2021-03-23 Mindfulness of Breathing (60) The Present is Change
3:38PM Mar 23, 2021
As I talked about yesterday, the fourth tetrad – the fourth and final group of four practices or steps of Mindfulness of Breathing – involves observing – settling back and observing our experience.
A big part of the ability to observe what's being implied here is not to be assertive, doing things, interpreting, changing, fixing, escaping our experience, but learning to have the stability, ease, and strength of awareness to settle back and really see clearly what's happening here – to clearly observe the moment. And when we don't overlay our ideas and concepts, what we see is change. We see that things are changing all the time.
It doesn't take a lot to appreciate, I think, that even aside from any ways in which we think things are unchanging, moment by moment there's always change. The day changes. The lighting changes slowly over time – maybe sometimes it's imperceptible. If you're in a city, the sounds of the city are constantly changing. The sensations of our body are changing throughout the day. We can watch the changes as we get hungry, we eat, and then don't feel hungry. We feel uncomfortable. We engage our body in different ways. Different muscles are used at different times, and therefore, different sensations come into play. There's a constantly shifting, changing landscape of where attention focuses and what it takes in.
Even with things that don't necessarily change themselves, what's changing constantly is how we perceive them – how we see them. If I look at the wall that's opposite me here, the natural thing, when I'm relaxed, is to have my eyes not fixate on a spot but just kind of roam around. Even though the wall is not changing, what's changing is where my eyes land on it, or the flowing of the perception of the wall. So, whether it's something that's constantly shifting – like watching a river flowing, or it's the act of perception continually shifting, moving, and going around, what we experience is a constantly shifting landscape of change. It turns out that this is central to the deeper insights of Buddhist meditation.
The thirteenth step of 'Ānāpānasati,' begining the fourth tetrad, is: "One trains: observing inconstancy, I breathe in. One trains: observing inconstancy, I breathe out."
Inconstancy here is one of the words for change. We can see – really begin to appreciate and see – the depth of how things are changing all the time. One of the reasons Buddhism puts such a strong emphasis on being present – having present moment attention – is that's where change happens.
If we're thinking about the past, the past is not changing anymore, except in how we remember it, perhaps. The future doesn't really exist to change. It's just a projection of our imagination. But in the present moment is where we see change. That's where the river of change flows by.
Everything is changing according to the Buddha. Everything is inconstant. This is not necessarily obvious in ordinary consciousness, in ordinary ways of being. But it's really central to what happens in deeper meditation.
In meditation itself, we're no longer paying attention to the wall on the opposite side of the room or to the mountain. We might say: "Well, the mountain's not changing." Then we have to use our logic and say: "Well, it's slowly being worn down and eroding." It's in meditation – with the eyes closed, sitting here – that we begin to open up to present moment experience, and really feel, sense, experience, and observe it. What we experience – in the context of meditation – is a constantly shifting flow of phenomena.
This is experienced after developing strong stability. Part of the paradox is that, in meditation, the more still and stable the mind is, the more the mind observes change and impermanence. The more unstable, scattered, preoccupied, and unsettled the mind is, the more we tend to impute permanence. And we tend to get caught up in our ideas, thoughts, and stories, which can often carry with them the feeling that things are constant or permanent – that, "This is the way things are."
I've certainly fallen into the delusion of permanence without realizing it, kind of unconsciously even. If I think about it, of course I don't believe what I'm feeling. I remember one day, many years ago, having a difficult day with my child. My wife and I were hovering over him and trying to manage with this high spirited child. And then my wife just looked up at me and said, "We're having one of those kinds of days."
As soon as she said that, I realized that I was emotionally operating as if, "This is it. We're always going to be this way. It's not going to change." Of course, if I'd thought about it, I wouldn't have felt that way. But the emotional feeling affirmed, "This is it." However, as soon as she said, "We're having one of those days," I relaxed. "Okay. This is a manifestation of the moment. This is how it is now. And it will change. You'll have a different day tomorrow."
The imputing of permanence – an emotional feeling like, "This is it" – interferes with our ability to step back and benefit from the wisdom of change, of how things move and are constantly shifting. This is one of the key insights of the Buddha. He doesn't say it this particular way, but this is my interpretation: "Things are always changing, and change is not random. Change happens because of the conditions preceding what's happening now."
As conditions shift and change, the direction of change – how things change – unfolds accordingly. Generally, we don't have rain without clouds. The clouds are the condition for the changing weather of rain happening.
When I feel cold, then perhaps it's sometimes harder for me to get concentrated when I meditate. I've sometimes meditated in very cold weather, and the conditions aren't there for me to get settled and calm. There is still change happening. Certainly, things are being all kinds of different ways. But conditions don't support becoming concentrated.
There are times when the weather's been comfortable or I've been bundled up nicely. My body isn't coping with cold and shivering. I have different conditions of being cozy and settled. It's easier then. The conditions are there to allow the change into a concentrated state of meditation. So, depending on the conditions that are present, change goes in different directions.
A key insight that's really central to Buddhist teachings is that things can go in either a helpful direction or an unhelpful direction – a wholesome, nourishing direction or an unhelpful, unourishing direction. We're a little bit responsible for putting the conditions in place to support the directionality of change. We can't control it absolutely. We can't make things be a certain way. But we can put the conditions in place to support a tendency in healthy directions – beneficial ways.
A deep appreciation of change shows us also that things are malleable. Things are changeable 'because' they're always changing. And we have a role to play in the direction of that change.
If we're floating down a current of the river, we understand that we're being carried by the flowing change of the river. But we also understand which part of the current we're in – and how we avoid the eddies and the parts of the current that take us up against the shore. We can gently guide ourselves in the river in a way that keeps us in a central current, and we keep flowing down the river.
Being atuned to change is part of this thirteenth step of the sixteen steps of Mindfulness of Breathing. It is to observe – the word is 'inconstancy.' I'll talk more about that tomorrow. But it's part of this family of concepts that relate to change, things becoming different, and impermanence.
So, to observe inconstancy. Observe change. And to find some degree of freedom – the same kind of freedom we would have if we were floating on the river. There's freedom in being carried, but then we're also careful about which current we go in – where we're floating on the river – maybe even which river we're floating in.
This might be the theme for the next twenty-four hours for you: notice change. Notice how change arises and changes depending on conditions. Also how your role, and where you find yourself in change – your relationship to change and how you relate to that change – puts you in different currents. If you're resisting, fighting, or attached to change, that puts you in a different river than one than if you're with change in an open, relaxed way.
There are different words, concepts, and ways of talking about the same thing. The Buddha used different words. For now, I'm using the word 'inconstancy' and focusing mostly on change. Tomorrow, we'll pick up the idea of inconstancy more directly. 'Anicca' is the word in Pali often translated as 'impermanence,' but we'll see tomorrow that 'inconstancy' might be a better translation.
Thank you all very much, and I look forward to tomorrow.