Enlightenment is a wonderful idea. This is the seed
out of which grows our dedication to a whole body/mind training.
It can take a long time before we find out what the real point of Buddhist practice is. There are innumerable doctrines, beliefs and techniques in this Way, but none of them is an end in itself. All of them are included in an overall training which is called cittabhavana, or ‘the training of the heart’. The word citta is variously rendered in translation as ‘heart’, ‘awareness’, and sometimes as ‘consciousness’. Bhavana literally means ‘to bring into being’. So cittabhavana can also be translated as ‘cultivation of awareness’. This subject is obviously central both to what you are doing here as psychotherapists and to what we are doing in our monastic training, so I am glad that we have this opportunity to consider it together.
It is easy, as I said, for us to take quite some time before we get the core message that awareness itself is what we are working on. It is very important that we do come to see that all the different skilful means offered in Buddhism are in reference to this.
Back in the 1960s and ‘70s many of us were out in Asia looking for something that we hoped would fill up an emptiness we felt we had inside – an inner sense of lacking.
In keeping with our expectations, we found a large variety of systems and substances, some more helpful than others. Buddhist monasteries and teachers were amongst what we came across. What we thought they were offering was this wonderful idea of enlightenment.
We were tremendously inspired and believed this meant that if at some time in the future we fully grasped this idea, then we would be free from any sense of lacking for ever more; we would be free from suffering altogether. We were trending to approach what we found there in the same way that we approached our everyday life, that is, as consumers: “How can I become enlightened? What must I do to get this freedom from suffering?”
I heard a story of a young Westerner travelling around Southeast Asia who was particularly concerned that he didn’t join up with anything but the best tradition and so he proceeded to go from teacher to teacher conducting interviews with them. He asked each one in turn the question, “What was the Buddha doing under the Bodhi tree?” I imagine he planned to compare all the answers and then make his choice. Each teacher naturally replied from their own perspective. The first, a Japanese teacher living in Bodhgaya, said, “Oh, the Buddha was doing shikantaza.” Then another teacher said, “The Buddha was definitely practising anapanasati.” Another replied, “The Buddha was doing dzogchen.” And further, “The Buddha was sitting in vipassana meditation.” When this seeker visited Thailand and asked Ajahn Chah what the Buddha was doing under the Bodhi tree, Ajahn Chah replied: “Everywhere the Buddha went he was under the Bodhi tree. The Bodhi tree was a symbol for his Right View.”
Whenever I recall this story, I like what it does to me. There is a turning around of attention and a remembering of the essential point of our practice. I find myself returning to the heart of the matter, or to the only place where I can make the kind of effort that brings about a difference.
Of course it is understandable that we don’t get it altogether right in the beginning and spend energy holding on to an initial idea about becoming enlightened. These ideas are the seeds which grow into a fuller way of practice. However, we do need to recognise that what is on offer in this Way is a complete training in awareness – not just an idea. We take up the training as we would take up an invitation; in this case an invitation to assume our own true place within our body/minds. The Buddha’s path of training isn’t a mere conditioning aimed at fitting us into anybody else’s form or anybody else’s understanding.
Awareness as Capacity
The model I find helpful in contemplating our training is that of awareness as capacity. Our experiences are all received into awareness. How well or how freely we receive life is dependent on our hearts’ capacity; or, we could say, on the degree of awareness we are living as. With this model, we can examine exactly how, where and when we set the limitations on our capacity to receive experience, what the limitations we place on awareness are, and what this feels like.
One of the chants which we regularly recite in the monastery says: appamano Buddho, appamano Dhammo, appamano Sangho. The word appamana translates as ‘without measure’. So this verse means: “Limitless is the Buddha, limitless is the Dhamma, limitless is the Sangha.” One way of seeing what was unlimited about the Buddha is to look at his quality of awareness. The Buddha’s heart capacity was boundless and accordingly he could accommodate unlimited experience without the slightest stress. He went beyond any compulsive tendency to set limitations on awareness and so was untroubled by anything that passed through his awareness. Hence we say, “I go for refuge to the Buddha”; or we orient all our conscious effort towards the possibility of limitless awareness.
We know we need to do this if we want to awaken out of the agonising sense of limited being. It is because we come up against the humiliating experience of “This is just too much – I cant take any more” that we have to train ourselves. We must understand what this ‘I’ is that finds it all too much. Our experience of the present moment is not too much for reality; reality is what’s happening. The painful constriction we feel is the symptom of the limitations we place on awareness. The pain is the appropriate consequence of our habitual grasping.
Seeing it from this perspective, we realise that placing limitations is something we are responsible for doing. Our cramped hearts are not imposed on us. We come to see that we are not helpless victims of our conditioning. I’m always surprised when people tell me, “This is just the way I’m made,” as if it’s somebody else fault for getting the design wrong. Working with a model of awareness as capacity, we discover (literally, ‘un-cover’) potential for change. With constant careful attention in this area there begins to dawn a quiet confidence in a way that we can cultivate.
In the world of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations and mental impressions we have no choice but to receive sense-impingement. Regardless of our lifestyle, be it as monk or nun or psychotherapist or any other occupation, we are all touched by the world of the senses. And these impressions are either received or not received. If we are rigid in our holding to the perception of ourselves as inherently limited in our ability to receive, then we feel put upon by the struggle; we feel obstructed. But to contemplate the possibility of opening and expanding our heart’s capacity takes us beyond the feeling of being obliged to suffer.
If we make a discipline of paying attention to the very feeling of being obliged to suffer, then we are being mindful of the dynamic that actually creates the suffering. We are putting ourselves in the place where we can undo the cause of the feeling of limitation. Our untrained attention easily and understandably flows in the direction of being interested in maximising on possibilities for pleasure. It is natural for the sensual side of our character to want to follow what the senses appear to tell us is the best way to increased well-being – that is, if it feels good then take it; if it feels bad, reject it. But from our life experience we know that we need to look deeper than that. This is not to pass judgement but to accord with reality. Nobody is forcing us to look deeper, but if we don’t then we remain more troubled by life’s struggles than we have to be.
Here we see why there is an emphasis on suffering in Buddhism. Right attention paid at the right time and place shows what it is we are doing to maintain the felt perception of limited being. If we realise that we are responsible for doing this then we also realise we can choose to not-do it. What a relief!
So how we approach our struggles is our own choice. For example, in regard to body, suppose one day one of us discovers a painful, sensitive lump beneath an armpit. It is likely that to some degree we would rather not know about it. But we are all ware of the dangerous consequences of avoiding that kind of sign. Something within knows that pain is an organismic message calling for attention. If we offer it the suitable response of interest then further damage might be avoided. If we don’t, then maybe the volume of the message will have to increase.
In our practice of training for awareness we learn to read heart-pain in the same way as we would interpret bodily symptoms. Heart-pain indicates that there is something which for some reason we are avoiding and to which we are not paying proper attention. Later it may be seen as a nudge towards awareness, but it begins in shock and suffering. Remember how it was for the Buddha when he first encountered old age, sickness and death.
Heeding this summons to attention and feeling inwardly, not turning away from the pain that is involved, we are able to witness the resistance we have. When we recognise what it is that we are doing we come to see the suffering for what it is. If our attention is careful, caring and well-informed enough, an easing of the holding to limited capacity occurs and a new understanding appears in its place. We then receive an unexpected affirmation which says that, for every increase in our capacity to receive life, there is a corresponding increase in discernment itself.
The ability to see clearly and feel accurately is already there in our open-heartedness. It is only the compulsive setting up and maintaining of restriction on ourselves that creates obstructions. The larger capacity of heart already has within it what we are looking for. Our difficulty is that we prefer not to have to go through the doorway of fear and struggle to enter that larger reality. Yet all our efforts to become wise and compassionate by merely reading and strategising our lives leave us feeling self-centred and frustrated. Hence, there is great value in the encouragement we give each other in applying ourselves to the careful cultivation of this kind of training.
In working to go beyond habitual or ignorant existence, we will at some stage be called to look at just how it is that we find a personal sense of security – our identity. For all of us that arise to some degree by taking a position for or against what is happening. We recognise this as feeling safe when we know where we stand in relation to an experience we are having or some issue that is presented to us. This ability to secure ourselves by discriminating is a normal disposition for us, but only suitable up to a certain point. When this discriminating faculty takes over and becomes who and what we are, we have big problem. It means we can never be free from taking sides, from agreeing and disagreeing even in subtle ways, and that keeps our minds busy. Accordingly, we are never simply aware of the activity of our minds. Our wish to abide in quiet investigation ends up as a struggle with resistance and confusion.
We can find help in this area if we consider the consequences of the kind of messages we were given early on in life about what represents Ultimate Reality. For instance, what is the effect if the idea didn’t get through that God is love, that the ultimate reality in all existence is all-pervading, all-inclusive caring, but instead we got the idea that God is a Being who eternally accepts and rejects according to some agenda that we have no say in – that there is an Omnipotent Being who is taking some up and sending some down – for ever? The effect is that the highest aspect of our psyche is continuously discriminating and we are effectively locked into a process that is inherently frustrating. We are in a state of chronic stress.
There is no possibility of freedom in such a conditioned view. It is very important to examine this. Imagine what happens, for example, if we are tired or unwell and not in touch with much compassion. If ahabitual taking sides for good and against bad is dominating then we can’t receive ourselves in that state. All we do is act out of a chronically judging mind: “I shouldn’t be this way.” Habitually seeking an identity by holding a view for or against keeps us locked into or bonded to an imaginary programme that is ultimately right. But what is right about it?
Finding identity by seeking security in the conditioned activity of our minds can be contrasted with the spiritual path of finding well-being and identity in awareness itself. Those who are committed to awakening move beyond a search for security in a personal identity born out of fixed views and opinions; they move through the insecure and unfamiliar world of not knowing where they stand, and eventually reach non-judgemental awareness. If we don’t have to know who we are or be assured we are right, but can rather receive, in freedom of awareness, how this moment is manifesting, we leave behind our addiction to certainty, with its predictability and limited possibility. Our lives enter a different mode altogether. We don’t have to have guarantees that our group is the best or that everything will turn out all right. We can tolerate uncertainty – and that is wonderfully liberating. WE find the possibility of being able to accord with all the activity of our totally uncertain world without being driven heedlessly into taking sides. The discovery is a welcome one.
Awareness and its Activity
As our investigation continues, we arrive at a point of seeing how all the picking and choosing activity going on is simply activity taking place in awareness. During the first interview I had with my first teacher in Thailand, the Venerable Ajahn Thate, I was told that my task was to learn to see the difference between the activity taking place in awareness and awareness itself. End of interview?
This instruction still underlies all my practice. I feel very fortunate to have had such clear, simple guidance. The suggestion this teaching gives us lifts us out of believing we are the activity that is taking place. We can grow into seeing all the content of our minds, including the picking and choosing and evaluating and so on, as the natural waves that pass across the ocean of awareness that is our life. We are positively disinclined to struggle with what arises within us. Instead, we know that the judging mind is just so. It is natural activity – no blame; no taking a position for or against the judging mind or any activity. If we are aware of the inclination to grasp onto a view about what we see, we remember, ‘no judging the judging mind’. We have to get quite subtle about it.
Abiding as awareness, wise reflection is energised and inspired. And it is this very awareness which in turn gradually dissolves our false identity as inherently limited, conditioned beings. In terms of training, we commit ourselves to a practice of mindfulness of the felt perception of ‘struggle’. If we can remember to be conscious of the struggle that is taking place in any given moment and then further remember to not judge the struggle, we find ourselves elevated into an awareness that already has in it the understanding and sensitivity that brings about letting go. Letting go happens; it is not something we do. Rather, it is conditioned by our not-doing – our not taking a position for or against. The way forward then becomes clear.
In my opinion, we don’t get very far in practice as meditators or as psychotherapists until we are well-acquainted with the reality of not-judging. Without access to it we simply won’t have the inner space to hold the intensity of dilemma with which a life committed to transformation will most certainly challenge us. If we do know the non-judgemental mind, then we know the place of resolution, the place of spontaneity, of creativity, of intelligence. This is where what we are looking for already exists. Until we enter this dimension, all our wise words will be mere imitation. When we speak we will always be quoting others.
The Factor Agility
As we continue our cultivation of the Way there will be times when we become unduly comfortable with a particular orientation to practice. If we are not sufficiently alert to notice how this is happening we could fall into a feeling of mediocrity; we become bored. So we are encouraged to develop the agility of attention to be able to move in and out of contrasting environments. We avoid staying only in areas in which we know we can operate well. This applies equally to our inner world and our outer life.
One way of understanding how the principle of contrast brings deepening is to observe how children learn and develop. Parents give their children contrasting experiences, colours and objects which stimulate the growth of intelligence. Without an appropriate input of contrasting experience, children lose their propensity for imagination through repetition and the blandness of familiar routines: they are likely to become dull.
We could also ponder on what the conventional wisdom contained in the saying ‘a change is good as a rest’ might be. The feeling of being refreshed from significantly changing what we are doing – even if it isn’t to something we particularly like – arises because we break out of the mode of predictability that we had become used to. When we change what we are doing, we are energised by our own interest and natural enthusiasm. We already have plenty of energy – flare-ups of passions show us that- but because we become overly familiar with the patterns of our lives rigidity sets in and we lose contact with our energy source. Submitting ourselves to contrasting influences give us new access to our natural energy. If we don’t understand this dynamic we may believe that we are actually lacking, and go endlessly looking for new stimulation.
We need to contemplate our own condition until we find for ourselves how interest and vitality are generated. In our monastery recently, a photographer friend came to take pictures for next year’s calendar. His work is beautiful and very much admired for the richness and depth he manages to produce. The primary element for bringing about that richness is contrast.
If we follow our usual tendencies to stay where we feel safe and avoid challenges out of a suspicion of inadequacy, mediocrity is inevitable. Even if we try treating ourselves to stimulations and distractions for a while, we know that this is not the Way. By contemplating the principle of contrast in practice we encourage ourselves to go into situations where we don’t feel safe because we are interested and we want to be awake.
I heard a well-known English judo master speak once about how he was given instruction by his teacher. The teacher noticed that his student was winning all the tournaments by executing a particular throw and that he always used his right side. So the teacher told him he had to stop using his right side for one year. A series of humiliating defeats followed but eventually the student developed the skill of performing his winning throw using his left side. At this point the wisdom of the teacher was recognised. So long as he could only throw from the right he was vulnerable and it was just a matter of time before someone else discovered his weakness and caught him out; but now, with the agility of being able to come from either side, he was unbeatable.
Most of us don’t have the good fortune to live with a watchful master who observes our tendencies to become imbalanced by our emphasis on our good sides, so we have to observe ourselves. And this is where we need the skill of inner agility. The formal Buddhist Teaching in this area is known as thee Four Foundation of Mindfulness (Satipatthana). Without going into these teachings thoroughly at this time, it is good to refer to them. The instruction presented is a detailed description of the techniques and benefits of establishing mindfulness in four areas: mindfulness of body (kayanupasanna); mindfulness of feeling (vedananupasanna); mindfulness of the mind or heart itself (cittanupasanna); mindfulness regarding the laws or patterns of reality that pertain to the Way of Awakening (dhammanupasanna). The discourses given by the Buddha on this subject form the foundation of all the teachings in the meditation tradition of the Theravada school of Buddhism. Agility of attention, inner and outer, is held in the highest position if the hierarchy of skills to be developed.
Training as ‘According with’
Now let’s turn to talking specifically about training. I use this word not in the sense, for instance, of training a parrot to talk, which is better considered as conditioning, but in the way of giving a direction to something that is moving. At the centre of the cluster of buildings that comprise our monastery, there is a garden dedicated to the memory of the late Venerable Ajahn Chah. In the centre of the garden there is a stupa (reliquary) containing relics of our teacher, and this stupa sits in a beautiful small pond. To keep the pond fresh and filled up, the rain water from the rood of the adjacent Meditation Hall is gathered and ‘trained’ to flow towards the stupa. Behind the stupa there is a variegated ivy growing and I am trying to train it to climb the wall. Anyone who does gardening knows that this kind of training can only work if it is in the nature of the plant to go that way. Right training must accord with the true nature of that which is being trained. And this training does most definitely mean going against our untruly nature. Some gardeners might prefer wildness, which I understand. But if we follow the way of undirected, untrained wildness in the area of human passions, we cause a lot of suffering for ourselves and others. So we willingly give ourselves into a training.
If it is Buddhist training it must involve body, speech and mind. When we look at our present quality of life, we should see it as the result of our past actions (kamma). Our being is conditioned by actions of body (kayakamma), actions of speech (vacikamma) and actions of mind (manokamma). Bringing our passionate nature into line with the path of realisation must involve all of our being. Many of our formal rituals are aimed at elevating awareness of these three dimensions. As we bow in front of the Buddha image we are lowering our bodily form in an acknowledgement of our experience of limitation. With our body we are saying ‘I’, as separate ego, willingly submit myself to the ‘way of what is’, in contrast to the stiff-necked “I can handle it, I don’t need anybody” kind of attitude. And as we offer candles and incense to the Triple Gem, we perform with our body gestures of respect and gratitude, which bring into relief the self-oriented activity of our lives that is always taking from the world for ‘me’. Similarly, as we recite the morning and evening chanting, we utter words that resonate with the deepest aspects of our hearts. By intentionally acting with body and speech in the from of regular ritual, we are reminded of where the real responsibility for our actions lies.
Mindfully engaging each other in dialogue on matters of truth also serves to cultivate a felt sense of the significance of training. It is encouraging to see that more and more people are wanting to meet to support each other in this way.
If we don’t train, then, like the water off the roof that never reaches the pond but merely seeps away, so the precious passion of our hearts fails to enliven our commitment to the Way.
Wanting to Train
If training accords with the true nature of that which is being trained, there is an ease, even if at times we feel challenged. Training is challenging because it is not what ‘I’ want. But then, when does ‘I’ ever truly get what it wants? Is it possible for this separate ‘I’ to be genuinely contented? No! Because, by being identified as the activity of wanting and not as awareness itself, we are compelled to feel always busy. When we understand this then we start wanting to train. And such wanting is essential. The meditation master Venerable Ajahn Mahabua, when asked, “What is the place of desire for liberation in this Way?”, replied that it is the Way. When we fully want to submit ourselves to a training because we long to go beyond a sense of cramped limitation, then the interest and creativity that we will need for the task ahead becomes available to us.
If hearing talks or reading books about practice inspires us to take up training, then that is good. But we need to know that we are doing it because we want to do it. It is only from this perspective that we can learn from what our own discernment faculty has to tell us. If we are imitating someone else’s practice, then we are compromising this faculty. We need to access, as we proceed, if this way is our way. Entering into training is like entering a mountain stream to bathe: we wouldn’t just dive in because it looks attractive. Maybe it’s only a foot deep and we would be badly hurt. It’s better to go carefully, feeling our way until we are confident about what we are getting ourselves into.
Sometimes people have a problem in this area of wholeheartedly wanting to progress in their training, because Buddhist Teachings so insistently call attention to the fact that suffering is rooted in desire. Such people jump to the conclusion that to want anything at all is not the Way. This is very unfortunate. As we know, where there is desire there is energy. If because of some ill-informed assumptions about desire we disown this energy, then who is taking responsibility for it? Who is taking care of it if we aren’t? It doesn’t just go away because we don’t think it’s a good idea. The last thing that the world needs is for more heedlessness around desire. What does help, though, is to know what we want more than anything else. I am suggesting the reason that we take up this training is because we want to find out what this is.
At Ratanagiri Monastery, we have a regular meeting on Sunday nights at which the local Buddhists like to gather for chanting, meditation and discussion. We begin with the recitation of the Three Refuges and Five Precepts. For a long time this too place with very little volume, until one day it occurred to me that they sounded embarrassed about doing it. I asked if we should stop; but no, they wanted to continue with it. So I suggested that unless the group were feeling apologetic about wanting to do it, we should shout the recitation out. These days we don’t exactly shout, but there is a good strong communal voice resonating around the Hall, reaffirming our determination to offer ourselves into the training.
The need to know that we are doing our own practice stays us with us. We can easily become habituated to the training forms that we have acquired and because of this they cease to work for us. However, if these forms are rightly grasped then they enthuse and energise us. So we keep checking to see if we are doing it because we want to. When we reach a point of genuinely wanting to train, we can enjoy practice much more.
Obviously, there will be times when we feel like we don’t want to do it anymore. If we have cultivated the skilful habit of inquiring of ourselves, with interest, as to what motivates our actions, when this feeling of not-wanting arises we will be in the best place to find out whether or not we really don’t want to do it. Superficially, our desires come and go, conditioned by many different casual concerns; but at the deepest level, as Buddhism sees it, all beings want to be free. So if we look long enough, we will penetrate beyond he not-wanting and remember what we are in this for.
A Long-Enduring Mind
Having a thoroughly conscious commitment to the training is also very important. As with anything, cultivation of the Way takes time. In the Chinese Buddhist tradition they have a teaching that says there are three requisites for the Way to prosper: Great Faith, Great Doubt and a Long-Enduring Mind. Living with an underlying faith that is highlighted by an ever-changing and challenging counterpoint of doubt generates the energy that undoes our rigid habits. But if our practice is tainted by wrongly-help expectations based on getting what ‘I’ want, then the very same energy that has been liberated can feed the ego-rigidity making it even less workable – we end up worse off than if we had never begun practice. So the Chinese Buddhists take a vow to continue the same path of practice, without alteration, for however many lifetimes it takes them to awaken. For someone who firmly believes in the life-after-life transmigration through the six realms of existence, this vow effectively relaxes expectations.
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If we are able to receive freely the pain of our self-consciousness, that is, without taking sides and following ideas of how things should and shouldn’t be regarding this felt pain, we do arrive at a larger reality. In that openness is the understanding of how to proceed with a purified quality of effort.
Actually, if our suffering is intense enough and our commitment to the Way whole-bodied and wholehearted enough, we might have the good fortune of sinking deeply into despair, and at that place remembering what we have been talking about today; that is, how the judging-mind is complicit in what is happening. We enquire, “Where am I finding identity? Am I still taking a position for or against, or am I free to feel what I feel in this moment?” I say this is good fortune, because if we do remember this deeply at the level of intensity to which were brought by despair, the silent understanding that arises at that depth will serve to undermine a lot of our false thinking and holding.
Q: My problem is that sometimes when relating with others a tension seems to develop from trying to stay aware within myself at the same time as attending to that which is happening on the outside.
A.M.: If someone comes to us in a state of distress asking for our attention then, obviously, if we are able to offer attention we should. If we still don’t trust ourselves not to get caught up in our own inner reactions, we have to acknowledge that that is the case. And we must know that that means we have some work to do on ourselves. However, the time of attending to another is not the best time to do the work on ourselves. Yes, in some sense these two go together, but it is a matter of degree.
A regular, daily, formal practice of meditation, or whatever one wants to call the exercise of conscious remembering, can also support us in this. As Buddhists we recognise the value of regularity in both formal and daily-life practice. What we are called to attend to in our daily activity is varied and complex, but a formal daily sitting dedicated to doing nothing – except releasing out of all tendencies to take sides – has profound benefit. As we sensitively look into the very movement of preference as it is taking place, we begin to see beyond it. Whatever compulsive judging is mixed up with the activity, regardless of what the content of that activity might be, we simply notice it and remember, “No judging the judging-mind.” If there is still judging, then we apply our contemplation to that, and keep falling back into freer and freer perspectives. We continue releasing, releasing, releasing our identification with the judgement, until there is just the activity of the mind simply as it is; or maybe there is no activity at all. But without a regular effort to sit still, ideally at about the same time each day, I feel we might be disadvantages in finding the kind of totally trusting relationship with ourselves that we hope for; a relationship whereby we can forget ourselves and simply attend.
Q: You have talked about being opened up by suffering. I have heard that in the Buddhist Teachings there are two ways: this way and the way of bliss or ecstasy. The latter, I’m told, makes more use of celebration and joy.
A.M.: Yes, I have heard about the idea of two ways as well. This might be true, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it myself. Deep opening does involve both suffering and joy but I’m not sure they are separate ways. The doorways we must go through always look to me to be daunting and they always involve suffering. To approach these doorways definitely requires a strong sense of well-being and a balanced confidence, but grasping the handle is frightening.
Once we actually begin to move out of the room of limited possibility, through the narrow doorway, then we experience bliss and we enter upon a larger awareness which is our new life. At this time we feel relieved and have a wonderful sense that this will do us fine. We are pleased with ourselves – at least for a while. Then our commitment to a training of body, speech and mind prompts us to recall our deepest interest in the possibility of limitless awareness; not just somewhat expanded awareness. We keep going for refuge to Reality and this leads us to finding another doorway and another and another; and we keep going through the trepidation over and over again. In my experience, what changes is an increased willingness to go through with it. Right training is about finding this increased willingness.