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!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!