Sacred geometry

First Samatha Instructions and Guided Meditation on the Breath

Date31st March 2007
Retreat/SeriesSamatha Meditation


Okay. One very useful way of kind of having an overview of the path, of the whole path, of seeing the path, and a way that the Buddha -- probably the most common way the Buddha described the path is to see it as a kind of balance. I touched on this last night. A balance, on the one hand, of cultivation, cultivating what is beautiful, the qualities of mind and heart that are beautiful, that are nourishing, that lead to our well-being and that of others. On the one hand, that cultivation. And that cultivation for the sake of that healing, that well-being, that capacity and ability to abide in the present moment, to dwell in the present moment with a sense of well-being, of wholesomeness, of brightness.

But also that kind of cultivation of those qualities -- calmness is primary among those qualities, but also love and compassion and a whole list of qualities -- also not just for their own sake but because of the climate they create, they support in the mind. It's the primary, the best possible climate for investigation, for insight, which is, in a way, the other half of the path. So this overview of the path, seeing cultivation on the one hand and investigation or insight on the other hand, insight being looking deeply into life in ways that bring freedom. So this word vipassanā some of you are familiar with usually gets translated as 'insight.' Its actual sort of technical translation means something like 'modes of seeing clearly,' or literally 'ways of seeing that bring freedom.'

So this cultivation supports the kind of clarity and the depth of seeing to bring freedom. That's one way of looking at the path, but it can be very helpful. And really it's a lifetime balance of these qualities. Sometimes we're more in one camp for a period, sometimes more in the other. But over our life, we want to think about balancing these two aspects of the path. So in a way, I'm saying that just to give an overview because it's important, but also to touch again on this aspect of why are we playing with the breath in this way, why are we controlling the breath. Because from that overview, it actually doesn't matter how that cultivation comes about, how the calmness comes about. As I said, it can come in many ways. If what we're interested in is calmness, it doesn't matter how we get there.

We're working at the moment -- so far, at least, and I'll change it very soon -- with the long breath. The long breath is actually quite energizing. When we breathe long, we're taking in energy with the breath, prana, qi, whatever you want to call it, into the body, and the long breath energizes the body. The breath conditions the mind and the mind conditions the body. So when the body is energized, the mind can also be bright and energized, and that's a necessary quality of the kind of calmness that we're interested in.

So a lot of -- actually almost all -- Buddhist practices talk about mindfulness or attentiveness, and that capacity that we have, amazing capacity humans being have of developing that, developing our attentiveness, cultivating our attentiveness. And in any form of meditation or inner development, it's completely central. One is not going to get very far without paying attention to what's going on. But it's absolutely not everything of the path. It's just a very important quality, but it's not everything. Sometimes it gets blown up into being the whole of the path.

In a way, this is very important when we come to develop samatha, we come to develop the concentration. We have to have -- I feel it's very helpful if we have -- a bit of a sense of a bigger picture going on. So of course we're here because we're wanting to develop calmness, and of course we're wanting to develop our attentiveness, our mindfulness, but to see a bigger picture. If it's just about that -- how concentrated am I, how much am I able to pay attention to the breath -- the whole thing is going to be tight, and sooner or later, probably sooner rather than later, quite miserable.

If it's just about that, we will squeeze the kind of life and the joy out of the process. Can we see a bigger picture, see what else is going on here? Try to be with the breath, but a very short time later, we're off -- something past, future, whatever it is, and we're off. Can we see the bigger picture and see, okay, that moment of noticing I'm off is a moment of wakefulness? I'm awake then, and I can bring it back. This happens an infinite number of times. So I'm developing this mindfulness, but I'm also developing -- potentially, and this is hopefully what we can see, the bigger picture -- I'm also potentially developing patience. Huge gift of patience, of having patience in our lives. So it's not just about attention and concentration on the breath. Where there is patience, calmness is just around the corner.

So to see a bigger picture of what's going on. Every time we're off the breath, it's okay -- there's an opportunity in noticing that and bringing it back to see that moment as a moment of developing patience, of letting go, of not feeding impatience. Very important. What else might we be cultivating in the bigger picture? Non-judgmentalism. So, again, this is extremely common -- the mind goes off, and then we say, "Ah, I can't do it. I bet everyone else is suffused in bliss by now" or whatever it is. "I'm a failure. I'm useless. Might as well go home and let all these good people get on with it." The mind just goes in the habits of judgment. Again, can we just notice that? Not feed that pattern of judgment. It is a habit, and habits need food. We can just, in a way, disengage, let it go. Don't have to fight it. Just come back. Viewing the moment, viewing that moment as a moment of not feeding judgmentalism, just as much as possible.

So as I said, the mind goes off and comes back countless times, infinite number of times. And to really have the patience and as much as possible non-judgmentalism with this. There's also something going on. It's a little bit like the mind goes off and it comes back, the mind goes off and it comes back, the mind goes off and it comes back. After a while, this muscle is going to be quite big. I'm just doing this over and over. That's a part of what's going on. We're developing -- for the most part we have kind of flabby minds; they're not well-toned, so to speak. And just doing this over and over, returning over and over, is beginning to give some power to the mind, which is one of the things we lack. Sometimes one sits and the mind goes off seemingly most of the time, and one just brings it back and brings it back. No such thing as "I can't meditate." Someone says, "I can't meditate. My mind just keeps going off." Noticing it's off and bringing it back, that's it, okay? That's at least half of it. So there's no such thing as "I can't meditate."

Hugely important in the whole project of developing calmness is as much kindness as possible to ourselves. It's not easy. This is not -- well, it's not easy. [laughs] It's not something that we're used to doing, keeping the mind with something. One of the first kind of insights that we have when we start trying to pay attention to the breath or whatever is how much stuff is going on in the mind, what a habit of inattention we have in our lives. That's actually an insight. We're seeing, "Okay, this is a state of the mind," and it's okay. Can we see that whole thing, see the whole project -- can there be as much as possible a climate of kindness for the whole endeavour? In that climate of kindness, the calmness can take root. Unkindness is a very unfavourable soil for calmness.

So we bring it back over and over, and then gradually, very gradually, we're actually able to stay with the breath a bit more. So there's this applied attention, and then the sustained attention -- we can stay with the feeling of the breath in the body. Sometimes just for a few moments, sometimes a bit longer, whatever.

One really important principle I want to put out, and please, to keep it alive for the whole retreat: sometimes we get into being with the breath, and one can sort of start counting breaths, counting and counting, up to 362 breaths and whatever, 549, and the mind is sort of there, but sort of not, and one's developing this sense of, "Okay, quantity." Reversing that: quality rather than quantity. So really, really, really going for a sense of quality. That means if it's only half an in-breath that the mind is completely there, electrically present, completely sensitive and alive to the breath, just for half an in-breath, and then maybe another half or whatever, the quality of the attention rather than the quantity. Out of that quality, because the mind will enjoy that, the sustained attention, the quantity will come naturally and organically. So to think more about the quality of the attention.

As I said, half an in-breath, a whole in-breath, whatever it is, a third of an in-breath. Same with the out-breath. You might also notice the pause in between breaths. The breath comes in and goes out; maybe is there a pause in between the out-breath and the next in-breath, or in between the in-breath and the out-breath? Just to notice this, but that the attention is really alive.

So it's this kind of aliveness of attention that's really, really one of the crucial factors. I use the phrase 'energize the attention.' Oftentimes in our life, attention is not something that's very energized. Oftentimes a lot of other stuff is quite energized, but attentiveness is not typically something we energize. Really, really inject a lot of energy into the attentiveness, so the body can be pervaded with attentiveness, with a really bright, luminous attention.

Okay. So I think what we'll do is a little bit of a guided meditation right now. I will talk about posture in the walking period before lunch, for anyone who has a question.

[13:20, guided meditation begins]

For now, just a posture that's comfortable, as comfortable as possible, really, with a sense of uprightness. So if you're sitting in a chair, if you don't have an injured back or a very weak back, seeing if it's possible to actually sit on the chair without resting on the backrest. It may be possible, it may not be. The most important thing in the posture is the uprightness. There's really a sense that that uprightness of the posture is reflecting an uprightness of the mind.

So the body comfortable, upright, reflecting wakefulness, reflecting alertness. Is it possible also that there's a sense of easefulness, of softness and openness, too, in the body? Particularly in the chest area. So the body reflecting this balance between wakefulness, alertness, and openness, softness.

Taking a moment and just feeling into how the face feels right now. Just noticing any obvious areas of tension, and seeing if they can be relaxed just as much as possible for right now, perhaps around the eyes, around the mouth, the jaw. Similarly the throat and the neck, just letting go of any obvious tension. Not to worry if it won't all go. Just as much as possible right now. The shoulders, letting them drop down towards the floor. The upper back. The chest area. And then particularly the abdomen, and particularly the lower belly -- really letting that hang down towards the floor, really letting go there.

Just coming in to inhabit the simple sensations in the body, just what the body feels like right now, the whole body. So, aware of the sensations of contact with the cushion, with the chair, with the bench. Aware of the sensations of contact with the floor, the feet or the legs on the floor. Just aware of the body as a whole. Just how it feels right now.

And into that awareness of the body, just noticing how the breath feels right now, how the breath is right now. Just noticing. Feeling the breath. When you're ready, beginning to make the breath long and slow -- long and slow in-breaths, long and slow out-breaths. Just as long as is possible, still being comfortable. Not necessary to move a lot of air particularly. Keeping the awareness filling the whole body, whole body, including the legs, including the feet, the head. Whole body.

Seeing if you can notice right now, if you can feel into, when the breath comes in, there's an expansion. The whole body expands with the in-breath. Just feeling that, noticing that if you can, in the whole body. There's also an energizing that happens with the in-breath. The whole body is energized by the breath. Seeing if you can feel into these qualities when the breath comes in, the expansion of the whole body and the energizing. Just however that feels, feeling into that.

Seeing if you can notice, also, when the breath goes out, there's a kind of natural relaxation that goes on in the body, a natural contraction of that expansion, a natural letting go, organic to the out-breath. So keeping the awareness really large, filling the whole body, and just tuning into those qualities -- expansion and energizing with the in-breath, relaxing/letting go with the out-breath. Really feeling how that feels in the whole body. Keeping the breath just as long as is comfortably possible.

So the awareness will tend to keep shrinking. Just keep re-establishing it to fill the whole body. Re-establishing a large awareness, spacious awareness, bright awareness. Seeing if you can notice how it feels when the breath comes in up the front of the body. Seeing what you can notice there. Maybe you notice something, maybe not. Right up the front of the torso and into the head, as the breath comes in, as the breath goes out.

How does it feel in the face as the breath comes in, as the breath goes out? Just noticing, feeling into it. Seeing if it's possible to notice anything in the legs with the in-breath, with the out-breath. Sensitive to the body. Perhaps you notice something along the spine, up the spine, when the breath comes in or out. Keeping the breath long and slow, and just seeing what you can notice in the body, what you can feel in the body, in the whole body.

Seeing if you can discern right now, if you can have a sense of what the most comfortable way to breathe is, how the body would like to breathe, the most enjoyable way to breathe right now. So that may be keeping the breath very long, or it may be a shorter breath, or even a very short breath. It may be a rougher breath or a smoother breath, a coarser breath or a more subtle breath. Seeing if you can play with that, feel into that, get a sense of that. Not the default breath, the ordinary breath necessarily. Actually the most enjoyable, the most comfortable as possible right now. Really allowing the body to breathe that way.

Still sensing into the whole body with the awareness, and feeling whatever you notice. Could just be the expansion, the energizing. Whatever it is. If there is a sense of some enjoyment, even just very quiet, subtle enjoyment with the breath, really including that in the awareness, in the practice. If you're trying to make the breath comfortable and it won't find a comfortable place, just seeing if it's possible to relax around that. It's quite okay; not a problem. So the awareness can accommodate the discomfort.

For the last couple of minutes of the sitting, just seeing if the attention can be really bright, really present and alive, very sensitive in the whole body to the breath and how the breath feels.

[42:44, guided meditation ends]

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry