The practices that we receive from the Asian traditions of Buddhism are the product of literally hundreds of years of experience and refinement. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate the many dimensions of even a simple practice. I discuss here one framework for understanding what is important in practice and then apply it to our practice of returning attention to the breath.
The framework is found in many arenas. We’ll call it the four ways of working or the four dimensions of presence: power, ecstasy, insight, and compassion.
Power is the ability to stay present in action. It is one thing to be present when there is nothing going on. It is a different matter to stay present when we are in motion. Many people say to me that they are caught up by the demands of their lives and find themselves reacting to events and situations. The reactions tend to be habitual and have less to do with the actual circumstances and more to do with what buttons are being pushed. Power means the ability to act appropriately even when our buttons are being pushed. Internally, it means that we can cut through the tendencies that pull us back into distraction.
Ecstasy is the ability to open to experience. When people are introduced to this aspect of practice, they often remember how they used to do the same thing when they were a child, quite naturally, without any instruction. In other cases, they realize that that open way of experiencing the world comes to them effortlessly when they are out in nature. The ecstatic quality also arises when we fall in love. The sight, sound or memory of the other causes us to open to the world and everything we experience is wonderful. We often feel only that person or that environment can give rise to the sensation. However, it is possible to experience anything ecstatically.
Insight is the ability to see into what is arising. When we see into things, we see more clearly what is going on. Externally, this means that we can see the deeper patterns operating in a situation. Our responses are then more in tune with what is going on. An effective teacher can see what prevents a student from learning something and fashion their efforts accordingly. Internally, insight is the ability to see into what is going on in ourselves. At first it allows us to see through the clouds of thoughts to the physical sensations that accompany them. As we continue, we see and experience the feelings that are at the basis of the thoughts and physical reactions. As we continue further, we see that all experience is groundless, and we begin to appreciate that our true nature is this open, clear awareness that abides nowhere.
Compassion is the ability to let go. Almost always it is an attachment to some kind of agenda, some kind of investment, some kind of self-interest, that prevents us from being present. In everyday affairs, in personal interactions, a little less self-defensiveness can go a long way toward smoother, more effective, and more meaningful interactions. Frequently, people who have been practicing for a few months come to me impatient with the rate of progress in their meditation. “My mind is just as active as it was when I started,” they say. “In fact, it is worse, there are more thoughts than even before and I feel that I’m getting nowhere.” When I ask them how their life is going, they are usually surprised to hear themselves saying that it is going very well, they are having better relationships with their spouse, friends, coworkers, even difficult supervisors or employees. While they may not have noticed it, all the practice of letting go of thinking and coming back to the breath has begun to show up in their daily life. The reactivity doesn’t operate quite so quickly and just that little bit of letting go makes a difference. As we deepen our relationship with compassion, we become less and less reactive and more and more responsive. In Buddhist thought, compassion is the natural expression of the open, clear awareness that is our birthright.
Meditation: Returning to the Breath
When we begin to practice, we find is that our mind is filled with thoughts. Or, as some teachers describe it, our mind is like a monkey, dancing around from one thought to another. Where do we start? Our first effort is best made with power: we attempt to remain present in action. A sword is often used as a symbol for power, the idea of cutting through. We cut through the confusion. We do this by simply returning our attention to the breath as soon as we are aware that we have been distracted. Before we notice we are distracted, there is nothing we can do, we are lost. The moment we notice, we are no longer distracted. We now make the effort to stay present in action. Without waiting for the next thought, without indulging ourselves in self-recrimination, self-pity, frustration, impatience, or any other reflection, we return our attention to the breath. Another aspect of power is that once our objective is achieved, we don’t take further action. None is necessary. Once we have returned to the breath, we don’t try to concentrate harder, we don’t try to be even more with it, we just rest with it.
As we cut through our confusion over and over again, returning to the breath, we find that a whole realm of experience begins to open up to us: thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, sounds, images, memories. Our conditioned tendency is to regard some of these as good and some as bad. Through power, we have established a place for our attention to rest. Now we make an effort in ecstasy: we open to the world of sensations. There are many ways to do this, but let me mention two. The first is to learn to include other experiences in our attention while it rests on the breath. The operative term here is include. As we rest our attention on the breath, we become aware of other sensations. While we keep our attention on the breath, we include those sensations. The second is contained in the instruction, “Let your mind be like the sky.” The idea here is that the sky accepts everything yet is disturbed by nothing. Fog, clouds, rain, storms, wind, hurricanes, anything can arise, yet the sky is never disturbed. When we cultivate this very open inclusive quality, we will find that thoughts and feelings don’t distract us. They arise, they go.
Insight is a little trickier because we easily associate the idea of seeing into with analyzing. Analysis is death here. When we analyze our experience during meditation, we have simply returned to the thinking mind and are lost in distraction. To make an effort with insight means to look at what arises and see what it is, not what it is about. There is a crucial difference. We simply look at, say, a thought, or a feeling. The extra energy involved in the looking often is sufficient to counteract the tendency to be distracted by the thought or feeling, and we find that it simply disappears. Poof! And we rest.
Finally, we come to compassion, letting go. Compassion is necessary right from the beginning, but it is also the culmination of our efforts. To wield the sword of power, to open to the richness of ecstasy, to look into feelings all require a letting go of habituated patterns and tendencies. When we use compassion, our effort now is of just letting go wherever we feel we are holding on. If we are holding onto a thought, an idea, a mental or emotional posture, we just let it go and return to the breath. As we stabilize our experience of attention resting with the breath, we begin to feel a sense of presence, of just being there. Almost immediately, a sense of “I can do this” arises. We let that movement go, too. As Suzuki Roshi says, “When a gaining idea arises in our practice, it is a sign that our practice is in trouble.” As we let go of the idea of “me being present with the breath” we find ourselves resting more completely. The less effort, the more resting? And here is where we begin to trust the power of presence itself: just let ourselves be there without any gaining idea.
In practice, we need to develop all four of these abilities. As we learn to apply them in connection with our meditation, we may notice that the same abilities begin to manifest in our daily life.