By John Lee Pendall
The Arittha Sutta might be one of the most concise (less than a two minute read) Buddhist meditation guides out there.
It pretty much takes you from the first day of practicing to nibbana in 500 words, and it combines tranquility meditation and mindfulness/insight meditation into one. Be warned, like most Suttas it’s extremely repetitive.
You don’t have to read it, but I recommend it; I can wait.
Wow, you read slow. I just cooked an omelette while I was waiting for you to finish. It’s kinda runny, but still. Anyway, the Sutta starts with location.
We’re asked to find someplace quiet and uncluttered to sit—especially if we’re still new to meditation. Noisy or cluttered environments can be extremely distracting when we can’t concentrate very well yet.
If you’re at home and can’t find a quiet space, feel free to tell everyone to shut up for 20 minutes (in a nice way). Practice can’t work if we do it in the shadows. If we wait to meditate until life accommodates it, then we’re never going to meditate. There’s always going to be something or someone trying take our time, energy or focus.
Even if you run off to the wilderness, the rustling grass and chirping birds are going to try to steal your mind away. Even if you live alone in a studio apartment, that little speck of dust on the shelf is going to be yelling, “Clean me now you lazy slob!” So, it doesn’t matter where you are or what your life is like.
It’s healthy to assert ourselves and say, “This is what I’m doing. Please let me do it.” We’re not being selfish here since we’re doing this for others as much as ourselves. No one ever feels guilty for taking time to shower in the morning; this is the same thing.
Make sure you have a balanced posture, neither slouched nor board straight. You can feel it when you get it. It’s like sitting poised on a pinhead. Whenever your mind starts to wander, I recommend checking your posture before returning to the breath. It’s easy to drift off if we’re slouching, or cramp up if we’re sitting too straight. Then some people take a few deep breaths to calm the mind and body—no more than five, though; we’re not trying to go to sleep.
Now, just breathe and concentrate on breathing. I concentrate on the breath at the nostrils and the abdomen at the same time.
But we’re not just concentrating; we’re being mindful of how concentrating on the breath affects us. That’s what mindfulness is: awareness of cause and effect. Buddhism is almost 100% about studying the relationships between things. “When this happens, that happens, and that other thing doesn’t happen. When I do this, I feel this way and not that way.” It doesn’t matter which school or lineage you favor, that’s pretty much it—it’s in all of them. The only difference between them is the conclusions they draw from that and the methods they use to get there.
If you notice something negative, you can ask yourself, “Where’s the stress?” and do a quick scan of, uh, everything; your mind, body, and environment.
Let your attention flutter across your experience like a stone skipping across a pond. You might zero in on something, you might not, but usually the attempt to find stress will alleviate it on its own. It’s like trying to shine a light on a shadow.
You can try it now, actually. There’s always some kinda stress somewhere. “Where’s the stress?” Scan. “Where’s the stress?” Scan. “Where’s the stress?” Did you feel it? Maybe a little tingling taste of serotonin? That’s your brain rewarding you for using it properly.
Physical calmness is usually the first direct of effect of focusing on the breath. When we feel calm, we’re breathing in calm and breathing out calm. We’re letting the breath and its calm permeate our hearts and minds. Nowhere to go, nothing else to do, no one to be. Just calm breathing.
As we grow more and more at ease, the body will seem to disappear. Don’t panic! Just stick with the breath no matter what happens. The itches and aches, the feeling of your ass on the cushion, the subtle breeze cast by a nearby fan, sights and sounds—they’ll all start to fade into a soft comfort. That feeling of fading is called “bodily fabrications.”
In Buddhism, anything we experience that seems like a thing-unto-itself is considered a fabrication.
That ache in your knee, words, a sense of self, everything we see, hear, touch, and know—are all fabrications. This is not in a philosophical way, but in a straightforward, perceptual way. What is left is the ungraspable, indivisible flow of experience (the mutual relationship between everything).
Whenever we experience something as a thing-unto-itself (even these words), then we’re fixating on one small aspect of that flow, like dipping a bucket in a stream. The problem is that, once we take water from the stream, it starts to stagnate and evaporate (impermanence). In mindfulness of breathing meditation, bodily sensations are the first to go, the first part of our experience that we pour back into the stream.
Instead of alarm, the result of this is a feeling of deep comfort. Breathe in that comfort; breathe out that comfort.
In that comfort, you might notice wisps of joy, happiness, or even bliss start to rise up. Breathe it in, breathe it out without clinging to it. As your whole world becomes an ocean of pleasure and ease, your intentional or goal-orientated thoughts will start to fade. You’ll still be thinking, but you won’t be thinking about anything, especially yourself. Your thoughts won’t be attached to feelings, perceptions, sensations, or each other and they’ll merely float in the background. This is, “Breathing in calming mental fabrication, breathing out calming mental fabrication.”
The body and thinking both rest in spaciousness.
In this spaciousness, we can see through the content in our minds to the state of mind itself. That’s called citta, our overall mood or atmosphere. Our state of mind is often quite rigid, unstable or contracted and that affects everything in our minds. Here, we can breathe in steadying and satisfying our state of mind, and breathe out that steadying and satisfaction until our state of mind is vast, stable, bright, and clear. Equanimity.
From there, with that peaceful state of mind, we can investigate the teachings. Everything is out in the open, there’s nothing hidden under attachment, worry, doubt, fear, etc. Whatever attention falls on is the Dharma, everything that appears is a teacher, all of them teaching the same thing: just flow and let everything flow. When we stop up the flowing, we craft whirlpools in the water.
That’s samsara, that’s our cycles and our cyclic perception of cycles.
Buddha said, “I am unbound.” Everything is unbound. Unbound from the curse of thing-unto-itself, and untouched by all of the ramifications that that isolation has. Everything flows, and that’s our way as well. Of course, you don’t have to buy those conclusions to practice the methods. You might even discover something different, and that’s fine.
As long you relax, concentrate, stop being an asshole, and are aware of how A leads to B, then you’ll be fine.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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