We have received various email inquiries about Anapanasati. Some of the questions & our responses are included here.
How important is posture?
How often and for how long should we meditate?
What is the best time of day for meditation?
Do you encourage a deep in-breath on every breath?
What kind of time frame there is for completion of step 0?
Am I correct in remembering that each step is indeed a conscious step?
I have been noticing that I cannot just fall into the 'natural rhythm' of my breath, and watch it as it occurs automatically. Instead, I seem to have a difficult time disengaging my Will from the process.
When certain feeling bodily arises, if it is not too intense, I can still fix my mind on the breathe. But what do I do if it become too intense?
Do you have any advice for when I feel my head pounding while bowing after sitting meditation (or any other uncomfortable experiences such as getting dizzy upon arising from sitting)?
Good posture helps a lot, but a practice of non-attachment should not get too wrapped up in it. With time, and help from yoga asana (for example), gradually adjust to and develop a good posture, whether one sits on the floor, uses a kneeler, or sits on a chair.
The main thing is to find a healthy balance between being relaxed and comfortable, on one hand, and sitting up straight, on the other. Slouching interferes with the breathing and natural flow of energy within the body. Forcing an upright posture creates tension. Neither are beneficial or pleasant.
It may be necessary to accept that we haven't taken very good care of our bodies over the years and that some pain and discomfort is the price for that negligence. Don't torture yourself and don't pamper yourself. learn and let go.
Like most things, it depends. Fixed, one-size fits all answers don't usually help much.
A general rule of thumbs is that most people will have a fair amount of progress, keep learning, and deepen their practice with a regular hour of meditation each day. The hour may be divided between one or two sessions, depending on personal circumstances.
Of course, some may not be able to manage that much. Appreciate what opportunities one has & make the most of them.
Again, it depends on the details of your life. Many of us enjoy meditating first thing in the morning, or after some loosening up with yoga. The mind is generally rested & fresh, has plenty of energy. As Tan Ajarn put it, "our tea cup hasn't overflowed yet."
Towards the end of the day is another favorite, as it helps us process & let go of whatever may be troubling us from the day's experiences. Better to recognize & let go of the stuff, than let it mess up our sleep.
Nonetheless, the "best time" is any time that we are able to do a little meditation. This includes the many minutes scattered throughout the day that we spend waiting for somebody to pick up the phone, waiting in line, etc. Better to wit on the breathing rather than impatiently
Personally, I (skb) like to start with intentionally deeper breathing -- but not forced -- to loosen up the body and focus the mind. Later, it's deeper by itself.
While deeper or longer breathes may involve some intention, at times, the intention need not be heavy or forced. Work with the body & breathing as they are, not as you want them to be. Play around. Make deeper breathing a game rather than a goal.
I am wary of fixing numbers or lengths of time on meditation practice. They can be OK as rough guidelines, but should not be taken more seriously than that. Also, not so useful to compare the experiences of one meditator w/ another until the whole system & its dynamics are thoroughly understood.
"Attaining an unfaltering and continuous awareness of breathing" may be asking too much. Did we teach you that at Suan Mokkh? Or is it in one of our books? If so, it can be taken as an ideal, but practice needs to be reasonable & realistic. I advise meditators to start exploring the long breaths as soon as they can "pretty well" stay with the breathing and fairly well aware of it. The mind may be wandering off a bit, but still one comes back to the breath readily and quickly.
Btw, "Lesson 0" is my (skb) own terminology, not the Buddha's or Tan Ajarn's. I know think I overdid the emphasis on it 5 or 7 years ago. Sorry about that ;)
Yes, Tan Ajarn suggests practicing in a step-by-step, systematic way. Other teachers -- for example, Thich Nhat Hahn & Larry Rosenburg -- take a more freestyle approach. I would use the word "intentional" here to express that Tan Ajarn felt one should know what one is practicing and choose it with awareness and intelligence. However, don't let the Sutta's wording mislead one to think that "I" am aware of the breathing or "I" am breathing.
To approach the lessons step-by-step, one at a time, & systematically fit Tan Ajarns's understanding and personality. (It may not fit everyone's.) This approach makes it easier to notice when one is distracted and may decrease the tendency some of us have to wander around on whims or due to boredom. He also thought it was a more comprehensive approach, better suited to fulfilling all the lessons well. Don't forget: the purpose of anapanasati is the quenching of dukkha through letting go of all attachment to "I" and "mine." Developing the "Dhamma tools" needed to experience and contemplate the vipassana of the last four lessons (experience not technique) doesn't happen by wandering around.
No need to force it! Nudge it, encourage it, play with it, but no need to force. Of course, trying forcing a while and notice the tension created. Relax, take it easy, and notice the difference. But the breath keeps changing and the mind can influence the direction the change takes.
The long (deep, easy-going, relaxed, healthy) breath is the main thing. Short breaths are more for comparison; don't get hung up on them.
Anyway, you can't really force any of the lessons. You can't do them until the reality which they work with has happened, i.e., the piti of lesson 5 or the impermanence of lesson 13.
You can't just leap to a lesson (step) because you want to. Each requires a fair amount of proficiency in the previous lesson. That is, if we aren't able to calm the breathing (4), there won't be much or any rapture to work with in 5.
What does it mean to "let a step come naturally"? Does one just slide into it? Then, is one really mindful?
Not, I think, a facile question. Although this is extremely common in anapanasati practice, and perhaps all forms of meditation, it also leads us to explore what attachment is all about. So both very common and very important.
1) In the early stages of practice it isn't really a problem. When the mind is distracted, busy, confused, dull & sluggish, or whatever, the main task is just to keep attention on the breathing. That the mind will end up controlling the breathing at the same time is of secondary importance. However, as the mind is able to stay w/ the breathing more consistently, the control of the breathing -- in other words, clinging to the breathing -- is increasingly in the way. Notice the sense of "I who am breathing" or "I who am observing the breathing." Notices how this "I" is trying for something, has some goal or objective, and consequently clings & controls to get it.
2) I don't know of any magic bullets. Rather, one (the mind) catches oneself (the mind) controlling the breathing in one way or another; then, ease up & let go of that control. Part of the mastery of meditation is learning how to do this through one's own experience = trial & error. In the past, when this sort of thing sometimes drove me crazy, I found it useful to take my attention off of the breathing for a minute or two by listening to a natural sound like the wind in the trees or birds singing. This gave the breath a chance to go back to its "natural" (unwatched) rhythm. Then I would bring attention back to the breath & try to notice how it was just then. Later, when the controlling took over again -- sometimes very quickly -- I would repeat the process. W/ time, I started to learn the difference between "just breathing" and "breathing with a breather."
Since the main thing is SATI (mindfulness), that some feelings enter into awareness is just part of life and that some of these are strong enough to grab our attention is also part of life. What we do about these events is a matter of choice, experience, and wisdom. I don't think that there is one single proper response.
If we are working with Anapanasati systematically -- one lesson at a time -- such an intense feeling (or memory, thought, whatever) may seem like a distraction. But that is probably more of a judgment than a reality. It is more like a perch (arammana) for consciousness, an experience, and an attachment. So the question becomes, what to do so that it isn't a problem (= attachment) any more.
Focusing direct attention on the source of the feeling -- the mosquito bite is not the feeling itself -- is one approach. Contemplate the feeling & its components -- itchiness, discomfort, whatever -- until the attachment dissolves. Btw, drawing on some recent models in cognitive science one might recognize that the feeling is co-dependently originated among skin, nerves, consciousness, and memory (at least).
Another approach is to stay with the breathing -- as far as intention goes -- yet note as the intensity of the feeling pushes in & later subsides. Note the mind's tendency to react to the sensation & its unpleasant feeling (dukkha-vedana). Come back to the breathing as a way to let go of that tendency & other reactions.
If this episode has gotten in the way of whichever lesson one was working on, it may be necessary to start over with lesson one. If one was able to carry on w/ that lesson, then no need to start over.
Trying ending your meditation as follows:
open eyes slowly, blink until vision is comfortable, look around slowly;
gently massage legs, then slowly stretch them;
when you feel full present in the room & in your body, back to "normal" awareness, then do the bows gently & comfortably;
or skip the bows, if you prefer, then arise patiently.
To be expanded as the questions come in & time allows.Updated 06 September 2001 © Evolution/ Liberation.