2021-01-29 Mindfulness of Breathing (21) Q&A on Breath Meditation
5:45PM Jan 29, 2021
I thought that before going further with ānāpānasati, with this practice of mindfulness of breathing, to start over again, maybe a little different way, and stay more with the most basic aspects of the practice. Over the weeks I've been doing this, I've offered, subtly different ways of working with the breath.
It isn't that you have to remember all those ways, but rather, maybe some of them work for you, or inspire you in some way. And it can be a basis of how you practice. And so the wider range that I give, perhaps the more likely that you'll find something. And maybe you'll piece together parts of it – the subtle, different ways of being with the breathing, and work with the breathing and the meditation and breath. I also wanted to stay real basic today, rather than moving further along the steps. As I said yesterday, in some ways, we are going slowly through the step – and in other ways we're going fast. Maybe it would be ideal to spend a year going through the steps.
On Monday, we'll start to go a little bit further in the next stages. The next steps are quite fascinating, and are very significant for working with this meditation practice. But before we go on that way, I wanted to take some questions from you. We've been doing this breath meditation now for a few weeks. And maybe it'd be nice if a few of you had a chance to ask some questions. And you can put them in the chat. And then I'll try to respond. Maybe the questions that I pick out of the chat, hopefully will be relevant for many of you and interesting. It is interesting for me to get some feedback, to learn a little bit about the kind of questions or challenges you have – or joys you may have with it.
There are a lot of chat questions. Sometimes I can't really follow them in order because they pass by so quickly. Maybe we can think of ithis more as if I'm pulling questions out of a hat than doing it in sequence.
Q1: Someone said, "I experience anxiety." It's interesting that anxiety – I think it comes from the Greek word, to 'choke' – to not really be able to breathe fully. So it's working the edge of where the breathing is held or resisted that can sometimes be helpful with anxiety, expanding and relaxing it.
Q2: "How can this help with severe chronic pain?" This might not help, and I can't promise you that this will help, but there are plenty of people who find that breath meditation can help with severe pain. Certainly I've also I've had lots of severe pain in meditation or in life. I sometimes just breathe through it and around the place of pain. It depends a little bit on what kind of pain it is. Just breathing through it and with it, I dont identify so much with it. A little sense of relaxation – of something releasing then, or releases my preoccupation with it. There's a lot to be said about pain.
Q3: "Have you experienced all 16?" Sure! Sometimes I've experienced them sequentially, one after the other usually. But sometimes it's more random. I sit down to meditate, and find myself at different points of the of the steps. Or I'll jump ahead. Or go through them quickly, and one of the steps becomes more the predominant one for the day.
Q4: "What does it mean when the body disappears?" Generally, when the body disappears in meditation, that means we're concentrated. It means that the thinking mind has become quiet enough that we're not conceptualizing about the body. It's a little hard to imagine if you have never experienced it, but it turns out that a lot of the ways in which we experience the body is mediated through our thoughts and ideas – through the activity of the mind that constructs the body. For example, with eyesight and seeing, we have all these little photon light particles, traveling to the eye. They get turned upside down in the eye, and go against the retina. And then these are electrical signals or nerves send these signals up into the brain. And the brain reconstructs the signals into something that is a simile of the world out there, the world that we're seeing. And sometimes that reconstruction is not accurate. You see a twig on the ground, and at first you see it as a snake. Or I've seen people in the distance in a crowd of strangers, and for a moment I thought it was a friend of mine because there was enough similarity, and then I filled in the blank to see my friend. But when I looked more carefully, "No, it's not my friend." So the reconstruction process is an activity the mind does. As the mind gets calmer, it's not reconstructing so much. It's not taking the signals for the body to reconstruct. And so the body is disappearing. Sometimes the body seems to disappear entirely. I've had to open my eyes in meditation to make sure the body is really here.
Sometimes there's an intermediate stage, where the mind is still reconstructing sensations, but it's not really doing it accurately anymore. And so sometimes people in meditation feel like they get elongated, like they're about to touch the ceiling, or they feel really squat; their hands feel like they're getting really big. Usually, it's not particularly unusual – it's just a little perceptual distortion. And this is usually at a particular stage when people go deep. It also doesn't last for too long, and then after a while, when the capacity to settle and get more concentrated settles in, that perceptual distortion stops.
Q5: "Is it important to follow the steps in order?" Sometimes it's not to do it on task – doing a technique to follow something makes the mind too busy. Sometimes what happens is we start with the first one. We just start with breath meditation and getting settled in. And then rather than following the steps exactly, as we deepen the practice, we recognize the steps. We recognize where we are. And because we can recognize it, maybe it becomes a little fuller, and we can let it become fuller and more complete. And then on its own, it moves into the next step, and into the next step. And I prefer that way, rather than intentionally moving ahead when we feel it's a time to move ahead now. It's more like: you do your practice, and you just allow it to unfold in its own way. And sometimes it jumps around. It doesn't have to be the same linear steps.
Q6: "How to work with controlling breath?" This is really common. I think the most useful thing to do is to not worry about it. And don't be bothered by it. Allow yourself to have a controlled breath. You can cultivate strong mindfulness and concentration with a controlled breath or with a breath that's not controlled. It's not the breath that is the main issue – it's really the quality of the attention you bring Also, if you're not bothered by it, you're more likely to get out of its way. When we're bothered by a controlled breath, we actually, in some subtle way, reinforce it, and it makes it more difficult to let go. Also it can be interesting to become a connoisseur of the controlled breath. Just be content to have a controlled breath, and then get to know it really well. Where exactly is the sense of control? Where's the tightness, the resistance, the pushing? What are the emotions or beliefs connected to it? Just really get to know it, inside and out. Sometimes getting to know it is a little trick because after a while focusing on it directly can disarm the control. And sometimes you discover something interesting that needs to be relaxed and released, and it becomes easier to do it. So that's one of the things I would do. I've done so much of this over the years, and depending on times, I've done different things. Sometimes when I had a controlled breath, I imagined like I was bringing my attention from the back forward, going in through the back door – the back ribcage. There was very little sense of control in the back ribcage, and I felt the breath there for a while. And that kind of relaxed my control in front, and I slowly moved the attention forward gingerly wthoutw. triggering the control.
Q7: "I have a challenge in the out-breath smaller and belly tight. Your suggestion observing the end of the in-breath. At the end of the out-breath is helpful since I do get anxious there. So any thoughts about that?" I think it's a little bit same as with control. It's very significant, just simply to recognize and observe what we're actually doing. There's a tendency when we see something about ourselves to have judgments, or reactions, or think it should be different. But don't underestimate how very significant it is that you're just observing it and seeing it. And it might be all you need to do. I've had all kinds of ways in which I've been anxious, or tight in my breathing, controlling my breathing, all kinds of things about it, that I just allowed myself to feel it, know it, and just continue with the breathing – kind of like the breathing is just a massage for it. And I find it interesting that, as a massage, at some point in the in-breath it is more like the heart of the massage, and then like pushing it and then relaxing. Sometimes the top of the in-breath, sometimes the end of the out-breath. It depends what's going on. Just be with the rhythm, and find a way to be really content – like you're in it for the long term. Like, you're not trying to fix it. You're not concerned about it. Just recognize, "Oh, it's unpleasant. It's tight. It's controlled. There's anxiety." And I just breathe with it. We're going to be friends, and just breathe and breathe. And that kind of attitude sometimes is a very effective way to, over time, let things just settle, without us being involved in all kinds of mental preoccupations that often just stir it up even more.
Q8: "Let's do another Zoom sometime with the sangha." Right now I have a number of things I'm having to take care of in my life that makes it a little harder.
Q9: "Any idea for trauma survivors and disassociation? Sometimes? I may think I'm concentrated. Maybe I'm disassociated." Yeah. Certainly, trauma survivors have their own path and the care that's needed for breath meditation, and for meditation in general. It's a it's a noble path – it's a dignified path for people who have had trauma to work through, and work with their trauma in meditation. It often needs a little different kind of attention than the usual, basic instructions that I would give. What's really good is a lot of compassion, a lot of care, a lot of generosity to oneself, and a lot of patience with it all. And the permission not to have to go headlong into the trauma or the fear. And getting professional help is good. If you really think it's a big issue, it's good to find professional help. There are now in some areas therapists who know about mindfulness, and Buddhism, and meditation, and who can be particularly helpful for people meditating.
Well, thank you for your questions. I'll read the rest of the questions so I get some sense of your concerns. I appreciate this chance to be this way with you. And I look forward to next week and continuing in this process. Thank you very much.