day four : morning

Mindfulness of the Body,
Stages One & Two

May 20, 2015

As I said yesterday morning, there are four frames of reference for establishing mindfulness, and the body in and of itself is one of them. This morning I would like to talk about using the breath as a way of establishing the body as your frame of reference.

Remember the basic formula for establishing mindfulness: to keep focused on the body in and of itself, ardent, alert, and mindful, putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.

When we’re focused on the breath, that counts as being focused on the body in and of itself.

To be mindful means keeping the breath in mind, i.e., reminding yourself to stay with the breath.

To be alert means being very clearly aware of the breath as it comes in and goes out. It also means being very aware of the other breath sensations in the body as they are occurring. It also means being alert to whether your mind is staying with the breath, and to what results you’re getting from your efforts to stay with the breath.

To be ardent in this context means that if your mind wanders away from the breath, you bring it right back. You don’t stop to sniff the flowers and listen to the birds. You get back to the breath immediately. You put your whole heart into it.

While you’re with the breath, ardency has several additional meanings. The Buddha describes these in four steps. The first step is, if the breath is long, then you discern that it’s long. The second step is, if the breath is short, you discern that it’s short. The purpose of these two steps is to get more and more sensitive to how the breathing feels in the body. It also gives you a sense of the choices you have in the present moment. In other words, you can see the kamma that you’re creating in relationship to the breath in the present on a very simple level, and you’re free to change it as you see fit. You’re free to choose long breathing or short breathing, and as Ajaan Lee explains, you can expand on the variations of long and short by exploring other variations in the breath as well: heavy breathing, light breathing, fast, slow, shallow, deep. This fosters your sensitivity to what the breath is doing in your body.

In the next two steps, the Buddha uses the word “training.” When you breathe in, you train or tell yourself, “I will breathe in aware of the whole body.” When you breathe out, you tell yourself, “I will breathe out aware of the whole body.” This is another feature of ardency. You set up a clear intention, making up your mind that you’re going to do something skillful. In this case, you make up your mind to expand your awareness. The intention here, too, is a type of kamma in the present moment.

The fourth step is, in the Buddha’s words, to calm bodily fabrication. You tell yourself, every time you breathe in, “I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.” When you breathe out, you tell yourself, “I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.” The word “fabrication,” or saṅkhāra, here has to do with what you are intentionally doing in the present moment to shape your experience. The term “bodily fabrication” means the breath, because there is an element of intention in the way you breathe, and this element of intention has an effect on the way you experience your body as a whole. As you begin to see the effect that the breath has on the whole body, you take advantage of the fact that you have the choice to make that effect more calming throughout the body.

Now, as he says elsewhere, one good way to calm the body is first to develop a sense of rapture—an energizing sense of fullness in the body. Then, when the body has been nourished by rapture, it will calm down, not from being forced to be calm, but because it feels naturally inclined to grow calm from that sense of fullness. So “calming bodily fabrication” can sometimes mean that you use the way you breathe to develop a sense of rapture in the body before you try calming it down. The sense of fullness and calm will then help you to stay more firmly in the present.

Those are the four steps. This is how we use the breath to be aware of the body in and of itself. The ardency here is in trying to be more aware of what the breath is doing, to see the effect that it is having, and adjusting the breath to have a better and better effect.

While you’re doing this, you’re developing two further qualities of mind. One is insight, or vipassanā, and the other is tranquility, or samatha. According to the Buddha, insight is a matter of learning how to see fabrication in the present moment. Tranquility is a matter of trying to make the mind calm in the present moment. So when you use your knowledge of fabrication to make the mind calm, that combines insight and tranquility.

This practice also leads to the second stage of mindfulness practice. I’ll read the passage from the Canon describing this stage.

“What is the development of the establishing of mindfulness? There is the case where you remain focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, you remain focused on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, you remain focused on the phenomenon of origination and passing away with regard to the body, ardent, alert, and mindful, subduing greed and distress with reference to the world.” [§34]

Two words in this description need to be explained. The first is “origination.” To be focused on origination here doesn’t mean simply seeing things arising. It means seeing the causes for their arising—what causes them to arise. If you’ve studied science at all, you know that you don’t know causes simply by watching things passively. You have to change conditions to see which conditions have an effect and which conditions don’t have an effect. This means that you have to get involved proactively.

For instance, if you want to know about eggs, you don’t just put some eggs on the table and sit there looking at them. You have to do something with the eggs. You try to make scrambled eggs, soufflés, omelets, and meringues—and in the course of doing things with the eggs, you learn about causation as it relates to eggs.

In the same way, if you want to understand origination with regard to the body or mind, you have to do something with the body and the mind. For instance, you try to create a state of concentration by focusing the mind on the body and—through trial and error, as you manage to get the mind more and more concentrated—you learn about the body, you learn about the mind. In particular, you get to see what effect the body has on the mind, and what effect events in the mind have on the body. That’s the point to know in regard to the word, “origination.”

As for the phrase, “with regard to the body”: You’re not going to be seeing only the body while you stay focused on the breath. You will also be aware of feelings and mind states. But to stay with your frame of reference, which is the breath, you want to look at feelings and mind states only as they relate to the breath. Sometimes feelings will arise, sometimes different mind states will arise, but you always want to relate them to the breath. When a feeling of pleasure arises, you want to see how it’s related to the breath. If you see a certain mental state of calm arising or a state of disturbance in the mind, you always want to see how that’s related to the breath. That’s what it means to see something “with regard to the body.”

So in this stage, what we’re doing is trying to create a state of concentration, and we want to understand it with regard to the breath: how we create a state of pleasure, a state of stillness in the mind, through manipulating the breath. We also want to see how different events in the mind, such as different perceptions or different intentions, will also contribute to getting the mind focused on the breath, how different ways of paying attention to the breath will lead to a state of concentration.

As our mindfulness practice grows into a concentration practice [§33], the three qualities we’ve been talking about—being mindful, ardent, and alert—mature into three factors of the first jhāna. Mindfulness matures into directed thought, in that you remember to keep your thoughts focused on the breath. The attitude of alertness matures into singleness of object, because you’re totally alert to the relationship between the mind and the breath, focused on keeping the mind with the breath and not thinking about anything else except as it relates to the breath. As for ardency, that turns into evaluation. You evaluate how the breath feels so that you can make it more comfortable, and then you evaluate how to make use of that comfort, for instance, by spreading that sense of comfort throughout the body. Then you also evaluate how to keep your mind steadily with that sense of the breath so that you can be both calm and alert at the same time. This involves asking yourself the right questions about how to do all of this skillfully. This, of course, is appropriate attention.

So in this way, you bring all three qualities—mindfulness as directed thought, alertness as singleness of object, and ardency as evaluation, together with appropriate attention—together around one object. That’s how they combine to become one, creating the oneness of jhāna.

Because they’re all focused on the breath, this means that you develop the first jhāna without thinking about them or about the first jhāna. Instead, you’re thinking about and observing the breath. The result of these three qualities, when they get gathered together like this, is that there will be a sense of ease or pleasure and also a sense of what the Buddha calls pīti, which can be translated as rapture or as refreshment. This constitutes the first step in right concentration.

Now in the course of learning how to get the mind concentrated like this, there will be a period of trial and error. This requires that you learn how to see when you make mistakes and how to correct for them. And in doing so, you learn about cause and effect in the mind. This is sometimes called learning how to read your own mind. There’s a passage in the Canon that gives an analogy for this stage of the practice. I’ll read it first.

“Now suppose that there is a wise, experienced, skillful cook who has presented the king or the king’s minister with various kinds of curry, mainly sour, mainly bitter, mainly sweet, alkaline or non-alkaline, salty or non-salty. He picks up on the theme of his master, thinking, ‘Today, my master likes this curry or he reaches out for that curry or he takes a lot of this curry or he praises that curry. Today, my master likes mainly sour curry. Today, he likes mainly bitter curry, mainly peppery curry, mainly sweet curry, alkaline curry, non-alkaline curry, salty curry, today my master likes non-salty curry or he reaches out for non-salty curry or he takes a lot of non-salty curry or he praises non-salty curry.’ As a result, he is rewarded with clothing, wages, and gifts. Why is that? Because the wise, experienced, skillful cook picks up on the theme of his own master. In the same way, there is case where a wise, experienced, skillful monk remains focused on the body in and of itself, ardent, alert, and mindful, putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. As he remains focused on the body in and of itself, his mind becomes concentrated, his defilements are abandoned. He picks up on that theme. As a result, he is rewarded with a pleasant abiding in the here and now together with mindfulness and alertness. Why is that? Because the wise, experienced, skillful monk picks up on the theme of his own mind.” [§35]

There are several points worth noting in this image of the cook. First of all, the cook has to be proactive. He can’t simply put the raw food on the table for the king. He has to fix the food first. This is what we do as we put together a state of concentration. We have to be proactive. We can’t simply sit here and wait for concentration or other skillful states to arise. We have to put an effort into making them arise.

The next step is that the cook has to be observant to see what kind of food the king likes. He can’t ask the king, “What do you want today?” Kings expect their cooks to anticipate their desires. So the cook has to be observant, watching the king’s behavior and then adjusting his cooking to please the king’s taste. This is the function of evaluation and ardency in the meditation. You have to learn how to read your own breath, how to read your own mind, and then make adjustments in the concentration—by adjusting the breath, adjusting the focus of the mind, and adjusting your perception of the breath. Then you evaluate the results and make further adjustments as necessary. This is what is meant by “picking up on the theme of your own mind”: You learn how to read the telltale signs of what the mind wants, and you learn how to satisfy those wants so as to induce it into a stronger state of concentration.

As for those three things you adjust: We’ve already talked about adjusting the breath. Some days the mind likes short breathing, some days it likes long breathing, sometimes it gets tired of the breath and wants to use another meditation topic—just like a king, who can be very picky about his food. So you try to provide the mind with a topic that will help it settle down.

As for adjusting the focus of the mind, we’ve discussed that, too. When you’re sleepy, it’s wise not to focus on the area of the stomach, for that will make you even sleepier. If you have a headache, keep your focus no higher than the base of the throat—I myself used to get migraines often, and I found that the best places to focus to alleviate the pressure in the head were in the lower back, in the palms of the hands, and in the soles of the feet. This, though, is something you have to explore on your own.

As for adjusting your perceptions: The role of perception here concerns how you visualize the breath to yourself. There are some ways of visualizing the breath that actually make it harder to breathe. If you think of the breath as coming in only through the nose, then you have just a tiny opening to pull the breath through, so you end up putting more pressure on the body, the neck, or the head to breathe. But if you think of the body as like a large sponge, with lots of pores, lots of openings for the breath energy to go in and out, that image actually makes it easier to breathe because you put less pressure on the body. If it so happens that the breathing stops, you don’t get afraid that you’re going to die because you know that the breath energy will come in and go out if it needs to.

Also, you can use your perceptions to create a sense that all of the breath energy channels in the body are connected. When they’re all connected, then there’s less and less need to breathe. It’s at this point that you can put evaluation aside and simply be with the feeling of the still breath, because your brain is using a lot less oxygen. The oxygen that comes in through the pores of the skin is enough.

In California there’s a town called Laguna Beach, and every year they put on what’s called the Festival of the Arts. They have a large revolving stage on which they recreate many famous paintings and statues. For statues, they go down to the beach and find the men and the women with good-looking bodies, then they cover them with white paint and pose them in the position of, say, David or Venus, and put them on the revolving stage. When they first started doing this several decades ago, they discovered that if they covered the statue’s body entirely with white paint and put it out on the stage, the statue would faint in front of the audience, which was not good for the show. Then they learned that if they left part of the back uncovered, there would be no problem, because the oxygen would be able to come through the uncovered part of the skin. So apparently, we get some of our oxygen through the skin. If the brain is using very little oxygen because it’s still, then the oxygen coming in through the skin will be enough to keep the body functioning.

This is an example of a perception that helps with the breath to allow the breath to become more calm without our getting afraid that we’re depriving ourselves of oxygen.

So these are some ways of learning how to read your mind, providing food for the mind, and seeing what kind of food the mind likes.

If you learn how to read your mind in this way, you begin to see the process of cause and effect at work in your own mind in the present moment. At the same time, as you get better at creating a greater sense of wellbeing in your body and mind, this intensifies two qualities: insight and tranquility. Mindfulness becomes stronger. Concentration becomes stronger. Your understanding of your own body and mind becomes stronger. These qualities reinforce one another through positive feedback. This is why we take a proactive attitude toward the meditation. Otherwise, these qualities wouldn’t develop.

This is what it means to take the body in and of itself as your frame of reference, through the first two stages of establishing mindfulness, to develop both mindfulness and concentration.

Q: Could you go into more detail on the ideas of breathing with the energy of the breath and breathing with the entire body?

A: The flow of energy here refers to any sense of energy you may have in the body. Some energies are still, some move, some are trying to move but are blocked: Those are the ones you work with. We use the word “breath” because these energies are connected with your breathing. So when you’re breathing with your whole body, it’s not a matter of air coming in and out, it’s simply the energy flowing in and out of the body. This is something that’s already there in the body. It’s simply a matter of becoming more and more sensitive to it. And then once you get a sense that these sensations really are energy, and not solid or heavy, then you find that you can move the energy around more comfortably.

There is also an energy that exists around the body. If you get sensitive to that, then you can make use of that as well, thinking of it coming in any part of the body where there’s pain. For example, if you have pain in your back, think of the energy just outside of the back entering there. Now, in the beginning, you may not be sensitive to these energies, and this is when you have to use a little bit of visualization to help remind yourself that these things are possible. Sometimes that visualization will actually help with the flow.

Q: Could you please be more precise about the notion of a clear mind? Because sometimes I have trouble making a distinction between mental calm and sleepiness, where the mind is very heavy even though it has full awareness of the body.

A: In a case like this, you try to wake up your mind by giving it something to do in the present moment. You might resume a survey of the parts of the body. The important thing is that you have some questions in mind. The questions can help keep you awake. For example, when you’re surveying the body, you can ask yourself, “Where is there any stress that I haven’t found yet? Or are there any parts of the body that I’ve been ignoring?” The questioning helps to rouse your interest, and to keep you alert and clear.

The Thai ajaans often talk about trying to develop the same mental state as a hunter. The hunter has to stay very quiet so as not to scare away the animals, but at the same time has to be very alert. Otherwise the animals will go right in front of him and he won’t see them. So try to have the attitude of a hunter, realizing that something subtle may come by while you’re meditating, so you have to be very alert in order to see it. The difficulty here is similar to that of a hunter. When the hunter goes to a place—for example, to bag a rabbit—he can’t say, “I want the rabbit to come by no later than 4 o’clock because I want my dinner at 6.” He has to be willing to wait for however long it takes for the rabbit to come by. In the same way, you have to be ready at all times. The rabbits of the mind will come when they will come, without having made any prior arrangement with you or asking what’s convenient for your schedule.

Q: During meditation, I arrive fairly easily at a sense of mental calm. I’m aware I’m not the body nor am I identified with the body, but this does not last long. What to do to make this last longer?

A: You have to go back and work more with the body, so as to get more and more familiar with the relationship between the mind and the body. Some people find it easy to reach the state you described, but it’s because you haven’t fully understood the relationship between the mind and the body that this state doesn’t last long. You still have unfinished business with regard to the relationship to the body. Also, some people have trouble relating to the body, a problem that may be related to traumatic incidents earlier in life. So try to return to your sense of your body by looking for a place in your body where you feel safe. Try to make that your foundation, and as you feel solidly at ease there, see if you can gradually expand the range of your safe place until you feel more and more at ease with the body as a whole. Only when you’re fully at ease with the body will you be ready to go into states of concentration where the body fades away and yet you are solidly there: alert and fully conscious of what’s going on.

Q: You mentioned a stable place in the body that comes deeper than the other steps. On reaching that, can you pose questions and receive answers?

A: Before entering deep concentration, you can pose a question, and when you exit you may have a response—but even if you get a response, you can’t fully trust it. You have to put it to the test to see if it’s genuine. If it gives directions for what to do in a particular situation, and it seems in line with what you know of the Dhamma, try following its instructions and see what results you get. If the results are good, you’ve learned something useful. If they aren’t, you’ve also learned something useful: that you can’t trust everything that arises even in a deeply concentrated mind.

While you’re in deep concentration, the first step is to learn how to stabilize your awareness of it. The second step is to learn how to maintain it. As you get better and better at maintaining it, you’ll begin to see that even in that stable state there can be ups and downs in the level of stress or tension. This shows that deep concentration, too, is a fabricated state. So the next question will be: What are you doing when the stress goes up, what have you stopped doing when the stress goes down? Asking questions like this is the third step, called putting the concentration to use. When you see the connection between your actions and the ups and downs, that will help you comprehend the stress and abandon the mental action that’s its cause. When you’ve mastered all three steps, that’s when you really benefit from the practice of concentration.