A Sense of Oneness

You may have picked up the idea that you should never fiddle with the breath, that you should just take it as it comes. Yet meditation is not just a passive process of being nonjudgmentally present with whatever is there and not changing it at all. Mindfulness keeps stitching things together over time, but it also keeps in mind the idea that there’s a path to develop, and getting the mind to settle down is a skillful part of that path.

This is why evaluation—judging the best way to maximize the pleasure of the breath—is essential to the practice. In other words, you don’t abandon your powers of judgment as you develop mindfulness. You simply train them to be less judgmental and more judicious, so that they yield tangible results.

When the breath gets really full and refreshing throughout the body, you can drop the evaluation and simply be one with the breath. This sense of oneness is also sometimes called mindfulness, in a literal sense: mind-fullness, a sense of oneness pervading the entire range of your awareness. You’re at one with whatever you focus on, at one with whatever you do. There’s no separate “you” at all. This is the type of mindfulness that’s easy to confuse with Awakening because it can seem so liberating, but in the Buddha’s vocabulary it’s neither mindfulness nor Awakening. It’s cetaso ekodibhava, unification of awareness—a factor of concentration, present in every level from the second jhana up through the infinitude of consciousness. So it’s not even the ultimate in concentration, much less Awakening.

Which means that there’s still more to do. This is where mindfulness, alertness, and ardency keep digging away. Mindfulness reminds you that no matter how wonderful this sense of oneness, you still haven’t solved the problem of suffering. Alertness tries to focus on what the mind is still doing in that state of oneness—what subterranean choices you’re making to keep that sense of oneness going, what subtle levels of stress those choices are causing—while ardency tries to find a way to drop even those subtle choices so as to be rid of that stress.

So even this sense of oneness is a means to a higher end. You bring the mind to a solid state of oneness so as to drop your normal ways of dividing up experience into me vs. not-me, but you don’t stop there. You then take that oneness and keep subjecting it to all the factors of right mindfulness. That’s when really valuable things begin to separate out on their own. Ajaan Lee uses the image of ore in a rock. Staying with the sense of oneness is like being content simply with the knowledge that there’s tin, silver, and gold in your rock: If that’s all you do, you’ll never get any use from them. But if you heat the rock to the melting points for the different metals, they’ll separate out on their own.