Time is Passing 1: Breathing, Shamatha, Vipassana

(7 Day Intensive at Centre of Gravity, 180 Sudbury Street, Toronto, Spring, 2011. Talks by Michael Stone, notes by MH (with errancies, mishearings, conjectures.) This is talk 1 of 8 on Dogen’s text Time is Passing), written in 13th century Japan.)

The first thing I wanted to cover is what we’re doing with our breath when we’re practicing. When you inhale and exhale, the first thing that’s really important to remember is that you’re inhaling and exhaling. This is the foundational meditation technique. When you inhale, inhale. And when you exhale, exhale. I don’t know about you but I forget. When the teacher is saying inhale, I’m mentally somewhere else. So the way I like to think about it, is that if this is your breath (holds up a wand), when you inhale you start at the beginning and you inhale, and your citta, your attention span, follows the inhale all the way to the top of the inhale which is called antara kumbhaka (antara means the top). You follow the inhale and you can feel the energy of the prana end up somewhere here, at the diaphragm of your olfactory bulb, it wraps around it. And when you exhale, you exhale all the way down to the end of your exhale. So your inhale seems to have a beginning, a middle section, and a top. And your exhale also seems to have this. At the top of the inhale there’s a pause, a little swirl, and out of that pause your exhale shows up. And then you’re bonding – the word bond in Sanskrit is bhanda – you’re bonding your attention, your citta, with the feeling of your exhale, all the way down to the very end. And most of the time it’s tricky to adhere your attention to the flow of the breath. Has anyone ever noticed that? Your attention jets off in every direction three dimensionally. These are called vrttis, which basically means to fly off and revolve. Most of your time is spent in vrtti land. 

So you’re inhaling and exhaling, and in Sanskrit there’s a word for that which is shamatha, which has three meanings for a meditator. The first meaning is to stop, just to stop. I think that if you can figure that out you can save your whole life. To really be able to stop when you’re caught up, when you’re entangled, when you’re hooked by something. How many of us have certain habits, and when we’;re in them, we can’t stop. It can be like this for decades. Shamatha has the root word sham; in it. Sham is where we get the word shanti which means ease. It’s a noun and a verb. You can feel a sense of ease, but you can also ease your fixations and compulsions. It actually comes from a slang term which is Shambo, a term for Siva, Siva is sometimes called Shambo. Siva is the Hindu deity that represents pure awareness. Siva is what Patanjali would call purusha, a person. A real person. The word purusha literally means a person, and Patanjali purposefully misreads the term purusha to mean a person who is in full awareness; as opposed to Brahma or God which is so abstract. Instead of being one with God you just become a person. It’s way harder, it’s so much easier to fantasize about God. It’s a lot harder to actually be a person. And maybe on earth right now what we most need is people rather than experts and professionals. Has anyone here had it with professionals?

Sham means to stop, to be awake. It’s where we get this notion of shamata practice, which is to stop, to become calm, and to concentrate. Any meditation technique that allows you to stop, to become calm and to concentrate is called shamata. Also from the term sham we get a hatha yoga technique called shambhavi mudra. The word bhavi means to be or to fee or to make an impression and mudra means to gesture. So shambhavi mudra means to have a gesture of sham, which is the gesture of Siva or the gesture of stopping and being totally awake to that moment. To what’s going on in that moment. When shambhavi mudra occurs your soft palette lifts. This is the physiology of what happens when you’re awake. And we all know this. Whenever you have an experience of letting go there is shambhavi mudra. Have you ever seen grandparents pushing their grandkids on a swing? They automatically get shambhavi mudra. You never get it for your own kids, but people get it for their grandkids. Dogen calls this grandparent mind. When you have an experience of just appreciating something your chin sometimes lifts a little bit. Imagine you’re just about to smell something, can you feel how your soft palette lifts? The chest expands, and your eyes get really quiet. It’s almost like your eyes go back into the suboccipitals, almost like you’re looking from inside the base of your skull. Your peripheral vision increases just like you’re looking at a sunset or a grandkid or someone you like. They can be hard to find sometimes. In asana and pranayama practice this is what we’re doing all the time, we’re practicing shambhavi mudra. When you’re inhaling your soft palette lifts, and that is the gesture of sham, the gesture of ease. Joseph Brodsky says that ethics follows aesthetics. When you have an aesthetic experience, ethics is the spontaneous response. So shambhavi mudra is the physiology of ethics, the physiology of aesthetics. It’s the physical experience of kindness. Whenever you have a moment of kindness – have you ever had one of these before? When you can just look at someone and feel sympathetic? Like someone else is paying taxes. You just look at them and the soft palette lifts and this is called shambhavi mudra.

That’s one half of experience and it’s called shamata. It’s characterized by stopping, calming and concentrating. And the other half of the practice is called vipassana. Pashya is an eye, vi means to go in and the other meaning is to interrupt. Vipassana is to interrupt the way you see or to go in deep with the way you see. Which often gets translated in English as insight. When you stop and get calmed, then vipassana arises, insight arises. And in the Buddhist tradition there are really three things you get insight into. The nature of suffering or frustration, impermanence, and that nothing belongs to you. Have you ever noticed this? Nothing belongs to you. Mostly what you spend time doing during the day is making things belong to the self, or creating a self that thinks it belongs to itself.

Just to back up, it’s really important in the asana practice that you’re following your inhale and following your exhale, this is the technique I want to have down by Friday. When you’re moving, move in the current of your breath. On the inhale, it takes the whole length of the movement to have an inhale, and when you exhale, it takes the whole length of the movement to have an exhale. There’s no rushing. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t jump between poses, you can’t make your breath work with the jumping. Floating is OK, but we’ll get to that. When you inhale and exhale and you’re connected to your inhale and exhale, then you start to have a feeling for your life. You start to experience your life, which is sometimes hard to experience when it’s just conceptual. It’s hard to experience a yoga posture when you’re not really in it. Your body can be making a certain movement, but your attention can be somewhere else. Right now even. I can be talking, and you can be still eating lunch in the park wondering where you’re going to buy chocolate at 3:30.

Text Seasoning
We’re going to study a text each afternoon, and when you start to study this text what you’ll notice is that we’re not just studying the text but getting a feeling for it. At the time of Dogen, in 13th century Japan, people probably didn’t study texts. They probably allowed themselves to be seasoned or marinated by a text. You would take a teaching and work with it and feel it and let it enter your life, enter your pores. Just like when we’re in this room together, you don’t try to let other people enter you, it wouldn’t be so ethical, but you want to let your body be receptive to the person beside you, the person across from you, the walls, the flowers that Sarah brought, and the feelings of practice. There’s been a lot of practice in this room, this year especially. How do we take that in? You can’t take that in by analyzing it. Instead you work with it, and maybe that’s what it means to contemplate a text. It’s something I think we’ve lost, mostly because of our education system. For most of us we’ve been educated to study a text, and analyze it and compare it. Dogen-Heidegger.