Letting go: active with receptive
Awakening is based on the process of letting go. Letting go is about carefully revealing assumptions, biases, and life messages (‘There’s something wrong with me, I’m unworthy.’) and clearing them. You can liken the process to a gradual descent out of the tumult and the gridlock of your personal world into the free space of the unconditioned. It’s rather like lowering oneself down a rope. You have to know how to do that. It’s a matter of holding on to something you trust – even though it seems like a thin strand – then letting go a little bit and trusting the downward movement. This is the trajectory of non-engagement and abandonment; you don’t exactly do that downwards movement, but you set it up. And you have to go at a speed or in a manner in which you can stay conscious and connected so you can integrate the experience. Otherwise, you just crash. But hold on too tight and nothing releases.
This process involves a relationship, or a co-dependency, between the active intentional aspect of our minds and the receptive, feeling aspect. The first is associated with what we do; the second is associated with what we feel we’re in. The relationship between the two has to be mediated with mindfulness and wisdom.
In the blending of the active with the receptive, most people will find that the active ‘doing’ mind is a source of difficulty. This is because for busy working people, the primary response to life is to do it — life is not something that happens and unfolds. Life becomes something that the ‘I am’ does – as I in, I have to live my life – and it measures ongoing experience in terms of performance and how well one fits in with the mainstream of other striving people. But with this approach, all we get is a gridlock of injunctions and expectations and unresolved emotions that seize up the body-mind system. We fail to see and to tune into the naturalness of the living process, the simplicity of it; as well as the need to give it caring attention, not more orders.
The performance program tries to order and direct awareness through ‘Do this’, ‘Be this’, ‘Get concentrated’, ‘Be wise.’ But awareness doesn’t follow orders. This is because awareness has sensitivity. It’s like water. The mind is like a container, a lake that contains the water. The water is awareness and the circumference of the lake or the boundary of it, is the mind. That boundary can shift and change. It can be that of the extensive mind, or the cramped mind; it can develop refinements. But you can’t make it one way or another just by giving it orders. Because although the mind assumes that it’s in charge of awareness, the boundaries of the mind are dependent on what is affecting awareness.
So when the mind throws out orders, its awareness, citta, is affected by being ordered around. Then what arises are urgency patterns, panic impulses, and resistance; the boundaries of the mind contract and become tense and one feels confused and strained, and disappointed. Even though the message of being peaceful, and letting go is correct – or at least in line with the instructions one has read or hears – it isn’t working. You can’t relax or get peaceful, or be more loving, to order.
Maybe you assume you should try harder.
However awareness doesn’t follow what you say, but how you say it. You have to learn how your awareness is affected. In general awareness will follow perceptions, or felt meanings – and these are subjective. For example, it’s quite common in the Buddhist tradition for meditators to imagine the presence of their mother in order to evoke a mood of being loved; the idea being that this will then trigger a mood of feeling comfortable and assured. Then one’s intentions and ‘actions’ in meditation come from a careful, conscientious and responsible place – one ‘mothers’ (or ‘fathers’) one’s mental processes. An act of recollection is therefore an important starting point for meditation. However, the felt meaning is subjective – so if in your case the perception ‘mother’ brings up the memory of someone who wasn’t very kind, but controlling or harsh instead, this gets to be a problem. Any meditator would assume that if they were a good, worthy practitioner, they would love their mother, or feel comfortable and assured by that perception – but that isn’t always the case! Although ‘mother’ as a general signifier is attractive, subjectively that may not work if your mother wasn’t fully there for you with the skills and the heart.
You can’t force awareness, but it will follow perceptions. In brief you have to choose the perception that works for you, whereby your awareness fairly easily get what it needs. This may be a sense of safety, of being accepted; or it may be a sense of urgency, of not just letting time drift by – or in fact the opposite: for driven/ achievement mentalities, it may be helpful to intone ‘All the time in the world to just be present in the here and now.’ And bring up an image that relaxes – such as a warm beach with the tide gently lapping … and so on. Use your imagination.
Imagination: the mind has an image bank whose entrance gets lost when you try to force your way in. Accessing your own felt meanings requires you to suspend aims and goals and being reasonable; the access is almost dreamy, musing … ‘What does, or what would ‘settled’ or ‘grounded’ feel like to me? How, and where, would I experience that in my body?’ Avoid seeking a word. Wait for any response, any memory or image; these will be perceptions from the embodied state. This state is fundamental and pre-social, so it is more natural and gives rise to simple direct perceptions such as of light or warmth or space. You can also invoke emotive perceptions of warmth or friendliness by remembering a friend or a pet, and sustaining the image until your mind is established in that mood. As long as it’s genuine. You can also ponder the meanings and dwell on the images of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha – especially if you chant and make offerings to them. Right ritual is also an imaginative act, one that can arouse faith and energy. Or you might cultivate perceptions of mortality, if you’re stuck in worldly ambitions and concerns.
But take care. As soon as something is up on a pedestal, it may become the boss looking down on you. It becomes something that is better than you. It becomes the Buddha who says: ‘Get to work!’ So, if you use Buddha images, imagine the compassionate and wise Buddha, the one who picks you up, not one who puts you down.
If you can’t make it with Buddha, don’t worry about it. Use something else. Use only images that are conducive to awareness. Then awareness will follow those. It follows perception. You can tell a lake, ‘Run down hill, run down hill!’ – and it doesn’t do anything. But if you carve a channel, it will flow down it. Perceptions contact awareness. They’re what is immediately touching us. Our confused habit is to follow afflictive perceptions, the memories and impressions that bother us, impressions coming out of the frustrated, greedy or frightened citta. But with devotional practice, we are finding ways to evoke and take in the impression of a Blessed One. Whatever that means to you.
Personally having listened to people over many years, I feel that it’s often important to bring up an image that is suggestive of safety. Safety, khema, is one of the epithets for nibbāna, and one aspect of Buddha is that which frees us from fear. It’s significant on account of how unreliable and demanding, and how relationally defective life in the competitive world feels. So when you reflect on that quality I recommend feeling the space around your body and checking that it feels free from pressure: ‘free from intrusion, free from obstruction, free from harm.’ Use any image that comes to mind as you resonate with these themes.
The idea is to arouse an image or a felt meaning, and let your bodily presence relax into it. Relax into light. Relax into space. Relax into warmth. The effect, when it arises is that you feel less rigid, less busy meditating, less constricted. Trusting the flow of impressions or the energies in your body that arise from the receptive sense; in other words although it does take a subtle action to select a perception, you then have to sit with that, check it out, relax and give it time for it to sink in. Then a response will come from the receptive sense. Of course, your active aspect has to be kindly and not domineering – the Buddha uses the image of a cook preparing a number of dishes for his master and witnessing which one the master enjoys. So the relationship between the active and the receptive has to find its balance. When it hits the right mark, there is a sense of resonance – I’m not beating my head against a brick wall – and there can be a feeling of interest and curiosity. Something may flow, things may begin to open or release. Trust that, and let go into that. Trust it. See what happens when you do that.
Now you might say, “But what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to make it flow? I can’t get this letting go stuff.” But the body knows how to do it. It’s doing it all the time – breathing in, breathing out, flowing quite happily. So, something knows what to do. Go there. The head doesn’t know what to do. It has never been in touch with anything apart from its own speech. When your awareness really enters your body, you feel comfortable and the breathing will become more apparent, as a rhythm. Go into breathing as a flow. This going to, this attention, has to be respectful to the body as a living system, not as something we push around. In this way, we don’t do the breathing, we receive the breathing. We don’t concentrate on the breathing, but allow concentration to develop. So stop ‘concentrating’. Stop ‘meditating.’ Just be aware of the fact that breathing is occurring. Rather than concentrating or meditating, just ask yourself, ‘Am I breathing?’ ‘How do I know I am breathing? What is it doing?’
When you practise like this, you may experience an attitudinal shift, or a shift of attention. It’s like the shift from listening to the words that people say to one of listening with sensitivity to their accent or tone of voice. Imagine, for example, you’re hearing a number of voices in a room. Perhaps somebody is saying something quite animated, intense or interesting and so you cock your ear in that direction and listen. But then instead of trying to discern the words, you listen to the accent. What is the accent? What is the tone, and the speed of the voice? This is a different kind of listening, isn’t it? Listen that way to the breath. In this way, you listen emotively. Having established mindfulness you inquire, ‘How is the body experiencing the breathing? Is it in the slight tightening of clothes around your chest, or around your waist? Do you get pressures and inflections like that? Make it obvious and direct. Notice also if you plan or impose elaborate instructions on your breathing process – you can feel your energy start to get intense. Your mind tightens up and you may even have a panic attack. So instead, keep receptive. Keep in touch with that.
Often the first few seconds of the meditation period are quite nice. You sit down. Nobody is bothering you. You have a sense that it’s all right. It’s even. Nice. Nothing to do. Breathing in. Breathing out. But you’re your mind starts to bend awareness from being open; it starts pressing in on the breath as you start to figure out what is going on – ‘Oh, I’m meditating’ – and you feel you have to ‘do’ it, to ‘do’ something with the breath! It’s instinctive. We find it difficult to just sit there and let it happen. We’re conditioned into a work ethic, so we start to tighten up around the breathing. We get excited – ‘I’ll be there any moment now!’ But then notice that this approach feels stiff and tight, and the only kind of concentration is a measurable tension building up. You call this concentrating? Samādhi? Now you’ve got a headache!
In time, awareness will start to rebel against this domineering attitude; the mind struggles, strange energies come up—resistance, aversion. If the mental ‘police’ move in to sort them out, conflict breaks out between me and my mind. But do you know why these strange energies, fantasies and wacky thoughts come up? It’s the awareness that doesn’t obey orders saying, ‘Get off my back! Get that meditator out of here!’
Resting in awareness, receive the gift
What if we just rest in awareness in the present moment? Don’t even bother to put it anywhere. Just start resting. If there is any compulsion to “do” or ‘make,” just acknowledge that. See what happens in your body. See where in your body you do feel present. Whenever an injunction comes up, wherever there is a sense of, “Right. Let’s do it. Let’s get going,” look and see what parts of your body come up on the screen. You generally experience it as a tightening of some kind, maybe the neck, head, shoulders, hands; the belly stiffens up. That’s the way it operates. We need to acknowledge that and act deliberately to undo that.
Now it may be the case that the tightening is so instinctive that one is never really relaxed. We may know what it is like to diminish tension, but that process only goes so far before we have to read something, eat something, do something. We feel restless and the body seems stiff or numb. This is because we develop body-armor as a defense against the punches of the everyday world. So the experience of the citta, of the aware sensitivity of the mind, is of being pummeled—pummeled by advertisements, pummeled by noise, pummeled by deadlines, pummeled by the systems that control our working lives, pummeled, pummeled. All this can have a shattering effect on the mind. In order to hold it together, we stiffen up. And that process has to be carries out by the body; it tightens up to avoid or shut out impingement. How else would we get by?
As an antidote we need to access the body in the sitting posture and let it settle and feel safe. Like sitting in the shade at the root of a tree. Establish the ‘safe, no pressure’ mood. When the body settles (it may take time) and you feel it breathing, begin to relate to the breath like a massage where we don’t have to make it do anything. Instead, let it do something for you. Breathe through the body, breathe through the shoulders, breathe through the hands, and breathe through the neck. Having taken up the sitting position, I wait as aspects of my bodily experience come into focus, and see where attention goes. Generally it goes where the pain is. So I rest my attention and attitude in that area and let the quality of relaxing be felt in the tissues and jangled energy of a sore back. As attention gives up struggling with the pain, the sense of restfulness widens and deepens and extends over a greater part of the body. Sooner or later it meets the rhythmic process of breathing. The breathing seems to flow through the painful place and it keeps relaxing the resistance to the sensation. Pretty soon, energy starts to flow through that area and its tension and complaining cease. After that, such impingement as remains is of no great concern; it’s less than the overall sense of ease and settledness.
In ways like this you can get the breath and body to work together so that they are partners and friends —holding the body so the breath can access the body and so energy can flow through the body, the whole body, and even beyond into the space around you. Awareness then receives the body, receives the breath. There’s something very beautiful and appropriate about all this being a gift. You have to tune in to receive it, but you don’t have to deserve it.
Of course you come up against the conditioned psychological program that says anything good has to be earned. So just imagine: let yourself be given something. It’s like you are trusted and you are being given something. There’s no personal measurement because although awareness is subjective, it isn’t personal.
Citta can calm and open. It comes out of the stiffness, the defensiveness. Work around that; that is, work with how to use perception. Bring up the question, “How tall are you?” Allow yourself to be as tall as you like. Allow yourself to have infinite space around you that you can move into, that you are totally welcome to expand into it. There isn’t anything pinning you in. When you don’t hurry and don’t dither you have time. In terms of awareness, time is flexible, dependent on your attitude and energy.
Contact: the creator of boxes
So is space. What is around you? When you bring up a perception like, ‘all the time in the world’ or ‘all the space I need,’ you realize you’ve been living in a box your mind has created. This is a standard for the working world: you have your time slot in which to get things done, or you have your metal box in which you shuttle around on the highway with other metal boxes, or you’ve got your box of an office that you get to via a boxy elevator. The impression of space is that it’s limited. Accidentally brush somebody and you feel you have to apologize; if you need some advice or help, you feel like you’re taking up someone else’s time.
When we live like that, it’s because we’re all tightened up. Then we get over-sensitive. You may be meditating in a group, and you feeling that someone’s creepy energy is intruding on your space; in fact the room seems to be full of rustling, fidgeting, clunky people. We want to cut them out and go to a totally sealed off, hermetic vacuum wherein we can finally calm down! But wait… where did the Buddha and all the arahant disciples practice? They weren’t living in temperature controlled practice centers. They weren’t living with with hydraulically propelled zafus supporting them on the ground. They were out in the forests and jungles of India. They sat with their butts on the ground amidst buzzing flies and biting insects; with the occasional snake or bandit coming by for good measure. And it must have been a pretty rough, uncomfortable and noisy experience. So they had to make the experience comfortable through letting go of ‘my space’, through inner ease.
This ease of being present comes through relaxing within your awareness. Then what comes up doesn’t stick in you. That’s non-engagement. You can acknowledge and not waver with what arises; you don’t have to pull it into your citta. That pulling in is what happens through resistance; it’s the resistance to phenomena that imprints them onto your awareness. If you push against something, you’ll feel it, won’t you? If you press your hand against something and push it away, you’ll definitely feel that thing you’re pushing away. That’s called ‘contact,’ and contact is to be contemplated and released. Contact is an action that selects or makes a perception out of a sound, sight and so on. We hear a sound and it becomes a noise, or it becomes ‘people disturbing me, disrespectful, heedless people impacting my space!’ Contact impression is a sankhāra, a kamma formation or volitional tendency. This means that it is a subtle and immediate activity, an action that creates phenomena according to blueprints that have been laid down: past kamma. But it’s not that there are things out there that jump in on you, or things in your head, or memories buried deep ready to leap out on you. Contact launches these perceptions created through habit and through sensing oneself as an individual who has to hold their space and work on their own and get ahead etc. ‘So don’t disturb me!’ Then every impression I haven’t chosen or wished for does disturb me.
‘The more you dislike them, the bigger they get.’ Sure, there are physical sensations. There are sounds; like the one’s coming from the central heating system here. I think that someone is playing the xylophone in here every evening! But that’s fine – because I’m relaxed, I realize it’s just what my mind makes of it and it doesn’t get me going. After a few moments I don’t hear it anymore. So when sights and sounds are happening, but your awareness is settled, it doesn’t react. It keeps the boundary of the mind from contracting, or trying to protect itself from these things. So these things don’t stick and ‘my space’ gets released.
On the other hand, there are perceptions that get created for the mind to feed upon. You see someone who looks attractive and your mind focuses on the attractive aspects until they blow out of all proportion. ‘This is the great love of my life!’ But when you meet after the retreat, he or she is just OK, or you start to notice the less attractive aspects: she has a shrill voice and can’t stop talking; he doesn’t look so good close up, etc. So contact impression is a tendency that also invites action, a volitional tendency; it gets you going. So take responsibility for contact; acknowledge the impact but restrain the interpretation. In fact counter the instinctive interpretations with alternative impressions: bodies are meat and bone and blood – what’s the big deal about that? People are just living out their kamma; they’re not here to bother you, they’re keeping precepts. And meditation? It’s about giving yourself time for awareness to open.
The two aspects of focusing
When you meditate, make contact simple and less loaded with aims and projects. Just ask yourself: ‘Am I breathing? How do I know I’m breathing?’ This pointing and bringing to mind is called vitakka. It’s like a decision to point in a particular way within that field of awareness because that’s what you’re interested in. There are other things out there but you’re not interested in them. This is something we do most of the day. When you are driving to work, driving is what you’re interested in. You don’t bother with the billboards, you keep focused on the traffic lights, and you screen things out. You can drive along and have a conversation. You can flick between the two. This is a normal function of the mind—just to choose and select. At the same time, when you are driving along, you are ready to drop the conversation and go to the brakes, the gears, or whatever is needed. Awareness is poised; it’s not obsessive.
Vitakka tunes in, like tuning in on a radio to pick up a particular station. But be careful that it’s not coming from needing to get rid of everything else. If there’s aversion in it, or if you put too much effort into it, you establish defensive contact, and experience trying and pushing. This then heightens all of the phenomena that you are pushing away. Remember, ’The more you dislike them, the bigger they get.’ So instead steadily withdraw attention from what’s irrelevant or unhelpful now, and feel your way into the theme of your meditation.
In this respect, vitakka is backed up by vicāra, ‘evaluating.’ Vicāra is the experience of resonating with, really getting the feel of what is brought to mind. It’s about moving, exploring, feeling it. If vitakka is ’Just this’ vicāra is ‘What’s it like?’ Like getting to know somebody, you won’t get it all immediately; first you settle with the phenomenon, at a distance, then you put out feelers. You ask yourself, ‘Well, just roughly, what’s breathing like?’ ‘It’s sort of flowing.’ So you have the perception of flow. Then what? Well, there is a certain length to it; it has a certain vitality to it. There is flow; there is vibrancy; it’s shifting and changing. You keep examining it like that. If you can do this without the words, it’s even better. The words tend to stimulate thinking. If you can, just visualize the breath in your mind’s eye, or relate to it at an emotional level as a friendly or comforting or happy experience. Feel it as something that is just working through you. It is friendly, intimate. You can trust it.
That may take some time. There’s breathing in – what’s that like? And how does it differ from breathing out? Keep working with feeling just that, learning to give yourself time to to savor and enjoy. How big is the breath? How small is it? Is it long? You can notice your ideas about the breath. For example, we may say that the breath goes up and down, up and down in the body. But does it? Try imagining breathing going widthwise instead of up and down. In fact as you get more settled, you can even dispense with the anatomical impression of the body that you hold in the back of your mind. You don’t need it. Let your body be a sense of embodiment, of ‘being here’, and add as little peripheral information as possible; in direct experience there’s just sensations and energies, flowing. And as awareness rests, the boundaries are soft; one feels happy, settled, and this is samādhi.
In this way, staying very fully in your body, the body dissolves and with it go all the issues around appearance and gender and age. That’s some letting go. But that’s what the skills of handling perceptions supports. Then you know how letting go happens – gradually. The Buddha taught a graduated path, a step-by-step practice. It means carefully establishing skillful perceptions, acknowledging and not attending to afflictive perceptions, and following the process.