Legend holds that the Buddha once visited a man named Bahiya who was on the threshold of death. Bahiya asked the Buddha to sum up the ultimate teaching, the path beyond suffering and death.
Time was short, however. Bahiya was so sick that he could die at any moment — perhaps even before the Buddha could finish speaking another sentence.
Without hesitation, the Buddha answered:
Then, Bahiya, thus must you train yourself: In the seen there will be just the seen, in the heard just the heard, in the sensed just the sensed, in the imagined just the imagined.
Reading this quotation for the first time, I was sure that the Buddha had blown it.
A few arcane sentences about the psychology of perception?
Surely there’s more than that! A dying man uses his last breaths to implore the Buddha for help. And in response the Buddha carelessly tosses him a few conceptual crumbs.
But the more I learned about meditation, the more I saw the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha’s reply.
Here is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching: We create suffering by adding something to experience.
In his teaching about the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha pointed specifically to this habit as the origin of suffering.
At the level of bare sensation — just hearing, just seeing, just smelling, just tasting or touching — there is no suffering. It’s only when we take bare sensations and add our mental reactions of attachment and aversion that we start to suffer.
Once I worked 19 hours straight to meet a deadline for a writing project — a classic “all-nighter” and then some. Other than an occasional five-minute break to stretch or snack, I sat welded to my seat, pounding a computer keyboard and staring at the monitor.
At random moments during the night, I monitored my body sensations with non-judgmental awareness. Often I noticed a slight feeling of heaviness in my arms or around my eyes.
Of course, there were many more sensations as well — some pleasant, some unpleasant, and many that were neutral. But none of them presented any real problem in the present moment.
I also remember thinking at several points throughout this marathon work session: This is strange — I feel OK. I really should be suffering more.
At these moments, I was not so fortunate. My mind snapped into action. My thoughts raced, manufacturing a litany of judgments: How did I get myself into this situation? Why do I always get myself into crunches like this? What if this happens again?
With thoughts like these — painful memories of the past and dire scenarios for the future — I added to my bare sensations. In those moments, and in only those moments, did I suffer.
I forgot what the Buddha told the dying man.
Life is simple, really. In this moment, we see something, hear something, touch something, smell something, taste something.
And that is all. Anything more than this is something that we add to sensation by thinking — usually, with thoughts that create a burden.
We can break this habit.
We can literally “come to our senses.”
We can bathe ourselves in bare impressions.
We can learn to think in ways that help us effectively manage our life. And, we can learn when to release our mental commentary and stream of judgments.
This is what I practice every time I hit the yoga mat or take a seat to meditate.