Tuesday Reading Material

Equanimous Heart – Part Two | 5 . 21 . 2019

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The Hidden Treasure of the Heart

-Aura Glaser

No matter how long we’ve been in the habit of protecting and armoring ourselves, it’s always possible for people like you and me to dissolve the barriers of fear and confusion and open our hearts.
The choice is ours. We can spend our lives circling familiar ground, deepening habits of aggression and craving, sowing the seeds of suffering, or we can summon the courage to step off the well-worn path of our habits and begin sowing the seeds of love, compassion, and well-being.
In the Mahayana tradition we are encouraged to arouse bodhichitta, the heart of awakening, as the fuel for our journey. Bodhichitta is the wholehearted commitment to free ourselves from the suffering of ignorance and destructive habitual patterns so we can help others do the same. The practice of compassion has to be unconditional and unbiased; it needs to include those we fear or loathe, as well as those we may never meet. It doesn’t work to be selective. As long as we are picking and choosing who is worthy and who is not, we remain trapped by the very self-centeredness that prevents the growth of real compassion.This is why the Buddhist teachings instruct us to train in equanimity as the foundation of compassion.
There are three stages in the development of equanimity:
1. aspiring
2. dissolving
3. equalizing.
(Last week we covered Aspring. Please refer to last weeks reading to review if you missed it.)
Dissolving
The Buddha observed that all of the misery in the world can be boiled down to three basic causes: grasping, aversion, and ignorance. We want, we reject, and we ignore. Always reaching for what we want and pushing away what we don’t, while ignoring the rest, is our typical routine. The problem is, the more we narrow life into yes and no, acceptable and unacceptable, wanted and unwanted, the more we suffer. The truth is, we will never get life to work on our terms or according to our plans. We will never get rid of everything we don’t want and get our hands on everything we do. At this level of equanimity we begin to work more directly with our habits of mind. We soften the hard edges of our biases and dissolve the solidity of our projections by really looking at them and seeing through them.
The meditation practice that supports this stage of equanimity involves observing our attachment, aversion, and indifference in response to the three kinds of beings we encounter—those we like, those we dislike, and those about whom we’re indifferent. Traditionally, these are labeled friends, enemies, and strangers. In this practice, we bring to mind as vividly as possible three people who fall into these categories. We notice all of the opinions, judgments, emotions, and bodily sensations that arise as we think about each one.
At first glance these distinctions seem straightforward and our attitudes justified. The whole thing looks quite reasonable. But when we dig a little deeper, the building blocks of our logic start to crumble. We realize that our feelings about others often have a lot more to do with us than they do with the other person. Our mother is a stranger to someone else and perhaps another person’s enemy. The bank teller who is a stranger to us is someone else’s precious mother. We perceive people a certain way because of the way they treat us, how important or unimportant they are to us, or because we feel threatened, annoyed, supported, or cared for by them. But life’s reality is much vaster than that. Today’s friend can be, and often is, tomorrow’s enemy. All of our friends began as strangers. In truth there is no rock-solid enemy, no absolute friend, and no permanent stranger. It is in our minds that we are making it so. It is easy to say this, and may not sound like much, but every time we actually experience a glimpse of this truth, a little bit more of our self-protective armor dissolves.
It can be very helpful to practice cultivating this second level of equanimity on the spot. Walking down the street or sitting in an airport terminal can be a good time to observe how easily we shut down or open up. We see how automatically we form opinions about others, and how these opinions can nail us to a position. Before we know it we’re taking sides. It doesn’t take much. There’s the panhandler on the corner, the group of men in suits, the woman in stilettos and a fur coat, the person in a wheelchair. Paying attention, we notice when we feel appreciation or irritation arise and try to catch it before it hardens into grasping or aversion. The trick is to do this with both honesty and kindness, without adding a whole storyline about how we “ought” to feel. This takes both courage and curiosity—the courage to face ourselves and notice our meanness, greediness, or loneliness, and the curiosity to not recoil but move closer to it.
Paradoxically, moving closer sometimes means first stepping back. I recall some good advice I received from my teacher, Gehlek Rimpoche, when I asked him about an issue I was struggling with. He said, “You know, in Cleveland I drive very often on a street called Overlook. That may be a good street for you to drive on.” When we are caught up in our reactions to things it can help to step back and overlook the situation. Things can feel a lot less claustrophobic when we have a bird’s-eye view. As we open to a bigger picture we actually get to know our anger, prejudices, and fears, and learn a lot about what every other human being is up against. We see how much pain there is in shutting people out of our hearts, and how much joy there is when we express our willingness to open to all of life.
Equalizing
At the third level of equanimity we begin to rock the foundations of our self-centeredness through the practice of equalizing self and others. We see beneath the surface to how we all want the same thing. Instead of holding ourselves apart from others, we realize how close to them we really are. We do this by acknowledging a simple human truth—everyone, just like me, wishes to have happiness, and everyone just like me, wishes to avoid suffering. Just like me, everyone wants to be loved, to be safe and healthy, to be comfortable and at ease. And just like me, no one wants to feel afraid or inadequate, no one wants to be sick, lonely, or depressed.
Differences in religion, values, race, or social status create illusions of separateness and distance. Equalizing practice is a way of cutting through the surface of things and realizing that whatever differences there are between people, at the core we are kindred spirits seeking the same thing. We often look out at our troubled, messed-up world and wonder why people act in such destructive and hurtful ways. But if we think about it, it’s really not such a mystery. Their motivations are the same as ours; their deepest fears and longings are the same as ours. They want comfort, ease, and security; they don’t want discomfort, anxiety, and pain.
In this fundamental way we are intimately connected with everyone else on the planet. Through the practice of equalizing we see beyond the differences that divide us to the common humanity that unites us. We acknowledge our shared humanity.
The equality practice can be done while sitting on your meditation cushion and contemplating people you know, person by person. You can begin with friends, move on to strangers, and gradually include enemies. Imagining each person, you think, “Just like me, this person wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. Just like me, this person doesn’t want stress and illness and misery. Just like me, this person wants comfort and safety and ease. When this person has a headache she wants to be free of it. When he hurts, he wants relief.” Allow yourself to be touched by the awareness that each one of these people is just like you in these wishes.
This practice also works well in our daily life. Instead of going through our day caught up in our own world, we can take a few minutes, or a few hours, to focus on the practice of equalizing. It is so simple and direct, and yet it’s a real eye-opener to consider others in this way. When you meet another person you think, “Just like me, she wants to be happy; she doesn’t want to suffer. Just like me, this cashier who is looking tired wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. Just like me, this parking attendant who seems impatient wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. Just like me, all the people standing in this long line getting restless want happiness and don’t want suffering.”
When we do this practice we encounter our habit of thinking we are the center of the universe, and that our pain, our fears, our dreams, our yearnings are somehow different and more important than everyone else’s. It can be quite shocking and humbling to realize just how alike we all are. The more we cultivate this practice of equalizing, the more difficult it becomes to draw a solid line between us “the good” and them “the bad,” and it is not so easy to justify hurting or neglecting others. The Buddha said, “See yourself in others. Then who can you hurt? What harm can you do?”
Over months and years, as we practice equalizing ourselves with others, we gradually open to this understanding, until ultimately we can no longer close our heart to anyone. Loving others then becomes a natural expression of feeling our closeness with them and our likeness to them.
Training in the three stages of equanimity—aspiring, dissolving, and equalizing—supports us in steadily awakening our hear. Each stage gives inspiration for the other, and each stage leads us into further openness. We can take one stage and work with it for a while, or we can weave our way between them.
Aspiration allows us to continually extend the reach of our heart.
Dissolving softens the fixations and defences that keep us habitually caught in accepting some of life and rejecting the rest.
Equalizing brings us back again and again to the naked truth of our shared humanity and shared heart. Together, these practices of equanimity move us closer to ourselves, closer to life, and closer to the heart of compassion.

Equanimous Heart – Part One | 5 . 14 . 19

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The Hidden Treasure of the Heart

-Aura Glaser

No matter how long we’ve been in the habit of protecting and armoring ourselves, it’s always possible for people like you and me to dissolve the barriers of fear and confusion and open our hearts.
It’s like we are standing at a crossroads—the choice is ours. We can spend our lives circling familiar ground, deepening habits of aggression and craving, sowing the seeds of suffering, or we can summon the courage to step off the well-worn path of our habits and begin sowing the seeds of love, compassion, and well-being.
In the Mahayana tradition we are encouraged to arouse bodhichitta, the heart of awakening, as the fuel for our journey. Bodhichitta is the wholehearted commitment to free ourselves from the suffering of ignorance and destructive habitual patterns so we can help others do the same. And not just some others—all others. The practice of compassion has to be unconditional and unbiased; it needs to include those we fear or loathe, as well as those we may never meet. It doesn’t work to be selective. As long as we are picking and choosing who is worthy and who is not, we remain trapped by the very self-centeredness that prevents the growth of real compassion.
The trick is that if we want to generate love and compassion for all without exception, we need to experience a sense of closeness and connection that we don’t normally feel. This is why the Buddhist teachings instruct us to train in equanimity as the foundation of compassion.
Over the years of trying to put these teachings into practice, I have come to appreciate how key equanimity is. As soon as we try to practice equanimity we start to notice how we are influenced continually by all of our opinions and judgments. We see how our lack of equanimity holds us back, stops us in our tracks. Suddenly we meet head-on an ancient double-padlocked door to the heart, and, try as we might, compassion won’t flow until we open it.
One of the most effective ways to open this door is the practice of equanimity. To do this we train in keeping our hearts and minds open in increasingly difficult circumstances, and in relaxing the mind’s reactivity, we increase our capacity to love.
Equanimity is not a necessary part of the compassion we usually feel. To the extent that we think of compassion as a feeling reserved for a few, or as an occasional response of the heart to the suffering of a stranger, we don’t need to train in equanimity. But if we aspire to open beyond the usual “me and mine” definition of compassion, equanimity is like the magic key found in fairy tales—the key that opens the door to a hidden treasure. It is also like the hospitable and fruitful earth that allows the heart of great love and compassion to grow and flourish.
There are three stages in the development of equanimity: 
1. aspiring
2. dissolving
3. equalizing
Each stage builds on and includes the previous. Together, they become the springboard for the contemplative practice of “exchanging self and other” and the actual practice of tonglen. At this stage equanimity reaches beyond any imagined borders and becomes what in Tibetan is called dagzhen nyamje. Dagzhen refers to self and others, and nyamje is equal and exchange. Seen in this way, we can appreciate how closely connected equanimity is to tonglen, a practice intended to free us from our ancient prison of selfishness.
Aspiring
The first stage of equanimity is part of the practice of the “four immeasurables” (love, compassion, joy, and equanimity). Equanimity is one of the four limitless qualities of heart and mind we wish for ourselves and others to experience. And because we wish for all without exception to dwell in love, compassion, and joy, equanimity is also the thread that unites them.
The deceptively simple word “all” conveys the vastness of this practice. It reminds us that we aren’t simply thinking, “May my friends, family, co-workers, and everyone who I love and care about have happiness and its causes.” We reach out beyond the current limits of our love and think, “May the person who cut me off in the parking lot be free from suffering and its causes. May that bookkeeper who messed up my account and cost me extra money have happiness and its causes. May the person who won’t stop talking in the movie theater have joy and its causes. May the person who insulted me, may the person who embarrassed me, may the friend who doesn’t return my calls, may all of these people have happiness and its causes, be free from suffering and its causes, have joy and its causes. And may all of them dwell in equanimity free from attachment and aversion.”
Until we actually develop equanimity it can feel like what we are really saying is, “May all beings have happiness, and may they all be free from suffering—but really only those I like and not those I dislike.” We might sincerely love “all beings” in a general way when we’re sitting on our meditation cushions, but actual, or even imagined, encounters with real people show us with unfailing honesty where we get stuck.
The practice of equanimity at the level of aspiration is incredibly helpful because it stretches our heart beyond its current capability. However shut down or worked up we may feel, we start with whatever equanimity we have and we nurture it. It doesn’t matter if it seems really, really tiny as long as it is genuine. We are not telling ourselves that we feel something we don’t. We are not trying to deceive ourselves, convince ourselves, or cover our true feelings. We are just expressing our wish to open our heart further and encouraging ourselves to move closer to our resistance. In the process, we learn firsthand how much pain there is in grasping and aversion. We see how we automatically open up to some people and shut down with others. We also see how one moment of openness can lead to another.
With aspiration practice, if we find ourselves shutting down when thinking of certain people or groups of people and can’t bring ourselves to include them, we simply stop and observe what’s happening. We notice our fear, revulsion, or prejudice without running away from it and without condemning ourselves. And then we can return to our aspiration. Strengthening our aspiration at times like these can help us stay in touch with the motivation to nurture our awakened heart. We can think to ourselves, “At this moment I can’t open my heart to this person, but I hold the wish that one day I’ll be able to open my heart more fully than today.” With this approach we stay connected to a sincere wish to deepen our experience of equanimity, without adding layers of criticism and self-recrimination. In fact, the times we feel furthest from equanimity can be the moments that inspire us to strengthen the aspiration for our heart to open beyond what now seems possible.
Next week: Dissolving + Equalizing

coming home to the breath . 5 . 7 . 19

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Returning Home

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Do you remember anything from your stay in your mother’s womb? All of us spent about nine months there. That’s quite a long time. I believe that all of us had a chance to smile during that time. But who were we smiling at? When we’re happy, there’s a natural tendency to smile. I have seen people, especially children, smiling during their sleep.
Our time in our mothers’ wombs was a wonderful time. We did not have to worry about food or drink. We were protected from heat and cold. We didn’t have to do homework or housework. Protected in our mothers’ wombs, we felt quite safe. We didn’t have to worry about anything at all. No worry is wonderful. I believe many of us still remember that time spent in our mothers’ wombs. Many people have the impression that they were once in a safe and wonderful paradise and now they have lost that paradise. We think somewhere out there is a beautiful place without worry or fear, and we long to get back there. In the Vietnamese language the word for uterus is “the palace of the child.” Paradise was inside of our mothers.
In the womb, your mother took care of you. She ate and drank for you. She breathed air for you, in and out. And I guess that she dreamed for you as well. I imagine you dreamed your mother’s dreams. And if your mother smiled, I think you smiled too. If your mother dreamed about something difficult, and she cried in her dream, I guess that you probably cried with her. You shared her dreams and her nightmares, because you and your mother weren’t two separate people. You were physically attached to your mother through the umbilical cord. And your mother channeled to you through that umbilical cord food and drink, oxygen, everything, including her love. You mother probably took care of her body differently when you were in it. She may have been more careful while walking. She may have stopped drinking or quit smoking. These are very concrete expressions of love and care. You were there, you had not been born, and yet you were the object of love.
Your mother nourished you before you were born, but if you look deeply you will see that you also nourished your parents. Because of your presence in her body, they may have smiled more and loved life even more. You hadn’t done anything to your parents yet, and yet they were nourished by your presence. And their life changed from the moment of your conception in your mother’s womb.
When you were first born, someone cut your umbilical cord. Now you had to breathe for yourself. You were outside of your mother, but still somehow inside her. She embraced you with her love. And you embraced her at the same time. You were still dependent on her. She took care of you day and night. And although the cord was no longer whole between you, you were linked to your mother in a very concrete, intimate way.
When I meditate, I can still see the cord connecting me to my mother. When I look deeply, I see there are umbilical cords linking me to phenomena as well. The sun rises every morning. And thanks to the sun, we have heat and light. Without these things, we can’t survive.
So an umbilical cord links you to the sun. Another umbilical cord links you to the clouds in the sky. If the clouds were not there, there would be no rain and no water to drink. Without clouds, there is no milk, no tea, no coffee, no ice cream, nothing. There is an umbilical cord linking you to the river; there is one linking you to the forest. If you continue meditating like this, you can see that you are linked to everything and everyone in the cosmos. Your life depends on everything else that exists—on other living beings, but also on plants, minerals, air, water, and earth.
When we are inside our mothers, there is no tension in our bodies. But once we are out in the world, tension creeps in, sometimes from our first breath. Before we can release the tension in our bodies, though, we have to release the tension in our breath. If our bodies are not peaceful, then our breath is not peaceful. When we generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace our breath, the quality of our in-breath and out-breath will improve. As we breathe in mindfulness, our breathing becomes calmer and more profound. The tension in our breathing dissipates. And when our breathing is relaxed, we can embrace our bodies and we can relax.
In the Sutra on the Contemplation of the Body in the Body, the Buddha advises us to become aware of the four natural elements within the body. In the womb, these elements of water, fire, air, and earth are completely balanced. The mother balances the womb for the baby, sending in oxygen and nutrients as the baby rests in water. Once we are born, if we have a balance within the four elements, then we are in good health. But as we grow, these elements can become out of balance. Often, our mindful breath can naturally bring these elements into balance.
The Buddha also recommended that we become aware of our body’s positions and actions. In sitting meditation, the first thing is to be aware that you are in a sitting position. Then you can sit in a way that brings you calm, solidity, and well-being. In each moment we can notice the position of our body, whether we are sitting, walking, standing, or lying down. We can be aware of our actions, whether we are getting up, bending down, or putting on a jacket. Awareness brings us back to ourselves, and when we are fully mindful of our body, and living in the here and now, we are in our true home.
Did you know you had a true home? This question touches everybody. Even if you have the feeling that you don’t belong to any land, to any country, to any geographical spot, to any cultural heritage, or to any particular ethnic group, you have a true home. When you were in your mother’s body, you felt at home. Perhaps you long for a return to that place of peace and safety. But now, inside of your own body, you can come home.
Your true home is in the here and the now. It is not limited by time, space, nationality, or race. Your true home is not an abstract idea. It is something you can touch and live in every moment. With mindfulness and concentration, the energy practices of the Buddha, you can find your true home in the full relaxation of your mind and body in the present moment. No one can take it away from you. Other people can occupy your country, they can even put you in prison, but they cannot take away your true home and your freedom.
When we stop speaking and thinking and instead begin to enjoy deeply our in- and out-breath, we are enjoying being in our true home and we can touch deeply the wonders of life. This is the path shown to us by the Buddha. When you breathe in, you bring all yourself together, body and mind; you become one. And equipped with that energy of mindfulness and concentration, you may take a step. You have the insight that this is your true home—you are alive, you are fully present, you are touching life as it is.
It is fundamental that you touch your true home and realize your true home in the here and the now. All of us have the seed of mindfulness and concentration in us. By taking a mindful breath or making a mindful step, you can bring your mind back to your body.
In your daily life, your body and mind often go in two different directions. You are in a state of distraction; mind in one place, body in another. Your body is putting on a coat but your mind is preoccupied, caught in the past or the future. But between your mind and your body there is something: your breath. And as soon as you go home to your breath and you breathe with awareness, your body and mind come together, very quickly.
While breathing in, you don’t think of anything; you just focus your attention on your in-breath. You focus, you invest one hundred percent of yourself in your in-breath…and with the out breath you’ve returned to your home.

Breathing: Tibetan Posture + Breath 4 . 30 . 19

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Posture and Breath Techniques in the Tibetan Tradition

– Anyen Rinpoche and Allison Choying Zangmo

In the Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the element of air and the breath are tied together through the word lung (Tib., rlung), which is embedded with several layers of meaning. Lung describes not only the breath, the movement of air we call wind, and the basic atmosphere around us, but it has the additional meaning of “wind energy.”

    We may think of the breath as something that is simply related to the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and that keeps us alive. However, wind energy not only supports our ordinary bodily systems but also quite literally drives our emotions. Thus, it is more than simply the experience of inhalation and exhalation. Wind energy is also the physical rush of energy that accompanies all of our feelings and sensations. If we examine the body and mind carefully, we notice a connection between the breath and how we feel. When the breath is calm and relaxed, we notice that the body’s energy is also calm, especially in the areas of the abdomen, lungs, and chest. As a result, the mind becomes clear and we feel relaxed and even-tempered.

    When putting things in the context of wind energy, all of these emotions are simply an expression of imbalanced wind energy. And in every single case the mind can be thoroughly pacified and calmed through working with the breath. Of course, change will not happen immediately. But generally speaking, over a long period of time, working with the breath is effective at cutting through all types of neurotic tendencies, because it brings the wind energy into balance.

    In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, we call this style of practice wind energy training or the purification of wind energy. We call the broad tradition of purifying and working with the wind energy Yantra yoga. Some traditions of Yantra yoga also include complementary asanas, or physical poses and postures. While these asanas cannot be practiced by everyone, since every person has different physical capabilities, wind energy training can be practiced by anyone, at any moment, regardless of age or physical condition.

YOGA OF THE WIND

Physical posture belongs to the category of outer yoga. The type of yoga we are learning here, the yoga of the wind, is called inner yoga. Inner refers to the subtle or more profound nature of this yoga, as compared with the more general nature of outer yoga.

    Each of the seven aspects of the physical outer yoga—the Seven-Point Posture of Vairocana—is linked to the five root types of wind energy. These are five main types of wind energy found in the body.

    The Lower Winds

The wind energy that abides in the area above the genitals, the “secret area,” is called the lower winds, one of the five root wind energies. These winds perform the function of excretion. When we sit in the full lotus posture of outer yoga, the lower wind naturally enters the central channel. Sitting in sattva posture [hero posture, sometimes called half lotus] supports this process as well.

    The Winds in the Abdomen

Another of the five root wind energies, the winds that aid digestion are found in the lower abdomen. When the belly pokes out, this relaxes the wind that is abiding in the lower abdomen so that the digestive winds naturally enter the central channel. Many people in the West have the habit of hunching over. The reason for this is that we are raised sitting in chairs or sofas, rather than sitting on the floor as is taught in many Asian cultures. When we sit, we often either bend over or lean back on something. Slouching compacts the abdomen, which closes the belly, restricts breathing, and improperly curves the spine. This means that based on our habitual postures, the central channel remains closed.

    The Life-Force Wind

In the heart center resides another of the root wind energies, the wind that “holds” the life force. The most important of all the wind energies and known as the root of all the winds, the life-force wind is what keeps us alive. Keeping the spine straight as an arrow enables the wind energy in the heart center to enter the central channel. This brings us to another instruction, which points out the necessity of keeping the spine straight like a hawk in its nest. When hawks sit in their nests, they raise their bodies up in a regal posture. We, too, should not only straighten the spine but also feel almost as though the head is being pulled up from above. This not only aids the wind energy in the heart center in entering the central channel but also wakes us up and gives the mind a light, joyous feeling.

    When we are mindful of our posture, focusing on the Seven-Point Posture of Vairocana, then the wind in the secret place above the genital area, the wind in the belly, and the wind in the heart center will naturally enter the central channel. With these details in mind, we can begin to appreciate the necessity of having a skillful teacher. If the wind energy does not properly enter the central channel, but instead comes up into the chest area and mixes with the wind abiding there, mental or physical illness can develop.

    The Upward-Moving Wind

Slightly tucking the chin toward the chest causes a natural downward bend in the neck. This aspect of the posture is related to the fourth of the root wind energies, the upward-moving wind, which naturally abides in the throat. Because of this detail of the posture, the upward-moving wind enters the central channel.

    The All-Pervasive Wind Energy

The last of the root wind energies, the all-pervasive wind energy abides between the skin and the flesh, covering the entire body underneath the skin. Moving the shoulders back and wide like the wings of a vulture helps us sit completely motionless. Sitting motionless helps the all-pervasive wind energy enter the central channel.

    Mastering the Winds

The sixth point is not related to any specific aspect of the posture or to one specific root wind energy. We have just learned that when we sit and incorporate the first five points of the Seven-Point Posture of Vairocana, the five root wind energies will enter the central channel. This is called binding or mastering the wind. When we bind the root winds, the 21,000 winds, which give rise to the afflictive emotions, naturally enter the central channel. Thus, this posture binds the winds of the afflictive emotions.

    Seeing Nonconceptual Wisdom

The seventh point of this practice incorporates both the aspects of touching the tongue to the top of the mouth and that of eyes open and gazing along the top of the nose. When the tongue touches the top of the mouth, the jaw naturally drops down and creates space in the mouth. Through the lens of Tibetan Buddhism, this, combined with open eyes, enables us to see the nature of nonconceptual wisdom. For this meditation preparation, it is essential that our eyes be open.

PRACTICING YOGA OF WIND AND MIND

Wind energy practice is best done early in the morning before we have eaten. It would be benficial to practice physical yoga for 15 to 20 minutes, and then sit down in the Seven-Point Posture.

    This breath work about to be described can be the opening gateway to our sitting meditation practice. We can use it once daily or each time we sit down to meditation practice. It is called the Nine Cycles of Inhalation and Exhalation.

    The nine cycles are broken up into three groups of three breaths. The first six sets of inhalations and exhalations are done using alternating nostrils. The mouth remains closed the entire time and we breathe only through the nose. As a general note, the teachings on wind energy training emphasize breathing through the nostrils during the entire practice session.

EXERCISE: THE NINE CYCLES OF INHALATION AND EXHALATION

Begin by taking a soft inhale, pressing the left nostril closed with the left index finger, and exhaling through the right nostril. Next, inhale through the right nostril, and then switch sides: the left index finger releases the left nostril while the right index finger closes the right nostril. Then, exhale through the left nostril, inhale through the left nostril, and continue as before, alternating nostrils. Each inhalation/exhalation through a single nostril counts as one set. Thus, what was just described were two of the nine cycles or sets of breathing. We repeat this until we have inhaled and exhaled a total of six times—three through each nostril. Finally, we take three sets of inhalation and exhalation through both nostrils.

    As general advice for how the breathing should be done during this exercise, the exhalation is a little strong, but it should be long and relaxed. Continue exhaling until the breath completely dissolves, and then inhale again, also in a very elongated and relaxed manner. Always breathe as deeply as possible, pulling the breath down into the abdomen, and trying to feel it pervade the entire body. Since we are working with abdominal, and not thoracic, breathing, be sure that the chest and shoulders do not rise with the breath, and that only the belly expands.

You may compliment the practice by visualizing: Exhaling impurities, negative energies and toxins. Inhaling blessings, radiance, wholeness and love.

Joy of Exploring Breath | 4 . 23 . 19

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The Joy of Effort

– Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Meditation is a skill, and practicing it should be enjoyable in the same way that mastering any other rewarding skill can be. Of course, saying that meditation should be enjoyable doesn’t mean that it will always be easy or pleasant. Every meditator knows it requires serious discipline to sit with long unpleasant stretches and untangle all the mind’s difficult issues. Approach difficulties with the enthusiasm that an artist approaches challenges with—the discipline becomes enjoyable and challenges are solved through your own ingenuity, and the mind is energized for even greater challenges.

    This joyful attitude is a useful antidote to the more pessimistic attitudes that people often bring to meditation, which tend to fall into two extremes. On the one hand, there’s the belief that meditation is a series of dull and dreary exercises allowing no room for imagination and inquiry: Simply grit your teeth, and, at the end of the long haul, your mind will be processed into an awakened state. On the other hand there’s the belief that effort is counterproductive to happiness, so meditation should involve no exertion at all: Simply accept things as they are — it’s foolish to demand that they get any better — and relax into the moment.

     While it’s true that both repetition and relaxation can bring results in meditation, when either is pursued to the exclusion of the other, it leads to a dead end. If, however, you can integrate them both into the larger skill of learning how to apply whatever level of effort the practice requires at any given moment, they can take you far. This larger skill requires strong powers of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, but if you stick with it, it can lead you all the way to the Buddha’s ultimate aim in teaching meditation: nirvana, a happiness totally unconditioned, free from the constraints of space and time.

   That’s an inspiring aim, but it requires work. And the key to maintaining your inspiration in the day-to-day work of meditation practice is to approach it as play: a happy opportunity to master practical skills, to raise questions, experiment, and explore. This is precisely how the Buddha himself taught meditation. Instead of formulating a cut-and-dried method, he first trained his students in the personal qualities — such as honesty and patience — needed to make trustworthy observations. Only then did he teach meditation techniques, and even then he didn’t spell everything out. He raised questions and suggested areas for exploration, in hopes that his questions would capture his students’ imagination so they’d develop discernment and gain insights on their own.

    The Buddha taught his son Rahula, to observe    both pleasant and painful events in his body and mind without becoming engrossed in the pleasure or blown away by the pain. This is what patience is for. It helps you sit with things until you understand them well enough to respond to them skillfully.

    To develop honesty in meditation, the Buddha taught Rahula a further exercise. Look at the inconstancy of events in body and mind, he said, so that you don’t develop a sense of “I am” around them—instead observe the events.

The key to develping a sense of honesty is to observe the results of your actions. Then, if you see the results aren’t good, you are free to change your ways.

    This attitude is essential for developing honesty in your meditation as well. If you regard every thing — good or bad — that arises in the meditation as a sign of the sort of person you are, it will be hard to observe anything honestly at all. If an unskillful intention arises, you’re likely either to come down on yourself as a miserable meditator or to smother the intention under a cloak of denial. If a skillful intention arises, you’re likely to become proud and complacent. To avoid these pitfalls, you can learn to see events simply as events, and not as signs of the innate Buddha-ness or badness of who you are. Then you can observe these events honestly, to see where they come from and where they lead. Honesty, together with patience, puts you in a better position to use the techniques of meditation to explore your own mind.

    The primary technique the Buddha taught Rahula was breath meditation. The Buddha recommended sixteen steps in dealing with the breath. The breath becomes a vehicle for exercising your ingenuity in solving the challenges of the mind, and exercising your sensitivity in gauging the results.

    To begin, simply notice when the breath is long and when it’s short. In the remaining steps, though, you train yourself. In other words, you have to figure out for yourself how to do what the Buddha recommends. The first two trainings are to breathe in and out sensitive to the entire body, then to calm the effect that the breath has on the body. How? You experiment. What rhythm of breathing.Try thinking of the breath not as the air coming in and out of the lungs but as the energy flow throughout the body that draws the air in and out. Where do you feel that energy flow? Think of it as flowing in and out the back of your neck, in your feet and hands, along the nerves and blood vessels, in your bones. Think of it coming in and out every pore of your skin. Where is it blocked? How do you dissolve the blockages? By breathing through them? Around them? Straight into them? See what works.

    The next step is to breathe in and out with a sense of refreshing fullness and a sense of ease. Here, too, you’ll need to experiment both with the way you breathe and with the way you conceive of the breath.

    Then, when the breath is calm and you’ve been refreshed by feelings of ease and stillness, you’re ready to look at the mind itself. You don’t leave the breath, though. You adjust your attention slightly so that you’re watching the mind as it stays with the breath. Here the Buddha recommends three areas for experimentation: Notice how to gladden the mind when it needs gladdening, how to steady it when it needs steadying, and how to release it from its attachments and burdens when it’s ready for release.

    To gladden the mind you can develop an attitude of infinite good will, or recollect the times in the past when you’ve been virtuous or generous. To steady the mind when it’s been knocked over by desire, you can contemplate ever changing nature of all phenomena. To reestablish your focus when you’re drowsy or complacent, you can contemplate death — realizing that death could come at any time.

    As for releasing the mind from its burdens, you prepare for the ultimate freedom of nirvana first by releasing the mind from any awkwardness in its concentration. Eventually the mind grows so still that evaluating the breath is no longer necessary. So you figure out how to make the mind one with the breath, and in that way you release the mind into a more intense and refreshing state of ease.

    As you expand your skills in this way, the intentions that you’ve been using to shape your experience of body and mind become more and more transparent. At this point the Buddha suggests revisiting the theme of inconstancy, learning to look for it in the effects of every intention. You see that even the best states produced by skillful intentions — the most solid and refined states of concentration — waver and change. Realizing this induces a sense of disenchantment with and dispassion for all intentions. You see that the only way to get beyond this changeability is to allow all intentions to cease. You watch as everything is relinquished, including the path. What’s left is unconditioned: the deathless. Your desire to explore the breath has taken you beyond desiring, beyond the breath, all the way to nirvana.

    The practice doesn’t save all its pleasures for the end. It takes the daunting prospect of reaching full Awakening and breaks it down into manageable interim goals — a series of intriguing challenges that, as you meet them, allow you to see progress in your practice. This in and of itself makes the practice interesting and a source of joy.

    At the same time, you’re not engaged in busywork. You’re developing a sensitivity to cause and effect that helps make body and mind transparent. Only when they’re fully transparent can you let them go. In experiencing the full body of the breath in meditation, you’re sensitizing yourself to the area of your awareness where the deathless — when you’re acute enough to see it — will appear.

    So even though the path requires effort, it’s an effort that keeps opening up new possibilities for happiness and wellbeing in the present moment.

And even though the steps of breath meditation eventually lead to a sense of disenchantment and dispassion, they don’t do so in a joyless way. The Buddha never asks anyone to adopt a world-negating — or world-affirming, for that matter — frame of mind. Instead, he asks for a “world-exploring” attitude, in which you use the inner world of full-body breathing as a laboratory for exploring the harmless and clear-minded pleasures the world as a whole can provide. You learn skills to calm the body, to develop feelings of refreshment, fullness, and ease. You learn how to calm the mind, to steady it, gladden it, and release it from its burdens.

    Only when you run up against the limits of these skills are you ready to drop them, to explore what greater potential for happiness there may be. In this way, dis-enchantment develops not from a narrow or pessimistic attitude but from an gradually expanding experience of something greater. One doesn’t mature by shrinking from the world, watching it passively, or demanding that it entertain you—but by exploring it.

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.