Six Dharma Gates To The Sublime – Following the Coming and Going of the Breath
By Rev. Enkei Joseph Mendyka
In 1990, a Hungarian psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (chick-SEN-mee-hi) published a seminal work in the field of positive psychology entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. This survey provided a new window into how mental habits and states can bring individuals into a confluence of optimal well-being and performance. The implications for high-performing celebrities in many fields–from business to athletics to entertainment–brought the notion of being ‘in the zone’ into the mainstream.
Flow rather nicely captures the essence of the second of the six dharma gates. In terms of sequential development, following the coming and going of the breath follows the stage of counting the breath. Zhiyi writes, “when one becomes aware that the breath has become insubstantial and faint, the mind becomes gradually more subtle along with it. One subsequently becomes concerned that counting has become a coarse activity. One’s state of mind is such that one does not wish to engage in counting.” (Zhiyi, 37)
Counting sets the intention and conditions the habit of following the coming and going of the breath. Entering into a mindful following of the breath is the fruition of that groundwork. “The mind abides in the objective conditions associated with the breath, remaining free of any distraction or scattering of one’s point of attention.” (Zhiyi, 39) This act finds the balance between effort and reward that Csikszentimihlyi describes as leading to happiness. In the opening of his book he writes, “the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” (Csikszentimihlyi, 3)
Although the psychologist is pointing toward the contemplative opportunity in daily life, Zhiyi’s instructions are grounded in a traditional, isolated form of meditation that requires our removal from daily life. What is the value in taking on the cultivation of “flow” through an activity so irrelevant to our lives as seated meditation? That questions brings us to the heart of how the, “Mindful Revolution” may be overlooking the true transformative potential of Buddhist meditation. (As I continue to discuss meditation below, please note that I am referring generally to Buddhist meditation and, more specifically, to the view of meditation in the Tendai Buddhist tradition.)
Meditation is not meant to make us more satisfied with painful circumstances. It is also not a tool to anesthetize us from the fact that we are constantly perpetuating and being victimized by the forces of greed, hatred and ignorance in our minds and of poverty, disease and social isolation in the world. Meditation, instead, is a religious exercise through which we recognize our inherent capacity and obligation to address suffering in all of its forms through actions that disrupt the habits of suffering in the world.
Allow me to break that down. Meditation is a religious exercise, meaning it addresses questions of existential and moral concern. Engaging in meditation implicates us in the timeless universal human conversation, “why are we here and to what end?” In meditation, the practitioner encounters their basic wounds. These wounds are the habits of family and social conditioning and inherited neurological patterning that disrupt our awareness of the interdependent networks to which we are always connected. Why do we act like separate, independent, permanent fixtures in this huge universe of genders, nationalities, species, planets, star systems and, well, even universes? We believe our individual existence matters. We didn’t come up with that idea all on our own, but we sure do keep it going!
In meditation, the cognitive habits that create the perception of these barriers begin to dissolve. The practitioner develops an expanding recognition of how the delusion of “self” and “other” occurs in their thoughts. This recognition is directly tied to the realization of how delusion creates suffering. Seeing how I believe that I am separate from the material things and the experiences that I want to purchase, a new light is shone upon my greed. Experiencing directly the ignorance of my belief in the distinction between myself and the co-worker with whom I am arguing, my hatred and anger are called out for the nonsense that they are.
Through meditation, we develop clarity regarding the precise nature of the world and our place in it. We see that we have the ability to experience ourselves within all of those things we normally think of as “other” than ourselves, like our enemies, other people’s struggles or our own pain. With that basic recognition is a new ground for our moral behavior: When we harm others, we harm ourselves. When we harm ourselves, we harm others. Grounded in this recognition, we know that everything we think, say and do must be re-examined to spread peace. We can’t ever defeat or destroy anything we don’t like–whether that thing is cancer in our bodies or racism in the hearts of others. We are always a part of those things. We can only find out how to keep going knowing the truth, that we’re already connected to everything.
This is why meditation–the act of doing nothing–can be so helpful in doing everything. The less we do, the more universally connected we become. It is also why the breath, an utterly useless object of careful examination, can be so useful. When we consider what could stand in the space between effort and accomplishment, as Csikszentimihlyi points to above, for humans, there is nothing more unifying than the breath. To breathe consciously is to be human. No other species possesses the conscious ability to control the respiration process. Bringing steady, undistracted attention to the breath without trying to control it is usually impossible for longer than a few seconds for most inexperienced meditators. (That is why counting the breath is offered as a first stage.) This skill counterintuitively increases as we try less. This is precisely the point of flow–relaxing into the successful effort.
With this “progress” of diminishing exertion, following the coming and going of the breath connects the practitioner to the essence of flow, the constant movement in a particular activity without mental distraction or inhibition. As the practitioner rests into the practice, Zhiyi writes, “one becomes aware of the breath, as now long, as now short, as now pervading the body, as now coming in, and as now going out. The mind and the breath carry on in a state of mutual interdependence. The deliberations of the mind become tranquil and fixed in a state of stillness.” (Zhiyi, 39)
This state of stillness inside of the movement back and forth–between self and other, from delusional to enlightened, from meditative equipoise to skillful action–serves as the foundation for the entire process of further meditative inquiry. As I first wrote about in the introduction to this series, this entry into the universal through the particular is fundamental to what is meant by “sublime.” All that will be seen and understood, all that will be relinquished, all that will be put into action through meditation are founded in the entry into flow that happens through the following of the coming and going of the breath.
When we grow in our capacity to move past our own narrow perspectives and empathize with others, we have allowed ourselves to exist with them, “in a state of mutual interdependence.” The same is true whenever we alter our behavior to bring relief to any kind of suffering in the world. Further, when the needs of those who are suffering seem mutually opposed–such as between two quarreling children or nations–our wisdom to mediate (or not) will arise from the cultivated, practiced, experienced habit of keeping the mind with the coming and going of the breath. Our knowledge of how existence unfolds as it comes and goes spreads as we instruct others through our words and actions. By allowing life to happen with loving intention and without clinging to the outcome of the flow, we show and explain to those around us how to dance gracefully with the coming and the going. As the sharing of this dance evolves, there is less and less distinction between teacher and student, between healer and patient.
Ultimately, we awaken to see all of existence as the following of the coming and going of the breath simultaneously in each moment. The “bad” or “painful” things aren’t any less bad or any less painful. Their potential to be active, dominating experiences in our minds and in the world remains. Action in and through the flow of our attention allows us to work with these things and continue to share an intention for peace. What were once our enemies become our new opportunities for observing the coming and going of the breath.
Zhiyi, and Dharmamitra. The six dharma gates to the sublime: a classic meditation manual on traditional Indian Buddhist meditation. Seattle, WA: Kalavinka Press, 2009.