Anapanasati Sutta, part 3
This week we're continuing once again with our discussion of the Anapanasati Sutta, looking at the third section (or 'tetrad') of practices. Each step in the Anapanasati Sutta builds on the ones that came before it, so there will be a few references back to the previous parts (part 1, part 2) - it may be worth reading those first before proceeding unless you're already familiar with this discourse.
Moving into the third tetrad - 'turning the light around'
As I've noted above, the Anapanasati Sutta consists of sixteen sequential steps grouped into four 'tetrads' (subgroups of four steps each).
In the first tetrad, we focused on the activity of the body, first by examining the breath, then broadening out our awareness to encompass the entire body. Finally, we allowed our comparatively coarse bodily activity to calm down sufficiently for it to fade into the background, allowing us to observe the subtler activity of the mind with greater ease.
In the second tetrad, we then began that transition toward examining subtler phenomena, first starting with subtle/energetic body phenomena, then moving into the purely mental. Finally, and in parallel with the last section of previous tetrad, we allowed our mental activity to calm down as well, allowing us to observe something subtler still.
And, apart from the activity of body and mind, what else is there?
In his essay Fukanzazengi (Universally Recommended Instructions for Seated Meditation), Zen master Dogen says this:
You should stop the intellectual activity of pursuing words and learn the stepping back of turning the light around and shining back (ekō henshō); body and mind will naturally drop off and the original face will appear... Think of what doesn't think. How do you think of what doesn't think? Nonthinking. This is the essential art of sitting meditation.
Many meditation practices are focused on the 'events' in our experience - a bodily sensation, a thought, a sound, a visual image. We tend to think of these as corresponding to 'things' which are 'out there in the world', but from the subjective perspective they're better thought of as 'events'. An event is something with a beginning, middle and end. Every sound, every thought, every sensation in the body begins at a certain moment in time, has some duration (be it long or short), and finally comes to an end. Examining the 'events' of our experience can lead us to deep insights into fundamental Buddhist principles such as impermanence, and as such is well worth doing.
Another approach, however, is to examine the 'mind' (or 'awareness') that experiences those events. What is it that hears the sounds around us? What is it that feels the sensations in the body? What is it that thinks the thoughts flowing through each moment of experience?
Dogen describes this investigation as 'turning the light around' because you won't find the answer 'out there'. There's no 'event' which will reveal that which experiences the event - what we're trying to find is the very thing which is looking at all of those events. So instead we must try to find a way to turn our awareness back on itself.
That is the work of the third tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta.
The third tetrad
Here's what the Buddha has to say for this section:
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing the mind.' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in gladdening the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out gladdening the mind.' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in concentrating the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out concentrating the mind.' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in liberating the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out liberating the mind.'
As mentioned in previous weeks, each tetrad is associated with one of the four satipatthanas, key aspects of mindfulness practice in the early Buddhist tradition which are elaborated in great detail in the Satipatthana Sutta (on which I've written a whole series of articles). Appropriately enough, the third satipatthana is concerned with the mind. In the Satipatthana Sutta, however, 'mind' is pointed to indirectly, through an examination of 'mind states'. We're invited to determine the difference between 'a mind with greed' and 'a mind without greed', 'a mind with aversion' and 'a mind without aversion' and so on.
This investigation can reveal some surprising results. It certainly appears to us that our experience of the world is pretty 'objective' - I see a table, you see the same table, we agree that there's a table there. Anything else would be madness! But what we find when we look at our mind states is the extent to which they colour our experience. Maybe you've had the experience of being in a rush to get somewhere, and wouldn't you know it, every bad driver is out on the roads today, all the traffic lights are against you, every little thing is annoying. So unfair! Then again, maybe you've had the experience of being pretty chilled out, maybe on holiday or at a weekend, and although the person you're with is getting very worked up about something, you don't see why it's such a big deal. Just let it go!
What we discover when we explore our mind states is that our state of mind has a powerful impact on our overall experience of the moment. There's more going on in every single moment of our lives than we could possibly take in all at once, which means that our minds have to be selective - something within us has to decide 'these bits are important and need to be highlighted, and everything else can take a back seat'. And when we're in a negative frame of mind, the negative aspects of our present-moment experience tend to be sharply highlighted, whereas when we're in a positive frame of mind, the world appears softer and gentler. The world is the same (it really isn't a conspiracy of slow drivers trying to get in our way!) but our experience of it is different - because our mind is different.
So that's the Satipatthana practice - pointing to the mind indirectly, by inviting us to examine our mind states and see what effect they have on our experience. The Anapanasati practice is more direct - we're simply invited to 'experience the mind' directly. How do we do that?
Step 9: Experiencing the mind
The key to this step is to become aware of awareness, to know that you are knowing.
Find a nearby object and look at it for a few moments. You're knowing the object. Now, see if you can notice that you are aware of the object. The object is still there, but your focus has shifted from the object itself to your knowing of the object. It's a subtle thing at first, but with practice you'll get the hang of it.
A practice like Silent Illumination leads us toward this 'awareness of awareness' quite directly. We begin by focusing the mind on the body sensations, so that it's less prone to distraction. Then we open up to become aware of everything in the field of experience, so that we're not focused on any particular event. As we continue to rest in this open awareness - essentially, declining to take an interest in the events of experience no matter how exciting they might be - it's very natural for awareness to flip around and take itself as an 'object'.
Another way of looking at it is that Silent Illumination practice invites us to be aware of everything - the entire contents of awareness - and as such leads us in the direction of noticing awareness itself. It can help to have an attitude of being aware of 'experience as a whole' rather than 'lots and lots of sensations all at once' - the latter is still approaching experience from a separative, 'divide and conquer' mindset, whereas the former tends to have a unifying quality to it that helps to step out of the 'event perspective' and shift into the 'mind perspective'. I found it very helpful to train myself to rest in this sense of 'experiencing all of awareness at once' when I was trying to 'experience the mind' for myself.
Maybe some of that helps, or maybe it sounds like gibberish! I remember very well when I was first getting into this style of practice that I would spend many hours poring over instructions like these, trying and failing to make heads or tails of them. Just keep at it, and sooner or later it'll click.
When it does, the experience is often described as like finding a 'still point' in awareness, a feeling of having found something that doesn't come and go and doesn't change like the 'events out there' do. This experience can actually be a bit misleading, and can lead to people reifying 'The Mind' as the 'One True Thing That Really Exists', or the 'Eternal Witness' or what have you. Actually, when we explore the mind more deeply, it can't be found - it's just as empty as everything else. But we can cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, if you're trying to 'experience the mind' and you discover a 'still point' in awareness, it's likely that you're moving in the right direction. For me, that 'still point' felt like it was slightly 'behind me' somehow - I resonated very much with a description given by a highly experienced practitioner, who said 'It's like standing with your back to a still lake. You can't see it, but you know it's there.'
See if you can find the still lake, then learn to rest there.
Steps 10 and 11: Gladdening and concentrating the mind
As Bhikkhu Analayo points out in his book on this discourse, once you find a way to 'experience the mind', the next two steps tend to happen pretty automatically provided you stay with the practice.
The 'gladdening' described in step 10 is a much subtler experience than the kinds of 'joy' and 'happiness' we discussed in last week's article. Those are comparatively coarse emotions which arise out of the experience of having calmed the body and mind to some extent, but are still tied up in the causes and conditions of the relative world. By comparison, when we're able to rest in awareness of awareness, that experience turns out to have a subtle inherently pleasant quality to it. It doesn't matter what's going on externally - if we're able to maintain awareness of awareness, that inherently pleasant quality can be found.
To find this for yourself, I suggest first getting step 9 nice and clear, and then simply noticing 'Hey, this is nice.' Don't go looking for big eye-popping bliss, just notice that there's something quietly, subtly pleasant about resting in awareness of awareness. (In the Zen tradition, it's sometimes called 'a place of thin gruel and weak tea', to emphasise the subtlety of the experience compared to the kinds of coarse sensory pleasures we're typically accustomed to. The experience of the mind actually becomes profoundly beautiful in time, but at first it's usually pretty subtle. You're probably better off looking for a sense of 'Hey, this isn't so bad' rather than 'Holy cow, this is amazing!')
As you continue to stay there, the mind will 'concentrate' further - which means that the mind become less and less prone to distraction, less and less likely to be pulled back 'out' into the world of events. (We aren't talking about the kind of 'concentration' in which attention is narrowly focused on the square millimetre of skin below the nostrils - again, the mind is not a thing, not an event that we can focus on in that way.)
As with steps 4 and 8 in the previous tetrads, there's nothing particular that needs to be done to make this happen - it's actually a 'refraining from doing anything else'. So just keep coming back to the mind, and noticing that subtly pleasant quality, over and over, and the mind's tendency to wander will diminish further and further over time.
Step 12: Liberating the mind
'Liberation' is a term that shows up in a few different contexts in the Pali canon. Perhaps the best known is the idea of total liberation from suffering, achieved through full awakening. That probably isn't what's meant here, though - while I wouldn't want to stop you getting fully awakened at step 12, we do have four more steps to go, so it's likely that the Buddha had another kind of liberation in mind.
A more likely possibility is that the Buddha is talking about liberation from the five hindrances - sense desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and sceptical doubt. These are potentially significant obstacles which can derail our practice, leading us off track or even pushing us into giving up completely. We study the hindrances in the context of jhana practice - in order to enter the jhanas it's necessary to abandon the hindrances at least temporarily, for which my teacher Leigh Brasington and I recommend developing 'access concentration' - that is, a sufficient level of concentration (non-distractibility) to suppress the hindrances temporarily and enter the jhanas. Since the present step comes immediately after 'concentrating the mind', one fairly natural interpretation of this step is therefore that it's about liberating the mind temporarily from the hindrances. That would make step 12 a natural extension of step 11, and thus all four steps in this tetrad follow naturally from resting in the experience of the mind, simply allowing our concentration to deepen more and more.
Alternatively, we might look at step 12 as an invitation to 'liberate the mind' in another way - either through the jhanas or the Brahmaviharas. For example, Majjhima Nikaya 70 refers to the higher jhanas (5-8) as 'peaceful liberations', while MN111 describes Sariputta progressing through all eight jhanas with a mind 'liberated, detached, free from limits'. Meanwhile, in MN127 the Brahmaviharas are described as the 'limitless release of the heart' - another form of liberation.
If we go the jhana route, then steps 1-11 become a process for developing access concentration, then at step 12 we enter the jhanas, before moving on to our insight practice in steps 13-16 (which we'll cover next week). That would align this discourse quite well with the 'concentration first, then insight' approach which is taught elsewhere in the Pali canon. The drawback is that, unless you already know the jhanas - which are pretty difficult to learn outside of a retreat environment - then you won't be able to progress beyond this point.
If we go the Brahmavihara route, we have to be a little careful. The first 11 steps of this discourse have been leading us from comparatively coarse experiences of bodily and mental activity to the subtler experiences of the 'mind in itself'. We don't want to shake things up too much by moving to a practice which takes place at a coarser level of experience - but the Brahmaviharas are often practised by bringing to mind a sequence of people, perhaps visualising in a certain way or using phrases to evoke emotions, and so forth. All of that belongs to the realm of physical and mental activity which we left behind in the previous tetrads.
What we can do, however, is focus a little more on that sense of 'gladdening the mind' from step 10. Let's say that we found our way to an 'experience of the mind' in step 9 by opening up our awareness to take in 'everything everywhere all at once'. (Sorry, couldn't resist. Michelle Yeoh is a legend.) That 'holistic' approach to awareness can lead us very naturally to 'turning the light around' and becoming aware of awareness itself. Then, in step 10, we notice that awareness of awareness is inherently pleasant. If we can stabilise both of these, then all we have to do is to notice that 'awareness' and 'the contents of awareness' are two sides of the same coin - actually inseparable, indivisible. There's no 'awareness' separate from its contents, nor 'contents' separate from the awareness of them. This is a subtle point, but if we can see it then that 'inherently pleasant' quality associated with awareness can become an 'inherently pleasant' feeling toward all of experience - a truly universal loving kindness. At this point, we don't need to send loving kindness to one person at a time, or even 'radiate' it in all directions - instead, love is infused into everything we experience. (You'll sometimes hear teachers say that the true nature of everything is love - that's what they're getting at.)
So we have a few options here. Perhaps we simply continue to deepen the progression from steps 9-11 into step 12, further concentrating the mind and liberating it from the hindrances. Perhaps we shift into the jhanas and allow those to sharpen our minds still further. Or perhaps we invoke the universal loving kindness that's accessible through this 'awareness of awareness', and rest there. All three of these approaches are beautiful, intrinsically rewarding, and will also set us up very effectively for the final tetrad - which we'll come to next week.
See you then!
Anapanasati Sutta, part 2
This week we're continuing with our discussion of the Anapanasati Sutta. We covered the background of the discourse last week, so if you haven't read that article already it's probably better to start there.
Moving into the second tetrad, and the progression of the Anapanasati Sutta
In the first tetrad, we used the breathing first to establish a basic level of mindfulness, then proceeded to refine it by giving ourselves progressively subtler and more challenging tasks: to become aware of the lengths of the breaths in relation to one another; to expand our awareness to encompass the whole body, without losing the breathing in the process; and, finally, to incline towards calming bodily activity. This final step is important because bodily activity is comparatively coarse, and the second tetrad is going to ask us to look at something subtler, namely mental activity. If there's too much 'noise' from the body then we won't be able to detect the subtler aspects of experience that the second tetrad invites us to examine - or at least not so easily.
Actually, it's by no means impossible to turn the attention toward the subtler aspects of experience even without first calming the bodily activity. If we know what we're looking for, it's usually possible to tune into pretty much any aspect of experience. The challenge is to stick with it, and to perceive it clearly enough for the practice to have a significant impact on us. In the world of insight meditation, it's certainly possible to turn one's attention to impermanence right away, without any prior preparation - such an approach is commonly called 'dry insight'. The difficulty with dry insight is that our minds tend to be pretty unruly, easily distracted and prone to wandering for extended periods, so the meditation that results is not very efficient - perhaps you spend a few seconds looking at impermanence, then the mind wanders for a minute or two, then you realise what's happened and go back to looking at impermanence for another few seconds before the mind wanders again, and so on. With time and practice, of course, you'll get better at it, and the mind learns to stay with the inquiry more consistently. But another school of thought suggests that it's fruitful to spend some time stabilising and focusing the mind (e.g. with a samadhi practice of some sort) before moving on to insight practice - yes, it means you have to spend some time up front not doing insight practice, so you either have to sit for longer or have less time for insight work overall, but the trade-off is that the mind is calmer, clearer and better suited to the insight work, so the time you do spend on insight practice is much more efficient.
A common approach found in the early Buddhist discourses is to stabilise the mind through jhana practice (or sometimes Brahmavihara practice), then to shift gears and move into insight practice. That approach absolutely works and is very effective - it's what my teacher Leigh Brasington and I teach on jhana retreats, where we recommend structuring one's practice time to start with Brahmaviharas and jhanas, then shift into an insight practice taken from the Satipatthana Sutta or another source.
The Anapanasati Sutta does things a little differently, though. Here we have sixteen steps of one integrated practice that combines both samadhi and insight. As you'll see over the next few weeks, some steps are more explicitly aimed at the samadhi side (e.g. step 11, concentrating the mind) while others have a strong insight focus (e.g. steps 13-15, which are explicitly pointing to insight ways of looking), but the practice itself is also structured in a very clever way, starting with the coarser aspects of experience (which are both easier to focus on and easier to investigate at first) and then gradually leading the mind through progressively subtler experiences until the mind is in an ideal place to look for the deepest insights available to us.
So it's totally fine to pick out just a few steps of the Anapanasati practice and work with those - and that's what we'll be doing in my Wednesday night class over the next few weeks, because we won't have enough practice time to do all the prior steps as well as the tetrad we're focusing on that week. But it's also very helpful to bear in mind that the practice is structured in such a way that each step makes the subsequent step easier to access - so if you're having a hard time with a particular step, it might be worth revisiting the previous steps and spending more time there before moving on.
The second tetrad
Here's what the Buddha has to say:
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing joy/rapture [piti]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing joy/rapture [piti].' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing happiness/pleasure [sukha]; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing happiness/pleasure [sukha].' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing mental activity [citta sankhara]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing mental activity [citta sankhara].' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in tranquillising mental activity [citta sankhara]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out tranquillising mental activity [citta sankhara].'
As I mentioned last week, each tetrad is associated with one of the four satipatthanas - and the second tetrad is associated with the second satipatthana, on vedana. There's a discussion of vedana in my series on the Satipatthana Sutta, so check that out if you aren't familiar with the term and would like to know more. In brief, though, vedana is that quality of experience which indicates whether something is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It's often translated as 'feeling' or 'feeling tone', because vedana is about 'how something feels', but we have to be a bit careful, because we're not talking about emotions here. Vedana is 'feeling' in the sense of 'this feels nice' as opposed to 'I feel angry about xyz'.
The practice given for exploring vedana in the Satipatthana Sutta is pretty straightforward - simply bring mindfulness to the vedana of your experience! In practice, when Leigh and I are teaching it, we'll often start by pointing people toward the vedana of a specific type of experience - noticing the vedana of sounds - and then invite people to broaden their practice to include the vedana of other types of sensations as well.
The Anapanasati Sutta takes a different approach. It begins by pointing specifically to pleasant aspects of experience of increasing levels of subtlety, piti and sukha (more on those terms later!). Then, rather than staying with vedana but broadening out to include neutral and negative vedana, it actually goes even further and broadens out to mental activity as a whole - making a similar move to the one we saw last week in the first tetrad, where after having spent time tuning in to subtle aspects of the breath, we then opened up the awareness to encompass the whole body. The final step of the second tetrad also parallels the final step of the first tetrad - last week, the final step was 'calming bodily activity', while this week we have 'tranquilising mental activity'. So, once again, the practice invites us into the experience of one of the satipatthanas through a specific window, then broadens out our view before allowing things to settle down even further, making an even more subtle layer of experience available as we prepare to move into the third tetrad.
Focusing on the pleasant - piti and sukha
The first two steps of the second tetrad open up a bit of a minefield of terminology. The first step invites us to breathe in and out experiencing piti, and the second invites us to breathe in and out experiencing sukha. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates these as 'rapture' and 'pleasure' respectively, while Bhikkhu Analayo gives them as 'joy' and 'happiness' respectively. Personally, I first learnt these terms in the context of my teacher Leigh's presentation of the jhanas, where piti is a physical sensation of energy in the body (which can show up as tingling, heat or a kind of electrical or sexual sensation) and sukha is an emotional bliss, joy or happiness, both of which show up in the first few jhanas.
So who's right? Well, I'm certainly not qualified to disagree with renowned scholars like Bhikkhu Bodhi or Bhikkhu Analayo, but I've practised enough with Leigh to have a very palpable sense of his interpretation of the terms. Perhaps we can split the difference and avoid having to pick a side, however.
At the end of the first tetrad, we practised calming bodily activity - allowing the physical body to relax so that we could experience subtler sensations. Anyone who has spent time doing energy practices (qigong, kundalini yoga, ...) or practices which result in 'energetic sensations' (jhanas, chanting, ...) will know that the sensations we experience in those practices are subtler than the coarse body sensations of muscular tension and so forth. In fact, too much muscular tension typically prevents us from having those energetic experiences (which is why practices like qigong and yoga place emphasis on relaxing and opening up the body). So as we 'calm bodily activity' at the end of the first tetrad, a range of subtler experiences become available to us - some of which are very pleasant. We can experience pleasure in the subtle body (which, if focused upon deeply, can lead to rapturous states of consciousness), and we can experience positive emotional states of various sorts (joy, happiness, delight), arising simply out of the calm, focused, subtle nature of the mind at this point in the practice. Generally speaking, the emotional states are subtler than the physical ones, so as the mind settles deeper and deeper, the progression is typically one that moves from the physical to the subtle body to the purely mental.
Thus, one way to put this into practice might be as follows:
Focusing specifically on pleasant aspects of experience is a pretty smart move. By definition, it's a nice experience, which makes it intrinsically rewarding - and so it's generally easier for the mind to rest here and continue to become calmer and more focused than if we were paying close attention to unpleasant, difficult or distressing aspects of our experience, which are more likely to trigger a 'flinch' reaction. So although we're only focused on a small subset of the total sphere of vedana available to us (remember the 'guided tour' analogy from last week's article!), the result will get our minds into a good place to go deeper still.
Mental activity - citta sankhara
Steps 7 and 8 invite us first to become aware of 'citta sankhara' and then to 'tranquilise it'. But what the heck is a citta sankhara?
Again, the terminology here is a bit fiddly and has multiple popular translations. 'Citta' is usually translated as 'mind', but also has connotations of 'heart' - sometimes you'll encounter the term 'heart/mind', which is an attempt to convey the fact that, whereas Western cultures posit a strong distinction between 'mind' (the rational thinky bit) and 'heart' (the emotional/intuitive feely bit), Asian cultures don't.
'Sankhara' means something like 'making together', and can be translated variously as 'formation(s)', 'fabrication(s)', 'concoction(s)' and so forth. In this instance, it's indicating the various things 'made by the mind' - thoughts, emotions, and so on - so I tend to follow Leigh in translating it as 'mental activity'.
In modern times we have a very different understanding of the mind compared to the time of the Buddha. There's evidence that the Buddhist understanding of psychology evolved over time - what's found in the earliest discourses tends to be quite simple, then it becomes a bit more elaborate in the later discourses, and more elaborate still in the Abhidhamma (the 'higher teachings', texts composed after the Buddha's death) and subsequent commentaries. The later Buddhist traditions in the Mahayana also developed detailed models of 'mind', which don't always line up with what's in the early teachings. In the Western world two and a half thousand years later, the legacy of Freud and Jung has powerfully impacted how we understand the nature of mind, thoughts, subconscious and so on, so we have yet another picture of what's going on.
Rather than try to pick apart every possible interpretation of the terminology, though, it's perhaps more helpful for the purposes of practice to take a step back and see what the overall strategy is here. We've used the first two steps of this tetrad to get a 'foot in the door' of the world of mental activity, by focusing on aspects of experience that particularly strike us as pleasant. (In the Buddhist understanding, vedana is regarded as a mental phenomenon, whether the vedana is associated with a physical or a mental stimulus.) Now, just as we broadened out the scope of our awareness to take in the whole body at the equivalent point in the first tetrad, we open up our awareness to become aware of the full breadth of our mental activity.
Step 7 is a tricky step! Meditation practices often focus on the body because it's so much easier to work with than the mind. One thought leads to another with very great rapidity, to borrow a phrase from S.N. Goenka - before you know it, you've been sucked into a train of thought, and the meditation is forgotten. But if we've spent some time on the preceding steps and built up some stability of mind, it becomes possible to be more broadly aware of thoughts and emotions coming and going without getting drawn into them - and so we can 'safely' open up our awareness to include mental activity as a whole.
Once we've successfully made the move into step 7, and we have a general awareness of our mental activity coming and going while remaining anchored on our ever-present mindfulness of the breath, we can then move into step 8 - tranquilising mental activity.
Step 8 contains the same subtle trap as step 4 - the problem of how to 'actively relax'. Any positive action we take in relation to our mental activity is going to introduce more energy into the system, but in order to tranquilise it, we need less energy overall. It's like we have a jar containing some water and some sand, and the jar has been thoroughly shaken up so that the sand is swirling all around and the water is totally opaque. How do we get the water to be clear (assuming we can't take the lid off and filter it!). Shaking up the jar even more won't work, and even well-meaning things like subtly, gently tilting the jar from side to side won't help. The best thing we can actually do is to put the jar down on a table and leave it totally alone. Then, little by little, the sand will sink to the bottom of the jar, and eventually the water will become clear quite naturally. This isn't something we can make happen, and it definitely isn't a process that we can 'speed up' by applying more effort - quite the opposite. All we can do is to leave it alone and wait patiently.
When that happens, we'll be ready to move into step 9 and the third tetrad - which we'll explore next week!
Anapanasati Sutta, part 1
For the next few weeks we're going to be taking a look at the Anapanasati Sutta, number 118 in the Middle-Length Discourses. The name literally means something like 'The discourse on mindfulness of in-breath and out-breath', but despite the modest title it's a hugely important text for followers of the teachings of the historical Buddha - along with the Satipatthana Sutta (which we've discussed at length previously), it's one of a relatively small number of discourses in the Pali canon to give really detailed meditation instructions, and it presents a really comprehensive roadmap of early Buddhist practice.
The practice is divided into four sections (commonly called 'tetrads', because each section has four elements, so this practice has sixteen steps altogether), and so over the next four weeks we'll look at each tetrad in turn, before concluding this series (and the year!) with a broader view of the path of practice laid out in this discourse.
This week we're starting with the first tetrad, which is focused on the body, but before we get into that it's worth saying a few words about a line in the excerpt from the discourse that I quoted above: 'When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness.'
Satipatthana and Anapanasati - different approaches to the same terrain
We've previously discussed another foundational discourse from the Pali canon, the Satipatthana Sutta. You can find the whole series of six articles on that discourse here, but for today's purposes I'll provide a brief recap.
'Satipatthana' is made up of two parts, 'sati' and 'upatthana'. 'Sati' means something like 'remembering', but in a Buddhist context is usually translated as 'mindfulness', and 'upatthana' means something like 'attending' (in the sense of 'waiting on' or 'looking after'), so the compound has a sense of paying careful attention to something, usually an aspect of our present-moment experience. Some older translators interpreted 'satipatthana' instead as composed of 'sati' and 'patthana', the latter meaning something like 'foundation' or 'establishment', and since there are four 'satipatthanas' described in the discourse, you'll often hear 'satipatthana' translated as 'four foundations of mindfulness', as in the excerpt from the sutta above.
Either way, the Satipatthana Sutta lays out four aspects of our experience to which we are invited to pay careful attention. Those four are:
Both the Satipatthana Sutta and the Anapanasati Sutta address these four categories of experience, but they do so in different ways. The Satipatthana Sutta is like being given a map of an unfamiliar city and then being left alone to explore however you like - the discourse contains a large anthology of different practices with no particular over-arching structure except for a general trend to start with the simpler, coarser aspects of experience and progress toward the subtler. In contrast, the Anapanasati Sutta is like taking a guided tour with an experienced guide. You won't see everything and you won't have as much freedom to explore every curiosity and dark alley, but you'll get your Instagram photos of all the major sights, and you'll do so much quicker than if you had to figure it all out for yourself.
Unfortunately but inevitably, these two different approaches have led to something of a division in those surviving Buddhist lineages which place great emphasis on the Pali canon. Some teachers and traditions strongly emphasise the Satipatthana Sutta and dismiss the Anapanasati Sutta, while others take the opposite approach. Someone once walked out of a retreat I was teaching because I was offering practices from the Satipatthana and they had previously been taught the Anapanasati. Sigh. The fact is that both discourses are packed full of great practices, and both approaches have tremendous potential to enrich and transform you if you're willing to engage with them - it isn't about which one is 'right', or even which one is 'best' - or at least it shouldn't be! Personally, I've done more practice with the Satipatthana approach, and I really appreciate it deeply, but I've also explored the Anapanasati approach enough to have tremendous respect for it, so I'm happy to present both discourses here.
Enough background - let's get into the teachings!
The sales pitch
Like most Pali canon discourses, the Anapanasati Sutta starts with a fair bit of preamble setting the stage for the teaching that's about to be given. I've skipped over that for today's purposes because I'd rather focus on the practice, but feel free to click on the link above and check out the first section of MN118 for yourself if you're interested.
Next, the Buddha says a few words about the value and importance of the Anapanasati practice (translated here as 'mindfulness of breathing'):
"When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it is of great fruit and great benefit. When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness. When the four foundations of mindfulness are developed and cultivated, they fulfil the seven enlightenment factors. When the seven enlightenment factors are developed and cultivated, they fulfil true knowledge and deliverance."
The Buddha starts by saying simply that the practice of Anapanasati is 'of great fruit and great benefit'. It's a good thing to do!
Next, he says that it 'fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness', i.e. the four satipatthanas listed above - body, vedana, mind, dhammas. We'll see how that works in detail over the next few weeks, but, as already noted, the general idea is that we'll be doing a four-part practice where each part explores one of these satipatthanas in detail.
Then he says that Anapanasati '[fulfils] the seven enlightenment factors', or seven factors of awakening. These factors - mindfulness, investigation of reality, energy, joy/rapture, tranquility, concentration and equanimity - are supporting conditions for the transformative insights that lead to awakening, or enlightenment, in Buddhist practice. I've already written previously about how bringing mindfulness to something enjoyable or otherwise rewarding leads these seven factors to arise naturally - and, as we'll see, the invitation in this discourse is to develop an enjoyable, rewarding relationship with our own experience through the vehicle of the breath.
Finally, the Buddha says that Anapanasati '[fulfils] true knowledge and deliverance' - in other words, that this practice will lead us to insight and, ultimately, awakening. As sales pitches go, that's pretty good.
Preliminaries - setting up your practice
OK, so we've bought the sales pitch and signed up to the Anapanasati Newsletter - now, how do we actually do the practice?
"And how is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated, so that it is of great fruit and great benefit?
"Here, a practitioner, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded one's legs crosswise, set one's body erect, and established mindfulness in front of oneself, ever mindful one breathes in, mindful one breathes out."
These are the same instructions we saw in the Satipatthana Sutta (which actually begins the practice instructions with the first tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta). First off, we need a suitable place to practise. We're going to be going deep in this practice, so it's in our interests to minimise distractions to whatever extent we can. In the time of the Buddha, the standard approach was to head off into the forest and find a quiet place where nobody would bother you; in today's world, perhaps that means closing the door and asking whoever you share your space with not to bother you for a while.
Once you have your place, the Buddha recommends sitting down cross-legged and holding the body erect. What you do with your legs is actually not so important - the main thing is that the hips should be higher than the knees, to enable the core of the body to relax. Sitting in a chair is fine if you find that easier than sitting on the floor.
It is helpful to have an upright spine, however. Holding the body in an upright, aligned posture helps to keep us awake and alert during the practice, and once the postural muscles have strengthened sufficiently to allow us to sit without back support, it can actually become a comfortable and relaxed way to be. That said, if you have trouble with back pain, do what you gotta do. The key is to find a posture which balances comfort and relaxation with alertness. If you can do that, you're good to go.
The final preliminary step is to establish mindfulness on one's breathing. You don't have to breathe in a particular way - your natural breath is fine, although if you do find yourself controlling your breath it isn't a big deal. Over time you'll find that you're able to let go and just allow the body to breathe by itself, while you simply observe the process.
It can be worthwhile to take a bit of time to explore the breath. You may feel multiple different types of sensations as you breathe - perhaps the flow of air against the nostrils or the mouth, maybe movement in the shoulders or chest, the ribcage, the diaphragm or the abdomen. There's no right or wrong sensation to be feeling - this step of the practice is simply about getting in touch with what you're noticing in your own breathing, right now, moment by moment. Then, once you have a sense of what's going on, find wherever the breath feels clearest or most noticeable to you, and 'anchor' your attention there, rather than continuing to move around the body. Paying attention to a single place in the body will help your mind to settle and stabilise as the practice continues.
Of course, your mind will wander from time to time, perhaps often. That's fine. Whenever you notice that your attention has wandered, simply let go of whatever distraction the mind has taken an interest in, take a moment to relax, and then return your attention to the process of breathing. Take particular care around the 'gaps' in the breath - the moment after the in-breath has finished and before the out-breath has started, or vice versa. In those brief moments of 'no breath', the sensations of breath have temporarily stopped, and that's a prime time for the mind to wander. I find it helps to keep focusing on the space where the sensations are happening, even when the sensations themselves are absent - that has a way of 'bridging the gap' between one breath and the next.
At this point, you might have noticed that we're already practising 'mindfulness of breathing', but we're still in the section of the article labelled 'preliminaries'. What's up with that? Well, it turns out that although the Anapanasati Sutta is literally called 'the discourse of mindfulness of in-breath and out-breath', the practices we're going to explore actually use mindfulness of breathing as a kind of 'foundational' practice. Throughout each of the following sixteen steps, we'll continue to keep part of our attention on the breathing, using the breath as an 'anchor' to keep us grounded in the practice, but we'll also be doing other things as we go along. So it's very helpful to have established this 'simple' mindfulness of breathing before proceeding further - that's not to say that you have to have 100% uninterrupted mindfulness of breathing with no mind-wandering (which is a very high standard, and not practical for most people off retreat), but if you've never done this kind of meditation before, it's worth spending some time getting used to it. It's a great practice even without the 'extra bits'!
Once your foundations are in place, we can move on to the first tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta: the body.
Mindfulness of the body, steps 1 and 2: the length of the breath
Breathing in long, one understands: 'I breathe in long'; or breathing out long, one understands: 'I breathe out long.' Breathing in short, one understands: 'I breathe in short'; or breathing out short, one understands: 'I breathe out short.'
Having already established our mindfulness of breathing as a preliminary step, we now begin our deeper exploration by focusing on the length of each breath. This is not a matter of controlling the breath, and deliberately breathing more deeply or more shallowly, but rather about noticing the natural variation in each breath. The chances are that your breaths are not perfectly uniform - that some are slightly longer and some slightly shorter. So this is the first part of the practice: to notice those variations in length, whether significant or subtle.
(Sidebar: although these two are counted as separate 'steps' for the purposes of making the practices in this section add up to four in total, it doesn't really make sense to practise noticing only the long breaths, then subsequently practise noticing only the short breaths. After all, how do you know that a breath is long if you don't have a sense of a shorter breath to compare it to? For this reason, some scholars have suggested - and some parallel copies of the discourse also indicate - that, actually, the 'simple mindfulness of breathing' that we discussed in the 'preliminaries' section above should actually be the first practice in the first tetrad, and that 'noticing short/long breaths' should be the second practice. It really doesn't make much difference, though - either way, we start by establishing 'plain' mindfulness of breathing, then move on to noticing the lengths of the breath.)
Notice that, although the breathing is still at the forefront of the practice, we've already had to 'zoom out' a little. In order to tell whether a breath is short or long, we have to have a sense of how long a 'typical' breath is, which means we have to track what's happening over time, not merely have our noses pressed up against the window of the present moment. So even these first two steps are moving us beyond 'simple' mindfulness of breathing, and asking us to develop a broader, more inclusive awareness of what's going on. As we do that - as we take a step back, 'zooming out' a little bit - we're likely to find that the mind tends to wander a little more at first, because it's now doing something a bit subtler and more complicated. But stay with it - the mind will settle down again if you give it time, and when it does settle, it'll be more focused and more powerful than it was before.
Then, when we're ready to move on, we're going to zoom out even more, but this time in space rather than in time.
Mindfulness of the body, step 3: experiencing the whole body
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.'
(Sidebar: sometimes you'll see this translated as '...experiencing the whole body of breath', which is a popular translation among people who like to keep their area of focus small and precise rather than broader and more expansive. Here, I follow Bhikkhu Analayo's translation and interpretation, which makes more sense to me.)
Up until now we've been focusing on the sensations of the breath at a particular place in the body. In the first two steps we expanded our awareness out in time, becoming aware both of the length of the breath that's happening right now and also the lengths of breaths in general.
Now, in this third step, we zoom out in space, opening up our awareness to take in the body as a whole. We continue to track each breath, using the rhythm of in-breath-out-breath to keep us anchored; but now we experience the breath as it's felt in the whole body, not the single point where we originally chose to focus. This presents us with a different kind of challenge. Some people find it more difficult at first to keep track of the breath when the field of attention is opened up more broadly - there's potentially more to distract us, and we can potentially find our attention 'wandering around' within the broader field of the body, rather than resting in a more focused way on the body as a whole. So that's the challenge! With practice, it's possible to stabilise the attention on this larger field of sensation, still 'primarily' focused on the feeling of the breathing, but 'secondarily' having a broader awareness of what's going on in the rest of the body. If we previously had the breath-at-a-point in the 'foreground' of our experience and everything else relegated to the 'background' of experience, now we have a 'middle ground' of experience as well.
Developing this kind of flexibility of attention is a very helpful skill. We'll need to be able to manage foreground, background and middle ground as we continue to move through this sutta; and, more generally, the ability to focus broadly as well as narrowly is a tremendous asset in life, most of which is not about focusing on microscopic details - at least for most people!
Once you're able to broaden your attention out to encompass the whole body, without losing the rhythm of the breath at the heart of your experience, you can move on to the fourth and final step for this tetrad.
Mindfulness of the body, step 4: calming the body
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in calming bodily activity'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out calming bodily activity.'
Now we make another interesting move: we introduce a deliberate intention into the practice, specifically the intention to calm bodily activity.
The theme of this first tetrad is mindfulness of the body. We begin by paying attention to one aspect of bodily activity - the breathing. Then we refine that attention, sharpening our minds by challenging ourselves to notice not just the immediate sensations of the breath but also something more complex - the lengths of the breaths. These first steps are designed to train the mind to pay close attention; we start small, because for most people that's easier, then gradually expand in both time and space, until we're able to bring some degree of mindfulness to the whole body - thereby fulfilling the first satipatthana, mindfulness of body.
As we now look ahead to the subsequent tetrads, we must prepare ourselves to move beyond the body so that we can explore mental activity. Generally speaking, bodily activity is comparatively coarse while mental activity is comparatively subtle, so it makes sense to start with the body and then move on to mental activity. But if the body is still creating a lot of noise then it'll be difficult to focus on the quieter mental activity 'behind' it - so the fourth and final step of the present tetrad is to calm the body.
Body and breath are closely intertwined, as you'll see very clearly when you start doing this practice. By calming the breath, we calm the body; and by calming the body, we calm the breath. How can we do this? Subtly emphasising and extending the exhalation helps to calm the breath; relaxing muscular tension and settling into stillness helps to calm the body; and because the two are interrelated, calming one will tend to calm the other.
It's crucially important to approach this with a spirit of gentleness. Trying to force something to relax is deeply counterproductive, and will typically increase the discomfort, agitation and tension in the long run. If you suddenly try to slow down your breath dramatically, your body will fight back. So take it slowly and gently. It can be enough to hold the intention to calm breath and body, without taking any conscious steps to make that happen. Give it a try - you might be surprised.
Something else to notice in this step is that, as the breath and body calm down, you'll probably start to feel pretty good. It turns out that the body likes to be calm and quiet - although you wouldn't know it based on how strongly we tend to associate being 'excited' with 'feeling good'. Earlier on in this article I noted that the seven factors of awakening arise naturally when we pay attention to something enjoyable or otherwise rewarding - and experiencing a calm body fits the bill.
This first tetrad can thus actually be a complete practice in itself, a step-by-step means to cultivate mindfulness of the body, concentration and relaxation. Indeed, there are other discourses elsewhere in the Pali canon which only list these first four steps, and not the subsequent twelve.
So, for now, please take this tetrad away and give it a go - and then come back next week for the second tetrad, which will take us beyond the body and into our mental activity. See you then!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!