The Twelfth and Thirteenth Steps

The Twelfth Step: Freeing the Mind

The twelfth step in ānāpānasati is called vimocayaṁ cittaṁ, “freeing the mind.” Here, you have an experience that you might describe afterward in two different ways, depending upon your perspective. Either you find yourself sinking or diving into the nimitta, or the nimitta with its brilliant light and ecstatic feeling completely envelops you. You don’t do this. It just happens as the natural result of letting go of all doing.

You enter the jhāna through liberating the mind. The jhānas, the Buddha said, are stages of freedom (vimokkha) (DN 15,35). Vimokkha is the same word used to describe someone who is released from jail and walks free. You may know it from the Sanskrit moksha which has the same meaning. The mind is now free. That is, free from the body and the five senses. I’m not saying the mind is floating somewhere in an out-of-body experience. You are not located in space anymore, because all experiences of space are dependent on the five senses. Here the mind is free from all of that. You’re not at all sensitive to what’s happening with the body. You’re unable to hear anything, unable to say anything. You’re blissed out yet fully mindful, still, stable as a rock. These are signs of the mind being freed. This experience becomes one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful experience, of your life.

If you get a few of these jhānas, you usually want to become a monk or a nun. The world will have less attraction for you. Relationships, the arts, music and movies, sex, fame, wealth, and so on all seem so unimportant and unattractive when compared to jhānas and the bliss of the freed mind. But there is much more than just the bliss. There is also the philosophical profundity of the experience. When you’ve spent hours in a jhāna, you can call yourself a mystic, if you like. You’ve had an experience that in all religious traditions is called a mystical experience—something far from the ordinary. The Buddha called it uttari-manussa-dhamma (MN 31,10), something that surpasses ordinary human experience. He called it the mind “gone to greatness” (mahā-ggata). He also considered the happiness of jhāna so similar to enlightenment happiness that he named it sambodhi sukha (MN 66,21). It’s a place where defilements cannot reach. So this is where Māra—the Buddhist devil—cannot reach you. You’re awakened and free during this time.

So if you develop these stages, the first twelve steps of ānāpānasati, they will lead you into jhāna.

Emerging from a Jhāna

The last four steps in the Ānāpānasati Sutta relate to the meditator who has just emerged from a jhāna. After you emerge from your first experience of jhāna you can’t help but think, “Wow, what was that?” So the first thing you should do is review the jhāna. Investigate that experience, though you will struggle to give it words. Ask yourself, How did it arise? What special thing did I do? What did it feel like in jhāna? Why did it feel like that? How do I feel now? Why is it so blissful? All these reflections will give rise to deep insight.

You’ll find that the best two words to describe why jhāna happened are “letting go.” You’ve really let go for the first time. Not letting go of what you’re attached to, but letting go of the thing doing the attaching. You’ve let go of the doer. You’ve let go of the self. It’s a difficult thing for the self to let go of the self, but through these methodical stages you’ve actually done it. And it’s bliss.

So, having reflected on the experience, you either take up satipaṭṭhāna (the focuses of mindfulness) or just go directly to the last four stages of ānāpānasati.

The Thirteenth Step: Reflecting on Impermanence

The first reflection is on anicca, usually translated as impermanence but meaning much more than this. Its opposite, nicca, is the Pāli word used to describe a thing that is regular or constant. For instance, in the Vinaya a regular supply of alms food, say from a disciple who brings food to a monastery every Tuesday, is called nicca food (Vin II,4,4,6). When that which was once constant stops, that’s anicca. What’s important to reflect upon after the deep experiences of meditation is that there was something that was so constant that you never noticed it—this thing we call a “self.” In jhāna, it disappeared! Notice that. Noticing it will convince you of the truth of no-self (anattā) so deeply that it’s very likely to give rise to the experience of stream winning.

Continued next week: 14 January 2022

The Fifth Sixth & Seventh Step

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