2021-02-11 Mindfulness of Breathing (30) The Mind as Activity
5:32PM Feb 11, 2021
Continuing these talks on ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing, we enter into the domain of mental activity. And the Pali word is "citta sankhāra." It's 'citta,' usually translated as mind, and 'sankhāra' is formations, or I'm calling it this week activities of the mind.
Activities of the mind. It turns out that the mind is not the container for activities, or the organ for activities, like the brain, which is maybe the organ for what many of us in the modern world think of as mental activities. Citta is itself an activity. It's the sum total of all the activities of what we might call the mind. Citta is all the activities of the mind as we experience them – as we can know them.
This idea that the mind itself is an activity is an encouragement not to take the mind as a particular thing. Not to reify it, or treat it almost like a foreign object. But rather all we have as human beings – in the Buddhist point of view – is the activities that are all operating together to make make us alive.
It is when the activities of life are no longer here that we're no longer alive. And one of those activities is the activity of the mind, the mental activities. To start becoming aware of the mind and appreciating it is the task now in the middle stages of ānāpānasati.
It's very important to appreciate that it's in the middle here. There's been a lot of emphasis on breathing, for sure, embodied breathing – but also being rooted in the body, really feeling the whole body. And also starting to feel a real sense of well-being, contentment and joy in the body – and spreading that contentment throughout the body.
There's a movement towards becoming a whole. Or in the classic language becoming unified, where everything's included. As we move through ānāpānasati, it's not so much that we're starting to emphasize the mind more – but we're opening up wider and wider to become more and more inclusive of this whole.
But if we're very quiet and still, centered, and in the body, the body – because it's taken care of so well, and is no longer a challenging place to be in deeper meditation – the body begins to recede as a central focus of awareness. The breathing tends to change its quality. It's fascinating to watch as we go through meditation, the different stages that breathing will take.
Sometimes breathing will be very quiet, subtle, and still. Sometimes it's so quiet that it seems like we've stopped breathing. The first time that happened to me in meditation, I was very content. with a lot of well being, just sitting there very still. And no trouble at all. And then I noticed I hadn't breathed for a while. And I immediately gasped for breath with fear. And I had this thought: "I'm going to die!" But there was no danger of that. It was just that you're supposed to be breathing all the time. So, the idea that the breathing had seemingly stopped was a little bit jarring for me.
Eventually I learned that it seems like there's plenty enough oxygen getting into the bloodstream, in some way or other – even when the experience of breathing has gotten so still that it has seemingly stopped. The body and the breathing sometimes recede.
Then this sense of wholeness and inclusion begins to include the mental activity, the mind itself. One of the things we begin appreciating in this path, this journey, is that, at some point, it's possible to understand that the body itself – not the physical body, but the body we experience, how we experience the body – is a byproduct, or is contingent upon the mental activities we have.
If the mind is really quiet and still, the construction of the body – the making of bodily experiences, interpreting the body, and focusing the body – begins to recede as well. And the experienced body begins to become more porous, or transparent, more translucent, until it also seems to disappear.
This activity of the mind is part of this. In some forms of Buddhism, they say that this is all we have, all there is. Consciousness is all there is, they say.
But I don't think that the Buddha would say that. But he would say that most of what we experience – the experience of life – is very much conditioned and affected by the quality and the activity of the mind itself, of citta. Citta activity, the activity of the mind, is actually a hugely important part of our life. It's how we construct ourselves, our world, and the way we live in and experience it.
To start becoming aware – not this complicated idea that we're constructing our own experience in some way, or influencing it greatly. But to begin appreciating that it's actually possible to quiet, still, and soften the mind. Not necessarily doing it too intentionally.
It tends to happen as we start getting more and more settled, unified, and less in conflict with things, with the mind or the heart, or with the world. As there is less being for and against things, the mind tends to become quieter. The activity slows down.
But slowing down doesn't mean we become slow witted. As I said the over last few days, the mind actually operates so much better – more clearly, creatively, intelligently, and wisely – when there's less active energy. When less applied energy goes into our thinking, into the mental activity.
The mental activity begins coasting, or comes into harmony, where there's no resistance to anything. It just begins to operate in a very harmonious, deep way – almost effortlessly.
This movement of quieting the mental activity. Part of ānāpānasati is to recognize what the mental activity feels like – the experience of it. That's how we can start becoming aware of how energetic and tense it is – how much pressure, contraction, resistance, or agitation there is in the mental activity.
Then to hold that in awareness. Breathe with that. Just be aware of that. Then, when it's easy to relax, calm the mental activities. Not to do that too much, not to make it a big project.
In fact, the bigger project than calming the mental activities is just to get to know them – step seven. I can't overestimate how important it is for people who do vipassanā practice to learn the art of just knowing the experience really well. Knowing how to be with it without being for or against it – without being actively engaged, or trying to do something with it.
When that's learned well, then it's a really good time to actively quiet and soften the mind, the mental activity. To let go of our thoughts and preoccupations. Not to do it because we have to, but because it's wise. Not to do it because we're expecting to be successful, but just because we're so quiet, peaceful, and calm – so why not? Why not let the mind become even stiller and quieter?
Appreciating the mind as activity, and relaxing and calming it. And beginning to appreciate and recognize the ways in which the mental activity has become calm and quieter – and that's relative. If you're super agitated, it's really good to appreciate that now you're half agitated. And before you were 100% agitated. Rather than feeling upset about the 50% agitation, celebrate it.
Any movement in the right direction in meditation should be celebrated, rather than giving yourself more material for why you're not far enough along, or doing better. Appreciate the calmness of the mind, the tranquility of the mind.
For the Buddha, tranquility begets tranquility. He actually used the word food. Tranquility is the food, or the nourishment for more tranquility. So as yoy relax and calm the mind, as the mind becomes calmer, nourish yourself with that calm. Take it in. Enjoy it. Let it spread, and be more a part of who you are. Appreciate it!
I've had situations where I've been calm enough. But the authority of my thoughts and my sense of responsibility were so strong that I felt like I had to think about things – and could not sit and appreciate the calm. But tranquility is the food for more tranquility. So you're allowed to take in that food. You're allowed to be nourished by it when it's there. When it comes.
Step seven is: "Breathing in, one experiences mental activity. Breathing out, one experiences mental activity." Step eight is: "Breathing in, one calms the mental activity. Breathing out, one calms the mental activity." I hope that you enjoy that. But also, I hope you don't set up an excited mind, in opposition to a calm mind.
There are times in life where it's quite wonderful to be excited and engaged in things. And also to be able to be relaxed and fluid, in just going back and forth between happily excited minds and happily calm minds, as one of the joys of practice.