EricJ wrote:I am mostly asking this opinion with regard to the "samatha variant" of anapanasati. . . . I've tried both myself. I find that allowing it to happen spontaneously leads to a greater refinement of the breath/concentration and a more concrete sense of the "unity of breath and body," but the spontaneous expansions of awareness (from breath at nose, to entire body, to mental state and body) don't always happen.
So, I'd love to hear everyone's opinions on which method of awareness expansion is more common and more beneficial to samatha practice.
It is interesting the amount of time some of us spend trying to tweak all the various descriptions of meditation that we read about. While sometimes in doing this we neglect to understand the essential skills we are attempting to learn how to develop; since once they become developed we can begin using them right away — we don't have to keep chasing some elusive meditative "experience." I plead guilty to having fallen into this same diversion. I suppose it's because we would like to experience it in the same way that the description we read about says it can happen. Nothing wrong with that, as it helps us to confirm and validate the instruction. It's just that as one's practice matures, you begin to see things much clearer, and to some extent you are able to construct variations on what you practiced.
When I was first learning about jhana, I kept looking for little clues in the literature I was reading, to see if I could find some intuitive connection between what was being described and my past experiences. I was looking for a clue that would allow me to "walk through the opened doorway and enter the room" so to speak, so that I could practice with a little more confidence about what I was doing. It wasn't until several years later, on reading a passage written by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, that I understood what he meant in describing the expansion of the pleasantness of the breath to envelop the whole body. I thought, "Yeah, that would work, too."
It's just that that
hadn't been the way I experienced getting into jhana up until that point; I was able to use the relatively abbreviated method of simply being mindful of the pleasantness of the in-breath and the out-breath, based upon an experience I had had as a child using a sensation I had experienced while swinging on one of those long chain and leather seated swings. You know, the kind where you can get up a good head of steam going forwards and backwards. It created a sensation in the center of my forehead similar to the sensation I experience when the mind is concentrated on an object. And if I became absorbed in that sensation, I would go directly into the first jhana.
What I'm endeavoring to make clear here is that however one "gets there" is
however one gets there. It doesn't have to be only one way, using one method we might have read about. So, don't be overly concerned about not being able to experience the expansion of the pleasantness enveloping the entire body. If it happens, it happens; great! If it doesn't happen, well, don't let that bother you unnecessarily. Just stay mindful of whatever object you are using to bring you "there" and keep looking for that "opened doorway."
After a while, with more experience and maturity in meditation practice, you will be able to simply see it happening in your mind beforehand, and if you become absorbed in that idea while in contemplation, it will occur automatically, without you're hardly even trying. I suppose you might say that this is one way to "intentionally" bring on the experience of absorption. Once you get to the first jhana, all you need to do from there is to let the mind calm itself down (meaning the movements in the mind becoming more and more still) until you are barely aware that you are breathing at all. When you get to this point, you can be fairly assured that you have reached the fourth jhana.
Good luck with your practice. And let us know how you're doing from time to time.
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV