MIndfulness of the Body: Breath

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 17-27)

Mindfulness of the Body:   Breath

“And how does a monk remain focused on the body in & of itself?

“There is the case where a monk — having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building — sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore [lit: the front of the chest]. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

“Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’ Just as a skilled turner or his apprentice, when making a long turn, discerns, ‘I am making a long turn,’ or when making a short turn discerns, ‘I am making a short turn’; in the same way the monk, when breathing in long, discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long’ … He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’

“In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or externally on the body in & of itself, or both internally & externally on the body in & of itself. Or he remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body. Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a body’ is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance. And he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.”  translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (accesstoinsight.org)

Meditation on the Breath

Using the breath for meditation has several advantages.

  1. Everyone breathes; it is universal.
  2. It is always with us.
  3. It is a constantly repeated action.
  4. No teaching is required to learn to breathe
  5. It is easy to meditate using the breath.

When we focus on the breath, we become aware of the life force and the universal nature of all beings.

Twenty years after the Buddha attained enlightenment, a senior monk by the name of Ananda became his personal attendant. One day he asked the Buddha, “Venerable sir, if people ask me whether you are still practicing meditation, what shall I tell them?” The Buddha replied that, yes, he was still meditating “What kind of meditation do you practice, venerable sir?” Ananda asked. “Mindfulness of breathing,” the Buddha answered.  (FFMPE p. 17)

Practicing Mindfulness of Breathing

“There is the case where a monk — having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building — sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore [lit: the front of the chest]. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

Meditation on the breath is not a breathing exercise.  The breath is just used as a focus for cultivating mindfulness.  We are mindful of our breathing (paying attention moment to moment to what is).  The meditations combine concentration (calmness) and insight (Vipassana).  The meditations of the breath:  Length, Breath-Body, and Calming Fabrications) are concentration practices.  Practicing the meditations of Internal/External, Origination/Passing Away and Body open up to insight.  These meditations are noted in more detail:

  1. Length: The length of the breaths.  “Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’
  2. Breath-Body: The cycle of the breath (beginning, middle and end). This is called mindfulness of the breath body and denotes the connectedness of the breath to the body.  This is what the Buddha means by ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’
  3. Calming fabrications: Note that as we pay mindful attention to the natural rhythm of the breath, the breath slows down and the mind becomes quieter. When agitation (fabrication) arises, the breathing speeds up. If we apply mindfulness, it slows down again.  This is what the Buddha meant by ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’
  4. Internal/External: The connectedness of the breath with the internal and external world.  “In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or externally on the body in & of itself, or both internally & externally on the body in & of itself.
  5. Origination/Passing Away: The phenomenon of origination and passing away.  Or he remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body.
  6. Body: There is a body (not my body).  Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a body’ is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance.

The Result

The Buddha concludes this section by stating “not clinging to anything in the world”.  This refers to the five aggregates of clinging which we will cover later.  And he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world.  This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.

Practicing the Breath Meditations

Here are Bhante G’s instructions

  • Go to a quiet place where you will be alone and not disturbed.
  • Bring your attention to the present moment.
  • Sit in a comfortable posture that allows your upper body to be straight and relaxed, upright but not uptight.
  • Place your hands on the lap, palms upward, with the right hand on top of the left and the thumbs touching at the tips.
  • Close your eyes or leave them half-open.
  • Focus your attention on the breath, coming in and going out.
  • To deepen your mindfulness, try counting: Inhale and exhale. Say silently “one.” Inhale and exhale. Say silently “two.” Continue up to ten and then reverse and continue down to one.
  • Practice the meditations of the breath in this order (after one or two cycles of counting):
  1. Length: The length of the breaths (in breath and out breath)
  2. Breath-Body: The cycle of the breath (in breath, pause, out breath, pause).
  3. Calming bodily fabrications (calming in breath, calming out breath)
  4. Internal/External: The connectedness of the breath with the internal and external world (internal in breath, external out breath).
  5. Origination/Passing Away: The phenomenon of origination and passing away (origination in breath, passing away out breath).
  6. Body: There is a body (not my body) (in breath and out breath).
  • If restlessness, agitation, or doubt occurs, don’t intensify the distraction by following it. Instead, say to your self, “Let me think how I started. I started from my breath. It is not difficult to find my breath.” Breathe several times quickly and return your attention to the breath and its natural pace.
  • If your mind wanders from its focus on the breath, don’t get upset. Simply noticing that you have been thinking, daydreaming, or worrying is a wonderful achievement! Gently but firmly return your attention to the breath. And then do it again the next time, and the next time, and the time after that.
  • If you feel sleepy or dull, try focusing with slightly more effort on the touch sensations of the in-breath and out-breath. If stronger focus does not help, stand up and continue meditating in a standing posture for a few minutes or try walking meditation.
  • If you begin to feel pain, first try to address the situation as much as possible. Loosen your clothing and check your posture to make sure that you are not slouching. Move to a posture that’s easier to maintain If these adjustments do not help, then work with the pain: try making the sensation of pain your object of meditation. Observe the sensation and watch how it changes over time.
  • Keep practicing with patience.

Reflection

  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.

Meditation

  • Practice the breathing meditations as noted above. What do you experience?

Next: Mindfulness of the Body: Parts and Elements Previous: MIndfulness of the Body: The Four Postures