The Practice of Recollection

The Buddha called recollection “the only way.” Quite simply, recollection is remembering to establish the attention with full awareness on the present.

Bhikkhu Mangalo15 July 2016
Thai style Buddha statue.
Photo by Tisarana.

How do we bring ourselves back to the present moment? Bhikkhu Mangalo offers instruction in basic breathing and walking exercises that will help.

The Buddha called recollection “the only way.” Quite simply, recollection is remembering to establish the attention with full awareness on the present, on the here and now, so that you may reunite with reality and find your own true being.

The best way to start is to see where one starts from. Let us take a look at the mind of an ordinary worldly person. What we find is a grasshopper mind, a butterfly mind, chasing its fancies and impulses of the moment, the prey of stimuli and its own emotional reaction to them—a reaction that is largely a purely conditioned and blind one. A chain of linked associations, hopes, fears, memories, fantasies, regrets, stream constantly through the mind, triggered off by momentary contact with the outside world through the senses. It is a blind, never-ceasing, never-satisfied search for satisfaction, bewildered, aimless, suffering. This is not reality, but a waking dream, a sequence of concepts and fantasies.

The world is split up into recognizable identified forms, each of which has its name, and on the basis of these names—conceptual images of the reality around—the mind spins its web of thought in which it entangles itself. Objects change, but their “name” remains the same, and the mind, left clinging to empty names and images, loses touch with reality, trying to find in the products of its own imagination the satisfaction and security for which it thirsts. No wonder the mind has been called an “idol-factory,” and no wonder that the Buddha described such a mind as a restless monkey swinging from branch to branch in the quest for satisfying fruit through the endless jungle of conditioned events. The futility, unreality, and frustration inherent in such a mode of existence is startlingly self-apparent once one begins to see it clearly.

It is the purpose of Buddhism, and of religion in general, to reunite one with the Reality one has thus lost sight of due to one’s ignorance in seeking the happiness for which one thirsts where it is not to be found—in the shadows and illusions of one’s own mind. That modern man allows his mind to continue this blind, tormented rat-race in undisciplined confusion is perhaps the wonder of wonders in an age that likes to consider itself “scientific.” Man has amassed a phenomenal amount of information—concepts all of it—about the forms and names that inhabit the universe, and he has harnessed and disciplined forces of nature in a way that would have staggered his forefathers. To gain electrical power he will build structures of enormous size and cost in both money and labor, damming back great rivers in midstream, yet still his knowledge of reality fails him, and his own nature escapes him, while he, almost unbelievably, omits to expend the slightest labor to stem and discipline his own thoughts, even when he half perceives they delude and torment him.

Taking our own thoughts, mere images of reality, for reality, we allow the emotions to be aroused by them. These emotions produce more thoughts in the desire to satisfy this disturbance, and the vicious circle is complete.

Down through countless generations a few, going against the stream of human patterns, have undertaken this task, often in the face of almost incredible privations and discouragement, at first blind, and often teacherless. Some broke through triumphantly, some stumbled through after great sufferings, yet all in their different languages declare a unanimous find—there is a “something,” by knowing which one knows all. It is the Uncreated, the only lasting Reality; it is our own true Being, and its “discovery” is, all are agreed, the supreme happiness, beside which all the suffering of ages is suddenly quite insignificant. And in some strange yet certain way, those who find It find the Deathless, they step outside of both birth and death. This is beyond the senses, though in it resides the power by and in which we see and hear and think. It is veiled by the flow of ignorant thoughts, by which we see not what is, but what we think about it. It is the old story of the man who, seeing a piece of rope hanging from a tree in the twilight, mistakes it for a snake and is panicked.

So it goes on. Taking our own thoughts, mere images of reality, for reality, we allow the emotions to be aroused by them. These emotions produce more thoughts in the desire to satisfy this disturbance, and the vicious circle is complete. Without ignorance of reality one would not think about it, without the stream of thoughts there would be no distressing emotions, the mind would be at peace, and then there would be no need to think.

The Stopping of Conceptual Thought

The first step, therefore, is to cut off the chain of associated concepts and words that flood the mind, holding it with recollection on the present, on what is. Thus in a famous verse, the Buddha used to say,

Don’t chase after the past,
Don’t seek the future;
The past is gone The future hasn’t come
But see clearly on the spot
That object which is now,
While finding and living in
A still, unmoving state of mind.

This is the beginning of mental discipline, and the remembering to do so is recollection. Without this recollection the stream of thoughts takes over again, agitating, distressing and befouling the mind like muddy water in a lake on which the wind is blowing up waves. Clarity of vision, peace of mind and self-recollection are lost in a single instant. It is for this reason that the Buddha called recollection “the only way.” Or as he vividly described it by a metaphor, Whatever streams flow in the world, Recollection is their damming-back.

As it is said in Zen, “The mad mind does not halt; if it halts it is Enlightenment.”

The practice of recollection is a gradual training. Perfection of self-recollection is the “art of arts and the science of sciences,” to which a due apprenticeship is necessary. To train one’s own mind, “ours” as it is, is even harder than training a dog or horse, for the mind is no less headstrong, and has all the ingenuity and trickery of man to help it find ways to break loose. Yet this is a far more worthwhile training, bringing already in early stages great peace and joy, and in its train innumerable riches. With an unrecollected, self-willed mind there is little hope of happiness—even the simple happiness of a peaceful, purposeful and balanced life, how much less the supreme goal of life.

What Is Recollection?

What then is the “practice” of recollection? How does one go about it?

Recollection is, quite simply, remembering to establish the attention with full awareness on the present, on the here and now. It is the “unsupported thought,” the “fast of the mind,” the true “noble silence.” As each object arises into consciousness, through whichever of the six entrances (the five senses and the imagination), it must be seen as it is, without welcoming it or rejecting it, without dinging to it or trying to push it aside— just “letting it go as though it were a piece of rotten wood,” as the great Huang Po puts it. This is the real meaning of the “Middle Way” of Buddhism, to see each (and every) object as it arises, with a mind that is “alert, fully-conscious and self-recollected, avoiding either attachment or aversion to anything.” “Do not like, do not dislike, all will then be clear.” The Buddha used to define recollection and full consciousness as “seeing the arising, presence and passing of all perceptions, feelings and thoughts.” He often used to say that his teaching “in brief” was “To see only the seen in what is seen; and in the heard to hear only what is heard.” It is all the same.

But when we try to do this, what do we find? We find that, at first, to do so for even a few minutes is quite impossible; the mind is swept away by a stream of erupting thoughts and a restlessness that makes it quite impossible to be clear and detailed enough to avoid reacting to the thoughts and objects that arise. One just cannot begin. It is for this reason that the Buddha, in his wisdom, compassion and “skill in means,” taught the practice of recollection as a gradual method of training, whereby, from the initial chaos and confusion of an undisciplined, wild-dull mind, the mind can be weaned from “whoring after strange gods,” to be still and know THAT WHICH IS.

The Foundations of Recollection

First, though, a word of warning. Proper samadhi, or stillness of mind, the last step on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path leading to Realization, is only possible with proper recollection, the step before it. Similarly, this recollection is dependent on the steps preceding it, which comprise, in brief, right understanding, morality, and determination. There must be at least a good foundation of understanding to realize the futility of the transient and conditioned in the light of the Unconditioned— and of all objects—when one is looking for “me,” the subject.

Without at least a good foundation on a moral attitude to life, recollection is being built on sand. An evil conscience is indeed like muddied water in which nothing can be seen clearly “as it is.”

Else the mind will not be able to detach itself enough from inking about the ever-changing objects, so as to practice poised self-recollection in the here and now. It will want to be off thinking of its “idols,” for where one’s treasure is, there will one’s heart be also. Similarly, without at least a good foundation on a moral attitude to life, recollection is being built on sand. An evil conscience is indeed like muddied water in which nothing can be seen clearly “as it is.” Without peace of mind there is little hope of stemming the flow of thoughts, not with all the determination in the world—even so it is hard enough. Of course none of us is perfect—far from it— and we all fail to live up to what we know we should be, but without at least a sincere and manful effort to put the basic Buddhist precepts into practice, one is just accelerating and braking at the same time. Later, increased self-awareness and peace will bring greater self-control, but at least the sincere will and effort to goodness must be there, and a sincere regret (and if possible restitution) for any evil done.

Above all the mind must be starting to turn away from the old patterns, which is the true meaning of “repentance”— metanoia…

If one perseveres in the practice, one comes more and more to see the unreality of the “me” concept, which cuts the foundation away from all mental illness and distress.

Related to this question is the Westerner’s preoccupation with the concepts of psychology—”making the unconscious conscious” and the like, so that he even starts to look for “upsurges from the unconscious,” “problems presenting themselves for solution” and so forth. It should be impressed most firmly that psychological analysis is not a part of the practice of recollection, the sole purpose of which is to see more clearly, without thinking discursively about it, what is, at each moment, now in the present. Analysis deals with concepts. Meditation aims at stilling the mind and watching what is, dispassionately. No thoughts—no “me,” no “me”—no neurosis. Just, moreover, as the mind refreshes itself in sleep, or when by occupational therapy it is kept off its preoccupations, and just as a cut in one’s finger if cleaned and left to rest is cured by “nature,” so the mind will best cure itself by rest, and by being kept clean, clean of emotional stimulants and harassing preoccupations. Nothing effects this so well as the practice of recollection. If one perseveres in the practice, moreover, one comes more and more to see the unreality of the “me” concept, which cuts the foundation away from all mental illness and distress. No device or way of looking at things, and no amount of “making the unconscious conscious” will deliver one from (for example) “insecurity,” so long as it is for “me,” this body and mind, that one is seeking security. They are impermanent, and no juggling will alter that fact or lend them a false security. Once the idea of “me” in the body drops out, the whole problem drops out with it. For this reason, during the practice of recollection at least, psychological analysis is best put aside. The “me” thought itself is the problem—not its preoccupations, nor the forms it takes.

The Western need to intellectualize over one’s own meditational practice is one of the main reasons why Westerners usually find it much harder, and take much longer, to complete a course of meditation than do their Eastern equivalents. Many Easterners, by simply and conscientiously getting down to it in accordance with their instructor’s guidance, will complete a course inside a few weeks. Most Westerners tend to take at least double the time.

Basic Breathing Exercise

The best way to start the practice of recollection is, as the Buddha clearly describes in the “Discourse on the Practice of Recollection” (Satipatthana-sutta), to sit down and establish the attention on the one most visible constant function of the body—the breathing. This is a semi-automatic function (samskara) that is always present with us in normal life, and which is emotionally quite neutral. For these reasons it is the ideal object of use for learning to become recollected, and to hold one’s attention on what is going on now, in the present, and here, in us. Most people agree that in practice (theoretical considerations quite apart) the most conducive position to sit in, if one can manage it, is cross-legged. This need not be in the famous “full-lotus” position, with the feet lifted back up on to the opposite thigh, nor even in the “half-lotus” position—which can cause many people almost as much pain as a “half-nelson.” The simple “easy” posture, with the legs just placed crosswise on the floor is quite sufficient, and if necessary a strategic cushion can be placed under a troublesome knee.

If sitting cross-legged is not convenient, however, it is of no great importance. Nowadays even many meditation instructors in the East do their meditation sitting in a chair. The only important considerations are that one should have an alert, upright, perfectly straightbacked posture which can be held without indescribable agony for a minimum of one hour or so. While doing the practice one should be sitting still (without fidgeting) and relaxed but alert, with the hands either in the usual position to be seen in statuettes of the Buddha in meditation, or simply lying lightly cupped one inside the other. The head should be held upright, the eyes closed, and all muscles, in so far as is possible, relaxed and easy. Once taken up, one should try to avoid unnecessary readjusting of the posture for the given period.

The proper place to concentrate the attention on the breathing is at the face wherever it is most prominent. This varies slightly from person to person. Some find the best spot is just above the upper lip, others just at the tip of the nose, others again on the inside of the nostrils. It is immaterial. What is important is that it should be wherever one, oneself, finds it most clear. A few experimental breaths should soon establish that. The attention should be on the physical sensation of the touch of the air, not the concept of breathing. Nor should the breathing be interfered with or deliberately regulated. At first, this may be a little difficult, and in the preliminary states it is not easy to dissociate pure attention from control. However, in that case one should just try to avoid unnecessary and unnatural control of the breath in any way, and just breathe easily, naturally and at a normal rhythm, but with the mind held on the sensation of the touch of the air. At first, too, it may well be found difficult to catch this touch of air clearly. Press on regardless. Practice and persistence will greatly improve this. One should try, moreover, to be aware of the sensation of the breath from the time it starts the inbreath until it stops, and then, again, from the start of the outbreath to its end. As one breathes in one should repeat, “In,” and as one breathes out one should repeat, “Out.” This is a check to see that the mind is really doing the practice and not wandering.


Before he has been going on with the practice for very long, the beginner will find a constant tendency for the mind to be torn away from the observation of the breathing, thoughts and memories of the past, hopes and fears for the future, imaginations, fantasies, intellectualizations on theory, doubts and worries about one’s meditation, pictures and shapes in front of the mind’s eye, and distracting external stimuli such as noises, pains, itches, impulses to move, etc., all tend perpetually to beckon the mind aside into “interesting sidelines.” There is no need to be unduly upset or discouraged by this. After all, it is the state of mind to which one has been long accustomed. Discipline has only just begun. Rome was not built in a day. Indeed, if it were so easy as all that to govern the mind, enlightened men would be a penny-a- dozen. The Buddha has pointed out that the mind, when one starts to try to withdraw it from its evil resorts, is like a fish taken from its native water and lying thrashing on the bank. Here we have it in practice—but everyone finds, or has found, the same problem. Enlightened people are made from those who do not despair, but persevere in bringing the mind back to heel, just as one does with an overexuberant puppy one is patiently but firmly training to obedience. Here, as everywhere, one should try to take the razor’s edge of the Middle Way. There should be the determination to press on—but a calm determination—not the sort that moves in fits and starts between the poles of despair and fanaticism. This merely shows an overstrong ego involved in the question (“I want to be a good meditator”). A relaxed determination is what is needed—or as the classic Buddhist commentators describe it, the perfect balance between peace (samadhi) and energy (virya). These two, like discrimination (prajtta) and faith (shraddha), should be perfectly in balance.

If one patiently perseveres in catching the thoughts—like bringing the puppy back to heel each time he wanders—this is meditation, and things are going very well.

The way to deal with these distractions is to notice immediately, or at least as soon as possible, the fact of distraction, identifying it with an appropriate word, such as “Thinking.” Then the mind should revert to its proper activity— noting the sensation of the breath…. All tendencies to wander should be noted as soon as possible after they have arisen—when one is more practiced one can even catch them before they arise, by the feel of the mind starting to turn— but one should not jump at them, or jerk the mind in so doing. The noting should be done neither too fast nor too slowly— the middle way, that is—immediately, firmly and dearly, but not overhurriedly. This only further agitates and distracts the mind.

It has been well said, “There is no need to be afraid of rising thoughts, but only of the delay in becoming aware of them.”

If one patiently perseveres in catching the thoughts—like bringing the puppy back to heel each time he wanders—this is meditation, and things are going very well. What is not meditation is, on the one hand, to be lazy about it and sit daydreaming and, on the other, to get upset and full of despair over the feeling that the mind will just not stay put.

Another sort of thought that can be a great distraction at times are so-called “running commentary” thoughts such as, “Now I am not thinking of anything,” “Things are going very well now,” “This is dreadful; my mind just won’t stay still”— and the like. Often these take the form of wondering what one is going to say in one’s report to one’s instructor, and virtually imagining the whole conversation. All such thoughts should simply be noted as “Thinking,” and, as Huang Po says, just “dropped like a piece of rotten wood.” “Dropped,” notice, not thrown down. A piece of rotten wood is not doing anything to irritate you, but is just of no use, so there is no point in hanging on to it…. Nor is there any need to try to retrace the links in a chain of associated thoughts, nor to try to ascertain what it was that first started the chain. Any such impulse should itself be noted simply as “Thinking,” and the mind should revert to the breathing. However badly things have just been going, one should take up again at the only place one can—where one is— and go on from there. Psychological analyses are also “Thinking.”

This practice of the Basic Breathing Exercise should be continued for one- hourly stretches (or for whatever period the instructor may recommend).

In between sessions the following basic walking exercise should be practiced—also for hourly stretches—alternately with the breathing exercise, turn and turn about.

Basic Walking Exercise

Between sessions of the sitting practice the meditator should find a quiet stretch of ground where he can walk up and down relatively undisturbed. It need not be long. If one’s room is not too small, it can easily be done there, or along a corridor, garden path, or hall. It is best, for this exercise, if one walks deliberately much more slowly than one usually does. Something about the speed of a good slow march is ideal, but of course one should walk nonetheless in as simple and natural a manner as the speed allows…. During this period of walking up and down, the attention should be on the movement of the feet and legs. One should note, as the right foot begins to rise from the ground, “Lifting”; as it moves forward, “Moving”; and as it places again on the ground, “Placing.” Similarly for the left foot, and so on.

In exactly the same manner as during the sitting, breathing practice, all distracting thoughts or sensations should be noted in the apposite manner. If one happens to look up at something while walking, one should immediately register “Looking,” and revert to the movement of the feet. Looking about one and noticing the details of objects, even those on one’s path, is “lust of the eyes” and is not part of the practice.