2021-03-25 Mindfulness of Breathing (62) Opening to Constant Change
2:54PM Mar 25, 2021
In this process of ānāpānasati – mindfulness of breathing in, mindfulness of breathing out – we've come to the core, heart of it – the insight aspect. The purpose of insight is to liberate us, to free us. This involves a very clear, centering ourselves in the core dynamism, core aspect of how this life is.
All the steps before, in a sense, are preparing us. I want to emphasize how important this preparation is. Certainly, preparation for what we're doing in the last steps.
But what we're doing in the last steps is also preparing ourselves, or our willingness, to meet this world as it is – the ability to really be in this suffering world. To be prepared for that, to have developed the qualities of attention, concentration, persistence, well-being, and purified ourselves – worked through all the hindrances – the attitudes and places where we need to be healed and settled. This is a beautiful and profound process. We need this to be available, in order to care for this suffering world.
We come to this thirteenth step, where we're experiencing, observing impermanence or inconstancy. This has three different aspects where things are changing and inconstant. One is there is loss – things disappear.
But also the very fact that things change allows for new beginnings. The fall gives birth to the winter; the winter gives birth to the spring. Things pass away in the fall, die away, and then get reborn in the spring. They need this cycle.
We live in a world of tremendous suffering. So much that we've experienced in the news now for so long. The amount of hate that gets expressed in violence and killing is astounding. And it's been going on since the time of the Buddha. How do we address this? How do we meet this?
Ānāpānasati is a beautiful, profound practice. Maybe I shouldn't use 'beautiful' in this context. A profound, helpful and healing practice. To just stay. To stay constant with the inconstancy of breathing, the rhythm of breathing frees us from the contractions, resistance, fears, preoccupations and the distractions of the mind. It allows something to settle, come into harmony, and ease, which allows for the self-healing qualities of this human body and heart to operate. It makes room for some of the most beautiful qualities of who we are to surface and come forward.
To really be able to dip into the inconstancy and the changing nature of it is to have a direct confrontation with what's most difficult in the human life, but also with what's most wonderful and healing in this human life. Because things have changed, not only is there loss, there's also the disappearing of things that are not useful or are painful or difficult. Suffering disappears.
Part of the inconstancy – the changing, impermanent nature of all this – is a rich world of so many things that we enter into, sometimes simultaneously. There is loss. But with loss, there's also gain – in the sense that we also lose our suffering at times.
With the new arising and appearing of things, some things appear that are not good. But there is also the possibility of good things.
The teachings of the Buddha – to really see, feel and be in this current of change – gives us some agency to shape how we experience and how we are in this world. We certainly can't change the world dramatically, most of us, but we can change our immediate world – we can change ourselves. The practice has a lot to do with understanding change, and finding a way to harmonize with it and work with it – so that we cultivate ourselves.
We develop ourselves to become better people – to prepare ourselves for this world – so that we have resiliency, open-heartedness, non-clinging, and non-hostility. It's a powerful thing to work with the changing nature of this world. In vipassanā practice we're working with that changing nature of the world all the time, but it's not often often emphasized. Now in this 13th step of ānāpānasati, this is the part of the world that we're really working with. We're entering into this flow and change.
It may be easy for a teacher to say what I'm about to say, but much more difficult to do it. To enter into this part of what the Buddha was emphasizing – to really observe inconstancy – means that we're no longer in the sway, caught in, or seeing reality through the lens of our concepts, ideas, and stories. Those also are part of the inconstant, changing world. Stories come and go – they arise and they pass. There's all this change, flow and movement in the story-making mind, the concept-making mind. Everything is flowing and changing.
How do we really get into that, and rest in it? The Buddha taught that because it's liberating. That's where freedom is found. It's the core insight of the Buddha's teachings – over and over again – to see inconstancy, change – and to see, maybe we can say, 'impermanence.'
This is represented by a number of things. The first person who was enlightened, after hearing the Buddha's teachings, exclaimed and proclaimed his awakening, with the statement: "Everything that has the nature to arise, has the nature to pass away. Everything that arises passes away."
The Buddha explained that everything is inconstant – everything that is an experience. Concepts might not be. The ancient Greeks had a lot of controversy, debates about the nature of impermanence, change and inconstancy in this world. It's a common topic for philosophers. The famous philosopher Plato wasn't that comfortable with, "everything was changing." He wanted to have something that was permanent. I believe, the little bit I know about him, that he settled on this idea of "platonic concepts" – there are ideas that are unchanging.
But ideas are not direct experience. The Buddha, over and over again, was placing us in direct experience – breathing with it, being mindful of it, feeling it – entering into this inconstant world to know it, because that is the way to freedom. As I said, the first person who was enlightened said that everything that has a nature to arise has a nature of passing away. There's something about that insight that was liberating.
When the Buddha died, I believe one of the first statements someone said when he died became a funeral chant for Buddhists. It is said to be the saying by the arahant of the fully enlightened one. The chant in Pali is: "Aniccā vata saṅkhārā. Uppāda-vaya-dhammino. Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti. Tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho."
[Translates]: "All things are inconstant. They have the nature of arising and passing away. Those who see deeply into this truth, Experience happiness."
The happiness not of being totally delighted and happy all the time – but a deeper happiness, contentment, satisfaction or intimacy, that we are in touch with what is real in this world of ours.
Even if this world is full of suffering, which it is – the violence against Asian-Americans lately, the shootings in so many places in this country, most recently in Boulder. You can't say we're happy in relationship to that. But there can be a feeling of rightness that, "Yes, if this happens in the world, we want to be present for it." We want to know it. It's right to be aware of it – even if it's painful. Even if it touches some of the deepest strings in our hearts. But to have the capacity: "This is what's happening. Yes, let's be present for it. Let's breathe with it."
All the steps of ānāpānasati can be relevant for this – feeling that pain. But to feel the pain is not the same as to feel suffering. The freedom of this practice, the rightness of this practice, is to feel this world, be present in this world, without suffering. But willingly feeling the pain of this world, so that we can also have compassion for it and care.
We prepare ourselves for all that this world has to offer, so that we can offer ourselves as someone who is loving, compassionate, caring. And that we live in this world in a way that supports the betterment of all beings everywhere.