—a guided tour
I’d like to introduce a fun place to hang out. It can be challenging to get to, initially. Sometimes on the way there something swoops past, grabs us, throws us in the trunk carries us off in the opposite direction. Often in the beginning we lose track of our destination. It’s been said, if we don’t remember where we are going we’ll probably end up someplace else. But once there, we can always get back. So let’s go!
My happy place has four doorways. The first door, a step away from ordinary day-to-day consciousness is opened by catching a ride on the breath. The Buddha claims this practice alone is a gateway to enlightenment (Anapana Sati.) The key is simply to be aware when we are breathing-in that we are breathing-in and when we are breathing-out that we are breathing-out. As basic as it sounds, this has several profound and immediate benefits.
For example, while we are aware of a physical sensation of breath we must be in the now and we aren’t trapped in a thought. (A mustache is a good place to watch this sensation for us hirsute types, the opening of the nostrils for those less fortunate.) It doesn’t mean we can’t be trapped by thought —just at this moment, attending breath, we assuredly are not. This is important because a few seconds after the moment, we will likely be snatched away again by thought. Especially starting out. And we will have to remember that we are watching our breath and when we come back, after the few seconds or minutes that we take to remember, we just label the whole abduction: “thought.” As if its whole drama, story and urgency is just a simple glitch. Which it is. And by doing so we get familiar with how we get swept up in our “thinking” and how to escape back to a landing point. Breath becomes our refuge. We become Houdini.
To escape being absorbed by thought we focus on breathing. This doesn’t mean thoughts will all disappear. In fact, at first there will be a tug of war —-breath, thought, breath, thought, thought, thought, er, oh yeah, breath. And later thoughts will continue in the background but, with practice, they won’t carry us away. It’s like when we are listening to someone talk but are also aware of street noise outside. If our attention flickers from conversation to a particular noise, pulling it to the foreground, then it’s likely we’ll miss what is being said. The same with breath. So the goal is not to eliminate all background stimuli, just don’t let them steal center stage. Breath is foreground. The mind might still be partying in the background, but you’ve left the room.
After crossing this first doorway, and attending our breathing uninterrupted for several breaths, we may start noticing this is a very peaceful place! We’re not riding in the stampede of thoughts searching for or reacting to what we should, could, would be doing. To why we aren’t there yet, what we need to prepare for or what we could have/should have done when. All those thoughts and feelings telling us constantly that right now is not ok, not yet complete and not sufficient. Without all these pushy interlopers, we pause and notice things are perfectly ok, there is nothing that needs done right now (and if there is, that’s just a thought.) That this moment is complete. A fine refuge and place of healing. And that’s just the first door. It gets even better.
Even the first door can have lasting impact as it starts to free and introduce us to a space between awareness and thought. Usually we are so absorbed we believe and act most of the time as if we were laminated to our thoughts. They are right in our face. We gain a small but decisive insight that we may be something apart. We might already think we know this intellectually, but experiencing it begins to free something vital.
But back to the doors. Once we’ve gained a little wiggle room and we’re hanging out without being dragged through the mill of thoughts. Hanging out with the breath like resting on a big rock in a raging river. And those thought mills may still be working, but now just in the background. They can’t latch on to us. If they do, we slip our way back to breath and freedom. To solid ground. Where a second door is waiting.
Traversing doors doesn’t have to be a long drawn out process. If we’ve managed to stay with the breath through half a dozen cycles we can try the next door. And with each door, once we can hold our space there for even a few minutes, we can move to the next. On the other hand, sometimes I hang out at the first door for the whole time. This helps me hold the space longer in the other doors in the future.
If we look around here we may notice that when we’re not absorbed in thinking our natural state is kind of nice. We may find a mildly pleasant sensation in the body that can come in different forms. Maybe a feeling of relief, relaxation, tranquility or even love. It may be different things at different times but it will be positive and when we find it we can shift awareness to rest with it like we are doing with the breath. This is the second door.
For some meditative traditions which emphasize concentration, on things like the breath, these pleasant states are encouraged and pursued all the way to complete immersion into blissful realms called the Jhanas. We won’t visit there this excursion. It has a long and fascinating history, but there’s another couple of doors to cover yet.
Before visiting the third door, note that while this practice is really refined during periods of sitting meditation, it’s useful, and necessary to take these tools and states on the road, out into daily life. This happens naturally with the breath meditation. We find ourselves less and less caught up in our own stories. Not because we are detached, or the feelings and thoughts are muted in any way, but because there starts to be a larger space they unfold within. And letting go of annoying, reactive thinking, returning to the breath and dropping down into a nice feeling is a cool resource to carry with us throughout the day. It certain beats a smoke break.
The third door drops deeper down into whatever positive feeling we are experiencing, all the way to the basement of the feeling where all these feelings share one thing in common: a deep sense of stillness. And somehow, this becomes even better than bliss and pleasant feelings. Especially as we start finding this stillness outside of meditation as it flowers more and more into our daily lives spontaneously. Through this door background sounds and thoughts and activities can be going full blast, we don’t block them out or try to suppress them, but nothing “sticks” … the experience of stillness in the presence of unruly background thoughts and disturbances feels something like this video:
Of major help in reaching this stillness of mind is an absolute stillness of body and posture.
Another clue is one of the many simple but profound statements of the Buddha: “a meditator who makes letting go the main object easily achieves samādhi”
The fourth and final door: the “no-thing” that’s “going to change our world.” (see the video above :)) Once practice has separated awareness from thought just a sliver, we can find bliss and sink into stillness. These doors, incidental, pass through two major approaches to meditation: samatha, a concentration practice, leading up to the jhanas and vipassana which is that stillness and presence as everything flows by.
The final door happens to be yet another branch of the contemplative practices called self inquiry.
In the stillness, notice that we (or something) are/is aware. And ask what is this anyway?! Don’t try to answer, especially not with a thought. Just use the question to keep attention honed on the feeling, nature, extent, shape and anything else you can grok without description about the nature of this most amazing experience of simply being aware. This is the discipline of self-inquiry, and its core question is: who am I? Not “I” as a personality or history, but I as simply an awareness. Or as it says in the Bible: “Be still and know that I AM.”
Passing through these doors, we can still be captured. By thought or stimuli, inside or out, coming back into the foreground. But we become more and more skillful by returning each time: anchoring in the breath, dropping down into a good feeling and deeper into stillness where we can then explore the nature of awareness itself.
The feeling simply hanging out in these lower doors, is often of a type of transmutation occurring in the very fabric of our experiences, beliefs and outlook on life. It’s an alchemical state. There’s also a branch of healing unlocked solely by stillness. The sequence of doors progresses through every major tradition of meditation designed for liberation of mind. That wasn’t by plan, the path developed organically, it just seemed to work out that way. So even for homegrown, we’ve got that going for us.
These are directions to my happy place. And probably your happy place too if you try it out. It seems to be a well-trodden path based on all the intersections with traditions. Let’s hang out there together sometime.