Recently I read a forum post by a piano teacher (and life coach), who said that it’s hard to leave old habits behind because of muscle memory. I agree with him that there is muscle memory involved, but at least as far as old habits in sitting, there’s also the panic of the suffocation response. Sooner or later, I begin to feel like the posture is affecting my ability to breathe, and there’s a certain anxiety associated with that. Knowing about the suffocation response helps me to realize how much I need to emphasize relaxation, if I want to overcome old habits.
Seated meditation has been described as “straightening the chest and sitting precariously” (1). Precariousness in posture also gives rise to anxiety, yet if calm prevails, precariousness can bring forward the senses behind the feeling of place in awareness.
In modern neurobiology, there’s a recognition that dysfunction in any of the senses connected with balance (equalibrioception, proprioception, graviception, and oculoception) can result in an out-of-body experience, and that the precise nature of that out-of-body experience will depend on exactly which sense is dysfunctional (2).
In some out-of-body experiences, the feeling of place associated with awareness occurs in two locations at once. Such a duality is a particular cause of distress to those who experience it, because the self is so closely identified with a singular feeling of place in awareness.
Our most intimate feeling of self, then, is a coordination of particular senses that gives place to awareness, and like the involuntary activity in the body that comes forward as I relax through the suffocation response, the involuntary activity of the particular senses involved in the experience of place comes forward as I find calm in the face of precariousness.
Both relaxation and calm are advocated in the sixteen elements that Gautama described as his own way of living. Here’s a translation of the sixteen, with “tranquillization” of the activity of the body and “tranquillization” of the activity of thought as the fourth and eighth elements, respectively:
Mindful one breathes in. Mindful one breathes out.
Whether one is breathing in a long (breath), breathing out a long (breath), breathing in a short (breath), breathing out a short (breath), one comprehends ‘I am breathing in a long (breath), I am breathing out a long (breath), I am breathing in a short (breath), I am breathing out a short (breath).’
Thus one trains oneself thinking, ‘I will breathe in experiencing the whole (breath-)body; I will breathe out experiencing the whole (breath-)body.’
One trains oneself , thinking ‘I will breathe in tranquillizing the activity of body; I will breathe out tranquillizing the activity of body.’
One trains oneself , thinking: ‘I will breathe in… breathe out experiencing zest… experiencing ease… experiencing the activity of thought… tranquillising the activity of thought.’
One trains oneself , thinking: ‘I will breathe in… breathe out experiencing thought… rejoicing in thought… concentrating thought… freeing thought.’
One trains oneself , thinking: ‘I will breathe in… breathe out beholding impermanence… beholding detachment… beholding stopping (of “voluntary control… concealed from the consciousness by habit”) … beholding casting away (of “latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ in regard to this consciousness-informed body”)’. (3)
That zest and ease should follow “experiencing the whole (breath-)body” and “tranquillizing the activity of the body”, I believe points to relaxation in the face of the suffocation response.
F. L. Woodward translates the seventh through the twelfth elements differently:
One makes up one’s mind, repeating: “Aware of all mental factors I shall breathe in. Aware of all mental factors I will breathe out. Calming down the mental factors I shall breathe in. Calming down the mental factors I shall breathe out.
Aware of mind I shall breathe in. Aware of mind I shall breathe out.”
One makes up one’s mind (repeating): “Gladdening my mind I shall breathe in. Gladdening my mind I shall breathe out. Composing my mind I shall breathe in. Composing my mind I shall breathe out. Detaching my mind I shall breathe in. Detaching my mind I shall breathe out. (4)
Although Horner’s translation is more readable, I find Woodward more in accord with my own experience, at least with regard to those elements of the sixteen that touch on the mind. What precedes “Aware of mind I shall breathe in” is exactly an awareness of “mental factors” and a calming of these same factors. For me, “mental factors” speaks to the activity
of the senses that contributes a feeling of place to awareness. That activity comes forward in response to the subtle precariousness of posture (precarious in spite of physical ease),
and sets up an ability to observe the mind as one sense among many.
I would contend that “detaching (the) mind” (as Woodward translated the twelfth element) is allowing the feeling of place associated with awareness to shift and move, not to the extent
that such movement occurs in the dysfunctional out-of-body experiences, but to the extent that a natural precariousness in the movement of breath demands.
Woodward’s “detaching (the) mind” also seems appropriate to me in light of the subsequent element in Gautama’s way of living, “beholding impermanence”. For me, an experience of particular senses as they coordinate to provide the feeling of place in awareness is a beholding of impermanence, as I recognize that what is most intimate in my feeling of self is conditioned on the health and coordination of certain senses.
Moreover, an experience of the senses that coordinate place in awareness is conducive to a detachment from the painful, pleasant, or neutral in feeling, and to a cessation of voluntary
or habitual activity, these being the fourteenth and fifteenth elements of Gautama’s way of living.
The witness of a cessation of habitual activity sets up “casting away” (of “latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’…”), and that leads to a spontaneity of in-breathing and out-breathing that attracts mindfulness. Such is the natural circle in what Gautama described as his way of living.
☞ PDF, A Natural Mindfulness
Douglas Wile, pg 21.
2) Blanke and Mohr, “Out-of-body experience, heautoscopy, and autoscopic hallucination of neurological origin Implications for neurocognitive mechanisms of corporeal awareness and self consciousness”, Brain Research Reviews, Volume 50, Issue 1, 1 December 2005, Pages 184-199.
3) MN III 82-83, Pali Text Society III pg 124; parentheticals added: . “breath-” per I. B. Horner’s
note; “voluntary control… concealed from the consciousness by habit” borrowed from Feldenkrais’s
“Awareness and Movement”, “latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ in regard to this
consciousness-informed body” from MN III 18-19, Pali Text Society III pg 68; “zest” and “ease” from
SN V 310-312, Pali Text Society V pg 275-276, in place of “rapture” and “joy”.
4) SN V 312, Pali Text Society Vol V pg 276; masculine pronouns replaced in brackets; paragraphing modified to parallel Horner’s in (3).