2021-02-03 Mindfulness of Breathing (24) Imaginings for Gladness
5:33PM Feb 3, 2021
There has been a strong tendency in the West, I think, to present the Buddha's teachings in a fairly rational way – to emphasize the empirical nature of it. It's really about seeing things as they are in a direct way. In doing so, sometimes we've left behind or it goes unnoticed the tremendous degree in which the Buddha and the early Buddhist tradition are using imagination, using creativity of images and ideas and imagination to support the teachings. And not just the teachings, but to provide us with a different reference point for both the teachings and the practice than simply ideas – rational ideas, logical ideas.
The Buddha uses lots of similes, lots of poetry, lots of images, lots of little stories, all of which touch into other dimensions of our inner life than our rational, cognitive understanding. It touches into our emotional life, our kinesthetic life, our motivational life, the part that can be inspired, can be gladdened. It ties into our memory and our associations and to all these capacities, and thinking as well. All these different faculties that we have get touched, get awakened, get somehow brought into the field of our Dharma relationship, our Dharma practice.
This contributes to the sense of unification that is samādhi. Cultivating samādhi, developing samādhi is really an important part. In fact, the Buddha said, "To see things as they are, cultivate samādhi." Samādhi is unification. And unification is the bringing together of all our faculties in a whole working, a dynamic working of the whole – to really be in harmony. Everything's in harmony.
So using the imagination is a means to evoke that and elicit that in support of meditation practice or support of this freedom. It has to be done, of course, carefully. It can be overdone. Certainly people use their imagination for all kinds of things, which are not healthy or appropriate for Dharma practice. To spend a lot of time in fantasy, and having a feeling of delusions of grandeur, delusions of great pleasure, or getting lost in the pleasure of fantasies and imagination, or getting lost in the fantasies of conflict and war that we have with other people. All kinds of things really take us away from this practice.
But the imagination that connects us to it, we have to get a feel for it. Does it really connect? Does it really help us be more settled, more present for experience? It's using the imagination to eventually go beyond the imagination. It's a stepping stone.
The images that the Buddha seems to use tend not to be stories or whole ongoing sagas that we're imagining. They tend to be very simple, like a mountain, or the earth, or a lake. It's not like a story of things. It's an image, and sometimes it's a dynamic image, like the image of an underwater fount in a lake – the underwater spring that's spreading goodness throughout the body. It's not a story. It's a dynamic image of what's happening. Another image that I love – I'll do this tomorrow, some of these.
So this integration process. As I said before, if we don't use our imagination, it's all too easy that our imagination gets used by others. We internalize the images and imagination that advertisements, commercials, politicians, other people make up. And then we internalize them in a way that sometimes are not beneficial for us. They actually could be quite detrimental – imagining all kinds of terrible things that are happening in the world that just spiral us down in a way that's not helpful.
It's not fantasy. It's not to avoid or deny what's going on, run away from life as it actually is that we use imagination in Buddhism. But it's with care, and knowing how we do it, so it really helps us, supports us to be present. If it doesn't help us to be present, there's no need to use it. It isn't like you're a better Buddhist, if you use your imagination. But it is available to support us to get more focused.
One of the ways that the Buddha talks about developing gladness in meditation – the gladness that leads to joy, joy that leads to tranquility, tranquility that leads to happiness, happiness that leads to samādhi – is to appreciate what's absent as we sit and meditate. The most common thing that the Buddha emphasizes is the absence of the hindrances. When people are meditators, they are often contending with the hindrances – desire, aversion, lethargy and restlessness, agitation and regrets, remorse, and doubt. These can be very strong, very compelling hooks in the mind to be caught up in thinking about these and involved in these. We can get lost in desire fantasies and aversion fantasies, caught up in resistance, and our regrets and anxieties. You really kind of get lost in the universes these can create for us.
As we settle down in meditation, as we start getting more focused, more relaxed, more settled, and start letting go of the force of preoccupation – the bait of all these kinds of thoughts that take us away from the present moment – and we're able to sit a little bit more and more here in the present moment, there comes a time when the hindrances have abated. They're not so strong anymore, and it becomes relatively easy to stay here.
The image I used the other day of a large bowl, maybe a huge, five-foot diameter bowl like they have in some children's museums. You drop a marble down the edge, and the marble will move this way and that way until momentum slows it down. Eventually it falls through a hole at the bottom of the bowl or rests at the bottom of the bowl. But if you lean into the bowl and keep pushing the marble, it keeps going and going and going.
To be caught in the hindrances is to keep the marble spinning. But to finally settle down and let the marbles all settle at the bottom of bowl and rest can feel in meditation so good. The mind just here.
At this point, the Buddha talks about having gladness because one is no longer caught, no longer hijacked by the mind, no longer enslaved by the mind that pulls us away, and has a mind of its own, and we're just pulled along. We lose freedom in the process.
To feel the gladness, be glad about this. Here is where the Buddha teaches this as an act of imagination. A particular word he uses that is translating as 'imagination' here can be 'visualization.' It has the word 'seeing' – ānupasana – in it, and it's samānupasana – "with seeing." It's not seeing through the physical eye, but rather through the mental eye of imagination.
He gives five similes for being free of the hindrances – to be really here – their absence. They are: A person in debt, who has become free of debt. A person who was terribly sick, and who is no longer sick. A person who was in prison and bondage in prison – not just in prison but in bondage, tied down – who has become freed from prison. A person who was enslaved, who has become free of slavery. A person who had wandered in the desert for a long time, a dangerous desert, who has come out to the other side, and is no longer lost – free of wandering in the desert. So the Buddha gives these five similes for being free of the hindrances.
The reason for these similes is to give a reference point for something which people would celebrate – to be so happy, so relieving, so joyful to be out of prison, to be out of sickness, and all these things. Unless we don't remember that we're free of those things. Like if we're free of prison, we would go on to the next preoccupation and concern.
But to take time – not just to keep going back to the breath and back to the breath when we're present – to really appreciate the goodness or the well-being or the delight that being free of the hindrances are – being focused and present. So the goodness of that spreads through the body or opens up more widely or brings a gladness that is part of this integration process, this unification process. We're beginning to not just keep doing the laser focus of the mind – if we ever did it that way – and just staying focused, focused, focused. But there's a mellowing and opening and settling experience of softening here that the gladness can give birth to.
As we allow gladness and joy, space for it, we don't pump it up strongly. It's hopefully a natural joy or gladness that is available when we take the time to feel the goodness of what's happening in meditation. Then that is what allows the growth of joy and happiness that's on the way to a strong samādhi.
So another talk on the use of imagination. It takes some wisdom to know what kind of imagination to use and when. What to use when we first sit down. What to use when the hindrances have abated. And not to make a big project of it. But to note this is available to us. It's like a little aid, a little quiet support that is meant to support us, to be inspired to stay in the present moment, and to feel the goodness and the well-being that comes when we really settle down in meditation.
We're allowed to be present here and now, and we're allowed to enjoy it. This is the stepping stone for going deeper, and in some ways, in a more powerful way into the 16 steps of ānāpānasati, which we'll be coming to.
But for now, I'm just trying to introduce you to the territory of imagination, which can come into play when we start feeling settled in meditation. That supports the further settling and absorption in the very practice we're doing.