In our continued exploration of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, we are spending time now with the refrain. There are thirteen exercises in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. We are staying now with the first one which has to do with breathing. But as this practice of breathing becomes more focused and more awareness grows, then that awareness is available for insight. And that is what the refrain is about.
So let me repeat what I have said a number of times now. The exercises are an engagement, a way of practicing, that is meant to heighten our sense of awareness, to bring more clear, stable awareness, into the present moment.
In this case, breathing helps us establish present moment awareness. And the practices of knowing, feeling, and relaxing are all there to support our ability for awareness to become stable in the present moment – soft awareness, open awareness, clear awareness.
When our awareness starts becoming stable – the description of the way we know we are ready for the insights of the refrain is that we are able to abide, observing our experience. The Pali is viharati. It means "to abide," or "to dwell."
It is used in the teachings of the Buddha to describe when awareness is strong. Once our capacity to stay present is really stable, then we can abide in different things. We can abide in equanimity. We can abide in calm. We can abide in deep concentration states. We can abide in mindfulness. We can abide in awareness.
The word "abide" is actually a very rich, important, word in the suttas. It is pointing us –indicating where we are going with mindfulness practice. It is not only about being mindful of our experience, seeing it clearly for what it is. That is very important. But it is also about developing the capacity to have present moment awareness so we can abide in it. And we can abide in our experience.
It goes along with observing, observing the experience. This observing, as I have said, is very spacious, clear seeing. It is not interfering with, judging, reacting to, or fixing our experience. But we settle back and just start seeing it clearly for what it is, in a clearer way.
By abiding, we are not attacking. By abiding, we are not reaching forward to grab, pulling away, or doing stuff with our experience, we are just abiding in it. That allows us to come to a place of just perceiving things in a very spacious, relaxed way.
It is not easy to come there. But this is what the mindfulness exercises in this text are doing – supporting and helping us to get there. It sometimes takes a long time to do breath meditation and keep coming back. And it is so beneficial to do this. Then eventually, we come to a place where the benefit comes and we can feel an abiding way of just being present. The reason this is helpful, for the purposes of the path of liberation, is that it frees up the mind from being fixated on concepts, ideas, stories, and opinions – imaginings we have.
For example, just sitting on the bank of the river and watching the river go by. But then, the mind starts thinking about the river. It start thinking, "Well, this river is not really flowing in the right location. If it was a hundred yards further to the south, it would probably be better. It would probably be nicer to sit there and look at it – and get more sun during the day."
We start thinking and ruminating about this river. But as we are thinking about the river, we are thinking about the concept of the river. We are no longer actually just watching, deeply absorbed, watching the river in and of itself. If we get absorbed in the concept of the river, the concept of the river is just a concept – and that has a certain kind of permanence. The concept may not change so much. It is just a river.
But if we wake up from this rumination, and sit back on the riverbank, going back to the river itself, seeing the river directly, we see the river is actually a dynamic process of change. It is moving and flowin, all the time. As we sit back and rest, it is the moving and flowing that allows us to settle back, just rest, and be soft and relaxed.
Sometimes letting go of our thoughts, letting go of anything else, and just being absorbed and watching it go by. But we cannot rest back and be absorbed in a nice, abiding way if we are caught up in thoughts about having to move to the river. How we are going to do this? How much it is going to cost? Who do I write to to make this happen? The mind then is kind of active or straining. It is work to have those thoughts.
As the mind softens and relaxes and the thinking mind stops becoming a priority, we don't have to figure everything out with our thoughts. We start relaxing enough to not be with concepts, but with direct experience. Then, we start watching the changing nature of things.
So, it is kind of like seeing a single leaf fall from a tree. And then immediately thinking, "Oh no! Now I'll have to sweep my yard. It's going to be a lot of work. Maybe I need to buy a new rake." Then I've gotten caught up in a world that does not allow me to really appreciate the wonderful flowing down of the leaf.
Then, as the wind picks up or as fall gets stronger, a lot of leaves begin falling at the same time. And I can't fixate on one leaf falling. I have to sit back and watch – in a broad, spacious, receptive way – all the leaves just falling and falling like snow coming down.
As we develop this practice, it turns out that much of our direct experience of the body is more akin to the river flowing or the leaves falling than it is to a fixed concept. Often, we live in the world of fixed concepts and ideas, and we relate to what is happening in our experience through the lens of these concepts and ideas.
Even the concept of breathing – inhale – is a concept. If we are not fixating or focusing on that concept, but rather experience the inhale, experience the exhale, we see that the inhale is made up of many, many different sensations which are coming and going. It is like a river of sensations flowing through us as we breathe in, as we breathe out.
I sometimes have had trouble with my breathing in meditation. I've gotten so worked up about my breathing being wrong. And "Why can't I breathe better?" What I learned was not to worry about these kinds of thoughts, but rather to dip down into the contracted breathing, tight breathing, whatever difficulty I had – and just start directly feeling the experience itself.
And sooner or later, you see the experience itself is actually made up of a lot of different small sensations, which are coming into and going out of existence. They are there for a moment; they pass away; they come back a moment later. Your sensations of inhale are different from the sensations of exhale. When the inhale stops, the inhale sensations have passed away, and the exhale sensations begin.
It might sound boring just being involved in these sensations. But it is just like watching a river – to be relaxed and absorbed in the beautiful flow of the process of the dynamic nature of experience.
In the refrain, as practice deepens, it explains (to use shorthand for today), "One abides observing the changing experiences of the body. One observes the arising and passing of experiences in the body." It is not that we are searching for it, and trying to look for change. It is more like you are not the river looking, trying to search for how it is changing. It is more like you settle back and relax, and you can watch the change.
As mindfulness gets well established, as awareness is established and we can abide in the present moment in a way that just observes in a spacious, relaxed way, what we now get tuned into – attuned to – is the changing nature of sensations in the body. An now the practice opens up in a different way, when we open up to seeing this changing nature.
We will talk more about this. This is probably the central insight of insight meditation, the insight into the changing nature, the inconstant flow of sensations. Why is it so important, so central, and appreciated so much? That is probably not so obvious to people who are uninitiated in this world. It seems like there are much more important things to do in the world than look and see how things are changing in the body.
But I will talk more about that tomorrow, and go a little bit further into this particular section of the refrain. It says: "Abiding, one observes the arising of experiences in the body. One observes the passing away of experiences in the body. And one observes the arising and passing – arising and ceasing – of experiences in the body."