In my last post, I wrote about action that arises in the breath and in the body, rather than through judgment and the exercise of will. I mentioned that such action can be peculiarly timely, although the timeliness may only emerge after the fact.
Such action happens when the foreground of bodily activity and the background of autonomic respiration change places. What occurs is not simply the cessation of willful activity in the body affecting the movement of breath, but the commencement of action of the body as part of autonomic movement of breath, including action of posture and carriage.
In the book “Embracing Mind”, Kobun Chino is quoted as saying:
It’s impossible to teach the meaning of sitting. You won’t believe it. Not because I say something wrong, but until you experience it and confirm it by yourself, you cannot believe it.”
(“Embracing Mind”, edited by Cosgrove amp; Hall, pg 48)
It’s true that for most people, it’s impossible to conceive of the existence of action of the body that occurs without the exercise of will. People understand that such action can take place through hypnotic suggestion, yet the notion that the suggestion can be made by their own subconscious is seldom entertained.
Comprehending that action can occur without the exercise of will is key to understanding some of Gautama’s statements (in the Pali texts):
Where there have been deeds, Ananda, personal weal and woe arise in consequence of the will there was in the deeds. Where there has been speech–where there has been thought, personal weal and woe arise in consequence of the will there was in the speech–in the thought.
Either we of ourselves, Ananda, plan those planned deeds conditioned by ignorance, whence so caused arises personal weal and woe, or others plan those planned deeds that we do conditioned on ignorance, whence so conditioned arises personal weal and woe. Either they are done deliberately, or we do them unwittingly. Thence both ways arises personal weal and woe. So also is it where there has been speech, where there has been thought. Either we plan, speaking, thinking deliberately, or others plan, so that we speak, think unwittingly. Thence arises personal weal and woe. In these six cases ignorance is followed after.
But from the utter fading away and cessation of ignorance, Ananda, those deeds are not, whence so conditioned arises personal weal and woe. Neither is that speech, nor that thought. As field they are not; as base they are not; as wherewithal they are not; as occasion they are not, that so conditioned there might arise personal weal and woe.
(SN II text ii, 36 “Kindred Sayings on Cause” XII, 3, chapter 25, “Bhumija”; Pali Text Society SN Vol II pg. 31-32)
In his analysis, Gautama appears to assert that the cessation of ignorance has as a natural result the cessation of the exercise of will in the three kinds of action, and thereby the cessation of personal weal and woe as a result of the action.
The exercise of will also figures in Gautama’s explanations of the origin and cessation of suffering:
That which we will…, and that which we intend to do and that wherewithal we are occupied:–this becomes an object for the persistance of consciousness. The object being there, there comes to be a station of consciousness. Consciousness being stationed and growing, rebirth of renewed existance takes place in the future, and here from birth, decay, and death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow, and despair come to pass. Such is the uprising of this mass of ill.
Even if we do not will, or intend to do, and yet are occupied with something, this too becomes an object for the persistance of consciousness… whence birth… takes place.
But if we neither will, nor intend to do, nor are occupied about something, there is no becoming of an object for the persistance of consciousness. The object being absent, there comes to be no station of consciousness. Consciousness not being stationed and growing, no rebirth of renewed existence takes place in the future, and herefrom birth, decay-and-death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow and despair cease. Such is the ceasing of this entire mass of ill.
(SN II 65 “Kindred Sayings on Cause” XII, 4, chapter 38 “Will”, Pali Text Society vol. 2 pg 45)
I have written about how the location of awareness tends to move, provided that contact in the senses and even beyond the senses is allowed to enter into the location of awareness. In the passage above, Gautama speaks of a stationing of consciousness as the natural consequence of the exercise of will (or intention or deliberation), and of suffering as the inevitable outcome of that “stationing”.
In his four truths, Gautama described the primal cause of suffering as ignorance, and likewise the primal cause of the cessation of suffering as the cessation of ignorance. As most folks know, he put forward “the eight-fold path” as the way leading to the cessation of suffering.
Here’s a description of how the eight-fold path unfolds without the exercise of will:
(Anyone) …knowing and seeing eye as it really is, knowing and seeing material shapes… visual consciousness… impact on the eye as it really is, and knowing, seeing as it really is the experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye, is not attached to the eye nor to material shapes nor to visual consciousness nor to impact on the eye; and that experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye… neither to that is (such a one) attached. …(Such a one’s) physical anxieties decrease, and mental anxieties decrease, and bodily torments… and mental torments… and bodily fevers decrease, and mental fevers decrease. (Such a one) experiences happiness of body and happiness of mind. (repeated for ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind).
Whatever is the view of what really is, that for (such a one) is right view; whatever is aspiration for what really is, that for (such a one) is right aspiration; whatever is endeavour for what really is, that is for (such a one) right endeavour; whatever is mindfulness of what really is, that is for (such a one) right mindfulness; whatever is concentration on what really is, that is for (such a one) right concentration. And (such a one’s) past acts of body, acts of speech, and mode of livelihood have been well purified.
(Majjhima-Nikaya Vol III 287-290 “Discourse Pertaining to the Great Sixfold (Sense-)Field”, Pali Text Society volume 3 pg 337-338)
Three senses known to modern medicine were not included in Gautama’s description, and yet they may be especially relevant to the coordination of sensory awareness: they are equalibrioception (through the vestibular organs); proprioception (through the proprioceptors in the muscles, ligaments, and joints of the body); and graviception (through the otoliths). Indeed, the modern neurobiologist Olaf Blanke goes so far as to hypothesize that these three senses, together with the sense of sight, provide the presence in awareness that most of us identify as the self.
The best way to realize the path as Gautama described it above may be to sit down for awhile and let habitual or volitive activity with regard to the senses cease of its own accord. According to Gautama, volitive activity ceases gradually, first with regard to the activity of speech, then with regard to the activity of inhalation and exhalation, and finally with regard to the activity of perception and sensation.
Gautama’s enlightenment resulted from his experience of the cessation of volitive activity in perception and sensation. His enlightenment consisted of the four truths about suffering. Nevertheless, in several places in the Pali lectures, he describes the cessation of volitive activity only as far as the cessation of activity in inhalation and exhalation, and then adds the observation of the “survey sign” of the concentration–as though that much was sufficient in daily living (AN III 25-28, Pali Text Society Vol. III pg 18-19).
As to how a person comes to experience the cessation of volitive activity in inhalation and exhalation, I can only say that I myself came to the experience by focusing on the distinction of inhalation and exhalation, through the course of a day. The distinction of inhalation and exhalation is the first element of Gautama’s way of living, and the thread that underlies the remaining fifteen elements, yet I would contend that “the intent concentration on inhalation and exhalation” (as he titled his way of living) depends as much on making self-surrender the object of thought and laying hold of one-pointedness of mind as on the distinction of inhalation and exhalation.