My knees were shaking as I walked up to Conqueror and swung onto his back. The great horse snorted, saying that he had warned me, but I just smiled and let him lead the way. I had faced myself, and my doubts, in the temple, and I was now finally ready to face my destiny.
We traveled through an endless forest for months, forced to live off the land as there were no villages in this part of the world, and with my self-doubt now gone, my inner work improved markedly with my mind remaining in an almost constant state of calm. I thought that if I could only remain in one place without disturbance, I could someday break through a mysterious obstacle that had developed, a barrier that was so delicate, but persistent enough to keep me from attaining the Second Great Material Calm. I made a mental note as I passed some caves that a cave would be an excellent place to improve my inner work someday. A cave offered protection from the elements as well as being cool and quiet. It was an inkling of things to come.
Traveling north, we followed a relentless sun by day, and sparkling constellations by night, finally coming upon the second landmark; a high stand of old trees surrounded by thick underbrush and vines. I could find no way into this tangle, so I spent a week trying to go around. No luck! It seemed to go on endlessly. And finally, all I could do was reluctantly dive in.
I worked my way slowly through the thickets, using my hands and every bit of strength I possessed. I fought the forest for weeks, but one night, my inner work took an interesting turn. As I was coming out of a period of key seeker sleep, these words appeared in my mind, “The beasts know their world. "
A John always insisted that I dismiss any words appearing during my inner work, but I wanted to see for myself if, in fact, some words were more important than others, so the next morning I let Conqueror lead the way. Sure enough, with his powerful body, we were through the woods in two days!
When we suddenly cleared the forest, in front of us, looming in the distance, were the the sharp outlines of jagged, distant peaks with their saw-toothed, snow-capped tops. This was my last landmark; the pass over the mountains.
The mountains looked close enough to reach out and touch, but after a week, we were making no headway. Two weeks later, there was still no progress, and I began to wonder if this was a threshold of some kind that I could not break through. After a month of this, I decided to stop trying to reach the mountain. I just sat down with my inner work and thought back to the advanced instructions a John gave me before I left, going over every point to see if there was something that I was doing wrong.
He said, “. . . Be comfortable when sitting, but not so comfortable that you fall asleep or lose focus. Be attentive and wide-awake. Completely relax and sit with no muscular tension whatsoever. "
I realized that not only was I becoming tense attempting to force myself to attain the second calm, but I was also falling asleep.
He also said that it was important to keep my back straight, “It is crucial your back is in the correct position, the spine should be straight, this is the fundamental thing. Imagine the discs of your spinal cord as a stack of coins that must be stacked very carefully and straight to keep them from falling over. Hold your back in this position without straining or being stiff. Your whole body should be stress free with only your back muscles feeling slight tension, relaxing every other part of your body and letting your stomach bulge out. If you can swivel your hips far enough forward, then even the muscular stress holding the back straight will disappear and your whole body will be in a state of perfect ease and balance without effort. "
I had a tendency to slump when I was tired, sometimes not even being aware of it, but I was determined to do everything to stay upright until the posture became second nature. He also mentioned that everything should feel natural and be sustained without effort, “Take a deep breath, let it out, and let everything relax with the diaphragm in your solar plexus moving in and out with the breathing instead of your chest. Your neck and shoulders carry a great deal of tension so be certain these are particularly relaxed. Check your face and jaw for stress as well. "
Almost without fail, every time that I checked my neck and shoulders, they were tight, maybe an old reaction from my warrior days. It must be connected to fear.
He gave me some advice on breathing: “When concentrating, breathe normally on the in breath but extend the out breath so that it is two or three times longer than the in breath, and breathe from your solar plexus, not your chest. "
He talked about commitment: “The inner work is not a quick solution and takes time to develop so sometimes you will be operating on blind faith until its effects become apparent. Therefore, it is prudent to establish a schedule to follow during the day. Training the mind in the beginning is similar to training a wild monkey; if you are not disciplined and only practice when you are in the mood, you will always find something more interesting to do even in the forest. The mind would rather do anything except come face to face with emptiness and will desperately try to escape. My most productive time to engage in the inner work is between one o'clock in the morning and dawn, coinciding with forest wisdom that four o'clock in the morning is when the body is most subtle and the Source is near. But anytime is fine. When you are digesting the meal, however, it is better to walk during your practice because if you attempt to sit, you will almost certainly fall sleep. "
I certainly could relate to finding more interesting things to do! I was so goal oriented and ambitious when it came to my quest that it was always a temptation to delay my inner work in order to travel a few more miles. And I already discovered that it was best to walk after a meal. Digestion took a lot of energy, and it was difficult not to sleep after eating, so sitting was a struggle.
He stressed the importance of regularity because only my schedule and discipline would sustain my practice when “escaping stopped and emptiness began. " He said that then the dreaded boredom and depression would arise which occurs when the mind is restricted from its habitual escapes from reality. He promised that later when my inner work was more developed, these types of emotions would have less of an impact and would be seen as merely passing phenomenon, no different than thoughts, and in time, I would see life as the dream, the attempted escape, and the inner work as truth, the Reality. If my kamma is not ripe, however, and my effort is poor, he warned, the inner work will be seen as merely a temporary diversion and escape, a whim that quickly becomes uninteresting and is swiftly replaced by the next new and exciting amusement.
I specifically remembered a John's next words, because they had to do with my mind: “Now we will refine the mental aspect, so please pay close attention. You have been noticing and concentrating on the feeling of the breath inside the nose. Now we will take it a step further by noticing what kind of breath it is; whether it is an in-breath or an out-breath. As it passes over the spot in the nose, you must know; this is an in breath, ’ or this is an out breath. ’ The important thing here is not to follow these breaths in and out, but to remain focused on the spot and see the breaths wash over it as the sea would wash over a rock on the beach, with an incoming wave and a receding wave. Your attention is constantly on the rock, but you must also peripherally distinguish between an incoming and a receding wave. " I knew I was missing the point here. I wasn't noticing whether an in-breath or an out-breath was passing over the spot in my nose.
"It is of the utmost importance that you understand these instructions, " he stressed, “so I will again mention that you will have three things to concentrate on. One; the feeling of the breath touching the inside of the nose (this is the crucial thing; the feeling). Two; whether it is an in-breath or an out-breath. Three; concentrate on the spot where the breath touches the inside of the nose and do not follow the breath in and out. Be aware of and concentrate on the feeling of the breath contacting the body at the nose, more so than the nose itself or the breath. As you become aware of the feeling of the breath during the inner work, you will similarly become aware of your feelings or emotions when you are not doing your inner work.
"You will be aware of the feeling itself instead of the object causing the anger, for example the feeling just before anger arises due to corresponding thoughts, and in this way you will begin to detach from these limiting emotions. You are now beginning to change lifelong, destructive habits and beginning to change yourself, for when you forsake your anger, what is left? It is vital to be completely in the moment when doing the inner work and to see everything as if for the first time. Then after some practice you will be able to take the experiences of your inner work into life, because the inner work, as you will discover someday, is always a direct expression of life. "
It was true. By staying in the moment with my breath while practicing the inner work, and seeing each breath as if it was the first, my life was becoming focused and centered in the moment as well. It all was happening naturally without effort except for the effort involved with this beautiful practice of the inner work.
"When you are not involved with your inner work, " he said, “constantly notice your feelings such as frustration, joy, kindness, and aversion. Simply see these feelings as you see the feeling of the breath in your nose and do not dwell on what caused the feeling; just see the feelings come and go. Work hard on all these things, for if done earnestly you will eventually attain the Eight Great Calms: the Four Great Material Calms of applied and sustained concentration, rapture, equanimity and bliss, equanimity and mindfulness. And finally the Four Great Immaterial Calms of Infinite space, the Consciousness that Pervades Infinite space, Nothingness and Neither Perception nor Non-Perception. "
I asked him this question before I left, “A John, " I said, “at times, after I have been concentrating on my breath for some time, a circle of light appears, Should I disregard this and go back to my breath?"
"If it re-occurs and is quite impressive, " he answered, “then by all means stay with this light, make it about the size of your head, and then make it your focus of concentration. It is your natural concentration object for now. When it does not appear, stay with your breath. "
With a John's instructions fresh in mind, I worked tirelessly for days, and one afternoon while dwelling in the sustained concentration of the First Great Material Calm, there was a sudden and astonishing deepening.
I found myself unexpectedly bathed in indescribable feelings of rapture, confidence, and single mindedness that were so much subtler than the First Great Calm I had experiences with the cobra. Because of these feelings, there was an immediate abandonment of the First Calm's chore of applying and sustaining concentration on my breath. Now the bell’ rang constantly without effort and my circle of light again appeared.
How could I describe this new sensation - contented happiness, bliss, unification of mind? No words could ever approach this experience. The rapture, confidence, and single mindedness were breathtaking, and incredibly more mature and satisfying, so much so that I did not want to come out of it, but when I did, I realized that I had broken through a threshold and had attained the Second Great Material Calm of Rapture. I curiously also found myself at the base of the mountains I had tried so desperately to reach for weeks!
E. Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida is cofounder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center, http://www.SouthwestFloridaInsightCenter.com His twenty-eight years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at major bookstores and online retailers. Visit http://www.AYearToEnlightenment.com