2021-03-26 Mindfulness of Breathing (63) Breaking the Spell
3:33PM Mar 26, 2021
The topic continues to be on the 13th step of mindfulness of breathing. Observing, one trains oneself: "Observing inconstancy, I breathe in. Observing inconstancy, I breathe out." This is how the instructions are. Observing inconstancy – usually translated as impermanence – as I said yesterday, is the core insight of insight meditation, the core insight of the Buddha's teachings in the ancient texts.
The definition that the Buddha gave repeatedly for wisdom, "Wisdom is the perception of arising and passing – the insight into the arising and disappearing of phenomena that is noble, penetrating, and leads to the ending of suffering." It's the experience, the perception, of seeing things arise and pass that leads to liberation, to awakening.
The way that inconstancy is understood here is defined in many different words in the ancient language that are equivalent to the English "arising and passing," "appearing and disappearing," and phrases like that. It's hard to understand or appreciate how valuable this is to have this experience – until one experiences it in a very deep, subtle, quiet place in meditation. That's where this deep insight is really an insight that works – a very penetrating and noble awakening – when the mind is ready for seeing that.
In ordinary consciousness, walking around the street, if someone tells you to notice the arising and passing of phenomena, it probably won't stick. There probably won't be any sense of continuity with that, resting in it, being open to it. You have to take care of too many details walking on the street – figuring out what's going on.
But in deep meditation, to be at rest and centered, in a receptive, open, observing way of the flow of experience in awareness – then it's possible, because we're not overlaying concepts and ideas on top of things. We're just there in the direct experience of phenomena – perceptions, sensations, the beginning of thoughts and even emotions that might feel in ordinary street consciousness as being continuous. When your mind is very quiet and still, we're beginning to feel and sense how they actually kind of refresh – momentarily, fleetingly coming into and out of existence. There's a coming into and out of awareness. The mind picks it up and doesn't pick it up.
Generally what happens is that we sew all these different moments of arising and passing together into a feeling of constancy – into the idea that it's continuous. When we don't have ideas anymore, just in the experience, this arising and passing occurs. This is supposed to be liberating, to do this. Partly it's because when we see that things are constantly in flux, it doesn't make sense to cling to them, to grasp onto them.
It's like you're seeing the river flow by – it's clearly moving and in flux – then you put your hand in there to grab the river and hold it. You grab a handful of the river and you pull it up. By the time you open your hand, all the water has kind of squeezed out of your fingers and run off. You might have a few drops left on your hand. But you don't go with those drops of water on your hand to your friends on the shore and say, "Hey, look, I have the river in my hand." If you think you're holding the river, because you have those few little drops, that's no longer the river. The river is partly defined by water that's flowing, and those drops are no longer in that flow.
The idea of picking something out of the flow of experience and holding on to it – if we're in the flow, really centered in it, then we see we've actually left the flow. We're actually now holding something – an idea of something – that's just a little drop, a little, I don't know what.
It turns out that so much of what we get attached to, cling to, resist is not actually reality, but the idea, the interpretation, or concept we have of reality. It's hard to explain that to people in ordinary consciousness. But to be centered and quiet, and see the vibratory, sparkling flow. The raindrop on the lake, the appearing and disappearing of phenomena becomes glaringly obvious. It doesn't make sense to cling to it. It doesn't make sense to resist it. Rather to open to it and just allow it to move through – just allow it to flow and move.
Generally when that happens, our relationship to that experience changes dramatically. Even if we have physical pain – which is very hard to be with I know – when we have the ability of being concentrated and still, and feel it all as flowing sensation, the pain gets transformed into something else that doesn't really feel painful anymore. The flow of this arising and passing of sensations becomes a whole different way of experiencing it. But to do that requires the mind being very still, focused, present, and quiet.
This is the core insight: to see the appearing and disappearing of phenomena. In the guided meditation, I was focusing mostly on the arising. At some point we'll do a meditation just focusing on the passing away of phenomena, and then arising and passing of phenomena together.
Our relationship to things begins to shift. There's a wonderful verse, in the 'Dhammapada' that starts with the quote that, "All things are inconstant." Everything is arising and passing. Even things that are continuous, from ordinary consciousness, seem like they're unchanging. In some way or other, in the mind's way of experiencing it, it's the experience that's arising and passing. We want to be careful that we're not getting too wrapped up in the thing that we're perceiving as inconstant. It's the nature of how experience happens that's inconstant. There's a momentary, kind of like pixelated nature of reality or this flow of experience that comes and goes – that is built into the nature of how we are aware, how we experience things.
The Buddha says, "All created things are inconstant" [Dhp 277]. The word is 'saṅkhāra', which I'd like to suggest is about is all created experiences – all the ways in which the mind perceives, takes in, and constructs our reality. Everything like that is inconstant, in flux, and moving. Then: "Seeing this with insight, one becomes disenchanted with suffering."
One becomes disenchanted with suffering – whoever believes that they're enchanted with suffering? Enchanted may mean enamored. It means caught in the spell of it. Somehow, if we hate our suffering, we're caught in its spell. We're enchanted by it in a certain way, if that means to be under a spell. If we hate something, we're under its spell – we're caught, we're entangled. There's something about seeing the inconstancy of experience that helps us to disentangle ourselves – to break that spell, to not be so caught in it.
All things are inconstant. "All created things are inconstant" – all 'saṅkhāra's. "Seeing this with insight. One becomes disenchanted with suffering. This is the path of purity."
This is the path of purity. It's a little problematic, this idea of purity, but just a few verses before he talks about purity this way: "This is the path for purifying one's vision" – purifying our awareness, our vision, how we see things. It's not necessarily becoming a saint inside – that kind of purity. Rather, it's coming to a place where our capacity to be aware is purified of all the filters of thoughts, ideas, reactions, emotions that prevent us from seeing clearly. To see clearly – see things as they are – we want to see the inconstancy of phenomena.
The verse goes on, "All created things are suffering. Seeing this with insight, one becomes disenchanted with suffering." Here we have the second of the three characteristics. The three are inconstancy, suffering, and not-self. These three characteristics are the core insights of insight meditation.
It starts with arising and passing. In seeing the arising and passing, there's something about seeing that level – that layer – of our experience that gives birth to clear insight into (here the translator, me, translates as): 'suffering.' The word is 'dukkha.' Maybe it's could be more usefully translated in this context as 'stressful.' But we'll talk more about that on Monday.
It goes on to say, "All things are not-self. Seeing this with insight, one becomes disenchanted with suffering".
We'll continue this idea of the three characteristics, which are so phenomenally important for insight meditation, that it's worth spending some time with it. This movement of seeing and observing inconstancy has an impact on the meditator. The impact is a process of disenchantment – breaking the spell of how we're caught, entangled, clinging or attached to things. This is where the allure, the promise of attachment – the promise that grasping will somehow save us or do something for us – begins to be broken.
You might want to, today, and during this weekend, look at this idea of inconstancy, of arising and passing of phenomena and see if somehow that casts any perspective on how you might be enchanted with suffering, or caught in its spell.
I have a little bit of time today. We can stop formally here. But if some of you would like to stay a little bit longer and put some questions in the chat, I'm happy to try to answer. I might not be able to answer them in order. But if you would like to try, I'm happy to stay for a little while.
Q1: "Inconstancy is not bad news. Ah ha." Nice.
Q2: "Are there transcripts of your talks?" Yes, but I don't think they're necessarily coming right away. There's a wonderful team of people who are transcribing these talks in the morning. I think some of the earlier ones are available now, from earlier in the year or before. If you go on Audio Dharma, where the audio recording of them appear, it'll say if there's a transcription available. They're lightly edited, luckily. The person leading up that wonderful project of transcribing is Meg Gawler, who often says hello here in the morning. Thank you so much, Meg and your team, for this great work you're doing.
Q3: "Where does awareness go when we are caught in thinking?" Lovely question, Where does it go? Well, it depends what we mean by awareness. If awareness is not the same as consciousness, but awareness is conscious awareness. Or how to say it. If there's knowing awareness – we know what we're aware of, we know what's coming into consciousness. There are a lot of things we know, that come into awareness that we don't really, clearly, fully, "Ah, I know that". For example, just saying all this, I was aware that, I have these lights on here – studio lights – that I was aware of this light and then I knew, "Oh, the light is on." But the second kind of knowing of it is different than if I go about not paying attention – I don't think about it. I don't have any act of formal recognition. With thinking, our consciousness or awareness. I like to think of it as it gets hijacked, and held hostage by our thinking. We get so glued to our thinking, that our self-reflective awareness – where we know what's happening, what we're doing, and what we're thinking – gets lost, because it's so preoccupied, so glued to our thinking. That's probably an inadequate answer, but we'll have to leave it at that.
Q4: "Can you say more about dealing with pain, especially for those with chronic illness?" Yeah, that's a huge topic. It's very important one. There are a lot of people who have pain and are managing their life with pain and chronic illness. I think one of the great benefits of mindfulness meditation in circumstances like that, is to help us not add second arrows to it. When we already have tremendous difficulty in trying to figure out our life working with this difficulty – to not add shame, or self-recrimination, or resentment, or anger. To not get attached to, "It should have been different. Why isn't it different? I should have..." – whatever it might be, the second arrows. But to learn how to be simpler and simpler, and to allow ourselves to be be ill and painful in the simplest possible way. Maybe even an ordinary way, as if, "Oh, yes, I'm sick. That's what's happening".
Then absolutely take care of ourselves. Try to be well and try to do what we can to heal the pain or overcome the illness. This is not a passivity that we want to have about it. We do what we can, and sometimes we can't do much. The practice can help us become very simple with it, breathe with it and not add extra tension and stress to the already stressful situation. As the mindfulness gets stronger and more concentrated, it's possible to bring a careful, loving, compassionate attention deeply into the pain and the illness to really feel the direct experience of it. That sometimes allows different kinds of shifts, beneficial shifts. I don't want to say exactly how those beneficial shifts will look – different for different people. I don't want to set up the expectation that mindfulness can help make the pain go completely away, or the illness go away, and that it's healing that way. But it it can be healing for the heart, the mindfulness practice. The illness and the pain might not go away, but the heart is healed. That's the movement of liberation, and then we become whole in a certain way.
Q5: "Is closed captioning available for these talks?" You know, I believe they are through YouTube. I haven't tracked all this so well. I'll try to find out. I believe there's a way, maybe down in the settings on YouTube.
It goes by quickly, so I miss. I can't do them in order. I apologize.
Q6: "Are thoughts the central mechanism of how we cling to these inconstant phenomena?" I don't know if thoughts are the mechanism for clinging, but at least in my experience, mostly what we cling to is our thoughts, our ideas. It's not so obvious until we really see how this works in a deep, quiet way. We don't really cling to physical pleasure, but it's more like we're clinging to the thoughts, the ideas that we have about what this pleasure is doing for us.
Q7: "To get to the deepest levels of insight, it seems we have to let go of every to do list in our life. How can we function in the world if we want to go to the deepest levels of insight?" Great question. Yes, to get to the deepest level of freedom, you have to put aside, or let go of any clinging, all clinging. But we can still hold things without clinging. I can be attached to this striker. I can feel I'm attached to it so, I should never let go of it. I can just drop it [striker falls]. But another way is not the thing that we necessarily have to let go of. When we let go of attachment, it's not the thing, unless it's harmful, and the striker is not harmful in itself. It's the clinging we let go of. So then we can go like this [holds striker in palm of hand facing upwards]. We can still hold it without any grasping. In deep meditation, we want to put everything aside. So with a to do list, you would maybe put it on a piece of paper, and put it up on a shelf, leave it on your table – just put it aside. Later you come back to it, look at it, and hold all the things on the to do list with this open hand and open mind. Then go through them and have the pleasure of checking them off. But don't get attached to any of it, or cling to any of it. You're welcome to keep your to do list. Hopefully the deep letting go and the deep wisdom of meditation helps you to look at that list and prioritize in a good way. Maybe a few of the things on the list are not necessary. A few of the things may represent something you're attached to unnecessarily. Maybe.
Q8: "There seems to be two kinds of inconstancy: how our awareness flickers, and then perhaps wraps things up in a constant narrative. Is that correct?" Yeah, that sounds nice. But things are not random. The inconsistency of what appears and disappears is not completely random. They arise because of preceding conditions. Nothing arises out of nothing. But the conditions come together, and then things arise. In Dharma practice, we're actually putting in place conditions so that we have more consistency – so that it's more likely that if we move in a certain direction, if we grow in certain directions, certain kinds of arising tend to arise more often. For example, if we practice a lot of lovingkindness, then that sets the conditions so that if we sit and we feel pain, we're more ready to feel compassion, love and care for ourselves, than we are to be angry with ourselves, or angry with other people, because of what's happening to us. So it's inconstancy, but we begin to shape that inconstancy, so it tends in one direction, in a beneficial direction.
Q9: "Will you please say more about the Buddha never saying "no self," or that he had a sense of self." Yes. We'll talk about that next week when we get to not-self in this exploration of inconstancy.
Q10: "I have tinnitus." I guess I missed the question, but I have tinnitus. One of the best things for me is if no one brings up the word, because then I'm reminded and I start hearing the ringing in my ears. There are times when I've been really troubled by this – drove me kind of batty, the ringing in my ears – but now I'm not troubled by it anymore. It kind of recedes. Some people find it useful to make it the object of meditation. It has a kind of constant inconstancy, that is grounding for some people. I've never found it particularly useful to pay attention to it. And in fact, there was one teacher who actually says it's one of the things in mindfulness practice you shouldn't pay attention to. The idea is to pay attention to everything in mindfulness, but not pay attention to that. It all depends on the person and what's useful and not useful. Mostly these days, I don't give it much attention and I've learned not to react to it – not to be for or against it. Just to, "Okay, there it is." Then I'll continue with my breathing, sit there, practice and go on with other things. I know for some people, it's really bad. They just have some kind of ambient sound around them that masks it, hides it.
Q11: "It's a challenge to hold one's tongue and only observe." Yes, this is the advanced graduate school mindfulness – to be mindful of speaking. There's so much attachment, force, power, and desire that come into play in speaking. It's so beneficial to bring mindfulness to thinking. It's a window into (to say it in non-Buddhist dramatic terms) – to be mindful of our talking, what drives our talking, why we're going to say what we say, and what is the the emotional motivation for our talking – it's a dramatic window into our soul – into the depth of who we actually are. It's certainly worthwhile to learn to do that.
Meg writes, "Closed captioning equals the Oral Notes on Audio Dharma." Someone says, "Yeah, closed captioning on YouTube is not available live, but seems to show up later on."
Q12: "If things are inconstant, and clinging to them causes us to suffer, what does that mean for choices of the heart like marriage and career?" Things are inconstant. Clinging to them causes us to suffer. What does it mean for choices of the heart like marriage or a career? Ideally, we would choose marriage or a career without any clinging. In the flow of things, we still make choices for the direction, the purpose, and meaning of our lives – what we want to put our heart into more than anything else. We don't have to go randomly along with whatever happens. It's a beautiful thing, for some people, to have a career, or have a marriage that they want to devote themselves to, be engaged in. Other people make other choices that are just as good and valuable. With something like marriage, and maybe with careers as well, if we wait until we have no clinging, no craving, no attachment – the Buddhist idea of attachment to craving, clinging – before we get married, then perhaps most people wouldn't get married. It's not a crime. In Buddhism it's not a sin, or a crime to be attached and to cling. It just means we're going to suffer somewhat because of it. One way to approach marriage and career – any choice we make for our lives – is to enfold it into our mindfulness practice – fold it into our careful care, attention and compassion for, "Where is our clinging? Where is our attachment?" Marriage, family, and kids can be a great place to discover where we're attached – where our clinging and craving are. It may be very deep, that we wouldn't see in ourselves unless we were in this kind of intimate, committed relationship. Then to work through it and come to the other side of it. It can be folded in as a path of the practice, as opposed to avoiding all these things because we're clinging. It's probably best not to choose to go into marriage because you want to work out your clinging. Hopefully that answers the question well enough.
Q13: "What chapter and verse from 'Dhammapada' did you cite?" It is Verse 277 that I read, and it's in Chapter 20, "The Path." I'm reading from my translation that I did 20 years ago or so. It's a little bit fascinating, a little bit, I don't know if embarrassing, but a little bit of regret for my English choices. My Pali, my study of the suttas was not what it is now. I would translate some of this differently now. Also the use of gender pronouns. In order to be more gender neutral – many things, I did a gender neutral way – but sometimes if there was two pairs of verses, or the original was the masculine pronoun, I would do one with 'he' and the other with 'she'. At the time I thought that was good, but 20 years later, or 10 years later, I understood to be gender neutral more fully, because of how many people don't fit into the binary of he and she. I regret that I left it at that. Maybe they didn't know enough back then to make that choice.
Oh, someone asks Meg if you need more help with transcription, and someone else as well. Yes, she says you can contact IMC Volunteer Coordinator, Hillary Borison. If you go on to IMC's website, there's a place there for volunteering. And you could let Hillary know and she'll be the support. Okay, maybe I'll do one more here.
Q14: "Are these deep insights only really possible with lengthy meditation retreats? Have you read the Harper's article about the possible dangers of this?" No, it doesn't require lengthy retreats. For many people – in our tradition at least – it's usually in meditation retreats that this really settles in and becomes digested. We see it and are impacted in a very good way by these deep insights – for most people. Once we have a clear sense of it and familiarity with it, then we live in a delightful, wonderful way, much more in our daily life as well. It doesn't require deep meditation anymore to have it be part of the landscape, these insights and affect us.
I might have read the Harper's article, I think I'm pretty familiar with the modern discussion about the dangers of deep insight meditation. Generally, for people who want to go into the deeper meditation experiences, it's good to work with a teacher – to be closely connected so you can ask questions about how it's going. Some of that can be a little bit disorienting. Some of the real dangers that happen have a lot to do with the attitude and way in which people practice. The people who really strive and push can have real psychological problems. Because they're overriding. They're not integrated. There's not a relaxation – not a nice, broad unification, composure, or collectedness that supports. This 'ānāpānasati' practice is a fantastic practice because it creates a good foundation for these insights. I think some of the people who end up in a little bit of psychological trouble, somehow leapfrog over creating the foundation of practice. They're in a hurry, they're gung ho. So they experience the deep experiences of inconstancy before they have the psychological support, well-being and stability to make good use of it. If they already have a little bit of psychological instability, it can make it more unstable. This is a known phenomenon that can happen, and one of the reasons for having some connection to a teacher. Meditation retreats are where that can happen, so you have the connection and support if something like that happens.
Thank you all very much, for this morning and your questions. I appreciate them, and I'm sorry if I didn't answer all the questions. I value them all. Thank you.