Breathing is something that we all do. For human beings
it is a primary sign of life. We all have a breath so as an object
of meditation it is very useful. The curious thing is that most people
don't take that much notice or care about their breath. It really
only gets any attention when there is either too much - and you are
puffing and blowing - or not enough - and you are suffocating. It
is important to appreciate that breath meditation is not the same
as pranayama as in various yoga exercises; it is the mind that
is being developed.
The classic teaching the Buddha gave on breath meditation
is the Anapanasati Sutta [see:RESOURCES -
Sutta]. It outlines in considerable detail the various
stages and levels of this practice.
Using the breath:
Assuming you see the value in taking up a specific object for developing
concentration, the breath has many things to recommend itself as the
object of choice.
1 - it is portable. Every where you go you have it with you. No need
to worry about forgetting your worry beads.
2 - it comes free with every body. No need to buy any special equipment.
3 - it is complete in and of itself. No need for any upgrades or add-ons.
4 - it is 100% natural - they don't come more organic than this.
5 - it is effortless. The body knows how to breathe without you needing
to do anything, You just sit back and let it do all the work - while
you just watch.
6 - it is a connection with a vital life force.
7- it is calming. There is a simple, natural rhythm the breath follows
and following that leads one to peace.
The principles discussed in 'samatha' apply here.
Basically, we take up an object - in this case the breath - and hold
it with the mind for an extended period. This is not always so easy
as the mind is used to jumping about from object to object. Sustained
attention on the breath is a training in stillness; the ability to
be content with little and to maintain attention. There are various
ways the breath can be used. Here is one possible system using eight
steps. It gets a bit cosmic toward the end but you will get the general
1 - Counting:
useful for those who have never worked with
the breath much before.
Sit down for meditation and fix your attention on the breath at that
point where you most easily notice it. Say, at the belly*.
If the breath is not clearly seen try a few extended breaths - deeply
in, and deeply out - so as to get a good feel of the breath. You could
even put your hand on your belly to assist this. Very consciously
watch the sequence of in-and-out breaths. Note the breath as it enters,
and note the breath as it leaves, watching the movement of the body
- the rise and fall of the abdomen. When you have established your
awareness of the breath, begin counting each breath. This can be done
in several ways. Try just counting on the in-breaths; up to ten. Then
start again at one. This is repeated over and over from one to ten.
The counting provides a support for the mind; something a little more
tangible to hold. If you aren't sure how far you have counted then
you know that your mind has wandered; start the counting over again.
Meditation is not about getting anything
- and particularly, you don't have to get the breath (unless
you are dead). Just relax - and watch the show. Do this for about
10 to 30 minutes at one sitting; twice a day for several weeks. What
is the result?
2 - Following: used
after the mind has been calmed somewhat by using counting.
When the mind is able to stay with the in-breathing and out-breathing,
the counting can be stopped and replaced by just mentally following
the course of the breath. Note the beginning of an in-breath -- hold
your attention at the belly and observe the progress of the in-breath
-- note the end of the in-breath -- notice the space, or pause at
the end of the in-breath -- note the beginning of the out-breath.
There is no thought involved here it is merely paying attention to
the physical phenomenon of breathing - in detail. Do this for 30 to
60 minutes; twice a day for several months.
3 - Contact and:
4 - Fixing:
These two aspects of the practice indicate the development of stronger
concentration. When mindfulness of breathing is well extablished,
the breath becomes more and more subtle - serene and tranquil. The
body becomes calm and ceases to feel fatigue. Because the mind and
body are so tranquil the breath becomes more and more subtle until
it seems that it has ceased. This can be slightly alarming and one
thinks the breathing has stopped altogether, but it is not so. It
continues, but in a very delicate and subtle form. No matter how subtle
it becomes, one must still maintain mindfulness of the contact
of the breath in the body, without losing track of it. The mind is
at this point free from the five hindrances - sensual desire, anger,
drowsiness, restlessness and doubt. One is calm and joyful. Various
signs may appear in the mind - pay them no heed. As concentration
is further developed four stages of absorption (jhana) can be attained.
These stages of deep concentration are called "fixing".
5 - Observing - 6: Turning
Away - 7: Purification - 8: Retrospection:
A person who has attained the four absorptions should not stop there
but should go on to develop insight meditation (vipassana). The stages
of insight are called "observing". When insight reaches its
climax, the meditator attains the supramundane paths. Because these
paths turn away the fetters that bind one to the cycle of birth and
death, they are called "turning away". The paths are followed
by their respective fruitions; this stage is called "purification"
because one has been cleansed of defilements. Thereafter one realizes
the final stage, reviewing knowledge, called "retrospection"
because one looks back upon one's entire path of progress and one's
attainments. This is a brief overview of the main stages along the
path to Nibbana, based on the meditation of anapana sati.
are various theories about where you focus attention. One common alternative
to the belly is the tip of the nose. My feeling is that the nose can
be a bit 'head' centred and too close to thought. The belly has a
much more 'grounding' aspect to it, more closely in touch with emotions
and internal energies generally. Do experiment. [BACK]
in and out
On the Buddhist path a fundamental
theme is impermanence. You can use the breath as
a way to gain insight into this truth.
When you are 'following' the breath - as above - pay close attention
to the end points of each phase. The end of the in-breath, the end
of the space between in and out breaths, the end of the out-breath.
It is obvious, but do reflect on the impermanence of the breath. We
may prefer the in-breath to the out-breath but it is impossible to
keep either - they must die so that life can continue. So it is with
ALL things. The old must give way to the new. This is natures way.
Do this as a meditation. Let go of each breath as if it was your last.
Contemplate that eventually this will be so. Let go, relax. Life is
vital, alive, NOW - with each breath.
Because the breath is so connected with our life it
is with us everywhere
In relation to meditation this means that once we have developed anapanasati
a bit, and have a good sense of the breath, we can turn to this practise
at any time. Because the association with the breath is predominantly
a peaceful one you can maintain this relationship in all postures
at all times. Say you are in a meeting and things aren't going so
well - you can turn to the breath - perhaps take a couple of extended
ones - and there you are - in touch with your 'friend' - that symbol
of calm and peace. Make your offering to the meeting (life in general)
from this space.
The breath is also useful in this way as it acts as
a very good indicator of our emotions.
This is particularly helpful with regard to negative emotions. When
we are in states of anger, fear, anxiety, stress, etc. the quality
of the breath is usually far from peaceful. If we have put effort
into establishing a relationship with the breath - when it is peaceful
and calm - then the early signs of these emotions are easily noticed
by contrast, and the breath can either be consciously stablilised
(physically) or 'reminded' of how it can easily be peaceful and calm.
The ease of both of these methods is relative to how well you have
established that point of peace and calm in relation to the breath;
how easy can you 'be with' the breath in that way?
Another way the breath
can be used in mediation is as a simile for cleansing or purification.
(This has some similarities to a metta meditation.) Instead of focussing
on the belly one brings the attention to the area around the heart
and imagines that the air is coming in and out through the heart centre;
with the heart being the seat of emotion. To begin with, contemplate
the physical nature of the air. The in-breath is bringing fresh air
into the body. This is new life; vitalising all aspects of the body
with this new, clean and pure air. Feel it coursing through the body,
bringing new energy and strength. With the out-breath visualise the
flow of impure, old and stale air leaving the body. This is no longer
needed - you can let this discharge from inside you.
Do this for a good while.
On the in-breath, allow the arising of health and wellbeing. On the
out-breath, feel the relief of letting go, the release of impurities
from your body.
Transfer the attention
from the physical to the emotional. Keep the attention on the flow
of the breath through the heart. On the in-breath see it as a new
arising, a new beginning, a fresh start. It comes with goodness, undamaged,
pure, without any adgenda, unburdened. On the out-breath see it as
the letting go or the release of all your old unwanted emotional 'baggage'.
Allow all the worries, the uncertainties, the fears, the stress -
allow it all to just flow out with that old, used air. You don't need
You can use associated
words. On the in-breath: may I be well, may I be happy, my life is
blessed, every breath is a new chance. On the out-breath: Relax, let
go, I am now free from all 'that', out with the old, not needed, of
no use, release. Make your own list to suit your own temperament.
The important thing is to stay with the breath - dont' get caught
in thinking - and to do it often.
A noisy handle:
As an alternative to counting
the breath you can use the sound of the breath. If you listen you
can imagine that it sounds like 'sah' on the in-breath and 'hah' on
the out-breath. You can do this silently or make some noise. Breathing
in through the nose, allowing the air to vibrate - saaaaH.
Breath out through the mouth (or nose) haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. This
can give a bit of a 'handle' on the breath which makes it a bit easier
to concentrate on, to stay with.
This is a nice meditation
to do together as a group. It is good to have a leader who sets the
pace. Synchronise your breaths with the noise - big breath in - -
- - and - long, open-mouthed breath out: haaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Do this
for maybe five minutes or more. This is really being alive together.
Of the four elements the air is one that we truely do share. It is
funny to think that as we breathe in we are literally inhaling each
others old air - a burden shared is a trouble halved.