Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Mindfulness of Breathing

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The difference between stages one and two

zen gardenIf you’ve tried the first two stages of the Mindfulness of Breathing, you’ll almost certainly have noticed that they feel very different from one another. Most people find that to be the case.

You might have enjoyed one stage more than another (although people differ about which is the most enjoyable stage).

And if you enjoyed one stage more than another, you might even have found there was one stage you really didn’t like (that’s most often the second stage, for reasons we’ll come to).

But the interesting thing is that both stages are structurally identical. How can that be! In the first stage you count after the out-breath, while in the second stage we count before the in-breath! It’s patently obvious they’re different! Let me explain.

The structure of the first stage

The first stage looks like this:
In – out – 1 – in – out – 2 – in – out – 3 – in – out – 4 – in – out – 5 etc.

The structure of the second stage

While the second stage looks like this:
1 – in – out – 2 – in – out – 3 – in – out – 4 – in – out – 5 etc.

The first two stages compared

Now, if you line both stages up, it looks like this

1 – in – out – 2 – in – out – 3 – in – out – 4 – in – out – 5 etc.
1 – in – out – 2 – in – out – 3 – in – out – 4 – in – out – 5 etc.

If your browser hasn’t scrambled that you’ll see they’re exactly the same.

So, how come they feel different?

Why the stages feel different

The reason is that where you place the numbers (or more accurately, where you think you’re placing the numbers) changes which part of the breath you’re most aware of. In the first stage, because you’re counting after the out-breath your mind links the counting with the out-breath.

Try taking a deep breath and letting it out. Go on, no-one’s watching. How does it feel? It feels like:

  • letting go
  • relaxing
  • moving downward
  • calming

Taking a deep out-breath (known to us professional breathers as “sighing”) is what we do when we let go of tension — you know, that moment you go “phew” when you wake up and find that you don’t have to go back to school to take the exam you’ve just been dreaming about.

Now in the second stage, you’re counting before the in-breath and so your mind links the number more closely to the act of breathing in. So what does breathing in feel like? Try it. Do a big inhalation (remember to breath out at some point). It feels like:

  • expanding
  • opening up
  • rising
  • energizing

So why is this important?

Relaxing before energizing

Breathing deeply in is what you naturally do when you wake up on the first day of vacation, step out onto the balcony of your luxury hotel overlooking the ocean, and it feels good to be alive (as opposed to being in the office).

So while the first stage is a stage of letting go, the second stage is a stage of energizing. The first stage is the perfect thing to do in starting a meditation practice — we let go (hopefully) of all the tension in our bodies and (even more hopefully) of all the crud flying round in our heads.

Once we’ve done that, the next stage (the second stage) is where you attempt to energize your relaxed mind and body. By encouraging your body to open up, and by feeling the energy that comes with the in-breath, you help to set up the conditions for being aware. Maintaining your awareness requires an upright alert body, and an open chest (see Posture Guidelines for more detail). That’s exactly what happens in the second stage.

Comments

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Comment from Phokion
Time: June 17, 2010, 9:21 am

I am new at meditation (3 weeks) and I try to practice for 30 minutes weekdays. After a few breaths I find it impossible to distinguish beteween stages one and two; sometimes I forget which stage I am in. Should I worry?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 18, 2010, 10:24 am

In all my years of teaching I’ve never encouraged anyone to “worry” about anything :)

I think it would be good if you paid more attention to the sense of letting go that takes place on the outbreaths that you’re counting in the first stage, and the sense of “inspiration” that takes place in the inbreaths that you’re counting in the second stage.

But I don’t think you should worry.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Rayna
Time: February 16, 2011, 5:52 pm

I tried this practice in the A.M, after reading it the night before, and I’ve been doing it all week. However , I just realized that I have counting(1)before each inhale and then switching to(2) before each exhale. It definately is a different experience than just tring to follow the breath, but is this OK?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 18, 2011, 3:13 pm

Hi, Rayna. This is actually another traditional way of doing the practice. It’s not a question of it being right or wrong. It just has a different effect.

I’ve found that when I’ve tried it this way the effect is rather “busy” because there’s so much counting going on. Of course that can be helpful when you’re really struggling to stay with the practice, but once the mind is getting quieter the numbers can start to seem rather noisy!

This way of counting also doesn’t force you to be more aware of either the inbreath or the outbreath, because you’re counting both phases of the breath cycle, while the way the practice is taught here makes you more aware of the outbreath in stage one, or the inbreath is stage two. There can be certain advantages to doing the practice this way.

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Comment from srag
Time: March 3, 2011, 4:03 pm

Hi

I tried calming down (meditation )past couple of months. but I just happen to see this site few days before and start doing stage 1 and stage 2. after that my breath in and out is less looks like I am not breathing at all. looks like surrounding environment has stopped. I can feel that I am alive. This experience stays in few minutes. Am I entering stage 3? or my breath is in control?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 3, 2011, 9:10 pm

It sounds like you’re in either a high level of what’s called acces concentration, or even in jhana/dhyana. This is great, especially since you haven’t been practicing for long. See if you can just relax into the experience without getting into “oh, wow, this is cool, I want more of this” attitudes, which effectively kill the kind of experience you’re having. In fact don’t think about trying to make this state happen — just keep on with the practice and see what unfolds.

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Comment from srag
Time: March 4, 2011, 11:14 am

Thank you so much for your immediate response and kind advice. you are correct. This experience don’t happen all the time. I should control my excitement before doing that. I will continue practicing stage 1 and 2

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Comment from Patricia Hughes
Time: July 3, 2011, 4:43 pm

Stage 2 feels quite different from stage 1. Sometimes it feels quite stressful, at least when I first switch from counting after to counting before. But it settles down after a few cycles and I find myself just as easily distracted as I was in Stage 1!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 6, 2011, 12:06 am

Often people are more distracted in stage two than in stage one. If this happens I’d suggest more consciously paying attention to the sense of letting go that takes place on the outbreath. So you’re majoring in the inbreath, with a minor in exhaling! Your experience is something like this:

INBREATH outbreath INBREATH outbreath.

The extra attention to the outbreath helps to counteract the stimulating nature of the inbreath.

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Comment from Patricia Hughes
Time: July 19, 2011, 3:52 pm

Stage one feels like: inbreath outbreath count-something-that-just-happened. Stage two sometimes feels more like: count OMG-I’ve-got-to-breath-inbreath outbreath. This is why it feels stressful where stage one feels much more natural. I’m sure I’ll work it out :-)

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 19, 2011, 6:33 pm

I can see how that would be stressful. There’s an important lesson to be learned there about how we fear, and how we try to control. Fortunately “we” don’t have to remember to breathe, since it just happens, even when we’re unconscious and “we” are not there. We can learn to trust the process, and let go, and stop trying to control, and therefore lose that edge of fear that affects our experience of things.

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