2021-03-15 Mindfulness of Breathing (54) Deepening Samādhi
4:37AM Mar 16, 2021
Continuing on the topic of samādhi, the 11th step of mindfulness of breathing. The word samādhi is sometimes used as a generic word for meditation – cultivating our mind or body in the meditation practice. When we look within this universe of samādhi, there are all kinds of things that we are gathering together. We're unifying to develop, grow, and enhance our experience.
Samādhi is not meant to be an experience that diminishes, lessens, or deprives us. It's actually the opposite. It's one of the richest ways of experiencing ourselves. It's very fulfilling and nourishing. It's about developing these beautiful, wholesome qualities and states of mind. It's also about getting out of the way, without adding extra tension and stress that can exist in the mind. It moves us toward less and less stressful states of mind, or states of being – less and less activated places of agitation, and into deeper and deeper peace.
As we do so, even wholesome activities of mind that are more energetic than need be, begin to be shed, relaxed, or settled. It's a movement from more energetic states to quieter and stiller states. I think some people have very negative experiences of quiet, stillness, and silence. So we have to try to put those associations aside, and somehow realize that the quietness, stillness, silence that we're developing – this letting go – is filling us with feelings of real goodness, contentment, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
There is movement toward less and less agitation. Fewer energetic movements. In the context of the mind getting more and more peaceful, things that were wholesome and wonderful before can feel a little bit too agitating or stressful.
For example, in samādhi there can be a lot of joy. But at some point, joy seems like it's too much, too agitating – even though at the beginning, it felt like the best thing anybody could ever experience. As we get more familiar with it, the energy of it seems to be too much. Then we settle down more and more into peace, or a quiet place that feels even more satisfying.
Developing samādhi is a movement from more agitated and energetic states toward less energetic states, and we feel more and more satisfied as we go into them. A guiding principle for tuning into our practice – the way to see the path forward in samādhi – is to appreciate that what felt really wonderful at one stage of practice is now something we're ready to let go of. We become quieter, and move toward a less energetic, less activated state. That's the direction in which the practice is going. Various landmarks stand out along the way that, as we do this process of more and more settling. There is more peace.
The principle is that we're moving in this direction. It's helpful to keep that principle in mind because sometimes when people read about samādhi they learn about the four stages of jhāna – deep absorption. It becomes a bit mechanical or technical, like, "Am I in the right place? Am I on the first jhāna or the second jhāna?" It's like "samādhi by numbers", which can be overdone sometimes. People can get too preoccupied about the technical definitions and aspects, rather than living in the organic flow of samādhi – just allowing things to unfold, and not being so concerned about the numbers, the stages, and how far we've gotten.
It's easier to do this if you understand the principle that we're going from more to less activated states – more stressful to less stressful, more agitation to less agitation. There is a trajectory to the path. One landmark for this is feeling real appreciation for and relief from no longer being actively engaged in unwholesome ways of thinking. If we've spent a lot of time with resentment (Why did that person do that?), or desire (really wanting something), or hostility, or fantasy – after a while we feel the flatness, the two dimensionality of these mind states, and the ways in which they keep us stressed.
With samādhi, developing meditation, we start to let go of those things. When we become separate from, temporarily put aside, or deactivate those 'apps' of greed, hate and delusion – the unwholesome – it's such a relief. And gladness and joy well up.
But more importantly, with the goodness and happiness of this relief, now the meditation can really begin to do the gentle work of practice: staying present, applying the mind, and staying there. The gentle work of, "Stay here. Be with this. Hang in there. Come back. Be here" is now done without the stress of having to struggle against unwholesome distractions and difficulties of mind.
The gentle work of staying here can be represented by what happens on the inbreath. At the beginning, the inbreath is a whole new experience. The mind has to connect to that. Then we stay there for the full inbreath. Then we connect again to the beginning of the outbreath, and stay there for the whole time. It's very gentle. Some people don't even notice that they're doing this. But these two movements of the mind are working, massaging, and kneading the dough.
It comes along with the relief and the happiness of not being distracted anymore – finally being able to be here and do this. As we settle in, there's less and less need to make work of connecting and staying. It becomes second nature. The mind is starting to become stable. We're able to just rest in the breathing and stay there. There's very little tendency to wander off: "We're here. We're finally here."
That gives birth to a different kind of joy, being able to put aside that extra work of connecting and being. There's a kind of gliding, soaring, sliding on experience. It feels like petting a cat, and the cat begins to purr. We're there, being touched in some deep way. It's like the pleasure principle, where we're touched by this beautiful feeling of just staying with the breath and being there. A different kind of joy arises, and that can be quite strong and energetic at times.
After a while, that joy feels like it's too much. So then we're ready to let go of that level of agitation or activation. By tuning in, there is actually a deeper satisfaction – feelings of contentment, mindfulness, clear comprehension, simple awareness and recognition of what's happening – and the goodness and contentment of just being in this happiness, this deeper sense of pleasure. We let go of the joy.
Then as we go deeper, that happiness feels – I don't know if it feels like it's too much – but the happiness begins to soften and relax. It falls away into something that's much more satisfying: a deep sense of tranquility and equanimity, where the awareness is very pure. Sometimes it depends how we translate the Pali in the Buddhist teachings on this – but it's awareness that is very closely connected to equanimity. It's awareness purified by equanimity.
The awareness is very peaceful and still. Because there's so little mental activity, so little stressful activity, much of our ordinary way of experiencing ourself has temporarily fallen away. People even have the sense of not really having a body. The body edges fall away – no sense of being in a body. It is not being disassociated; it's actually the opposite. We're so connected and still that we don't need the reference points we usually have.
The principle of this movement is toward less and less activity as we go into samādhi. Part of the purpose of this is to clarify our gaze – our ability to see, to observe – so that it doesn't have a lot of agitation, filters, or disturbances of unwholesome thinking. Even if our thinking, projections, ideas and concepts that we overlay are accurate enough – to no longer be overlaying concepts in our experience. It isn't that we're doing samādhi for its own sake. Rather, it is for the way in which it cleans our perception and purifies awareness, so we can start seeing in a deeper and deeper way – for the purpose of liberation.