Talk 2 audio recording
It's worth noting that our text, the Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, is 20 pages long in English translation and of those 20 pages, 8 of them are about the first foundation: awareness of the body and breath. Clearly the Buddha felt that becoming more aware of our body is central and important. And isn't it interesting that that's a bit surprising to us. We think about the life of the mind. And we use the term mind-fulness. Being full in our mind. They did have different words for body (rupa) and mind (citta) but I don't think they had as much of a sense of separation as we do. I'm sure they had some - humans do perceive a kind of free-floating life of the mind and I'm sure they always have - but we're mastered the separation of mind and body. Sitting at your desk working on keyboard and screen you completely lose track of your embodiment for long stretches right? And not just then. When walking around. When driving. Even when doing quite physical activites, even activites that are very rich and stimulating to the sense, we can be lost to the physicality of the world and lost in thought: planning, worrying, musing.
There is nothing inherently wrong with thinking that's for sure. Sometimes meditation is misunderstood as the enemy of thinking. "I can't meditate!" people say, "my thoughts just keep racing around." There are many kind of meditation and in fact some of them are interested in changing the patterns of thinking, but the mindfulness movement chose not to go there. In our meditation here we aren't trying to stop the thinking but get interested in it's true nature. It's a truly liberating thing to once in a while see a thought as just a thought - a mental phenomena that arises according the conditions that are present - and these include conditioning that carries forward from the past, perhaps neurological encoded in patterns in your brain. If you do a lot of one kind of thinking you get good at it. An addage we like is, "what you practice grows stronger." We've been propogating a very minor internet meme about this too: there's a video of a young man, about 10 or 11 years old, who appears to be from India and he gives a pithy 2 minute Dharma talk on this. He opens the video by saying: "today I want to ask you: what do you practice?" What are you practicing in your mind and heart. He goes on to say, "if you practice worrying you will be very good at it, everywhere you go you will worry." And then I always hear a chuckle where he makes some kind of reference to an old Buddhist text or maybe to rural life now in India saying, "you will even worry about the buffalo you do not have!". And then to mix up it up he talks about being jealous of someone else getting a better seat on the airplane if you're practicing jealousy.
I'll try to remember to send you this video in the post-retreat email. We're recording these talks - audio and video this time! - and we also keep track of the poems we share. You'll get a care package on the email from us a few weeks from now. So if that helps you release a little from any mental habits of covetousness around the materials you're hearing that's good. Just let it go. I'll send you a YouTube of George Harrison singing All Things Must Pass too. I really butchered the verses of that by the way, sorry George. He has a really unusual melody in those verses which signing along with the recording i thought I had. Sounds so natural as it probably came straight out of his mind. The mind is an amazing space isn't it? Capable of such creative leaps and brilliance and such repetitive drudgery. Amazing!
Anyway all this stuff in your mind - can we see it as just so much stuff?
Or at least move the needle a little bit from the starting place of "every thought I have is really imporant, every mood is central, every opinion or idea I have for improving things around here must be expressed" and so on to something a little closer to "ah: a thought", or "hmm...tough mood hanging around in me right now, ouch."
We'll talk more about the mind in a few days when the Buddha gets to it in the text but one more point about meditation. It's not about stopping your thoughts, but it's also not right to say that thoughts are endless and constant and never stop. We may have a mental habit of belief in the dogged constant nature of thinking but actually there are all kinds of gaps in that thinking. It's a kind of mirage that's part of how we weave this idea of me to think that thoughts are constant and it's the sole function of the mind to generate them. I worry sometimes that in trying to make mindfulness sound very accessible to people some of our modern mindfulness teachers promote a misperception that thoughts never stop. Sure they do. They come and they go. yes there are a heck of a lot of them sometimes but nothing is constant or unending. It's just that when our identity is tightly woven into our thinking there's not a lot of awareness present for moments of non-thinking so we don't always notice when the mind is quiet. So meditation isn't about stopping your thoughts but that doesn't mean they don't stop. So I invite you be curious about the ebbing and flowing of the thinking mind this week. Sometimes it's really loud, sometimes it's quieter. Everything changes.
Awareness of the body helps us see this in another way. It gives us a kind of different platform to stand on that just me-the-thinker. We can be me-the-feeler. And that allows a broader perspective and a more subtle awareness of the comings and goings of mental phenomena. And ultimately we can turn down the "me" part of the equation and just notice the arising and falling away of thining, the arising and falling away of sensations in the body, or sounds, of tastes, of sensations that touch the skin. One of the ways they think about thinking in Buddhist psychology is that the thinking mind is just one more sense. The 6th sense. It's the sense that contacts thoughts - that notices thoughts. The eyes are the sense that contact visual perception that noticing what's seen and the thinking mind is the sense that sees the thoughts.
This is very helpful and potentially liberating actually. We don't think that what we see is "me" do we - we may have all kinds of preferences and opinions and analysis of what we're seeing - we do a lot with that information but we don't think "the seeing is me" do we? That makes no sense.
And yet we habitually and with great certainty might think, "this thinking is me." The question this practice and this text is implicitly asking us is whether that's true. Is that thinking you? Or is it just thinking? Or maybe something more subtle is going on than the idea that the thinking is you OR the idea that the thinking isn't you.
When Karen has reminded us to ask ourselves, "are you aware? what are you aware of?" which is a great question to toss out there from time to time I've been wondering if we need the "you" in there so much now that we're starting to settle into the practice of mindful awareness. How about just "aware?" or "is there awareness?" and "what's the awareness...I dunno emcompassing?" which sounds all wonky in English so we'll stick with "are you aware? what are you aware of?" but let's just remember the important side of that sentence is the "aware" part not the "you" part. She's not asking, "how are you doing? are you doing a good job?" which might be where our mind goes so quicky and automatically when anyone asks us anything at all about our current state. Ut oh, you're talking to me, dang I was doing a bad job of...whatever it is. A bad job of being a person I guess.
Back to our sutra. The analysis of this section on mindfulness of the body is that he offers us fourteen different practices to help us understand the body and merge with the body more deeply. Not all of them are applicable to us here and many of them overlap so I'm going to highlight a few of them.
Yesterday we looked at the encouragement to know that we're breathing directly and fully. After sitting down carefully in front of a tree: She breathes in aware that she is breathing in, he breathes out aware that he is breathing out.
That's a major practice of a life time all by itself. Knowing the breathing. Being conscious of the breathing. Feeling the difference between breathing in and breathing out.
And then discerning more about what the breath is really like: breathing in a long breath, she knows 'I am breathing in a long breath." Or to drop the "I's" out of it: feeling a long breath, knowing this is a long breath.
This instruction on short and long breaths is also understood to be a practice of following the breath through the whole breath cycle. That implied in identifying long or short is seeing the beginning, middle, and ending of each breath. (As I said this is religion so we can read all kinds of things into the text, but of course that reading here is informed by many generations of meditation practice not just making stuff up).
This is a great practice really noticing the beginning of the exhale, feeling the air come out and the front body settle down as the exhale progresses, staying aware of the very end of the exhale - there's a subtle little pause there, have you noticed? - and then kind of magically without you having to do anything, the inhale begins - the air flows in the front body opens and rises to receive the nourishment of the breath. Another micro pause - my experience is this pause is much shorter - and a new exhale begins. This is a powerful practice I really recommend. Following the breathing. Following the whole cycle. Part of the art of this is seeing if you can follow without controlling which is hard to do. We associate observation with manipulation in a tightly coupled way because of our self-centeredness I think. Our basic conditioning may be something like, "if I'm paying attention to it I'm going to find something that needs improving with it so why wait, just start improving it." Until we turn our attention to something else.
So that's a powerful part of the healing process of awareness of breathing in general and I think particularly following the breathing. We start to gradually uncouple observing and controlling. We let the body breathe up. We surrender our urge to improve and control. It's a deep habit and not so easy to soften. We can't make ourelves not control as that's just another exertion of control. Mostly I think we just practice patience. We keep breathing. We keep noticing if we're subtly manipulating the breathing and we keep resetting our intention to let go. A great point in my experience of freedom is that little moment at the end of the exhale. Really letting the exhale go and letting the inhale come when it's ready. Don't rush the breathing. Let the breathing set it's own pace.
Another way is to get interested in the rhythm of breathing. So there's a quality of listening, like listening to music. When you listen to a piece you know and love sometimes you're anticipating what comes next really strongly and that's okay but you appreciate the song less, don't you think? It's when you really lose yourself in the song, hearing subtleties that perhaps never heard before and allowing yourself to be surprised by the music, even if you've heard that song a thousand times before, that's when you really are swept away by the joy of music right? Do you know what I mean?
So listen to your breath that way. Follow is as a the joyful and brilliant and unique song it is. A song that your body and all of nature is creating for you in real time all the time. You are in your own private symphony of breathing written by the best composer ever, what a shame it would be not to listen with deep appreciation.
Wow. Have a little enthusiasm there, Tim. Okay anyway following the breath.
The next section is feeling the breath in the whole body:
She uses the following practice: 'Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.'
Of course there is not a hard line between following the breath and feeling the breath in the whole body. They go together. It's a question of emphasis. Play with this: focus more on the cycle of the breathing for a while, see how that is. Then retaining awareness of the whole cycle of breathing feeling the breath as a whole body experience. And I'd encourage you to not be so sure the body stops at wherever you imagine it stops. The skin I guess? You might experiment with a larger and more spacious sense of the body as you breath in aware of the whole body and breathe out aware of the whole body.
And then we have a passage that looks a lot like manipulation which I've been saying this isn't about:
And then, 'Breathing in, I calm the activites of my body. Breathing out, I calm the activities of my body.'
Well it turns out that the Pali term that Thich Nhat Hanh is translating here as "activites of the body" is a bit unclear to us what the Buddha meant. The verb in the sentence does mean to calm or calming. Maybe I'll take the perogotive to gloss this teaching as: "breathing feeling the calming nature of breath in body, breathing out feeling the calming nature of breath in body." There may be plenty of agitation present but I think its pretty clear than when breath and awareness are in a good relationship there's a calming influence. So not to try to force yourself to calm down. If there's upset in the body, mind and heart to meet it and allow it to be here but also to be curious about how the calming quality of awareness of breathing holds that upset. Maybe it doesn't calm it down exactly as hold space around it. Or maybe the calming influence of breathing makes it more possible for you to bear the pain in the neck or wherever it is even if it doesn't seem to make it better. In fact it's better not to expect the breath to make it better because that's putting a kind of directive and mission onto the breath that's a form of grasping and that does not help in my experience. If there's pain in the body it's essential to allow it, even to get curious about it's dimensions and more subtle aspects - does is change and move? it is piercing or coarse? it is hot or cold? - and...and!...I'm still breathing and that has a calming quality to it even if it doesn't guarantee me a calm and peaceful mood or mind state.
Pain is a big topic and some of us I know are practicing with plenty of it. Some are working with other qualities of experience and physical pain is not up so much. We're diverse that way. But that's one suggestion for practicing with pain.
Another is to forget about the pain for a while as best you can. Sometimes we go one way, sometimes it's skillful to go the other way. Let go of all that concern for the senstations coming from the body and drop into the breathing. Just breathe. In and out. In and out. You might add counting. 1....2....3.... oh my neck, ahh... 1...2...
Another support is a simple meditation poem - Thich Nhat Hanh is famous for these - here's one we use in our classes all the time:
(breathing in) I've arrived
(breathing out) I am home
(breathing in) In the here
(breathing out) and the now
Or shortening it to just the key word in each line: arrived....home....here....now. Or just one half of the stanze is plenty: arrived....home.....arrived.....home.....
If you're in the market for another, my favorite is a little bit wordier. And I will write both of these on the white board in the dining room later:
(breathing in) calming body and mind
(breahting out) smiling with joy
(breathing in) living in the present moment
(breathing out) knowing it's the only moment.
I practiced with that very intensely for a few years when I was really suffering and it's in my DNA now somehow even though it doesn't come up as words often. It makes me shiver to say it actually. And it too can be simplified to a key word in each line: calming...smiling...living....knowing.... or calming...smiling...present moment....only moment....
One more section of the sutra and then we'll consider the first foundation at least well touched on. We could do a whole 7 day retreat on just this first quarter of this text easily.
Moreover, when a practitioner walks, he is aware, 'I am walking.' When she is standing she is aware, 'I am standing.' When he is sitting, he is aware, 'I am sitting.' When she is lying down, she is aware, 'I am lying down.' In whatever position her body happens to be, he is aware of the position of his body.
And not just aware of the so called four noble postures of standing, walking, sitting, and lying down, but all the time as Karen was suggesting to us this morning. He goes on:
[middle paragraph on p 6]
So we carry this awareness of the body off the chair and cushion. And this is a huge advantage of retreat like this. This is so much more accessible to us - we can establish a continuous awareness of the body which is a big part of how we invite our practice to permeate our entire lives when we're not on retreat. So let's really get interested in this. How does it feel in the body right now - to ask that steadily all day.
And the next part of the section on mindfulness of the body is all about what the body's made of. There's a section on contemplating the elements and parts of the body which is written in different language than we'd think about the body now as that was a different time and culture so it'll save that for you to read later. But the cool thing there is we're examining the body in detail each day with our body scan practice. That practice totally fits the Buddha's instructions here.
The very last part is about the impermanent nature of the body. It's a famous and long passage and a little gross to our ears. I think instead of digging into that - but it's available to you if you want to study this later - I'll bring up instead a a short Buddhist saying that has basically the same intention: Considering the rarity and preciousness of human life, remember that death is inevitable, only the time of death is unknown.
This human body is rare and temporary. How will use this life? There are some other aspects to this final section on the impermance of the body and how there's not point getting to attached to it's appearance or anything like that but it all comes down to instilling in us a little healthy urgency. It's time to practice. This is the only body we get. And we won't have it long. So what to do? And when to do it? The answer to which might be: practice....now.
I'll close my talk with this lovely little passage from Thich Nhat Hanh about the benefits of breath awareness. He has such a gift for saying things from a deep understanding with very simple and gentle language.