Our Study of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness continues this week with the Contemplation of the Body which is the first of the four.
We’re taking two sessions to consider Mindfulness of the Breath. Last week, Dharma Teacher, Vic Bradford gave us a great background on why the Buddha focused on the Body and the Breath. As he said, the Buddha often referred to all that we can learn by paying attention to this fathom long carcass.
The mind is so busy. It wanders wherever it wants and whenever it wants. Right? We pretty much give the mind free reign … and the mind is happy with that. And it goes all kinds of places:
Work is hard today; I wonder when I can get a vacation. Oh look at that beautiful sunset. The colors are so pretty. Colorado has nice sunsets but Arizona’s sunsets are usually so spectacular. But that’s because there’s quite a bit of pollution. Pollution is terrible. Tomorrow it’s supposed to snow. I don’t like driving in the snow. I know I am going to have an accident. I just know it. Oh my gosh. I am so afraid. Oh, I heard someone knocking on my door. I wonder who that could be.
On and On and On. Our minds are untamed.
To help tame mind from yanking us around, the first instruction is just to sit and become aware that we are breathing. How often during any given day are we actually aware … mindful … that we are breathing? Breathing happens, doesn’t it. We know that. At least we know that intellectually.
So, we begin just by recognizing that we are breathing. Tune in to your body right now and recognize that you are breathing. In and Out. Just the mere aware recognition that we are breathing can shift our experience. Did anyone notice that? Did you feel calmer? More connected?
Tune in again and feel the breath as it enters and leaves your body. Do that and just notice what occurs. What happens with your body as you do that?
Your body moves. The chest rises and falls because the lungs expand and contract. We know that internally, as we breath in, the diaphragm expands downward to allow the lungs to fill. And then the diaphragm pushes back up to help the lungs expel the air.
I can hear some of you … come on, Marga, we know all of that. Big deal. Nothing new. Yes. We know that happens intellectually, but the gift of paying attention to this process in meditation is that we actually experience it. And the more we experience it, the more we begin to notice all kinds of realizations we’ve missed or taken for granted. We’ll talk about some of these as we continue.
This being aware of our breathing is the first step in calming our minds. Some of the suttas start out by saying, “Establish mindfulness before you.” Just by tuning into our breath, we are establishing mindfulness … awareness … and this one step alone is magnificently beneficial.
Doing this step sounds pretty simple, but it does take training and that takes time and practice along with kindness toward ourselves because our minds don’t really want to be tamed. They are convinced that they run the show and that it’s their job to protect us and to guide us; so, they resist this calming process. A really big part of our training in this first step is to 1. Recognize when the mind has wandered off and taken our attention with it and 2. Gently bring your attention back to each breath.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of judgment or punishment when our minds flit off here and there …
… you can’t do this Marga, you are unable to meditate, you’re a bad meditator, look everyone else here looks so calm and quiet … They are doing it better than I am. I might as well quit right now. Bad Marga.
It’s like we are dealing with a two-year-old who is into everything all at the same time. Graciously and encouragingly inviting the mind back to attention on the breath is an important part of this step of the practice, and it may take quite a bit of time to do this. Give yourself that time and space. Awareness of the breath and watching the breath come and go can help us understand impermanence. Everything, even our breath, comes and goes … arises and vanishes.
In the Four Foundation of Mindfulness Sutta, the Buddha directs us to know when our breath is short and when our breath is long and then to watch and see how our bodies respond to short breaths and long breaths. This is what we investigate when we breath. This is the second step.
How might short breaths affect our bodies? They may indicate or even create an experience of agitation or not being calm. This might contribute to restlessness in the mind. On the other hand, they may be helpful in raising our energy if we are tired.
How about long breaths? Long breaths can calm our bodies and calm our minds. They can also help deepen concentration. But long breaths can also lead us to dullness. They can cause us to fall off the proverbial cliff into la-la land where we maybe aren’t really thinking thoughts, but we aren’t really aware either.
Knowing this information can really help us manage our meditations. When we are restless or anxious or our minds seem untamable, taking long breaths can help calm the body as well as the mind. And when we are sleepy or our minds are just dull, shifting to short breaths for a while might pump some energy into our body and brighten our mind.
Another way we can work with the breath and the body/mind is to find places of tension or restlessness or heaviness within our bodies. For example, has anyone ever experienced tightness your neck and shoulders? When we are anxious or afraid our shoulders tighten. So the content of our mind … anxiousness or fear … creates a reaction in our bodies. Our shoulders tighten.
In meditation, we notice that tension. We’ve experienced that the breath can calm the body. So, we can send the breath to that part of the body. By breathing with that part of the body in our consciousness those muscles can begin to relax and loosen. It’s almost like the breath is going right into those muscles and giving them a relaxing massage. As those muscles loosen, our minds begin to relax too. The stress in our mind decreases. Breath, body and mind are intimately connected. We can work with one to affect the others.
So experiment in this step of the meditation. See how long and short breaths affect you at different times and in different situations. Find places of discomfort in your body and breathe into them and watch what happens. Working with this step can help us recognize how our minds create dissatisfaction and suffering … dukkha … in our lives and how we can lessen that dukkha with mindful attention.
Ultimately, in this step, we do want to cultivate an alert and calm and consistent awareness. As you become more and more aware of the effect of the breath on your body and your mind, gently use that knowledge to create this space of alert, calm, consistent awareness. As that begins to appear, we can begin the third step.
We can begin to broaden our awareness to include our entire body and experience the whole-body breathing.
Again, Vic introduced us to this idea last week. This can mean two different things and both are very valuable. The first is to experience the breath body. Isn’t that an interesting concept … that the breath, itself, has body. This doesn’t mean it has physical body, but it has elements, divisions, expressions.
Basically, it has four divisions, the in-breath, that little pause at the top of the breath, an out-breath, and the bit longer pause at the end of the breath. Just focusing on those four elements in a meditation will calm the mind. As we do just that, we may begin to notice other elements … the breath is ragged or harsh or soft or deep or shallow. We also may slow down enough to notice the beginning of the inbreath, the middle of the inbreath, and the end of the inbreath … the beginning of the pause, the middle of the pause, and the end of the pause … and the same for each of the four elements.
This is experiencing the whole body of the breath. Again, take time to work with and experience this element of the breath.
One of the things we recognize in our experience of breathing is that the breath breaths. It really doesn’t take our effort at all. The body breaths independently of our conscious effort. We acknowledged this earlier, but for many of us it was more of an intellectual understanding. But now, we can absolutely experience this in the here and now. This is an important recognition and can help us begin to understand anatta … or no self.
The second way to experience the whole-body breathing is to experience the breath in the whole body. Past the mechanical movement of the body moving because of the breath moving in and out, you may begin to experience the breath moving through your whole body and even extending out past your body. This is an indication that your mind is becoming not just calmer, but more concentrated. It still may go off on some tangent, but it will do so less and less frequently. Again, spend time to develop and really experience the breath breathing in and through the whole body.
At this point, you will likely begin to experience joy, calm, and happiness in body, heart and mind arising. This is a natural outcome of the work you’ve been doing in developing and being alert and mindful of your breath and your body.
When our bodies and minds are contracted, there is a sense of solidity of body with rigid boundaries. When we deeply relax into the experience meditation and the calm and happiness that naturally arises, the body and mind become lighter. Take in this experience; relish the sense of joy and calm. Get to know it. Let your body and mind fully experience this naturally arising well-being and happiness. Not only do we experience this happiness, but our whole physical demeanor changes. Our movement and interaction in the world changes. Meditation changes us and people notice.
Ultimately, the reason why we Buddhists meditate … why we sit down and become aware of our breath to calm our body and mind (aka contemplating this fathom-long body) … is to help us to understand the true nature of all things. Through meditation, we develop mindfulness and concentration which lead to insights. We’ve identified some of those insights already:
One word of caution. Don’t think you have to sit down in your next
meditation period and be able to move through all of these steps. Perhaps you will be able to, especially if you
have sat many meditation sessions with alert attention on your breath; but most
of us need to take time and many meditation periods with each step to really
enter into the experience of that step.
Allow these insights to become known in your whole system rather than
just in your mind.
The Buddha said, “When touched by a feeling of pain, the ordinary uninstructed person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental, just as if he was shot with an arrow and, right afterward, was shot with another one, so that he felt pains of two arrows.”
In my life, I have made the very human mistake of following the arrow of pain with the arrow of suffering. The first arrow, the sensation of pain, is bad enough. But its second arrow–the story we tell ourselves about our pain—that’s the real trouble.
Joan Halifax in her book Being with Dying, shares not only her own journey with illness and pain but also her journey as a caregiver. All of us, by the nature of being human, have experienced personal pain and the pain of those around us. I, too, as I bear witness to this dying process that I have with terminal cancer am still noticing the fluctuating degree of physical pain and the accompanying mind formations that are reactive, the stories if you will. “Wow! This pain is excruciating today! I wish I could get more of a break from it. This is as bad as it was last week. Aren’t these pain medications supposed to work better than this? It’s probably going to just get worse. After all, I am dying! Oh Pat, all these stories!
If you aren’t used to pain, even the smallest pain can feel overwhelming. A throbbing toothache can take over your life. A fractured bone traps your mind in its itching and aching. Even the prick of a needle can fill us with anxiety and dread. This is understandable—our entire culture looks upon pain as an enemy, and teaches us to do anything, anything to get away from it. We’re wrapped up in trying to evade pain, sometimes through numbing out with addiction, sometimes through an unwholesome obsession with avoiding pain altogether.
But most of us won’t be able to avoid pain forever. At some point in our lives, perhaps when we are dying, there may be great pain—and actually, even though you don’t want to hear this, pain can be a teacher, once we stop frantically fleeing its presence. We need to know what to do with pain: how to see it, how to work with it. And it really helps if we can use our experiences of pain right now to prepare us for what’s ahead.
Liberation comes when we realize that the first arrow doesn’t necessarily have to be followed by the second. Can you make the distinction between sensation of pain and the story that surrounds it? Try saying to yourself, the next time you feel pain, “I am in pain, but I am not suffering.” See if it helps to remind you not to amplify the pain by building a story around it.
In the Pali Canon discourses, the Buddha frequently instructs his disciples to seek out a secluded dwelling in a forest, hillside cave, jungle grove, or charnal ground to contemplate the concept of impermanence, attachment and aversion, and fear of death.
The Satipattana Sutta orThe Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta in its first Contemplation focused on the body guides this “Nine Cemetery Meditations”, also called the Nine Stages of the Charnal Ground Contemplation.
On April 15, 2015 Wed. evening sit, Pat Komarow will guide us in this meditation as we intentionally bring our awareness to our own death. We will visualize the decomposition of our body after death through nine stages of dissolution, continually observing our body as a corpse and seeing it change over time.
In our discomfort around the topic of death, we often joke about death, the only thing as certain as taxes. Woody Allen has famously typified the attitude most of us find amusing and normal: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
One might ask, “Why do this kind of meditation?” Joan Halifax in her renowned book Being with Dying reminds us that “old age, sickness, and death do not have to be equated with suffering; we can live and practice in such a way that dying is a natural rite of passage, a completion of our life, and even the ultimate in liberation.”
Why not prepare for our death as we live our life fully? Why not explore our fears, anxiety, attachment to and identity with our body in an intentional moment of full awareness. What can we learn that informs the life we are now living? When we avoid death, we also avoid life.
Focus of Wednesday DharmaTalks Second Quarter of 2015
RMI is a Theravadan Buddhist sangha rooted in a lineage from southeast Asia. This tradition is known for focusing on meditations that condition “Insight” or “Vipassana” and has two forms: One is the development of concentration called “samatha” in Sanskrit or “Samadhi” in Pali. This is a one-pointedness of mind by various methods discussed in ancient texts leading to different states of awareness. This form existed before the Buddha, and he used it in discovering the other form of meditation known as Vipassana. This second form gave the Buddha insight into the nature of things leading to the complete liberation of the mind and to the realization of Ultimate Truth, Nirvana.
A more analytical method, Vipassana is based in mindfulness, awareness, vigilance, and observation. Looking into Ultimate Truth or Reality is looking deeply into the three marks of conditioned existence: dissatisfaction or “dukkha”, impermanence or “anicca”, and no permanent separate self or “anatta”. Insights are determined by exploration into these three conditions. Contemplative practices go hand in hand with the arising of insight.
A question that often arises is “What is the difference between Meditation and Contemplation?” Our RMI founder, Lucinda Green, has a clear and concise answer: “In Meditation, we are “observing” our minds, our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and all phenomena. In Contemplation, we grant ourselves the permission to think! But think with a particular focus. The thoughts, thinking process and reflection need to stay on a certain point and be related to the chosen topic of Contemplation.”
Because Contemplation practices involve more thought, it is helpful to know what to expect. If your mind wanders beyond the reflection you have chosen, then come back to your breath or a sensation. After settling your mind again, go back to the Contemplation. Again, assess your overall state of being.
Here are some Contemplation practices that we will explore over this second quarter of the year starting in April:
Come and join us in discovering and experiencing these Contemplation Practices.
Lucinda Green, Pat Komarow, Michele Sneath, and Practice Leaders of RMI
Dear Noble Sangha,
A week ago on Wednesday I gave my last Dharma Talk at RMI before leaving to join my teacher, the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, as his attendant. Some of you asked for highlights from that talk. Here they are:
Lucinda asked me to list a few of my favorite teachings, quotes, or suttas. Here are the quotes I shared:
“Each moment conditions the next.”
This quotes summarizes so much of the Buddha’s teachings on cause and effect. It is a powerful teaching with so much practical utility. Working with our mind is of the utmost importance in Buddhism, and this quote sheds some light on how to do that. We start by working with the causes and conditions of right now. We start with this moment. What we do in this moment will condition the next. We have some choice right now, maybe not 100% freedom, maybe only 1%. Still, we have a choice and our intentional actions (karma) matter. They make a difference.
“Cling to nothing whatsoever.”
When asked if he could sum up all of his teachings in one sentence, the Buddha said that he could. His answer: “Cling to nothing whatsoever.” He went on to say that if a person learned this one point of Dharma they had learned all Dharma, if they practiced this one point, they had practiced all Dharma, and if they acheived the full fruition of this one point, then they had acheived the full fruition of the path. This essential point hits the source of suffering on the head, clinging, and gives the simplest antidote: let go. Every other teaching is just a skillful way to get us to just let go. If we can drop clinging, drop craving, drop grasping, then that is all there is to do.
“Never give up.”
-The 14th Dalai Lama
Lucinda asked what piece of advice would I give to the Sangha at RMI. This is my one piece of advice. It comes from the 14th Dalai Lama. I used to have a piece of artwork hanging in my house that had this quote in greater detail, but this is the essential point: never give up. Never give up on your path, your practice, your self, or other sentient beings. Do not worry about how long or how difficult or how complicated the path to liberation might be. Set your mind firmly to the goal and resolve never to give up.
Finally, I would like to add something I did not cover in the talk:
“As a mother would risk her life to proctect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings.”
Loving-kindness is a cornerstone of Dharma. We should cherish other beings as if they were our only child. Rinpoche has often taught on the importance of making, what he calls, “a genuine heart connection” with beings. This means going beyond just meditating or thinking about compassion or metta or Bodhichitta, but cultivating an authentic love for others. This love is not based on ego-centric ideas of friend and foe, good and bad. We connect like a mother to her child, loving other beings with unconditional positive regard. I think this relates to the idea of Charitas in Greek, the definition of which is “undeserved kindness.” I think that is such a beautiful definition. Undeserved kindness. Metta does not ask you to prove your worthiness in order to receive it. Each being is inherently worthy of our kindness, love, and compassion.
May each of you grow in wisdom and compassion. May your path flourish and all those you come into contact with know kindness and peace.
And no matter how dark or difficult or hopeless your situation may be:
Never give up.
Please click the link below to download the 2014 Colorado Springs Sangha Directory:
There is no question that each person prefers joy over sorrow, happiness over pain, peace over anxiety, and contentment over dissatisfaction. If you take a moment to examine, it is clear that joy and sorrow, happiness and pain, peace and anxiety, and contentment and dissatisfaction all arise from and depend upon your mind. One person in a certain situation will react with anxiety, anger, sadness, or despair while another in the same set of circumstances will maintain equanimity, kindness, and even joy. There is no difference in the environmental circumstances, so why should one person experience great suffering while another experiences peace? The reason has to do with the state of mind of each individual. Certainly, you have some minimal control and influence over your environment, but you can never completely master the external world. However, you can master your mind. Countless examples of Buddhist masters both past and present (such as the Buddha, Milarepa, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh) show that transformation and mastery of the mind is possible. Since you wish to be happy, and because happiness depends primarily on your mind, and because your mind is really what you have the most power over, and since you can see that this transformation of mind is possible as demonstrated by countless Buddhist practitioners over the past 2500 years, and because meditation is the primary method of doing this, it is important and worthwhile to practice meditation.
A Story of Impermanence from the Buddha
by Pat Komarow
All of us know first- hand of impermanence through our own experiences. As Buddhists, we learn to trust our experiences as the most direct information about change that we have. When we actually understand the deeper universal nature of impermanence, insight arises and our relationship to change has less suffering and as a consequence propels us toward enlightenment. Here is a traditional story from the Buddha Parables translated by E. W. Burlingame.
Parable of the Mustard Seed
Gotami was her family name, but because she tired easily, she was called Kisa Gotami or Frail Gotami. She was reborn at Savatthi in a poverty-stricken house. When she grew up, she married, going to the house of her husband’s family to live. There, because she was the daughter of a poverty-stricken house, they treated her with contempt. After a time, she gave birth to a son. Then they accorded her respect.
But when that boy of hers was old enough to play and run hither and about, he died. Sorrow sprang up within her. Thought she: Since the birth of my son, I, who was once denied honor and respect in this very house, have received respect. These folk may even seek to cast my son away. Taking her son on her hip, she went about from one house door to another, saying: “Give me medicine for my son!”
Whenever people encountered her, they said: “Where did you ever meet with medicine for the dead?” So saying, they clapped their hands and laughed in derision. She had not the slightest idea what they meant.
Now a certain wise man saw her and thought: This woman must have been driven out of her mind by sorrow for her son. But medicine for her, no one else is likely to know—the Sage of the Ten Forces alone is likely to know. Said he: “Woman, as for medicine for your son—there is no one else who knows—the Sage of the Ten Forces, the foremost individual in the world of men and the worlds of the gods, resides at a neighboring monastery. Go to him and ask.”
The man speaks the truth, thought she. Taking her son on her hip, she took her stand in the outer circle of the congregation around the seated Buddha and said: “O Exalted One, give me medicine for my son!”
The Teacher, seeing that she was ripe for understanding, said: “You did well, Gotami, in coming hither for medicine. Go enter the city, make the rounds of the entire city, beginning at the beginning, and in whatever house no one has ever died, from that house fetch tiny grains of mustard seed.”
“Very well, reverend sir,” said she. Delighted in heart, she entered within the city, and at the very first house said: “The Sage of the Ten Forces bids me fetch tiny grains of mustard seed for medicine for my son. Give me tiny grains of mustard seed.”
“Alas! Gotami,” said they, and brought and gave to her. “This particular seed I cannot take. In this house someone has died!”
“What say you, Gotami! Here it is impossible to count the dead!”
“Well then, enough! I’ll not take it. The Sage of the Ten Forces did not tell me to take mustard seed from a house where anyone has ever died.”
In this same way, she went to the second house, and to the third and fourth. Finally she understood: In the entire city this must be the way! The Buddha, full of compassion for the welfare of mankind, must have seen!
Overcome with emotion, she went outside of the city, carried her son to the burning-ground, and holding him in her arms, said:
“Dear little son, I thought that you alone had been overtaken by this thing which men call death. But you are not the only one death has overtaken. This is a law common to all mankind.” So saying, she cast her son away in the burning-ground. Then she uttered the following stanza:
No village law, no law of market town,
No law of a single house is this—
Of all the world and all the worlds of gods
This only is the Law, that all things are impermanent.
From Teaching of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield
Dear Noble Sangha,
Walpola Rahula explains the Pali word for meditation, Bhavana, as meaning “mental culture” or “mental development.” In this context, meditation is not, as it may be commonly misunderstood, an escape from life, a mental withdrawal, or a blank spacing-out. In describing meditation as a mental culture or development Walpola Rahula emphasizes the Buddha’s intention behind the practice of meditation: a transformation of mind. Ponlop Rinpoche gives a similar presentation of meditation, saying that the Tibetan word for meditation means to familiarize with. This, he says, means that we are both familiarizing our mind with certain states or attitudes, and we are familiarizing or getting-to-know our mind itself and its true nature. Of course, the word mind here may be too limiting, as we are talking about the entire attitude, approach, view, perspective, and understanding of an individual. Mind in this context is not merely the thinking or reasoning process. Mind is our experience, it is our reality. When we speak of transforming our mind, cultivating our mind, or developing our mind we are talking about transforming our reality. So when we come to the practice of meditation, we should remember that we are transforming our whole reality, our entire way of perceiving and responding. Specifically, we are transforming our reality with wisdom, insight, compassion, joy, and kindness. And when we realize mind’s true nature, reality’s true nature, then we see who and what we are.
This journey of transforming our mind and mental culture begins with cultivating a simple, non-judgmental, direct awareness of each present moment. We look directly at our object of focus, whatever that may be, and notice one moment at a time.