POSTCARD#431: Bangkok: Hello and welcome again to our study group of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. This time it begins with request for help with a perceptual difficulty I found in the last two paragraphs of last week’s study on the breath. The two paragraphs are presented under the sub-heading as follows:
Stage Four: Full Sustained Attention on the Breath (page 16 print copy)
“The fourth stage occurs when your attention expands to take in every single moment of the breath….”
The text goes on with a wonderfully detailed analysis of the breath as it’s going through a complete cycle. Maybe it’s my 24/7 headache that’s pushing me to take short cuts all the time, but I think that what Ajahn is saying here is these are the collected moments of the breath in all their stages and describing a number of breaths, not just one. The presentation is as if it were being shown in slow-motion. If the camera was shooting in ‘real time’, I would have to control my breath for as long as it takes to read the text describing the stages of the breath in its whole cycle, for say, 30 – 45 seconds. Then, without a break, to move on to the next breath cycle for the same duration. Is it possible? Is this how it seems to you? If someone could help me with this I’d be very grateful.
Now returning to our summary and analysis of the text. This where the meditator is asked to notice the following:
“Actually “you” do not reach this stage, the mind does. The mind does the work itself. The mind recognizes this stage to be a very peaceful and pleasant place to abide, just being alone with the breath. This is where the doer, the major part of one’s ego, starts to disappear. One finds that progress happens effortlessly at this stage of meditation. We just have to get out of the way, let go, and watch it all happen. The mind will automatically incline, if we only let it, toward this very simple, peaceful, and delicious unity of being alone with one thing, just being with the breath in each and every moment. This is the unity of mind, the unity in the moment, the unity in stillness.”
The Beginning of the Beautiful Breath
“The fourth stage is what I call the “springboard” of meditation, because from it one may dive into the blissful states. When we simply maintain this unity of consciousness by not interfering, the breath will begin to disappear. The breath appears to fade away as the mind focuses instead on what is at the center of the experience of breath, which is awesome peace, freedom, and bliss.”
“Now as I will explain further in the next chapter, when the breath disappears, all that is left is “the beautiful.” Disembodied beauty becomes the sole object of the mind. The mind is now taking the mind as its own object. We are no longer aware of the breath, body, thought, sound, or outside world. All that we are aware of is beauty, peace, bliss, light, or whatever our perception will later call it. We are experiencing only beauty, continuously, effortlessly, with nothing being beautiful! We have long ago let go of chatter, let go of descriptions and assessments. Here the mind is so still that it cannot say anything. One is just beginning to experience the first flowering of bliss in the mind. That bliss will develop, grow, and become very firm and strong. And then one may enter into those states of meditation called the jhānas.”
“I have described the first four stages of meditation. Each stage must be well developed before going on to the next. Please take a lot of time with these four initial stages, making them all firm and stable before proceeding. You should be able to maintain with ease the fourth stage, full sustained attention on the breath, during every moment of the breath without a single break for two or three hundred breaths in succession. I am not saying you should count the breaths during this stage; I am just giving an indication of the approximate span of time that one should be able to stay in stage four before proceeding further. In meditation, as I indicated earlier, careful patience is the fastest way!”
The fifth stage is called Full Sustained Attention on the Beautiful Breath.
“When one’s full attention rests easily and continuously on the experience of breathing with nothing interrupting the even flow of awareness, the breath
calms down. It changes from a coarse, ordinary breath to a very smooth and peaceful “beautiful breath.” The mind recognizes this beautiful breath and delights in it. It experiences a deepening of contentment. It is happy just to be watching this beautiful breath, and it does not need to be forced.”
‘“You”’ do not do anything. If you try to do something at this stage, you will disturb the whole process. The beauty will be lost. It’s like landing on a snake’s head in the game of snakes and ladders—you must go back many squares. From this stage of meditation on, the doer has to disappear. You are just a knower, passively observing. A helpful trick at this stage is to break the inner silence for a moment and gently say to yourself: “calm.” That’s all. At this stage of the meditation, the mind is usually so sensitive that just a little nudge causes it to follow the instruction obediently. The breath calms down and the beautiful breath emerges.”
Continued next week August 13 2021
I am grateful for your explorations of all of this…..mostly i find i’m happy the body doesn’t need me to pay attention to whether it’s breathing or not (!!) but when that beautiful breath happens…wonderful. Esp. now when we’re inundated in smoke and breathing itself is quite the endeavor!
Thank you so much! it really IS a matter of ..focus, i guess….and the breathing practice really is a great help with encroaching anxieties. and given that we’re all in this as One, really, people in cool places help us all! xx
Hello again K. Sorry but I seem to have deleted our recent conversations and I can’t believe the texts are gone for ever. But I remember what was said. What’s new is breathing practice is a great help with encroaching anxieties. And thanks for pointing that out, it’s something we all suffer from. Breathing through it all … it’s been said before but there’s more to explore in the Four Noble Truths for example
Indeed. and what i originally meant, really, was that with my seeming inability to COUNT to 100 breaths, it’s fantastic that my body breathes anyway! even if it hurts, like right now. *sigh*
Narrow your focus so that it’s all in a range you can manage. Try holding your attention on a breath count of 10 breaths. If that’s difficult, take it down to 5 breaths, a number that helps you understand attention. If it’s not working practice to focus attention on 3 breaths at a time. During these intervals of direct focus, recognize the sense of giving attention to something specific.
By the way you have pain when breathing, what’s going on there?
the smoke, mainly. also an unfortunate hospital event involving lung squishing. and LOL. sometimes i can’t even focus on 3 breaths what with all the stuff flying overhead now, fire tenders and ….etc.etc. life in the country! also i had been feeling pretty good about my practice so i spoze it was time for Cosmos to remind me, Hey! Beginner! actually that’s fine, too! like the story about the yogis, one under a huge tree with a zillion leaves and Supreme Being says, you have as many more lives as leaves on the tree, guy is ECSTATIC. another one, sitting, gets told he has only three to go, and he totally decompensates. all my hard work, he moans. *ahem*
I was sorry to hear of the smoke, and a hospital accident in the lung causing you discomfort when breathing. I was trying to picture your yogi bemoaning his 3 lives remaining, and if it were at the centre of your helicopter noise flying overhead and living with the state of urgency, every day, same as usual, and at as-normal-a-pace, as possible… the yogi would say one life cycle is enough… and here we give a moment’s thought to the fire-fighters who suffer this reality every day.
Yes. Firefighters are always at the top of my prayer list!!! xoxoxo
I’ve been thinking of you after hearing on international news that a small township in Northern California was destroyed in the fires. I suppose you have to think what is of value to you and what to sacrifice, relinquish let go of. And it’s the theme of this week’s text: Mindfulness bliss, and beyond
I will look forward to that, much needed! and yes, it’s something to think about- what is actually irreplaceable. i had to laugh when i found it was mostly books! and that little town was within a hundred miles of us…..anyway, our power just got turned back on so that is something to be happy about!!!!! it’s really HOT and with no electricity we have no water….ah, rural life!
Thank you for the recent posts which I am finding helpful in my own attempts at regular sitting practice.
With regard to your request for help in deciphering the paragraphs about sustained attention on the breath, I have the following thoughts/comments:
1. I feel that Ajahn is referring to a process of increased attention on each and every breath – I feel that the key word is attention.
2. Studies have shown that the human brain – through sense perception – monitors vast amounts of information. Most of this information does not register in our Self-mind, but there is evidence that we respond unconsciously to this information feed. This is particularly evident in fight or flight situations when we don’t have time to think – at a deeper level we respond to the threat “automatically.
3. What we are aware of – what the self sees – is a fraction of this information stream. I feel that what the self picks up on is the information that reinforces or challenges what that self believes to be important or real to their perceived world view. This is evident psychologically in terms of reactions made by individuals who have experienced trauma. The self reinforces a world view by maintaining a narrative which fits with that world view. I think this is largely described in the descriptions of the monkey mind analogy.
4. What is time? How can we perceive the breath in such detail as described by Ajahn? We tend to hold that time is a constant – but intuitively we all experience moments where time passes very slowly, or flies by. The speed of time passing relates to what we are doing, what we are perceiving at the time.
5. Hopefully the above points will aid in viewing Ajahn’s words to mean that we have the capacity to develop a state where we can quiet the monkey mind, and focus on one process [the breath], But we also have the capacity – through practice – to expand that attention into those realms of brain activity which are capable of taking in the minute detail of the breath process, bringing this into conscious awareness. This is an awareness perhaps greater than the “self” is capable of comprehending, but the process of working towards this and experiencing this would be significant in loosening our attachment to the limited self-view of the world around us.
I’m grateful for your explanation of Ajahn’s teaching, and notes on Self, so clearly laid out and nicely wrapped up with a brief observation on time. Thank you for making the effort to present this.