Editor’s note: Insight Meditation teacher Peter Doobinin’s latest book, Skillful Pleasure: The Buddha’s Path for Developing Skillful Pleasure, is an exploration into pleasure’s role in our meditation practice. Pleasure is something we might shy away from, or be told outright not to seek, but Doobinin writes that the Buddha often taught about pleasure when instructing on breath meditation. The following excerpt is the third step in mindfulness of breathing that allows us to develop skillful internal pleasure; the preceding steps are putting the mind on the breath and cultivating an easeful, pleasureable breath.
When the body is suffused with easeful breath energy, we experience pleasure. This is the skillful internal pleasure that we seek to cultivate in following the Buddha’s middle path. The quality of physical ease (piti) gives rise to the mental quality of pleasure (sukkha). The body conditions the mind. The easeful breath energy, flowing throughout the body, conditions the arising of pleasure.
In practicing mindfulness of breathing, we learn to develop our skill in an effort to strengthen and deepen the qualities of inner ease and pleasure.
As we practice developing pleasurable abiding in the body, as we attempt to keep the mind on the enlarged field of the body, we often notice that we begin to lose energy at some point during the process. In practicing spreading, we expend a certain amount of energy, and eventually our energy level begins to decrease. In turn, our ability to keep the mind on the body may begin to diminish. We may notice, as this occurs, that the mind begins to wander. We may notice that we’re chasing after thoughts. When our energy begins to lessen, it’s usually a good idea to move our focus back to the one point, the spot at which we were feeling the breath. We return, if you will, to our home base.
Now, using directed thought, we keep the mind on the one point.
We may notice, after returning to a one-pointed focus, that the breath is quite easeful, more easeful than before. At this juncture, after having spread the breath energy through the body, we may find that the breath is quite refined, fine, soft, quiet. It may be very pleasant.
We may notice that the breath—the in-breath and the out-breath—is rather short. After spreading the breath throughout the body, we don’t need to take in so much air.
As we’re mindful of the breath, we might have a background awareness of the body; we may notice that the body is pervaded with ease. The body, at this stage, may be exceptionally easeful; it may feel very light, soft.
After keeping the mind on the breath at the one point for some time, we may then decide to once again enlarge our awareness, making the full body the object of our mindfulness. Now, as we maintain a full body awareness and allow the breath energy to spread, pervade the body—perhaps, at this stage, we’re practicing whole body breathing—we may experience an increased concentration. That is to say, the qualities of jhana may now be more developed. The breath energy, flowing through the body, may be very smooth, easeful. There may be an even stronger quality of pleasure. The mind, given the level of pleasure, may be rather content to remain right where it is, in the body. Our interest in thinking may be negligible. Our concern about the subjects of our lives, our relationships, jobs, etc., may be minimal, perhaps non-existent.
The Buddha describes it like this:
There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture & pleasure born from seclusion. And as he remains thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, any memories & resolves related to the household life are abandoned, and with their abandoning his mind gathers & settles inwardly, grows unified & centered. (MN 119)
The process of breath meditation often develops in this manner. There are many variations on the theme, but the practice, using the nomenclature of the steps, often goes something like: 1, 2, 3, 1,2 3, etc.
It’s sometimes said—admittedly it’s an inelegant analogy—that we make money at the breath, spend it in the body; then, after we’ve spent the money, we go back to the breath, make some more money, then we go back to the body and spend it, and so on.
As we develop our skill, we learn to become more and more adept in working with the breath energy. An important aspect of the skill, in cultivating inner pleasure, is to learn to adjust the level of the energy. It’s altogether possible, as we practice developing pleasant abiding in the body, that the energy coursing through the body may become too strong. In fact, the breath energy can become very strong. Sometimes the energy may begin to move quite rapidly, with excessive force. The energy may become jagged, rough. When the energy becomes too strong, it may be unpleasant.
In developing our skill, we learn to adjust the energy when it becomes too strong. We learn to soften the energy. Generally, this is accomplished, quite simply, by inclining the mind; we use internal fabrication, we tell ourselves to soften the energy. We adjust the energy, using intention, in the same way that we turn a dimmer switch to adjust the brightness of an electric light.
What we often find, as we spread breath energy, is that the energy becomes just a bit too strong. In these instances, we make just a slight adjustment. We soften the energy a fraction. We turn the dimmer switch just slightly.
Often what’s required is a small adjustment, in order to bring the energy to precisely the right level.
In adjusting breath energy, we look to find the level of energy that’s most pleasurable. When the flow of the breath energy is “just right,” the experience of the body becomes extremely pleasant. Pleasure flourishes.
As we learn to develop a pleasant abiding in the body, we may spend an amount of time, in any period of meditation, simply residing in this pleasant abiding. Residing there, we feed on the qualities of ease and pleasure. We allow ourselves to take in these pleasant qualities. We feast on pleasure. We notice the desire to get up from the table, to leave aside the good food of ease and pleasure, to move on to something else, but we put that desire to the side. We resist the temptation, so prevalent in our in-a-hurry culture, to move on to the next thing. We may perhaps notice, as we feed on pleasure, a voice in the mind telling us that this is something we shouldn’t be doing, that we’re doing something wrong, that it’s wrong to take in pleasure; but we recognize these voices, we realize they’re spouting misconceptions, we don’t give in to them. We remember the value in staying where we are, in cultivating internal pleasure. We remember that in feeding on this wholesome pleasure we’re acting in tune with the dharma, we’re following the path the Buddha laid out.
Often, as the meditation goes on, we choose to be mindful of both the breath and the body at the same time. At this stage, our awareness comprises a foreground and background. One object, either the breath or body, is in the foreground; the other is in the background. We may have a clear sense of the breath fueling the body with breath energy. The breath energy, we may notice, is soft, light, like a gentle rain. The sensations may be very, very pleasant.
Maintaining this pleasant abiding, we allow ourselves to absorb the pleasant sensations. We notice the quality of pleasure; we note it: “Pleasure.” We allow ourselves to enjoy the pleasure.
As we put time and effort into our practice, as we cultivate the qualities of jhana, the qualities of ease and pleasure “accumulate” in the body. Little by slowly, we absorb these qualities; they become part of our ongoing experience of the body. In the same way that the food we eat at breakfast—the oatmeal and bananas—is assimilated by the body and becomes part of the body’s physical structure, the qualities of ease and pleasure that we cultivate in meditation remain, to some extent, in the body.
The more we cultivate the jhana qualities, the more we experience the easeful, pleasurable sensations, the deeper the qualities of ease and pleasure absorb into us. And, accordingly, they become more and more available to us, in all postures, throughout our days and nights. As the Buddha notes, this is a mark of jhana: we’re able at all times to access the qualities of ease and pleasure. In cultivating skillful internal pleasure, this is an important goal: to be able to develop a pleasant abiding in the body that is available to us as we engage in the activities of our lives.
As we become skilled in mindfulness of breathing, we learn to feed on the qualities of ease and pleasure so that, gradually, we embody these qualities. We keep at it, we develop our meditation, so that the quality of skillful internal pleasure will continue to nourish us, as we move through life.
The quality of skillful internal pleasure, we learn, is “good food.” It is the food that will sustain us, support us, as we meet the vicissitudes of life. It is the good food that will strengthen us, in our efforts to end our suffering and find true happiness in this life.
As the Buddha said:
How very happily we live, we who have nothing. We will feed on rapture like the Radiant gods. (Dhp 200)
Excerpted from Skillful Pleasure: The Buddha’s Path for Developing Skillful Pleasure © 2020 by Peter Doobinin
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