There are sixteen stages of 'ānāpānasati' – each stage is a step along the way. I think it's nice to think of each step as being complete within itself. Don't be so concerned about making your way through the steps. Be fully present for practicing with what is. Be content with whatever the practice is, and with what the focus is at the time.
As practice develops, sooner or later, the body starts feeling settled and unified – the whole body we're breathing with and relaxing. As we develop the ability to be more content and happy to be here, we have a feeling of well-being. This makes it easier, both to notice what's going on in our mind – the mental activity, and to relax and tranquilize it.
It's nice to have a sense of well-being so we can look at some of the craziness that goes on in our minds. So that we're not disturbed, or troubled by it – or reactive to the unusual things we can think, do, and feel. But we see it as mental activity, as opposed to making it personal, or into material with which to judge ourselves. We experience the mental activity – and relax it, and calm it down. In summary, those are the first eight steps of 'ānāpānasati.'
The whole practice of these sixteen stages makes a dramatic shift with step nine, "experiencing the mind." This is a pivot, a deeper dive into our spiritual life. The word mind – 'citta' – is usually translated as 'mind,' 'mind-heart,' or even 'heart' sometimes. And to be a bit of a Buddhist heretic – bordering on it – the word 'citta' is so important in the teachings of the Buddha, and so generally respected, that it's the closest thing we get from the Buddha to something that maybe in English we would call the 'self.'
But this idea of 'self,' in Buddhist orientation, is seen as representing some activity of the mind, an idea, interpretation, or some thing we're holding on to. So there's a desire not to get involved in the whole idea of 'self' – "What is the self, and who am I"? That investigation is considered more complicated and stressful than is useful for deepening meditation. So we put the idea of self aside. The 'citta' – the mind, is what takes its place.
But the mind is not a thing. The mind is the aggregate, the gestalt of all the mental activities in the way that we experience that. It's a fluid thing. It's not a thing to get attached to or to reify into a solid thing. It's dynamic and fluid. It gets very clear, as we go deeper in meditation, how fluid and changeable the mind is, and how the experience of the mind changes with different levels of concentration and clarity. It's fascinating to watch how we sense and feel the mind – how it oscillates between being contracted and small and being expansive. It can be all kinds of ways.
When the body gets relaxed, the mental activities relax. Generally, the 'citta' – the mind state – tends to become very welcoming, wholesome, and nourishing. We feel as if we've discovered a treasure inside – a treasure of well-being, goodness, wholeness, and intimacy, that is a state rather than a thing. It's a dynamic state.
It's not something that's easy to hold on to or cling to. We can have desires for it, but if we get close to it, we realize there's nothing there to cling to. It doesn't make sense to cling. Because we cling to this mind, we're actually getting involved in mental activity, which is a subset of the mind. Any kind of involvement with these activities, thoughts, interpretations of the mind, narrows and collapses the freedom, openness, and fullness that is the sense of the mind.
And that's why in step ten, we are allowed to we can satisfy, nourish, and gladden the mind with a sense of wholeness – the sense of being complete and centered – that can happen. There's a certain kind of well-being. This is the foundation for when the practice of 'ānāpānasati' switches to something we can call, in English, concentration practice.
Concentration practice is not a separate practice, but in it, we can develop concentration in doing mindfulness of breathing in, and mindfulness of breathing out. We center ourselves. We have a mind state we're intimate with and feel. And we take the whole mind state with us, as we center ourselves on the breathing. The breathing becomes the very wind that moves through the mind state – a massage that moves through it.
The breathing becomes, more and more, the place in which we gather ourselves. It's the place where the concentric circles of our life hold council. You gather together and are present for and supportive of that. It's as if you're sitting at the center of a room, and there are concentric circles around you. All of your best friends, family, and supporters come there just to be with you, hold you, love you, and show that you're good. You can rest in yourself. You can be at ease.
And so we gather together all of ourselves. The word that is usually translated as "concentration" – for step eleven of ānāpānasati – is not actually "samādhi." It is "samādahaṃ," which is the present participle of "samādahati." It means, more literally, gathering together, settling, settling in – here.
"Breathing in, one settles in. Breathing out, one settles in. Breathing in, one gathers oneself here. Breathing out, one gathers oneself here." This gathering, centering, and settling, is difficult to do if we're preoccupied with thoughts, ideas, feelings, and emotions. It works best when we're relaxed enough about that. We're not tight or contracted around that, or nervous about those things. Those things can still happen, but we don't have to be involved in them. They can be in the background, on the side, or in the outer chairs of that circle of all our supporters there.
As we get more gathered in, the thoughts, feelings, and emotions, all start getting oriented as supporters for the process of the mind being centered on the breathing. If we are thinking, they're very simple and innocent thoughts about staying with the breath, feeling the breath. If there are emotions or feelings happening, they feel connected to the process of being settled. It's part of settling. The goodness, wholeness, wholesomeness, and nourishment seem to flow with – or out of – being settled on the breathing, and being with the breath.
This process of settling, gathering together, gathering in all of who we are, continues the process of becoming whole. In the first tetrad it's: "experiencing the whole body" and then, "relaxing the bodily activity." In the second tetrad, "experiencing the mental activity." Experiencing the activity and relaxing it contributes to the sense of the mind as a whole, the gestalt of the mind.
And, with further settling, 'everything' begins to come in. When it gets really sweet – the sense of being settled, deeply connected and not distracted by things – if there's a sound, or something else happens in the body – a sensation, it just seems to be soft, tenderly held and included. It's not a problem. It's just part of this wonderful landscape of settledness, softness, intimacy, and care of attention. 'Samādhi' is sometimes called 'unification,' the unification of the mind – making it whole.
I'm very aware that this is not easy to experience. Describing it this way can set up expectations, striving for it, or comparative thinking – "I'm never going to be in that kind of state." This kind of thing happening is why the earlier steps of ānāpānasati are so important. We're always staying attentive to the stresses and the strains which happen in the body around our reactions, and relaxing them. We're always attentive and sensitive to how we get trapped and caught in our mental activity, thoughts, judgments, interpretations, expectations, and comparative thinking. We're always ready to relax those.
This is 'so' important, the early steps of 'ānāpānasati.' Always keep them close by and be content to do them. And that's the 'massage' that we do. We go back, catch ourselves, do the earlier steps again, massaging ourselves. Then, we come back into a nice mind state, a nice way of being. And then we get caught again. There's a massage back and forth. Rather than thinking of this as a mistake or a problem, that we're supposed to always be at the growing edge of practice, it's actually this massaging, going back and forth, discovering ourselves – slowly working out the kinks and the wrinkles that need to be ironed out, that allows us to get more whole, holistic, and settled in practice.
So, don't be concerned too much if these teachings we're doing now – deeper teachings – don't quite work for you. They'll work in some way, and you can trust that. You might not be aware of it consciously. Always be content to do whatever step you're on. And we'll continue.
Thank you for today. We'll probably continue for a while now – a few days into the week – with 'samādhi' and concentration. Thank you.