2021-02-05 Mindfulness of Breathing (26) Imagining, Visualizing, and Freedom
6:35PM Feb 5, 2021
This has been a week of emphasizing the role of imagination in Buddhist practice. And it's not something that I'm making up on my own, that the Buddha himself, in one way or the other, in a variety of ways, used the imagination and evoked the imaginary powers of people, when they engaged in this practice.
As the practice deepens, there is born a particular capacity for imagination, which in English we might call vision – to have a vision of a possibility. This is a vision that can seem very clear, tangible and immediate. And maybe it even is in a certain kind of way. It's not something which is physically tangible or physically seen – but rather with the mind's eye.
In Buddhism awakening is opening the eye of the Dharma – the eye that can see and have a vision of the potential for freedom. Or it can see freedom. It can see the peace and the freedom of the mind, which is there to some degree – and then has a vision for it becoming complete, a vision of it expanding, and touching the places where we're not yet free.
This idea of becoming a visionary – using the imagination to know a possibility – that is not a fantasy. It's based on something real. But it's imagining the fulfillment of that. So for example, if I hold my hand in a tight fist, I could release one finger and hold down the other fingers tight. And then imagine, "Oh, I think it's possible now. I have a vision. I see the potential of opening the whole hand up and relaxing it." It's kind of an imagination, a vision of potential.
It is said sometimes in Buddhism, that awakening is an act of vision. It is seeing, or it awakens vision. It awakens the imagination of something that's possible, which then becomes the direction we go – or what we wholeheartedly put our life energy into. "This is important. This is valuable, to live this way." It doesn't mean we have to leave the world behind. But rather, with a clear enough vision of the potential of what awakening is, of what freedom from clinging is – we realize that it can be the foundation for how we live our life, or the all encompassing container or approach for everything we do.
It isn't so much that we have to leave our life. But it's rather a vision that it's possible to live our life freely, and to wholeheartedly enter into our life with that as a guiding principle. And this is a radical thing. It's not compromising our life necessarily, but bringing what's best in life: freedom, peace, and compassion as the container, the context, the foundation. So a vision that this is possible – and then a decision, even a commitment or vow: "This is how I want to live my life."
Much of what we've been talking about this week has to do with imagination. Imagination can be harmful or debilitating, but it can also be forward-leading, opening. It can help us to grow and develop. To be able to distinguish between these two qualities of imagination is very important.
A few things about the words that the Buddha used that I'm translating as 'imagination'. One of the words is 'maññati,' which is usually used for acts of imagination that are not helpful. In fact, Bhikkhu Bodhi, the great translator, sometimes translates this word as 'misconceive'. There's no negative prefix in the word. But it's used in such a negative way in the suttas that it often can mean to mis-imagine or bad/poor imagination. The Buddha used the example of a jackal that imagines itself to be a lion; it's misconceived itself as a lion.
One of the very interesting places where this word "one imagines" has negative connotations (this 'maññati'), has to do with identification. There are plenty of places in the suttas, where Buddha emphatically talks about the problems people have, when they imagine an identity for themselves – that they are something in relationship to other things. Imagining that they are the same as the universe or the same as the world. Imagining that they are in the world. Imagining the world is in them. Imagining that they are distinct from the world.
He uses the word 'maññati', imagine. If you really understand tha... It is often translated as 'conceive', which has some idea that doesn't quite capture the idea of imagination. Rather than talking about the self and identity as who I am ("I'm this, I'm that") as a belief, which gets into philosophy – the Buddha uses the word 'imagine'. So it's not a philosophical issue. It's an issue of what we're doing with our imagination.
What are we constructing? What are we fantasizing about? Many of the problems around self, are not about truly what we are as a self, whatever that is, but rather how we imagine ourselves to be. Then we have a whole different understanding of this not-self teaching.
For example, there's a very common phrase, "me, myself and mine," used in the suttas. It's a little bit of a mistranslation, the order of it, but basically the same. Imagining that something is mine, that I have an identity, and that there is an essential self. The Buddha uses the word 'imagine'. It doesn't say one believes in me, myself and mine. But it is something that we're construing, constructing, or imagining.
Part of meditation practice then, is to quiet and calm, this excessive over-imagination, false-imagination and misconstruing we do. It's not questioning or challenging any kind of philosophical view of self – me, myself and mine – in these particular teachings. We don't have to get involved philosophically: "Is there or is there not a self?" Where we get involved in meditation practice is to clarify, let go of, and quiet the imaginings that are operating. So that's 'maññati,' this imagining that's usually negative.
The word that's more positive for imagination has the word 'anupassati' in it. That's one of the central words for mindfulness practice. It means, in mindfulness practice: to observe, to see. It has the prefix 'sam' in front of it, so 'samanupassati.' In the context in which it's used in Buddhism, we can understand it to be imagination, maybe in the form of visualization.
In the similes for freedom from hindrances, which I talked about a few days ago, the Buddha says, "Visualizing oneself as no longer sick. Visualizing oneself as no longer in debt. Visualizing oneself as no longer ensalved." That visualizing has a richer feeling in the imagination. It touches into something deeper, more emotional, embodied and tangible in the mind's eye. It helps us to fill out something. That is one of the two functions of imagination or visualization, which the Buddha talks about, and uses in practice.
One is to give us a visceral, embodied sense of what he's talking about, which is not just explanations. It's more like poetry, or something that's evocative. And something that opens up and touches into more dimensions of our life than just words. It touches into our emotional being, our kinesthetic being. Some of the images are in action and movement – flowing water, a person working a lathe, or kneading water into the powder.
It also touches into memories and associations we have with these things, and into our capacity for imagination, thought and thinking.
We have here a movement or support in imagination for becoming unified – which means gathering together all our different functions as a human being, so that we're focused and present here, for the practice of meditation. We're not fragmented or divided. We're not leaving any part of ourselves out. Rather, we're gathering together all of ourselves to center and be here.
We'll continue with the steps of ānāpānasati on Monday, going on with steps seven and eight. And this continues the process of gathering together, settling, and unifying. We're also supporting – once the imagination has functioned in a useful way – to help that to settle as well. Not to hold on to that, but to go to deeper states of unification and calm, where at some point imagination is no longer supportive. We'll start going more deeply into the mind next week, and then go on from there.
Someone asked yesterday, I saw in the chat at the end, that they wanted to see the written form of the similes for the four jhānas. I said I would do it, and I still will do at some point. I can also maybe post my translation of these 16 steps we're going through. And once I've posted it, I'll let you know where it is, and hopefully I'll have time to do it over the weekend.
So thank you all very much, and I look forward to our next time together.