2021-03-31 Mindfulness of Breathing (66) Fading of Compulsion
2:58PM Mar 31, 2021
My friends, we continue with ānāpānasati, and the topic is the 14th step: "One trains oneself, breathing in observing fading away." A different translation is: "One trains, breathing in observing dispassion." This word that is translated as 'dispassion' – the word is virāga. It doesn't quite work for some English speakers, because over time, the word passion has acquired many positive associations, connotations and definitions in English in some circles. I think the original meaning of it – that of the Passion of Christ, where it meant suffering – is kind of lost. But there are remnants in English, that passion can have negative connotations. It is a source of suffering. Someone has a passion for power, for sex or something – an intense engagement in something. An intense engagement can be very painful.
I want to talk about dispassion and virāga in an indirect way. Buddhism is often considered a religion. Once it's called a religion, it's reasonable for people to try to understand what are the fundamental tenets and beliefs of this religion. In doing that, looking at the generalizations – big, universal statements about things. One of the universal statements that Buddhism emphasizes is that everything is impermanent or inconstant. Usually people say, "Everything is impermanent."
When we have a universal statement, then we're contending with: "Is this really true?" "Is this always the case?" "This seems like a rather depressing way of seeing everything" – all kinds of reactions. Almost like a general, philosophical statement, as if it's some universal truth that Buddhism teaches.
Looking at this as an universal statement to understand Buddhism is one approach. The practice approach to understanding Buddhism is not to understand Buddhism in the abstract – not to begin there, but to begin with oneself and one's own experience. Given the degree to which Buddhism emphasizes the possibility of being free from suffering, we begin with ourselves: "What is the suffering here that I have? What's my pain, my emotional pain? What's happening here? And they say, it's possible to be free of it. Well, how could I become free of it? What does it take?"
In this very personal exploration of feeling and being here, then Buddhism says, "If you look carefully at your experience, you'll see that there's a close connection of the experience of inconstancy – change, transiency, impermanence – and our ability to ease up from our suffering – to soften it, to calm it down, even to have it fade away and disappear." We see then that the purpose of seeing inconstancy is not to have some universal theory, belief, or philosophy about life – but rather, it's a pragmatic, practical idea that the observation of change and inconstancy is an antidote, a medicine for what Buddhism calls suffering.
There's something that eases up when we can feel the flow of being in the current of change. Whether impermanence or inconstancy is a universal philosophical, metaphysical concept is beside the point. We're pointing to inconstancy, impermanence, because of its value in helping us loosen up, lighten up, and free up in the places we get caught. That's enough. We don't have to make a big leap of philosophy to make a universal claim, "Now I know something about the fundamental nature of the universe, the physics that everything is impermanent and changing all the time." It's an interesting idea, but that idea is not really what Buddhist practice is about.
As we see things shifting and changing, and the transitory nature of phenomena, we get more interested in the process of change, the process of inconstancy, than we are with the content of our thoughts and feelings. Many times we're focused on the meaning of things – the content, the purpose, the ideas, and the particularity of what is going on.
At this point in ānāpānasati, we're stepping back. The particular point of we're thinking is not that important. Just to see the thinking itself as an inconstant phenomenon that comes and goes. Probably you've had some of your thoughts repeatedly. They've come and gone for days, weeks, months, years. They just come and they go. After a while, if you see how much they come and go, maybe you ease up about them.
With our emotions – sometimes the meaning of the emotions, the story around them, even the emotion itself, what emotion it is, what it means to have that emotion and how it reflects back on ourselves as a human being – comes into play. At some point in meditation, we shift from all that complication to not even caring whether it's sadness or joy, but rather tuning into how the process of it is shifting, changing, morphing, moving, and coming in and out of existence. How attention, awareness, picks it up and puts it down, gets distracted by the train whistle. For a moment is not sad, because it's just the train whistle. Then we pick it up, and we're aware of sadness again, which has arisen, and then we hear more whistles. All this is coming and going.
It is this coming and going that begins to loosen us up, like a lubricant that begins unsticking the ways in which we are uncontrollably caught in our emotions, or our activity, or motivations. One of those is rāga. Rāga can be translated as passion or lust. When it's translated as lust, some people feel like it limits it too much to sexual passion. One definition in the Pali Text Society dictionary is "uncontrolled excitement." I like to think of it as drivenness. When there's drivenness, we're driven by lust, driven by greed, by hatred, and ill will. Something has taken over control, and we're not in control anymore – that level of passion.
Describing it in this way may seem dramatic. But as we get quieter in the mind, we see the subtler ways in which we're caught in the grip of a certain drivenness. Anybody who meditates tends to see, surprisingly, how much we get swept away in our thoughts, pulled into our thoughts, caught in our thoughts. That represents a kind of uncontrolled excitement, interest, or engagement.
As we settle back into just observing, we can see that this doesn't serve us – to be involved in this uncontrolled drivenness, caughtness, and preoccupation. There starts to be a process of disinterest, losing interesting in continuing doing that. "I've had the same thoughts for months now. I'm not interested in doing it anymore. I've had the same preoccupation with certain emotions and feelings as if they're the most important thing. I'm not so interested in it anymore. I don't want to give much more attention to these things. I've given so much attention to them. I've been kind of driven to pay attention to my anxiety, and I think it's okay to put the anxiety to the side. I know i'm anxious, but I don't have to be so driven by it. I can ease up. I can just observe it. I can be not so involved or entangled with it."
The movement to being non-driven, the dropping of compulsion, is virāga, this fading away, dispassion. It is very closely connected to freedom. It is a kind of freedom. After a while we begin appreciating that freedom is sweet. Freedom is a breath of fresh air. Freedom is a kind of joy, delight, vitality, and healthiness. We begin feeling a sense of freedom as we observe. There is freedom in observing. That freedom in observing is a guide, a support to lose interest or to lose our preoccupation with our drivenness, with the things that we're caught in.
There is a fading away of compulsion – a process some will translate as dispassion – a movement towards dispassion, towards freedom. The word virāga is a celebrated term in India. It's akin to liberation, to freedom itself. The end of rāga – the end of compulsion, driveness, lust in all its forms, passion in all its negative forms. It comes with peace. It can come with a peaceful way. I like to think of this whole process as a process of settling into ease – easing up, relaxing, softening, fading away into not nothing so much, but fading into a peaceful, happy, healthy, liberated way of being.
"Breathing in, observing fading away. Breathing out, observing dispassion" – as it comes along here. Thank you and we'll continue with this. I believe that on Friday we could do another session afterwards, if you want to stay and ask some questions. That was very nice last Friday, and as we're doing ānāpānasati, maybe it's nice for you to ask more questions about it. Thank you all very much.