Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Mindfulness of Breathing

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Moving from stage three to stage four

buddha headsIn the third stage of this meditation practice — the Mindfulness of Breathing — we’re usually aware of quite a large area of the sensation associated with the breath. We may have been focusing primarily on the belly, or the chest, or the sensations in the head and throat. You may even have been aware of all of this sensation.

In the fourth stage however we’re following a very small area of sensation — just the sensations on the rims of the nostrils.

When I first learned this practice I was unsure how to move from one stage to another. I’d simply stop — sometimes abruptly — doing one stage and start — equally abruptly — doing the next. I think that’s a common approach, and I think it’s unhelpful since it brings a dollop of unmindfulness into a mindfulness practice.

Now I like to make a smooth transition from one stage to the other, in order to maintain more of a sense of continuity, and to bring more elegance into my mind.

I do this by narrowing my focus with every breath. Over a series of perhaps seven or eight breaths, I’ll start to narrow down my focus, “homing” in on the sensations on the rims of the nostrils.

In the first breath I might be focused on the whole breath, right down to the belly, on the next perhaps on the whole of the chest, throat, and head. Then just the upper chest, throat, and head. Then the throat and head. Then the head. Then just in the nostrils, and then the tips of the nostrils.

Gradually homing in in this way brings more elegance and smoothness and so helps the stages flow together better.

Comments

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Comment from Silvia
Time: March 12, 2013, 4:19 pm

Hello Bodhipaksa
My breathing tends to go very flat by itself already during stage 2, so that by the end of it I am already concentrating on the sensations on the rim of the nostrils – thereby, I think, skipping stage 3 completely. Breathing gets so shallow that in the beginning I had to fight the fear of suffocating; there’s nothing BUT the sensation on the nostrils to focus on.
Would an attempt to ‘string out’ stage 3 be more appropriate? Or can I leave things as they are? Thanks!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 13, 2013, 9:57 am

Hi Silvia.

This sounds rather good, actually! The stages are just tools to help bring about a mind that is calm, alert, joyful, and able to pay continuous attention to our experience. Sometimes we need to stick with just one of them. Sometimes we don’t need to do certain of the stages.

On the way to experiencing nothing but the sensations of the nostrils are you experiencing calmness, or joy? These are the components of jhāna experience, and it certainly sounds, from what you say, that you may be experiencing jhāna. Another common experience in jhāna is that the breathing becomes very shallow, although this doesn’t seem to be a universal experience.

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Comment from silvia
Time: March 21, 2013, 8:44 am

Hi Bodhipaksa. I have been reading in other people’s comments (and on Google+) about jhānas and decided a while ago not to think about them; mainly to avoid measuring myself with other people’s descriptions. It has worked fine and although I can’t really claim progression in meditating I *know* that my life has been changing. Somehow after this comment of yours I went back into ‘gaining mind’ mode and could not get anything more out of my practice. To be fair I have been preparing for a five-week trip which I have now started on, and hope that once I’m out of this zombie-like, jetlagged state I can come back to the way things were. I have been sitting since mid-december every single day, yesterday and today were the first times that I didn’t sit… It’s not the travelling (though that doesn’t help), it’s the mind and the heart that are not in it. Sorry for this outburst, I know I should take it as it comes, but knowing and doing is not the same…

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 21, 2013, 10:04 am

Hi, Silvia.

I think that what you’re saying here indicates a very positive, although uncomfortable experience — that of learning to relate in a skillful way to the knowledge that there are “places to go” in meditation. Actually, as soon as those words appear on the screen I realize that the expression “places to go” isn’t very helpful; it suggests trying to be somewhere other than where you are, and it suggests distance (how far? our doubt tells us it’s a long way). But perhaps that’s how many people think about jhana — somewhere to go that’s a long way off and quite inaccessible?

Maybe it’s better to say that you’re at the point where you’re forced to confront some kind of ambivalence or doubt about jhana, and your ability to experience it. Because it’s quite accessible. I’ve been working with a group of students now for eight weeks, and although we’ve just started exploring the jhana factors in the last two weeks, most of them are well on the way to experiencing jhana. They’re already — every single one of them — experiencing some of the jhana factors quite strongly.

But what do we do in relation to the knowledge that there are jhanic states that we can experience, when we think they’re remote and unattainable? We have aversion and don’t want to think about them or perhaps say that it’s not worth having these experiences anyway. That’s what a lot of people (including some meditation teachers) end up doing.

What do we do if we’re told that the jhanas are actually quite accessible? Do we start grasping after them? The trouble with that is that jhanic experiences come together when we cease grasping. Grasping is a jhana-killer.

So I wonder if you’re bouncing around among various ways of relating to jhana (or the possibility of jhana). Aversion, grasping, doubt.

The thing is that we’re forced into these unhelpful ways of relating to jhana if we don’t know how to let jhana arise. How do we set up the conditions? Well, it is doable. The jhana factors that are enumerated in the suttas aren’t just “you have arrived” signs; they are direction indicators.

First we allow the mind to settle. It’s not actually that hard to calm the mind: really be attentive to the space around you. Spaciousness is calming. Really listen. Just allow the sounds to be there. Don’t grasp or try to do anything with them. If you’re really listening to the sounds around you then you can’t talk to yourself. Then take that same attitude of attentiveness into the body. Feel the breathing in the whole body. That’ll get your mind calm enough. It doesn’t have to be perfectly silent in there, so don’t have aversion to any thinking that does arise.

Then we allow pleasure to arise. Pleasure grows naturally out our our attentiveness to the body. Noticing the breathing in the whole body, imaging that you’re breathing energy and light in from the earth, and that it’s flowing upward on the in breath. As you exhale, imagine this energy flowing downward through the body, helping your muscles to relax as it flows back into the earth. Smile with the body. Keep doing this for a while. The body will start to feel more alive, relaxed, and energized.

Then we allow joy to arise. While noticing the in-breath and the out-breath in the way I’ve described, smile. You’re not trying to go anywhere; you’re just being with your experience lovingly. The smile indicates that everything is OK. Let your gaze into the body be a loving gaze. Touch your experience lovingly. Appreciate whatever is pleasant in your experience. Have compassion toward anything that’s painful — if there is anything painful.

As joy arises, you can then find something in your experience of the breathing that’s clear and vivid, and let that be the focus of your attention. Usually at this point jhana is established, or we’re at least in a state of high access concentration.

In all this we’re not really “going anywhere.” We’re simply being with our experience attentively, lovingly, and appreciatively. We’re just “being there”.

Does this help you to see jhana as “doable”?

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