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Mindfulness of Breathing

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Reflections in mindfulness

boat on lakeThis section is not about reflections on mindfulness, but is about the practice of reflecting while in a state of mindful meditation.

The whole point of the mindfulness of breathing practice is to help us to develop more concentration and calmness, so that we can break through into a deeper understanding of the nature of reality. Having stilled our mind, so that it has become like a calm lake, we can then begin to reflect. It’s a happy coincidence (or is it a coincidence?) that a lake, like the mind, can only reflect when it is calm.

But what is reflection? We tend to assume that reflection is having a constant flow of thoughts running through our minds, but this does not have to be the case. In fact it’s best if it isn’t.

Imagine that you are standing in front of a calm lake. The lake is still and tranquil, and you can see the reflections of the further shore. You take a tiny pebble, and toss it into the midst of the reflections with respect, as if it were an offering to the ancient gods that live in the depths of the waters. The stone plops into the water, and disappears without trace, leaving behind waves of concentric ripples.

Each ripple presents you with a slightly different perspective on the reflections of the other shore. You watch the ripples radiating from the place where the stone vanished, as they widen and fade and eventually disappear altogether. Then once the lake’s surface is still once more, the reflections have returned to normal, and you toss in another offering.

This is how we can best reflect in meditation; reverently dropping a thought into our hearts, and then patiently watching the ripples coming from that thought until our mind has once more become still.

The ripples that emanate from the thought-pebble are not necessarily thoughts – they’re more of an indescribable feeling of subtly shifting perspectives (like the distorted images at the edge of each ripple). You drop in the pebble of thought, and your emotions and your subconscious understandings respond with a subtle shiver.

Reflecting in meditation

What kinds of pebbles can we drop into the waters? We can drop in the thought that each breath is precious – that it only lasts for a moment never to return. This challenges our assumptions that we do the same thing over and over. We never do the same thing over and over. Every experience is unique, and it is deeply fulfilling to experience the uniqueness of each precious moment.

We can reflect on the fact that our breath connects us with every human being, plant, and animal in the world. Our breath is the living symbol of our interconnectedness with others. Your body, and the breath that sustains it, is made of forests, and fields, and birds, and animals, and oceans, and mountains. It is made of the air above, and the earth below. It is made from the remains of a long-ago dead star. We are vaster and richer than we think.

We can reflect on the impermanent and insubstantial nature of every experience we have. Thoughts come and go like rainbow apparitions, emotions coalesce like clouds and then dissipate. Feelings loom like shadows and then are gone. Where did they come from. Where did they go?

The proper contemplation of these sorts of reflections can lead at times to a certain unease, although that unease should be seen as a creative force – a questioning of assumptions that are so close to us that we rarely, if ever, see them. But they can also lead to a sense of fulfillment, and a sense of awe and wonder at the majesty and mystery of life.

As a great Indian teacher said: “Let these three expressions: I do not have. I do not understand. I do not know, be repeated over and over again. That is the heart of my advice.” This might seem strange advice at first, but that only means that the path of reflection is deep and subtle, and that we all have a long way to go in cultivating that sense of awe and mystery which turns not-knowing into the most profound source of wisdom.

Comments

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Comment from Emo
Time: May 29, 2011, 9:31 pm

I really like this section, but it raises some conflicts for me. According to my understanding, the main purpose of mindfulness of breathing meditation is to use our breath as an object of concentration so that we can learn to still the mind. But this section seems to be describing a deliberate interruption of being mindful of breathing and instead focusing on questioning of assumptions (which in and of itself is not bad, but here it seems like a deviance from mindfulness meditation).

Also relevant to this section, sometimes when I’m meditating I’ll gain insights about my own thoughts and actions; part of me wants to follow the thoughts and take them deeper while they’re fresh in my mind. The other part of me wants to let them go and continue being mindful of my breathing. Which method would be most advantageous?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 30, 2011, 8:56 am

Hi, Emo.

So we learn to still the mind, and then what? The purpose of stilling the mind is to develop insight. Now there are many ways of cultivating insight. We can simply observe the rising and falling of our experiences and, eventually, something “clicks.” There are also practices like the Six Element Practice where we deliberately cultivate a sequence of thoughts that lead to a deepening understanding of our impermanent and interconnected nature. And so on.

Even before we get to cultivating insight, we can use mindful thought to, for example, cultivate lovingkindness. I think the problem is assuming that all thought is an expression of unmindfulness, and that it’s not possible to think mindfully. Actually, it’s perfectly possible to use thought in a mindful way.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 30, 2011, 9:02 am

Sorry, I hit “save” before tackling your question. I’d suggest just bringing that question (“should I stick with the thoughts or stay with the breath?”) consciously into your mind and then pay attention to any feelings that arise. It’s not always useful to follow through a thought, and it can be best to “bookmark” it for future reflection.

One last thing: if a lot of insights come up in meditation, this can be an indication that there’s not enough stillness in other areas of your life. If you don’t have other opportunities to reflect (i.e. quiet time) then your need for reflection will have to express itself during your meditation practice.

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Comment from John
Time: August 3, 2012, 5:42 pm

I think it is important to recognize that this is the last stage, and so reflections and insight meditation are only performed after a decent degree of concentration is developed. (This is the traditional approach). For the first few months try sticking with the first three types and once a reasonable degree of stillness has been developed you can try this. This is only my personal advice though. For me the biggest transistion was when the novelty of “meditation as somethig cool” fell and I stopped judging where my devopment was at the moment. I was then able to stop craving concentration as a sense desire and become content.

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Comment from jw
Time: September 11, 2012, 8:55 am

Thank you for this eloquent and truly beautiful reflection on the nature of meditative practice.

At times when sitting and watching the breath, I find mental arousal slows and follows a trajectory “deeper” with longer spaces between thoughts. In this process, various thoughts do emerge and my mind wanders, but as I continue to rest and focus, I start to experience very great stillness. It is there I sort of say to myself, aha, that is what I think, or aha, this is what affects my consciousness. But then even this observant thought settles down.

Through continued breathing, at that point it seems all thoughts are very subtle, some stronger to some degree, some weaker, but they all still seem to bring me back toward normal consciousness. If I manage to let them pass I go even deeper, but at that point I sometimes get drowsy and even with my eyes open, I get an eerie physical sensation of weightlessness or formlessness (for want of a better word). And it is this sensation, rather than thought, that seems to pull me out of the deep meditation. It’s hard to describe but it feels a little bit like falling, or tumbling forward. Note I usually meditate with eyes open and though I get a little drowsier if I allow my eyes to close, I remain alert and it’s not like being asleep.

Do you know of any techniques, other than continued practice, whereby I can maintain those “extreme depths” for longer periods of time without jumping back out? I don’t experience those moments for very long, usually just a few seconds at a time, but it is there that I feel the greatest benefit occurs.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 11, 2012, 10:59 am

Thanks for your interesting post.

There are three distinct directions that you can go in, two of which involve samatha (tranquility) approaches, and the third being a vipassana (insight) approach. Not that you have to choose one and only one, but you can only take one approach at any given time. All three are useful, however.

The first samatha approach involves going deeper into jhana, and for that you’d simply need to find some subtle and clear perception to centre your attention upon. Classically we use the sensations at the rims of the nostrils. What this does is bring a bit more clarity and vividness to our attention, so that you can maintain and even deepen your concentration. You’ll also find that you tend to focus your attention more narrowly, and that the perceptions of the body outside of the chosen focal point fade into the background of your attention and are hardly noticed at all. You’ll probably be in jhana, although that may be happening already, in which case you’ll be going deeper into jhana.

The second samatha approach is, rather than paying more and more attention to less and less (which is what happens when you go into jhana), you pay attention to more and more. Just notice everything. Notice sensations not just from inside the body (as well as feelings, thoughts, etc., which are also internal) but also from outside the body. Especially notice sounds and the space around you. Just allow all sensations to arise. When you notice your mind drifting inwards (to focus on the body or mind-objects to the exclusion of external perceptions) just come back to noticing the full field of your perceptions. Ditto if you find your attention drifting outwards. And let go of any concern with which perceptions are “you” and which are “not you.” Just notice them all, equally. This leads not to jhana, but into the formless spheres (ayatanas) which are commonly, and misleadingly) referred to as the “formless jhanas.” They’re actually a different set of experiences from the jhanas. You may find that you have some very off experiences, where your sense of formlessness becomes even more intense than you’re currently experiencing. The sense of space being divided into inner and outer spaces may disappear, and there may be a sense of oneness.

The vipassana approach — or at least a vipassana approach, since there are many — is to start noticing the fact that everything constituting your experience is changing all the time. Notice sensations arising. Notice them passing. Notice how even as they exist they are changing. And here’s the crucial bit that people get stuck on — notice that your attention itself — that which is observing — is constantly changing as well. We need to notice this in order to avoid developing a false sense of permanent selfhood.

All three of these approaches is valid, and they are complementary. Exploring one of them will make it easier for you to explore the others. It sounds like you’re getting a taste of the formless spheres at the moment, but need to develop some more clarity, which can come either from jhana or vipassana.

By the way, I spend a fair amount of time responding to meditation queries. If you’d like to support this kind of activity, do please feel free to visit our online store (http://shop.wildmind.org/), whre you’ll find meditation MP3s, CDs, and other stuff. You can think of it as being the modern equivalent of putting some food in the monk’s bowl.

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