The Third and Fourth Step

The Third Step: Experiencing the Whole of the Breath (sabba-kaya-patisamvedi)

You are aware of the in-breath from the very start when it arises out of the stillness. You see the sensations of inbreathing evolve in every moment, reaching its peak and then gradually fading away until it has completely subsided. You have such a degree of clarity that you even see the space, the pause between the in-breath and the next out-breath. Your mind has the attentiveness of a cat waiting for a mouse, as you wait for the next out-breath to begin. Then you observe the first stirrings of the out-breathing. You watch its sensations evolve, changing with every moment, until it too reaches a peak and then enters into its decline before fading into nothingness again. Then you observe the pause, the space between the out-breath and the subsequent in-breath. When the process is repeated breath after breath, you have fulfilled the third step, experiencing the whole breath.

In a classic Indian text the Mahabharata, there is an illustrative story of a teacher and his three students that I adapt as an explanation for this third step of ānāpānasati. The teacher was training his students in meditation using archery as the means. Having taught his three disciples a long time, he gave them a test to reveal their capabilities. He took a bird, a stuffed doll not a real bird, and carefully secured it to a branch of a tree a long distance from his students. It would take an awesome level of skill to pierce the bird with an arrow from such a distance. But the teacher made it almost impossible when he instructed his students: “I do not want you to hit that bird anywhere on its body. To pass this test, your arrow will have to pierce the left eye of the bird. That is the target.”

He gave the bow and single arrow to the first student and told him that he must meditate first, make his mind one with the target, and only then shoot the arrow. The student was told to take as much time as he liked, but before releasing the arrow he must give a sign to his teacher. Thirty minutes later the first student gave the sign that he was ready to shoot. The teacher told him to wait a few more seconds and asked: “Can you see the bird on the tree? Without breaking his concentrated gaze, the student said, “Yes.” At this the teacher pushed the student aside, grabbed the bow and arrow, and said: “You stupid student! Go back and learn how to meditate.” He handed the bow and arrow to his second student and gave him the same instructions. This student took a whole hour before giving the teacher the sign that he was ready to shoot. “Can you see the bird on the tree?” asked the teacher. “What tree?” replied the student. The teacher then asked hopefully: “Can you see the bird?” The student replied: “Oh yes.” Then the disappointed teacher shoved the second student aside, snatched the bow and arrow away, and told the second student to go learn how to meditate properly.

Finally he gave the bow and single arrow to his third student with the same instructions. The student took a whole two hours meditating, making his mind one with the target, the left eyeball of the bird. Then he gave the sign that he was ready to shoot. The teacher asked, “Can you see the bird on the tree?” The student replied, “What tree?” The teacher then asked, “Can you see the bird?” The student replied, “What bird?” The teacher then started to smile and then continued, “What can you see?” Without averting his gaze, the student replied, “Master, all I can see is an eyeball that’s all.” “Cool” said the teacher. “Shoot.” And, of course, the arrow went straight through the only thing that remained within the student’s awareness.

The story is an accurate simile on how to achieve the third step of ānāpānasati, the experience of the whole breath. Just as the third student focused his whole mind on the target, for him the left eyeball of the bird, so you focus your whole attention on the third step of ānāpānasati, for you the experience of the whole breath. When you have accomplished this third step, if you were to ask yourself, “Can you hear sounds?” you would answer, “What sounds?” “Can you feel the body?” – “What body?” “What can you see?” – “Only the breath happening now.” Cool.

The Fourth Step: Calming the Breath

When you are comfortably at one with the breath, it will calm down automatically. There is so little remaining to disturb your progress that you naturally experience the sensations in each moment becoming softer and smoother, like a piece of rough denim changing into fine satin. Or you may assist this process by interrupting the inner silence for a few moments and suggesting to yourself “calm, calm, calm.” Then you return to silently experiencing only the breath again. By doing this you are instructing the gatekeeper as was described in chapter 5.

If you jump to the fourth step too soon, you will fall prey to sloth and torpor (the third of the Five Hindrances). You must capture a wild horse before you can train it, in the same way you must capture the whole breath, fulfilling step three, before you attempt to calm it down.

Meditators who have achieved step three by using their willpower find it impossible to call or soften their breath. They have been striving instead of letting go and now they are blocked. When you are holding a flower you should never grasp it tightly, or you will destroy it. Delicate objects require a delicate touch. To hold the calm breath in the middle of mindfulness for many minutes, you require a very refined mind. Such a refinement of attention is only achieved through gentle and persistent letting go; it is never attained through the brute force of sheer willpower.

When a carpenter begins to saw a piece of wood he can see the whole saw from the handle to the tip of the saw blade. As he concentrates on the cut, the attention focuses closer and closer on the point where the saw touches the wood. The handle and tip of the saw soon disappear from his vision. After a while all he can see is the one sawtooth that is in contact with the wood, whereas all the teeth from the left to the right are beyond his range of perception. He does not know, nor does he need to know, whether that sawtooth is at the beginning, middle, or end of the blade. Such concepts have been transcended. This is the simile of the saw.

In the same way, at this fourth step, you will only know this bit of breath happening now. You simply do not know whether it is an in-breath, out-breath, beginning, middle, or end. As your breath calms down your breath becomes so refined that all you know is this one moment of breath.

Text continued Friday 17 December 2021

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