Stage 4

The mindfulness of breathing practice as taught here is available as a CD or as an MP3 audio download.”

The Mindfulness of Breathing, fourth stage.

In the fourth stage of this meditation practice we work on developing one-pointed concentration.

This involves encouraging the mind to move to a more subtle level of perception by deliberately paying attention to very delicate sensations connected with the breath.

By doing this we help produce a much deeper level of calmness in the mind.

We’re also going to be paying attention to some rather subtle sensations connected with our breathing, and this requires that we “change” gear and look at our experience at a finer level of detail. It also means that we really have to let go of unnecessary thinking so that we can become absorbed in these subtle physical sensations.

Stage Zero

Prepare for the meditation by setting up your posture, by becoming more aware of the physical sensations of the body, and by relaxing as best you can.

Stages One, Two, and Three

Follow the stages in order, first of all counting after the breath, then before the breath, and then letting go of the counting.

Stage Four

In the fourth and final stage of this practice, begin to narrow the focus of your awareness, so that you’re focusing more and more on the sensations where the breath first passes over the rims of the nostrils.

You may even notice the sensations where the breath passes over the upper lip. But if any of these sensations are hard to find, just notice the breath at the first place you can feel it as it enters and leaves the body.


You can listen to an MP3 guided meditation that will lead you through the full four stages of the practice by clicking on the player below:


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103 Comments. Leave new

Greetings Bodhipaksa, I have been looking for an answer for some time and was hoping you might know a little more about it. Ok so, if you have heard about the emerald tablet; the one from Hermetic lore. On it it suggests a way that any mortal would become “Godlike” from a breathing technique. I assume it’s suggesting a form of enlightenment can be attained from breathing techniques similar to the ones you talk about here. I was just wondering if you knew more about a particular technique akin to the one they may have used. As when I meditate my breath seems to be the key trigger to most phenomena, and was just wondering what knowledge you could impart, Thanks! Also I read some where that some people believe Hermes and Budda to be the same person.

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Hi, Bass.

I confess I’d never heard of the Emerald Tablet, but I’ve just been looking it up, and it does sound very meditative. I’m assuming you’re referring to the following lines when you talk about meditation on the breath?

You will separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the dense, sweetly, with great skill.
It ascends from earth into heaven and again it descends to the earth, and receives the power of higher and of lower things.
Thus you will have the Glory of the whole world.
Therefore will all obscurity flee from you.
Of all strength this is true strength, because it will conquer all that is subtle, and penetrate all that is solid.

As I said, this certainly sounds like an account of meditation, although not necessarily meditation on the breath. To “separate the earth from the fire” could mean to move one’s focus internally, into a more mental realm, as in jhana. To separate “the subtle from the dense” could refer to focusing on the breath, or again it could refer to moving from awareness of the body into awareness of the mind. But the distinction isn’t absolute here, since the vehicle for refining our awareness is often the breath, which is subtle, although not as subtle as, say, joy, which is substanceless.

But the way to a “godlike” state in Buddhism can also involve emotion directly, as in the four Brahmavihara meditations (Brahmavihara means “divine abode” — the development of lovingkindness is the foundation of these), or can involve a progressive letting go of the elements from the grossest, earth, to the subtlest, consciousness, as we do in the six element practice.

“It ascends from earth into heaven and again it descends to the earth” sounds like an ascent of the jhanas, and then coming back to normal consciousness, with receiving “the power of higher and of lower things” seeming to refer to either the concentrative power brought back with one, or insight, or both. “Therefore will all obscurity flee from you” suggests it is both.

“Of all strength this is true strength” is very similar to metaphors that the Buddha used, where he would take some worldly quality (“strength” for example) and point out that there is a spiritual quality that represents the “true” form of that quality. “It will conquer all that is subtle, and penetrate all that is solid” is reminiscent of the Buddha’s teaching that in understanding the mind we understand the whole world (of experience). By this he didn’t mean that if you meditate you’ll gain scientific knowledge, but something much more subtle: by understanding “the world” the Buddha meant that we would understand our experience of the world.

Thanks for a very interesting question! I hope my answer helps connect the dots a little. Do you have any further thoughts based on what I’ve written here?

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The clarity and speed you used to make thousand year old writings come to light is much appreciated.

As for the breathing part let me paste a few excerpts

True, without error, certain and most true; that
which is above is as that which is below, and
that which is below is as that which is above,
for performing the miracles of the One Thing;
and as all things are from one, by the mediation
of one, so all things arose from this one thing
by adaptation; the father of it is the Sun, the
mother of it is the Moon; the wind carried it in
its belly; the name thereof is the Earth

The belly of the wind means that our most
direct access to the Universal Prana (the Potable
Gold) is through our breathing. “The belly” is a
pun for the digestive process — the other way that
we bring the One Thing into ourselves, digesting
solar energy from the vegetable and animal foods.
“Belly” also refers to the diaphragm used in
conscious breathing.

It will descend to the earth, containing the strength of the high and the low, he means by this the breathing in (istinshaq) of the air, and the taking of the spirit from it, and its subsequent elevation to the highest degree of heat, and it is the Fire, and the low is the body, and its content of the controlling earthly power which imparts the colours. For there lie in it those higher powers, as well as the earthly powers which were submerged in it.

The text it’s self is fairly cryptic as with all Religious or Mythological doctrine. So what I’m wondering is, which type of meditative breath technique would best come close to what people of that time could have or would have been practicing to enhance the one-minded or single-pointedness that both Hermes and Buddha spoke of so often.

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You’re welcome. The particular section I quoted seemed like very familiar territory. The meditation methods that strike me as closest are the Six Element practice (although it’s only partly a breath-based meditation, and classic anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing). The form of mindfulness of breathing taught on this site is intended to give rise to jhana, which is what the Emerald Tablet seems to be referring to. Some other approaches to mindfulness of breathing (e.g. those taught by most insight teachers) are not intended to lead to jhana.

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Norman MacArthur
January 21, 2013 10:31 pm

Hi Bodhipaksa. I’m also new to meditating, I’ve been following your tips on your audio and practising the four stages for a little over a week now. It’s going great, feeling a deeper sense of awareness each and every time I practice.
I do have one question though, bringing awareness into the body to begin with (such as the feet) proves to be rather difficult at first. I find that my awareness broadens well with the breathing later on, but bringing myself into the mediation to begin with I find very distracting. I know that you say distracted thoughts are to be expected, but is it normal to take longer (going by the speed of the practice within the audio) in order to reach stage two?

Thanks

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That sounds quite normal. You’ll find that as you continue to practice awareness of the body, your ability to pick up on sensations there will increase. Your brain will literally create new neurons in the parts of your brain concerned with monitoring the body. It’s just like exercising muscles in the body — use that part of the brain and it gets bigger. In fact it’s been shown that people who meditate regularly are more aware of sensations in the body than professional dancers are.

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Thank you Bodhipaksa, I’ll follow your advice.

Radu.

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Ricardo Almeida
March 3, 2013 4:18 am

Hi. I would like to know if its ok to stair at images of Buddha while meditating. I take great confort in Buddha. In my meditation area i have some pictures of Buddha including a picture of a statue that depicts Buddha before awakening at the deepest of the ascetic stage. Looking at Buddha helps returning to awareness of breath and helps me correct my posture. Besides sometimes i feel a deep love (the kind you feel staring into a baby) when i look at those images. Neverthless I would like to know if Im doing something wrong. Thank you.

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This is a form of meditation practice in its own right — Buddhānussati, or recollection of the Buddha. In Mahāyāna Buddhism it’s the basis of visualization practice.

The feeling of love is good. Sometimes you might feel the love coming from the figure you’re seeing, and that’s even better.

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Ricardo Almeida
March 4, 2013 12:15 am

Thank you for the reassurance.

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Hi bodhipaska, I have read your steps and I am going to try it out for this week and ile tell you how it goes. In the mean time I have a few questions. If I listen to your audio, should I still count to 10 and still listen to you at the same time? And I don’t know if your a dream expert or if you know where I can fine one, but I had a recent dream and saw a man make a circular shape with his arms arround his head that resembled an eye (his head was like the pupil) then the shape he made turned into a giant bright eye with golden light coming from it that got even brighter and bigger untill all I could see was the eye, then I woke up, now I don’t know if you belive in the chakras and third eye but do you think this could be a sign of some sort?

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Hi, Izimar.

Sure, breathe at your own pace and count your breaths at the same time as listening to me — unless listening to me is a real distraction, in which case move to meditating without a guide as soon as you can.

I’m no expert in dream analysis. I’d guess that the circle represents completeness and that the eye looking is you being aware of your own “knowing” — the basic underlying function of cognizing that is what consciousness does. We think we know, but actually we’re even more “known” by the depths of our own minds. I think it’s more likely something like that than it is to do with chakras.

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Alright thanks, so do you think it means Im beginning to know my true self? Does that mean that my meditation is working?

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Well, the Buddha wouldn’t have accepted the terminology of a “true self,” but I think it’s a glimpse of what lies beyond what you identify with as being “you.”

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Oh and one other thing, are you all for binaural beats? Because I don’t know if it actually helps your meditation or if its just an artificial feeling you get from brain waves

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I don’t really know anything about binaural beats, but I think you summed up my thoughts — anything that’s “doing the meditation for you” isn’t really meditation, in my opinion.

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Yea I’m not going to use them, I think it’s distracting anyways. If this is to personal then don’t be afraid to tell me so, but what do you normally experience during breathing meditation? I’ve read that people end up seeing a 4th dimension during their deep stages of meditation and that they can hear conversations or see their sprit guide. So I was just curious as to what you normally experience and what was a really intense moment for you during deep meditation?

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I know nothing about 4th dimensions, conversations, or spirit guides. I’ve had experiences of deep, wordless peace. And the practice makes me happier in everyday life.

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Hi! Bodhipaksa,
I have been using your meditation technique for a while now and would like to know if I can continue doing this meditation, will it still continue to be effective over time or do I need to move on to other types of meditation?

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Hi, Anne-Marie.

I’m still doing this mindfulness of breathing meditation after 30 years, so I’d definitely say you can continue doing the practice and that it will continue to be effective. But I always advise people to alternate between mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana. In time it’s also advisable to bring more of an insight focus into your practice, which you can do in a variety of ways — for example by taking up the six element practice, or even simply by starting to notice the impermanence of each experience that’s arising in the mindfulness of breathing or metta bhavana practices.

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Hi Bodhipaksa

I have a question concerning later (more deeper) stages of the mindfulness of breath meditation.

As I know, in the early stages of the practice (where the Anapana Sutta says “Breathing in long breath, one knows: ‘I breathe in a long breath’…”), one can do the following: while focusing on ‘holding the mind constantly on the breath’, the meditator should pay a (mild) attention to certain characteristics of the breath (the length of each in/out-breath, whether the breath is heavy or light, its beginning/end, or the pause between the breath). By observing these characteristics, the attention is established more easily on the breathing.

However, as I know it, later on (in deeper states), the observance of these characteristics should be better dropped, and only the simple act of „holding the mind constantly on the breath” remains. My question refers to this stage: Is this the stage, when the Anapana Sutta says: „ …conscious of the whole (breath) body, I shall breathe in – the meditator trains himself-conscious of the whole (breath) body I breathe out…”?

When should I drop focusing on the above mentioned characteristics (the length of each in/out-breath, whether the breath is heavy or light, its beginning/end, or the pause between the breaths)? If this happens automatically, then its all fine. However, in case this does not happen by itself, when should I stop focusing on them?:
1,Should I drop them when I feel that my attention is well-established on the breath, and such ’tools’ are no longer necessary?
2,Or should I stop focusing on them only when I feel that, since I has reached a more subtle mental state, the act of observing them has become too ’intrusive’(or too coarse), and it disrupts the stillness of my mind?

In addition, should I stop deliberately paying attention to all above mentioned characteristics of the breath? Or only the observance of the ’duration of the breath’ should be dropped (and the observance of the others retained)?

Many Thanks

Nasdor

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Hi, Nasdor.

Apologies for the delayed reply.

First, I wouldn’t take the “long breath, short breath” thing too literally. My guess is that the Buddha was just advising us to notice the qualities of the breathing, including, for example, whether the breathe is long or short (but also whether it’s relaxed/tense, rough/smooth, taking place in the belly/chest, etc.)

For me the purpose of this initial stage is to develop calmness. In other words we’re aiming to reduce the amount of thinking that’s going on. And then once the mind has started to calm down we can start to notice how the breathing affects the entire body. It’s particularly useful here to notice how every part of the body relaxes as we breathe out. This helps to “calm the bodily formation” (or to relax the body). And this relaxation in turn becomes the foundation of pīti, which is the next factor we cultivate.

I hope this is helpful.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Hello there! I have began meditating for the first time in my life starting 2 weeks ago. I’m not a focused person at all in anyway , in and out of meditation. I begin college in 1 month and I’m desperate to become much more focused, so I have turned to meditation. Also, my whole life I have been intriged by the human mind (my mind and others around me) I analyze thought patterns way more than anyone I’ve ever known. Basically what I’m trying to say is that I feel I am destined to explore the human mind through the physical and mental world. In my 2 weeks of making my effort to meditate I find myself fixating on different methods of focusing , like breath , then air through nostrils, then movements in stomach , etc. , all in 1 sitting. May I please have advice on how to focus on 1 thing and let it become my foundation? Your audio was the best thing I’ve ever found to help me focus better. Also I’m looking to buy a book to also aid me in my efforts. Please and thank you!

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Hey, Richard. Thanks for the kind words about my recordings. Wanting to learn to focus better is a great aim, but it’s a bit, well, too focused. You’ll probably find it a bit more helpful to practice a variety of meditations, like mindfulness of breathing (good for focus), development of lovingkindness (good for keeping your emotional life harmonious so that there’s less going on that’ll interrupt your focus), and just sitting (so that you’ll be able to de-focus — since all that focusing can end up with us becoming willful and driven and can lead to us being stressed). And then all this has to be worked out in daily life as well, through our learning to be mindful and compassionate toward others, and in being honest and careful about how we relate to the world ethically.

There are also good time-management and personal management books that can be very helpful. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is good, as is Getting Things Done, by David Allen.

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Thank you very much . I know I am probably imagining the path to focusing better and enlightenment in the wrong way. 1 last thing, if ihappen to have too strong emotions would practicing lovingkindness more be a better choice? Or how would I go about balancing the different methods as someone who often let’s emotions and stress interfere with my daily life?

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Well, we’re all focusing on the path in the wrong way, to some extent. It’s never about doing it perfectly. Both mindfulness practice and lovingkindness practice are valuable in dealing with strong emotions. Mindfulness helps us to catch emotional processes unfolding, so that we have the freedom not to get caught up in old and unhelpful habits, and lovingkindness practice helps us develop a “buffer” of emotional positivity, which is also helpful in stopping us from getting emotionally reactive. I recommend alternating mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness practice daily. I’ve linked to our online guides to these two practices.

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Thanks for your reply. If I understand correctly, I should not observe the duration of the breath too closely, and ‘label’ each breath as long, short or normal. In addition, it isn’t necessary to decide what you consider long or short breath before the meditation.

Rather, its enough if I observe the duration of the breath more loosely, only noticing more prominent differences. (for instance, if you experience a breath, which is much longer than the others, or if you notice that your breathing has become much longer/shorter during the session). I do this with minimal effort, and do not force myself to be aware of the length of breath too much. In addition, I can observe other qualities as well (the beginning/end of breath or the pause between, or if the breath is heavy or light, the touch sensation as the breath enters my nose,…).

And later on, as I reach deeper states and my mind calms down, I should stop focusing on the above particular characteristics of the breath, and focus only on the ‘continuous awareness of the breath’ (focus on the actions of ’vitakka’ and ’vicara’ (’connecting’ and ’fixing’ the mind on the breath)). This is because, observing the above particular qualities of the breath in the beginning is done in order to establish mindfulness on the breath more easily. Later on, when the mind is already connected to the breath, and one feels that these more ‘crude’ methods are no longer necessary, one should drop them and keep only the more ‘subtle’ method of ‘continuous observance of the breath’. Am I right?

Many Thanks once more,

Nasdor

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Hi, Nasdor.

Sorry for the long delay. I managed to lose sight of your comment and just came across it again.

Yes to the first points. It’s enough to have a sense of the relative length of your breaths — “my breathing is quicker than usual” versus “my breathing is slow and relaxed.” It’s not like you have to time your breaths or decide on an arbitrary system for deciding what’s long and what’s short. And you’re free to notice any other qualities of the breathing, whether it’s tight or free, mainly in the belly or the chest, warm or cool, etc.

And yes, we move to a continuous awareness of the breathing, usually with particular attention at first to the transitions from an out-breath to an in-breath and so on. Initially we perceive the breathing as divided into in-breaths and out-breaths. This seems natural, and that tendency is reinforced by practices such as counting the in or out-breaths or saying “in” and “out.” But the “gaps” are places where we cease to pay attention, and so thoughts are more likely to intrude at those points, and the mind to wander. In paying attention to the continuous flow of sensations we develop a more continuous state of mindfulness, with much less likelihood of distraction, and if thoughts do arise then it’s easier to let go of them.

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I m from India…and i have a very able guru to guide me across all paths leading to one final goal on the path of self realization. I stumbled upon this page of yours.
And I must say… I m so impressed ans moreover happy for the efforts this divine soul bodhipaksha is putttig in.
This is a perfect example of good karmas… I must say.
Keep the good work. God bless you.
-Swapnil ( body name), identity- atmah

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Thank you and your kind soul and spirit for helping people like me out. It is making a world of difference for beginners. But I do come to you with one question…
Sitting straight for the posture has a pain to my lower back, there is a little pain there already, I am currently do other excerccises to try to reduce it. however after sitting for 15 minutes, it starts to get a little more distracting. I mean I can still focus but there is an obvious pain, will this subside when I teach my body how to sit up right, I’m sure part of its from years of slouching. But I would love to do longer meditations but I literally can’t do it. I had to meditate today laying on my side, which I could do but I don’t prefer it. It seems I become more distracted and it is of less convenience. Any tips to get rd of lower back pain? Thank you.

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Hi, Chris.

There are so many factors involved that I couldn’t begin to offer specific advice. The first thing I would suggest is attending a yoga class for general flexibility, and asking the teacher is she/he can give you advice about what you need to do in order to sit comfortably. A good chiropractor may be able to help as well. It doesn’t sound like there’s any injury, but if you do then some medical advice would be in order.

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Hi there, I find your website very interesting. I have recently quit drinking and I have been told to try meditation for my anxiety. My counsellor told me to concentrate on my breathing, the point at which the breath goes in and comes out. I tried this and I felt like I was meditating. I’m not sure but I have never meditated before and I felt like I was accessing a part of my brain I have never used before. To be honest it felt like a third eye. Now I have googled this and it frightened me a bit as I’m generally not a very spiritual person. What does this all mean? Is it simply a form of meditation or a stage of it? Please let me know. Thank you.

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Hi, Olivia.

I think I replied to your comment the other day, but our site got hacked and the backup that we restored from doesn’t contain my reply. What I said was that you basically had an experience of a physical sensation arising in your meditation (possibly in your head, you don’t say) and that you’ve created a story about it — or more than one story. Possibly you’re hoping this means you’re special (something we all tend to hope!), and possibly you’re worried that it means something’s wrong. But those are just stories. All that happened was that you experienced a sensation.

So when things like that arise, just let them be and continue with the practice.

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gina fitsemons
July 14, 2015 3:05 pm

Im having a terrible bout of anxiety. Ive been practicing mindful breathing. The problem is, i have to do it ALL day. Plus i want to cry, but i wasnt raised to cry so its so very scary to me. Plus im 54 and i think im going into menopause
Thanks
Gina

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Hi, Gina.

It sounds like you should find a therapist or counsellor to talk to. Your discomfort with crying and your menopause aren’t really things that I, as a meditation teacher, am able to help you with.

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