Sharda Rogell
Sharda Rogell

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Wednesday, November 10, 2021
Pleasant Abiding
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This is an edited version of the Zoom talk I gave for the Wednesday Night Sitting Group on November 10, 2021 in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

 

                      Last month I explored the nature of awareness, taking awareness as the object of  our investigation. I spoke about 5 qualities within awareness —stillness; brightness or alertness (aliveness itself); curiosity or interest; discerning wisdom; and compassion. I encouraged us to know each of these qualities directly and how each one functions in our lives. Tonight I want to continue that exploration but in a different way — through the pleasant feeling that awareness engenders, or sukha, (in sanskrit and pali), as a way for us to experience more pleasure more of the time. I pretty sure this is something we all want right now.

Sukha is a mental quality of pleasure that points to happiness, ease, or joy. The etymology is interesting. The word comes from the metaphor, “running swiftly or easily”, referring to the axle hole in a chariot when it’s set properly. The chariot runs along easily and there is the sense of continuation of its functioning over time, that is until something goes wrong. Then we have the opposite, which is called dukkha. This movement between dukkha and sukha is our life. But let’s remember that the whole of the Buddha’s teaching is to increase the experience of sukha, so let’s look into how to make the possible.

Let’s look at sukha as a window into what the Buddha calls, pleasant abiding. The more we are in touch with this knowing the more pleasure we can experience. This pleasant abiding is called the happiness of the Buddha, or lokuttara sukha — a happiness that is “above this world, transcendent, or beyond worldly things”. It is a happiness that is independent of this world, meaning, a happiness that is not dependent on the conditions of our mind and body.

Why do I want to talk about this?  Because I believe it’s what we all need right now, after 18 months of Covid — to be above the fray of this pandemic and all the other challenges we are facing in the world right now. Isn’t that what we need?… But I want to talk about the way into a pleasant abiding in language that isn’t so esoteric and is easily accessible. Because as we know this innermost aspect of our being, it becomes a support for us to meet the challenges of our lives. 

When we feel the support of this pleasant abiding, it might feel like we have padding, or protection, or a place of refuge. When a situation seems overwhelming, I might doubt that I have the strength to overcome it but whenever I feel that way, I can stop for a moment and trust that my deeper nature will help me overcome my concerns. I can tune into something else.

Now, I want to point out that everyone here has already touched this pleasure. It’s the simple pleasure that arises with easeful breathing, the energy of the breath, especially as it begins to flow in and out through the body. It’s the pleasure we feel when we begin to relax. So the very first step is relaxation. The first entry into this pleasure happens when we relax, anytime we relax. In the beginning, it usually takes some intentional focusing or gentle effort for this relaxation to arise. 

I remember the very first time I touched this pleasure in a conscious way. When I was 27 years old, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Circumstances were challenging me in a way that I couldn’t handle. My first marriage was breaking down, I was living in an unfamiliar place and I felt lost in myself without any one to turn to. Someone suggested starting Transcendental Meditation (this was the 70’s and this meditation was becoming quite popular then). I was ready to try anything that would help. And after a few days, as I meditated with the mantra twice a day for 20 minutes, the practice touched something in my consciousness that was independent of the conditions of my life and I felt some relief, as if something was finally releasing and letting go. This was a turning point. I can mark it as a before and after experience. Over time this mind state began to permeate into my being and into my daily experiences. The suffering (dukkha) was beginning to emptying out and sukha was filling in its place. 

Once we taste that, it also unleashes a desire for more. It’s as if something wakes up,  along with, “How can I get more of that!”  It touches an innate desire in our Being for pleasure, a natural desire for more ease, comfort, joy, even playfulness, to feel good in ourselves rather than bad. My teacher Hameed Ali calls this the enlightenment drive and he says it’s inherent in our condition as human beings. So the question arises, how can I increase this pleasure? How can I make it stay around more. I believe this is what sustains us on the spiritual path.

Understanding how to do this is the key in the Buddha’s teaching. We find it in the Noble Eightfold under the factor of Wise Effort. The pali word for effort is chanda, and to understand what the Buddha was pointing at with this factor is to understand how this word is translated. It means, intention or interest, the desire to act, eagerness or the inner “yes” we feel when we make a choice to move towards something that makes us feel alive. It is combined with energy or zeal. But in Noble Eightfold Path, it is wise effort which means it is a desire that arises from wisdom, from our innate intelligence.

In one sutra (Majhima Nikaya 141), the Buddha expounds of the four wise efforts. The first two are avoiding and overcoming difficult or unwholesome mind states, and the last two are developing and maintaining wholesome mind states. Here I’m focusing on the wholesome states for that’s where we will find the pleasurable feeling that it brings forth. 

The first and second wise efforts involve the entire progressive training of the Buddha’s path that fills volumes of teachings in all the Buddhist traditions. It invites us to awaken zeal for setting up conditions that will allow for wholesome states to arise more often. This includes all of our skilfull means and practices.

The third and fourth wise effort invite us to awaken zeal for continuing, strengthening, increasing and finally, the fulfillment of wholesome states that have already arisen. She “makes effort and arouses energy to maintain these states”.

I’d like to tease this apart so we can bring this more fully into our practice. In the first three efforts, we need to put our attention into making the wholesome states arise more often, but in the fourth effort, what’s important to notice is that these conditions have already arisen and we are interested in how to make them continue. 

I’ll give you an example. I met recently with someone who is a busy physician. She was pointing out how at the end of day, she would notice that her body was tight, her head was constricted. That she was carrying a lot through the day. Now this woman is an experienced practitioner and she knew how to remember to relax through her day. 

I asked her how she works with this. She said, when she is walking to her next patient, she can feel her feet on the ground and makes sure she is aware of at least one full breath. She has the intention to be more embodied. This would be an example of working with the third effort, to continue developing conditions for the wholesome states to arise.

Then we talked about what happens when she’s at home, washing the dishes, for instance and looking out of her window at the beauty of the garden, the blue expanse of the sky. She could feel how those times were effortless moments of pleasure and relaxation, naturally arising, or already arisen. Here is where our practice can take on a whole new dimension

I encouraged her to notice that this is a moment of pleasure that has already arisen, it’s already here and it arose effortlessly. First, acknowledge the pleasurable feeling, bringing it into conscious experience. “This is pleasurable and relaxing.”  Then, with intention, (chanda)  invite the pleasure and relaxation to “melt” or “wash through” the mind and the body, even for a moment, just giving it a gentle nudge. The breath is such a great support here, particularly the out breath. You might feel that pleasure as a wave and you might notice that it’s possible to ride this wave, this a wave of pleasure. Allow this. Invite this. Be conscious of it. 

I remember one time when I was boogy boarding in New Zealand. It just so happened that the waves broke very far out on from the shore because of its shallowness and it was possible to ride the wave in for a long way. It’s like this. Just riding it out, this pleasure that is arising from wisdom, from intelligence.

This is a conscious invitation to ourselves to let go, to let go of any areas of constriction in the mind and body. To let it fill the entire body, as if we were filling a bucket with warm water. It’s not any different than what often happens in our sitting in meditation. We do this intentionally, with chanda, with interest, a kind of self-emptying, clearing out, not dwelling on anything. This brings a sense of space in the mind. And as we bring attention to the body, we can begin to feel more lightness, openness, ease, flexibility. We are letting go. And then we can check through the body, and ask, “How do I feel in the head area, or in the chest, or in my belly. I want to catch the wave and increase the volume of pleasure.

This is an invitation to let go and yet, sometimes a part of our being doesn’t want to let go. For some people, at certain times, it doesn’t feel safe to let go, it doesn’t feel safe to relax. There is the feeling that we need to protect ourselves from some sense of danger or threat. This is not unusual. This happens at times. 

When this occurs it’s so important to pay respect and to honor this part of ourselves. If it ever feels like too much and fear gets activated, then we stop. We allow ourselves to feel the fear, agitation or restlessness and bring as much self-compassion to the experience as you can. The more access you have to this inner support, the easier it is to know your limits, to know when to pull back. The arising of the self-knowledge and self-compassion has a pleasant feeling tone. It can be helpful to acknowledge how this can arise right in the middle of the challenging experience we are having. Then we can see that this is not an either/or situation. We are not setting up pleasure as opposed to discomfort or pain. But rather, pointing out the possibliltiy of feeling the pleasure right in the middle of the discomfort. This is the gift of abiding in awareness. 

One of my teachers, Vanessa Stone, told me something that has become an important reflection for me. She said, “Our humanity is not a threat to our awakeness. Our humanity and awareness are friends. Our humanity doesn’t go away. Our humanity is there but it does not have to become bigger than our awareness”.

This is our loving presence. It is our birth right. It is holding. It is supportive, giving us comfort. And it is reliable. More and more, it becomes so accessible that we can feel like we are abiding in this pleasure, as if we were lying in a soft mossy field with the sun shining. If this pleasant abiding had a color it would be blue — calming like the clear blue sky.

 

Guided Meditation on Pleasant Abiding

 

  1. Find a comfortable posture. Relax into the stillness of your body. You may feel and sense the breathing body. Be attentive to these gentle breaths. If it’s not easy to access the breath, you may listen to the audible sounds and simply sense the posture of your body sitting.
  2. Begin to relax with some intention and gentle effort (chanda). This is like a gentle nudging of the relaxation, an invitation. Notice any areas of tension, in the head area, or chest, or belly, or anywhere in the body. And as you breath out, direct the attention to the particular area of constriction, inviting relaxation and softening and letting go. With this gentle effort, allow the relaxation to begin to wash through the body and mind.
  3. The breath is a wonderful support here, particularly the out breath. Breathing out and letting go. As the tranquillity becomes stronger, see if you can notice the pleasurable feeling tone to the experience — in the breathing itself, or in the opening to more relaxation and letting go, in the awareness itself. Make the pleasurable feeling conscious, even naming it “pleasure” can be helpful. Allow this. Invite this. Be as conscious of the pleasure as you can be. 
  4. And notice if you can allow the pleasurable relaxation to wash through your body and mind. It can be felt like a melting, or a showering, or like riding a wave, a wave of pleasure. Notice if there is a desire for more and allow this desire that arises from wisdom, as a support for being present.
  5. Be aware that you are offering a conscious invitation to your body and mind to relax, to let go. Let the pleasurable feeling begin to fill the body, as if you were filling a bucket with warm water, little by little. 
  6. We are doing this intentionally, with interest, clearing out any unwanted debris. This is also called a practice of “self-emptying”. We have the intention to not dwell on any thoughts of the past or future, but let go. Notice if this brings more space to the mind. Notice whether you feel lighter, more open, at ease. More flexible, less rigid.
  7. Keep checking through the whole body in case any tension arises. You can check the head area, or the chest, or the belly. Keep catching the wave, or increase the volume of the pleasure. 
  8. You might not feel pleasure. Your experience might feel neutral or even unpleasant at times. I encourage you not to try to make any particular experience happen. We are looking for the pleasure that arises naturally and effortlessly (“already arisen”) and when it does, gently nudging the expansion and the continuation of the feeling tone of pleasure. This is a practice to learn how to increase and continue the wholesome states of mind and body from an intention that arises out of wisdom and our innate intelligence that knows it is possible to feel more sense of well-being. And that this is a way for that to happen.
  9. If any thoughts of lovingkindness (metta) or compassion (karuna) naturally arise in the mind, allow this and see if you can feel the relaxation and pleasure that accompanies these thoughts and intentions. From this location, these thoughts become like prayers, or wishes for more well-being for ourselves or others. And you are awakening the beautiful states of heart and mind (citta). Allow for this.

May happiness and pleasure increase and continue for all beings everywhere.