In drawing out implications of my ‘path of relaxation’ idea, May 2012 Shabda, I also experienced one of the implications to be a new approach in meditation, or even a new meditation in itself. I would call this a reducing unnecessary effort (or RUE) meditation, even a relaxation meditation if relaxation’s nature as reducing unnecessary effort was more widely understood.
Relaxation really means reducing unnecessary effort rather than reducing any effort, making it central to Buddhist training; it is also essential to success in any activity. It just hasn’t been very explicit in the past, probably for similar reasons that stress wasn’t so much of an issue in the past.
To understand the RUE approach to meditation we should first look at how the four Satipatthanas are a process rather than four separate areas of mindfulness. After reading Bodhipaksa’s ground breaking essay ‘the four foundations of mindfulness as a dynamic process’ I realised that Satipatthana and relaxation could be intimately connected. When we see this we can see how a spiral process of reducing unnecessary effort unfolds on the basis of engaging first with what is going on in our body, after this our feelings become apparent, then our emotions, and mind objects. Relaxation will be proportionate to awareness because engagement with our tension is vital before we can choose to affect any change in that tension.
The Method: The general training of RUE meditation is using Satipatthana to become aware of and drop unnecessary effort at each level, which is experienced also as relaxation. For example, dropping physical tension or the five hindrances, which are both forms of unnecessary effort. Relaxation starts with awareness; we all naturally practice Satipatthana to some extent when we attempt to relax fully because we need awareness of what to relax and what not to relax. So in detail, awareness of our body reveals tension there (experienced as uncomfortable), awareness of this tension reveals deeper emotional conditions (also an activity we make ourselves) and awareness of this emotional level reveals mistaken uses of our mind and unnecessary effort in the form, for example, of the five hindrances and wrong views. Dropping each level of unnecessary effort refines and calms our mental and physical experience and allows us to refine this process further. In this process we see directly how our experience is conditioned. Seeing this conditional spiral process in light of the Four Noble Truths can be described as the fourth Satipatthana. We then drop the unnecessary effort, or asravas, with which we can see we cause our own suffering.
Satipatthana may have been called ‘the direct path’ because of this relaxation process. Certainly relaxation as described here is central to the path, and the most direct path is the one which makes the least unnecessary effort. The RUE approach is a direct path first to dhyana, since the dhyanas can be described as increasing levels of the absence of tension and unnecessary effort, and then a direct path to Enlightenment. Clinging to greed, hatred and delusion can be seen as unnecessary effort which we are making ourselves, and self-clinging the deepest form of tension at the core of our concentric layers of unnecessary effort.
Method of Using Feedback for RUE: The rate and quality of our breathing is accurate feedback for our level of unnecessary mental and physical effort, because it is fuel in direct proportion to the demand of that activity. Relaxation is then guided by this feedback by watching and asking the question; what unnecessary mental and physical activity is stopping me from relaxing the breathing fully? We will discover that we are tense somehow or doing something which demands the higher breathing rate. This process (of Satipatthana) will take us directly and naturally into absorption. In the light of reducing unnecessary effort Satipatthana takes on a new training dimension.
Something Subhuti mentions in his talk on just sitting and which is also important for this approach is the use of positive signs, and I think he mentions the Buddha as a positive sign. However, I think nimitta (sign) is more primarily a positive sign in terms of positive feedback. The nimitta (or subtle counterpart meditation object) appears only when we start to access the super-conscious state – and hence is feedback indicating engagement with dhyana. Many qualities can be used as feedback in this way; indicating where we are in the meditation, for example reduction in the tiny movements our eyes and mouth make when we think. In deep absorption the breathing may seem to stop altogether. We can continue engaging with the breathing as a meditation object now only through its subtle counterpart (nimitta). The nimitta of the breath arises when the physical breathing is no longer perceivable. Likewise the body memory of dhyana, or of this level of relaxation when the breathing is effortlessness, guides us very quickly into absorption. Samapatti, the experiences we can have as we disengage from having six points of awareness to having one-pointed awareness, also represents a sign of reducing unnecessary effort in a slightly different way. Although we wouldn’t tend to use it as a new meditation object because of its transitory nature, it does give feedback of leaving behind coarse activity.
Just as in the Mindfulness of Breathing, our meditation object here starts as an experience in our body, which in this case is relaxation experienced through Satipatthana. As we progress the meditation object can become the nimitta experience or even the body memory of dhyana directly. If we don’t straight away have a sense of the enjoyment of relaxation, then we need to wait like in Subhuti’s five stages of just sitting, allowing the body and mind to start calming down. Boredom is a lack of enjoyment which comes from disengagement. As we relax into engagement boredom fades and becomes enjoyment. Samadhi, happiness and relaxation are ultimately different words for the same thing.
Postural Issues: To engage with this process of awareness of the subtle me
ntal and physical tensions it is better first to reduce the course tensions which come from the physical exertion of moving around or holding up a poor meditation posture. We can of course reduce unnecessary effort completely and enter an absorbed state whilst sitting upright, standing, or even during martial arts training, but increasing the demand on the body also increases the challenge of full relaxation. Because it can take a long time RUE meditation for many of us is best in a reclining posture, and there’s no point boiling a kettle for thirty seconds a day unless it’s a very fast kettle.
The attempt to meditate in an upright posture when we have trouble fully relaxing means that, as well as meditating, we are actually also doing an intense physical training - like Qigong. [bold]Meditating upright is also a physical training exercise.[/bold] We can remove this physical exercise, and any associated distraction or tension, simply by swapping to a fully externally supported (reclining) posture. We could meditate whilst doing weight training, for example, but probably the first step would be to stop weight training.
The Importance of Enjoyment for RUE Meditation: The forth dhyana (and the arupa dhyanas if we include them) could be described as the highest level of relaxation in mundane existence, where unnecessary effort is reduced to the minimum level possible. This also represents the highest potential level of energy and satisfaction possible. Here we can be aware of our most subtle activities and energy not normally perceivable. Training in the four dhyanas has been described as Buddhist Qigong by Shaolin Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit.
As Sariputra said, the hardest thing once one has gone forth in the spiritual life is to find enjoyment. Calming the body and mind takes time. If we gradually become uncomfortable, with the build up of soreness or tension, we won’t want to sit so long, perhaps we won’t want to meditate at all. However the posture naturally becomes perfect as soon as we enter dhyana since the body’s tension, which is a form of unnecessary effort, is released. This is like Vajradaka’s ‘provisional’ and ‘real’ posture. Another benefit of this approach is that relaxation can provide instant gratification. A treat given to a dog loses its effect as an incentive if it’s not immediate. We might tend wrongly to think of meditation as merely giving delayed gratification. Instant gratification, however small the amount, is essential. Relaxation can be deeply satisfying and is always accessible; we can always let go of unnecessary effort, even if it means just stopping the practise we are doing and waiting, or engaging outside help.
Happiness is vital for meditation; we can only be as relaxed as we are happy. Because the process of RUE meditation involves the provocation of deeper emotional trauma, for example through investigating ‘defensive tension patterns’, it can be a challenge to enjoy it.
Success Through Reduction: The RUE approach can also be equated with the reduction of asravas. We do the asravas ourselves so we can’t stop them merely by making an additional effort, only by reducing effort. I was put onto this by Subhuti in his talk on just sitting, which was formative for my understanding of relaxation. The asravas are a form of effort we make which makes our experience less satisfying. In fact merely making an additional effort to stop them would be the sign of the continued presence of asravas; a bit like arm wrestling yourself. This has similarities to Asangha’s ‘ninth mental abiding’ where the last and only antidote necessary is called ‘the desisting from application of antidotes’.
A New Approach for the Modern World: The RUE approach also touches on the therapeutic, and this is explained well by Boyesen’s description of how sedative relaxation (i.e full relaxation) becomes provocative. This has similarities with Sangharakshita’s horizontal and vertical integration in meditation. In Satipatthana we become more aware of our emotions and some off-loading exercises might be necessary when we encounter un-abreacted and repressed emotion or trauma, which is likely to be there if we are letting go of defensive tension patterns. Tension is mostly subconscious, with only the tip of the mountain appearing to us. Reducing this form of unnecessary effort may mean radical change to our own character or personality. Thus this process, in addition to awareness, requires much courage and a firm anchor of positivity.
The RUE approach describes to everyone the higher goals of relaxation, which are dhyana and Enlightenment. I don’t see a better way to integrate the popular modern idea of relaxation into the Dharma. Its most important feature may be that it perhaps clarifies Satipatthana’s nature as the ‘Direct Path’ and comes at the right time to address our modern need for relaxation.