2021-03-22 Mindfulness of Breathing (59) Observation and Insight
2:56PM Mar 22, 2021
We continue with this series of talks on the sixteen steps of Mindfulness of Breathing. We're now coming into the last tetrad, the tetrad on observation – on observing.
The last tetrad consists of steps thirteen, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen. All four steps have in common the introduction of a new verb. That's the verb 'to observe.' And it goes something like this, "One trains to observe X."
Or "One trains: observing X, one breathes in." "One trains: observing X, one breathes out." In these last four steps there's something we're observing. And we continue with the breathing.
There's something about the continuity of mindfulness of breathing that allows us to observe things, but helps us to not latch onto them. It helps us to not cling or hold on. Through staying with the breathing, there's a continual kind of letting go. Breathing is where the mind is resting. And we notice all kinds of things happen. But in a certain way, we're letting go of our involvement, any prioritization, doing anything with it, changing it, or thinking about it. We're just going along with the breathing and going back to the breath – being with the breath.
It's a way to keep ourselves soft, fluid, relaxed – letting go. We allow the psychophysical system to have a break from our active involvement, our active and deliberate engagement, doing and wanting. We let something deeper happen that can only happen if we get out of the way.
In these last four steps, this is represented very strongly by the verb 'to observe' – the idea of observing. It's the first time in the 'Ānāpānasati' Sutta – this discourse on the sixteen steps – that observing comes into play. In reading through the teachings of the Buddha in the suttas, we see, most commonly, that observing is a very well-developed practice in which the mind is able to be 'really' centered in the present and concentrated. The strongly concentrated, present mind is the one that begins doing the practice of observing.
And so there's a lot of preparation in the sixteen steps. The first twelve are preparing ourselves for the capacity to lean back, to just watch. And observe what's happening without being involved. Some translators translate the verb 'anupassati' as 'contemplating.' Contemplating, in the way that I relate to that word, is closer to thinking, reflecting about something, thinking about something. It suggests a more active thinking process.
'Observing' is, etymologically, what the word 'anupassati' means. 'Anu,' the prefix, means 'toward something,' and 'passati' means 'to see' – seeing. Put them together, and we're gazing onto something, seeing, looking toward something, in a sense. Because of this, I think 'observing' works very well as a translation. We're observing.
There's a kind of deliberateness in observing, but it's not quite the same as actively looking. It's just settling back into being an observer. I liken it to being a naturalist who goes into a natural setting to observe the natural behavior of animals or birds. It's very important that the naturalist doesn't interfere with the life there, staying unrecognized by what's happening, so they can watch nature unfold without the interference of humans. Just to observe.
An earlier part the sixteen steps begins with "Breathing in, one knows one is breathing in. Breathing out, one knows one is breathing out." The idea of knowing is one of the attentional faculties we have: to know. As we begin knowing the breath, we know that we've never stopped knowing the breath. We recognize the breath. We're there with the breathing.
But then we're also experiencing things. We're experiencing the body. We're experiencing joy and happiness. We're experiencing the mind. We're experiencing gladness. We're experiencing settledness, steady concentration. And we're experiencing liberation. This experiencing is also a little bit passive. It isn't that receptive. It isn't so much like we're doing something. We're just allowing ourselves to experience.
This applies to knowing also. We're just knowing something. We're not judging it or criticizing it. We're just knowing it clearly. These two activities of knowing and experiencing are here to ground us in the present moment.
At some point, then, it shifts to just observing. The art of deeper mindfulness is to observe. In the other mindfulness discourse of the Buddha, the "Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta," there is a lot of language of observing. There also, if you read the text carefully, the observing is the higher stages of mindfulness. That's where observation comes in.
[In the] earlier [tetrads], 'knowing' and 'experiencing' ground us in the present moment – helping us to stay present, learn to develop concentration, and rest in the present. When the ability to be focused and present in the moment becomes easy and light, and we feel really grounded and centered here, that's when observation becomes stronger.
We're going toward being less and less intentional, deliberate – less activated or active in the mind. The more activated we are in the mind, the more waves, agitation, or clouds there are over our capacity to see clearly. As we get quieter and quieter, what we're left with is the ability to just observe.
Then we learn to trust that, to settle back: "Okay. Now I'm just observing. I'm not needing to interfere. I'm not judging. I don't have to fix or adjust anything, or make anything different. Just watch. Just watch."
You can feel that if, in this kind of centered place, we start reaching out to do, fix, judge, or think about something, it feels a bit like we're losing something. We're losing the open field. We're losing the freedom. We're losing the peacefulness of just observing. It's very clear that observing is a better place to be in these deeper states of meditation.
It becomes very important in these final steps because we really want to get out of the way – and not overlay concepts, ideas, judgment, 'shoulds,' or 'shouldn'ts' on top of our experience. We want to be able to take things in much more closely to how they're perceived, held and experienced, before making a lot of judgments, concepts, and generalizations. Just to observe. Just to observe.
There's a turning, with this last tetrad, from the practices that are meant to be more concentrating, settling, and focusing. Now, we're switching to 'vipassanā.' Observing is where 'vipassanā'– insight practice – begins. Classically, insight practice is built on or done on the foundation of a mind that has gotten very stable, concentrated, still, joyful, happy, soft, at ease, content, safe, and liberated from the hindrances. Now, the mind is ready for insight practice.
Insight practice is built on the capacity to just observe. Just observe the experience. In fact, 'vipassanā' – the word we translate as insight – has the same verb root as 'anupassanā' – 'vipassanā.' It means 'seeing.' And the 'vi' is usually understood to be a prefix – here meaning "seeing clearly." It is a prefix of emphasis: "really seeing," "clearly seeing." Or "observing," "clearly observing," or "being clearly aware." So, 'anupassanā,' from 'anupassati' – to "observe." That is the medium through which we are going to explore the next four sets of practices of mindfulness of breathing.
You may ask: "Why is 'vipassanā' often taught as an intro to mindfulness"? It also works that way. It doesn't have to be done only with the strong base of concentration. It can be done as a practice directly. But a lot of what people are doing when it's practiced directly and immediately, is sorting through all the ways in which they're not concentrated. They're beginning to become wise about the hindrances and distractions. Rather than more directly getting concentrated, there's concentration through a lot of understanding and wisdom about all the things that keep us distracted. So then we can settle. We can settle with wisdom, rather than – sometimes they say – settling with faith. We're dedicated to just being simple and focused.
Sooner or later – if you start with mindfulness – concentration is brought in, and mindfulness and concentration become partners. If we start more with concentration, then, later, mindfulness is brought in so they become partners. Both are true. And both are valuable. 'Ānāpānasati' can be seen as a kind of hybrid of these two, with a lot of emphasis on settling, relaxing, and concentrating that sets the stage for strong mindfulness.