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 body; I will breathe out experiencing the whole 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
The translator, I. B. Horner, notes that by “body” in the third element is meant “breath-body”, the whole body of the breath.
That zest and ease should follow “experiencing the whole 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 exactly 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.5
Woodward’s “detaching (the) mind” also seems appropriate to me in light of the subsequent element in Gautama’s way of living, “beholding impermanence”. Gautama’s description of impermanence was usually made through negation and the use of a completed infinity6, as here (with “perfect wisdom” as the completed infinity):
Whatever… is material shape, past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, mean or excellent, or whatever is far or near, (a person), thinking of all this material shape as ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self’, sees it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. Whatever is feeling… perception… the habitual tendencies… whatever is consciousness, past, future, or present (that person), thinking of all this consciousness as ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self’, sees it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. (For one) knowing thus, seeing thus, there are no latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ in regard to this consciousness-informed body.”7
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.
Gautama spoke about how he returned to concentration:
And I… at the close of (instructional discourse), steady, calm, make one-pointed and concentrate my mind subjectively in that first characteristic of concentration in which I ever constantly abide.”8
“That first characteristic of concentration” I would surmise to be “making self-surrender the object of thought”, based on one of Gautama’s descriptions of concentration:
… making self-surrender (one’s) object of thought, (one) lays hold of concentration, lays hold of one-pointedness of mind.9
Gautama detailed how a person might “make one pointed and concentrate” their mind, as he did after his lectures, in the analogy he provided for the first material meditative state:
…(one) steeps and drenches and suffuses this body with a zest and ease, born of solitude, so that there is not one particle of the body that is not pervaded by this lone-born zest and ease. …as a handy bathman or attendant might strew bath-powder in some copper basin and, gradually sprinkling water, knead it together so that the bath-ball gathered up the moisture, became enveloped in moisture and saturated both in and out, but did not ooze moisture; even so (one) steeps, drenches, fills and suffuses this body with zest and ease, born of solitude, so that there is not one particle of the body that is not pervaded by this lone-born zest and ease.10
The phrase “lays hold of” in Gautama’s definition of concentration is echoed here in the image of a hand kneading a ball of soap.
My hope is that in describing the kind of involuntary activity that can be observed in the body and the kind of involuntary activity that can be observed in the senses, as I have in my writing11, I encourage myself to find the relaxation and calm necessary to realize the unconscious ground of my being in action.
- 1 “Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan”, by Cheng Man-Ch’ing, translated by 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
- 3 MN III 82-83, Pali Text Society III pg 124; parentheticals added: “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.
- 5 See Waking Up and Falling Asleep.
- 6 See About Completed Infinities.
- 7 MN III 18-19, Pali Text Society Vol. III pg 68.
- 8 MN I 249, Pali Text Society I pg 303.
- 9 SN V 200, Pali Text Society V 176.
- 10 AN III 25-28, Pali Text Society Vol. III pg 18-19–more on Gautama’s characterization of the four material meditative states, here.
- 11 See Turning to the Left, Turning to the Right, Following Up Behind.