by Dr. Lucinda Green, RMI Founder and Spiritual Director
Sit down. Close your eyes, observe your breath, and do nothing else.
This is the basic instruction for anapana sati, mindfulness of breathing, from the first foundation of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha.
Much ensues from the simple act of observing, from mindful awareness, and in this case observing the breath. When we observe something, we create the time, and the space to be aware of what is occurring.
This is a great departure from our normal way of living and being. We are usually caught up in our thoughts, ideas, beliefs, emotions, opinions, and behaviors. Our minds are moving at the speed of light.
“Here I am sitting, and I could be accomplishing at least one or two of the ten zillion things that I need to be doing. What I need to get done is far more important than just sitting here, and doing nothing. I’m supposed to be observing …what? My breath? My breath will get along without my paying attention to it. And besides, what’s so important about the breath?”
Meditation allows us to step off that train of thought. Picture yourself sitting on a bench near a railway station. You watch for the train, see the train approaching and as it zooms by, you jump on the train and are off and running. You end up in Albuquerque before you know it, and wonder how did I get here?
Meditation allows us to step off that train, take the time, and create the space between what is occurring in our thoughts, emotions, opinions, ideas and habitual behaviors, and see what is occurring. See what is arising, and what is passing away. So too, just as our breath arises and ceases, comes into being and passes away.
Disciplining our attention to stay on the primary object allows the sight and the sounds of the train to go by without jumping on, while remaining alert, aware, calm, concentrated and relaxed. Ahhh… The power comes from the sustained attention to the object, and observation, applying mindful awareness.
In the case of anapana sati, the breath is the primary object. Every meditation requires an object, requires a point of focus, something upon which to pay particular close attention.
Using the breath as a primary object is handy. It accompanies us where ever we go. No special situation, environments, or accoutrements are required. You can pay attention to our breath wherever you are. In and out. Long/short/deep/shallow.
The breath’s immediacy and availability are advantages of using it as an object, for our mindful attention. The breath also sustains our lives.
It is interesting to note a number of beneficial results occurring naturally as a result of meditating regularly for only a few months. Consistency is an important factor for these changes to occur and is not dependent on you feeling successful as you meditate, i.e. being able to concentrate, remain one pointed, be free from monkey mind distraction and restlessness.
Many meditators report feeling more peaceful, feeling less anxious. The most notable reported effect is being less reactive. Some notice a marked shift in volatility, no longer going from zero to a hundred. They may still feel angered easily, but the decibel level allows them to think and be more in charge of their faculties as opposed to explode with unbridled anger.
Others notice they are no longer bothered by conversation or behaviors with coworkers that formerly causing them considerable discomfort.
Many people find they get upset less over things in general and specifically small things, such as their children not putting away all of their toys, or leaving their socks here and there…to more major stressors such as Millie the mother-in-law (no offense to Millie) insisting that every family member be present at the upcoming holiday meal.
In many cases, the only change in people’s lives is meditation. Others may have meditated on and off for decades on a hit or miss basis, and then buckle down establishing a dedicated practice. It is at that time they experience the effects spoken of here.
This shift in non-reactivity is a huge carrot! And keeps people coming back to the cushion, time and time again.
These changes have issued forth from simply observing the breath! And it seems almost magical. Even when our thoughts are running amok during meditation, we’re restless, or the mind is dull or the body sleepy, simply stopping, closing your eyes and watching the breath is transformative. The body does what it is trained to do. So too, the mind. We are training the attention to be aware of the mind and observe itself.
The magic of meditation is now understood by neuroscientists who research the topic. This, from an article by Kristyna Zapletal, in the Observer, in which she quotes a few neuroscientists. “Our brain develops and adapts throughout our whole lives. This phenomenon called neuroplasticity, means that gray matter can thicken or shrink, connections between neurons can be improved, new ones can be created, and old ones degraded or even terminated.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, uses the MRI technology to look at very fine, detailed brain structures and see what is happening to the brain while a person is performing tasks, including yoga and meditation.
According to her own words, Lazar herself used to be skeptical about the lofty claims her yoga teacher had made about the emotional benefits of meditations she should have expected to experience. When after attending several classes, she indeed felt calmer, happier, and more compassionate, she decided to re-focus her research on the changes in the brain’s physical structure as a result of meditation practice.
In one of her studies she engaged people who had never meditated before and put them through a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training program, where they took a weekly class and were told to perform mindfulness exercises, including body scan, mindful yoga, and sitting meditation, every day for 30 to 40 minutes.
After eight weeks, she found out that the brain volume increased in four regions, from which the most relevant were:
HIPPOCAMPUS: a seahorse-shaped structure responsible for learning, storage of memories, spatial orientation, and regulation of emotions.
TEMPOROPARIETAL JUNCTION: the area where temporal and parietal lobes meet and which is responsible for empathy and compassion.
On the other hand, the one area whose brain volume decreased was:
AMYGDALA: an almond-shaped structure responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response as a reaction to a threat, whether real or only perceived.
Here, the decrease in gray matter correlated with changes in the levels of stress. The smaller their amygdala became, the less stressed people felt, even though their external environment remained the same. It proved that the change in amygdala reflected the change in the people’s reactions to their environment, not in the environment itself.”
Hence less reactivity as I mentioned above. Less reactivity to the same stimulus.
“Neuroscientist Lara Boyd from the University of British Columbia points out that the human brain changes in three ways to support learning of new things:
It means that the brain regions that are important for specific behaviors may change their structure or enlarge. These changes need more time to take place, which underlines the importance of a consistent practice.
In essence, the more you use a particular brain region, the easier it is to trigger its use again.
“Repeat those behaviors that are healthy for your brain and break those behaviors and habits that are not. Practice… and build the brain you want.” —Lara Boyd, PT, PhD”
This is exciting and wonderful information, and confirms the discovery made by the Buddha some 2,600 years ago.
It helps us to have faith in the meditation practice, as we develop our practice, and build confidence, in the power of the practice. The word for confidence is Saddha, in Pali, Sraddha, in Sanskrit, and refers to the concept of faith, in our Theravada Buddhist tradition. Faith equals confidence in our own direct experience.
By sitting down and training the mind to observe, the mind becomes more observant. The mind sees itself. The mind sees beyond itself. By seeing through and beyond itself the mind is able to recognize and notice that what arises in ourselves, arises in others. The wish for happiness is universal. Others are breathing the air that I breathe, be they in New York, Colombo, Nairobi, or Sao Paolo. Breathing the breath of life is a universal impersonal phenomenon which connects one of us to all of us, through a single breath. This is occurring right now, in this room. Air is a naturally shared common resource. We are all sharing the air in this room with every breath.
We are able to realize too, that the breath is breathing us. We are being breathed. This is the involuntary aspect of the breath.
What happens if we let go of “doing” the breathing, and focus rather on the involuntary aspect, that the breath comes in and goes out, on its own. inhale and exhale. We are being breathed.
Is it possible then to let go, allow and trust, let go of the fight, the struggle, working so hard, stressing so much, to simply live and breathe, be and feel supported in our lives?
Contemplating the nature of breathing, as voluntary and involuntary, allows us to directly experience the interconnection between us all.
Observing creates the time and space for the mind to know itself, and changes the trajectory of our lives, as we become less reactive, see more clearly, and become more compassionate. These changes are reflected in the structure and the functions of the brain.
Who knew that sitting down and observing the breath could yield so much? And yet, it does. And knowing all we know, it still feels magical.
by Marga Callender, RMI Meditation Instructor
Refuge. We humans along the way assigned some wonderful meanings to that combination of letters. Refuge. Take a moment, close your eyes, take a breath and then tune into your own body/mind and take note of what arises for you when you hear that word, refuge. What images arise? How and where does it resonate in the sensations of your body and energy field?
Okay, another breath, open your eyes and widen your awareness back into this room.
One of the first images I have when I consider that word is shelter. Perhaps you’ve seen photos of geese and ducks and owls and other birds sheltering their chicks. Some of the photos show them lined up underneath mom’s … or maybe dad’s … wings. Shelter. Refuge provides safety, warmth, belonging, reassurance.
Other photos may not be so obvious and you have to look and see just how incorporated the chicks are within the feathers of the parent. Refuge is shelter … shelter when storms arise. Shelter as we deal with the intensity in this world of samsara. Shelter in the experience of danger. Shelter when harsh elements arise both internally and externally.
Another association I have when I hear the word refuge is Wildlife Refuges. There are many of them through the USA and the world. I lived for many years in Wisconsin and I have vivid memories of the refuge in Horicon Marsh. Horicon March is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the US. It is common to see at least 30 different species of birds in the marsh in one visit.
This refuge provides many vital resources. It is a nesting place for waterfowl and a resting place for migratory birds. Its environment supports plant and other animal life that provides a habitat required for their health and safety. There is ample nourishment. The cattails and other vegetation provide shelter. This ecosystem optimizes their ability to live and reproduce and flourish. They have the resources needed to maximize their own true nature.
You and I have the opportunity as Buddhists to take refuge. The refuge we take provides those elements of warmth, safety, belonging, nourishment, and actually so much more. We take refuge in the Triple Gem or the Three Jewels. They are, of course, refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.
Taking refuge wasn’t a new idea at time of the Buddha. Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes: “In pre-Buddhist India, going for refuge meant proclaiming one’s allegiance to a patron — a powerful person or god — submitting to the patron’s directives in hopes of receiving protection from danger in return.”
The idea of refuge shifted however with the Buddha in some powerful ways. In Buddhism, we take refuge in the Buddha, but not as a god or even as a powerful person. Not as some entity or energy who will personally intervene and protect us from danger. We take refuge because this fully human person, through his own effort, awakened. He trained and developed his mind which allowed him to understand the true nature of all phenomena.
He extinguished, for himself, the unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion. And he invites us … you and me … to that same awakening. In fact, he says, paraphrasing here, ‘don’t believe this because it happened to me or because I say it. Come and see for yourselves. Investigate. Cultivate insight and realize your own true nature … your own awakened-ness.’ I find that absolutely refreshing and wonderful. Don’t you?
It fosters faith, but not faith in something outside of ourselves … in a person or even a dogma. But faith in that inherent nature each of us possesses. Faith that each of us has the ability and opportunity to awaken to what is already present.
As our practice develops, our awareness broadens, and when we take refuge, we take it not even so much in the historical Buddha, but in Buddha nature itself.
What a tremendous recognition that is, right? To see Buddha nature in all beings. To have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the wisdom to open our hearts to the Buddha nature everywhere.
Jack Kornfield talks about his time in Cambodia during the genocide wrought by the Khmer Rouge which resulted in the deaths of nearly two million Cambodian people in the mid to late 1970s. His friend and teacher, Maha Ghosananda was in Thailand at the time and thus wasn’t killed. He was one of the few Buddhist elders of the country left alive. The Khmer Roughe killed 57,000 out of 60,000 monks and nuns in the country. Maha Ghosananda’s response was to begin teaching forgiveness and reconciliation in the refugee camps. Astounding, isn’t it? Monks and nuns killed. Country men and women murdered in astounding numbers. His own family, killed.
In the sheer face of that kind of evil and violence, it would be so easy to respond with anger and hatred, and if not that, at least a kind of numbness and avoidance just to cope. And there was Maha Ghosananda responding by teaching forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jack tells the story of witnessing him reciting the Buddha’s words from the Dhammapada in a refugee camp in front of 20,000 refugees. Over and over, Maha Ghosananda recited, “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient truth.” As he did so, Jack says, the refugees cried. I don’t know exactly why they cried: but perhaps in grief or perhaps from the sheer release of not having to harden their hearts.
And then Maha Ghosananda went on and led thousands of refugees in peace walks through the most war-torn parts of the country. As they walked, they chanted the Buddha’s words, “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed.”
Talk about the ability to see Buddha nature in all beings. To teach forgiveness and reconciliation rather than revenge and retribution has to arise from Wisdom and not delusion.
And so, we take refuge in the Buddha and ultimately in Buddha Nature itself.
The Buddha recognized that all of us are subject to the three unwholesome roots or the three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion, also called ignorance. When our views and thoughts and actions arise out of any of these three unwholesome roots, suffering ensues for ourselves and for others. But when our views and thoughts and actions arise out of wholesome roots of generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom, suffering vanishes for ourselves and others. Generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom are the antidotes to greed, hatred and delusion.
I can’t help but think of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish man, who, along with his parents, wife and brother were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps. Prior to that he had earned his MD and Ph.D. at the University of Vienna where he studied Psychiatry, focusing on the areas of suicide and depression.
While interred, he and those with him suffered immense atrocities in a place and a way that led to much depression and despondency among the prisoners. Frankl encouraged others to reflect on positive memories, scenes and thoughts. Frankl, himself, did the same. He focused on his wife, the love they shared, and their life together. This focus on the wholesomeness of loving and the expression of compassion in working with other prisoners kept him from severe depression. It transformed his experience.
We can easily see the results of actions that arise from greed, hatred, delusion. We see it globally. We see it nationally, locally. Within our own institutions and even families and ourselves, too, at times.
And so, we take refuge in the Dhamma. The path, the teachings of the Buddha, not as dogma, not as something we must believe. But as guides, instructions, a path to follow, ways to develop our minds.
In working with the teachings of the Buddha, we develop compassion for ourselves and others. We learn to release fear and ignorance. We find within ourselves those places of clinging to what we think will make us happy for now and forever. We also experience ourselves pushing away those things that are not wanted, are not, we think, able to create harmony and happiness.
As we investigate and apply the teachings of the Buddha, we begin to see that it is in the very clinging and pushing away that we suffer and cause suffering for others. We begin to know this not just intellectually, but we know it in our bones. We know how it shows up in our personal lives. We experience it the events in our world.
Taking refuge in the Dhamma provides the kind of shelter needed not to cushion us or make us childlike and ineffectual. Taking refuge in the Dhamma requires awake, mindful and active participation in our own lives. The shelter it provides is like the ecosystem provided in Horicon Marsh. The Dhamma provides nourishment, vital resources for our growth and development. It gives us understandings and tools needed to train our minds so that we are no longer deluded into thinking that something in this samsaric world can provide permanent, lasting happiness for me … for my concerns and my interests and for all those I claim as mine. And that could be quite extensive, can’t it. It could be MY family, MY town, My opinion, MY profession, MY economic reality, MY country, MY causes, MY race.
Taking refuge in the Dhamma prompts us to develop unbridled compassion for the suffering of all beings and to respond with loving-kindness. It frees us to develop community where differences don’t divide us, but where we can honestly celebrate the goodness and the achievements and the good fortune of others.
Another story from Jack is about a man named Ted who spent years in prison and was part of the Buddhist prison projects. He learned about taking refuge and that became a turning point for Ted. This is Ted’s account, “After I took refuge, I took the way I was living my life more seriously. I had taken vows not to harm, not to abuse, I had to see the Buddha even in the guards. I kept to myself more and meditated and did my refuges early in the morning. I said them over and over and I felt like I was rock solid. Then I was moved to another block. There was a lot of trouble there and I had to keep taking my refuges to stay clean. I was tempted to pay back a couple of men who did me some wrong. But then I would look at them in the eye and take refuge in my heart. It helped me a lot.”
So, refuge in the Dharmma doesn’t prompt us to avoid difficult situations. Instead, it provides opportunities for deep understanding, clear recognition and wisdom enough to know to that hatred only increases hatred. Clinging only increases suffering.
Truly taking refuge in the Dhamma initiates us into a radically transformative process. It shifts and changes our view, our attitudes, our actions. It frees us to choose wholesome thoughts and skillful actions even in the most severe situations … like Maha Ghosanada, Viktor Frankl and Ted chose. Refuge in the Dhamma provides the means and opportunity to completely eradicate the unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion. That is nibbana, freedom. That ends suffering completely.
And finally, we also take refuge in the Sangha. I think of many different pools of sangha to which we go for refuge. We take refuge in all those who have kept the teachings of the Buddha alive, who passed them on all the way to us, through oral and written means. We are so fortunate. At some point in the history, the teachings were not as widely available. But now we have many resources from many teachers, both living and no longer living.
We take refuge in our own local, individual sanghas. These are viharas where we meet noble friends, like-minded individuals on the path with us. We hear the teachings of the Buddha as many times as we need to hear them. We receive instruction and assistance in applying them to our own lives, our own practices. These are places to practice together, to support one another, to engage in noble conversation.
We take refuge in this large Buddhist community in the greater Colorado Springs area. Even within our different traditions, are the essential Buddhist teachings that bind us together and nourish and support us. And personally, I find a sense of refuge in knowing that, world-wide, at any given moment there are Buddhists practicing daily.
We are not alone in this endeavor. We have these communities to help us to understand, to live, and to fully awaken to what the Buddha taught and offered. He said, “I teach one thing, and one thing only. Suffering and the end of suffering.”
We at Rocky Mountain Insight take the Refuges and Precepts each month, on the meeting nearest the full moon. This is in keeping with the Asian tradition and keeps us connected to both the historical sangha and the worldwide sangha. But it actually can be helpful to take the refuges daily, like Ted does. Doing so keeps before us the sense of refuge as shelter and support for ourselves. It keeps us on the Path of eradicating the unwholesome roots, the poisons. Ultimately, taking refuge helps lead us to Wisdom and uncovering what is already present, Buddha nature within ourselves and in all that is.