2021-02-08 Mindfulness of Breathing (27) Experinencing Mental Formations
5:22PM Feb 8, 2021
The ānāpānasati practice involves 16 steps of mindfulness of breathing in and mindfulness of breathing out. Between the eighth and ninth steps, there's a transition that goes on. As we go into the ninth step, we're still staying very closely and intimately involved with our embodied experience, which is always a foundation for the second eight steps. But now that we're in the second eight, we're going to open up more to the realm of experience, which maybe is not so directly related to the body but more to the mind.
So we're still in this body section of the first half. And in the first tetrad, it's about just learning to develop a continuity with the breathing and beginning to experience and sense the body. Here we learn how the body is activated by the mind. We learn about the tensions of the body and to how to relax them. As this happens, it frees up a good kind of energy in the body. And as the concentration deepens, it also awakens a meditative joy and happiness – well-being that comes with calmness, subtleness, and contentment from just sitting here and being here. With this as a foundation, a certain kind of meditative well-being, it's only then that the instructions open up to becoming aware of aspects of the mind.
In step seven, the instructions are, "Breathing in, one experiences the mental formation; breathing out, one experiences the mental formation." So a few things about this. The word 'experience,' the Pali word for it – as maybe the English word does as well – has a lot to do with the direct physical experience of the sensation. It's almost like this word translated as 'experience' could be translated as "One senses for oneself the sensations of the mind – of the mental formation." And here, it's singular: the mental formation. It's not necessarily about going and looking at all of the little detailed aspects of the mental formation. Instead, we're looking at how the whole thing is experienced.
The mental formation are those experiences associated with the mind. It's mental activity that we can sense and feel. It's the mental activity that has some impact on the body that senses. I think of sensation as being very much part of the body – and of the mind also. For example, something clearly physical might happen if we're afraid. Our shoulders might tense up and be tight. That's a physical formation.
But if we're afraid and our mind feels contracted, small or tight, that's the mental formation. That's the mental expression of the fear – of that activated state.
If we're thinking very intensely, we might feel it physically. We might feel the forehead get all bunched up and scrunched together. This would be the bodily formation. But if we look more deeply into the area around where we're thinking – if we think in the area of the brain for example – we might feel something behind the forehead, in an area of the brain that's not particularly associated with muscles that are tightened up. There are still sensations here. There might be a feeling of contraction, a headache, agitation, or a sense of pressure or pushing.
Sometimes I feel like there's a magnetic or gravitational pull for me towards thinking, or thinking towards me. It's like a pull or tug that's in relationship to the thoughts. There's leaning-in, in the mind. Sometimes the center of gravity of my thinking is a little bit ahead of my body, as if somehow I'm leaning forward into the future a little bit.
So it's possible to start feeling something that resembles a sensation that is associated with the mental activity we do. These are called the mental formations. They are the mental activities we can feel. If we look at thinking as a mental activity, for example, the instructions here are to feel the physical experience of thinking. It's only feeling of it. It's not thinking better, understanding what we're thinking, or analyzing what we're thinking. It's not about recognizing even what we're thinking. It's simply recognizing the physicality, or the sensation level of the thinking itself.
Basically, I like to think of this as feeling the "thinking muscle" – the ways in which we feel thinking: energetic, or tight, constricted or pressurized, in a hurry or low energy, swampy or without clarity. There's a whole realm of things that can identify how thinking feels for us as opposed to analyzing what it's about. This is a wonderful aid to not get caught up. It grants us permission during meditation to not have to fix our thoughts, fix the world, or understand or analyze what's going on. Here, we're only asked to feel it, to feel an aspect of what the mind is doing. The mind is very important, but we focus on a particular aspect, which is this sensation level of it. So we're connected to it, but we're not being pulled into the storyline.
Without establishing the foundations of steps five and six and having some feeling of well-being, we don't really start actively taking in what's going on in the mind. When there's a container, a context of well-being, for looking at an area of our life which is often quite difficult. We're not trying to do a spiritual bypass, or avoid our inner suffering or challenges. But maybe we're touching it with a breath, with awareness, or with emotions that are supportive. They have goodness. They are calm, supportive, kind, and generous. This can happen because of the foundation that has been built earlier in these steps of mindful breathing.
The context for becoming now aware of the mental activity is one of kindness, goodwill, and even joy. It's one of the great, wonderful paradoxes when I first discovered it. That one can experience suffering in oneself and suffering in the world and, at the same time, have a lot of joy. In fact, my ability to go deeply into the practice of Vipassana, where at times we experience a lot of our personal suffering, was supported by having cultivated meditative joy, which could hold that suffering. So it isn't one or the other, but they can both be there.
All this involves a disidentification from being locked in, or overly preoccupied with what we're thinking and emoting. We can just hold it, and be present for it in a different way than we usually do.
This is one of the opportunities that ānāpānasati presents to us. "Breathing in, one experiences the mental formation." We're not trying to parse out the details of it, just the whole Gestalt, the global feelings and sensations of what's going on in the mind.
"Breathing out, one experiences the mental formation." Because we're breathing in and breathing out, this again is like a support for not getting wrapped up in or being caught by our thoughts. As long as the breathing stays relaxed and smooth, we tend to have a more open and free relationship to what we're including in that awareness, and to what we're accompanying with the breathing.
So I hope this makes sense. We'll do more of this over the next few days. So if it didn't make full sense, don't worry about it too much. Maybe there's just enough so that when I go over it on the next days, it will become clear.
For now maybe you can spend the day, the next 24 hours, reflecting on and practicing with this idea of accompaniment – that we're accompanying things. We're accompanying ourselves, our hearts, our minds. And we're accompanying other people. What does it mean to be a companion in this way?