2021-02-10 Mindfulness of Breathing (29) Trusting the Calm Mind
5:49PM Feb 10, 2021
The eighth step of ānāpānasati is: "One trains oneself: one calms the mental activity." One relaxes the mental activity. Most English translations will use some language of 'tranquilize' – one makes tranquil the mental activity. Mental activity is often translated as "mental formations" – the formations, the activity, the constructs, the constructing aspect, the doing aspect of the mind. I think 'activity' works relatively well. We are now beginning to calm the mental activity.
This doesn't have to be a big project. If it's easy to relax, then please, by all means do. But it's also recognizing this is a natural process of settling that goes on. As we get more and more settled in meditation, more focused on the breathing, and start shedding a lot of the concerns of the day – we're just more and more here – there starts being a heightened sensitivity to different aspects of our experience. One of them is experiencing bodily tensions, the way we hold tensions in our body.
Of course, there's a feeling that well enough, the body itself wants to relax and let go. There's almost a natural letting go and relaxation just from knowing and recognizing what goes on. But we can also participate in that if it's easy enough. If we don't get busy, we can help ourselves relax more.
As we begin having more well-being and are more settled in meditation, at some point, we also develop a special sensitivity or awareness of the mind thinking. Of course, we can know that earlier. We're letting go of our thoughts and coming back to the breathing.
But there's more and more sensitivity as we go along to the unsatisfactory quality of thinking. The way we start noticing that when we're involved in thinking, it's almost like an alienation from ourselves. That's unimaginable for people who identify strongly with their thinking, like their thinking is who they are. But when we realize thinking is just one aspect of our lives – that there's a fuller range of who we are, which really becomes apparent as we become settled, calm, more embodied, and present here in meditation – we start seeing that thinking is just a piece of who we are.
If we get lost in thought, we actually lose touch with the fullness of who we are, the wholeness of who we are in a sense. There's a kind of alienation even if the thoughts are really great, exciting, or so-called important.
We also become sensitive to the impact that thinking has. One impact is alienation. Another impact is that unskillful, unwholesome thoughts attract more unwholesomeness. So if we're thinking a lot with agitated ways, angry ways, greedy ways, those tend to perpetuate themselves and attract more of the same agitation and preoccupation.
We also start feeling the impact it has very subtly sometimes on our musculature. I can go around all day long somewhat calm and engaged in life. But when I sit down to meditate, I realize my thinking has somehow created a little tension around my eyes and behind the forehead. I'm too busy with life to really notice the subtlety of it. But as we settle in meditation, the subtlety of where we hold tension and tightness becomes more and more apparent.
The tension associated with thinking, the pressure, the agitation that's physical almost in nature – that's more closely connected to thinking rather than the surface muscles that we often can relax or actively – I call that the "thinking muscle." Part of meditation is to relax the thinking muscle.
As we feel this, there's a natural tendency for the psychophysical system to want to relax. The more we are mindful of tension, the more we feel like almost in the tension itself, there is a momentum to relax. But we can also soften and relax ourselves – softening the mind, relaxing the thinking mind.
Certainly this is very helpful because the more the mind is calm, the more that attracts more calmness. The more the mind is calm, the less we're likely to be so interested in being caught in our thoughts and wander off in thoughts. It's easier to stay focused and continue with the process of meditation.
There are very important lessons that can come about how our mind works as we get calmer and calmer. One of them is there's a certain wonderful intelligence and creativity that can happen when the mind is calm and settled, which is much more difficult to happen when it's agitated.
It's a little bit of a trap for some people because sometimes they start composing the great world novel. They have some great idea for something. The creativity and intelligence of the mind is really operating. It feels so good, engaging, and right to be involved in some wonderful creative thoughts. But it's a dead end for the purpose of meditation. It becomes actually another way of being self-alienated even though it feels so good and exciting. Like, "Finally, I feel fulfilled. I'm doing something very important writing the greatest poetry that's ever been written."
So to not get sidetracked by that. But the process that got us there is showing us that there's a natural intelligence, creativity, or wisdom that can operate when the mind is not so active. Actually the mind operates the best when there's no extra energy, no unnecessary energy operating. That's a great lesson and a difficult lesson to really take in. It can be so compelling to worry. So compelling to feel like I have to accomplish, I have to fix something, I have to do something, and I have to think my way to it. And we get agitated and pressured.
Sometimes we feel like we have to, if we're responsible, engage the mind and show ourselves – and maybe even other people – how serious we are in thinking and taking care of things. That if we allow the natural, quiet, calm mind to operate, then it looks like we don't care. And looks like we're just letting things go whatever way they go.
But what I would like to suggest is that our love, care, and responsibility, even a sense that things are really important to take care of – even then, they can be taken care of better if the mind is relaxed and calm. And we don't build up this extra tension in the mind of doing, accomplishing, fixing, and thinking about things.
To learn this shift of perspective. To learn how to trust a calm mind, and have that calm mind be engaged responsibly. To take care of things is a process of trust, a process of familiarity of experiencing, "Oh, this actually works. I don't have to believe in the messages from society that I have to be anxious, preoccupied, angry, or apologetic. I have to engage my mind in some way to please other people or myself." It's possible to stay peaceful. Love, intelligence, creativity, and responsibility all can operate when there's no extra energy going on – unnecessary energy in the mind.
This learning to relax and calm the mind very much depends on our ability to recognize how we're over-efforting in the mind – where the agitation, tension, pressure, or closing down of the mind is. So the seventh step is to feel that, and to feel what's going on. Then the eighth step is to relax it.
This has a wonderful effect where some of our problems that we feel we have to fix and take care of – maybe some of them don't have any solutions. Rather than solving them, we can dissolve them. For example, someone who wants to know the meaning of life might have a lot of agitation, even some anxiety around what's the meaning of life. "I need to know because I need to know where I fit in this universe. What's happening with me? I need to have a purpose." There's a lot of agitated thinking around searching for the meaning of life.
But if they do this meditation process, and all the agitation and anxiety associated with this question abates, dissolves, goes away, then lo and behold, they might discover that it still might be an interesting question, the meaning of life. But there's no personal need, investment, or desperation around it. It just becomes an abstract question, and the existential power that held our grip has dissolved without solving it. It's no longer a problem. It just becomes maybe an academic, interesting question.
This might not have been the best example. But I'm hoping you can apply that to yourself. Think about: what are you concerned with? What are you preoccupied with that maybe doesn't need to be solved? Maybe what's more valuable is to dissolve the underlying tension, fear, anxiety, pressure, ambition, or greed that might be the very thing that's keeping those thoughts pumping up and going.
To relax the mental activity. Trust softening the mind. It's a wonderful thing. This is especially true in meditation. So as meditation continues to develop, there comes a stage – periodically it comes and goes – where it's really clear that what's really good to do is to trust the calm mind and letting go of all the unnecessary energy there.
Thank you very much. We'll continue this process of steps seven and eight for another couple of days.