06 Existential Relaxation - Asanga's practice of Mindfulness of Breathing

01 Apr 2016

Alan starts highlighting the deep similarities between the approach to Mindfulness of Breathing taught by Asanga and a practice many of us are familiar with, Settling the Mind in its Natural State. We will do this practice later in a few days, but briefly, in this practice, we single-pointedly focus our attention on the space of the mind and sustain the flow of mindfulness “without distraction and without grasping”. Yangthang Rinpoche, great master and great adept, explained this phrase: “without distraction” refers to not getting distracted by any external appearances, away from the meditative object; “without grasping” refers to not identifying with any subjective processes like thinking, imagining, desiring and so on. For that, we first have to be relaxed down to the core ­– existentially relaxed. Then, enhancing stability and clarity, imbued with loving kindness, we watch our minds heal. Alan realized vividly that, in this Asanga practice of Mindfulness of Breathing, the same is happening in the body. We bring the same quality of awareness – without distraction, without grasping – cultivating the simultaneity of stillness of awareness and motion - fluctuations of prana in the body. The body balances itself, from breath to breath, from coarse breath to subtle breath, coarse tuning to fine tuning. And if we sustain this practice enough, when we achieve shamatha, then we finally upgrade the whole system.

The meditation is on Mindfulness of Breathing combined with the theme of stillness and motion.

In this practice we cultivate the simultaneity of stillness and motion: the awareness of stillness of your awareness and the motion of the fluctuations of prana within your body, from breath to breath. Same quality of awareness, different field.

Meditation starts at 13:45

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[0:04] So it struck me that this approach to mindfulness of breathing encouraged by or explained by Asanga, really bears some very remarkable and I think deep similarities with the practice I think most of us, perhaps all of us, are familiar with, namely, settling the mind in its natural state. So just to allude to that briefly. Some people listening by podcast may not be familiar. This is explained in especially in Stilling the Mind in the book, Stilling the Mind, there’s a very detailed explanation on this. We will get to this practice of course later in this retreat but just a brief reference to it, a kind of refresher and then, and that is, this one practice which is very simple, and the method remains homogeneous all the way through, right. That the core of that is to single-pointedly focus your awareness on the space of the mind, whatever arises within it, and the pith instructions within that context are to sustain the flow of mindfulness without distraction, without grasping, [ Tibetan 1:09]. It’s so much easier to say it in Tibetan, [Tibetan 1:11]. Only 4 syllables. [ Tibetan] - not distracted. [ Tibetan 1:19], no grasping. And again from some recent teachings from Yangthang Rinpoche, great great adept, he clarified that single phrase with reference to being not distracted, that you are not distracted away to any appearances outside of the target, outside of your meditative object, right. And the [? Tibetan 1:42],the not grasping or without gasping, no grasping specifically refers to not grasping onto identifying with any of the projected mental processes coming up, the thinking, the desiring, the remembering, the imagining, emoting and all of that, which is so easy to identify with.

Well, you have to be so relaxed at your core ... truly, it’s a type of an existential relaxation. It’s not a technique, not a gimmick, “oh, relax, ok, I am relaxed.” This is relaxed right down to your core, you know. The kind of relaxation that you can pass through death fearlessly, that kind of relaxation. That’s existential relaxation, right? Right to the core. That’s what’s necessary here, it actually is. So then we can see if that’s what we mean by relaxation then this is every bit as much a challenge, as enhancing stability all the way to shamatha, enhancing clarity all the way to shamatha, enhancing relaxation all the way to the ninth stage. Then finished. Finished with effort, right? [2:40]

So that’s it, but now what is the ... again … the nature of this practice? Is it’s doing double duty, performing two functions quite different, at the same time, with the same method. And that is, on one hand, this is a shamatha method like focusing on a rock or a buddha image, or anything else. It’s the old good fashioned shamatha method designed to enhance these three qualities of shamatha. But on the other hand, bringing this quality of awareness to the mind enables the mind to heal itself, to balance itself, to unknot itself. We have many metaphors of knots unraveling themselves; the snake tied to knots unravelling itself, and you are watching it happen, you are watching it happen, you are watching the neuroses come up, your resentments coming up, craving, lust, attachment, arrogance and so forth. And you are seeing it come up and when it comes up within this field, where it’s clearly illuminated by your awareness and again a kind of space of loving presence, you know. This is not antiseptic. This is not clinical. This is not cold and aloof. This whole practice should be an expression of loving kindness at least for yourself, and then of course since we don’t exist in isolation, loving kindness for yourself in inter relationship with everyone else. And just push that to the limit and of course it’s fused by bodhicitta. It’s there in the background. As they say in Tibetan, your practice is imbued with bodhicitta or at least imbued with loving kindness. [4:19]

So it is a loving presence, and in that quality, free of distraction, free of grasping, then you watch your mind heal, but bear in mind, I think it virtually never, virtually it never happens homogeneously. Like you know it’s better at the end of the session than at the beginning, better today than it was yesterday ...and it goes smooth every way, and in every way and every day I am getting better and better and better. You know, well, you may be, but that is not what it feels like, right? This practice, and some of you are old timers, you know the stuff it catalyses, that it brings to mind, and that’s what it needs to do. So it’s going to be bumpy. It’s going to be not homogeneous. It’s never a smooth curve. At last virtually never. So some days after you’ve been practising for months, it may feel like the worst day you’ve ever had in your life. And the next 2 days may be the best you’ve had in your life and then it’s back to the drawing board, just doing your work.

But if you watch the progression and again in this sustained environment, it’s like going to the hospital and staying there until you are well, go to the infirmary until you are well, go into retreat until you are well. In that conducive environment, good companions, good teacher, everything good good good, and then you watch that, and of course how you come out, is with shamatha, the five obscurations subdued and the trait effects really quite marvellous and then now you’re healthy. Now you are no longer indebted, sick, in chains, enslaved and lost in a desert track. That is good, that’s got to be good. So that’s just a brief review of the practice we will look into much more carefully later on. [5:58]

But now really what’s struck me, and kinda more vividly than ever before, kind of like , oh, 20-20, this is what’s happening in the body. When we are doing this practice, we are bringing the same quality of awareness to this field of the body that we will later bring to the field of the mind. It is again without distraction, without grasping in the same way, in each of these practices you are cultivating the simultaneity of stillness and motion, the awareness of stillness of your own awareness and here the motions of these fluctuations of prana within your body, from breath to breath. Same quality of awareness, different field, right? [6:39]

But now as you are watching this with this loving presence, but discerning mindfulness, then the Buddha says when your in-breath is long, note that it is long, when the out-breath is long, note it’s long, when the in-breath is short, note that it’s short, when the out-breath is short, note that it’s short. Here’s i my experience, I don’t know how universal it is, but I know it’s true for one person. And that is, when one sets out into this practice, it’s really like there’s coarse tuning and fine tuning. And the progression from coarse to subtle is really evident or crops up many times in buddhism, that you work from the coarse and you move to the subtle. The four applications of mindfulness. The easiest thing to attend to is your body, and then OK feelings, mental and physical, that’s subtler, than mental states, that’s subtler, and then these profound interrelationships of phenomena altogether, OK, subtler. So it goes from coarse to subtle, and here it goes from the coarse breathing to subtle breathing, right. [7:42]

But again, I think, in a very close parallel, and that is, as you are settling the mind in its natural state, you don’t just find your mind getting calmer happier peaceful peaceful peaceful super super super duper and then you achieve shamatha. It is a very bumpy road with these upheavals, outer, inner and secret. Upheavals. Peppering your path, potholing your path, boulders in your path, you know, and it’s not obstacles, it’s what needs to come up. They are not obstacles, it’s part of the practice, integral to the practice, don’t run away, right. [8:14]

But similarly, as you are attending these fluctuations of the breath and movements of the body corresponding to its kind of primal rhythm here, of the respiration. On some occasions you may find the breath is really long and it goes on long and long like as if you are panting, as if you are running or something. On occasion, you may find really deep breaths, not hysterical, nothing really wild, but deep breaths going on and on, and you are just hanging out there and watching, OK, it’s deep breaths. In long, out long. And then on occasion, you might find it’s in short, out long, in short, out long, in short, how’s that happening? It happens. Sometimes it’s long in and short out, and that happens. Sometimes it goes long long long then short short short. And then long long long, and then short short short.This is what I would call the coarse tuning, the coarse tuning, and just don’t mess with it, don’t mess with it. The body mind system is balancing itself and it’s smarter than you are, smarter than your intelligence, smarter than your ego. Don’t mastermind it, don’t override it, you’ll not do it as well. From breath to breath, the body knows. I mean I am speaking metaphorically, but the body knows, the body will take what it needs and give back what it doesn’t. And then there may come a time when it’s subtle subtle subtle, subtle subtle subtle, that is short short short short short. That may be, but just check it out, all I know is my experience. But it may slip into a cycle, something like 15 per minute. And when that happens, then attending to the whole body one breathes in, attending the whole body one breathes out, the third phase.[10:02]

Now you’re going to flow, now stay with it, now do not be distracted, now remain continuously engaged because the fine tuning is taking place. You’ve slipped into another mode of tuning. This is the fine tuning. And that’s just going to get finer. That gets kind of homogeneous. Because in my experience, limited experience, it does not get, you know, 15 cycles, 20 cycles, 25 cycles per minute. It pretty much stays at 15. I am not saying that’s right. I am not saying that’s good. I am just saying that what’s I found. But what I do find is it doesn’t just get shorter and shorter and shorter. The amplitude gets smaller and smaller, and then it’s finer and finer and finer tuning. Until you come to the actual achievement of shamatha, and then you have this extravaganza, this major shift, unprecedented shift of the pranas, which now shifts you. It is really a psychological shift of your bases. And Tsongkhapa and others emphasise, this is the big deal about shamatha. Why don’t I just hang out in stage eight? It’s really, really good samadhi. Yeah, it is. It really is really good samadhi. But you haven’t made that shift yet. That shift of pliancy, buoyancy, [? Tibetan 11:15] that hasn’t happened yet, you’ve have spikes of it but it’s not been stabilized. And that occurs only when you cross that threshold and now you’ve kind of retuned or again to use a silly metaphor, you’ve just upgraded your whole system. I just got another update on my iPhone this morning, OK, and now presumably, the system is better, I guess. I just said, yes, I accept whatever it is, oh yeah, I read that, oh yeah, we all read that, sure, accept, [laughs]. If I am screwed, I am screwed. I am taking refuge in Apple [laughter]. 'cos I don’t know what I just accepted. I don’t have a clue. I just hope it doesn’t you know, zap my brain in the middle of the night whatever and I become an Apple zombie. [11:27]

And so there it is, there it is. This turns out ... amazingly, the simple practice of settling the mind, so simple, so profound, it takes your breath away. Eventually. [laughter]. Not too soon and then mindfulness of breathing, what’s simpler than that? I mean, breathe in long, breathe in short, I got it, you know, and yet the profundity of it is just amazing. And yet it’s not the profundity of the technique. The technique is still simple. Simple. So where’s the profundity? Well we know where the profundity is, it is in the body, it is in the mind, okay but now where’s the profundity? It is in your buddha nature. That’s ... what’s the source of healing? What is the source of virtue? what is the source of genuine happiness? Not DNA, not neurons, not prana. [snaps fingers?] there. So let’s go in. [13:33]

Meditation session.

Bell rings [14:24].

[14:53 ] Letting your awareness descend into the body right down to the ground. Settle your body, speech and mind in the their natural state. [Silence]

[16:56] As you engage in any shamatha practice, it’s imperative to have a crystal clear understanding - what is the object of mindfulness. If your conceptual understanding is vague, your practice will be sloppy. So in this practice your focus of mindfulness is the space of your body, and within that space, fluctuations of prana corresponding to respiration. The quality of awareness we bring to it is discerning mindfulness, cognizant, clear, and aware of the duration of each in-breath, each out-breath, noting quietly without mental conversation whether it’s long or short.

[18:13] You know that when you practice settling the mind in its natural state and come to its culmination, you actually achieve shamatha by that means. Your five senses are totally withdrawn into the mind and within the space of the mind, all the appearances subside. And you are attending to an empty space before you invert your awareness in upon itself. Similarly here we are attending to the space of the body. And we follow this to the end, to the fourth dhyana. The senses of course are withdrawn entirely. And even the rhythm of the respiration goes flat as breathing ceases in the fourth dhyana. There is a strong parallel there. We are watching the system of the body calm more and more deeply, till all pertubations, all fluctuations of the respiration disappear.

[20:36] While mindfulness is single-pointedly focusing on these fluctuations corresponding to the respiration, we of course must be aware, peripherally, of the arising of thoughts, memories, desires and so on, but only insofar as we note them and release them. We don’t take an interest in them, we don’t follow them, we don’t shift our focus over to them. We note them enough, but we’re not carried away by them, we don’t identify with them. And we release them as soon as they arise, as soon as we note them, we release them without a second thought, with no further attention, as we are fully occupied, attending to the meditative object.

[22:15] Finally there is a point from Buddhist epistemology and that is whenever we are aware of anything, a physical object, a thought, anything else, in that very moment that we are aware of something else, we are also aware of being aware. It’s built into the system. It’s not voluntary. So it is true here, as we are attending to the fluctuations of prana within the body corresponding to the respiration, there is at the same time an awareness of being aware of those fluctuations. So rest in that stillness, of the awareness of being aware of the breath. Rest there without movement and simultaneously be aware of the movement of the respiration throughout the entire field of the body.

[24:34] So over the coming weeks, we will gradually move inwards. Now the centre of attention is the breath. And in good time, we will shift the centre of our gravity of awareness to the space of the mind and the events taking place there, while the sensations of the breath will be peripheral, secondary. And then we’ll go even more inwards, awareness of awareness, or even the activities of the mind, even the space of the mind is peripheral, as we rest in the core, coarse to subtle.

[26:20] And then we have the final point and that is this introduction ofthe oscillation, or the alternating cycle taught by Padmasambhava. We can of course in this, or in any other shamatha practice,simply apply pressure, fasten the attention upon the meditative object and keep it there homogeneously for as long as possible. But for many people if they do that, the longer they do it the more exhausted they become. They get drained over time, fresh at the beginning, not so fresh after half an hour, an hour, two hours. But in this method taught by Padmasambhava, there is this oscillation, this alternating, in this case the arousing, focusing, concentrating during the in-breath, and then relaxing deeply with every out-breath. It is really a matter of breaking up a 24-minute session into many short sessions, with only seconds for each cycle. And the time of exertion is very brief, maybe 2 seconds, maybe 4 or 5, but then you take a break, you relax, you release, you’re on vacation. And then another short session, focusing focusing, but only a matter of seconds and then relaxing. Many short sessions, but each one with a break and during the break just gently sustaining the flow of mindfulness of the meditative object.

[28:37] This might be likened to electricity, direct current and alternating current. It turns out that alternating current is much more effective. Experiment for yourself the direct current, of simply focusing focusing for the whole session or the alternating current, focusing, and release. But throughout the cycle, sustaining the flow of non-conceptual cognizance of the duration of each in and out-breath. Let’s continue practicing now in silence.

Bell rings [37:13].

[37:45] Oh la so. So in the spirit of full disclosure, the comments I made prior to the session, drawing out or suggesting there are some profound parallels between these two practices, Asanga’s approach to mindfulness of breathing, and then the practice of settling the mind in its natural state, at that point, and then the whole issue of long and short, and then short short short, then coarse and subtle refinement, that point, and then also this from outer inner to innermost or secret, as we shift from mindfulness of breathing over time we come to settling the mind, and awareness of awareness, I haven’t read anything of that anywhere. So if you say, where’s your source? Ahhh, there is no sutra, tantra or commentary I can point to. That’s it. So this is just coming from my own experience, which is just that, that’s all it is. It’s not some deep truth, it’s not profound, it’s not big deal, it’s just what I have experienced.

And so it might be useful though, in the sense that, ok, I know it’s true for me what I said, I wasn’t just making that up. I know it is true for me. But maybe, you know, not maybe, but actually it’s quite true, I’m just weird, you know. And so it is true for me, just isn’t true for anybody else. That’s must my peculiarity. Everybody has a unique body, unique mind, maybe it’s just my trip, really possible. Or maybe there is one oddball like me here, oh that really resonates with my experience. It’s possible. But this is more in the realm of [? 40:00] pith instructions, ok? So I am not making any claims about this like, oh this is a great insight, blah blah, blah. Nothing like that. But I think it is ok to say well this is what I found and then you can take it just as an interesting hypothesis. With no authority behind it at all, I mean I am nobody special at all. I have no authority, none. Even I don’t regard myself as an authority, so nobody else should. But you might say, oh, that’s interesting. Maybe it’s true and then check it out. Just like my response to [name of one participant] yesterday. Maybe it’s true, but then you have to check. If you think it’s worth checking. If not, then forget about it, no problem, right?

But I think that is really the spirit of the buddhadharma, going right back to the time of the Buddha. Remember [AA Pasi ? 40:06] [AA Pasika ? 43:01] . Remember that one, come and see, come and see. When Shariputra met one of the great disciples, he was already a stream enterer r I think, at least stream enterer , and he was so impressed by his sheer demeanour and presence, his presence. And Shariputra came to him and asked him: “Friend, who is your teacher? What dharma, what path are you following?” and he said, I am paraphrasing here, but he said "Well, I am very ... I am a newcomer. I am kind of junior in this. But my teacher is the Buddha. Ahh, he is over yonder, you might want check, you might want to go to him and then he gave him this one verse , remember? Ye Dharma Hetu Prabhava Hetum Tesham Tathagato Hyvadat Tesham Cha Yo Nirdoha Evam Vadi Mahashramanah .

Oh ya, and so the causes of causally conditioned things and the causes of the cessation, they are taught by the sage.That’s a short paraphrase. But he just basically taught him the core teachings of ... the sage, the Tathagata, has taught the causes of causally conditioned things and he’s taught their cessation too ... thus are the teachings the great sage. And he just took ... that was [ Melam ? 42:06], that was the pith instruction and Shariputra became a stream enterer.

But the point was, come and see, come and see, right? Don’t come and convert, come and memorise, come and believe, please have faith, come and see. We can easily lose that. With the weight of tradition, and the great authorities, we have so many great authorities in the Theravada, the Dogen , rising like this great big Mount Everest in the Zen Tradition and so on, and it is very easy if between faith and intelligence, faith starts to outweigh intelligence. And we say I don’t need to check for myself, Dogen already checked it out, I don’t have to check, Tsongkhapa is more brilliant than I am, infinitely, I don’t have to check it out, Tsongkhapa already did , thank you Tsongkhapa, whatever you say, it goes. I am with you, you know, that’s fine, that’s good faith. But then where’s your intelligence? So we can go overboard on either way, well never mind faith, that is for stupid people, for religious people. I am just relying on my intelligence. Good luck with that. You know,that balance between the two. [snaps fingers] So there it is. Oh ya. But maybe this is useful this morning. I think maybe it is. I know it is for one person, maybe for somebody else, you have to see. Maybe useless I don’t know. Enjoy your day, see you at 4.30.

Transcribed by Shirley Soh.

Revised by Rafael Carlos Giusti.

Final Edition by Cheri Langston.


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