Humans are an unruly lot.
One adjective given the Buddha was “tamer of the untamed”. This metaphor captures a great deal about what our daily Buddhist practice is for. Our appetites for food, sensation, volitional action, and sense-experience drive our feelings, thoughts, and actions. Sila and bhavana — decency and mental discipline — can only be achieved if the appetites are brought to heel. Our parents (hopefully) began this process, but we must finish it. To be truly tame you must learn to tame yourself. Self-tamed people are the only true masters, unowned by their passions.
The taming of the senses is one way to understand what mindfulness practice is really doing. There is a sutta comparing the untamed senses to untamed animals, you can give it a read here:
Chappana Sutta: The Six Animals:
I love this image because it’s what practicing mindfulness in daily life is like. We are constantly pulled this way and that, thrown off balance, overcome by various mental stampedes, and through it all we try to maintain a mindful presence.
Mindfulness immersed in the body, the evocative phrase used in this sutta, is an excellent descriptions of good mindfulness practice. It combines awareness of the mind with awareness of the body, which is essential for developing both insight and serenity. As Ajahn Amaro points out, if you’re aware of the tensions in the body and are able to relax them, you’ll find that you can’t keep a good fret going. Both the mind and the body must be calmed together to be truly still and clear.
How is mindfulness immersed in the body like tethering the senses to a stake? It’s important to understand what is being said here. It’s not that the six senses are stilled by suppressing them. That is a common misunderstanding of Buddhist practice. The correct practice is to maintain constant, gentle awareness of the sense of sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and thought. Note the difference between the sense experience washing over you and the observer of the sense experience. Without judgement, note the effect of the senses on the skandhas, on your physical and mental states. Note how sense-experience stirs the appetites. As you observe this activity over days and weeks, you find that your response to the senses and to your changing thoughts begins to shift.
Your become more relaxed and open. You discover that you have a sense of mental stability that you didn’t have before. When your thoughts and feelings begin to churn, your awareness isn’t helplessly pulled into the confusion before you realize what is happening. You can remain calm and focused in the face of calamity and jubilation alike. You can detach yourself from automatic reactions. You can see through your unexamined motivations. You can wisely reflect on which thoughts and feelings are constructive and which are destructive. You can be free of uncontrolled reactions and unwise responses.
You can be free. You can be at peace. With enough practice, with enough kindness, with enough honesty, with enough heart, you can find a joy that is inexhaustible.
I can’t say it enough — the Buddha’s teachings have the taste of freedom. Taste them for yourself.