come to the topic of what meditation can do for
you as you face serious illness and death.
When one focus on how to use meditation to face these
things and transcend them. First, pain. When it happens,
you first have to accept that it’s there. This in itself
is a major step, since most people, when they encounter
pain, try to deny it its right to exist. They think they
can avoid it by pushing it away, but that’s like trying
to avoid paying taxes by throwing away your tax return:
You may get away with it for a little while, but then
the authorities are bound to catch on, and you’ll be
worse off than you were before. So the way to transcend
pain is first to understand it, to get acquainted with
it, and this means enduring it. However, meditation can
offer a way of detaching yourself from the pain while
you are living with it, so even though it’s there, you
don’t have to suffer from it.
First, if you master the technique of focusing on the
breath and adjusting it so that it’s comfortable, you
find that you can choose where to focus your awareness
in the body. If you want, you can focus it on the pain,
but in the earlier stages its best to focus on the parts
of the body that are comfortable. Let the pain have the
other part. You’re not going to drive it out, but at the
same time you don’t have to move in with it. Simply
regard it as a fact of nature, an event that is
happening, but not necessarily happening to you.
Another technique is to breathe through the pain. If you
can become sensitive to the breath sensations that
course through the body each time you breathe, you will
notice that you tend to build a tense shell around the
pain, where the energy in the body doesn’t flow freely.
This, although it’s a kind of avoidance technique,
actually increases the pain. So think of the breath
flowing right through the pain as you breathe in and
out, to dissolve away this shell of tension.
As your powers of concentration become stronger and more
settled, you can begin to analyse the pain. The first
step is to divide it into its physical and mental
components. Distinguish between the actual physical
pain, and the mental pain that comes along with it: The
sense of being persecuted justly or unjustly the fear
that the pain may grow stronger or signal the end,
Then remind yourself that you don’t have to side with
those thoughts. If the mind is going to think them, you
don’t have to fall in with them. Then, when you stop
feeding them, you’ll find that after a while they’ll
begin to go away, just like a crazy person coming to
talk with you. If you talk with the crazy person, after
a while you’ll go crazy too. If however, you let the
crazy person chatter away, but don’t join in the
conversation, after a while the crazy person will leave
you alone. It’s the same with all the garbage thoughts
in your mind.
As you strip away all the mental paraphernalia
surrounding your pain including the idea that the pain
is yours or is happening to you as you would find that
you finally come down to the label that simply says,
This is a pain and it’s right there. When you can get
past this, that’s when your meditation undergoes a
breakthrough. One way is to simply notice that this
label will arise and then pass away. When it comes, it
increases the pain.
When it goes, the pain subsides. Then try to see that
the body, the pain and your awareness are all three
separate things like three pieces of string that have
been tied into a knot, but which you now untie. When you
can do this, you find that there is no pain that you
Another area where meditation can help you is to live
with the simple fact of your body being ill. For some
people, accepting this fact is one of the hardest parts
of illness. But once you have developed a solid center
in your mind, you can base your happiness there, and
begin to view illness with a lot more equanimity. We
have to remember that illness is not cheating us out of
anything. It’s simply a part of life.
As I said earlier, illness is normal; health is miracle.
The idea of all the complex systems of the body
functioning properly is so improbable that we shouldn’t
be surprised when they start breaking down.
Many people complain that the hardest part of living
with a disease like AIDS or cancer is the feeling that
they have lost control over their bodies, but once you
gain more control over your mind, you begin to see that
the control you thought you had over your body was
illusory in the first place.
The body has never entered into an agreement with you
that it would do as you liked. You simply moved in,
forced it to eat, walk, talk, etc., and then thought you
were in charge. But even then it kept on doing as it
liked getting hungry, defecating, falling down, getting
injured, getting sick, growing old. When you reflect on
the people who think they have the most control over
So an important function of meditation in giving you a
solid center that provides you a vantage point from
which to view life in its true colours is that it keeps
you from feeling threatened or surprised when the body
begins to reassert its independence. Even if the brain
starts to malfunction, the people who have developed
mindfulness through meditation can be aware of the fact,
and let go of that part of their bodies too.
As I said earlier, one of the important stages of
meditation is when you discover within the mind a
knowing core that does not die at the death of the body.
If you can reach this point in your meditation, then
death poses no problem at all. Even if you haven’t
reached that point, you can prepare yourself for death
in such a way that you can die skilfully, and not in the
messy way that most people die.
If you haven’t been practising meditation, this sort of
experience can be overwhelming, and the mind will latch
on to whatever offers itself and then will get carried
away in that direction. If, though, you have practised
meditation, becoming skilful at letting go of your
thoughts, or knowing which thoughts to hang onto and
which ones to let pass, you’ll be able to handle the
situation, refusing to fall in line with any mental
states that aren’t of the highest quality. If your
concentration is firm, you can make this the ultimate
test of the skill you have been developing. If there’s
pain, you can see which will disappear first: the pain
or the core of your awareness. You can rest assured that
no matter what, the pain will go first, for that core of
awareness cannot die.
What all this boils down to is that, as long as you are
able to survive, meditation will improve the quality of
your life, so that you can view pain and illness with
equanimity and learn from them.
When the time comes to go, when the doctors have to
throw up their hands in helplessness, the skill you have
been developing in your meditation is one thing that
won’t abandon you. It will enable you to handle your
death with finesse. Even though we don’t like to think
about it, death is going to come no matter what, so we
should learn how to stare it down. Remember that a death
well handled is one of the surest signs of a life well