2021-04-01 Mindfulness of Breathing (67) Sacred Absence
3:03PM Apr 1, 2021
We're continuing now with the last of the sixteen steps of mindfulness of breathing. Now we're coming to the fifteenth step. The Pali word that represents this is nirodha. For the fourteenth step, the Pali word is virāga.
Sometimes it's nice to use the Pali words because in the original context in India, these words have really rich connotations. In fact, virāga and nirodha are sometimes listed almost as synonyms for liberation itself. So they have a very good, almost sacred, quality – whereas the English translations for virāga – fading away or dispassion – don't really capture the richness of the associations, or the the way it feels in Pali, virāga.
It's the same with nirodha. It's such a rich word in the original context. It feels like a heartwarming idea – which you don't get from the English translations. The most common translation for nirodha is cessation. For most of us, cessation – as end or ending – doesn't bring up much heartfelt feeling, inspiration, delight, or joy. Cessation is simply the ending of something.
The word nirodha comes from the prefix ni, which means without, not, or free from. And rodha, which means obstruction. It means being "without obstruction." Cessation has a very different feeling than free of obstruction. Maybe the cessation of obstructions, the cessation of blockages, clinging, contraction, or what gets in the way of freedom.
The fourteenth step – fading away, dispassion – involves the fading away, the ceasing, the ending of attachments, cravings, conceits, and the driven, compulsive ways of being that have a feeling of stress – and even pain – associated with their drive and presence. The pain and stress of that becomes more and more apparent, the more wonderfully and beautifully quiet and still the mind becomes in meditation.
The more calm we are, the more these stand out and are highlighted as being, "Wow, it is uncomfortable to feel this way." In ordinary street consciousness, we might not feel this, and might even say: "What's the big deal? It's okay to have a little bit of irritation." But in deep meditation, a little bit irritation doesn't feel like a little bit, it feels like a real disruption and, more importantly, an obstruction to deeper peace and freedom.
The fifteenth step is: "One trains, observing cessation. One breathes in observing cessation. One breathes out observing cessation. One breathes in observing non-obstruction. One breathes out observing non-obstruction." As we get deeper and deeper, at some point, we observe a sacred absence of something. The absence is really strong, noteworthy, and deeply inspiring.
Watching inconstancy, we're watching things come and go. They arise and they pass. We're in the river – the flow – of transiency. But as we do that, the attachment – the reaching into that river of change – begins to give up, to relax. And with that, something ceases, stops, and is no longer there to obstruct freedom.
That absence is not just a temporary absence, as if it fades and then comes back a second or a minute later. But there's a way in which the cessation, the ending, the absence of it, is really impactful for the mind and the heart: "Wow! It's possible to really be free of cynicism. Wow! I've been seen as cynical for decades. Wow! This is possible." Or: "I've always been preoccupied, self-preoccupied with self. Wow! This preoccupation with me, myself, and mine has fallen away. It's not here. I can look around, where is it? It's not there. Wow! It's absent. It has ceased. There's a non-obstruction now. I realize that self-preoccupation was a kind of obstruction or wind drag."
Jealousy, doubt, hatred, resentment – all kinds of desires – sometimes are there in the structure of how our mind works – so embedded. There's fear, and, "Wow! This has ceased for now." It might come back the next day. It might come back at the end of the meditation. But there's something about the thoroughness of that absence that makes an impression.
And then: "Now I know this is possible. I had no idea this was possible. And of course, this is like coming home. It is health. This is my birthright.This is worthwhile. This is fantastic. Any movement away from this – any way of picking up the compulsion – that's a diminishment. That's not really worth it anymore. That's not the direction to go. That's not the way I want to live. This is how I want to live without these obstructions, without the stress of these kinds of things."
When this sense of absence is really impactful and strong enough – when it's a very, very deep, thorough absence – then a person will never be the same again. It's almost as if that absence is a living memory or presence that is a guide. "Oh, this is where freedom is. This is where peace is. This where truth is – not a propositional truth, but the true way of being." And then it becomes an orientation for how to live our life.
To say it in different way, the Buddhist tradition says: "One then has entered into the current – the good current – the current that takes us to full freedom." We're in the river of change – of transiency – but we've now discovered that there's a place that is not in the eddies, not in the brambles growing on the side of the river. We've noticed that in the center of the river, there's a beautiful current. If we stay in that current, it will carry us – the tradition uses this analogy – to "the ocean of liberation and freedom."
I call this the sacred absence. To recognize the value of absence. This is a hard thing for many people to appreciate: that absence has importance. In a sense, you could watch the mind and see, as soon as there's a quiet moment, it seems like the mind just reaches out for the next thing to think about. Or we have certain problems, and as soon as that problem is solved, the mind just goes on to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. The mind is filling itself all the time. To appreciate absence, cessation – a deep, sacred pause or stopping – and let it impact us: "Wow. It's true that it is possible to be free."
It's a little disappointing for people who always want to have some thing that's reassuring – some thing that is a confirmation that they're important, they're valuable, they're on the right track, or they can have the badge and tell their friends, "Look, I have this beautiful thing or spiritual quality."
Absence is not a badge you can put on. Absence is not the presence of some thing. Our ability to be present for things of the world becomes stronger. But freedom is not something tangible. It's not something that the mind can focus on as an object of attention in the usual way of things we can see, touch, and feel.
It's very easy to overlook absences or to diminish their importance. In fact, in the history of Buddhism, in the ancient world, there were debates and big concerns about this. Some great Buddhist teachers couldn't understand how it could be that the ultimate goal – the ultimate freedom of Buddhism – was somehow represented as an absence. It had to be a thing. It had to be some thing. And they posited a variety of different kinds of transcendent states and experiences because it had to be a thing.
So whether that's true or not is beside the point of what I'm trying to say now. In the fifteenth step of mindfulness of breathing, it becomes observing absence, observing cessation, observing a space of non-obstruction, observing how – with the fading away of passions, lust, clinging and craving – at some point the stopping, the cessation, is so full. Sometimes it happens like a quantum shift. "Poof. Wow!" And sometimes it happens slowly, as fading away.
But something – and it might be just one thing, it might be cynicism, or it might be doubt – but something that's been plaguing us for a long time: "Boom! Wow!" We notice, "This is possible." And it is possible.
The Buddha made this great statement (I'm paraphrasing him): "If it were not possible to bring an end to our unwholesome mental qualities, I would not teach you to bring them to an end. But it is possible to bring unwholesome mental qualities to an end, to cessation. And so I teach you that this is possible."
This fifteenth step is an encouragement to appreciate absence, to appreciate sacred absence. Take the time to recognize when a preoccupation – greed, anger, desire, or lust – anything involving the mind or the heart contracting. Notice and appreciate when it's not there. That appreciation will allow you to grow and allow you feel confidence. Keep making sacred space – sacred openness of attention – to be more present and more here. That will support this whole process of furthering along the onward-leading aspect of this path of practice. So: "Breathing in, observing cessation. Breathing out, observing cessation."
Thank you all, and may you appreciate all the absences that occur to you today that will enliven you, or just delight, benefit, open and free you. There are probably many more absences that are the door to step through today than you realize. May you appreciate sacred absence today. Thank you.