The Art of Concentration (Samatha Meditation)
August 9, 2008
Okay, so just a little bit by way of review, and picking up some of the threads I put out last night, and then we'll do a guided meditation.
So, some of the really fundamental things not to forget -- you will forget them, but to keep reinvigorating them. Whole-body awareness -- the awareness will keep shrinking, and just keep establishing it, like air fills a balloon, to fill the whole body. And within that, to be playing with the breath, to be experimenting with the breath. Now, sometimes this can be quite a sort of involved experimentation, quite a lot, you know, really playing. Sometimes it can be very, very subtle. And sometimes it's best to actually not interfere with the breath at all. But be careful of just letting things be and go to their kind of default mode. That's not what we're necessarily interested in. If you're not playing with the breath, let it be because that's really what feels really pretty good right now, okay? If it doesn't feel pretty good, then play with the breath. See if you can make the body feel more comfortable.
In that playing with the breath, not to neglect the long breath. Typically, as the retreat goes on, you may feel like the body wants the long breath less. But don't neglect it. Again, the default way of breathing may be too shallow, and not in a good way. So could be that the body wants a short breath, could be long. But don't neglect the long breath. Just check it out from time to time.
Long breath can be very energizing, can be very energizing. When we talk about samādhi, it doesn't just mean calm. It actually means a kind of calm balanced with energy, with energization. So as the calm deepens, correspondingly our energy deepens. We're energized more. Calm on its own without energy is dullness. It's sleepiness. Energy on its own without calm is restlessness and agitation. There's something about -- they deepen together.
[2:32] Okay. Then last night I threw out two more words: 'sensitivity' and 'steadiness.' This sensitivity -- it's a large word. It means quite a lot. But I feel it's a really important word. We begin to start getting a feel -- slowly, slowly begin to start getting a feel, recognizing when the breath is maybe too long, and it wants to be shorter. Or when it's too short, and it would be better for it to be longer. Or when it's too strong, and it would be better for it to be much more refined, much more gentle, much more subtle. Or it's too subtle, and it needs to be a bit more strong. Just starting to get a feel for that, when the breath is too kind of active, or when it's too kind of sluggish. Just feeling into this sense and beginning to get a sensitivity for it. And to me, that word 'sensitivity' implies a kind of real aliveness of the attention. So this area of what we're calling the body, this area of feeling, of vibration -- we're really, in an alive way, feeling into that texture, in a very light, delicate, alive way.
So a lot of this stuff, I've probably said this already, but it's not so much that you've got like a car manual, that "When this breaks down, see page 76," and it will "Da-da-da, ah! This is what I do." Sometimes it's like that, but there's much more of an art involved, and that's partly where the sensitivity comes in. It's like just feeling, trying, experimenting, getting a feel for it.
[4:12] This word 'steadiness,' as well, in a way, that has two aspects to it. So sensitivity and steadiness. The steadiness has two aspects. One is a more background steadiness, which is like, all this is going to have ups and downs. There's no way there's anyone in this room right now who hasn't had plenty of ups and downs just in the day and a half, or whatever we've had so far, of retreat. It's going to be up and down. One part of the mind is very engaged with responding, with playing, with seeing what works. And another part is just a kind of neutral, non-attached, spacious observer of what's going on: "What can I learn here?" It's not getting too ruffled by the ups and downs of things. So that kind of steadiness.
And a second meaning of the word 'steadiness,' which is a steadiness of attention. So is it really possible to be steady, to keep the attention steady with this bodily sense, steady with each breath coming in and out, and how that feels? And when there begins to be a comfortable feeling, however little that is, can we really be steady and consistent with the attention towards that and the opening towards that?
So last night I talked very briefly about the experience -- sitting or walking or standing, whatever -- of some area or areas of the body that feel discomfort, pain, or even just a sense of constriction, of tightness, of blocked energy. Now, this is going to be very common, especially in its more subtle forms. It's just something just ... hmm. The energy just doesn't flow there so well. So I want to go over eight options.
(1) Make sure the rest of the body is relaxed. We tend to tense up the rest of the body in relation to an area of discomfort. Just open up the awareness and relax the rest of the body. Really important.
(2) Again, second one: make sure that the awareness is large. It will shrink. It shrinks when we don't like something, basically. We're like a porcupine. Is that what they do? They ... yeah? Hedgehog, whatever. They shrink. Or a turtle. The awareness will do that. And just re-establish it as large. There's something about having that whole-body awareness, and the awareness is filling the whole body like a sheet, like a big sheet that's spread over the body, or a sail that's kind of full of the wind, and it's spread over the body. And almost in that bubble of awareness, it gives everything more context.
[7:10] So it's a real resource. It's a real resource when there are areas of pain. So we've got a lot of chairs in the room now, and we have the possibility of alternating posture, etc. But I would also encourage, at this point, sometimes actually working with the pain, seeing what you can do with the breath and with the awareness in relationship to pain sometimes. Can you be up for that? Can we be up for that? And sometimes alternating. So both are included.
(3) Third one: staying with the area of comfort. Remember, no matter how weak or unremarkable this area of comfort is. The mind gets pulled like a magnet into the discomfort, into the block, into the constriction, into the pain. And we're kind of retraining the mind a little bit, retraining the mind. So just see, is it possible -- just stay with the area of comfort, not get so pulled. And in time, then, when one's stayed a little bit with that comfort, you can open up the sense of this area of comfort, wherever it is, being somehow connected to that area of discomfort. And perhaps just opening up that inner sense of comfort, a connection actually does begin to flow. And some of the comfortable feelings can begin to spread towards, almost like they wash over the area of constriction.
(4) Fourth one: to play with the breath. Again, is it possible that area of constriction -- say it's in the upper back -- can you breathe, almost feel the energy of the breath soothing over the back in that way? Soothing, soothing.
(5) Or filling -- again, sometimes we fill the body with awareness. Can you fill it with breath energy? That too can be very helpful.
There are a lot of things I'm throwing out. Remember, it'll be there on the recordings. And I'm totally fine with people taking notes. It's not a problem.
(6) Can we experiment with moving the breath through a certain area? I may have a pain in the knee or the hip. Can the breath move -- for instance, come in here, and move right down the body through the area of discomfort, and perhaps right out the legs, or right out the fingertips? The breath energy is actually moving. Don't be afraid to use your imagination. It's not so much a visual imagination as a sort of feeling imagination. And play with this.
[9:51] And pain or constricted or blocked energy is exactly that. 'Pain,' in energetic terms is blocked energy. So you're just imagining the energy moving through, feeling it moving through. And sometimes, even in the meditation, you can ask, "What parts of my body" -- even if you don't feel that bad -- "What parts of the body right now need, could do with some breath energy? What parts?" Maybe the legs are not getting it. Maybe the arms are being left out. Maybe the head's being left out. What parts need the breath energy now?
In a minute, going to do a guided meditation with breathing into different parts of the body. So you can actually breathe into an area of constriction, in and out at that place. The throat is constricted, or the heart centre is constricted -- what would it be to breathe in and out there? The breath energy is coming in and out there. This is very interesting: oftentimes the place that feels most blocked, most constricted, ends up being the most pleasant place, when we can work with it and it opens. It's almost like it's got a lot of energy there that just needs opening a little bit. And then it starts to feel really good, sometimes, often.
(7) This is the seventh one: last night I also mentioned fear. Often around discomfort in the body, pain in the body, there's fear. It's a very understandable human reaction. Can we be aware of that fear and just notice, is the fear building the pain, building the sense of discomfort? Because it almost certainly will. Is it possible to just see that process going on? Somehow in seeing it, it doesn't build it so much.
(8) And lastly, as I said, move. Move the body. Don't go beyond what is your limit with this. Absolutely, no. Play with your edges. Really an encouragement to play with the edges around discomfort and constriction sometimes. But know what the limits are, and then move. If you need to move, move the body slowly, quietly, considerately. So quite a lot to play with in that area of pain. And more often as the meditation goes on, just a sense of constricted or blocked energy.
Last night I also talked about the hindrances, and I mentioned two specifically: the sloth and torpor, drowsiness, and the restlessness. Really, on this retreat seeing, "Can I breathe in a way that energizes?" I can use the breath to really energize, and really seeing if I can experiment and get a sense with that. Or sometimes you can breathe to calm. So whatever is needed -- does it need a calming breath or an energizing breath? Really using that. If it's restless, breathe in a calming way. See if you can find a way into that, and vice versa if you need an energizing breath. But by all means, if there's tiredness, all the other things I suggested: reaffirm the uprightness of posture. Breathing long. The in-breath is actually inherently more energizing. We're taking in energy with the in-breath. (I know this is a lot of information. Take what you can.) Taking in energy with the in-breath. If it's restlessness, the out-breath is actually inherently relaxing. And you tune more into the in-breath or the out-breath as needed. So always responding, feeling free to open the eyes, take in the space, to stand up if necessary, to walk briskly.
[13:51] Just a tiny bit about the other three hindrances. Doubt is a very common one. Doubting oneself: "I can't do this. Maybe everyone else here can do this, but I can't do this." Doubting maybe this approach: "Is this really Buddhist? Is this really kosher?", whatever. Very normal, it's just a hindrance. Just see it as that: "It's just doubt. It's just doubt." And say to it, "I'll come back to you later." And make a pact with it, make an agreement so it doesn't feel ignored, this part. And you just say, "I'll come back to you later." And then that later might be the end of the retreat, and just giving oneself to this retreat. Or it might be the end of a sitting. Just see it as doubt; come back to it later. And please ask questions in the groups. Ask questions. If something is like, "Does this? Doesn't ...? Hmm, not sure." Ask questions.
And sometimes we find ourselves sitting here and fantasizing, either sexual fantasy, or fantasizing about lunch, or whatever it is. Can we see that there's suffering involved in that? There's a kind of leaning forward, hungry leaning forward in the mind. That's actually suffering. Can we use whatever comfortable, pleasant feeling there might be there as actually a resource? Slowly, slowly, we're actually with that in a way that we need to go out less. So really tuning into that comfort. Very important.
And then lastly, also with greed but with aversion, too, actually sometimes it's worth stopping the breath meditation for a while and actually deliberately reflecting, "Is this taking me where I want to go? Is this useful, or is this suffering right now?" We get irritated at something, or angry at something going on, or wanting something, and just using the reflective mind: "Is this really helping?" It seems so convincing sometimes, these hindrances, once they've got their hooks into something. Actually using the reflective mind at times to see if it can disengage that. The Buddha's golden question on his path was, "What's helpful, and what's not?" It was that simple: "What leads to suffering, and what doesn't? What leads to freedom?" Using the reflective mind at times.
[16:33] Okay, that was a lot of information, I'm aware. I spoke about some of it last night, and as I said, the tape is on. So let's do a meditation now. Just take what you can of the information, the sort of tips and whatever you call it that's coming out. Take what you can, take what feels useful, play with some of the pieces, and let the rest go. And if you're interested, it will be there on the recordings.
[17:28, guided meditation begins]
So just settling once again into your posture, finding that ease, that poise, that balance, the expression of alertness, sensitivity, in and through the posture.
Recognizing again, reflecting again that this practice is a gesture of goodwill. It's a gesture of kindness and care to yourself. Really being clear about that. There's no other reason that we're doing it. Connecting with that kindfulness and wishing yourself well.
Extending that well-wishing to everyone here. Just opening it up, wishing everyone here in this room well. Everyone here at Gaia House well. And then even further to all beings.
Establishing this whole-body sensitivity, sensitive to the whole body. That whole area of energy, of vibration, of feeling, texture. Alive, sensitive, open to the whole body.
[19:42] Then placing the attention within that, placing the attention on an area, a small area, just below the navel, the belly button, and a little bit to the left. Just an area a few centimetres below and to the left of the belly button. It's not an exact area, just a general area there. And feeling or imagining feeling the breath coming in and out at that spot. So the body is breathing in breath energy there and letting it out there. Breathing it out there. So open to the whole body, but really focusing in on that spot, and how it feels. How does it feel, with the breath coming in and going out there? Just being open, delicate, letting go of preconceptions. Delicate with the sensitivity.
How does it feel in the rest of the body with the breath going in and out there? What kind of breath does the body want when the breath is going in and out there? Long, short, coarse, subtle, rough, smooth? Not putting a lot of physical pressure on the breath, just opening up by asking, dropping that question in.
[22:17] Perhaps the breath goes in there and radiates up the left side of the body, down the left leg, perhaps, perhaps a different kind of movement. Perhaps it just wells up in that point. Just open, delicate sensitivity.
And then moving that point where the breath comes in and out to the same point on the other side, on the right-hand side. Just a few centimetres down and to the right of the belly button, the navel. How does that feel in the whole body? What kind of breath feels best there, for the whole body?
[24:24] So not pressurizing either the body or the mind, just being open, delicate. And how about the breath coming in and out at the hara point in the centre, a few centimetres below the navel? How does that feel? Whole body.
[26:44] If you want, if you feel ready, shifting that area, the spot where the breath goes in and out of the body, to the solar plexus. So the top of the abdomen, around the sternum. How does that feel in the whole body, in the rest of the body? And what kind of breath feels best there?
How about a little bit higher, in the heart centre, in the centre of the chest? The breath energy moving in and out at that point, from that point. Just feeling how that moves, vibrates, opens in the rest of the body.
[29:21] Make sure one is including, you're including your legs, in the whole body experience.
If you want, checking out how it might feel with the breath energy coming in and out at the base of the throat. So if a place feels particularly good, you don't need to check all of these out right now. You might want to stay a little bit with where it feels good.
[32:05] Opening the body to the breath. How might it be if the breath energy comes in to a point, an area at the centre of the head? What kind of breath feels best there, for the whole body? Just allowing the breath to be comfortable in these places, without forcing.
How does it feel in the whole body if the breath energy were to come in and go out through the top of the head, the crown of the head? Coming in and out at that point, that area. Is there a way that can feel good in the whole body?
[35:27] Staying in that place, how would it be if the breath comes in at the top of the head and moves right down the body? The energy moves right down the body and out the feet. In through the top of the head, down the body, and then out through the feet, releasing through the feet.
[36:36] Not grasping too tightly, just being open, light with the attention. Moving that spot to the neck, the base of the neck. What kind of breath feels best there? Might be long, or very long, or very short. Feeling right now for yourself in this moment. Open to the whole body.
And then, the middle of the upper back, the sort of backside of the heart centre, on the spine. What does that need? A very delicate, soothing, gentle breath? A longer breath that really fills the body?
[39:28] How about the base of the spine? How does the breath energy move in the body when it comes in and goes out there? How does that feel?
If you want to, how does it feel, the breath coming in through the feet, through the soles of the feet, moving up the body and out the top of the head?
[41:55] And just centring the awareness right at the core of the body, right in the middle of that whole energy field, really putting the awareness in there, centring it there. Knowing the whole body from that place. A spider at the centre of the web knows everything that happens in the web. Whenever something touches anywhere in the web, it knows it, it feels it. Centring right at the centre of the body. Is it possible to feel, to conceive of the breath, rather than coming in from the outside, it's actually welling up from the centre of the body, expanding from the centre of the body? Breath is expanding to fill the body.
[44:00] Just letting the awareness stay there if you want, or allowing it to go to any of those places, whichever feels the best right now, and just to be there, centred there, the breath coming in and going out at that point, feeling the whole body. So wherever feels best.
[46:00, guided meditation ends]