Sacred geometry

Breath Meditation (3rd Instructions)

Date11th September 2009
Retreat/SeriesUnbinding the Heart


Okay, so breath meditation is really an art. I don't know if there's really another word for it. There's so much sort of subtlety and depth to it and possibility with it. We're actually just here for a few days, so it would be impossible to even try and talk about everything. I just want to offer a few pieces that hopefully will be helpful. Please don't feel overwhelmed on this retreat. I know there's a lot of stuff coming your way, but please just try and listen and take what feels like it might be useful. And as I said at the beginning, there are the tapes, etc.

As human beings, we encounter different mind states. Our minds go in and out of different states of consciousness. We feel expansive, happy, depressed, low, tired, bored, all kinds of things. And that movement is very human. It's completely human. It's utterly normal and to be expected. So as meditators, that's very much part of the terrain that we move through, and we need to really be expecting these waves. Sometimes we very much appreciate the state that the mind is in and the state that the body is in, and sometimes we don't, we struggle with it. But the fact of the waves continues, and it will be there.

On a meditation retreat, because there's very little distraction, one actually notices these waves even more. All I've kind of got to -- there are no TVs, there are no radios, there's no this or that, just me humbly wittering on and on. All I've got is my mind, and I just see the blah blah blah, and the mind in its movement, in its waves. Then if I have a practice like we're doing with the breath practice, where I'm actually interested in nurturing a certain direction of mind state -- calm, depth, focus, etc., samādhi -- then by virtue of choosing a certain direction I will notice what is not in that direction even more. It highlights it. I'm looking for something, and so the opposite stands out even more. It's natural. It's a natural part of kind of inclining towards something that we notice its opposite even more.

Sometimes what we come across is challenging, in terms of mind states. Just to repeat a few things. The atmosphere of kindness, so crucial, and to really set up that sense of orientation in the practice -- kindness for oneself, kindness to all beings. It's a movement of offering something to oneself and to the world. That gives a context for what comes up in the meditation. It puts it in a frame, so it's not just a hassle. Within that, seeing that even when it is a struggle, when we are struggling with the mind states, that though it feels like it's not going well, by virtue of responding to it and trying to work with it and hanging out and being patient, I'm actually cultivating, I'm developing, I'm nurturing, a lot of really helpful qualities, profoundly helpful qualities, even though at the time it might not feel that good. I'm cultivating patience, I'm cultivating interest, resourcefulness, steadiness, equanimity, noble intention, all of this and more, much more.

So very common to encounter as meditators -- but not just in meditation -- what's called the five hindrances. Many of you will be familiar with these. Just to list them: greed (sense desire), aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness, and doubt. Okay? Five. A couple of general things about it. These come in and they give us a rough time and they drag us through the dirt. A couple of things about these generally. The first is not to take their appearance personally. So this is what happens for a human mind that's not totally awakened yet. It's okay. It's really okay. And being very careful not to judge oneself or one's meditation. It's part of the waves, and the waves are human. So really not to see it as a personal fault or a personal kind of indictment of the state of one's meditation development. Not to take it personally.

The second piece is not to believe in what they're telling us. When these hindrances get kind of fully blown, it's almost like they blossom into something big, and there's oftentimes -- not always, but oftentimes -- a story that goes with it, especially if it's aversion, or greed, or doubt, or sometimes even restlessness: "What I need, and this person and that person ...", or "The conditions aren't right," or whatever it is. The mind starts spinning a story and getting roped into that story and believing the whole thing. So a really important general point is not to believe the stories that are spun from the hindrances. Sometimes it's hard to tell which story is coming from the hindrances, and what is it that I really need, I really need this now. This is part of the developing art of meditation. In a way, sometimes we use the image the hindrances are a little like seeds. You could say -- it's just an image -- you could say consciousness is kind of throwing up these seeds all the time, just in seed form: greed, aversion, doubt, restlessness, dullness. And these seeds have little hooks in them. It's like these hooks go looking for something to hook into, and then they find that thing, and they start injecting it with sort of energy and shaking it around, and then we have an issue. What was just a seed form has grown and blossomed into a big oak tree. And we suffer with that. We get burdened by, lost in the complication of it. So there's something about getting wise to that whole process. The seeds will come up, but careful of when they hook into something and make an issue of something. In time we see it's not that out there, it's actually my mind colouring something, it's my mind making something. It's the hindrances making something.

So in the meditation, we want to be aware of the mind state, and then responding. The responsiveness is really a part of the art of meditation. That's why we're using this word 'playfulness' -- it's like responding, responding. I don't have time to go into all the hindrances this morning, but the most common one, the favourite one, is what's called sloth and torpor, which is kind of dullness, sleepiness, drowsiness, heaviness, fogginess. So, really important when this is around to really re-establish the uprightness of the posture. Sit upright, and that will influence the mind. You can also really use the long breath. When we breathe in long, we're actually energizing, aerating, oxygenating the whole system, and the mind rests on that, so it can be correspondingly energized. The in-breath is more energizing than the out-breath. It's naturally kind of energizing, the in-breath. So a little more focus on the in-breath can be really helpful.

You can imagine a bright white light like the sun, in the middle of your head or in the middle of your body, and look at that. Be fed by the brightness of it. Sometimes it's helpful to open the eyes and take in space, the space of the room, and let the mind kind of expand with that, because when it's dull and tired it shrinks on itself. So opening the eyes, taking in the space of this room, and the consciousness expands with the vision, and that opens up the mind. Like I already said, stand up. Don't be afraid to stand up. It's a really good thing to do and it's a gift to others.

The other most common one, the second most common one, is probably restlessness, either in the mind or in the body. I'll talk about thoughts in a minute, but the body just feels agitated and can't kind of settle, feels like it's very unsettled. Then the out-breath, paying attention to the out-breath, is really helpful. The out-breath is more organically, more naturally -- there's a kind of relaxation that goes with it. Just tuning into that quality of relaxation helps soothe the being, helps settle the restlessness. Again, spaciousness can really help. Oftentimes restlessness is caused by too much tightness, so opening up to space more, and just relaxing, relaxing around the restlessness.

So this responsiveness, you know, sometimes it's a very gross mind state and we're responding in quite a gross way, and that's fine. But gradually, gradually -- not linearly -- the whole thing kind of begins to get more subtle and our responses should begin to get correspondingly more subtle. So we can begin responding to our mind state in a way more and more through the breath itself and the energy of the breath. So it's a little bit sluggish, a little bit kind of dark and foggy, how can I energize with the breath? How can I open the body with the breath energy? Or I'm a little -- bit of tension in there, how can I soothe, soothe the body with the breath?

Breath meditation, actually all meditation, is a bit like surfing or sailing. You're always kind of responding to the conditions at the moment. So it takes awareness of what the conditions are. And then the responsiveness is very much part of the art. It's also part of the fun. It's part of the fun when you're surfing. If you just stand on the board, it's like ... [laughter] It's no fun. We want to incorporate that, okay? And be really okay with making subtle adjustments, looking for what needs adjustment. Sometimes you actually don't need to do anything, and everything's perfectly in balance. But that doesn't tend to last. So the art is really in these little responses.

[11:58] In line with that, there's another piece about the kind of effort levels that we have, and you've probably noticed in a lot of what I'm talking about this morning already. We can put a lot of effort into the meditation at any moment. We can really -- "I'm really going to hold this here," and really kind of probe the sense of what's going on in the body, etc. And that's great. But it's as if it's a pedal, and you can back off that pedal. You can learn to relax the effort levels. What would that feel like? How does that feel? And again, learning to play, to play that pedal, is really part of the deepening art. It's always there. So it's like, what is it to be a bit more, a bit less? And experimenting with that. Most people with breath meditation get into a problem with tightness -- things become tight. Partly what may help, with this approach, is having a more spacious sense. But when that tightness is there, practise, play with, this sense of backing off the effort pedal. You're still with the breath, but it's almost like you're in a more receptive mode, in a lighter stance, a lighter pressure.

So we get a sense of how much am I sort of leaning or probing into the breath or the body with my attention, and how much am I pressuring it that way? So it can be, sometimes, that the stance that's most helpful is as if attention is just like a feather, a light feather that's just like a wisp, just brushing against the body, brushing against the breath, so light. That actually will be the most helpful and take you deeper than a sort of pushing. And at other times, we need to kind of be a bit more intent. But there's a huge range here, and really part of the art is learning to play with this. What is it that it's so delicate, the kind of force of attention?

Okay. Now I'm sure, as well, we realize we're meditating and there's thinking going on. So this is not such a problem, actually. It doesn't have to be a big problem. But it's the relationship with thought that's important. So sometimes -- you might catch this -- it's like a thought begins, and it might be a relatively long thought. It's like, do I actually need to get to the end of this thought? Am I going to be happier at the end of this thought? Okay, I've finished the thought. It's not going to make me a happier person, mostly. Occasionally it might. But there's a way that, with practice, we can catch ourselves in the middle and just kind of cut it, just cut the thought. I don't need to reach the end. There's a kind of small liberation in that.

Something happens around thought in relationship to the effort thing that I was talking about just now. It's strange. It's kind of the opposite of what we would expect. If I press too tightly with my effort, sometimes it puts too much pressure on the mind, and that actually causes more thinking and causes a kind of greater likelihood that I'll slip off and drift off into thought, I'll follow a thought away from the breath and the body. So curiously, we think when there's a lot of thinking we should kind of squeeze the whole thing tighter. It might be, again, that it needs to relax more. And then sometimes we kind of get this subtle fog, and maybe being a bit more tight, more intent, more focused, is actually completely appropriate.

We were saying yesterday in the guided meditation, the breath can be perceived, be conceived, in lots of different ways. It can be felt in lots of different ways at different times. This, too -- responding to that and playing with that is very much part of the practice. It's actually related with all this business about effort. Sometimes, of course, we feel the breath very much goes in the nostrils and down. Other times, like we were playing yesterday, it just feels like we can feel it elsewhere. Sometimes it's possible almost to feel breath energy as if it's surrounding the body, as if here's the body and there's breath energy, so to speak, all around it. One can kind of open out into or settle into a sort of 360 degree awareness around the body. In a way then one is just opening to being in the sort of embrace, the field, of the energy of the breath, and kind of receiving it, receiving it in a way from all sides, perhaps, even, melting into it, melting into that breath energy that feels like it's just around the body, or letting that melt into the body.

Sometimes the breath can, just by itself or with a little bit of encouragement -- it feels like the right direction to kind of gently encourage -- it's like the breath can become more and more gentle. Sometimes that's totally the appropriate movement. It's just getting more and more gentle, more and more subtle. Sometimes we allow that subtlety and that gentleness, not so much by forcing the breath to be that way, but it's almost like softening into it, allowing it by almost opening up the breath, opening up the body.

At times, too -- someone was saying this the other day in a group -- at times it's almost as if you can be aware of different frequencies of what's going on in the whole field of the energy system of the body. So there's the in- and out-breath, and the actual air molecules going in and out, and sometimes, almost so to speak underneath that, you can pick up sometimes a kind of more subtle energy, just the energy tone of the body space, the sort of texture, the vibration, the feeling of this bubble of awareness. Sometimes it seems like the in- and out-breath is very much melted into that tone, and sometimes it feels like they're two separate sort of wavelengths. But what would it be to tune into that, just the texture of the space, the texture of the energy, and just to tune into that, and maybe just to enjoy that? Maybe it's a level that one can just hang out with that, again with this full body awareness, and enjoying it.

So in a way, the in- and out-breath, the actual air, is just one aspect of what we might call the whole breath energy, and people sometimes use the word subtle breath and this and that -- it doesn't matter. But sometimes one gets a sense of different aspects or different levels of what's going on in this space, and it's interesting to tune in. It can be very helpful to tune into different dimensions there. So don't always feel like you have to stick to the actual in- and out-breath, in and out, in and out.

Okay, so a lot of info. As I said, don't get overwhelmed. Just take what feels like it works, what feels helpful. Okay.

[20:30, meditation begins]

So again, finding your way into your posture. Finding that balance again, so it's really reflecting energy, uprightness, sensitivity, and also softness, openness, relaxation. Connecting with the body, connecting with practice as an offering, a kindness.

When you're ready, opening up the awareness, stretching the awareness over the space of the body, tuning in and beginning to work, to play, with that space of feeling, with the breath energy, in the way that feels the most helpful right now.

[41:30, meditation ends]

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry