2022-01-13 Satipaṭṭhāna (8) Calming the Bodily Formations
3:54PM Jan 13, 2022
There is a saying: "To be wise, be tranquil first. To be wise, be calm first." I think that this saying is connected to the idea that if we are agitated or restless, it is hard for us to access our wisdom, our deeper understanding, or our inner goodness that can inform how we want to live our life. Some degree of calm and tranquility gives us more access to different parts of our inner life than does anger, fear, anxiety, or desire.
The function of deepening this meditation practice is not just to become calm or tranquil for its own sake. But tranquility is really a preparatory state, to allow for something deeper still to happen – deeper wellsprings both of wisdom and of meditation.
Meditation is often associated with becoming calm. Whether the word should be "calm," "tranquil," or "relaxed" depends on the context – on what is most obvious in any given moment. There are times when we are just relaxing, and this feels front and center – and that is what we should do. Other times we need to become calmer. So we take a few deep breaths and relax. To step away from some tense situation, take ten steps; count those ten steps and return. Just to calm down and discharge some of that tension that has built up.
I like the word "tranquility." I don't like to use the verb form, as in "tranquilize the body," because I associate that too much with something you do with animals when you euthanize them or put them to sleep. Tranquility darts are used for wild animals, so people can care for them. Maybe it's unfortunate that I have these associations.
But tranquility is such a beautiful state. To become tranquil. Exactly how it is described and how it is felt is probably very personal. People experience it differently, so I feel a little shy to even suggest how it is. But I will point in a direction of you can feel it more fully. I think of it as glowing stillness, warm coolness, warm peacefulness, or vibrating stillness. In all these descriptions I feel tranquility is spreading through parts of my body. It is a suffusing feeling of tranquility. Sometimes I feel it spreading down into my arms towards my elbows, sometimes around the front of the ribcage.
Sometimes it feels pervasive. But in some places it is stronger than in others. In some places where it feels strong, it sometimes feels like wondrous absence. It is like there is nothing there except a sense of peacefulness in the center of my chest or someplace.
When I first started doing vipassana or insight practice – partly because of the way was taught and partly because of my background in Zen – I had the idea that the highest thing you could do, the most meaningful way of practicing was not to try to make anything happen, but to really just show up for what is there. Just show up for what is happening. That is a profound thing to do. That is an absolutely wonderful way of practicing. When we do insight meditation, sooner or later that is the name of the game – to just show up and be present for what is there.
But over time, I learned that there is no crime committed by being a little more actively involved in meditation, and trying to actually change our experience, within reason. To be more an agent of change, and to try to make things happen. The simplest thing to do – it is best to keep it simple – is to relax: to sit down and to do some relaxation of the body and the mind. And that is a "doing" – it is not just being.
Then to prioritize certain things to be aware of. In the breath meditation we are teaching at the beginning of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, we prioritize feeling the breathing, and also feeling the whole body as we breathe. So first we take time to get centered on the breathing, getting focused and concentrated. That might be months of practice for a beginner, just learning to be centered coming into and staying with the breath – not wandering off so easily. Maybe for the first ten minutes of sitting, you are just gathering yourself around the breathing, keeping it really simple, not trying to do much more than coming back to breathing, resting in the breathing, and getting focused.
But as stability develops, then we can open up the awareness to the whole body, or to a wider awareness – as if breathing is like a warm refreshing wind blowing through us and allowing us to feel different parts of our body as we breathe. So we prioritize feeling the body, being grounded in the body, and knowing the body.
Then, as the body is more known, some things just happen without our choosing or making them happen. As we simply settle more and more into the breathing, things tend to relax – and the mind, which is chasing experience or chasing thoughts, relaxes. We begin to experience a natural way of opening our awareness to the senses. As meditators, we tend to become more embodied as we practice, especially if the meditation is focused on the breathing.
So whether feeling the whole body is a natural byproduct of getting focused on the breathing, or we choose to open the awareness up, at some point we want to start feeling the whole body more broadly. As we feel the body more, this allows for relaxation, which is the last step of this first exercise. This helps the body become more tranquil – calming the body down.
Here the emphasis is on the body, and not being too concerned with the mind yet. That comes later in the satipaṭṭhāna practice. The focus now is just the body. Partly this is preparing the ground for later. It turns out that the more we can be centered and grounded in our embodied experience, the easier it is to be wise about what goes on in the mind – and to observe the mind in a way that is meditative, helpful, and supportive of the path to liberation.
We begin appreciating what it feels like to be tranquil. As we go about our day, we see the difference between having some modicum of calm tranquility in the body or being agitated, restless, or tense in the body. See that clearly. Do not let yourself succumb to greater and greater tension. Do not give yourself over to getting more agitated or more tense in the body.
There are many forces that reinforce our unconscious or subconscious ideas that it is important to get tense, important to take care of ourselves. And a buildup of tension can happen. Sometimes over the course of the day, a lot of little movements of tension build, so that by the end of the day, we are exhausted or really tense. The idea is to be careful with that, and to be able to notice the difference between when we start getting tense and agitated, and when we can be more peaceful and tranquil.
Then, when there is a choice, try choosing the tranquil, peaceful, calm way. You will see that whatever needs to be done in your life, you can do it fine from a tranquil, peaceful, calm place. Maybe you can do it even better. Because if you want to be wise, be tranquil first. And if you want to do things well, be tranquil first.
I certainly have had times where I have worked fast trying to do something, and it took longer to do it because I made mistakes as I went along, and had to redo it. The idea that tranquility or calm may not be a way of taking care of things, taking care of ourselves, or getting things done, is not always a wise policy. Rather, to begin appreciating tranquility and valuing it.
In Buddhist practice, embodied tranquility and peacefulness is the precursor and the foundation for a deep sense of happiness. Not an evaluative happiness, like, "I won the California Lottery, and therefore I'm really happy." That is more a mental, cognitive kind of happiness. But instead, a deep, settled, warm-hearted, warm-bodied happiness that glows and feel so nice. The movement of tranquility is towards creating the foundation for that happiness, well-being, and joy. For the purpose of meditation, this calm and tranquility is a foundation for the joy and the happiness that will come.
One of the things I talked about yesterday and today is taking time to feel the impact, the influence, the after-effect of things. I started off yesterday with feeling the after-effect of relaxation. You can also feel the after-effect of tranquility. The reason for this is that as we settle into that tranquility, we can begin to have feelings of joy, delight, and well-being. These feelings are also wonderful to feel and to open up to, because they in turn support greater tranquility.
So we are allowed to work on changing our experience a little in satipaṭṭhāna. Most of satipaṭṭhāna or mindfulness practice is, in fact, about just being present and being aware of how things are without changing them. That is a very profound thing to do. But at times in this practice we are also allowed and encouraged to take some agency to move our practice along in some direction – to move our practice into relaxation, calm, and tranquility of the body. Meanwhile, we stay alert and upright so we don't slump or get too relaxed. The wonderful combination of being alert and tranquil is delicious.
But don't work on it too hard. Know how to moderate, follow, and monitor yourself so that you do not get agitated or restless because you are trying too hard or doing too much. Let your efforts be calm. Let your efforts to be calm be calm themselves.
Tomorrow and over the next few days, we will build on the breath meditation that is the beginning of satipaṭṭhāna. We will talk about how breath meditation moves into the refrain, which describes the deepening of the practice, and then we'll keep going. Thank you.