The Art of Concentration (Samatha Meditation)
August 12, 2008
A little bit of review, a little bit of just sort of ... yeah, review. First thing, forget what I said last night. [laughter] In the sense of that word jhāna. Like I said, I don't actually use it that much when I'm teaching, and I haven't used it so far on the retreat, in terms of what we're doing and what we're building. Just to relate to what we're talking about -- the breath, the body -- can we nurture the comfortable feeling, a comfortable feeling, however that is? It often can be grabbed the wrong way, or in an unhelpful way. So just forget that. What we're dealing with now is just the practice. We're just continuing the practice.
So to review, so far, three aspects that we can play with:
(1) The first is the breath and the quality of the breath. So, as we started, does it want to be long? Is it helpful for the breath to be long? Is it more helpful for it to be short? Is it better stronger or more subtle? Is it smooth or rough or whatever? Really one aspect of what we can play with is to engage with that, the quality of the breath, and just to experiment with that.
(2) Second one was breathing -- conceiving of the breath as coming in and out different areas of the body. So instead of the usual conception of the breath coming in here and going down in the lungs and going out -- which is totally fine, of course -- conceiving with it in much more creative ways, much more unusual ways, perhaps. Including, in that, for some people -- again, this is so individual; different people will be picking up different things in all of this. In a way, that's why I'm putting out all this different stuff. Someone will grab this piece, someone will grab that piece, and it's all fine. But for some people, the conceiving of the breath as sort of something all around the body, that the body is just kind of osmosing in and out -- that can be very helpful as a way of conceiving the breath. There's the quality of the breath, and the way we conceive of the breath.
(3) And then the third factor that we can experiment with, play with, is the effort level, and so to speak, how heavy or how light the attention is. The attention can be really kind of probing, or much more receptive -- it's almost as if the mind receives the touch of the breath. It's just receiving it. It's open. The mind can be quite tight, holding the body sense quite tightly, and sometimes that's really appropriate, or it can be really loose. We're responding to this, playing with this. We can melt into the breath. The awareness melts into the breath, or it kind of probes it or holds it. Playing with that sense, especially the sense of the effort level. So those are three aspects to play with. Now, that is absolutely plenty. In fact you probably can't do all of it at once anyway, but just to take a little piece and experiment.
[3:35] In a way, to sum all of that up in a nutshell, it's just be with the breath, be with the experience of the breath in the body, however you feel it. That's going to vary for different individuals. However you feel the breath, that's what you're with. If I'm going on about breath energies and blah blah blah, and it doesn't make any sense, that's fine. What do you feel when you breathe in? What does it feel like? What do you feel when you breathe out? What do you feel in between the breaths, when you're neither breathing in nor out? That's your experience, and that's what you go with. And really, that's the experience of the breath, and how can I make that experience more comfortable, just a little bit more comfortable? It's actually that simple. If something I'm putting out is feeling like, "I'm really not getting that," don't latch onto that as something to make a problem of. It's very, very common for the mind to want to do that. Just take -- what does the breath feel like for me, right now, and can I make that more comfortable?
I remember saying my teacher, Ajaan Geoff, six months at least before he even began -- so this was every day, like a six-month retreat in his monastery. Every day, hearing about this, not having a clue what they were talking about. And then just beginning, after six months, to have a clue. I would really call him a meditation master. And then, with that, to really be contented with what you have, in terms of the comfortable feeling. Sometimes it'll be a little stronger, sometimes it won't be, sometimes it won't be there at all -- just to be contented and to nourish that, focusing on the positive. So that is plenty, and in fact, it's more than enough, as I said.
So very optional this morning, another thing to play with, and that is in the realm of perception, or with the whole factor of perception. A couple of mornings ago, we did a guided meditation, breathing in different parts of the body, etc. Well, I can't actually remember exactly which points I did, but it's possible to sit there in meditation and feel the breath coming up through the feet, up the body. It's possible. Perhaps down again, or perhaps up the body and out the head. It's also possible, five seconds later, to feel the breath going in the top of the head and down the body and out the feet, or back out the top of the head. Which of those is right? Which of those is the real one? Or are they both going on at the same time? What's going on here?
[6:39] In a way, we can see what we want to see. We're moving towards being able to see what we want to see. This could, what I've just said about the breath, it could bring up a whole lot of doubt, and you say, "I knew it. This is all just mind games," etc., but actually there's a lot of potentially very deep insight here into the nature of perception -- extremely important.
So perception -- I'll talk more about this tonight -- perception. As a factor of the mind, the mind perceives things. It perceives things all the time. Part of that process of perception is labelling -- 'microphone,' 'carpet,' 'Iona,' 'clock,' whatever these things are called -- 'zabutons.' Part of that is labelling. So part of what we can do is, one is applying the label 'breath' or 'breath energy,' whatever you want to say, to the bodily experience. Not just necessarily the in- and out-breath, but actually start playing with this, applying the label 'breath' to the bodily experience. Again, just playing, experimenting, with doing that, experiencing all the parts of the body as breath energy. So, if right now, or when you're sitting in meditation, the head, if that was breath energy, what kind of breath energy would that be? It might feel good, like it's flowing, like it's open. It might feel tight, like there's a constriction there, not such good breath energy. But you're looking at it in terms of it being breath energy, labelling it that way. If we keep that up, just keep labelling the bodily experience as 'breath' -- so, these head sensations as 'breath' -- and you do that consistently, eventually the experience of the head changes. You actually have a different experience of the head. You can do that with all the different parts of the body, and see how that labelling changes the experience. The actual physical experience changes with the mental label. Again, we can do that with the body as a whole. We can do that with the total sense of the body.
[9:05] There's a lot to do with insight here. This is really optional; remember, everything I've said is optional. You just take what you can. We might be sitting in meditation -- opening up the practice a little bit more to include more insight aspects today -- we might be sitting in meditation, and there's some pain in the body, or there's some constriction or discomfort. And one feels that. What would it be to let the breath go and all that and just be with that experience? Say I have some pain in my back, some constriction, constricted energy in the back. And one is just really touching that experience, but with the agenda of really allowing it, allowing it, allowing it to be what it is. So it's just unpleasant experience. It's just unpleasant experience in the moment, it's just unpleasant, it's just unpleasant. And one is there with an awareness that's very, very allowing. The emphasis is on the allowing, total allowing it to be what it is: unpleasant. In a way, one is softening one's reaction, one's relationship with it, because usually the relationship would be one of, "It's unpleasant. I want to get rid of it." There's a kind of normal reaction to push away what's unpleasant. In a way, one is just allowing, allowing, softening that relationship. What happens to it when we do that? What happens to the unpleasant feeling? This is something to explore. Sometimes we're aware of an unpleasant feeling, a pain or a constriction, and you can actually see what's going on in the mind. Just start seeing it in a different way. We get so roped in to seeing it as 'pain' and 'my pain' and the whole problem of it. What if we just saw it as some sensation and then the mind is labelling it 'pain'? You see this process going on: sensation, pain, labelling. One is seeing it with more space and more non-attachment. We begin to see that process happening in the mind. What happens when we see it? What happens when we see that?
[11:25] I'll expand on this tonight, this whole nature of perception. In the Dharma, we talk a lot about bare attention and seeing things as they are, but it's not quite as simple as it seems. Does what I see, even the pleasantness or unpleasantness of what I see and what I experience, does that depend on how I look at it? Does it depend on how I look at it? Is it a given, or does it depend on how I look at it?
If we go back, also, and speak about the hindrances, which I spoke about a little bit, sometimes there's restlessness in meditation. It feels very agitated or a little bit agitated. Sometimes it's possible to have a sense of, or invite a sense of more space around the restlessness. Here's restlessness. I feel it in the body. I feel it in the mind. Sometimes even opening the eyes and getting a sense of space -- and it's almost like, is that space restless? Do I perceive restlessness in the space, or do I perceive it here somewhere? Is there something I can tune into, some part of the space, that doesn't feel restless? Tuning the mind in there, perceiving the stillness instead of the restlessness. What effect does that have? Or sometimes it's almost as if, inside, one is diving underneath the agitation and perceiving stillness inside.
Sometimes there's tiredness in the experience. Tiredness is a very, very interesting thing. It can feel so overwhelming. What happens if you try and locate that tiredness in the body? Sometimes all it comes down to is a kind of vague pressure behind the eyes. It's a vague sort of -- yeah, pressure behind the eyes, and we're reacting to that. Again, what happens if we just feel that, as it is, and just relax around it? Relax our relationship to the unpleasant pressure. What happens then to the perception of tiredness? Sometimes, again, there's pain in the body, there's constriction. This is a really interesting one. You can actually experiment and play with chopping it up, like dicing a carrot or dicing some tofu. You know, you just ... [chopping noises] The mind makes things solid. What happens if we just chop it up in our mind, this sense of just stuck energy in the back or constriction or pain? Just playing with the mind and playing with the perception. Again, if we speak about tiredness again, sometimes one can just perceive brightness there behind the eyes, just perceive like a sun there.
[14:26] Sometimes, when one really develops this -- I'm talking about, for most people, in the future -- you can actually even perceive pleasantness, you can choose to perceive pleasantness where there is unpleasantness. You can develop that as a skill. It's quite mind-boggling, really. Now, we might hear this, and especially when one has had some degree of exposure to sort of Buddhist teachings and particularly insight meditation, and think, "That doesn't sound right at all. That doesn't sound Buddhist. That doesn't sound proper. That doesn't sound like what insight meditation is supposed to be." I'll pick up on this tonight. There's actually a tremendous depth of insight here around the nature of perception. It's one of the particular ways that samatha meditation feeds that insight.
Finally, I want to say a little bit about this word 'steadiness' again. How much can steadiness permeate the day today? Might be sitting and one just gets a bit restless or fed up, and just decides to leave the meditation hall in the middle of the sitting. Please don't. Please try and see how much steadiness can kind of permeate the being. We can just give a real container to the experience. If we follow what restlessness says to do -- restlessness says, "Get up and go out and have a cup of tea." Restlessness says, when one is walking, "Stop and have a cup of tea." Restlessness says, "Do this." Restlessness says, "Do that." What we're doing is feeding restlessness. We're feeding restlessness. And basically, the current, the river of restlessness, gathers power in our being and in our lives. It becomes a torrent that is, in the end, impossible to stop. If we can just be still and be in the container, "This is a sitting, and I'm just going to sit," then we're not feeding restlessness, and what we're actually doing is feeding samādhi. Samādhi -- part of what it means is steadiness: steadiness of attention, steadiness of being, steadiness of intention. In a way, if we can just be steady with our practice, staying steady with the walking, staying steady with the sitting, we're expressing steadiness. That's an expression of samādhi, and there's a way it kind of feeds the samādhi. That steadiness percolates down into the being. It percolates into the cells, slowly, slowly. We start feeding a steadiness, a restfulness of being instead of a restlessness. It's a gradual process. The question is, which are we feeding? Which do we want to feed, and which are we feeding? So not to force oneself to be steady or still, but it's almost like relaxing into it, allowing into it.
[17:39] The second aspect of the word 'steady' -- and I mentioned this when I first brought it up -- was a sort of larger picture of what it means to be steady. Just in the days here, have you noticed, "I love Gaia House. I love being here. I love being on retreat. I love this practice. I love samatha. Sign me up for the next one," etc.? And then a little time goes by, and it's, "I hate Gaia House." [laughter] "I hate this practice. I wish he would shut up." [laughter] Who knows what this afternoon is going to be like? This steadiness, it's just stepping back and expecting the waves. It's okay. It's really okay. Not buying into them so much. That quality, too, begins to percolate down into the being. It's such a treasure, and such a resource. Not easy, but to feed that, to nourish that.