2022-01-20 Satipaṭṭhāna (13) Observing Inconstancy in the Body
3:53PM Jan 20, 2022
We are talking about the refrain of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. The first line, which we covered somewhat, maybe never complete, is the line that goes: "In this way, one abides, observing the body in terms of the body internally. One observes the body in regard to the body externally." That is the first line. The second line is: "One abides observing the arising of dhamma. One abides observing the ceasing of dhamma. One observes the arising and ceasing of dhamma."
The word "dhamma" here, ("dharma" usually in English), is not of 100% certain meaning. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as "nature" – the quality or nature of something. So: "Observing the nature of arising in the body. Observing the nature of ceasing in the body. Observing the nature of arising and ceasing in the body." The emphasis here is not what the sensation is, in and of itself, but rather the process in which all sensations in the body have a way in which they appear and disappear.
It is tuning into the flow – the changing nature, the appearing and disappearing, arising and passing. This is what this practice opens up to when we are able to be centered and stable in the present moment. When we are able to settle back, abide, and observe – without the mind jumping into thoughts, concepts, ideas, and reactions – the mind is just there, quietly able to observe what is happening.
Another meaning for the word "dhamma" is "experience" – the particular experiences that come and go. Whatever experience arises in the body, we see it as arising. Whatever experience has passed, we see it as passing. Whatever experiences we see both arise and pass in the body, we observe that. This third meaning – arising and passing – is that some things last a very short time. Almost as soon as they arise, they are already passing away. Like a sound of a bell. It suddenly appears, but then you are aware of it fading away. Sometimes that happens quite quickly. Some sounds, like if I snap my fingers, it both arises, appears, and disappears almost at the same time.
As the mind gets more still and quiet, a certain magic begins appearing. That is, for all the things we thought were solid, it turns out their solidity is partly a function of perceiving them conceptually, through an idea – maybe subconsciously. Or it seems solid because we are holding on to it or contracted around it.
As we get deeper, more relaxed and settled, and are able to tune into momentary processes, we see that even with something that remains – in remaining, it is coming and going, arising and passing. For example, you might hear a constant rustling of the leaves in the tree in the wind, and say, "Oh, it's rustling all the time. It is constant." But in fact, the rustling – if you tune into it – is a lot of small little rustle sensations of leaves coming and going. The aggregate we take to be more of a continuous, solid thing.
Same thing with the body – the aggregate of pain in my knee can seem like solid pain. But if we can settle and become quiet enough, we open to and receive the sensations of the pain. Often what happens is that we drop below the aggregate level to the more particular sensations that make up the total. We see they are sparking and passing away. There is a dance of sensations all the time, even in something that felt like it was solid. This dance of sensations, comings and goings – as we keep practicing, it becomes, more and more, the orientation for what we are aware of.
This can happen naturally by itself. It is not like we have to go looking for it. In fact, to look for this way of being too soon, can lead to a certain kind of imbalance. Our meditation becomes unbalanced or challenged. It is better to let this dropping down just appear as we get more settled into the practice, when we are more here, and are relaxed into the place where we can just abide and observe in a very relaxed way.
What can help and support this is to know that this is valuable. Sometimes when people learn mindfulness practice, they are supposed to always know something. To really go in there and know: "That is pain. That is tightening. That is clenching. That is warmth. That is coolness." It is like focusing on – I don't know if "concept" is the right word to say here – but on the thing.
But at some point, what we are interested in is not the thing, but to have a deeper intimacy that allows us to see – to perceive, sense, feel – that whatever thing that is there, whatever dhamma, is arising and passing, and how it is sparking out.
The word "anicca," often translated as "impermanence," literally means "inconstancy." When we use the word "impermanent" in English, some people think it means it is not going to last. Sooner or later it will not be there anymore. But here inconstancy implies that something can be there, like the leaves rustling in the wind seems constant, but the individual bits of sound are inconstant. They come and go.
Our breathing – as long as we are alive, our breathing is constant. It is not impermanent, in a final way, until we die. But it is inconstant in that the inbreath is not constantly there. The inbreath is inconstant, because it yields to the exhale. The exhale is not constant, because it yields the inhale. They are inconstantly continuously there. They are inconstantly continuously reappearing. A lot of what we see in the body is better described not as impermanent, but as inconstant. We see inconstancy: the flow, change, moving.
We are able to rest in that experience – abide and observe, abide and just sense – where the observing is akin to receptive awareness. If the idea of seeing or observing is not quite the right metaphor for you, there might be another metaphor, like feeling. Receptive feeling, receptive perceiving, is closer to what it is happening than actively looking.
As we deepen into this world of inconstancy, it is not even receptive anymore. That implies a bit of a separation from the experience – a duality where we are a bit active like, "I am the one receiving." It is just things appearing and disappearing, without our receiving it or actively going to it. It is just flowing in this field of awareness.
There is are degrees by which this happens. Sometimes we feel hints of it, the smallest degree. Sometimes it is all pervasive. Whatever degree it is, it does represent a movement towards healthiness in the body. The contracted, tight, and solid feeling of the body – as normal as it is, is not necessarily a problem in ordinary life. It may even be needed. But this can also be the place where we get physiologically congested, tense, tight, or restricted. The blood circulation, nerve circulation –I do not know exactly all the energies that exist in the body – do not flow as smoothly.
As we open up to this flowing, vibrant nature, it can feel like like health is flowing through our body. Even if someone is sick, maybe with an incurable disease, to have access to this level of meditation just feels healthy. Whether it actually heals disease is another issue. But it certainly feels good to have this deep relaxation and opening. And it probably is good for the immune system and things.
More important in Buddhism, this deep relaxation is a stepping stone or opening. It is a way of being that begins showing us the potential for freedom in a deep way. That will be the topic for tomorrow. So: "Abiding, observing the body in its arising experiences. Abiding, observing the body in its ceasing experiences. Abiding, observing the body in the arising and ceasing of all its experiences."
Thank you. I look forward to being here with you tomorrow.