2021-01-06 Satipaṭṭhāna (4) Knowing and Experiencing
4:07PM Jan 6, 2022
Continuing with the four foundations for awareness. This particular set of practices, which the Buddha teaches, is calling upon our toolkit of attention. Think of attention as a toolkit that has different component parts or different tools within it. Different tools for being attentive, being present, for helping awareness become established.
One of those supports for establishing awareness, maintaining it and letting it grow is knowing. We talked about a simple knowing of the breathing. Another tool for attention that the Buddha talks about in this text is feeling. I am using the word "feeling" as a synonym for "experiencing" – allowing oneself to experience physically the sensations. It is a physical sensory experience to feel in that kind of way. For some people, the subjective, embodied experience – feeling – is a stronger entry point into the present moment – to be established here, in awareness. For other people, it is knowing – their capacity to know. For yet other people, it is their ability to settle back and observe what is happening.
All these are part of the toolkit that supports awareness – knowing, experiencing and observing. In this discourse of the Buddha, the first instructions, first exercise in breathing, is to know, as we breathe in a long breath, to know it is a long breath. As we breathe out a long breath, know it is breathing out a long breath. The same for the short – as we breathe in a short inhale, know it is a short inhale. As we breathe out a short exhale, know it as a short exhale.
Here we are knowing some particularity of breathing. To just vaguely be present for breath coming and going, does not give an anchor. It does not give a strong rootedness in the experience of breathing – to know the particularity of it. For me, the idea of long and short represents all the different things we can know about the breathing. We can know the feeling – if you are aware of the breathing in the chest or the belly – of the expansion that happens with the inhale, or the contraction, gathering together, on the exhale. We can be aware of the sense of pressure or movement. We can be aware of tautness, tightness and fullness. We can be aware of the feeling of release. Maybe there is some pulling in, or contracting that goes on, on the inhale. There is a whole range of different, particular sensations, for each person, each day, each breath – slightly different perhaps. The art to helping us be rooted in the present moment is to know some of these particular sensations that come into play.
It is not chasing after all the possible sensations we can have. It is not being busy trying to catalogue the sensations. We are using the sensations, the knowing of the sensations, as a way of helping us be established, more and more here in the present moment, with our experience. As we do this, it is working as an alternative to having the mind wandering off into thoughts – thinking about all kinds of things.
This is one of the big movements, especially for beginners in meditation, to train the mind to be present for something that is not the world of thinking, discursive thoughts. The attention is present for something that is healthy, wholesome and useful to center ourselves on. It is an alternative to the way that the thinking mind not only distracts us but also fragments and undermines us.
They say that one of the leading causes for depression, not the only cause but a leading cause, is rumination – endlessly thinking, sometimes in loops, the same debilitating, discouraging, critical thoughts. It is probably a leading cause of anxiety as well – the ability to imagine all kinds of dangers.
To keep coming back and find ourselves rooted here as an alternative. It becomes self-reinforcing after a while, because there is a goodness. There is a feeling of rightness, of gathering ourselves together, unification, concentration, sense of ease, lightness. Something like that begins to come together as we stay with the breathing.
Knowing is one of the faculties that supports that. Gentle, relaxed, soft – I like to think of it as the natural way in which the mind knows things. Next to the camera I am looking at for YouTube, there is a clock. As I am saying this, it is obvious to me that the clock says 7:39. I do not have to work to see that. It is so obvious – I see it, I know it. It is that easy, the knowing. It is not meant to be straining and investigating hard, "What is actually going on here?" But it is a centering ourselves in that experience through knowing.
The second tool of attention, the Buddha talks about after knowing, is experiencing, feeling. That you can also do with the breathing. You can 'feel' the subjective experience of the body breathing. What is the body's experience of breathing? The very things that you can know through the first tool – knowing what is happening – can be used to help us also feel what it is we know. This is a bit of a protection from the knowing being only a cognitive event. Also we can feel, sense and experience – the texture, flavor, taste, fullness of those sensations. For some people that works actually better. The primary thing they can do is feel the subjective experience in their body. They sense and rest in that experience. As they do that, at some point, the knowing of what they are experiencing becomes clear. For some people, it is the knowing that comes first and then they can feel.
The direction the Buddha takes this text (maybe it is just because you have to start somewhere in a text) is to know and then experience. The way he words it is, "Breathing in one experiences the whole body, breathing out one experiences the whole body." I will talk more about that tomorrow.
For now, what I would like to suggest to you – as you go through your day, and maybe you could meditate at least one more time before we meet tomorrow – is do that only with breathing. So the instruction would be – breathing in, experience, feel, sense what breathing in is like. As you breathe out, experience, sense, feel what it is like to breathe out. Rather than the whole body, use just that part of the body that is engaged as you are breathing. And resting in that experience.
Again, it is not probing, penetrating or forcing ourselves onto the experience. It is almost a relaxing and receiving the experience. Maybe that happens more with the inhale. The exhale can be, if necessary, about relaxing and letting go.
Maybe what I said today is a lot of instructions. The idea is to keep it simple, so from what I have said here, maybe choose the simplest way for you, that is supportive. For these next 24 hours, try to see if you can discover more richness or fullness of the experience of breathing.
Maybe you have a timer on your phone that you put on, and periodically through the day, be reminded, "How is my breathing now? What does it feel like? What is the experience like?" There is so much to be discovered about oneself through how we are experiencing breathing – what is going on with breathing at any given time. How contracted is it? Is it tight? Where in the body we are breathing – is it mostly chest breathing or are we breathing in the belly in a relaxed way? Is it uncomfortable to breathe? Are there restrictions in the breathing? Does it feel easy and flowing?
Not to be critical of any of this. Just drop in and feel, "Oh, it's like this." And experience it for a while. Try to do whatever you can to familiarize yourself with the experience of breathing at different times throughout the day.
We will continue tomorrow. Thank you, everyone, and may you have a wonderful breathing day.