Experiencing Joy and Happiness with the Breath
POSTCARD#450: Bangkok: Continuing with our text: Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook, by Ajahn Brahm.
In the fifth step of ānāpānasati, you experience joy (pīti) along with the breath, and in the sixth step you experience happiness (sukha) along with the breath. Because joy and happiness are difficult to separate, and since they usually arrive together anyway, I will treat them as one.
As your unbroken mindfulness watches the breath calming down, joy and happiness naturally arise like the golden light of dawn on an eastern horizon. It will arise gradually but automatically because all your mental energy is now flowing into the knower and not the doer. In fact, you are doing nothing, only watching. The sure sign that you are doing nothing is the tranquillity of your breath. In the early hours of the morning it is only a matter of time until the horizon glows with the first light of day, just as when you remain still with the calm breath it is only a matter of time until joy and happiness appear in your mind. Mental energy flowing into the knower makes mindfulness full of power, and energized mindfulness is experienced as happiness and joy, (pīti-sukha).
If you reach step four and are continuously mindful of a very calm breath but see no happiness or joy, then my advice is: “Don’t panic!” Don’t spoil the natural process with your impatience. When you do anything at this stage you just delay, or even prevent, the arrival of happiness and joy. Instead just deepen the experience of the continuous calm breath. Are you fully aware of the peaceful breath, or have interruptions crept in? Perhaps the lack of progress is because you are not continually mindful of only the breath. Has your breath stopped growing calmer? Perhaps the breath isn’t peaceful enough yet. If so, give it more time. This is a natural process completely independent of you. When mindfulness rests comfortably on the breath without any interruptions, and the sensation of breath becomes calmer and calmer, then happiness and joy will always arise.
It helps if you are able to spot pīti-sukha early. To do this you have to be familiar with what you are looking for. The happiness and joy that are associated with tranquillity can start off as extremely subtle. It is like someone who prefers hard rock attending a performance of classical music by Mahler, and who can’t comprehend why the audience pays good money to listen to such stuff. They just don’t get it. Or like the person who usually eats at cheap diners going for the first time to a five-star French restaurant and not appreciating the cuisine because their palate is too coarse.
As you meditate more and more, you become a connoisseur of tranquil mind states and will naturally apprehend the arrival of joy and happiness at an increasingly early stage.
The fulfilment of these fifth and sixth steps of ānāpānasati is precisely the same as reaching the stage of full sustained awareness of the beautiful breath in my basic method of meditation. The beauty of the breath at this stage is my way of describing the experience of joy and happiness. The breath at this stage appears so still and tranquil and beautiful, more attractive than a garden in springtime, or a sunset in summer, and you wonder if you will ever want to look at anything else.
The Seventh Step
Experiencing the Breath as a mind object
As the breath becomes ever more beautiful, as the joy and happiness grow in quiet strength, your breath may appear to completely disappear. In Chapter two I described this as the breath dropping away from the beautiful breath leaving only the beautiful. I also gave the example of the Grinning Cheshire Cat (Alice in Wonderland), who gradually disappeared leaving only the grin’ to depict this event. This precisely describes the passage from stage five and sixth, experiencing joy and happiness with the breath to stage seven where the breath is known only as a mind object.
To clarify this transition, I invoke the Buddha’s analysis of consciousness into the six sense bases (SN 35) – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and the mind base of knowing. In the early stages of meditation you abandon seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting to the point where these four sense bases completely shut down for a while. Then you let go of most of the activity of the fifth sense base, touching, by focusing on the touch (physical sensation) of the breath to the exclusion of everything else. The sixth sense base, the mind, is operating throughout. As you pass into this seventh step. Touching, now shuts down to leave only the sixth sense base, the mind, to know the breath. You are now experiencing the breath through a new sense base.
Imagine an old friend, fuzzy-haired and bearded, who usually goes around in ordinary old clothes. Then he is ordained as a Buddhist monk. When you first see him in the monastery, you probably won’t recognize him with his bald head and robes. But it is the same old friend regardless. He appears different in the new setting, that’s all. In the same way, your old friend the breath usually goes around dressed in the sensations of touch and is recognized mainly through the fifth sense base. In the seventh step of ānāpānasati, your breath has transcended the world of the five sense bases, in particular the fifth sense base, and is now to be known only through the sixth sense, as a mind object. This is why the Buddha called this step experiencing the citta- sankhāra, the mind object.
So if your breath seems to disappear at this stage, be reassured that this is meant to happen, and don’t go disturbing the process by searching here and there for the previous perception of the breath. Instead, when the breath seems to disappear, ask yourself what is left? If you have followed the instructions carefully, the breath will only seem to disappear after happiness and joy have been established, and so what is left is happiness and joy. Your mindfulness has to be subtle and still to recognise this fine object at first, but with the familiarity born of long experience, the insight will come to you that this subtle happiness and joy is your old friend the breath, only now experienced as a mind object.
If you are unable to remain with this mind object, it is because there was insufficient joy and happiness before you let the fifth sense base shut down. You should train in cultivating a very beautiful breath with heaps of joy and happiness before you let the fifth sense base shut down. Then you will have a stronger mind object to watch. However, with much practice, you will know what you are looking for at step seven, the mindfulness will be more deft at holding subtle levels of happiness and joy, and you will be able to let go of the fifth sense base earlier and still be able to hold the weaker mental object.
Continued next week: 24 December 2021