This meditation practice, in one form or another, is very widespread in the Buddhist world. The particular form taught here — in four stages — is found in the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purity) of the great Theravadin scholar, Buddhaghosa, who lived in 5th century India and Sri Lanka. It therefore has a long pedigree, even if there’s no description in the earliest Buddhist scriptures that corresponds exactly with this form of the practice.
This particular version of the Mindfulness of Breathing is mainly aimed to calm and focus the mind, and is therefore what is known as a samatha (Sanskrit, shamatha), or calming practice rather than a vipassana, or insight, one. The Sanskrit equivalent to the word vipassana is vipashyana and both words mean insight, or truly seeing the nature of reality.
The traditional name for this meditation practice is Anapanasati. This word simply means mindfulness (sati) of breathing (pana) in and out. This is a meditation practice where we use the breath as the object of attention to which we return every time we notice that the mind has wandered.
In a nutshell, this practice works mainly through us withdrawing our attention from distracting thoughts and redirecting our attention to the physical sensations of the breath. By doing so, we are putting less energy into the emotional states of restlessness, anxiety, craving, ill will, etc that drive those thoughts. Over time the mind becomes calmer and our emotional states become more balanced and positive, and our experience becomes more positive.
It’s important to note that the practice involves noticing that the mind has been wandering and bringing it back to the breath. Distractedness is an inevitable part of the process of meditating and not a sign of failure!
This step-by-step tutorial includes a number of guided meditation recordings that will help guide you through the practice. There are also readings for each stage of the practice , dealing with the most common questions and addressing the most common experiences that beginners tend to have.
Although the meditation practice as taught here takes a samatha approach it is easy to bring elements of insight into a samatha practice. Also, some degree of samatha practice is virtually indispensible as a basis for vipassana, or insight, meditation. The mind needs to be somewhat calm in order for us to be able to reflect on the impermanence of our experiences!
There are other traditional forms that are widely practiced, especially in the insight meditation traditions, but I’ve found this one to be particularly suitable for complete beginners. The first two stages especially, which involve counting, are very helpful in stabilizing the mind.
More experienced practitioners can feel free to adapt the practice to their own needs, shortening or even dropping some stages, and extending others.