2021-01-28 Mindfulness of Breathing (20) Absorbed in Breathing
5:32PM Jan 28, 2021
Continuing the topic of ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing in and mindfulness of breathing out. We're moving into the territory now of the second tetrad where we train to experience joy as we breathe in, experience joy as we breathe out. And then we train as we breathe in to experience happiness, as we breathe out to experience happiness.
And so, all along here in all 16 steps, what they have in common is mindfulness while breathing in, and mindfulness while breathing out. There's a connection to this rhythm of breathing in and out that goes on. And, as we move into the joy part, the happiness part – the sense of wellness, well-being that comes along – I think it's important to remember how important this rhythm of breathing in and breathing out is.
So as I've said, the continuity of breathing can keep us in the present moment. Breathing is always a present moment experience. And it keeps us going and moving along in the present. But it's also inconstant. There's a discontinuity, because the in-breath is only there while you're breathing in, and the out-breath is only there when you're breathing out. And one leads to the other. There's a rhythm of one after the other. The sensations at the beginning of the in-breath are different than the end of out-breath. The sensations at the beginning of the out-breath are different than the end of the out-breath.
And so there's a constant change of sensations and movement experienced in the body. Sometimes if we're focusing mostly on the little spot of the chest or the belly, we feel the changing texture of sensations there. If we're aware more broadly, we might feel the changing ways in places where that are activated with sensations as we breathe.
So there's both this constancy and this inconstancy with mindfulness of breathing. The constancy of the rhythm of breathing, and the inconstancy of all the pieces of it, the subsets of it, coming and going.
And so we can't hold on to any one part of the breathing without causing problems. If you hold on to the exhale, you never inhale. And so, then you run out of breath. If you hold on, same thing with the inhale, some people kind of prioritize, really don't want to let go at the top. It can be very, very subtle.
And some people come to the top of the inhale, and they don't really want to give up anything. They kind of have a policy of holding everything. They want things for themselves. So there's a little subtle resistance there to let go.
Some people don't start the exhale, because it's a kind of letting go. Especially the end of the exhale, very, very subtly, people get a little bit anxious there. Or there's a very subtle attitude maybe at the beginning of the in breath, "No, I don't want to breathe in, it's just a bother. It's just more work. And now just leave me alone, there's enough input coming my way."
So there can be very subtle attitudes in the cycles of breathing that a little bit operate when we get to that little bit of holding perhaps, a little bit resistance, or little bit triggering of thoughts of fear or resistance or aversion or something. If you're really attentive you can watch and see in that cycle where it is that some little psychological thing is triggered occasionally. Don't try too hard to look for it, but it's a little bit there.
Or if we start thinking about something else, and it's really preoccupying, really a major issue, you can feel the breath gets held. We're still breathing in and out but maybe it's all chest breathing, and the belly is tight. So there's this holding going on.
But if you just stay with the inconstancy in the flow of breathing, and remembering that this is constantly letting go, constantly opening up, constantly releasing and softening and allowing the flow to go. That it's a protection from getting attached to anything, getting hooked too much on things, getting caught in our thoughts, caught in reactivity, whatever. It's a way of keeping us limber, keeping us relaxed or loose or not so caught. And it's by degrees. So don't think it's all or nothing again, but slowly the breathing begins to massage us and begins to support the letting go.
And with time as the breathing becomes more like a flow that goes smooth and easy that watching the breath, tuning into the breathing becomes a little bit like sitting at the edge of a river. And just watching the rippling occurrence of the water flowing down the river. It's kind of like looking at a fire. Sometimes we can just spend a long time just looking at the changing patterns of the water flow. It's not that different from each other, but it's changing. And just to watch that can be very relaxing. We're not necessarily trying to quiet our mind or stop thinking about anything. But just letting that be the way the mind, the attention gets absorbed in and flowing with, something gets quite quieter and quieter and stiller.
So the same thing with time. As the breathing becomes more relaxed, more loose, more open, more flowing and we can be with the inconstancy and the constancy – the inconstancy of the little wavelets of breathing on top of the constancy of just the flow of the river of breathing – we get absorbed in it, we get pulled into it.
It's not like we're looking at the surface of water. What we're doing is feeling, sensing all the sensations that come alive as we breathe. And, especially as we kind of get settled in and really begin to settle into the present moment and stay with that rhythm and flow of breathing, that there gets born pleasant sensations. And that can take the form of contentment, can take the form of pleasure, can take the form of a joy or delight or happiness, a sense of goodness, a glow, a warmth. And I know I'm repeating myself things I've said now, but I think it's worth repeating.
And everyone will experience it a little bit differently. Some people might feel a glow in their chest as they settle into breathing. Some people might feel it in their belly, a warmth, something good. Some people maybe it feels intense and joyful tingling, and kind of delightful in the nostrils as the air goes in and out that gets more and more intense the sharpness of the joy, of the pleasure that's there. It's kind of a thrill almost.
It might be there's a sense of locationless thrill throughout the body that comes as we really settle in and get absorbed, just like you would get absorbed in watching the river, get absorbed in this thing.
My first experience like this of being absorbed and feeling the goodness of it was when I was about 10 years old. And I would take the public bus. I was living in Italy in a little town in Italy and I would go to school in town and we lived in the outskirts of town. My bus stop that I got off on was right near the very end of the line. And I learned at some point. There was a driver and there was a conductor who sold the tickets to people. And the conductor would go up and down and sell tickets as people got on board. But the conductor at some point when we kind of got outside the city enough, there really were no new people were going to get on, the conductor would sit on a particular seat and do the accounting of all the different seat tickets he'd sold – round trip, one way, children, senior citizens, whatever it might be. And he had his ledger he would write on. I learned that if I sat in a particular seat behind his seat and looked over his shoulder and watched him do his accounting in his ledger of the different kind of tickets he got, I would just start feeling so good. I would just feel so warm. My chest would kind of glow in delight and joy. I'd feel so content. I felt safe and settled, and everything was right in the universe, just watching him. I had no idea why. I'd never thought about it. I just knew that if I sat there I'd have this really good feeling.
Many years later when I started meditating, I realized that I was getting absorbed in this very simple thing that he was doing. Maybe I was tapping into his concentration of working, but just that movement of his pencil on the paper and his focus on it, somehow I got kind of absorbed. I wasn't trying to get concentrated. I didn't know I was really getting absorbed. It just my world got so content and happy and settled on just him, his pencil, his piece of paper, watching him.
So maybe captures a little bit the sense of what's possible in breath meditation as we get into this fifth and sixth step. We're not trying too hard. It's almost like we're just sitting back and watching on a nice, quiet day, and nothing to do, nothing to be, just watching the river, or the conductor do his ledger on the bus. And allowing ourselves to include the good feelings that come with that.
Now remember, they don't come automatically and right away. The first four steps of ānāpānasati are always the default. The basic default is the first two – just becoming familiar with the breathing, and developing a capacity to stay a little bit in the present moment with things.
We are always going back to the beginning. And you might go back to the beginning during some sittings. It was one way in the beginning, and then we're back near the beginning at the end, because who knows all the ways that things change in our mind and body.
So don't have some idea that it's linear. Don't have some idea that it has to be a certain way. Don't be in a rush. But when you're settled enough and present enough, then at some point, the fifth and sixth steps might be relevant. And this idea of gently allowing yourself to be absorbed in that. And feeling the goodness of that and to let the breathing in and breathing out – always going on that rhythm – keep you from getting attached and wanting, keeping you loose and limber in the mind. Staying with that flow in and out.
And then letting that rhythm of breathing in and out move through or with the goodness that's there as well. And let that grow and be expansive. And let it grow and be expansive so it can include all the challenges as well. Without us needing to be preoccupied with the challenges or caught by them or needing to fix them, they're just there in a relaxed way.
So I hope that you'll feel contentment. And perhaps the assignment for the next 24 hours is maybe you can look for more opportunities to have contentment in your day. I suspect if you do it even for just a minute or so, you'll have more opportunities if you look for them, and hang out with them a little bit. And that contentment in your daily life will maybe support you to feel this meditative goodness and contentment that supports a deepening of this practice.
So thank you very much, and I look forward to our time tomorrow.