Sacred geometry

Talk Two: Understanding the Heart

As we learn to develop concentration in meditation, samatha (calm, tranquility) is also developed, and together these qualities become a powerful means for deep insight and a source of profound well-being. This progressive series of talks, guided meditations and instructions explores in some detail the art of concentration, primarily through different ways of working with the breath and the body to open to deeper and deeper levels of calmness, presence and joy.
Date9th August 2008
Retreat/SeriesThe Art of Concentration (Samatha Med...


The Art of Concentration (Samatha Meditation)

Rob Burbea

August 9, 2008


One of my teachers, Ajaan Geoff, once remarked, "It's a sad irony, in a way, it's a sad irony that as human beings, as a species, there's an awful lot that we understand. We have this capacity to understand, to discover, find out. And yet the thing that we most need to understand, we don't."[1] That thing is, in Pali, the citta, the 'mind,' the 'heart.' In English, we have two words: the 'mind,' the 'heart.' In Sanskrit and Pali it's one word: citta. And we don't understand that, usually. We don't understand how to take care, really deeply and completely, for the heart, for the mind, how to take care of the mind and the heart.

So this practice that we're doing together for five days, I want to really put it in a context. I want to just take a little bit of time and put it in a context. In a way, the whole of practice is taking care of the mind, is understanding the mind and the heart. That's really fundamental to what we're doing. It's the thing that we're doing. And there's a kind of overview that I want to paint a picture of. This is one strand, one aspect within that overview, one aspect of the path.

So, if we take a very broad picture of the path, what do we have? (1) We have mindfulness, and this is perhaps the aspect of the path that most people are familiar with: awareness, being with what is, being open and in touch with what's going on, in a kind of very straightforward, simple, connected way. And that's an absolutely indispensable, fundamental part of the path. Am I able to be both with what is lovely in life and also with what is challenging, what's challenging in the body, what's challenging in the heart and the mind, in relationship? Am I able to actually touch that and open to it with awareness, meet it directly? Crucial. That's one aspect of the path.

(2) Another aspect is what we might call 'cultivation' -- and this is huge. It encompasses a whole breadth of factors and qualities that the Buddha encouraged us very strongly to cultivate: generosity, and ethics, and mindfulness, and samatha is one of them, and equanimity, and loving-kindness, compassion. The list goes on and on and on -- more than thirty-seven of them. And that whole process of cultivation, actually being really interested in that cultivation, really learning how to cultivate these qualities. Why? Because they lead us both to happiness and to freedom. All those qualities that the Buddha encouraged us to cultivate lead us both to happiness and to freedom.

(3) So mindfulness, cultivation -- of which samatha is a part -- and the last one is what you might call 'insight,' but specifically insight into dukkha, into suffering, meaning insight into any sense of dis-ease. 'Insight' meaning looking into it in a way that brings understanding, so that a sense of release comes. So insight that brings this sense of, "Ah! The suffering is draining away to some degree, or completely." That's what's called 'insight': understanding suffering in a way that drains the suffering out of it. So understanding what it is that gives rise to suffering -- not just intellectually; completely in the being. Understanding what it is that supports suffering, and what it is that can release that suffering.

[4:34] And these three together -- (1) mindfulness, (2) cultivation, (3) this kind of insight, understanding -- make up the path, very broad picture. So when, in teachings, we talk a lot about suffering, etc., understanding suffering, as the Buddha placed great emphasis on that -- all of those are actually included in that. All of those aspects are included in working with what's difficult. So, sadness, grief, fear, anger, difficulty in relationship, illness, the ageing process, dying -- all these, in order to meet all that and see through it in a way that brings freedom, needs mindfulness, needs the whole gamut of cultivation, and it also needs this kind of penetrative understanding of what is it that gives rise to suffering in the moment, and what is it that can release that. All of that's involved.

Part of all this, and part of kind of understanding the heart, if we might say that, is actually also understanding happiness. Understanding happiness -- it's really, really an indispensable part of being a human being, I think. 'Happiness' is a funny word. It really pushes some people's buttons. It really rubs them the wrong way. So substitute whatever word works for you: 'happiness,' 'joy,' 'well-being,' 'feeling groovy.' [laughter] Whatever it is. It doesn't really matter.

Samatha, as I said last night, samatha leads to happiness. We're very clear about that. Slowly, slowly, long-term, in not a linear way, we're building this happiness. And, as I also, I think, said last night, happiness is actually also a basis for samatha. So it works both ways, and a lot of things in the Dharma build each other. They're reciprocally, they're mutually reinforcing.

[6:51] Happiness is crucial. We talk a lot in the Dharma and, you know, myself and others, of course, as teachers, "Let go. Just let go." And sometimes I feel it's a little ridiculous for me to say that. A person is struggling, and doesn't have a lot of sense of inner resource at that time. And one just says, "Oh, let go." How are they going to let go? You're hanging off a cliff, and there's nothing there. And that person just says, "Let go," like that's a really good idea. [laughter] It sounds good, and part of the reason it sounds good is because it sounds very simple. And we love that: "Ah, simple. Don't have to think about it." But does it work? Does it actually work? Now, sometimes it will work. Other times, we need this foundation, this inner reservoir of well-being as a resource to have some leverage with which to let go.

So a basis of happiness -- I want to go a little bit into this tonight -- through cultivation. This is, as I said, why the Buddha went on and on about all these lists, these boring Buddhist lists. It's because they lead to happiness, partly. Some of these I mentioned last night. I want to draw them out a little bit more.

'Generosity,' this word dāna, 'generosity,' means the whole range of giving, of the open heart that gives. Somewhere in the texts it says, when your meditation feels dry, when you feel discouraged, recall moments and acts of your generosity. Recall moments and acts and times when you acted generously.[2] And the text goes [on] to say, what this does is it brings into the moment, it encourages and nourishes in the moment a sense of self-esteem. Actually, an important factor in the path is self-esteem. We want to encourage that. It brings that into the moment. It brings, it allows a sense of warmth into the heart. Also a really important factor, warmth. It brings a sense of encouragement, etc.

[9:15] So that's what the texts say. But then it's obvious that, well, we need some moments of generosity to recall, clearly. So it's important that we're actually practising generosity in our lives, that that's really a practice that's alive for us. It's, again, something that we're playing with, that we're experimenting with. What happens when I'm generous? How does it feel? What effect does it have on my relationships, on my heart, on my sight, on my mind, on my world, on my meditation practice? We need those memories, and we also need fresh memories. I can't, you know, if I'm recalling a moment of generosity, very fuzzy, in the recesses of sort of, you know, the last millennium or whatever ... [laughter] We need them to be fresh. That means it needs to be alive, this practice of generosity.

A lot of times, at the end of retreat, it's a very normal question -- a person says, "Great, that was really useful." Well, some people say that. [laughter] "That was really useful, what I learned in meditation. How can I take this back into the world?" And that's a really important question, and at the end of retreats we speak about that. And even before that. But the reverse question is also true. Am I bringing what's good from my life into my meditation? Am I bringing the good qualities that I'm taking care of and nurturing in my life, am I bringing those into the meditation in a way that's really helpful? So oftentimes, what we bring in is, unfortunately, the not-so-helpful stuff. But can I, again, incline the awareness? I'm actually bringing in a sense, recalling goodness, recalling generosity. What's really helpful?

I'm not sure, but I think most people (probably most people here, just a guess) are familiar with the notion that emotions and memories and hurt are stored in the body, in the cells, in the musculature, etc. And negative emotions, negative memories, hurts, etc., can kind of be stored in a way that actually closes the body and cramps the body and causes constrictions in the body, in some cases illnesses, etc., and that we need to kind of release that. And there can be a process of healing and catharsis. Great. Okay. I'll come back to this, but that's fine.

[11:52] If that's true, what about, again, investigating the opposite? And this is really something we can investigate. What happens to the sense of the body when I act generously? This is something to experiment in our lives. What happens when I give? When I give a lot, that actually, I feel something opening. We can actually feel this. You give something. There's just a spontaneous giving, or even in a not spontaneous giving, and you actually feel the heart open. And you actually feel, again, if there's that sensitivity there, you feel the body will feel lighter. There will be a lightness and an openness in the body. That lightness and openness is totally helpful for this practice of samatha. Can you see that? We're working a lot with the body energies and opening them and having them be enjoyable. What we're doing in the life is feeding that. It's not just working with the body in terms of releasing the negative. We can actually shape the texture of this energetic space. We shape the texture of this energetic space with our intentions, and our acts, and our speech, etc. I don't know if that sounds far-fetched or not, but [I'm] offering it as something to really inquire into and to experiment in our life. So there's generosity as a part of cultivation.

I also touched briefly last night on ethics and what's called sīla. And again, this allows, this nurtures a sense of self-respect, which is really, really important. These are not irrelevant, sort of unspiritual attitudes, self-esteem and self-respect. If I'm living in a way that's caring to others, caring about what I'm putting out, etc., caring about the vibration that goes out and the effect that goes out, I have to worry less. I worry less about what I might get found out about. You know, "There was that little cheating on my tax return or whatever it is," or "I said something behind someone's back and they might find out." There's just less worry. We come to the meditation -- "Ah!" -- unburdened with that. Without regrets. Also without the need of pushing a part of our mind, kind of sweeping it under the rug because actually we don't really want to look at that. And that allows calmness, that allows openness. So we can also, in a way, see this ethics, see this sīla as a kind of generosity, a giving of security to others. People get the sense that they can trust us. People get a sense that, around us, they can let down their guard. That's a beautiful gift to give someone. It's a beautiful gift. And one can feel it. If you can't feel it, over a while, knowing someone, you get the sense, "This is ... I can just ... ahh, I don't need to worry here." How lovely to give that.

[15:07] There's generosity. There's sīla. In the texts, the Buddha talks a lot about what's called 'restraint of the senses,' or 'guarding of the senses,' as sort of something to develop on the way to the mind concentrating, calming down.[3] So this is a really interesting one. Sometimes on retreats, you will notice people sort of shuffling around, looking at the floor a lot. That's okay, but I don't tend to teach that way, and actually most of the people at Gaia House don't tend to teach that way. Eye contact is fine here. I don't know if maybe some of you have been wondering. I'm not sure. But it's fine to look around you. It's fine to make eye contact. It's fine to smile even, actually. [laughter] We want a connection to be there. Who are these people who I'm living with and practising with, and being supported by and supporting? Who are they? Can the heart connect through the eyes?

Now, I might smile and not get anything back. So I have to kind of watch what I'm going out with, and that's actually more interesting. Am I going out through the senses with hunger? Because that's what the Buddha's talking about. He's not talking about sort of living in a cardboard box or anything like that. He's talking about being careful, when I'm going out through the looking, through the hearing, through whatever, with a sense of wanting to distract myself, wanting to fill up, being hungry. Actually, can I go out with a sense of wanting to connect, with a sense of kindness, appreciation? So, partly, when I said today about the weather, etc., that also has to do with what's happening with the senses and the relationship, our relationship with the senses and how that affects the heart. This is all such an interesting area to experiment with. And rather than saying, "No eye contact, no smiling," or even, "You have to go around grinning at everyone," or whatever, it's actually just to experiment with this. What effect, what resonance does it set up in the heart? So, generosity, ethics, sīla, this kind of awareness of our movement with the senses, just an interest in that movement with the senses.

[17:42] There's one more that I'd like to mention, and I'm actually going to go into it much more fully, probably tomorrow night. And it's our orientation or attitude to practice in terms of notions and concepts like success, progress, goals, effort. That, I would actually say, is really key in terms of setting up an atmosphere, a basis of happiness. If that's not right, if [we've] got a very strained and painful relationship with those kind of notions of progress, of success, whatever that might mean in practice, of efforting, of goals, it's kind of like having one foot in one of those traps that catches animals -- right from the start, there's something really unhelpful, and we kind of have to repress that whole side, that whole notion of [effort/goals in] practice. This is actually huge, and that's why I'm going to actually devote a bit more time to it tomorrow.

So sometimes, we can either hear or read or have a notion that we gravitate towards about practice: "Just be in the present. Just be. Just be in the present. Allow. Allow whatever's there. And there's no such thing as progress. There's nowhere to get to." Now that might be (what to say?) a mode of practice that we pick up from time to time, and it can be a very helpful mode of practice. But as a summary of what practice is, it's way too small. It really doesn't do justice to our own aspirations, or to the fullness of what the path is. And the Buddha never, ever, ever taught that way, absolutely not. So, the Buddha uses language like "path," and "path going towards the goal," and uses that language a lot. A path is what goes somewhere, and we want to move towards the goal. Something in our relationship to that kind of idea and concept we have to get right in order for there to be joy and happiness in our practice and in our path. It's crucial, and that's actually huge. It's a big potential, well, sometimes 'stumbling block,' but 'issue,' I think, for us in the West now, as Dharma practitioners. I'll talk more about that tomorrow, I think.

[20:30] But there is progress in the path. We can talk about progress -- progress in terms of what we're developing. We're developing more generosity, developing more loving-kindness, developing more well-being, more samatha, etc. We're developing what we're able to see in the present moment. Actually, the seeing becomes more subtle. Slowly and slowly, over time, our seeing becomes more subtle. Our awareness becomes more subtle. We see more, no question about it. We develop in what we can actually understand in the present moment. So, our understanding, our paññā, our wisdom develops. And we develop what we're able to let go of in the present moment. Something that today feels impossibly difficult to let go of, time goes by in practice, we work at our practice, we develop our practice, we're able to let go of that thing. Some things we're clinging to today, and we don't even know that we're clinging to. It's too subtle. It's below the level of awareness. That's why we need to develop our subtlety of seeing as well. And we begin to let go of things that today we have no clue we're even holding on to, but it's going on.

So, a concept like 'success' implies, by the nature of the duality of concepts and the relativity of concepts, it implies 'failure.' It implies its opposite, just as the left-hand side of a stick implies a right-hand side of a stick. That's true. But we don't need to throw out the whole thing necessarily, at least certainly not right now. What's hanging us up here? It's often the fear. It's fear that a notion of success might put me in touch with a sense of failure, and then the fear, actually, that my self-view will then wrap around and identify with failure. That's the fear. That's one of the key fears there. And it can have such power, such immense power in our lives. So we just say, "I won't think about progress. I won't think about success, because I don't want to go near that other pain. I don't want to invite that other pain." I don't want to get too much into that now. I'll talk more tomorrow about that.

[23:02] So, samatha/samādhi gradually, slowly, non-linearly, leads to happiness, well-being, joy, whatever your word is. How? Well, this comfortable feeling that I introduced as something to begin to notice this morning, that comfortable feeling, however humble it might be, really nothing to start writing a postcard back to wherever about ("Hey, guess what?"), however humble it is, we nurture that through the practice of samatha. That's what we're doing. We're nurturing that. We're nourishing that. And you can think of this a little bit, if you want, like lighting a fire. And so one has just some kindling. It's very small at first, and at first the fire's very fragile. And perhaps you have to blow on it to kind of get it going. But you can't blow too hard. And then later it builds, but one maybe needs to protect it from the wind. So what do I need to do to nurture this fire, this little flame, what's really a kindling, a flame, and develop that, let that build into a fire? And at different times, just as a fire, it's going to need different approaches. Sometimes we're protecting it from the wind, sometimes we're more than happy with the wind. With a huge fire, the wind will [whooshing noise] take it. So we need to be sensitive, like, how am I tending this flame, and letting it build, allowing it to build, encouraging it to build?

Now, I can say that, and we can point in that direction of well-being, of happiness. But often what we find, of course, is not that. That's not in our experience, and that's completely okay, and that's part of just being a meditator. One of the most common things that a meditator will experience is what's called 'the five hindrances.' Some of you will be familiar with this, and some less so. They're very common states of mind that present as difficulties and obstacles in the meditative process. The two most common ones are what's called 'sloth and torpor,' which I think is, like, from Chaucer or something. It's really old English. [laughter] 'Sloth and torpor,' it means sleepiness, dullness, fogginess, drowsiness, that kind of mind. And the other one is restlessness. Now, I think last year on the retreat I gave a whole talk devoted just to the hindrances.[4] This year, I'm actually going to say a bit less about it. And what I want to emphasize this time is really working with the breath through the hindrances.

[26:02] When there's sleepiness, when there's that kind of dullness and fogginess, and you might find yourself nodding, first thing, actually, is just to re-establish the uprightness of the posture. The body wants to curve over like that. Actually re-establish. It's upright and open. It wants to snuggle in and do that. [slouching] Open, upright -- re-establish that. But then I would say, see if you can work with the breath. And the long breath that we started with is actually really helpful. When you're next to someone, either in bed or in the meditation hall, who's actually sleeping, listen to their breathing. [short, heavy breathing noises] [laughs] She's making me laugh! [laughter] A very short, heavy out-breath, is very common, especially in a shallow kind of sleep, which is thankfully the only thing most people get into in the meditation hall -- although I've actually been giving a talk when people started snoring.[5] [laughter] What you want to do is shift the breath, encourage the breath, yank, if necessary -- but that's definitely a second option -- into the long breath. You're energizing the body through the breath. When we take in breath energy, we're energizing the body, we're oxygenating the blood, whatever way you want to look at it. Really long and filling the body with that breath energy. The mind rests on that energy, and it will brighten. Keep it up, you know, five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, as long as it needs.

It can also be helpful, if you've got a visual imagination, to imagine a really bright, white light, like the sun, golden-white light, right in the middle of your head, if you can do that, with the long breathing. Just really bright. You know, shine out the cobwebs in the mind. If you need to, open the eyes and take in a sense of space. When we go to sleep at night, the mind and the body huddle up on themselves and they shrink on themselves. Again, we want to reverse that process. We want to be quite active with this. Not just giving in to it. So open, take in a sense of space. This is a big room, a lot of space in it. Open the eyes, take in a sense of space. And if it's really strong, stand up and meditate standing up. Not a problem at all, eyes closed, eyes open, no problem. If you're still sleepy when you do the walking meditation, really walk quite fast up and down. If that's no good, make sure you're getting some exercise in the day. Go for a brisk walk, etc., or even a run if you need to. If none of that works, nap time is what's needed, okay? [laughter] So, that's very, very, common. It's going to be around from time to time, but really the encouragement to work actively with it.

[29:20] Restlessness, the other one, the other most common one. Oh, I forgot to say, with the sleepiness as well, the mind goes in, so also just sometimes bringing it out to the whole body again, re-establishing that whole-body awareness. Also helpful with restlessness is a sense of spaciousness. So, really establishing that space, and just sort of letting things be a bit in that space. Sometimes we squeeze the mind too tight, too efforted, and that actually creates restlessness. It's coming out of a good intention, but we're just trying too hard and it's creating restlessness. I think I just dropped it in this morning at some point: sometimes you can use the stillness and the silence that's in the room to kind of, as a support for calmness, it's almost like you can relax into that stillness and silence in the room, and that just helps soften and relax out the restlessness.

So those are the two most common ones. There are three more: greed, aversion, and doubt. I think actually what I'll do is, I'll talk about them tomorrow morning.

With these hindrances, golden rules -- and again, I'll mention this tomorrow morning -- whatever they are, first one is not to take it personally. Not to take them personally. They are factors of human consciousness until we are completely awake and completely enlightened. So the fact that you feel dull and drowsy, the fact that you feel restless or that there's greed going on or doubt going on, it's okay. All it means is that you're human. It's just, it's not a big deal. See if you can see it as just human, rather than a reflection on yourself as a failure as a meditator or an unspiritual person or whatever else.

[31:34] So that's one thing: not to take them personally. The second thing is not to get taken for a ride, if possible. This is more common with doubt, greed, aversion, restlessness. Hindrances are almost like, it's as if the consciousness produces these little seeds of hindrances, just over and over and over, almost constantly, these little seeds. And these little seeds have hooks in them, and they're looking for something to sink their teeth into. [clicks teeth] And then they find that thing, whatever it is, and they shake it up, and they make an issue out of it. And the next thing you know, this little seed has become a huge oak tree with branches and proliferation and who knows what, and it involves your whole life story and your future and your mother and your grandmother and ... [laughter] The whole deal. As much as possible -- this is part of the art of samatha: not to get taken for a ride. So this is what we learn slowly as well: not to take them personally, and not to get taken for a ride. Not to let them build so much, not to believe so much what the hindrance is saying. Just to see, "Ah, this is greed. Ah, this is doubt. Ah, this is restlessness." Just feel it as that unpleasant vibration, and try and work with it. This is part of understanding the mind and understanding the heart. It's a really important part of samatha practice. It's as important as nurturing this comfortable feeling.

So, we notice hindrances, of course, sometimes. We also notice the body not feeling so good. Either outright pain, discomfort, or just areas of the body that feel tight, constricted, blocked. So this is very, very, very normal, and will probably, again, go on until one's completely enlightened. Maybe even after that, because the body is a system that depends on too many different conditions. I will talk about this tomorrow, but I just want to throw some things out now.

[33:53] First thing, when there's pain, and when there's a sense of constriction, relax. As much as possible, relax the rest of the body. Again, usually when there's constriction or pain, the mind will shrink. The awareness shrinks and gets smaller in reaction to that discomfort or constriction. Again, just keep establishing this wide, spacious awareness, really important. The mind gets sucked like a magnet into what's difficult. That's the tendency of most minds. And just to establish that more spacious awareness. Sometimes you have a sense of constriction or block or discomfort somewhere in the body, and another part of the body feels okay or comfortable, even quite nice, sometimes. In this spaciousness, check for that. And if that's the case, is it possible to stay more with the comfortable feeling, and not get so pulled into the magnet of the discomfort? And then, maybe, let's say the belly feels good, but it feels blocked in the throat area. The belly feels quite comfortable. Maybe staying with the belly, and you just, in your mind, in your imagination, open up the connection between the blocked area and the good area. Don't try and do anything; just open up that connection. It's possible that the comfortable feeling might begin to spread and wash over what's constricted.

You can also play with the breath. We talked about this. Playing with the breath to soothe the body if it feels that, or to open the body. Maybe to fill the body with a sense of more well-being. Sometimes you can move the breath through. Say your knees are hurting -- it's almost like the breath comes in, can come in anywhere. Tomorrow I'll introduce the breath coming in anywhere in the body, not just through the nose. Breath coming in, and the breath energy can move through where it's painful, move through the throat constriction or whatever it is. You're actually imagining the energy moving through. Don't be afraid to use your kinaesthetic imagination. Tomorrow I'll talk about breathing into pain, or into other areas of the body. What is it to breathe into the knee, or breathe into the solar plexus? But to also notice, if there's fear around the pain, discomfort, is that [fear] actually increasing [the pain]? Because it probably will. We're interested in insights here. We're interested in insights that bring a sense of release. Just seeing, if I can just relax that fear a little bit, is it possible that maybe some of the pain ebbs away, or even all of it? And, you know, if that's too much -- I'll talk more about it tomorrow -- if it's too much, just move. Slowly, quietly, just move.

[37:11] So we're also interested in the impulses of the mind. There's pain, but there are also itches. And you're sitting in meditation, and then suddenly the face feels itchy. And of course, the normal reaction is just for the hand to go up and just start scratching it. That's the kind of knee-jerk reaction. But there's a lot here about watching the impulses of the mind, and maybe not giving in to them so readily. So the impulse to scratch an itch, at its core, is in some respects no different than the impulse to yell at someone when we feel angry, or punch someone, even, or, in its extreme development, the impulse for a nation to go to war with another nation. [laughs] It's just a movement of aversion that's not being understood, that's not being investigated and checked.

There's something we can learn with these seemingly insignificant movements that has everything to do with when we're face to face with our partner, our boss, our colleague, another person, and we're really angry, and there's something going on there. It has everything to do with that, what we're learning here in this samatha practice, just in terms of watching these impulses, and not necessarily giving in to them. Watching the mind as it wants to move out in an unhelpful way. So we practise with the easy things first. When your partner is standing in front of you, telling you how completely selfish and what a jerk you are, it's hard, usually; an itch is, for most people, easier to deal with. Sometimes, even more subtly, the thought forming -- you're in meditation, a thought's forming, and it's like, "Ooh, juicy, let's follow this." It's the same movement. It's just not manifesting physically. Can we watch those impulses? Can we be interested in those impulses, and see that it's not helpful to give in to them?

[39:34] So this other thing, what I said a couple of minutes ago, when there's discomfort and pain, the mind gets sucked in like a magnet there. That's also an impulse. It's a tendency of attention that most human beings seem to have. And can we watch that and actually do something different, incline towards well-being, towards pleasure, towards comfort?

Last night, I introduced two words: 'play' and 'patience,' two words beginning with P. They're really important, and we continue with those concepts. Two more words, this time beginning with S. [laughs] 'Steadiness' and 'sensitivity.' Particularly this word, 'sensitivity' -- that's really, really what we're interested in slowly developing in this practice. So there's a real delicacy of awareness, a delicacy to our attention, a lightness to our attention. And with that delicacy and lightness, there's an aliveness of presence. So when we're with this body area, we're alive to the texture of that, alive to the vibration and how that feels, in a very light way. It's not clamping on it. It's not forcing on it. It's light and present and sensitive. And you can begin to get a feel for this sensitivity, and begin to encourage and deepen that sense of sensitivity. So there's a subtlety, also, of attentiveness. We slowly develop our subtlety of attentiveness.

I'm sure you found at some point today that the mind will rebel. You say, "Be with the breath!" "I don't want to be with the breath!" This is normal. "Stay with the breath!" "I don't want to!" And there's a sense of inner, yeah, rebellion. Is it possible to soften, to relax the relationship with the body, with the breath? So it's not a forcing. And in a way, one's just feeling into and sensing the body sense, and hopefully just whatever sense of the body's sense of well-being, and just using the breath to just very gently nourish, support that sense of well-being. If you go around it that way, you're relaxing into that, you're alive to that, and you're just nourishing that, it's a much more relaxed way of going about it. Sometimes that's the best thing.

So really, we're becoming sensitive to the present moment, and particularly how we're engaging with the present moment. That's really what meditation practice is: a sensitivity to the present moment, particularly what we're doing in the present moment that may be adding extra suffering. In our relationship with the practice, when the way I'm going is too forceful, or it's too pressured, or too efforted, or too harsh, that's unnecessary. And one becomes sensitive to that, and just able to kind of let go of that, so that the way we're working is moving towards more delicacy. It's almost like more 'finesse.' That was a word Ajaan Geoff used, 'finesse.' There's a sense of more and more finesse in how we're able to smooth out the sense in the body and allow the mind to settle down. It becomes a very delicate, sensitive process. And we develop more finesse at smoothing out, at kind of dissolving where there's difficulty, evaporating the sense of difficulty.

[43:47] Doing practice like this, there's something that's -- it's already come up in a couple of the groups today, but there's something that's very important. And it will occur to you at some point. It has to do with our emotions and our emotional life, and kind of particularly what needs addressing and what needs healing and what needs being with emotionally. The question can occur, "Here I am, sitting and just keeping coming back to the breath, and even more, gravitating towards a sense of well-being, sense of comfort, whatever that is, however that is. Is it possible that I'm actually repressing something that I need to be with emotionally, that I'm actually in some kind of denial?" Well, the answer is yes, it is possible. It is definitely possible. But there's more to this than meets the eye.

I remember, twenty years ago or something like that, a Dharma book that came out in the eighties and was written by a teacher, and one of the lines in there said something like, "When I'm on a retreat and someone reports that they're feeling good," the teacher said, "I feel suspicious. And I wonder, are they really in touch with all of themselves?" Now, I understand that, but we could also just put the exact opposite question: "When someone's not feeling something good, I wonder if they're not in touch with themselves." It's very easy to land somewhere a little bit prematurely with this question. It's a very, very delicate and complex question, so I want to tread lightly here.

Sometimes we have a notion, as I mentioned before, that things are stored in the body, in the system -- emotions, difficult emotions, etc., kind of waiting to come out. Some people view meditation practice as kind of just opening that process, and things emerge, and it's kind of a rough ride, but it's good for you. I'm not saying that's not true, but the Buddha had another notion, which is called dependent arising. And that means that things come up because of factors in the present that kind of fabricate them and concoct them in the present. So, what I'm asking, to go back to last night's talk, is that there's a real open-mindedness about this. This samatha business is one strand of the whole range of practice, as I said at the start of this talk. And we're just focusing on that for five days -- not for the rest of one's life, not for the rest of one's practice. It's just one particular emphasis to draw and explore that, which doesn't usually get a lot of emphasis. So, in a vipassanā retreat, of course we say, "Can you be with the sadness? Can you be with the fear? Can you explore it?" We're exploring something else now, and there might be something to learn here. And I just ask that there's an open-mindedness about this, just for five days.

[46:58] Very recently, someone was on retreat here, on personal retreat, and doing mettā practice, but same deal: big body awareness, sensitive to the whole body, just mettā instead of breath, loving-kindness meditation instead of breath. And a lot of heavy emotion, a lot of tears, etc., and a lot of story coming into that. And we were talking about working with the whole body and establishing that big body. And she came in for the next interview and said, "Well, that was very interesting. The tears were there, went into that, get involved in the story, and then I remembered, 'Oh, yeah,' went to the whole body, and they stopped. They were just stopped." Immediately, she established the whole body, it would just stop. This is very extreme; it's not usually this extreme. But she said, "Not only did it stop, but then all this joy started happening." And for her, she'd never experienced joy like this before.

Now, that's a very extreme example. But usually, a person doing samatha begins to notice, "Well, hold on. What's going on here in terms of emotions? It's almost like they turn on and they turn off." The question is, is an emotion arising because it needs to, because it's something 'real'? Or is it something that unwittingly, unconsciously, the mind is, the heart is feeding in the moment? It's feeding and it's fabricating it in the moment. This is a really, really important question. It's not an easy question. And I'm aware that sometimes, to even suggest something like that could be quite controversial. But I just want to have an open-mindedness. I would say that both views are useful. Both the view of something being in there needing to come up and to release is useful, but also the opposite view of "What's the mind doing in the moment to create something?"

I'm not doing very well for time! Are you still happy, relatively? Yeah? Okay, I'll skip a little bit.

[49:13] In terms of working with the breath, when there's an emotion -- so I'm really just talking about one strand of practice, remember that -- can you work with the breath in a way that soothes that emotion? So, if it's sadness, what might help the sadness? If it's fear, if it's anger, what way of breathing, a way of being with the breath, might actually help that? It's not the whole of your practice for the rest of your life. It's just exploring something else. There's something that can be learnt here that's actually extremely profound. And I would say, we don't fully understand our emotional life and our emotions until we've seen both sides of this and we've seen it happening right here inside. Able to be with things, and also seeing this process of building, and able to just stop building it. When is it just a hindrance, sunk its teeth into something, and it hooks into something, and building something -- when is it that, and when is it something else?

And a question for us all: am I able to do both? Am I able to be with and open to and connect with what's difficult emotionally? Can I do that? Am I courageous enough to do that? Do I know how to do that? Am I free to do that? And am I able to do the opposite? Put it down, encourage well-being. Am I fearless enough to do that? Do I know how to do that? Am I free to do that? And if we use the word 'mature practice,' a mature practice is actually one that can move between these two. It's quite a tall order, but it's possible.

So we have, as human beings, we have the story of ourselves, the narrative of our life and us, and what happened to us, and what we have gone through, and where we're going, etc. What's the story that we're telling ourselves about ourselves and about our life? This is important for us as human beings, and certainly as meditators. What's the story we tell about what's going on, about ourselves? The story we tell ourselves is not a given. It's not a given, and it's not necessarily fixed. You know, the Buddha, reflecting on his life, he could have reflected, "Oh, my mum died when I was a week old, and my father was really controlling." He wouldn't let him go out of the palace, and had a really over-controlling, dominant father figure. "And then I had to run away from everyone, and now I'm starving myself. But actually, even the people I was starving myself with didn't really understand me, so I have to go off on my own." [laughter] "And it's really hard." [laughter] He didn't put it that way. To himself, he didn't put it that way. Not a helpful way to put it. But all that stuff was actually true, to some degree.

Rather, he talked in different terms. He said, "This was the condition. Then I saw someone who was old and sick, and a dying person, and a mendicant, and it had this impression on me."[6] And then that memory of samādhi, when he was under the rose-apple tree. And framing things in terms of what he called a "noble quest."[7] So, are we framing our story in terms of nobility, in terms of a noble quest, or framing it in terms of being a victim? We actually have some say in this. This story is actually dependent, you'll notice, on the mood that you're in, on the period of time that you're in. Is the story that we're telling ourselves, is it leading to a sense of hope, of faith, a sense of possibility, or to the opposite? Is it encouraging a sense of self-esteem? We have some say in this. Actually, the story is much more malleable than we might think. Is the story that we're telling ourselves, is it keeping us circling in the past, bound in the past? Or is it opening towards the future and possibility and creativity, potential? And, very importantly, are we able to put it down? Are we able to put this story down?

[53:46] The Buddha put his story down at times and picked up another lens to relate to things, which are called Four Noble Truths. I'm not going to go into that now. It's a whole other way of looking at life and experience. But he was able to put the story down. That's partly what we're doing: just come back to the breath, just come back to the breath, that sense of whatever well-being, putting the story down. And it's not that we always want to put the story down. You know, sometimes this notion of 'being in the Now,' it's a little overdone in spiritual circles. It's great to be in the Now, but it's not everything. [laughter] You know, I mean, it's nice and everything! [laughter] But it's not the be-all and end-all. Sometimes, of course, you need to actually reflect on the past to learn from the past. You need to think about the future. Of course you do that. And sometimes we pick up our story, because it gives meaning and direction to our lives, and a sense of purpose, actually in the story. And we put it down.

As the samatha deepens, slowly, gradually, non-linearly, there come times when there's really much less self, much less story going on, much less even sense of self. We're not building a story over and over, because we're not giving it much attention. We're letting that go, letting that go, letting that go. And there's much less sense of self around. This is part of where -- I'll talk more about this later in the retreat -- part of where samatha and insight interface and blend. Who am I when there's no story present? When I'm not engaging and involved in my story, who am I then? Who am I? Oftentimes, we define ourselves in terms of the story. Who am I when I'm not thinking? In those moments when you're just with the breath, with the sense of well-being, who am I then? As it goes deeper, for some people, the body begins to lose its sense of boundary and definition, sometimes even dissolve. Who on earth am I then? There's nothing but consciousness here.

[55:51] Sometimes, as we let go of the ways we've defined ourselves, and that gets deeper and deeper, there can be fear. It's very possible there can be fear, at times, for some people, definitely. It's an acquired taste to be able to let go, put these definitions down. It's an acquired taste. It comes with time. We learn to cherish that, cherish the beauty and the freedom of it. Something very lovely there, slowly, slowly, we get a taste for. And it's a slow process. You don't have to rush this. You don't have to force yourself into this. Slowly, we get a taste of this, and we fall in love with that sense of boundlessness and progressive non-defining. We actually fall in love with that.

So, there's a lot of healing in this. There's a tremendous amount of healing in this, all these aspects of samatha that I'm talking about. You know, just the simple kind of resonating -- we've got the body and the breath. I'm talking about this energetic vibration in this body area, this global (what someone called in an interview) "bubble area" of the body -- all this behind, the whole thing. And that's got a vibration. We're putting the mind close to it, and it starts resonating with it. And there's a resonance of mind and body, and they come into harmony. That's very healing. Over time, again and again, the mind and the body coming into resonance -- very, very healing.

If we think about happiness, or whatever word, there are different kinds of happiness. This is really important to notice in life: there are different kinds of happiness. So certainly, absolutely, there's what we could call the happiness of sense pleasures. You know, great tastes, whatever, all that, a fantastic meal, whatever it is. There is that happiness, for sure. There's the happiness that we can actually have in and through our story, if we're careful with it, if we're actually, you know, careful that the story isn't spinning us into a vortex of negativity and despair. There's happiness that comes from the story. There's the happiness that comes from letting go of the story. There's a happiness that comes from non-entanglement in the past and the future. There's a real happiness, there's a real beauty there. There's a happiness, a well-being, a joy that comes from non-entanglement with the present. And in a way, that's what we're doing here. We're putting down the story. We're not getting entangled with the past, the future. We're not getting entangled with the present. We're just inclining towards that comfort, that well-being. That's not entangling. We're giving the mind something nice and open and good. Slowly, slowly, it gives rise to more and more sense of well-being, and we nourish that, as I've talked about. Comfortable feeling begins to grow and can begin to spread.

[59:05] And I think it's important, I think it's crucial for us as human beings to know the different kinds of happiness, because some are actually more fulfilling than others. That's just the truth of it. Some happinesses, some joys, are more profound than others. And we need to taste them, we need to be, in a way, interested in experiencing them, because they are available to us.

There's a story in a poem that Rumi, the Sufi poet, tells of an ocean frog, a frog that lives in the ocean. And he decides to visit the land one day, and so he ... whatever frogs do. Hop. Hop? Yeah, he hops along, and he finds himself on the land, and he meets another frog. And this other frog lives in a puddle. And the puddle frog says to the ocean frog, "Check out my puddle, eh? You want to splash around in there? It's really great, isn't it?" And so the ocean frog splashes around in his puddle. And the puddle frog says, "What do you think, eh? It's fantastic!" And, "Yeah, yeah, it's good." And then the puddle frog says, "Well, where do you live?" And he says, "Well, I live in something called 'the ocean.'" And he's, "What's that like?" "Well, you just kind of ... I can't really explain. You just kind of have to come and check it out."[8]

This might sound crass, but what would it be if we really developed a practice like this, and most days of our life -- this is going to sound crass -- but most days of our life, the body and the being were drenched in an exquisite happiness that wasn't dependent on anything from the outside? It wasn't dependent on someone telling something to me or praising me or some sense pleasure. What difference would that make to our life, that regularly, the being, the body were drenched in that kind of happiness? How would that affect one's life? It would relativize a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff that we suffer over would just seem like small fry. A lot of the social anxieties we have -- "What will people think of me? Do I appear okay? Is it ... da-da-da-da-da?" -- it's because we don't have enough of a reservoir inside.

[1:01:44] I'll share something with you I'm a little bit hesitant to say, but I do a lot of interviews. I'm not sure if it's a good idea to say this or not, but sometimes ... [laughter] Sometimes people come into an interview, and they're in a new relationship, and they share that with me, and they're very happy about that. And I'm happy, too, for them. I am! [laughter] But you know what? If someone comes into an interview, and they tell me, "You know what? Regularly, in my meditation, I'm getting this really nice feeling and this really nice joy, and it's quite a steady thing," I'm more happy for them. [laughter] Because it's more reliable, actually. It's more reliable. I mean, we know about relationships, and ... [laughter] I'm not knocking relationships. [laughter] It's just that I know where reliable, long-term happiness is. And when a person comes and reports that to me, I really feel like, "Okay, this person has opened a door in their life. This is major." You know, it's not just something small. Once it's steady, once it's regular -- I'll talk more about this as the retreat goes on, but it really makes an impact in the life, long-term and in a deep way, and it's much more reliable.

So, all of this is important. And if we go right back to the beginning of the talk, and that kind of overview, we're just doing one strand for five days. We're focusing almost exclusively on one strand, just to really get to know that strand. But the whole of practice is important -- the mindfulness, the cultivation, the investigation that lets go of suffering. Our ability to be with what's difficult, of course that's important. We're just focusing on something. We're emphasizing the samatha approach for this retreat. But as we develop a more independent sense of well-being in our life, just slowly, slowly, we develop that, our relationship to suffering also begins to change. So instead of our relationship of just feeling overwhelmed by suffering, or a knee-jerk reaction of just wanting to get away from it, or a kind of desperation or desperate quality that comes into our relationship with suffering, we actually have enough that we can turn and look at suffering with a sense of curiosity. And that makes a huge difference for insight, huge difference.

[1:04:29] Now, there's also an immense way that samatha itself, and the way it unfolds, leads in itself to a deep understanding -- not just as a resource, not just as a way of clarifying and giving us a place from which to look at suffering, but also in and of itself. And I'll go into that much more in the rest of the retreat.

So, all of this is there for us as practitioners. To reiterate the other P-word, patience. To really be patient with all of this. Again, if I talk of drenching in happiness, etc., I know that's -- well, actually, for some of you who have been here a while, old hands, etc., that may be there today. But for most of you, it's not. To be patient. And may well not be here on this retreat. That's fine. This is a very gradual process. To be patient. It's not linear. It's gradual. In most cases it's slow, sometimes not. But to be patient, and allow this, just gently nurture this path in its unfolding.

Let's sit together for just a minute.

  1. Ajaan Geoff says, "Our basic problem in life is that the most important thing in our lives is the thing we know the least about: our own minds." See Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "A Dependable Mind" (10 Nov. 1996),, accessed 15 Feb. 2021. ↩︎

  2. E.g. AN 11:12, AN 11:13. ↩︎

  3. E.g. DN 2. ↩︎

  4. Rob Burbea, "Working with the Hindrances" (31 March 2007),, accessed 17 Feb. 2021. ↩︎

  5. E.g. Rob Burbea, "The Art of Letting Go" (17 Dec. 2005),, accessed 17 Feb. 2021. ↩︎

  6. For a biography of the Buddha based on the Pali Canon, see Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu and Khematto Bhikkhu, Noble Warrior: A Life of the Buddha Compiled from the Pāli Canon (Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery, 2019). ↩︎

  7. MN 26. ↩︎

  8. Coleman Barks, a translator of Rumi's works, first heard the story of the ocean frog from a teacher named Bawa Mahaiyaddeen, and further traces the story's origin not to Rumi but to a Taoist text by Chuang Tzu. See Coleman Barks, tr., Rumi: Soul Fury: Rumi and Shams Tabriz on Friendship (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 7--8. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry