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The Four Ways of Working

Meditation: Returning to the Breath

When we begin to practice, we find is that our mind is filled with thoughts. Or, as some teachers describe it, our mind is like a monkey, dancing around from one thought to another. Where do we start? Our first effort is best made with power: we attempt to remain present in action. A sword is often used as a symbol for power, the idea of cutting through. We cut through the confusion. We do this by simply returning our attention to the breath as soon as we are aware that we have been distracted. Before we notice we are distracted, there is nothing we can do, we are lost. The moment we notice, we are no longer distracted. We now make the effort to stay present in action. Without waiting for the next thought, without indulging ourselves in self-recrimination, self-pity, frustration, impatience, or any other reflection, we return our attention to the breath. Another aspect of power is that once our objective is achieved, we don’t take further action. None is necessary. Once we have returned to the breath, we don’t try to concentrate harder, we don’t try to be even more with it, we just rest with it.

As we cut through our confusion over and over again, returning to the breath, we find that a whole realm of experience begins to open up to us: thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, sounds, images, memories. Our conditioned tendency is to regard some of these as good and some as bad. Through power, we have established a place for our attention to rest. Now we make an effort in ecstasy: we open to the world of sensations. There are many ways to do this, but let me mention two. The first is to learn to include other experiences in our attention while it rests on the breath. The operative term here is include. As we rest our attention on the breath, we become aware of other sensations. While we keep our attention on the breath, we include those sensations. The second is contained in the instruction, “Let your mind be like the sky.” The idea here is that the sky accepts everything yet is disturbed by nothing. Fog, clouds, rain, storms, wind, hurricanes, anything can arise, yet the sky is never disturbed. When we cultivate this very open inclusive quality, we will find that thoughts and feelings don’t distract us. They arise, they go.

Insight is a little trickier because we easily associate the idea of seeing into with analyzing. Analysis is death here. When we analyze our experience during meditation, we have simply returned to the thinking mind and are lost in distraction. To make an effort with insight means to look at what arises and see what it is, not what it is about. There is a crucial difference. We simply look at, say, a thought, or a feeling. The extra energy involved in the looking often is sufficient to counteract the tendency to be distracted by the thought or feeling, and we find that it simply disappears. Poof! And we rest.

Finally, we come to compassion, letting go. Compassion is necessary right from the beginning, but it is also the culmination of our efforts. To wield the sword of power, to open to the richness of ecstasy, to look into feelings all require a letting go of habituated patterns and tendencies. When we use compassion, our effort now is of just letting go wherever we feel we are holding on. If we are holding onto a thought, an idea, a mental or emotional posture, we just let it go and return to the breath. As we stabilize our experience of attention resting with the breath, we begin to feel a sense of presence, of just being there. Almost immediately, a sense of “I can do this” arises. We let that movement go, too. As Suzuki Roshi says, “When a gaining idea arises in our practice, it is a sign that our practice is in trouble.” As we let go of the idea of “me being present with the breath” we find ourselves resting more completely. The less effort, the more resting? And here is where we begin to trust the power of presence itself: just let ourselves be there without any gaining idea.

In practice, we need to develop all four of these abilities. As we learn to apply them in connection with our meditation, we may notice that the same abilities begin to manifest in our daily life.


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