Practice; breathing

Let’s say that “practice” is the word we use for volitional disciplines intended to bring about well-being. To distinguish these from one-time physical or mental alterations like cataract surgery or lobotomy, practices will be activities that need to be repeated over time to be effective. They are a kind of behavioral re-patterning, and mostly intervene to change ingrained habits of intention or perception. 

The Pāli word that most directly correlates to our word “practice” is bhāvanā, often translated as “cultivation,” “development,” and beautifully, “culture,” like yogurt, but also like… culture. Bhāvanā is also translated as “meditation” when that’s the obvious discipline being suggested. To practice is to cultivate some thing, and it is directional. We are not just practicing being present! We are trying to cultivate some states over others, and I do hope you have preferences around your states. 

(You might notice that I’m spending a lot of time lately pushing back against a teaching that’s common in non-Buddhist mindfulness culture that being present with whatever is arising, even welcoming whatever arises, is the heart of meditation and psychological well-being. I think this is a harmful oversimplification of one tiny aspect of meditative cultivation and risks training people in apathetic acceptance of their states. It’s so easy to feel like our moods, energy, and emotional reactions are out of our control, and this teaching tells us not just that that’s true, but that it’s good if we recognize that and not resist it. This is not a Dhamma teaching—certainly not one found anywhere in the Pāli discourses that I know of. Hindrances are to be diminished and prevented, not welcomed.)

What are we cultivating? Essentially, we are cultivating states. States are energetic, physiological, emotional, and mental experiences that can be thought of as the background of our conscious experience any moment. I think the three most important spectra that define our state, at least in terms of meditation, (with their Pāli words) are: 

  1. energy: alertness and force available for directed activity (viriya)
  2. mood: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral emotional tone (vedanā)
  3. focus: the ability to connect with a chosen percept and stay with it (vitakka-vicāra)

How lovely that these are all “v” words in Pāli! We’ll call them the “three v’s,” lumping vitakka and vicāra together as one quality.

We are practicing to cultivate these three fundamental qualities, and in particular to be able to adjust them on purpose. If I were just trying to be with them as they are arising in response to circumstances, my practice would be very passive, and tend to low energy, low mood, and low focus. But what I personally want for well-being generally and progress in meditation specifically is medium high energy, medium pleasant mood, and high focus. (This may be slightly different for each person, since this is crafted in response to our baseline tendencies and intends to couteract our bad habits. That said, I think the recipe I just outlined works pretty well for many people.) There are practices to balance each of these qualities alone, but many of the most useful activities we could call bhāvanā address all three: the basic foundations of sleep, exercise, nutrition, and social connection; and then training disciplines like movement practice, breathwork, and meditation in stillness. 

One thing all the training types—most disciplines center on one of these three: movement, breathing, or stillness—have in common is that they work with the breath. There’s been good development in the public literature lately around breathing, including a lovely book, Breath, by James Nestor. The book essentially gives you a bunch of neuroscience and physiological justification for practices long familiar to many ancient disciplines, including Buddhist and Hindu (and other) Yogas in South Asia, and Daoist and Vajrayāna practices in China and central Asia. For some interesting cultural reasons, there has arisen a conceptual border between mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati—often interpreted as passive observation of the breath) in the Insight Meditation community and the cultivation of breathing (prāṇāyāma—volitional breath training) in Haṭha Yoga communities. Both passive and active breath practices exist in both systems. For Buddhist mindfulness practitioners, particularly, a few simple tools from prāṇāyāma can be tremendously helpful in the cultivation of states.

Breath can be thought of as a mirror of our state, but also is the most powerful access point we have to the autonomic nervous system functions that correlate to the three state-defining qualities of energy, mood, and focus. Changing our breathing patterns is often the easiest and most effective thing we can do to shift those qualities quickly. Most of the breathing interventions fall into one of two general uses: they’re activating or calming. Most simply, inhaling activates and exhaling calms, and all of the many variations in breathing practice rely on this basic physiological activity. Manipulating of the speed and depth of breathing, and sometimes holding the breath, we can shift the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our body, adjust the balance of stress hormones being released, and condition both body and mind to process activation in more useful ways.

We’ll start this week (at Satsang) looking at breath, and the practices of breath cultivation (prāṇāyāma and ānāpānasati) that we can use both in meditation and throughout the day to adjust our energy, mood, and focus and cultivate the states that will serve us best on the path. 

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