Ultimately, when you reach a perception of the breath that allows the sensations of in-and-out breathing to grow still, you can start questioning more subtle perceptions of the body.
It’s like tuning into a radio station. If your receiver isn’t precisely tuned to the frequency of the signal, the static interferes with the subtleties of whatever is being transmitted. But when you’re precisely tuned, every nuance comes through.
The same with your sensation of the body: when the movements of the breath grow still, the more subtle nuances of how perception interacts with physical sensation come to the fore. The body seems like a mist of atomic sensations, and you can begin to see how your perceptions interact with that mist.
To what extent is the shape of the body inherent in the mist? To what extent is it intentional—something added? What happens when you drop the intention to create that shape? Can you focus on the space between the droplets in the mist? What happens then? Can you stay there? What happens when you drop the perception of space and focus on the knowing? Can you stay there? What happens when you drop the oneness of the knowing? Can you stay there? What happens when you try to stop labeling anything at all?
As you settle into these more formless states, it’s important that you not lose sight of your purpose in tuning into them. You’re here to understand suffering, not to over-interpret what you experience.
Say, for instance, that you settle into an enveloping sense of space or consciousness. From there, it’s easy to assume that you’ve reached the primordial awareness, the ground of being, from which all things emerge, to which they all return, and which is essentially untouched by the whole process of emerging and returning. You might take descriptions of the Unconditioned and apply them to what you’re experiencing.
If you’re abiding in a state of neither perception nor non-perception, it’s easy to see it as a non-abiding, devoid of distinctions between perceiver and perceived, for mental activity is so attenuated as to be virtually imperceptible. Struck with the apparent effortless of the state, you may feel that you’ve gone beyond passion, aversion, and delusion simply by regarding them as unreal. If you latch onto an assumption like this, you can easily think that you’ve reached the end of the path before your work is really done.
Your only protection here is to regard these assumptions as forms of perception and to dismantle them as well. And here is where the four noble truths prove their worth, as tools for dismantling any assumption by detecting the stress that accompanies it. Ask if there’s still some subtle stress in the concentration that has become your dwelling place. What goes along with that stress? What vagrant movements in the mind are creating it? What persistent movements in the mind are creating it? You have to watch for both.
In this way you come face to face with the perceptions that keep even the most subtle states of concentration going. And you see that even they are stressful. If you replace them with other perceptions, though, you’ll simply exchange one type of stress for another.
It’s as if your ascending levels of concentration have brought you to the top of a flag pole. You look down and see aging, illness, and death coming up the pole, in pursuit. You’ve exhausted all the options that perception can offer, so what are you going to do? You can’t just stay where you are. Your only option is to release your grip. And if you’re letting go fully, you let go of gravity, too.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Essays book, The Karma of Questions: Essays on the Buddhist Path, “De-perception.”