breath + deeper meditation states | 4 . 16 . 19

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Absorbed in the Breath

How to use the breath to develop the four levels of jhana ­—deeper states of meditation

– Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo

Jhana (a Sanskit word) means to be absorbed or focused in a single object, as when we work with the breath as our object in meditation.

The first jhana has five factors:
1. Directed thought: Think of the breath until you can recognize it clearly without getting distracted. 2. Singleness of object: Keep the mind with the breath. Don’t let it stray after other objects. Watch over your thoughts so that they deal only with the breath until the breath becomes comfortable. (The mind becomes one, at rest with the breath.)
3. Evaluation: Let this comfortable breath sensation spread and coordinate with the other breath sensations in the body. Let these breath sensations spread until they all flow together. Once the body has been soothed by the breath, feelings of pain will grow calm. The body will be filled with good breath energy. These three qualities must be brought to bear on the same stream of breathing for the first jhana to arise. This stream of breathing can then take you all the way to the fourth jhana. Directed thought, singleness of object, and evaluation act as the causes. When the causes are ripe, results will appear.
4. Rapture: a compelling sense of fullness and refreshment for body and mind, going straight to the heart, independent of all else.
5. Pleasure: physical ease arising from the body’s being still and unperturbed; mental contentment arising from the mind’s being at ease on its own, unperturbed, serene, and exultant. Rapture and pleasure are the results. The factors of the first jhana thus come down to two sorts: causes and results.

As rapture and pleasure grow stronger, the breath becomes more subtle. The longer you stay focused, the more powerful the results become. This enables you to set directed thought and evaluation (the preliminary groundclearing) aside, and—relying completely on a single factor, singleness of object—you enter the second jhana.

The second jhana has three factors: rapture, pleasure, and singleness of object. Rapture and pleasure become stronger in the second jhana because they rely on a single cause, singleness of object, which looks after the work from here on in: focusing on the breath so that it becomes more and more refined, keeping steady and still with a sense of refreshment and ease for both body and mind. The mind is even more stable and intent than before. As you continue focusing, rapture and pleasure grow stronger and begin to pulsate. Continue focusing on the breath, moving the mind deeper to a more subtle level to escape the motions of rapture and pleasure, and you enter the third jhana.

The third jhana has two factors: pleasure and singleness of object. The body is quiet, motionless, and solitary. No feelings of pain arise to disturb it. The mind is solitary and still. The breath is refined, free flowing, and broad. A radiance—white, like cotton wool—pervades the entire body, stilling all feelings of physical and mental discomfort. The breath fills the body. Mindfulness fills the body.

Focus on in: The mind is bright and powerful, the body is light. Feelings of pleasure are still. Your sense of the body feels steady and even, with no slips or gaps in your awareness, so you can let go of your sense of pleasure. Singleness of object, the cause, has the strength to focus more heavily down, taking you to the fourth jhana.

The fourth jhana has two factors: equanimity and singleness of object, or mindfulness-solid, stable, and sure. The breath property is absolutely quiet and still, free of ripples and gaps, like an ocean free of currents or waves. The mind, neutral and still, lets go of all preoccupations with past and future. The present is neutral and still. This is true singleness of object, focused on the unperturbed stillness of the breath. All aspects of the breath energy in the body connect so that you can breathe through every pore. You don’t have to breathe through the nostrils because the in-and-out breath and the other aspects of the breath in the body form a single, unified whole—even and full. Mindfulness and alertness converge into one, giving rise to great energy that can dispel all inner darkness.

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Breath Moves Body

Stillness in meditation refers to the mind, not a rigidly stiff body

– Will Johnson

We live in a world in which everything moves. Yet the first thing I invariably notice when I look out over a roomful of sitting meditators is how still almost everyone is, holding themselves as though the goal of the practice is to become like a stone garden statue of the Buddha. Granted, the practice is relatively still. But as a value applied to the practice of meditation, stillness refers only to a quality of mind, not to a rigidly stiff body. If you are truly able to relax in your sitting posture, subtle movements can be felt throughout the entire body in response to each breath you take. When you allow these natural motions to occur, your mind becomes calmer and bodily sensations come more alive. But if you brace yourself against them and become frozen in your posture, your mind gets stirred and your body loses touch with its feeling presence.

The Satipatthana Sutta describes a progression of mileposts in one’s evolving sensitivity to the action of breath. Starting out from a place that watches the breath just at the front of the body, we’re gradually guided to become more sensitive to all breath’s nuances and are eventually led to the suggestion to “breathe through the whole body.” To better understand how to breathe with the conscious participation of the whole body, nothing is more helpful than to recognize that, in a deeply relaxed body, the force of breath can cause the entire body to remain in a state of subtle, constant, fluid motion.

The Mechanics of Breath

The action of breath is primarily initiated through the repetitive contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that separates your chest cavity from your abdomen and functions as a pump that draws oxygen-rich air into your body on the inhalation and expels the waste products of respiration on every exhalation. The rhythmic movement of the diaphragm generates a propulsive force similar to the force that causes waves to move through a body of water. But what we tend to do is resist the force of the breath by introducing tension into the musculature and effectively freezing the body at its joints.

Tension in the body always causes some degree of stillness at the nearest skeletal joint, and areas of frozen stillness always resist the force of breath that wants to pass through that part of the body. Simply put, when you tense your body, you become still; when you relax your body, everything can start to move again in response to the natural flow of the breath.

While stillness—and resistance to the force of the breath—can exist anywhere in the body, it’s particularly evident in the head and neck. But when we hold our head completely still in meditation, we draw tension into the upper back, neck, and cranium, and this pattern of tension keeps fueling the silent parade of thoughts that pass through the mind. So when we stiffen our neck to the extent that our head becomes unmoving, we inadvertently support the very process of semi-conscious thought that the practice wants to help us slow down, perhaps even dissolve.

Breath wants to liberate itself, to free itself from its encasing in the body’s frozen stillness. The whole of the body wants to keep moving—not even a single little part left out, everything in motion, just like the universe.

Breath – Yogic & Zen & Buddha | 4 . 9 . 19

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Yogic Breathing Techniques

– Lauren Kraize

 

Stabilize the Breath with Equal-Part Breathing

Prolonged anxiety and stress can cause irregular breathing patterns like sighing, yawning, and huffing. As these disruptive habits find their way into our meditation practice, we may discover it very difficult to steady the mind. To reestablish balanced breathing prior to meditation, try the following modified practice of sama vrtti, or equal-part breathing.

In sama vrtti, we produce inhalations that last the same duration as exhalations. To begin, sit up very tall in order to lengthen your torso as much as possible. Take a deep breath in through the nose and exhale, also entirely through the nose. Then start to inhale through the nose as you count up to four, stretching your inhalation all the way to the end of the count at a pace that feels comfortable to you. As you exhale through the nose, count to four again at the same pace, stretching your exhalation all the way to the end. Repeat this cycle several times or for as long as you need until you begin to feel the breath evening out.

Create Space with a Three-Part Breath

I’ve found that the practice of viloma, sometimes described as a three-part breath, can alleviate sensations of restriction in the chest and torso. In viloma, a practitioner alternately deepens and pauses her inhalation for short periods of time, which encourages the chest and rib cage to gradually expand.

To begin, either sit very upright or recline on your back. Take a few deep, even, and steady breaths. Then slowly inhale over a count of three, drawing in your breath so much that the lower abdomen expands. After the third count, hold the breath for two counts. Then, inhale into the lungs and lower chest for another three counts, feeling the rib cage expand outward. Hold the breath for another two counts. Now, inhale for another three counts, filling the very upper region of the chest just below the collarbone. Hold the breath for five counts. Then, over a ten-count exhalation, slowly and evenly release the breath through the nose. Repeat this cycle several more times, continuing at a pace that feels comfortable to you.

After many cycles of this practice, the breath gets deeper and the chest feels more open. That sensation of spaciousness in the body produces a similar effect on the mind: thoughts will seem less congested and tangled than they did prior to the exercise.
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Hara Breathing

– Ken Kushner

Dharma successor in the Chozen-ji lineage of Zen.

The Japanese word for the lower abdomen, hara, is regarded as the center of ki (chi), or vital energy.

WHAT IS HARA?

“Hara” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character fu, meaning abdomen. In Chozen-ji, the line of the Rinzai Zen tradition in which I teach, as well as in Japanese culture more generally, the term hara refers specifically to the lower abdomen.

Beyond its location in the body, the hara has a dynamic, functional role in breathing. In chest (or thoracic) breathing, there is maximal engagement of chest and rib cage muscles and minimal engagement of the lower abdominal muscles. If you are breathing like this, your rib cage expands and contracts, and your shoulders move up and down. Diaphragmatic, or abdominal, breathing—now well-known in our culture because of its role in yoga—is often referred to as belly breathing. It engages the lower abdomen, which drives the breath like a bellows. When you breathe this way, your lower abdomen expands on inhalation and contracts on exhalation, with minimal motion in your upper body.

Hara breathing, which is sometimes referred to as tanden breathing, has similarities to diaphragmatic breathing: in both types, the lower abdomen expands on inhalation. However, in hara breathing the lower abdomen remains expanded on exhalation. Once you are capable of hara breathing, your lower abdomen will expand on inhalation and remain expanded throughout the exhalation and into the next inhalation. It is as though the lower abdomen were a balloon that can remain inflated throughout the process of breathing; the balloon is supported by the engagement of the muscles of your lower back and pelvic floor.

The seminal Western book on hara, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim’s Hara: The Vital Center of Man, reveals the psychological dimensions of hara in the Japanese language. For example, in English we might say that someone has a big heart, meaning they are kind or compassionate. A Japanese equivalent would be to say that person has a “big hara” (hara no oki). In Japanese, saying that a person’s hara “rose” (ga tatsu) implies that they were swept away by anger, as we say in English that someone has lost their head. To say that someone has “accomplished or finished” developing their hara (no dekita hito) conveys that the person is a mature individual. A corollary statement says that one who has not developed their hara is not fit to lead.

When I first heard of these sayings, I assumed that they were metaphoric, much as saying that someone lost their head is metaphoric. However, as I progressed in my Zen training, I realized that they are literal: for example, when someone is swept away by anger, their hara breathing is lost and with that their ability to “settle down.” With one’s development of the physical aspects of hara come profound psychological changes, something I have observed over years of watching my Zen students. As they develop hara physically, they acquire composure, equanimity, and a gravitas that were not there before.

An old Zen saying is “You cannot wash off blood with blood,” meaning that it is difficult to control thoughts with just more thoughts. Another saying that is highly valued in Rinzai Zen in particular is “Enter the mind through body.” These sayings underscore the fact that the keys to the highly valued mental states associated with Zen—particularly the deep concentration of samadhi, in which the delusion of separateness falls away—are physical in nature and physically trainable. As the writer and lay Soto Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida wrote in his guide Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, “It is the correct observation of the lower abdomen, as we sit and breathe, that enables us to observe the activity of our mind.” In other words, hara breathing is a gateway to samadhi. At first this needs to be done with intention; over time it becomes second nature. One of my teachers used to say that the depth of samadhi is in direct proportion to the quality of hara breathing. In turn, samadhi enables kensho, the “seeing into one’s true nature” that is fundamental to Zen realization. In this way, the depth of one’s Zen meditation experience is tied to the direct connection to one’s breathing.

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Abreviated Excerpt from
Maha-Satipatthana Sutta

-Buddha

…sitting down folding one’s legs crosswise, holding one’s body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore [lit: the front of the chest]. Always mindful, one breathes in; mindful one breathes out.
…Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long…‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short….I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body….‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ …‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication….‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.

…one remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body (breathing), …and one remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world.

zen breath | care + joy | 1 . 1 . 19

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Be Kind to Your Breath

…on the breath in Zen

– Edward Espe Brown

“Zen,” my teachers used to say, “is to settle the self on the self.” Katagiri Roshi, when he said this, would point first to his head and then to his abdomen. What he was illustrating, simply speaking, was how we must bring the awareness—which tends to reside in the head—to the sensations of breath in the abdomen. Nothing to it: in Zen you come down to earth—down from the citadel of thinking into the body of breath.
You sit upright, taking, as it were, your “best” posture. With your hands palm-up on your knees, taking a few moments to carefully lean from side to side, then slightly forward, then slightly back, you find the place where you can sit right in the center, not slouching or slumping, not leaning forward or backward, to the left or to the right.
Then you are encouraged to “settle into immobile sitting.” You allow your body to settle onto the cushion or chair, and your mind to settle into your breath. The suggestion is to take two or three deeper breaths through the mouth, drawing in a full inhalation and releasing the breath in a complete exhalation (silently, by all means!), a way to let go of accumulated tensions at the start of sitting.
After that you place your hands in your lap with the palms facing upward, the left hand on top of the right, fingers on top of fingers, the tips of your thumbs touching, your hands forming an oval opening. Perhaps your right wrist rests lightly on your right thigh. Behind your hands is where you focus on the breath in the abdomen. In Japanese it’s called the hara, a spot said to be about two inches below the navel.
Who knows better how to breathe, you or your breath?
When I was first studying Zen, we were taught to “follow” the breath and also to “count” the breath. The sense of following the breath is that the thinking mind—the self in the head—is not directing or leading the breath, not telling it what to do or how to be: it’s not telling it to be longer, deeper, or calmer, but allowing the breath to fulfill itself, allowing the breath in the abdomen to “in-form” the body/mind.
After all, who knows better how to breathe, you or your breath? It’s perhaps like giving the horse the reins, and letting it take you home. Some trust is involved. Still, “following” may not be quite right, as you cannot actually let the breath go “ahead” of your awareness. So you breathe, perhaps, in the spirit of giving your awareness over to the breath, or as my teachers used to say, “taking the best care of your breath.”
For years Suzuki Roshi emphasized counting the breath: the first exhalation, “one,” the next exhalation, “two,” and so forth up to ten. If you got to ten—or you lost count—you were to start again at one. Again and again Roshi reminded us that this was not about counting, but a way to help us bring the thinking mind onto the breath in the abdomen, and to encourage us to tend or take care of our breath. In one lecture, for instance, he mentioned having a feeling of kindness for your breath: “If we do not have some warm, big satisfaction in our practice, that is not true practice. Even though you sit, trying to have the right posture and counting your breath, it may still be lifeless zazen, because you are just following instructions. You are not kind enough with yourself. Be very kind with your breathing, one breath after another.”
Another suggestion was to be “one with the breath,” following the breath so closely that it “disappears.” Have your awareness move exactly with the breath. Let your whole body breathe.
Implicit in this breath-awareness practice in Zen is the importance of posture. Because of the emphasis on impeccable uprightness, which is not your accustomed posture, you are implicitly inviting your breath to be different than it usually is—that is, to expand and open into the full extension of the body. Sometimes you may hear your breath saying, “Thank goodness, at last someone is giving me space to breathe.”
Occasionally someone would ask about instructions mentioned in books they had read to “put strength into the exhalation,” or “push down on the exhalation,” and Suzuki Roshi would say that while it might be a good idea, most people tended to overdo it, so he did not teach it. What he did say was that “if you exhale smoothly, without even trying to exhale, you are entering into the complete perfect calmness of your mind. The important point is your exhalation. Instead of trying to feel yourself as you inhale, fade into emptiness as you exhale. You become one with everything after you completely exhale with this feeling. If you are still alive, naturally you will inhale again, ‘Oh, I’m still alive! “

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To be still alive is a miracle. The greatest of all miracles is to be alive, and when you breathe in, you touch that miracle. Therefore, your breathing can be a celebration of life.

– Thich Nhat Hahn

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Joy of Mindful Breathing

– Thich Nhat Hahn

This technique is simple but the power, the result, can be very great. The exercise is simply to identify the in-breath as in-breath and the out-breath as the out-breath. When you breathe in, you know that this is your in-breath. When you breathe out, you are mindful that this is your out-breath.
Just recognize: this is an in-breath, this is an out-breath. Very simple, very easy. In order to recognize your in-breath as in-breath, you have to bring your mind home to yourself.
What is recognizing your in-breath is your mind, and the object of your mind—the object of your mindfulness—is the in-breath. Mindfulness is always mindful of something. When you drink your tea mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of drinking. When you walk mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of walking. And when you breathe mindfully, that is mindfulness of breathing.
So the object of your mindfulness is your breath, and you just focus your attention on it. Breathing in, this is my in-breath. Breathing out, this is my out-breath. When you do that, the mental discourse will stop. You don’t think anymore. You don’t have to make an effort to stop your thinking; you bring your attention to your in-breath and the mental discourse just stops. That is the miracle of the practice. You don’t think of the past anymore. You don’t think of the future. You don’t think of your projects, because you are focusing your attention, your mindfulness, on your breath.

The breath can be a celebration of the fact that you are alive, so it can be very joyful. And the object of your meditation may then become joy!

It gets even better. You can enjoy your breath. The practice can be pleasant, joyful. Someone who is dead cannot take any more breaths. But you are alive. You are breathing in, and while breathing in, you know that you are alive. When you are joyful and happy, you don’t feel that you have to make any effort at all. I am alive; I am breathing in.
An in-breath may take three, four, five seconds, it depends. That’s time to be alive, time to enjoy your breath. You don’t have to interfere with your breathing. If your in-breath is short, allow it to be short. If your out-breath is long, let it to be long. Don’t try to chnage it. The practice is simple recognition of the in-breath and the out-breath. It has a powerful effect.

Joyful Practice | 3 . 26 . 19

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Joyful Wisdom

– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

 

Within our perceived weaknesses and imperfections lies the key to realizing our true strength. By facing our disturbing emotions and the problems that occur in our lives, we discover an experience of well-being that extends outward as well as inward. Had I not faced the panic and anxiety I felt through most of my youth, I would not be in the position I find myself today. I would never have found the courage or the strength to get on a plane, travel around the world, and sit before an audience of strangers passing on the wisdom I’d learned not only through my own experience, but the experiences of the truly great masters who were my guides and teachers.

We’re all buddhas. We just don’t recognize it. We are confined in many ways to a limited view of ourselves and the world around us through cultural conditioning, family upbringing, personal experience, and the basic biological predisposition toward making distinctions and measuring present experience and future hopes and fears against a neuronal warehouse of memories.

Once you commit yourself to developing an awareness of your buddhanature, you’ll inevitably start to see changes in your day-to- day experience. Things that used to trouble you gradually lose their power to upset you. You’ll become intuitively wiser, more relaxed, and more openhearted. You’ll begin to recognize obstacles as opportunities for further growth. And as your illusory sense of limitation and vulnerability gradually fades away, you’ll discover deep within yourself the true grandeur of who and what you are.

Best of all, as you start to see your own potential, you’ll also begin to recognize it in everyone around you. Buddhanature is not a special quality available to a privileged few. The true mark of recognizing your buddhanature is to realize how ordinary it really is—the ability to see that every living creature shares it, though not everyone recognizes it in him- or herself. So instead of closing your heart to people who yell at you or act in some other harmful way, you find yourself becoming more open. You recognize that they aren’t “jerks,” but are people who, like you, want to be happy and peaceful. They’re only acting like jerks because they haven’t recognized their true nature and are overwhelmed by sensations of vulnerability and fear.

Your practice can begin with the simple aspiration to do better, to approach all of your activities with a greater sense of awareness and insight, and to open your heart more deeply toward others. Motivation is the single most important factor in determining whether your experience is conditioned by suffering or by peace. Wisdom and compassion actually develop at the same pace. The more attentive you become, the easier you’ll find it to be compassionate. And the more you open your heart to others, the wiser and more attentive you become in all your activities.

At any given moment, you can choose to follow the chain of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that reinforce a perception of yourself as vulnerable and limited—or you can remember that your true nature is pure, unconditioned, and incapable of

being harmed. You can remain in the sleep of ignorance or remember that you are and always have been awake. Either way, you’re still expressing the unlimited nature of your true being. Ignorance, vulnerability, fear, anger, and desire are expressions of the infinite potential of your buddhanature. There’s nothing inherently wrong or right with making such choices. The fruit of Buddhist practice is simply the recognition that these and other mental afflictions are nothing more or less than choices available to us because our real nature is infinite in scope.

We choose ignorance because we can. We choose awareness because we can. Samsara and nirvana are simply different points of view based on the choices we make in how to examine and understand our experience. There’s nothing magical about nirvana and nothing bad or wrong about samsara. If you’re determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so. The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.

In essence, the Buddhist path offers a choice between familiarity and practicality. There is, without question, a certain comfort and stability in maintaining familiar patterns of thought and behavior. Stepping outside that zone of comfort and familiarity necessarily involves moving into a realm of unfamiliar experience that may seem really scary, an uncomfortable in-between realm. You don’t know whether to go back to what was familiar but frightening or to forge ahead toward what may be frightening simply because it’s unfamiliar.

In a sense, the uncertainty surrounding the choice to recognize your full potential is similar to what several of my students have told me about ending an abusive relationship: there’s a certain reluctance or sense of failure associated with letting go of the relationship.

The primary difference between severing an abusive relationship and entering the path of Buddhist practice is that when you enter the path of Buddhist practice you’re ending an abusive relationship with yourself. When you choose to recognize your true potential, you gradually begin to find yourself belittling yourself less frequently, your opinion of yourself becomes more positive and wholesome, and your sense of confidence and sheer joy at being alive increases. At the same time, you begin to recognize that everyone around you has the same potential, whether they know it or not. Instead of dealing with them as threats or adversaries, you’ll find yourself able to recognize and empathize with their fear and unhappiness. You’ll spontaneously respond to them in ways that emphasize solutions rather than problems.

Ultimately, joyful wisdom comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and

the discomfort of being ruled by them. I can’t promise you that it will always be pleasant simply to rest in the awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations—and to recognize them as interactive creations of your own mind and body. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that looking at yourself this way will be, at times, extremely unpleasant.

But the same can be said about beginning anything new, whether it’s going to the gym, starting a job, or beginning a diet. The first few months are always difficult. It’s hard to learn all the skills you need to master a job; it’s hard to motivate yourself to exercise; and it’s hard to eat healthfully every day. But after a while the difficulties subside; you start to feel a sense of pleasure or accomplishment, and your entire sense of self begins to change.

Meditation works the same way. For the first few days you might feel very good, but after a week or so, practice becomes a trial. You can’t find the time, sitting is uncomfortable, you can’t focus, or you just get tired. You hit a wall, as runners do when they try to add an extra half mile to their exercise. The body says, “I can’t,” while the mind says, “I should.” Neither voice is particularly pleasant; in fact, they’re both a bit demanding.

Buddhism is often referred to as the “middle way” because it offers a third option. If you just can’t focus on a sound or a candle flame for one second longer, then by all means stop. Otherwise, meditation becomes a chore. You’ll end up thinking, “Oh no, it’s 7:15.1 have to sit down and cultivate awareness”. No one ever progresses that way. On the other hand, if you think you could go on for another minute or two, then go on. You may be surprised by what you learn. You might discover a particular thought or feeling behind your resistance that you didn’t want to acknowledge. Or you may simply find that you can actually rest your mind longer than you thought you could. That discovery alone can give you greater confidence in yourself.

But the best part of all is that no matter how long you practice, or what method you use, every technique of Buddhist meditation ultimately generates compassion. Whenever you look at your mind, you can’t help but recognize your similarity to those around you. When you see your own desire to be happy, you can’t avoid seeing the same desire in others. And when you look clearly at your own fear, anger, or aversion, you can’t help but see that everyone around you feels the same fear, anger, and aversion. This is wisdom—not in the sense of book learning, but in the awakening of the heart, the recognition of our connection to others, and the road to joy.

steady heart + mind | 3 . 19 . 19

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The Heart of the Matter

– Thich Nhat Hahn

 

My desire for achievement has led to much suffering. No matter what I do, it never feels like it’s enough. How can I make peace with myself? The quality of your action depends on the quality of your being. Suppose you’re eager to offer happiness, to make someone happy. That’s a good thing to do. But if you’re not happy, then you can’t do that. In order to make another person happy, you have to be happy yourself. So there’s a link between doing and being. If you don’t succeed in being, you can’t succeed in doing. If you don’t feel that you’re on the right path, happiness isn’t possible. This is true for everyone; if you don’t know where you’re going, you suffer. It’s very important to realize your path and see your true way.

Happiness means feeling you are on the right path every moment. You don’t need to arrive at the end of the path in order to be happy. The right path refers to the very concrete ways you live your life in every moment. In Buddhism, we speak of the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. It’s possible for us to live the Noble Eightfold Path every moment of our daily lives. That not only makes us happy, it makes people around us happy. If you practice the path, you become very pleasant, very fresh, and very compassionate.

I am busy from early in the morning until late at night. I am rarely alone. Where can I find a time and place to contemplate in silence? Silence is something that comes from your heart, not from outside. Silence doesn’t mean not talking and not doing things; it means that you are not disturbed inside. If you’re truly silent, then no matter what situation you find yourself in you can enjoy the silence. There are moments when you think you’re silent and all around is silent, but talking is going on all the time inside your head. That’s not silence. The practice is how to find silence in all the activities you do.

Let us change our way of thinking and our way of looking. We have to realize that silence comes from our heart and not from the absence of talk. Sitting down to eat your lunch may be an opportunity for you to enjoy silence; though others may be speaking, it’s possible for you to be very silent inside. The Buddha was surrounded by thousands of monks. Although he walked, sat, and ate among the monks and the nuns, he always dwelled in his silence. The Buddha made it very clear that to be alone, to be quiet, does not mean you have to go into the forest. You can live in the sangha, you can be in the marketplace, yet you still enjoy the silence and the solitude. Being alone does not mean there is no one around you.

Being alone means you are established firmly in the here and the now and you become aware of what is happening in the present moment. You use your mindfulness to become aware of every feeling, every perception you have. You’re aware of what’s happening around you in the sangha, but you’re always with yourself, you don’t lose yourself. That’s the Buddha’s definition of the ideal practice of solitude: not to be caught in the past or carried away by the future, but always to be here, body and mind united, aware of what is happening in the present moment. That is real solitude.

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Making Friends with Ourselves

– Pema Chodron

Whenever we practice meditation, it is important to try to refrain from criticizing ourselves about how we practice and what comes up in our practice. This would only be training in being hard on ourselves! I want to emphasize the importance of maintaining an atmosphere of unconditional friendliness when you practice and as you take your practice out into the world. We can practice for a lot of years—I know many people who have practiced for countless years, decades even—and somewhere along into their umpteenth year, it dawns on them that they haven’t been using that practice to develop lovingkindness for themselves. Rather, it’s been somewhat aggressive meditation toward themselves, perhaps very goal-oriented. As someone said, “I meditated all those years because I wanted people to think I was a good Buddhist.” Or, “I meditated all those years out of a feeling of I should do this, it would be good for me.” And so naturally we come to meditation with the same attitudes with which we come to everything. I’ve seen this with students time and time again, and it is very human.

Rather than letting this be something to feel bad about, you can discover who you are at your wisest and who you are at your most confused. You get to know yourself in all your aspects: at times completely sane and openhearted and at other times completely messed up and bewildered. We are all at times a basket case. Meditation gives you the opportunity to get to know yourself in all those aspects. Judging ourselves for how our practice is going or what might be coming up for us during meditation is a kind of subtle aggression toward ourselves.

The steadfastness we develop in meditation is a willingness to stay. It may seem silly, but meditation actually isn’t too unlike training a dog! We learn to stay. When you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch, you “stay.” When you’re worried about what’s going to happen on Monday, you “stay.” It’s a very lighthearted, compassionate instruction. It is like training the dog in the sense that you can train the dog with harshness and the dog will learn to stay, but if you train it by beating it and yelling at it, it will stay and it will be able to follow that command, but it will be extremely neurotic and scared. As long as you give a very clear command in the way that the dog was trained, it will be able to follow it. But add in any kind of unpredictability or uncertainty, and the poor animal just becomes confused and neurotic.

Or you can train the dog with gentleness. You can train the dog with gentleness and kindness, and it produces a dog that can also stay and heel and roll over and sit up and all of these things—but the dog is flexible and playful and can roll with the punches, so to speak. Personally, I prefer to be the second kind of dog. This staying, this perseverance, this loyalty that comes with meditation—it’s all very gentle or compassionate in its motivation. This gentle approach to yourself in meditation is called maitri. This is translated as “lovingkindness,” or just “love.” In terms of meditation, we learn to be kind, loving, and compassionate toward ourselves.

I teach about maitri a lot, and it is often misunderstood as some kind of self-indulgence, as if it is just about feeling good and being self-concerned. People will often think that that’s what I mean by maitri. But it’s somewhat subtle what maitri is and what it isn’t. For example, you might say that taking a bubble bath or getting a workout at the gym is maitri. But on the other hand, maybe it isn’t, because maybe it’s some kind of avoidance; maybe you are working out to punish yourself. On the other hand, maybe going to the gym is just what you need to relax enough to go on with your life with some kind of lightheartedness. Or it might be one of your 65 daily tactics to avoid reality. You’re the only one who knows.

So it’s important to be clear about what maitri means and not to come away with a misunderstanding of maitri as some kind of indulgence, which actually weakens us and makes us less able to keep our heart and mind open to ourselves and the difficulties of our life. I often use this definition: maitri strengthens us. One of the qualities of maitri is steadfastness, and that’s developed through meditation. So through boredom, through aches, through indigestion, through all kinds of disturbing memories, to edgy energy, to peaceful meditation, to sleepiness, it’s steadfastness. You sit with yourself, you move closer to yourself, no matter what’s going on. You don’t try to get rid of anything—you can still be sad or frustrated or angry. You recognize your humanity and the wide gamut of emotions you might be feeling.

When we cultivate maitri toward ourselves, we are also generating equanimity. Equanimity means we are able to be with ourselves and our world without getting caught in “for” and “against,” without judging things as “right” or “wrong,” without getting caught up in opinions and beliefs and solidly held views about ourselves and our world. Unconditional friendliness is training in being able to settle down with ourselves, just as we are, without labeling our experience as “good” or “bad.” We don’t need to become too dramatic or despairing about what we see in ourselves.

thinking + breath | 2 . 26 . 19

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Thinking

-Thanissaro Bhikhu

 

The Buddha once said that he got started on the right path of practice when he learned to observe his thinking, noticing which kinds of thoughts were skillful, which kinds were unskillful. In other words which kinds of thinking lead to harm, which kinds of thinking didn’t lead to harm. Notice that: He didn’t say he got on the path when he learned to stop thinking. He got on the path when he learned to observe his thinking and to see it as part of a causal process. This is important, because a lot of meditation has to do with thinking. There’s a popular misconception that meditation means not thinking at all. But if you look at all the descriptions of the noble eightfold path, you see that they all start with right view. Then they continue with right resolve. In other words they start with thinking: learning how to think in the right way.

In psychotherapy they have talking cures. And they note how amazing it is: Sometimes simply talking over a neurosis—getting it out in the open, learning to be very clear about the presuppositions behind it—can disband it. It loses its power. In a similar vein, meditation is learning how to watch our thoughts, to be very clear about how the mind thinks. Learn how to bring up its assumptions—the unexpressed assumptions or the ones just barely expressed—so that you can see them in the light of day. Then you can see what kinds of thinking you really do live with, what kinds of thinking are absent. Often you’ll find that things that have been having the most power over the mind are the ones that, if you really look at them, don’t really make any sense at all.

So it’s important as you meditate that you have a sense of the role and power of thinking in the meditation. As the Buddha said, every state of concentration depends on a perception, a mental label you create, a little message you can carry from one moment to the next, one that you can remember, that you can be mindful of. For example the object of mindfulness is: “breath.”

As a meditator you’ve got to realize there are different ways of relating to the breath energy in the body. In fact, the only way you can really get in touch with the breath is to reconceive the way you relate to the body. The best way to deal with the breath is simply to think “allow”. You don’t push it. You allow it. What you can do is just think: open up, open up. Keep your wrists relaxed, keep your ankles relaxed. All your joints: Keep them relaxed. Think of allowing the opening up t,of he passages by which the breath can flow. You can’t make the breath flow. It’s something it’s going to do on its own once you’ve opened the channels.

So you maintain the allowing thought of just “breath.” This is part of getting a new view of the breath—and you need a new view of yourself as well, of what can be done. You can relate to the breath and body in a different way from the way you’ve been doing it. You can relate to the thinking in a different way as well.

As the Buddha once said, if it weren’t possible for people to change their ways from unskillful to skillful, he wouldn’t have taught the practice of developing skill. It wouldn’t have served any purpose. But it is possible. When you’ve been doing something unskillful, you can change. You realize that there is another way of doing things and that you’re capable of doing it.

This requires a certain amount of imagination. That’s the beginning of any change in your behavior: allowing yourself to imagine that you can change the way you behave. This applies to all aspects of the practice. You start with generosity. When you make up your mind to give a gift, you’re imagining yourself as someone with something to spare. Up to that point, you may have been thinking that you’re hungry and lacking, and all you could think about was gaining, gaining, gaining, getting, getting, getting. But when you allow yourself to think that you have more than enough, you can give. And you begin to realize that this has very little to do with how much you may have materially. Poor people can often be more generous than rich people because they have a different idea of

“enough.” When you make this simple change in your thinking, you put yourself in a new place: a place with more dignity, a place of more inner worth.

The gift of forgiveness is the same sort of thing. Someone else has harmed you. If all you can think about is how much you’re a victim, you make yourself a smaller person. But if you think of yourself as large-hearted enough to forgive, you suddenly become a larger person. That gives the mind more space to move around.

And so on down the line. You learn that you can observe the precepts. You learn that you can meditate, simply by changing the way you think about yourself and your capabilities.

So remember that this is the observing and focusing the “thinking” part of practice. There do come parts of the practice where you will not think, but you have your skillful reasons for not thinking. You’re doing it with specific aims in mind, so be clear about your aims and where your aims come from. What are the values that lie behind them? What’s your understanding of suffering and the end of suffering that lies behind how you do things? Make sure to straighten out your thoughts. Once you straighten out your thoughts, realizing how suffering comes about and how you can put an end to it, you’ve got everything you need to put an end to it. It’s simply a matter of allowing yourself to think in those ways.

Notice that the emphasis is on allowing. You don’t have to force yourself. You allow something better than what has been happening… to happen.

Ajaan Fuang once said that if we could force our way into nirvana, everybody would have arrived there a long time ago. But it’s not something you can do by force. You ultimately get there only through discernment. And discernment starts with learning how to think in the right way. It doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t require a lot of energy: just allowing yourself to think in skillful ways. That can turn you around right there, and head you in the right direction. So before you stop thinking, learn how to think in ways that are really helpful, allow yourself to think in ways that are really helpful, and it will make all the difference in your practice.

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Breath

– Ajaan Lee

 

Jhana means to be absorbed or focused in a single object, as when we deal with the breath.

The first jhana has five factors: (1) Directed thought: Think of the breath until you can recognize it clearly without getting distracted. (2) Singleness of object: Keep the mind with the breath. Don’t let it stray after other objects. Watch over your thoughts so that they deal only with the breath until the breath becomes comfortable. (The mind becomes one, at rest with the breath.) (3) Evaluation: Let this comfortable breath sensation spread and coordinate with the other breath sensations in the body. Let these breath sensations spread until they all flow together. Once the body has been soothed by the breath, feelings of pain will grow calm. The body will be filled with good breath energy. These three qualities must be brought to bear on the same stream of breathing for the first jhana to arise. This stream of breathing can then take you all the way to the fourth jhana. Directed thought, singleness of object, and evaluation act as the causes. When the causes are ripe, results will appear. (4) Rapture: a compelling sense of fullness and refreshment for body and mind, going straight to the heart, independent of all else. (5) Pleasure: physical ease arising from the body’s being still and unperturbed; mental contentment arising from the mind’s being at ease on its own, unperturbed, serene, and exultant. Rapture and pleasure are the results.

Breaking Down Suffering | 2 . 19 . 19

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Discernment

– Thanisarro Bhihku

If you ever had to tackle a large or overwhelming job, we all learn the basic principle that if you want to get anywhere with it, you have to break it down into little jobs, into manageable pieces…

…then you tackle the pieces bit by bit by bit, and after a while you find the job gets done. You need the large overview so that you know how to break it down into manageable pieces, but when you actually do the work, you focus on the little bits and pieces.

This job we have here of tackling suffering is the same sort of thing. It seems overwhelming. You can think of it as this huge big mass, and the Buddha sometimes talks about it as a mass of suffering—because that’s how most of us experience it, especially when it gets really big, when it really weighs down on the mind.

But the whole purpose of discernment is to be able to break it down into little pieces so that you can see how it’s constructed and how it doesn’t have to be constructed. This is what the Buddha’s teachings on the five aggregates, the six sense spheres, the four or the six properties, dependent co-arising, are for. They’re all designed to take suffering and to break it down into manageable pieces. The reason we call this discernment is just that—its ability to see subtle distinctions—because the pieces are subtle and the distinctions between them are subtle.

This is why we have to practice concentration as a basis for this kind of discernment. If your mind isn’t really still, if your awareness isn’t really sharp and quick, you’re going to miss all the subtleties. Everything gets glommed together. It’s all right here, but if you don’t see the distinctions, everything is going to stay just as a big lump right here, a big mass right here in the present moment.
Say, for instance, that you’re feeling a sense of depression, a sense of sadness. There’s a physical side to it and there’s the mental side. The mental side is made up of lots of little thoughts that are all glommed together. So the Buddha recommends that you take it apart in terms of the khandhas, in terms of the aggregates. Look for the feeling, and then look for the perception. An important perception is saying, “This is my suffering, this is happening to me,” which may be true but you don’t have to think it. It’s an optional thought. You could simply say, “This is suffering,” and leave it at that. That would adequately describe the situation and would also be more helpful. The thing is, you have to catch the mind in the act of applying that particular perception. It will do it repeatedly again and again and again. That’s what clinging is. It’s holding onto a particular thought and just repeating it over and over again.

When you can see that happening, you realize that you’ve got the choice to drop it. You don’t have to keep hitting yourself over the head. This is the same principle that applies to right speech. As the Buddha said, there are things that may be true but if they’re not useful, if this is not the right time for them, we don’t say them. Take that principle and apply it to the mind, to your inner conversation. There may be perceptions that in one way or other are true enough, but they’re not useful and this is not the right time for them. They’re actually causing you suffering, so why bring them in?

If physical side of the suffering is what seems oppressive, take things apart in terms of the properties: earth, water, wind, and fire. Suppose there’s a pain in your knee. The sensations you’ve got around that pain in the knee: Which ones are just physical sensations and which ones are feeling? In other words, which ones are rupa, or form, and which ones are feeling? Any sense of heat is form, any sense of movement is form; coolness, solidity: these things are all form. But then there’s the feeling of pain that sort of flickers among them. It’s something different. It’s a different aggregate. This is where the aggregates and the elements can get together, and this is where we can distinguish among them. But one way of distinguishing between feeling and form is just that: try to see which sensations in that sensation of pain are simply the aggregates of form, the properties of the body, and which are the actual feeling. Try to tease these things out. This is the work of discernment. It discerns distinctions, it sees things clearly.

This is why it’s called discernment. So we’re not here trying to gain the wisdom that lets us simply accept things. Sometimes people think that that’s the ultimate wisdom of Buddhism: learning to be equanimous, patient, accepting of everything. Suffering comes, and you tell yourself that that’s just the nature of experience, that’s the way it is. Craving comes, well, just accept the craving, that’s the way it is.

Now that is the beginning part of discernment, the ability to admit what’s going on. But then as the Buddha said in his first sermon, discernment is not just knowing the truth, that this is the way things are. There is equaly important— a task to do with each of these truths.

When there’s suffering, you try to comprehend it. And comprehending it doesn’t mean simply accepting it. It means ferreting out the bits and pieces from which it’s constructed. What are the raw materials of suffering? It is just these things: form, feeling, perception, fabrication, consciousness. If you look at the suffering in those terms, takes a lot of the sting out. Because as you see the perception that it’s “my” suffering or that “I’m” suffering is just that: it’s a momentary event in the mind. But it brings a big sting with it. So you have the choice not to say that to yourself, not to think in terms of those perceptions. Then you find that as you take the events apart, tease them apart this way, there’s less and less and less suffering. That big mass of suffering gets broken down into little bits. And as in the image in the Canon, finally it gets winnowed into a high wind and blown away, because you realize that you were the one who’s been gluing all these pieces together, and then weighing yourself down with them.

The primary ingredient in this glue is the sense that “I am the one who is suffering, this is my suffering, this is happening to me, I’m in the midst of the suffering, or I am the suffering, or the suffering is in me.” The Buddha has you take this sensation of suffering and tease it apart in terms of the aggregates and then ask of each of these aggregates: “Is this something in me or am I in it? Is this mine? Is this me?” And as you’re able to look at these things—and it’s not going to be a little block that you could sit there and watch. It’s going to be a very quick event in the mind, especially the mental khandhas. But if you learn simply to observe that, “There is this, there is this, that’s all,” you see that as you encounter difficult situations—pain in the body, anything difficult, anything that would make you suffer—you have the choice to think in ways that would make you suffer or not, because you can see these events happening simply as events. That’s all.
That’s what discernment is all about. Ferreting these things out, realizing that they’re individual events in the mind and you don’t have to glue them together in the old way. You can look at them from a different standpoint.

This is what the Dhamma does. It gives us a new frame from which to look at things. This is why Dhamma talks are not just here for information. They’re here to help you look at things in a whole new way, applying the four noble truths to your experience. That’s the framework the Buddha gives you.

It’s not only the framework for his teachings, but also the framework he’d like you to apply to your experience. It’s hard to shift frameworks. We’re used to our old frameworks, so we tend just to bring the four noble truths in as new information. If that’s all they are, just a piece of news you’ve heard, they really don’t make that much difference. But if you make up your mind that you’re going to look at everything from this perspective, and keep at it, keep at it, you find that it’s really useful. It not only points out the way things are, but also shows what you can do so that you don’t have to suffer from the way things are.
So try to get the mind still enough to allow your discernment to get more and more refined, more and more subtle. It works in stages. The more still the mind can be, the more refined your discernment can be, the more subtleties you can see—and the more you can put an end to your suffering. Ajaan Fuang used to say that the discernment that comes from concentration is special. It goes deeper into the mind than discernment not based on concentration. When you’ve heard the topics of discernment—four noble truths, five aggregates, six sense spheres, the properties, dependent co-arising—you can hear them, you can think about them, you can talk about them, but if you don’t actually see these things in action, they don’t go to your heart. The whole purpose of concentration is so you can see them in action. They are very quick, they are very subtle so you have to be very, very still. But if you see them in the stillness, the understanding goes straight to the heart. That’s where it really can make a difference.