Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime
The mystical is not how the world is, but that it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1921
"Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime. I have little interest in achieving states of sustained concentration in which the sensory richness of experience is replaced by pure introspective rapture. I have no interest in reciting mantras, visualizing Buddhas or mandalas, gaining out-of-body experiences, reading other people’s thoughts, practicing lucid dreaming, or channeling psychic energies through chakras, let alone letting my consciousness be absorbed in the transcendent perfection of the Unconditioned. Meditation is about embracing what is happening to this organism as it touches its environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject only the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. 'The mystical is not how the world is,' noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, 'but that it is.'
As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive; every blade of grass, every ray of sun, and every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty, and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.
To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and 'mine.' It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty, and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a lifelong practice.
The everyday sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task. As we have seen, this entails
(1) An openhearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation.
(2) A letting go of the habitual reactive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation.
(3) A conscious valorization of those moments in which such reactive patterns have stilled, and
(4) A commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically, and creatively to the situation at hand.
Understood in this way, meditation is not about gaining proficiency in technical procedures claimed to guarantee attainments that correspond to the dogmas of a particular religious orthodoxy. Nor is its goal to achieve a privileged, transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, mind, or God. In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the ongoing cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience within a framework of ethical values and goals.
Over the course of history monks and yogis in Buddhist cultures have developed spiritual technologies to a high degree, resulting in levels of mental refinement, control, and absorption that may seem incredible to modern Westerners. Yet from a dharmic perspective the value of these attainments lies not in their being humanly possible but in their contribution to the practice of the fourfold task. It is not hard to imagine being highly accomplished in certain meditative techniques, yet still failing to embrace wholeheartedly the condition of dukkha (suffering) that pervades the life of oneself and others, still failing to let go of self-centered reactions to dukkha (suffering), still failing to behold the stopping of such reactivity, and still failing to cultivate a radically different way of being in this world.
As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and question what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening. And it begins with the breath, our primordial relationship to the fabric of the world in which we are embedded.
( 2 )
In Gotama’s time, it was impossible to wander through the countryside of north India during the three months of monsoon because the rivers flooded and the paths and roads became muddy torrents. The Buddha and his followers would settle in a park or grove, dedicating themselves to discussion and contemplation. Inevitably, people became curious as to what this man did during these retreats. 'Why,' they may have asked, 'did this person known as the ‘Awakened One’ have to practice meditation at all?' Here is the answer Gotama told his followers to give such people: 'During the Rains’ residence, friend, the Teacher generally dwells in concentration through mindfulness of breathing. . . . [For] if one could say of anything: ‘this is a noble dwelling, this is a sacred dwelling, this is a tathāgata’s dwelling,’ it is of concentration through mindfulness of breathing that one could truly say this.'
This passage shows that awareness grounded in the breath is the foundation of all the contemplative tasks taught by Gotama and his followers. At its core, meditation is an existential “dwelling” within the primary rhythms of the body that link one seamlessly to the biosphere. As a discipline, it involves constant vigilance against getting “eaten up” by the rush of thoughts in one’s head and to instead keep returning to the felt embodiment of experience that is so easily forgotten.
By calling it a “noble dwelling” Gotama suggests that it is more than just a psychological skill in controlling one’s thoughts. It encourages a moral stance of dignity. Settling into the rhythm of breathing leads to a balanced and upright physical posture as well as a dignified and sensitized relation to others and the world. By calling it not just a “noble dwelling” but a “sacred dwelling” (brahmavihāra), Gotama employs a term commonly used to refer to a god (Brahma) in a non-theistic context. Here, “sacred” denotes, not a supramundane deity, but the everyday sublime that is revealed when the mind becomes still and focused through settling into the rhythm of breathing. The sacred is not found in a transcendent realm beyond oneself or the world; it is disclosed here and now once the mind relaxes, quietens, and becomes clearer and sharper as attention stabilizes on the breath. The “sacred” dimension of experience opens up as one lets go of the constrictive, obsessive concern with “me” and “mine,” thereby allowing a return to a world that transcends one’s petty interests and reflects one’s ultimate concerns. Such a world is excessive; it is not manageable. It pours forth relentlessly, voluptuously, but is gone by the time one reaches out to seize and control it.
In considering mindfulness of breathing as a sacred dwelling, Gotama places it in the company of the better-known “sacred dwellings” of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, four qualities of mind that are celebrated throughout the canon. Since focusing on the breath grounds one in the very rhythm of life, it allows one to feel the same rhythm that animates other sentient creatures and realize an empathetic rapport with all that breathes. Such openhearted equanimity provides the foundation for wishing all others to be well (loving-kindness), wishing them not to suffer (compassion), and rejoicing in their good fortune (sympathetic joy). Wishing all others—a potentially infinite number of creatures—to be well and not suffer means that these wishes likewise partake of the thought-exceeding dimension of sublimity. They are not calculated desires whose fulfillment is judged in terms of achieving a satisfactory result; rather, they are the yearnings of a sensibility that cannot hold itself back any more than the sun can restrain itself from radiating light and heat.
To practice such meditative dwelling, you need to find a quiet place, such as a woodland or an empty chapel, sit down with a straight back beneath a tree or on a pew, and turn your attention to what it feels like to be breathing in and out. You should let the breath arise and be released without any conscious interference. You will learn to anchor your attention in its natural rhythm, without drifting off into trains of thought or succumbing to drowsiness.
Yet as soon as you become conscious of your breathing, the breath tends to feel forced and deliberate. You start to think of it as “mine” rather than an impersonal process. Instead of the body just breathing in and out unprompted, which it does as long as you are not attending to it, you assume control of the process. Now you have to relax your attention but without losing your heightened awareness of the breath. Pretend that you are waiting, as a disinterested observer, to catch the body in the act of inhaling and exhaling of its own accord. Then suddenly, perhaps with a shock, you will notice the breath just happening.
When asked by Mahā Kohita about “freedom of mind through emptiness,” Sāriputta replied: “When one has gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or an empty hut, one reflects: ‘All this is empty of a self or what belongs to a self.’ This is the freedom of mind through emptiness.” One retreats to the wilderness in order to dwell in a region that is free from human ownership and control. In the absence of anyone else to impress or flatter, one is able to recover a natural dignity based on one’s awed participation in and indebtedness to life itself. The natural world thus becomes a metaphor for emptiness, a sublime revelation of what is not self, an abode of freedom and ease.
Like birds and deer, a meditator who dwells in such emptiness does not intend to breathe in any particular way. The discourses do not prescribe a right or approved way of breathing. If your breath is shallow and unsteady, then it is shallow and unsteady. You just let the body be the body, let the breathing happen, while remaining fully aware. As you settle into this practice, not only does your mind gradually become more focused and calm, but you notice how the experience of breathing is not limited to the nostrils, windpipe, lungs, and diaphragm. The breath rises and falls as a tidal rhythm throughout the entire body. “I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body; I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body. I shall breathe in and out calming the body’s inclination (to breathe).”
Gotama compares a meditator who dwells on the breath to a skilled wood turner, who understands the effect of the slightest movement the hands and fingers will have on the wood being worked on the lathe. This analogy illustrates how mindfulness is not just about stepping back and passively noticing what is passing before the inner eye. It involves an exploratory and potentially transformative relationship with the pulsing, sensitive, and conscious “material” of life itself. Such embodied attention heightens mindful awareness, intensifies curiosity about and investigation of what is unfolding, stimulates an energetic application to the task, induces a sense of delight in what one is doing, and leads to tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.
Nor is such meditation confined to what you do in a formal seated posture. “When walking, one understands: ‘I am walking’; when standing, one understands: ‘I am standing’; when lying down, one understands: ‘I am lying down.’” The practice extends to everything you do. To associate mindfulness primarily with sitting on a cushion for a prescribed length of time is to limit its effectiveness. The aim is to integrate mindful attention into the totality of your conscious life. This is clear from the following passage, which is repeated throughout the canon (I have secularized the terminology):
'They are ones who act with full awareness when leaving and returning, when looking ahead and looking back, when flexing and extending their limbs, when wearing their clothes and carrying their bags, when eating, drinking, consuming, and tasting, when shitting and pissing, when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent.'
Such meditation is also not restricted to awareness of your own body but includes awareness of others’ bodies, too. You attend to their poignant physical presence, the way they inhabit and move their bodies, the way their bodies interact with yours, the way their eyes and mouths signal emotion, pleasure, pain, fear, longing, love, hate, the way their hand squeezes yours, the way you press against each other as you embrace.
Those who practice embodied meditation do not shy away from imaginatively peeling off the skin and considering what lies inside the body, either. They scan the body “up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the head,” recollecting “the head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, stomach contents, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.” In Gotama’s day, wanderers would meditate in charnel grounds, observing corpses as they became “bloated, livid and oozing matter,” as they were torn apart and devoured by crows, jackals, and worms. “This body too,” they would reflect, “is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.” To be mindful of the body involves honesty and the courage to go beyond the revulsion one may feel about its constituent parts and the terror invoked by anticipation of its death and disintegration.
Gotama’s teaching originates in opening one’s heart and mind unconditionally to the everyday sublime. One starts with what is most close and intimate: the body itself. Then one turns this attention to the hedonic tonality of one’s experience, the entire spectrum of how one feels in a given situation at a given moment. These feelings, too, are initially registered in the flesh: an uneasiness in the stomach, a warmth and openness in the chest, a constriction in the throat, a stirring in the genitals. At this point the affective dimension of meditation comes into play. While mindfulness entails a degree of detachment and equanimity, it is not a cold, disinterested state of mind. To know fully the shades and nuances of feelings, one needs first to quieten the inner turmoil so often provoked by them in order to establish a clear, penetrating attention. Cultivating an awareness of feelings is crucial because many habitual reactive patterns are triggered as much by these subjective bodily affects as by the objects or persons we believe to be responsible for them. I might react with fear to another person’s threat of violence, but that instinctive reaction is prompted by the way I feel about what has been said, which is registered somewhere in my body. Mindfulness allows us to open up a gap between the person’s angry words and my feelings about them, which usually appear so intertwined that they are hard to disentangle. In cultivating this gap, one learns how to dwell calmly and vividly in its empty space, which is the “clearly visible, immediate, inviting” space of nirvana itself.
Buddhist tradition presents the cultivation of mindfulness along a spectrum that starts with attention to one’s breath and extends to a comprehensive awareness of whatever is occurring in one’s body, mind, and environment. In the discourse The Grounding of Mindfulness, this practice culminates in the fourfold task itself. It would be a mistake, however, to think that one should meditate on this task in the same way as one would pay attention to the breath or the body. Here, sati should be understood in its more literal meaning of “recollection” instead of its broader meaning of “mindfulness.” This means that the practice of mindfulness includes recollecting the core vision of the dharma as a way of further refining one’s awareness of experience as a whole.
'What is the power of mindfulness?' asks Gotama in another discourse. 'Here a disciple is mindful; he is equipped with the keenest mindfulness and awareness; he recollects well and keeps in mind what has been said and done in the past.' To be mindful of the breath, for example, means you recollect an instruction heard in the past—whether ten minutes or ten years ago—and then apply it by sustaining your attention on the breath. If your attention wanders, you have forgotten what you were supposed to be doing and need to remind yourself again. This kind of awareness is not dissimilar to the kind you have of being married, which, though largely unconscious, will prompt a recollection of your marriage vows as soon as your thoughts stray to doing something in conflict with them. This “recollective” aspect is obscured as soon as mindfulness is understood as simply being fully attentive in the present moment or remaining in a state of non-judgmental awareness, neither of which would seem to have much to do with remembering something said or done in the past.
To ground mindfulness in the fourfold task means to keep these ideas in mind and apply them to illuminate whatever is taking place in our experience at a given time and place. In this way, the fourfold task serves as a framing device that provides meditation with its raison d’être. When The Grounding of Mindfulness describes mindfulness as the “direct path to nirvana,” it affirms that paying embodied attention to life leads to a falling away of habitual patterns, which leads to nirvanic moments when we realize the freedom to respond to life unconditioned by our longings and fears, which opens up the possibility of living sanely in this world. Nirvana is reached by paying close, uncompromising attention to our fluctuating, anguished bodies and minds and the physical, social, and cultural environments in which we are embedded."
Batchelor, Stephen. after buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age. Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.