Letting go into the universe
I've spent the last few days on a meditation retreat. If you aren't familiar with the concept, a retreat involves setting aside a period of time to remove oneself from daily life and focus on practice, often maintaining silence and restricting one's behaviour in other ways (e.g. refraining from watching TV or reading). It's often on retreats when the deeper insights and meditative experiences open up for the first time, because the relatively secluded environment allows us to set to one side all the usual clutter of our minds and go deeper. (More on that later.)
My main practice for this retreat was Silent Illumination. Silent Illumination is a very simple practice - another name for it is 'just sitting', the theory being that if you simply sit and do nothing, reality will reveal itself to you (eventually!). Essentially, the practice is about relaxing the core of our being until the contraction at the centre that we call 'me' relaxes, and we dissolve into the wider ocean of reality.
Relaxation is often included in meditation instructions, but it can be easy to skip over that step as 'just a preliminary', part of the warm-up before the 'real practice' begins. That's a mistake! Let's take a closer look at relaxation and see why it's so important.
Constriction and relaxation
In last week's article I used the metaphor of the zoom lens to talk about concentration practice - focusing on something is equivalent to 'zooming in' on it, while stepping back into our broader awareness is equivalent to 'zooming out'. I still think it's a reasonable metaphor as far as it goes, but there's an aspect missing which is crucial to practice, which we might describe as how 'tightly' the focus is being held.
In the Satipatthana Sutta - the early Buddhist discourse on the four ways of establishing mindfulness - one of the aspects in the third category of mindfulness practices is to notice whether the mind state is 'constricted'. (Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation uses the word 'contracted', and that's probably the more commonly encountered version these days, but both Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Ajahn Sujato translate it as 'constricted', and I like the mental image it gives me - of a fearsome snake wrapped around its prey gradually squeezing the life out of it - so that's the one I'll run with today.)
What does it mean for the mind to be 'constricted'? It's a little different to being 'zoomed in' (in fact, the sutta also talks about 'expansive' and 'not expansive' mind states, so it clearly isn't just a reference to having a narrow field of focus). Rather, 'constriction' is something to do with how we're holding the object of focus, whether large or small.
Pick up a small object, preferably something fairly sturdy like a pebble. Now, hold it in your clenched fist. Squeeze it! Really hold on tightly. This is a 'constricted' way of holding the pebble. It's quite unpleasant, isn't it? Now turn your hand so that the palm is facing upwards, and completely relax your grip, so that the object simply rests on your open palm. This is a 'relaxed' way of holding the pebble - and you'll probably find it's quite a lot nicer than the constricted way of holding it.
We can do the same thing with our mind. And it turns out that - unless you're particularly trying to explore what it's like to have a constricted mind - it's basically always more helpful to be relaxed.
(As I write this, I feel a little uneasy about writing such a categorical statement. So I'd encourage you to check it out for yourself! Explore what it's like for the mind to be constricted and relaxed, and see if you can find any situations where it's preferable to be constricted. If you do, leave a comment below!)
It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it
My teacher Daizan is a superb repository of pithy little phrases which seem very simple on the surface but are incredibly profound when you dig into them. One of these phrases is this: in any situation, there are two things going on - the situation itself, and our relationship to it. And while we often don't have much control over the situation, we can at least work with our relationship to it.
Some schools of meditation encourage us to try to eliminate 'negative' aspects from our experience - weeding out negative thoughts and emotions, for example. In Zen, however, we take a different approach. From the perspective of Buddha Nature, negative thoughts and emotions are just as much a totally pure, pristine manifestation of reality as anything else, and so there's no need to eliminate anything at all. What matters is not the content of our experience so much as the way we see and understand that content. Can we see even our afflictive emotions as Buddha Nature? (If not, keep practising!)
In the same way, it doesn't really matter whether our attention is focused on something large or something small - but it does matter how we're focusing. Is the attention soft and relaxed, or rigid and constricted?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about living a Zen life, bringing present-moment attention to everything we do all day long, and I mentioned Dahui Zonggao's advice to maintain the thread of one's practice throughout the day, reconnecting with it whenever there's a quiet moment. My partner subsequently pointed out that this kind of instruction, though simple and well-intentioned, can actually lead to someone getting themselves in a bit of a mess if they go about it the wrong way. (Unfortunately, I can describe this kind of mistake from personal experience!)
What happens when we notice we've become distracted? The standard instruction is to let go of the distraction and come back to the practice. So far so good, but how do you do that? It's easy to experience a moment of frustration - 'Dammit, mind wandered again!' - and in that moment of frustration, there can be a little bit of constriction in the mind, and when you return to the practice, your attention is now held just a little bit tighter than it was previously. Then, a moment later, your mind wanders again - dammit - and you come back again, gripping just a little bit more firmly again. Ten 'dammits' later and your meditation practice is starting to be a pretty unpleasant place to hang out. Your mind won't stay on the object, you don't know why, and your frustration is mounting.
Again, there's nothing wrong with experiencing frustration in meditation - it's a natural human emotion, the same as any other, just as much Buddha Nature as anything else. But equally - at least from a certain point of view - we do this practice to move ourselves in a certain direction, and repeatedly constricting the mind ain't it. So it's in our interest to be aware of this danger and practise in such a way that we don't make life harder for ourselves than it needs to be.
The importance of relaxation in practice
Many teachers strongly emphasise the importance of relaxation in practice - but if you're anything like me, it's the kind of instruction that's easily overlooked, or not understood to be of such crucial importance.
For example, when Chan master Guo Gu teaches Silent Illumination, he leads students into the practice starting with a whole-body relaxation process, and stresses the importance of physical relaxation as a continuing touchstone throughout the rest of the practice, both in stillness and in movement. (In the same vein, last time I wrote about Silent Illumination I noted that the relaxed body posture embodies the quality of mind that we're seeking to cultivate.)
My jhana teacher Leigh Brasington teaches a practice which is very different to Silent Illumination, but he also stresses the importance of relaxing. In fact, when giving the basic meditation instructions at the start of a retreat, he says that when you notice your mind has wandered, you should first consciously relax - every single time - before returning to your object.
The American teacher Bhante Vimalaramsi goes a step further in his 'Six-Rs' formula for dealing with distractions - his third step is to relax consciously, and his fourth step is to smile (technically 're-smile', so it starts with R…) - again, a smile is a physical manifestation of relaxation and deliberately cultivating a smile can help the body and mind to rest in a more relaxed state in general.
However you want to do it, relaxation is a vital part of practice - please don't neglect it.
Emptying yourself out to become free
Another mental image that came up during my retreat was of practice being a kind of emptying-out process. Life throws all kinds of stuff at us, and over time we end up carrying a great burden. Silent Illumination (and many other types of practice, such as the jhanas or the Brahmaviharas) invites us to sit quietly and begin to let go of some of that stuff - allowing it to release and dissolve, gradually emptying us out. A little practice every day helps to keep our load manageable; a retreat provides us with an opportunity to empty ourselves more profoundly, perhaps to the point that we can more easily see our true nature shining through all the junk we've piled onto it. When we leave the retreat, the stuff will start to pile up again, but over time we get better at letting it go - somehow it dissolves more efficiently, so we carry less of a burden in general and we can go deeper faster when the conditions to do so present themselves.
But we can't let go of our burdens if we're wrapped around them like a boa constrictor. If we're clinging tightly to each little bit of mental detritus, our practice may actually just remind us how much we're carrying. So it's crucially important that we're able to relax our grip - to let go of all that stuff, rather than gripping it even more tightly.
Please remember this next time you're practising and you notice that your mind has wandered. Maybe that little 'dammit!' will still slip out - but don't let that set the tone for the rest of the practice. Relax, soften, maybe even smile, and then come back to your practice. What you're doing doesn't matter nearly as much as how you're doing it - both in practice and in life.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!