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With Each and Every Breath - Advanced Practice
 
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With Each and Every Breath
A Guide to Meditation
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Advanced Practice

Breath meditation is an ideal practice for giving rise to strong states of concentration, called jhana. Jhana then provides an ideal basis for fostering the insights that can free the mind from its habitual ways of causing itself suffering and stress. Those insights can ultimately lead to an experience of release into the unconditioned dimension—called the deathless—where suffering and stress all end. So there are three aspects to advanced practice: jhana, insight, and release.

JHANA

The Pali Canon describes four levels of jhana, and five formless attainments—states of concentration in which there is no experience of the form of the body—that take the fourth jhana as their point of departure. Texts drawing on the Pali Canon have mapped out these descriptions, listing the factors that go into each jhana or formless attainment.

It’s important when reading these lists to realize that they’re not recipes. For instance, you can’t simply take the five factors of the first jhana, combine them, and then expect to get the first jhana. That would be like hearing that the tropical fruit durian smells like custard combined with garlic, and that it contains a little cyanide, some vitamin E, and a large dose of potassium. If you simply combined these ingredients in hopes of getting durian, you’d actually get a poisonous mess.

The lists of jhana factors are more like restaurant reviews. They tell you what a successful version of a particular dish should or shouldn’t taste like, but they don’t give many clues on how to make that dish yourself.

So to get the most out of the restaurant reviews, you can combine them with a recipe to give you a fuller idea of how the recipe should work. That’s what’s offered here. The basic recipe for jhana is given in Parts One and Two of this book. When you focus on the breath following the recipe, and things begin to go well, these are some of the experiences you can expect.

The first jhana. Traditionally, the first jhana has five factors: directed thought, evaluation, singleness of preoccupation (the theme you’re focused on), rapture, and pleasure. The first three factors are the causes; the last two, the results. In other words, you don’t do rapture and pleasure. They come about when you do the first three factors well.

In this case, directed thought means that you keep directing your thoughts to the breath. You don’t direct them anywhere else. This is the factor that helps you stay concentrated on one thing.

Evaluation is the discernment factor, and it covers several activities. You evaluate how comfortable the breath is, and how well you’re staying with the breath. You think up ways of improving either your breath or the way you’re focused on the breath; then you try them out, evaluating the results of your experiments. If they don’t turn out well, you try to think up new approaches. If they do turn out well, you try to figure out how to get the most out of them. This last aspect of evaluation includes the act of spreading good breath energy into different parts of the body, spreading your awareness to fill the body as well, and then maintaining that sense of full-body breath and full-body awareness.

Evaluation also plays a role in fighting off any wandering thoughts that might arise: It quickly assesses the damage that would come to your concentration if you followed such thoughts, and reminds you of why you want to come back on topic. When the meditation is going well, evaluation has less work to do in this area and can focus more directly on the breath and the quality of your focus on the breath.

In short, evaluation plays both a passive and an active role in your relation to the breath. Its passive role is simply stepping back to watch how things are going. In this role, it develops both your alertness and your inner observer, which I discussed in Part One. The active role of evaluation is to pass judgment on what you’ve observed and to figure out what to do with it. If you judge that the results of your mental actions aren’t satisfactory, you try to find ways to change what you’re doing, and then put your ideas to the test. If the results are satisfactory, you figure out ways to maintain them and put them to good use. This develops your inner doer so that it can be more skillful in shaping the state of your mind.

Singleness of preoccupation means two things: First, it refers to the fact that your directed thought and evaluation both stay with nothing but the breath. In other words, your preoccupation is single in the sense that it’s the one thing you’re focused on. Second, your preoccupation is single in the sense that one thing—the breath—fills your awareness. You may be able to hear sounds outside the body, but your attention doesn’t run to them. They’re totally in the background. (This point applies to all the jhanas, and can even apply to the formless attainments, although some people, on reaching the formless attainments, find that they don’t hear sounds.)

When these three factors are solid and skillful, rapture and pleasure arise. The word “rapture” here is a translation of a Pali word—piti—that can also mean refreshment. It’s basically a form of energy and can be experienced in many ways: either as a quiet, still fullness in body and mind; or else as a moving energy, such as a thrill running through the body or waves washing over you. Sometimes it will cause the body to move. With some people, the experience is intense; for others, it’s gentler. This can, in part, be determined by how much your body is hungering for the energy. If it’s really hungry, the experience will be intense. If not, the experience may hardly be noticeable.

As I noted in Part Two, most people find the rapture pleasant, but some find it unpleasant. In either case, the important point is not to focus on it, but to stay focused on the breath. Let the rapture move any way it likes. You don’t have to try to control it. Otherwise, you drop the causal factors—directed thought, evaluation, and singleness of preoccupation—and your concentration unravels.

Pleasure is the sense of ease and well-being that come when the body feels soothed by the breath, and the mind is pleasurably interested in the work of the meditation. Here again it’s important to stay focused on the breath and not to focus on the pleasure, for that would lose touch with the causes of the concentration.

Instead, use your awareness of the breath and your powers of evaluation to allow— that’s the operative word: allow—the feelings of rapture and pleasure to fill the body.

When rapture and pleasure totally interpenetrate the body, they strengthen the singleness of your preoccupation with the whole-body breath.

In this way, the activity of evaluation, instead of being an unfortunate unsteadiness in your concentration, actually strengthens it, so that the mind is ready to settle down more securely.

As you work with the breath in this way, you’ll notice that your awareness of the body has two aspects: focused awareness and the background awareness already in your body. The background awareness is simply your receptivity to the full range of sensory input coming in from all the parts of the body. The focused awareness is located at the spot where you’re paying special attention to that input and developing it further. One of the jobs of your evaluation is to get these two aspects of awareness in touch with each other. The background awareness is already there, just like the background breath energy in the body. The question—both with the background awareness and with the background energy—is: Is it full? Remember that, when dealing with the breath, you’re not trying forcefully to pump breath into areas where it’s never been before. You’re simply allowing all the aspects of breath energy to connect. The connectedness is what allows them all to become full. The same principle applies to your awareness: You’re not trying to create new awareness. You want your focused awareness simply to connect with your background awareness so that they form a solid, fully alert whole.

As both the breath and the awareness come together in this way, you enter the second jhana.

The second jhana has three factors: singleness of preoccupation, rapture, and pleasure. As the breath and awareness become one, they begin to feel saturated. No matter how much you try to make them feel even more full, they can’t fill any further. At this point, directed thought and evaluation have no further work to do. You can let them go. This allows the mind to enter an even stronger sense of oneness. Your focused awareness and your background awareness become firmly one, and they in turn become one with the breath.

It’s as if, in the first jhana, you were identifying with one part of your breath and one part of your awareness as you worked another part of the breath through another part of your awareness. Now those dividing lines are erased. Awareness becomes one, the breath becomes one, and both become one with each other. Another analogy is to think of the mind as the lens of a camera. In first jhana, the focal point is located in front of the lens. In the second, it moves into the lens itself. This sense of oneness is maintained through all the remaining jhanas and formless states up through the level known as the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness (see below).

Here in the second jhana, both the pleasure and the rapture become more prominent, but there’s no need to consciously spread them through the body. They spread on their own. The rapture, though, is a moving energy. Although it may feel extremely refreshing to begin with, it can ultimately become tiresome. When that happens, try to refine the focus of your attention to a level of breath energy that’s not affected by the movements of rapture. You might think of it as tuning your radio from one station playing loud music to another playing softer music. Even though the radio waves of both stations can exist in the same place, the act of tuning-in to one enables you to tune-out the other.

When you can stay with that more refined level of energy, you enter the third jhana.

The third jhana has two factors: singleness of preoccupation and pleasure. The sense of pleasure here feels very still in the body. As it fills the body, there’s no sense that you’re filling the body with moving breath energy. Instead, you’re allowing the body to be filled with a solid, still energy. People have also described this breath as “resilient” or “steely.” There is still a subtle sense of the flow of the breath around the edges of the body, but it feels like the movement of water vapor around an ice cube, surrounding the ice but not causing it to expand or contract. Because the mind doesn’t have to deal with the movement of the breath energy, it can grow more settled and still. It too becomes more solid and equanimous in the presence of the bodily pleasure.

As the mind gets even more centered and still in this way, it enters the fourth jhana.

The fourth jhana has two factors: singleness of preoccupation and equanimity. At this point, even the subtle movement of the in-and-out breath falls still. There are no waves or gaps in the breath energy. Because the mind is so still, the brain is converting less oxygen into carbon dioxide, so the chemical sensors in the brain feel no need to tell the body to breathe. The oxygen that the body absorbs passively is enough to provide for its needs. Awareness fills the body, breath fills the body, breath fills awareness: This is singleness of preoccupation in full. It’s also the point in concentration practice where mindfulness becomes pure: There are no lapses in your ability to remember to stay with the breath. Because both the mind and the breath are still, equanimity becomes pure as well. The mind is at total equilibrium.

When you’ve learned to maintain this sense of balanced stillness in the breath, you can focus on balancing the other properties of the body as well. First balance the heat and the cold. If the body feels too warm, notice where the coolest spot in the body is. Focus on the coolness there, and then allow it to spread, just as you’d spread the still breath. Similarly, if you feel too cold, find the warmest spot in the body. After you can maintain your focus on the warmth there, allow it to spread. See if you can then bring the coolness and warmth into balance, so that the body feels just right.

Similarly with the solidity of the body: Focus on the sensations that seem heaviest or most solid in the body. Then allow that solidity to spread through the body. If the body feels too heavy, then think of the still breath making it lighter. Try to find a balance so that you feel neither too heavy nor too light.

This exercise not only makes the body more comfortable as a basis for firmer concentration, but also acquaints you with the properties that make up your inner sense of the body. As we noted in Part Two, being acquainted with these properties provides you with a useful set of tools for dealing with pain and out-of-body experiences. This exercise also gives you practice in seeing the power of your perceptions: Simply noticing and labeling a particular sensation can make it stronger.

The four jhanas focus on the same topic—the breath—but the way they relate to the breath grows progressively more refined. Once the mind reaches the fourth jhana, this can form the basis for the formless attainments. Here the relationship among the stages is reversed: All the formless attainments relate to their themes in the same way—with the equanimity and singleness of the fourth jhana—but they focus on different themes. Here we will discuss just the first four of the formless attainments, as the fifth formless attainment—the cessation of perception and feeling—lies beyond the scope of this book.

The formless attainments. As the mind in the fourth jhana stays with the stillness of the breath filling the body, it begins to sense that the only reason it feels a boundary or form to the body is because of the perception or mental image of the body’s form that it’s been holding to. There is no movement of the breath to confirm that perception. Instead, the body feels like a cloud of mist droplets, each droplet a sensation, but with no clear boundary to the cloud.

To reach the first formless attainment, allow the perception of the form of the body to drop away. Then focus, not on the droplets of sensation, but on the space in-between them. This space then goes out beyond the body without limit and can penetrate everything else. However, you don’t try to trace it out to its limit. You simply hold in mind the perception of “infinite space” or “unlimited space.” If you can stay there solidly, you reach the first formless attainment, the dimension of the infinitude of space. See how long you can stay with that perception.

To become adept at staying with the perception of infinite space, you can try holding to it even when you’ve left formal meditation. As you go through the day, replace your inner focus on the breath at a spot in the body with a focus on the perception of “space” permeating everything: your body, the space around the body, other people, the physical objects around you. Hold that perception of space in the back of your mind. Whatever’s happening inside or outside your body, it’s all happening in the context of that perception of space. This creates a great feeling of lightness as you go through the day. If you can maintain this perception in the midst of your daily activities, you’ll have an easier time accessing it and staying steadily focused on it each time you sit down for formal meditation.

After you’ve become adept at staying with the perception of infinite space, you can pose the question, “What knows infinite space?” Your attention shifts to the awareness of the space, and you realize that the awareness, like the space, has no limits, although again you don’t try to trace it out to its limits. You just stay centered where you are. (If you try asking this question before you’re adept at staying with the perception of infinite space, the mind will just revert to a lower level of concentration, or may leave concentration entirely. So go back to the perception of space.) If you can stay with that perception of infinite or unlimited awareness—or simply, “knowing, knowing, knowing”—you enter the second formless attainment, the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness.

As with the perception of space, you can train yourself to become adept at the perception of infinite consciousness by holding to it even when you’ve left formal meditation. Keep in mind the perception that, whatever is happening inside you or outside you, it’s all happening within the context of an all-around awareness. This, too, creates a great feeling of lightness as you go through the day, and makes it easier to settle back in with the perception of infinite awareness when you turn the mind to the practice of full concentration.

It’s at this stage that your inner observer gets thrown into sharp relief. When you dropped the breath for the perception of “space,” you gained a clear sense that your breath and your awareness of the breath were two separate things, and you could see precisely where and how they were separate. When you dropped the perception of “space,” you could see that the awareness was separate even from space. As you carry your perception of “aware” into daily life, you can apply the same principle to everything that comes your way: Objects and events are one thing; the knowing awareness is something else.

After you’ve become adept at staying with the perception of infinite awareness or infinite knowing, then while you’re in formal meditation you can start to take this sense of the “knower” or “observer” apart. To do this, there are two questions you can ask yourself. Either, “What is still a disturbance in this knowing?” or “What’s maintaining the sense of oneness in this knowing?” You see that the answer in both cases is the perception of “knowing, knowing, knowing,” or “aware, aware, aware.” You drop that perception, and in so doing you drop the sense of oneness. What’s left is a sense of nothingness. There’s still awareness, but you’re not labeling it as awareness. You’re just with the sense of lightness that comes from replacing the label of “knowing” with something that feels less burdensome. The label of “knowing” requires that you make an effort to keep knowing. But the label of “nothing” allows you to put that burden down. If you can stay with that perception of, “There’s nothing” or “Nothing’s happening,” you enter the third formless attainment, the dimension of nothingness.

After you’ve become adept at staying with the perception of “There’s nothing” or “Nothing’s happening,” you can ask yourself if there’s still any disturbance in that sense of nothingness. When you see that the disturbance is caused by the perception itself, you drop the perception. If you do this when your focus is not subtle enough, you’ll revert to a lower stage of concentration. But if you can stay in the mental space left empty by the perception when it falls away, that’s what you do. You can’t say that there’s another perception there, but because you have a non-verbal sense that you know where you are, you can’t say that there’s no perception, either. If you can continue staying there, you enter the fourth formless attainment, the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.

Wrong concentration. There are several states of concentration that mimic these levels of concentration in some respects, but they are wrong concentration. This is because—unlike the levels of right concentration—their range of awareness is so narrow that it doesn’t provide a basis for the arising of insight.

Two of the most common states of wrong concentration are delusion concentration and the state of non-perception. People who are adept at denial or dissociation can be prone to these states. I have also known people who mistake them for release, which is a very dangerous mistake because it blocks all further progress on the path. So it’s important to recognize these states for what they are.

Delusion concentration we have already discussed in Part Two. It comes about when the breath gets so comfortable that your focus drifts from the breath to the sense of comfort itself, your mindfulness begins to blur, and your sense of the body and your surroundings gets lost in a pleasant haze. When you emerge, you find it hard to identify where exactly you were focused.

The state of non-perception comes about from making your focus extremely one-pointed and so refined that it refuses to settle on or label even the most fleeting mental objects. You drop into a state in which you lose all sense of the body, of any internal or external sounds, or of any thoughts or perceptions at all. There’s just enough tiny awareness to let you know, when you emerge, that you haven’t been asleep. You can stay there for many hours, and yet time passes very quickly. Two hours can seem like two minutes. You can also program yourself to come out at a particular time.

This state does have its uses—as when you’re in severe pain and want some respite from it. As long as you recognize that it’s not right concentration or release, the only danger is that you may decide that you like hiding out there so much that you don’t want to do the work needed to go further in the practice.

How to use the map of the jhanas. Just as discernment requires concentration to grow, concentration requires discernment. The two qualities help each other along. So now that you have a map to the stages of concentration, you need to exercise some discernment in using it properly so that it doesn’t become an obstacle to the practice. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

This map presents possibilities.

The way your concentration develops may fall clearly in line with the map, or it may not. Some people find that their concentration goes naturally from one stage to the next with no planning on their part; others find that they have to make a conscious decision to move from one stage to the next. Also, you may find that the stages of your practice may not line up precisely with those on the map. Some people, for instance, experience an extra stage between the first and the second jhana, in which directed thought falls away but there’s still a modicum of evaluation. Others don’t see clear steps in their progress. The mind settles down so quickly to one particular stage that they’re not consciously aware of having gone through the preceding steps. It’s like falling suddenly to the bottom of a well: You don’t notice how many layers of brick line the side of the well. You just know that you’ve hit bottom.

Some of these variations are perfectly fine. However, if you find that your mind goes straight to the formless steps without first passing through the jhanas in which you have a clear sense of the whole body, back up and make an extra effort to stay with the breath and fully inhabit the body. Work particularly hard at the steps associated with the first jhana: making yourself aware of the whole body breathing, and spreading breath energy to areas where it doesn’t seem to flow. This may seem less restful and quiet than the formless states, but it’s necessary both for your concentration to be well grounded and for insight to arise. If the mind skips over the steps related to the body, it’s simply blocking out the body and turns into concentration based on denial. Denial may shut out distractions, but it isn’t conducive to clear, all-around discernment.

Keep the map in the background of your awareness as you meditate, not in the foreground.

Remember, the theme of your meditation is the breath, not the factors of jhana. The map can be kept in the back of your mind to be pulled out when you’re faced with three kinds of choices: what to do when you can’t get into a state of stillness, what to do when you’re in a state of stillness but have trouble maintaining it, and what to do when you’ve gotten stuck in a state of stillness and don’t know where to go next.

Otherwise, don’t even think about the factors of jhana. Pay primary attention to the breath and allow your concentration to develop naturally from your evaluation of the breath. Try not to be like the person with a tree bearing unripe mangoes who—told that ripe mangoes aren’t green and hard, they’re yellow and soft—tries to ripen his mangoes by painting them yellow and squeezing them until they’re soft. The result, of course, is that his mangoes never get a chance to ripen. What he should do is tend to the tree—water it, fertilize it, protect it from bugs—and the mangoes will grow yellow and soft on their own. Watching and evaluating the breath is the way you tend to the tree of your concentration.

Don’t be too quick to label a state of concentration.

If you attain a level of concentration that seems promising, don’t label it right then and there. Simply try to maintain it. Then see if you can reproduce it during your next session of meditation. If you can’t, don’t pay it any further attention. If you can, then label it with a mental post-it note, reminding yourself of how it feels, and what level it might correspond to on the map. Don’t engrave your label in stone. As you get more familiar with the territory of your mind, you may find that you have to pull off the post-it notes and rearrange them, but that’s perfectly fine.

Reread the section in Part Two on Judging Your Progress.

Don’t be too quick to push from one stage of concentration to the next.

All too often, as soon as you attain a level of concentration, the mind asks a question of hunger: “What’s next?” The best answer is, “This is what’s next.” Learn how to master what you’ve got. Meditation is not an exercise in jumping through jhana hoops. If you push impatiently from one level of concentration to the next, or if you try to analyze a new state of concentration too quickly after you’ve attained it, you never give it the chance to show its full potential. And you don’t give yourself the chance to familiarize yourself with it. To get the most out of it, you need to keep working at it as a skill. Try to reach it quickly each time you start meditating. Try tapping into it in all situations. This enables you to see it from a variety of perspectives and to test it over time—to see if it really is as totally blissful, empty, and relaxed as it may have seemed at first sight.

If moving to a new level of concentration makes you feel unsteady, return to the level you just left and try to make it more firm before trying the new level again at a later time.

If you’re not sure about what to do at any stage in the concentration, simply stay with your sense of the “observer.”

Don’t be too quick to jump to any conclusions about whether what you’re doing is right or wrong, or whether what you’re experiencing is true or false. Just watch, watch, watch. At the very least, you won’t be taken in by false assumptions. And you may gain some important insights into how the mind can fool itself through its desire to label and interpret things.

More important than labeling your concentration is learning what to do with it.

Whether your concentration falls into the stages on the map or has a few different stages of its own, the proper way to treat any stage of concentration is the same in all cases. First, learn to maintain it as long as you can, in as many postures and activities as you can. Try to re-enter it as quickly as you can. This allows you to familiarize yourself with it. When you’re really familiar with it, pull out of it slightly so that you can observe how the mind is relating to its object—but not so far out that you fully leave that stage of concentration. Some people experience this as “lifting” the mind slightly above its object. For others it feels like having your hand snugly in a glove and then pulling it out slightly so that it’s not fully snug but still remains in the glove.

Either way, you’re now in a position to observe the movements of the mind around the object of its concentration. Ask yourself a question of discernment: “Is there still any sense of disturbance or stress in the concentration itself?” The stress might be related to the fact that the mind is still evaluating its object when it no longer needs to, that it’s holding onto rapture when the rapture is no longer calming, or that it’s focused on a perception that’s not as restful as it could be. If you can’t immediately see any stress, try to notice any variations in the level of stress or disturbance you feel. This may take a while, but when you see a variation in the level of stress, try to see what activity of the mind accompanies the rises and falls of the stress. Once you identify the activity that accompanies the rises, drop it.

If you can’t yet see any variation in the stress, or if your analysis starts getting blurry, it’s a sign that your concentration isn’t yet strong enough to engage in this kind of analysis. Drop the analysis and plant yourself firmly back in the object of your concentration. Don’t be impatient. Stay with the object until you feel refreshed and solid enough to try the analysis again.

If, however, the analysis is getting clear results, keep it up. This will strengthen your concentration at the same time as it strengthens your discernment. You’re learning how to evaluate your state of mind for yourself, while you’re engaged in it, without having to consult any outside authority. You’re gaining practice in observing how the mind creates unnecessary stress for itself, and in training it not to continue creating that stress. That’s what the meditation is all about.

At the same time, you’re mastering a line of questioning that—as your concentration and discernment grow deeper and subtler—gives rise to the insight leading to release.


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