I know there are lots of guidelines and maps about stability practice out there, based on the cumulative experience of thousands (millions?) of practitioners, and I am neither very familiar with it or very experienced on my own. As with everything else here, this is just a snapshot of what is alive for me right now, and each statement if followed by a question mark even if it doesn’t show up on the screen.
It seems that many practices are, most of the time, approximate. It is approximate shikantaza, approximate allowing experience, and also approximate stability practice, an approximately stable attention on something.
Here are some of the things I notice which makes my stability practice only approximate. In this case, using the sensation of the breath at the nostrils as the object of attention, with or without counting.
- If I count my breaths, I notice that attention is often split between the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, and the number thoguht. Attention also tends to shift between the two, with one in the foreground, then the other.
- If I have my eyes partly open, even with a soft gaze, I notice attention being split between the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, and the focus of the visual field. (It may be subtle, but still a noticeable split.) This happens whether I count, in which case attention is split four ways (imagined bulls eye as guide for attention, thought of a number and through of sequence of numbers, focal point of visual field, and sensations at the nostrils), or not.
- When I bring attention to the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, I use a visual thought – almost an imagined bulls eye – as a guide for attention. So attention is split between these two as well, with one in the foreground then the other. Even without counting, and with eyes closed, attention is split between these two.
- Sensations themselves flicker inn and out of existence. When they flicker out of existence, the imagined bulls eye remains so attention shifts there. When they flicker into existence, attention shifts back to the sensation. (This rapid flickering happens during inhalation and exhalation, and the sensations also fade in and out of existence during the in/outbreath and the pause in between.)
- Any belief tends to catch attention, in obvious or more subtle ways, either by attention going on the inside of a thought and following it, or by just a flicker of interest when the thought arises. (Belief here means identification with a story, any story.)
- These flickers of interest also happens with non-discursive thoughts, such as image thoughts overlaid on the sense fields. (Imagining what the sounds are, where the sensation is located in the body, and so on.)
So this is one way stability practice, in itself, invites in insights.
Through stability practice, we gain insight into some of the dynamics around a stable, or in this case not so stable, attention.
We may notice the sense of clarity that often comes as a side effect of a more stable attention.
We may notice the sense of energy that comes with it, and other side effects such as a sense of luminosity (even visually) and so on.
We discover how it is much easier to observe and notice what is going on when we can place attention more stably on something alive here now. A more stable attention helps insight directly.
We may notice how thoughts, as anything else, lives its own life, coming and going on their own schedule.
We may notice the difference between attention seeing a thought as a thought, and getting absorbed on the inside of a story. In the first case, allowing it to come and go as a simple thought. In the second case, fueling and elaborating it into a more complex story, and often getting lost in it.
We may notice how attention is more easily drawn to stories we identify with. Stories that seem true, real, important. Stories that define who we, temporarily, take ourselves to be.
We may notice how the activities of thoughts naturally quiet down when attention rests stably on the breath, or something else.
We may notice how the effects of the different layers of thoughts fall away when identification is released out of them. When identification goes out of discursive thought, drama falls away and there is a sense of quiet presence. When identification is released out of more basic layers of thought, such as those creating a sense of extent and continuity, this falls away, and whatever happens in the different sense fields happens without being mapped onto space or time. When identification goes out of a sense of I with an Other, this field of awakeness and its content is revealed as inherently free of an I with an Other, inside and outside, center and periphery.
(The discursive layer is needed for daily functioning, but only to a limited extent, and when identification goes out of it, drama goes out as well. The layer creating a sense of extent and continuity is obviously needed for daily functioning, but it can be interesting and helpful to explore during sitting practice. And the final layer, of a sense of a separate I, is not needed for the functioning of our human self.)
We notice the ephemeral nature of sensations, rapidly flickering in and out of existence, and the ephemeral nature of any sense field.
We may notice sensations, and any sense field, as awakeness itself.
We may notice how the content of each sense field comes and goes, but something does not come and go. What is it that does not come and go? Am I the content of the fields, or that which does not come and go? Are they really separate?
And this is just scratching the surface. Something as simple as stability practice is fertile ground for exploration, going right back to the core of what we really are.