2021-02-12 Mindfulness of Breathing (31) Wondrous Mind
5:55PM Feb 12, 2021
The topic for this week is what in Pali is called "citta saṅkhāra." It's often translated as "mental formations," "mental dispositions," or "mental constructs." For this week, I have been using the expression "mental activities." It's the activities of the mind that are planning, creating, imagining, actively thinking about things. So a simple perception of something, like seeing a wall across the room, wouldn't necessarily be called an activity. It is an activity, but it's not one of the formations or constructions that we make.
There are a number of things that are fascinating about this idea of mental formations, mental constructions, 'saṅkhāras'. One is that many things that we take to be inherent, just the way things are, turn out to be an activity of the mind. To give you one example: boredom. When we're bored, it can feel like the thing that we're doing is boring. The event, the situation is boring. It is boring.
But, in fact, it's the mind's activity that creates the feeling, the sense of boredom. It's maybe even a subliminal judgment or evaluation. It's holding oneself apart from experience. It can be resistance. It can be a loss of intimacy with experience. There are all these things going on in the mind that construct, that activate this feeling, the idea of boredom.
The idea that we're constructing it, forming it, making it in the mind gives us a very different orientation to boredom than if the situation is boredom. Because if the situation is boredom, the situation is to blame. So we better just get away, or change it.
But if we're responsible because it's an activity of the mind, then we can practice with it. One of the things we learn through meditation is how to practice with these mental formations, these mental activities. So we're not caught in them and not pulled around by the nose by them. We learn how to settle them, become more expansive of them, or more free of them even when they're there.
So with boredom, one would turn the attention around 180 degrees from the situation that's boring – whatever it might be, internal or external – and have the attention really look at the boredom itself. Look it right in the eye and say, "Boredom, I see you." And feel it, be with it, and experience it.
To learn how to dissipate the boredom because you really see it clearly is very empowering. It shows us that we don't have to be the victim of our own mental activities. That's one of the great good news of Buddhist teaching – that so much of our suffering has a relationship to the activity of our mind. Whereas we can't necessarily always change the situation in the world, we can have some care and attention to shifting how the mind is constructing these ideas, concepts – and even ideas of self. It's phenomenally good news if we have the mindfulness, attention, and stability to really see how this works.
Mental activities – to really see them this way – and learning to tranquilize, calm, and relax them. This tranquil mind is considered in the Buddhist tradition to be a beautiful quality. Tranquilizing the mind is not becoming numb at all. It's not becoming less than. It actually begins tapping into something that's really wonderous and amazing about what's available inside. That can arise with this idea of a mind that's very tranquil, clean, transparent, smooth, easy.
This points to one of the problems in the English language translating the word 'saṅkhāra' as 'formations' or even 'activities' because some of those are just uninspired. Mental formations – what is that? It's kind of an uninspired translation. Mental activities maybe means a little bit more, but I don't think it has too much inspiration value.
I believe in the ancient Indian context the word 'saṅkhāra,' which we're translating as 'formations,' had very positive associations. In one early Indian associations, it was a word used in the pre-Buddhist Brahmanical traditions to describe sacred rituals. In fact, 'saṅkhāra' sometimes is "a means to make something sacred." At least that's what the dictionary definition sometimes has. This idea of something sacred, a ritual – which may be for some people a very heartwarming and deep connection – has a very different idea than just mental activities.
Mental activities are the qualities of the mind that make things, prepare things, or construct our sense of self, the universe, and ideas. But as that gets quieter, the movement of mental activities can have a quality of sacredness, reverence, and wonder.
My favorite word is 'beauty,' which is a translation of 'kalyāṇa,' a word in Pali that is often translated as 'good.' One of the places where it's translated as 'good' is in discussions about karma. Karma means 'action.' The primary action we're dealing with in meditation is the mental action. So mental karma.
Sometimes it's translated that there are two kinds of karma: good karma and bad karma. The word for 'good' is kalyāṇa, but its primary meaning is 'beautiful.' You get a very different feeling about actions if you refer to them as being either beautiful or not beautiful.
So this idea that we can have the potential in the mind or have mental activity become beautiful is much more inspiring than simply "calming the mental formations"" or experiencing the mental formations."
The seventh step of ānāpānasati – "Breathing in experiencing the [mental formations] mental activity. Breathing out experiencing mental activity." – happens after experiencing some modicum of joy, well-being, and happiness in meditation. It's important to remember that all these things are situational. They are contextual, these steps of meditation. We're not supposed to be in a hurry to get past them.
If you hear instructions, that you're not there yet, just take it in, and file it away for the future. No need to feel bad that you're not there. We're all going to be cycling through the 16 steps, and will be at different stages on different days, minutes, or weeks because of what's happening in our lives.
It's kind of good to think that we're always beginning at step one. To not be in a hurry. To not feel like you have to always be following the steps I'm going through. I'm going through it linearly. But the trap of that is to assume that you're supposed to be coming right along. I'm trying my best to make it come alive for you, but trust where you are.
Trusting where you are is part of the beauty we're developing in this practice. Trust the appreciation, reverence, care, love for oneself: "I can just be where I am, and practice there." Trust that this process will unfold. Ānāpānasati is a natural process, and in its own way, it will unfold for you. No need to be in a rush or to hurry through it. This trust is part of the beauty of the mind.
Rather than seeing mental activity, mental formations as neutral, uninspired stuff in the mind, we're touching into a capacity of the mind to be beautiful, wonderous – something that may border on or feel sacred. The great value of this practice is to really discover a rich, wondrous, beautiful, inner life that really can inform how we live in the world. I like to think that as we discover this wondrous inner life, we get turned inside out. What was inside is no longer inside, but something we share with the world around us. Mental formations.
As we continue next week, maybe you'll keep in mind that we're working with a capacity we have for inner beauty. Something wonderous that lives in us for sure. Even though some of the mental activities you're living by, and are caught in the grip of – you don't even know you're in the grip of some of these mental activities. They might be standing in the way for now of seeing how wondrous it is on the inside of you, the beauty that you have.
Thank you for today, and I look forward to continuing next week.