Good day everyone. We are going through the first exercise of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. It is a four step exercise that I tend to simplify into three steps. When we meditate to first become attuned, aligned with our breathing, to accompany our breathing with our attention.
In doing so, become aware of the experience of breathing – whether we are breathing long breaths, or short breaths, deep or shallow, whether we are breathing mostly in the chest or in the belly. Whatever sensations come into play – the pressures, the expansion the contractions, the pulling – really savor and take them in. Register the richness of all the sensations of breathing as a way of getting centered on breathing, developing continuity, and getting concentrated on breathing.
Then the instruction says: "Breathing in, experience the whole body. Breathing out experience the whole body." Here, there is a kind of dual tracking. We are both being aware of the breathing and, at the same time, feeling the fullness of our experience of the body in whatever way it is easy to do. That does not have to be literally the whole body.
For me, it has a lot to do with the torso, for the most part, because I give a lot of my attention to breathing in the torso. Then I become aware of the fullness of the torso. But also, over time, as we meditate, the body will speak. Different parts of the body will show themselves, usually through discomfort. Over weeks and months and years, different holding patterns in the body reveal themselves, different places that need attention.
And so some of experiencing the whole body is also discovering what in the body needs attention now – and then breathing with it, breathing through it. There is a wonderful way in which breathing helps us stay in the present moment (if it is continuous). It protects us from wandering off too easily into thought. At the same time, we are being present for what our lived experience is in our body, all of it.
This can be very healing. The body is not just a hunk of flesh. It is deeply connected to our minds. That relates to the last step of this beginning exercise. And that is: "Breathing in, relaxing the bodily formations. Breathing out, relaxing the bodily formations."
The word "formations" – saṅkhāra – I like to translate as "constructions." Relax the bodily construct. What this means is that they are part of what our embodied experience is – what has been, somehow, constructed by the mind.
For example, if I am afraid and anxious, my shoulders get tense. If I stay chronically anxious, and the shoulders stay chronically tense, there might be times when I am not so anxious, but the shoulders are still locked in that way). That tension I feel in my shoulders has been constructed – formed – by what goes on in the mind. There is the emotion, the fear.
When the text says to relax the mental formations, the mental construct, it means to relax that part of the bodily experience that has been formed by our mental activity. If I have a desire for something – I really want something – and I am leaning forward, the physical sensations of leaning would be the physical formation.
The earlier exercise is to feel the whole body and all the different ways it shows itself. Now we are becoming more interested in a subsection of the body. And that is the part of the body that has been shaped by the tensions, holding patterns, and emotions of the mind. This is where the practice is connecting the body and mind very intimately together, because if we are relaxing the bodily formations, at same time we are also relaxing the mental aspect that triggered them.
As people get tenser and tenser in the body, there is a chicken and egg cycle. At some point, the discomfort of the body being tense stimulates more thoughts and reactivity. If I am feeling tense in my shoulders, and now I am afraid I will be judged by people for having tense shoulders, then I get even more tense. Sometimes the genesis is, in a sense, the body and then the mind. Sometimes it is the mind and then the body. And sometimes you can't quite – in a chicken and egg way – know where the beginning is.
But as we relax more and more deeply, we start seeing more and more clearly that things do have a beginning. And we can be more attentive to it and freer. So to relax the body, but to not do it and become completely a puddle on the floor or the couch. The idea is to have a dynamic balance between a certain kind of alertness – physical alertness – and relaxation.
When people are very tense, then it is appropriate to focus a lot on relaxation. Maybe it is really good just to lie down on the bed or slump on the couch, because it supports a deeper ability to relax. But in the long term, what we are looking for is a dynamic relaxation where we are also alert.
I don't know if this speaks to you, but when I went to the monastery for the first time – the Tassajara monastery – there is a natural hot springs there, with big hot baths you can go soak in. The temperature is 105-106 degrees. It was a wonderful place to go and relax.
When I first got there I loved to go to the baths. There was a bath hour every day. Every day in the afternoon, around five, you can go there, shower, clean up, and then just soak in these hot baths. Then, after a couple of months, I noticed that I stopped going into the hot baths. I would go in, but just for a minute to get warm, and then get out (because it was cold, it was the winter), get dressed, go out, and go on to the next thing.
I looked at myself and said, "Gil, what's going on with you? Are you too tense, too uptight, or too something to be able to enjoy the relaxation of the hot baths?" What I came to eventually realize was that, in living the monastic life where I was meditating quite a bit, the surface tension that I brought with me to the monastery had begun to release and fade away.
When I first got there, I loved the hot baths because of they relaxed the surface tension. As that surface tension dissipated, there was no need to go to hot tubs to have that relaxation, because I did not have that tension anymore. So then, I was not using it to relax.
There is an idea that relaxation is great. But relaxation that is always compensating for, or reacting to the ways we get tense throughout the day is kind of an endless loop – an endless cycle. We keep getting tense, keep getting tense, and then relax. But the idea is to relax deeply, to understand some of the nature of being relaxed, and to appreciate that state, so that we start noticing when we are getting tense.
It is one thing to relax a little bit in meditation. But then you don't want to just forget about it and start running around and being tense again so that you have to come back to meditate to get relaxed. You want to learn from the relaxed state. Learn from what how you tense up so that, as you leave meditation, you do not quickly tense up again into old habits.
Then slowly, over time, there is a feedback loop. As we get less tense in daily life, meditation can go more and more deeply into deeper levels of relaxation. And it also allows meditation to not be compensatory – where we are only trying to compensate for the tension of the day, to relax, and get some relief. It allows us to have erectness, dynamism, an alert presence in the body – without feeling we are is adding tension, or work. It actually feels delightful and nice. Then there can be a balance between dynamism and deep relaxation.
But that takes time. This stage of the practice is to experience the whole body, and then relax the bodily constructs. What I am suggesting is that whenever you are able to relax the body or parts of the body in some way – do not just go on to the next thing, like, "That's done. That's over." But take a little bit of time. It could just be two seconds. But to relax and then appreciate, enjoy whatever there is to enjoy about having relaxed – the relief, the release, the pleasure of relaxation, the lightness, the openness, the softness, the heightened sensitivity that might be there.
And that does a number of things. Lingering with it for a little while teaches us to be familiar with the state of relaxation, so that we can support it more and more. It is also a time to let the relaxation be deeper. Let something deeper be registered, be experienced, even if it is not so conscious.
Also, lingering provides a little interruption or a pause, for some people. This certainly was the case for me when I was a beginning meditator. I was a little bit in a hurry in meditation, like, "Okay. I did that. Let's go to the next thing. Let's go to the next thing." I was supposed to be a good meditator and do everything right. It was always the next thing.
So take time, pause, and make room for just being. Just being. I would recommend, if you are interested in this – it is such an important foundation for meditation to go deeper and deeper – that for the next twenty-four hours, when you have a chance (both in meditation, but also not in meditation), see if you can have an alert posture, but also don't slump to relax. But in that alert posture, just relax.
If you are standing in line in a store, stand there upright. Rather than reading the magazines at the checkout counter, just stand there, close your eyes, or maybe just look down quietly – then connect to your body, and relax. If you are at a traffic light waiting for it to turn green, sit up little bit in your car seat, and relax, soften your belly, and see what goes on. Wherever there is a little time, a little pause in the day, see what it is like to relax, what you learn, and what happens in the ongoingness of it. I hope you enjoy that and it enriches your day. We will continue tomorrow. Thank you.