2021-02-20 Mindfulness of Breathing (37) Skilled in Tension to be Free of Tension
5:26PM Feb 20, 2021
In doing this Buddhist path and meditation practice, it's certainly helpful to relax. To calm the places that are over-activated, to relax places that are overly tense, and bring tranquility to the ways in which we're anxious or agitated. And sometimes the emphasis is on the relaxation, on the calming.
One of the things that's very important to develop on this path of practice, is a skill: a heightened sensitivity to the tension, agitation, and the ways in which we get tense. The reason for this is that we want to become skilled and able to recognize it clearly, so that it becomes something we pick up early, as it begins. Or so that we become aware of the more subtle ways in which we get caught and cling. If we're only focusing on the relaxation and the calm, we might not become experts at perceiving attention.
All the tensions we feel, tension in the body – or maybe I shouldn't say all but most of it – probably represents some way that the mind is clinging to something. It's fixated and pushing on something in the mind. Much of the physical tension that we have represents something deeper in the mind. The surface tensions of the mind that we might feel when we're really anxious, upset or tense around something, also represents something probably deeper in the mind, some deeper place of holding or attachment. Even though we may be talking about physical relaxation, what we're relaxing is something that has its source deep in the clinging of the mind.
The idea is to start becoming more sensitive when clinging to tension. That has many benefits. One is that it can help us go further and deeper into practice, because we've gotten used to and familiar with all little ways that that clinging appears in our body, mind and heart.
It's also a protection for ourselves and our practice. Because it's very easy to practice with tension and attachment that we don't see. Paradoxically, a person could receive the instructions: "Just relax your tension." And they get so serious about the relaxing that they tense up around: "Let's really do it well here. The teacher says to relax and by golly, I'm going to relax, I'm going to be the best relaxer anywhere." And then we relax, certainly we partly relax body, but the mind has gotten tense in the effort to push. Any instruction we receive in practice, we can become attached to. Any idea of what might happen in practice, we get attached to wanting that to happen or attached somehow to clinging, "Oh, that's not happening to me, it's not possible for me, that doesn't relate to me, or that's not right." This holding on to that in a way that limits our freedom.
If we start becoming skilled at recognizing tension, then we recognize the very tension that's involved in how we practice, what we're looking for and wanting to have happen in practice. And so it becomes a protection, that we're not ahead of ourselves in practice, that we're not trying to make something happen, or expect something to occur, which is not actually what is happening. The default is always to come back to what is happening.
In doing that, again, we recognize how we're tense. Recognize the pushing, striving or contraction that might be there. And then as we we let go of that, there's an influence that has on us. Part of this deeper recognition of tension, is that we can comprehend what is not tension. We can recognize the impact it has on us to let go, soften and relax. We can recognize that there's more happening here than the tension.
I've certainly had the experience of being overly focused on the tension in my body and mind that are only concerned with something I'm supposed to do, like pay attention to the breathing, that I didn't notice that, in the wider picture of what's going on, there was in fact, some settledness, calmness and peacefulness; actually some very subtle kind of delight in just being here. I was so fixated and concerned with my preoccupation.
The idea of relaxing and opening the attention to feel the influence of relaxation and tranquility, allows us to feel some of the other goodness that's here. Some of the other things that are actually going well for us. This is because as ānāpānasati deepens, we want to broaden the attention, to take in the bigger picture as well of what's happening. There's joy and contentment that permeate this deeper, bigger picture. It might be subtle, nothing dramatic. We might then get fixated, get attached to having joy and happiness, or disappointed if we don't have it. And that's tension.
If we are skilled at looking at tension, we'll catch it right away, so it doesn't trip us up: "Oh, there's tension!" Maybe rather than looking for joy, we should look to spend time feeling that tension. So we can relax, soften or not be limited by the tension. We can open up the attention wider, not in a fixated way, but in an open, relaxed way.
As we open, if we do feel some of the goodness of the relaxation and the practice that's occurring, I think of it as the mood of a room, or the atmosphere of a situation we're in. I've gone into some places and the atmosphere is clearly peaceful. I feel like I'm being washed in peacefulness. I go into other atmospheres, and it just feels immediately feels very tense, the whole thing.
So there's a kind of atmosphere within us. Take in the atmosphere of the goodness, even if it's subtle, and breathe with that. Not to deny other things, nor lose our ability to notice when we get tense, tight, contracted, resistant, or all the different expressions of clinging – but as a way of creating a nice atmosphere that supports the further letting go of clinging. This gives us confidence and some sense of the rightness of the moment, as opposed to so easily focusing on the wrongness of the moment. Some people are really experts at this. This is not to make a pollyannaish view that everything is good. But it's to create an atmosphere that allows us to hold and be with the difficulties in a way that we don't get fixated or cling to them, or resist them too tightly.
All this is a way of saying that part of what we are doing in this practice is becoming an expert on tension. Even though the emphasis might be on relaxing, don't become tense because you're trying to relax, or because you can't relax. Keep remembering that recognizing and learning to feel, sense and become more of a connoisseur of all the different flavors and textures of tension, clinging, holding and attachment is actually a very important part of the practice.
So you want to take some time to feel it and get to know it, and not to be in a hurry to relax or get rid of anything that's uncomfortable because the lesson of what you learn by really feeling it fully is how to be prepared better for next time, to catch it earlier and protect yourself from being caught in it.
Part of this Buddhist path is to become skilled in tension, not skilled in tensing. Because we don't want to learn better how to tense, but rather skilled in recognizing tension and seeing it when it's there. Seeing it sometimes when it's beginning.
The last thing I'll say about this is the importance of not confusing tension with intentness. Sometimes there's intentness that has a certain energy, engagement, and wholeheartedness that doesn't have the quality of limitation or debilitation that tension or clinging has – but it's really present. There can be intentness of the body and intentness of the mind. "I'm here, this is what I'm doing. I'm involved in this" – but there's no tension. There's maybe tautness, but no contraction. Sometimes people, when they hear 'relax', relax their intentness. They relax their healthy tautness, and move towards becoming just a slouch; too limp to really let the vitality of practice operate.
So certainly, relaxing, calming, becoming tranquil and peaceful is a support for this practice. But don't overlook the important work of becoming skilled at recognizing tension. And maybe take some delight and satisfaction as you become more and more a connoisseur of all the different ways that you're tense. And rather than being disappointed when you see it, you say, "Oh, fantastic. I get to study this, and get to know it better. It's not so pleasant right now – the tension in and of itself – but in the long term, I'm much better off to really become a student of tension. Before I really focus too much on relaxing."
So thank you. Tomorrow morning, as well, we'll have this 6:45 sitting, and little talk at 7:30. And tomorrow Diana Clark will lead it. She's my co-teacher for the retreat we're teaching this week, and I'll take the early morning off and she'll come and offer something for the sitting. And then we'll continue with ānāpānasati, step nine, moving forward now on Monday. Thank you.