2021-02-02 Mindfulness of Breathing (23) Inspiration through Imagination
6:12PM Feb 2, 2021
So, my friends, the subject for this week is the fifth and sixth steps of mindfulness of breathing, which is to experience joy and happiness in meditation. And it's certainly not easy to experience that. And you can't just do it – just because the instructions say so you should do so. But to explore this territory of joy and happiness, meditative well-being, and some of the conditions that support it, some of the things that bring it about, can be very helpful. And so that's the topic for this week.
And so there's the precursor, often in the suttas, for joy and happiness, which is gladness. And the word is pāmojja. And pāmojja comes from a root word. We never know if the root, or that technology, is that important for the people who spoke it, but it's certainly a fun game to play. And so the 'pā' is the prefix, which can mean either 'outward' or 'upward.' And the 'mojja' comes from the word for face, 'mukha.' And so, the idea of an uplifting face – a face that is rising up, or maybe a mouth. Sometimes the mouth is closely associated with this word for for face, and the uplifting of the mouth. I think of it as lifting up the corners of the mouth to make a smile. So it is that which makes us smile, or it may be a beatific upward gazing at what inspires us.
And in fact, for the Buddha, he encouraged people, when there are difficulties in meditation, to think about or imagine something that's inspiring. But inspiring not in a way that's activating. The word for inspiring also has the meaning of confidence, or peacefulness, or a kind of brightness. So that which brings brightness, or confidence, or or peacefulness – peaceful, confident, brightness, maybe. So we'd say simply in English, 'inspired.' And to be inspired when we sit down to meditate involves activating the imagination.
And we find that imagination is regularly referenced in the teachings of the Buddha in relationship to meditation. And this was certainly very different than how I was introduced to both vipassanā practice and Zen practice, where the explicit and implicit instructions were not to be involved in thinking so much – and certainly not to be involved in imagination. This was the meditation practice about just being present for things as they directly are, unmediated by concepts, unmediated by the imagination – just the experience in and of itself, the direct sensations, direct contact with things.
And that's definitely true. But it becomes true as the meditation gets more and more centered in the present moment. To get ourselves centered in the present moment with some joy, some well-being, imagination can be harnessed for that purpose. And so, the Buddha encouraged people to think of an inspiring topic. And one of the things that he talked about that were inspiring was to think about the Buddha himself. Think about someone who really inspires you by their practice, by their being, how they are in their life, in a way that is inspiring enough for you to really want to sit here, and be here, and put to rest other thoughts and concerns that keep you distracted.
Or the encouragement is to be inspired by your own virtue. And of course, that requires us to be virtuous. But the word virtue really means virtuous conduct. So you don't have to be inspired by what you're feeling on the inside. The Buddha's teachings are to be inspired by how you act in the world. If you're acting in a world without causing harm – if you haven't stolen any money from the bank lately, or killed any of your neighbors recently, or done all kinds of things – then that's a source of being inspired. It doesn't mean you have to be 100%, virtuous, but to recognize the way that we are, living a virtuous life – even if it's just for today. Not to be burdened by the past so much, but rather be inspired by what is good and beneficial. And so to be inspired by one's own virtue – maybe that's a hard thing for many people to imagine to experience. But it's certainly one of the teachings of the Buddha.
And one of the purposes of being virtuous is to create the inner context to be inspired and gladdened and uplifted. So it's easier to stay present. And the other thing that the Buddha makes explicit about what's inspiring is his muditā, the appreciative joy – to think about the things in the world that bring you a wholesome, nourishing, kind of joy. And to share in the joy of others who are doing wonderful things. And, and be inspired by that.
And so this idea of being inspired by things is, is not meant to take us away from the present moment or to be a spiritual bypass. It is not meant to for us to dwell there – just to keep thinking about it and fantasizing about it. But rather to do it just enough that it really orients us to the present moment. It brings these uplifting feelings and goodness, which we're capable of then feeling. And then riding those feelings into the present moment. It's sometimes easier to be present, if there's some modicum of well-being as well. And it's not meant to be again an overriding or bypass of the challenges we have, or the suffering we have. But it is helping to create a context where it's easier to be with the challenges, to work through them, and meditate with them – breathe with them.
And so the principle here, which I think supports this idea of using the imagination for something inspiring, is that we do it when the alternative is worse. Human beings spend a lot of time in their imagination – imagining the future, what's going to happen, the terrible things that are going to happen. Imagining the past, remembering. But some percentage of our memory is fantasy. It's well known that we don't necessarily remember accurately what happened the past. We're telling ourselves a story. We spin it a certain way. We spin it around the things that really have a charge for us, whether it's good or bad. And we kind of stretch certain parts of the story, of the memory, to fill the space of memory, in a way that not completely accurate.
And so sometimes that can be very depressing, and agitating. Certain fantasies can be not helpful at all. And so if we're doing that anyway in the imagination, then it's possible to use the imagination. Don't fight the imagination, and then try something that might not be working – but harness the imagination to help you be here in the present moment, to gather together. And then when you're here enough, you can let go the imagination, and then sit here and be present.
So, in the course of this teachings, I've offered some imagination, imaginary kind of scenarios, images to help. For example, I love this image for breathing of the waves of the ocean washing up on the sandy shore. And I have this image of myself, especially when the waves, once they've washed ashore, they're washing up across the sand and making the sand wet for a while. And then the receding. Then as it recedes, the sand is wet, but then the the water kind of gets pulled underneath the sand. And so you get a whole different texture, a feeling of receiving and absorbing.
And the image of this I like to use in different ways in meditation, is imagining the breathing, or the experience of breathing ai the waves, and my body is the sand. Or the experience of breathing, the sensations that come and go, the cycles of upswelling, and then receding with the exhale, is washing across the shore, the sand, of awareness. And that image keeps me there. I'm involved.
I've known one person who used the image of a large, wonderful, majestic bird flying in the sky, and the inhales and exhales were the flapping of the wings – slow, long – just flapping the wings of the bird. And that kept her engaged and involved in flying along.
And so he used the imagination, to help us be connected. And then to use it to help us be inspired. And to know, as I've said, how not to overuse it. How to use it so it's onward leading in the direction I talked about yesterday – that we're going towards doing less and less activity, to more quiet, still states of mind.
And from coarser to more refined. From more active to more peaceful. And so we use these things to support that process, knowing that at some point we have to let go of it. Not relying on it too much, not overdoing it, not depending on it, not using it as an antidote so we don't have to face our difficulties or work through them. But rather as a way of being present in an effective way.
I particularly want to end now with the idea of inspiration – with that which brings brightness, uplift, delight – that which brings confidence, trust, willingness to engage in the practice. This idea of inspiring things.
I would encourage you, for the next 24 hours, to consider what inspires you. Stay close to thinking about it, visiting it, being with it. Somehow be connected to it. Or maybe there are many things. Maybe you can talk to others: friends, or anybody, strangers – about how you have this assignment to talk about what inspires you. And and you'd like to share a little bit, and hear from them what inspires them. Maybe in ways that are spiritual in nature, or have to do with some of the fundamentals of what gives our life purpose or value. And in doing so, I hope that you have some wonderful conversations. And some wonderful time thinking time – with yourself. What is it that inspires you? Maybe that you can stay close to that.
So thank you very much. And we'll continue with how the Buddha uses imagination for meditation tomorrow. Thank you