Friday, August 28, 2009

The Great Escape / Anapanasati

"Welcome to the real world."

Escapism is a common response to the nasty side of life. The different forms of escapism seem endless: movies, novels, sports, computer games, pornography, alcohol, sex, drugs, crosswords, and music to name but a few. Now, these activities are not inherently ‘bad’ for us, but looking closely at how we use them can reveal the motives behind why we often resort to them when the going gets tough. All these various forms of entertainment are used to shy away from life’s negative side, to avoid confronting those aspects of living that we find distasteful. Worried about paying the rent or the mortgage, concerned that our love life has lost its spark, or niggled by our over-demanding boss at work, it’s understandable that we hide away in a bottle of beer or the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Life is not only often a nasty experience however; it can also be very boring! Who amongst us would rather sit and watch the nondescript nature of breathing than an exciting movie such as ‘The Matrix’, with its intense actions scenes and fantastic storyline? What could be less interesting or inspiring than paying attention to our in-breaths and out-breaths moment by moment? But this is exactly what the Buddha encouraged us to when he frequently described the practice of anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) as a form of meditation in famous discourses such the Maha Satipatthana Sutta and the Anapanasati Sutta. In these texts, meditators are advised to go to the forest, or to the foot of a tree, or to an empty, solitary place (hence the existence of forest monasteries where societal distractions are not to be found). Now, this doesn’t mean that meditation can’t be performed at home, in the village, town or city, but it does indicate that wherever we choose to practice anapanasati it should be quiet and free from distractions. A quiet room at home or a peaceful garden would be fine for this purpose: the Buddha and his disciples often hung out in orange groves to meditate and live mindfully.

The Buddha further instructed that the meditator sits down cross-legged, keeping his body erect, and focuses his mindfulness. Sitting cross-legged with a straightened back is a good posture for long periods of meditation, allowing one to be relaxed yet alert, and is found in many meditative traditions outside Buddhism. If one finds it excessively uncomfortable sitting erect on a chair will suffice, as long as one doesn’t get too comfortable and start snoozing off! Then with keen mindfulness he breathes in and with keen mindfulness he breathes out. This is the essence of anapanasati, to watch the breath with patience, noting whether it is long in-breath or short in-breath, long out-breath or short out-breath. Focusing the mind thus, over time one will develop a peaceful alertness that establishes a secure base from which to watch both body and mind more closely, seeing them as they really are in this moment as impermanent, suffering, and not-self. This is the beginning of the Buddhist meditation path, and an opening up to the wisdom of the Buddha, as attested to by many practitioners to this day.

Anapanasati is not a particularly negative experience, but neither is it an exciting one. And this middle ground is precisely what gives anapanasati its strength; in paying attention to our breathing, we can begin to liberate ourselves from the constant search for highs. We start to become awake to the nature of our minds, jumping from one object to another in a constant flux of avoiding the unpleasant and seeking out the pleasurable. Facing reality in this way is not the easy option of course; smoking a joint or watching a football match on TV are much more convenient activities. But is a life lived in various forms of escapism healthy in the long run? If we blindly follow our impulses and desires we are their slaves. The Buddha taught that desire is the main cause of our suffering (dukkha). If we don’t get what we want, or get that which we don’t want, we suffer. I want nice weather on my day off work, but instead it pours with rain; now, I can cling to my desire for clement weather and get wound up, or I can calmly accept the way things are – which is the wiser?

Being alert to the nature of our breath is a calming practice, enabling the mind to reach a stable and peaceful state in which we can observe the myriad thoughts and feelings that occur in a surprisingly short period of time. Understanding can then arise, as we begin to notice our habits and impulses, conscious of them for perhaps for the first time in our lives. We can then see that we’ve been caught in a self-perpetuating loop of avoidance-attraction-avoidance-attraction, ad infinitum. Seeing thus presents a new possibility, a new way of living; being with the present, with the way things are. Then we can say with the character Morpheus in the Matrix movie, “Welcome to the real world”, and actually have an inkling of what that actually means, as like Neo, we escape from our self-made prison.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.