2021-02-09 Mindfulness of Breathing (28) Feeling Thinking
5:50PM Feb 9, 2021
Today I'm going to discuss the seventh step of ānāpānasati, the seventh step of breathing in and breathing out in the Buddha's teachings on breath meditation. The way it's worded says: "One trains oneself: breathing in one experiences the activity of mind" – the mental formations, the constructing activity of the mind. In a simple way it is called the activity of the mind. "Breathing out one experiences the activity of the mind."
This is a really rich topic – what the mind is. The Pali word is citta. It's a rich and wonderful topic, and I'll touch on some of it as we go along here. But in simple terms, in English, we might call it the mind.
One of the main activities of the mind, for many of us, is thinking – to become aware of thinking. There are two different ways to become aware that I'm emphasizing here. One is to observe it, just to know what's happening. And the other is to really experience it – to feel the experience of what it's like to be thinking. Both are important.
To learn to recognize, know and observe thinking can be a stepping stone to feeling it, and experiencing it can more fully. As always, with mindfulness of breathing, there's the rhythm, the background beat, or the foreground beat, of breathing, which we're getting centered on, focused on, and settling in on. And the breathing protects us a little bit, from getting caught up in the world of thinking.
To be resting, focusing, or stable on the breathing, then as we get more more stable, the more awareness can begin to open up, and be more expansive, more inclusive, and able to take in more and more what's going on. With a stable presence and attention to breathing, it's possible to be aware of thinking, without being bothered by thinking. Without making it into a problem. Or that it's wrong to think in meditation, or to be upset about it, or even to call it a distraction.
The reason why it's easier not to be bothered is because there's not a very strong pull into that world. We don't get lost in it very much. But it's also true that, even if we do get lost in it, we're better off not being bothered by it. Being upset or agitated because we think is a recipe for perpetuating the thinking. The more agitated we are, the more the mind tends to produce thought, ideas, and stories.
The art of not being bothered, upset, or attached to thinking – but also not being aversive to thinking. Not making your thinking your very best friend, and not making thinking your enemy either. It's just that thinking is happening.
To be aware of thinking going by – the classic image in Buddhism is having thoughts drift by like clouds in an endless sky. It's just clouds. I love the metaphor of clouds for thinking. If you put your hand into a cloud, you don't get anything – maybe you get a little bit moist. But there's no solidity there. It's like you can put your hand right through. And it turns out that thinking is actually less solid than a cloud.
It's kind of a virtual reality thing, the thoughts. But it's what we invest in our thinking: the attachment, the engagement, the all the energy we put into it that makes thinking sometimes actually more solid, more real, and more important than almost anything else in our lives. We can get so wrapped up in our stories, ideas, and thoughts.
The paradox here is that the more energy we put into thinking, the more we're trying hard to anxiously think, or be attached to it – we actually think less effectively. The most creative, innovative, wise, loving, and beneficial way of thinking tends to be without a lot of extra energy. There can be a choice to focus on some things to think about in daily life. But do it with an easy, relaxed mind. That ability to stay focused and very relaxed allows the thinking mind to be most productive and creative.
Maybe there are exceptions, but for many people it is the exception to approach this idea of a creative mind that's relaxed – relaxed thinking. To learn not to be bothered by our thinking is one of the useful skills to learn in meditation. To have the wisdom not to be caught up in it, or for or against it, to have a certain equanimity. And to be patient, when the mind wanders off in thought. To keep coming back, keep coming back, starting over again, starting over again.
With the seventh step of ānāpānasati, now there's some stability here – some centering on the breath, the ability to stay with the breathing more continuously. And of course, that ability comes and goes. Many of us will start at step one of ānāpānasati regularly – "I'm just beginning." And that's completely fine. But at some point as we settle in – maybe the end of a long sit, or maybe conditions come together where there's enough stability, that we can become aware of thinking. In a way that it's like clouds in the endless sky. We don't get too caught in it. We don't get focused on it, but we are aware.
There are a few things that are interesting to notice when we can do this. One is to notice whether we think more in words, or more in images. In some people it's one or the other. In other people it's some combination of both. But maybe one predominates over the other.
Once you recognize what your primary quality of thinking is, you can investigate something more: where it operates. Where's the inner voice that is speaking? Where's the loudspeaker? Where's the inner mouth that's doing the speaking, the vocal cord? Sometimes people feel it's behind their forehead. It's somewhere in that area we call the brain, for many modern people.
In the ancient world – and also in the modern world in some places in Buddhist Asia – people associate the heart center with where they are thinking. And maybe some of you do as well. But I think a tendency in the modern West, at least, is the point to the head. Partly because the brain has such a big role in thinking, that we gravitate towards there. But the words might be spoken somewhere inside.
If you're thinking in images, it might be like a scene just in front of you with the eyes closed. It might be like a projection screen, or scenery that's in front of you. There's some kind of directionality – it's there – the sense of watching it. And that sense of a location for the inner voice, if you can find it, or the directionality of seeing an image is a means by which to start noticing the extra energy that goes into thinking.
If there's an inner voice, there's often contraction, tightness, or pressure if there's a lot of extra energy that goes into thinking. If there's a lot of imagery, there might also be contraction or tightness, but it might be in a different location.
For some people, it might actually be around their physical eyes, even with the eyes closed, because they're seeing an image. There's a habit maybe of engaging the eyes to focus on the image. And so there might be tension in the eye area.
By by noticing the location where thinking seems to be occurring, it's also possible to notice how much energy is being expended for this – and the emotions that might be connected to the energy. You start seeing there's more to thinking than just the thoughts. More to thinking than just the images.
There's the energy that's involved, the tensions that are involved. The pressure. There is the interest that's involved with thinking, the curiosity, or being glued to or locked onto it. There can be some emotionality connected to thinking. Sometimes the emotions are the fuel for it, or the source for what we're thinking about.
It's possible to step back, settle back, and just observe thinking – without necessarily observing the content of the thoughts. The content is often not so important for the purpose of meditation. But the associated aspects of thinking – the energy, tension, directionality, location, emotionality, or interest we have. Not to study them and get too active, but you can step back and observe these aspects. And that gives you access to the instructions to experience mental activity.
So in this case, to experience what it's like to be thinking. Or to say it differently, to really feel it – feel it somatically, physically almost – even though it's mental. There might be some of the sensations of thinking. This allows us to disinvest ourselves from the story and the ideas, but without dismissing the thinking. We are experiencing different parts of thinking – and that by itself tends to allow the thinking to become quieter and stiller.
As thinking becomes quieter and stiller, then we may be able to better or more fully stay with the in-breath and the out-breath, focusing on the body breathing. And to do so maybe with more sense of ease, more a sense of well-being. Just the simplicity to be content. Just to be present and breathe.
More often than not, the discontent about life and the impatience belong to the realm of thinking, or are fueled by thinking. So, this is not an instruction to get really busy to notice and focus on thinking – but rather to stay with your breathing. And don't be bothered by it. Don't be troubled by it.
But as it becomes relevant, touch into it – and begin experiencing feeling what's happening as you breathe. Maybe with the idea that you're breathing through the thinking – breathing with your thinking. So, the breathing supports you not getting caught in whatever you're thinking about – but you can just observe it and feel it.
May you develop a new relationship with your thinking. Don't assume that the way that you think is the way it has to be. There might be wonderful, delightful, relaxing, creative, and wise ways of thinking that take a very different form how you're usually thinking these days.
Thank you very much, and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.