Mindfulness of breathing meditation, 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.
In this form of the practice the four stages are as follows:
- We begin by bringing our attention to the physical sensations of the breathing, and begin (internally) counting our outbreaths, acknowledging each exhale just after it has ended. We count ten outbreaths, and then another ten, and so on. Usually we do this for a set period of time — often five to ten minutes. If we become distracted and lose our place in the counting, we begin the process of counting, starting over from one. (Go to the guide for the first stage of the practice.)
- We do exactly the same as in the previous stage, except now we count our inhalations. This time we count just before we begin to inhale. Again, we’ll usually do this for five to ten minutes. (Go to the guide for the second stage of the practice.)
- We continue to pay attention to the breathing, but drop the counting. Now we notice that the breathing is a continuous process — a never-ending flow of sensation. (Go to the guide for the third stage of the practice.)
- We begin to narrow the sphere of our attention, focusing in on the the more subtle and refined sensations found around the rims of the nostrils. (Go to the guide for the fourth stage of the practice.)
If you want to get technical, 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.
This meditation helps us to appreciate the contrast between being lost in thoughts and mindfully absorbed in the moment-by-moment sensory experience arising from the body. It helps to keep us “in the moment” as opposed to being distracted.
By clicking on the player below, you can listen to a guided meditation that will lead you through the full four stages of the practice. There are also shorter forms of the practice in the rest of this structured guide to meditation.
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. Every time that we notice that the mind has been wandering is an opportunity for us to practice patience and acceptance with ourselves, rather than becoming impatient and annoyed.
The step-by-step tutorial that you’ll find here 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, (those that involve counting) are very helpful in stabilizing the mind.
Each of the stages of this practice is essentially a meditation practice in its own right. More experienced practitioners can feel free to adapt the practice to their own needs, shortening or even dropping some stages, and extending others. If you want you can just do one of the stages, or skip the earlier ones.
This, along with lovingkindness meditation, is a cornerstone meditation practice. In the tradition in which I was trained, these two forms of meditation are held as co-equal, and ideally we should practice both to the same extent, perhaps alternating them on a daily basis.