There’s nothing to hold onto; there’s nothing to do any holding on. (day 89)
I’ve been explaining how the practice of upekkha bhavana isn’t really about equanimity, and how upekkha itself isn’t really equanimity, but the desire that beings experience peace. It’s the desire that we and others experience the profound peace of enlightenment or awakening (bodhi).
In the upekkha bhavana — and in other ways in our lives — we cultivate peace through developing insight. And then we wish that others attain that peace. Now it doesn’t matter if we’ve not actually experienced the peace of awakening ourselves; we can still know that it’s a beneficial and desirable state for others, and develop the desire that they find the peace of awakening.
There are actually many angles on developing insight and the peace it brings. The main approach is to observe the impermanence of our experiences. And so I’m going to talk about how we can do this, beginning with the body.
We tend to assume that the body we inhabit, or the body that we are, or the body that we have (our perspective changes moment to moment) is something quite permanent and stable. Sure, we know it changes, but we tend to assume that the changes are quite superficial; the body moves, gets fatter, gets thinner, gets sick, gets better, but there’s some underlying stability and continuity.
But if you let go of your ideas and assumptions about the body, you’ll start to see something quite different. If you let your eyes close, and let an awareness of sensations that are arising in the body become more prominent in your mind, there might at first be a hang-over of that assumption of permanence. There’s the pressure of your bottom on your seat. There are your hands resting on your lap. There is your tongue in contact with your teeth. There are the sensations of the breathing.
But take any one of these sensations, and you’ll see that it’s changing, moment by moment. Take your breathing: you notice an in breath, and then an out breath. The in breath has a beginning. At one point the in breath didn’t exist. Then it started, at some point that it’s hard to define exactly. And it continued for a while, and then it ceased, again often at a point that’s hard to define, and then there was no more in breath. So the in breath was an impermanent experience. And then the same happens with the out breath It didn’t exist, it began, it continued, it ceased, it was no more. It was impermanent.
But then you can zoom in a bit more, and start paying attention to each moment of the in breath or out breath. Because you’ve been assuming that there was this “thing” called an in or out breath that came into being and then existed for a while. But when you look closely and see what’s happening in this moment, and this moment, and this moment, you recognize that each moment is a new constellation of experiences. Each moment is something new. Each moment is a birth and a death. The thing that you called an in breath or an out breath was not a thing at all, but a series of ever-changing moments.
And you can do the same with any other part of your body — say your hands. And you assumed that there was some “thing” there that you call your hands. But when you look closely you’ll start to see that there’s just this same moment-by-moment eternal newness. “The hands” dissolve into a tingling, buzzing, ever-changing cloud of sensations.
The sensation that you thought of as “the pressure of your bottom on your seat”? It’s the same. There’s nothing more substantial than the weight of your body resting on a solid surface, but actually it’s not at all substantial. The pressure, when you look at it closely, changes in every moment. Sensations of pain are just the same as this. We take them to be real; “There’s an ache in my knee.” But as you closely watch the sensation of pain, you discover that it’s actually many sensations: pulsing, throbbing, pressure, heat, cold, stabbing, tightness. And each of these sensations comes and goes in every moment.
As you continue doing this, the entire body can start to dissolve. We can lose that assumption of solidity that we habitually carry around (our assumptions, too, as impermanent). The body seems more like a cloud of sensations in space. We can start to realize that we don’t have a body, but merely experience sensations that arise and pass away.
We can apply this with sensations arising from the outside world: the light coming through your closed eyelids creates an ever-changing kaleidoscope of red, blue, green, yellow speckles, dancing in your visual field. Sounds: that hum of the refrigerator is not just impermanent because it starts and stops, but because in every moment it is a new sound. Waves of pressure are rising and falling in the air hitting your ear-drum. Sound can only be heard because it changes moment by monent.
And you can notice the same with feelings. You label something “anxiety” but it’s not just sitting there like an unchanging lump of solid matter. It’s not even one things, but is composed of buzzing and trembling and fluttering and pounding.
Thoughts? Where’s the thought you had a moment ago? The same thought may seem to come back over and over again, but it’s a different thought with every appearance. And each thought, however much we like it or dislike it, vanishes all on its own, without our needing to do anything. We watch all this closely.
Even your awareness itself is changing all the time. One moment you’re aware of the pain in your knee, and the next your attention has flipped into noticing the sound of a barking dog, and then it’s back to your breathing. Your mindfulness is there; then you have no mindfulness, and you’d distracted by some thought.
There’s nothing that isn’t constantly changing.
That fear you have that something will change? That fear appears and vanishes, and while it existed it was always changing. The fear you have that something won’t change? That’s changing too, moment by moment. It’s not even there while it’s there.
And so there’s nothing to fear. There’s nothing to gain; nothing to lose. There’s nothing to hold onto; there’s nothing to do any holding on.
“Monks, suppose that a large mass of foam were floating down this Ganges River, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, and appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a mass of foam? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, and appropriately examines any form that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in form?”
There’s a vast space of consciousness, and in that space experiences arise and pass. And the more you let go of trying to hold on to anything that’s arising and passing (the trying will change!) the more peace you’ll experience. This peace is the result of the “close watching” of upekkha.
And when you turn your mind to others, watching them closely with the love and the compassion and the rejoicing in the good that you’ve cultivated in the other brahma vihara practices, you’ll want them to experience that peace too.