Meditation of the Breath
To allow the mind to become peaceful we have to work at it, and for this we need to have some sort of a structure. I have found the Buddha’s teaching on the mindfulness of breathing in the Anapanasati Sutta a very effective and complete way of training the mind. When we first look at it we might think: ‘Wow! That’s really complicated, sixteen stages of mindfulness of breathing – that’s too much, I just want to watch my breath.’ But when we really learn how to use the steps of training that the Buddha laid down, we can see how complete and effective it is for training the mind. It’s a tool for changing the whole process of the mind and the way that we relate to the mind.
The sixteen stages are related to the four foundations of mindfulness. Paying attention to each breath, to the in-breath and the out-breath, is just reading about the theory of them, we start to apply the foundations of mindfulness in a tangible way. In the sutta there are four sections with four stages each, making sixteen stages altogether. Each section gives a way of applying the breath with each of the four foundations of mindfulness: the body, the feelings, the mind and the mind objects.
The first set concerns the body, and the first two stages of it are just about knowing the short breath (rassam pajanati), and knowing the long breath (digham pajanati). From then on each stage starts off with: ‘The monk trains himself thus…’ I shall train in this way. So the training in terms of the body, where the third stage is: ‘Experiencing the body* (sabbakaya patisamvedi), I shall breathe in. Experiencing the body, I shall breathe out.’ This means really taking the time on each in-breath and each out-breath to experience the body sitting and breathing; clearly, from the beginning of the in-breath to the end of the in-breath, from the beginning of the out-breath to the end of the out-breath – really experiencing what the body is feeling. We do not have to change it, we’re not having to try to do anything special but just experiencing the body, experiencing the actual posture and the feeling of the breath as it comes into the body. What sort of tension is there? How relaxed is it? How do we experience the body? Some people tend to be so up in their heads, thinking all the time – on and on and on – that they don’t experience their bodies. They can sit for a whole meditation period, and just be totally up in their heads and feel nothing below their neck; there’s nothing there, just this void. That’s a lack of mindfulness. So it’s important to really settle mindfully into one in-breath, one out-breath.
Then the next stage is calming the body (passambhayam Kayasamkharam) – to consciously calm the body, taking it on a very small workable scale. For one in-breath we can try to be a bit calm, to feel a sense of calmness, and then the same for one out-breath. It may not be like that the next breath, but for this in-breath and this out-breath, we remember, ‘I am trying to calm the body.’ Remember, it’s a training so we keep coming back, knowing that that’s actually what we are doing: ‘Right now, I am working to consciously calm the body.’
The next section is concerned with feelings, beginning with: ‘Experiencing joy (pitipatisamvedi), I shall breathe in, experiencing joy, I shall breathe out.’ It’s possible to create a certain space in the mind where we can allow a sense of well-being to establish itself; it doesn’t have to be ecstatic joy, just a sense of well-being. This leads on to the next stage, which is to experience happiness (sukhapatisamvedi), this means something that is felt throughout the whole body as well as in the mind. Through really taking an interest in something we find joy in it. So in our meditation we really allow a sense of interest, a sense of joy, to settle into the practice. Often times there is so much striving - trying to make the mind be a certain way or to attain something, or just sort of struggling along - that we tend to get caught in a lot of negativity, which goes in the opposite direction of peacefulness. So in the developing of meditation we really need to create a firm foundation in positive mental states and a sense of well-being, a sense of happiness. Then we can turn our attention to that.
Learning how to meditate, how to develop the mind, is learning how to direct attention in a skilful way. What we direct our attention to is what our reality is. We can direct our attention to all the chaos in the world around us, or to the chaos is the world around us, or to the chaos of our own personal dramas – but we don’t have to do that. We can direct our attention in other ways, we can learn how to direct attention to things which are very soothing to the mind, things that are conducive to peace, to a sense of clarity. Or we direct it to the things that come up, investigating and contemplating them simply as feelings.
For the next two stages the focus is on experiencing and calming the mind conditioners (cittasamkhara patisamvedi/passambhayam cittasakharam) – the things that condition the mind. These include feelings, perception and memory. We start to see how the mind is conditioned, and to notice when the mind starts to move. We can ask, ‘What’s it moving from? What’s pushing it?’ and begin to recognize all these feelings, these perceptions and memories that come up. For example, perception is the way we perceive ourselves, our relationship with the world around us and our expectations. All these things are perceptions in the mind, that sort of overlay the mind, and then we proliferate and build things on that. But we can come back and start to watch, and to question what it is that’s conditioning the mind on the bare level of feeling and perception. Then we start to get a handle on the movement of the mind, we don’t have to follow that movement, that proliferation, we can calm it down by coming back to just one in-breath and one out-breath; just watching, paying attention to that. We’re going to lose it all the time, but we keep coming back to the breath, having hat as an anchor; returning to some aspect of this training.
The next section concerns the mind itself and the state of mind. The first thing is just experiencing the mind (cittapatisamvedi), recognizing clearly what the state of the mind is. Usually we get caught up in identifying with the mind, mental sates, moods and feelings, as ‘me’, but when we contemplate one in-breath and one out-breath and experience the mind in the way we can see that this is just the way the mind is. It immediately allows us to step back from it and watch it. This watching allows us to let go of the mind, the mental states, and the habits, the conditioning. That’s what changes. We are changing the process of consciousness; learning how to watch and observe, rather than being caught up in all the proliferations and the identification with it all.
Next we have delighting the mind (abhippamodayam dittam) The word used in the Thai translation means something which is amusing or fun. We have to bring a certain delight into our practice; we have to enjoy it. It can get really dreary just sitting, meditating and trying to be mindful, if we don’t bring a sense of enjoyment into it. Again, the power of mindfulness is really the factor that changes things. Someone asked me one time what I do on retreat. I explained that mostly I stay in my dwelling place in the forest or on my walking path, except when I go to collect food; that’s about it. She said, ‘That must be boring!’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not boring . . . I was thinking about it afterwards, and realized that the reason why we get bored is because we are not mindful, but as soon as we start learning how to be mindful then it’s not boring. I could stay by myself for hours and hours on end and be quite happy.
So through mindfulness we learn how to bring a sense of delight into the mind, changing the whole process of the way the mind works, That’s our meditation, we have to really learn how to work with it. Our minds tend to easily drift off into some sort of amorphous or dreamlike wanderings, or to get caught up in the busyness of mind, or in dullness. But we have these guideposts that we can work with which are very important for keeping us on the right track. So in the section on the mind, we have experiencing the mind; delighting the mind; concentrating the mind (samadaham cittam) and liberating the mind (vimocayam cittam) – freeing the mind from its constrictions, allowing it to settle.
The last section is on dhammas – the objects of mind, where the mind goes. Firstly, the Buddha instructs us to experience impermanence (aniccanupassi). To train ourselves with the in-breath and the out-breath in contemplating impermanence – whether internal or external – of the body, mind, feelings or memories; there’s always something changing. So we can start to recognize that. Then through the clear insight into impermanence the mind can start to let go of its identification; the whole structure of ‘I am’ starts to fall apart when we see the impermanence of things. We can really start to see the whole identification with ‘I’: ‘I am these states’, ‘I am this mind’, ‘I am this body’, ‘I am these moods’. We don’t have to make ourselves relinquish it or give it up, or let go, or force it out of the mind; it’s just that it’s seen clearly. It ceases to pull on the mind any more.
The last three stages are: experiencing dispassion (viraganupassi), experiencing cessation (nirodhanupassi), and experiencing relinquishment (patinissagganupassi). Normally, we are attracted to things, we are held and bound by the objects that we experience, but when there is a sense of dispassion, when we allow that to settle in, we can feel what the difference is. We can ask ourselves: ‘What does it feel like when we are caught up in something?’ and, ‘What does it feel like when there is a sense of dispassion there?’ When we can just sit back and observe, pay attention to it, be mindful of it, it has a very different quality. The mind starts to really have a sense of coolness to it, of establishing a sense of firmness. The quality of passion of attachment is unsettling, so when we start to investigate dispassion in that way and bring it up as a possibility, the mind will start to go towards that, towards something which is cooling, which gives a sense of firmness.
It’s the same with cessation. If we start to pay attention to the cessation of feelings, thoughts and perceptions, there is a different quality in the mind than when we are always going towards new things to experience. It’s not necessary to create anything to experience cessation because it’s the nature of everything; it’s the nature of the mind, it’s the nature of the breath. As soon as you breathe in, that in-breath is finished. It’s ceased; it’s stopped, and the same with the out-breath. Everything is ceasing all the time, but usually we don’t notice it, so we are not able to tune into the cooling quality of it. But we can learn to turn attention back, to pay attention to cessation and dispassion; these things are always there. The mind, the process of consciousness can work in that way if we allow it to.
Finally, there is relinquishing. This means a sort of giving back the things that we take as ourselves. It’s as though we have been thieves for a long time, taking things that don’t belong to us. Now we can give them back – these thoughts, feelings and habits that keep torturing us; we can relinquish them, give them up. This shouldn’t be taken as an ultimate state that we’re trying to attain, but rather as something to get in tune with, getting in touch with it on this one in-breath and one out-breath. Just do that.
You can work with these aspects of the mindfulness of breathing in different ways. You can actually go through it in quite a step-by-step way to familiarize the mind with the structure, as training. Or you can just take one particular aspect and work with that, or just recognize when different aspects come up. There are all sorts of different ways to work, but work with these. It’s really helpful to have this structure to work with, something to give certain parameters to keep you on the path of training and developing. Then you will find that your practice goes along quite smoothly and you learn how to work with the mind and to understand it. That’s what leads to a quality of peace, freeing the mind – just understanding.
In one sense we have to push the mind a bit, we have to overcome a certain inertia in the mind that doesn’t want to work so much. It just wants to get as much as possible with doing as little as possible. That’s the normal human condition. It’s like a cartoon I saw in Thailand; these two winos were sitting on a park bench with an empty bottle between them down on the ground and another half bottle between them. One of them says to the other, ‘Let’s face it, Sid, not having been born great, not having achieved greatness, one can only assume that we’ll have it thrust upon us.’ I sometimes think that meditation is like that? But we can’t just wait for these peaceful states to sort of drop on us, for enlightenment to just sort of pop up from nowhere . . . There’s a certain amount of work that’s involved. It takes care, being circumspect with what we are doing, being patient with it, being patient with ourselves. Now that’s hard enough work. So having these parameters, having a structure to work with is very helpful. So I offer that for your reflection. Ì